2006 was not the year for classical music in Washington. Tower Records, for all its faults, was the best source for the classical recording lover; an invaluable resource for browsing and finding new or old, great or just plain lovely, music. Then, just in time for the holiday spirit, WGMS seemed about to be bought out by Dan Snyder and turned into a sports-talk radio station. (Update: This looks much less likely, now... but WGMS' future as a classical station is still uncertain. We will keep you posted on important, verifiable changes.) The Washington Post reduced its arts coverage from ~45 to 20 reviews a week. Ionarts is not amused. We expect the National Symphony Orchestra to declare bankruptcy any time and the Washington National Opera to branch out into Broadway shortly.
CDs, however, have been issued at the same incessant rate as they have been now, for some years. More and more exotic, neglected, forgotten composers are recorded, issued, and rediscovered. Repertoire sidelined soon after inception is being given the second and third chances it needs. Untold overgrown paths are being made accessible to the curious classical connoisseur again. CPO and Naxos stand out in 2006. Back catalog continues to be deleted by some major companies, but as much and more is being re-issued; both by those majors and inventive small companies that find their niches in the market. Testament would be a prime, if expensive, example of that… Profil Hänssler, with its novelty re-issues, another. Next to this activity, there is the rampant issuing of live performances by (self-)recording symphony orchestras like the LSO (who started that trend), the LPO, the San Francisco Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra (with Ondine), the Orchestre National de France (with naïve).
If you need any help rationalizing the money spent on CDs around this time of the season, get that help through Robert R. Reilly’s article on that topic. This list doesn’t claim to be exhaustive, because four ears can’t possibly keep up with every release. And it is, of course, rather subjective. But it is assembled from nearly a 1000 new and re-issued recordings listened to and should hopefully be helpful and, maybe, inspiring for some new musical discoveries. Our previous lists, 2004 and 2005, can be read here.)
In what I hope is becoming a little tradition, I list my ten favorite new recordings and my ten favorite reissues.
First place was not as clear cut a choice as 2005… call it convenience if Alexandre Tharaud shows up in the Top Spot again. Last year it was his Bach recital (not the kind of disc that you can expect to come along every year) that shone in glorious orange. His follow-up disc of Chopin Waltzes is a delight, too. Very different musical territory, for sure, but sheer musicality shines through. “Brilliant by way of understatement”. (Reviewed in Dip Your Ears, No. 70)
R.Wagner, Das Rheingold
R.Wagner, Die Walküre
Is it a re-issue or is it a new release? That might be the most difficult question about the 1955 Keilberth Ring Cycle from Bayreuth. Technically it’s both. It had been recorded by Decca – but never released when John Culshaw pulled the plug on it, favoring an ambitious studio produced project with Georg Solti to be Decca’s Ring project. The recording had been completed, though, and because of copy-right restrictions went on to languish in the vaults for half a century. Along comes Testament and negotiates the release of this monument to post-war Wagner singing in – and that is perhaps what makes the release stand out so much - stereo! I have not reviewed it yet, because I have yet to receive Die Götterdämmerung and Das Rheingold to get the complete picture. But having heard Siegfried (the first issue – very nice, indeed) and Die Walküre (extraordinarily impressive), it is all but clear that this will be the historical ring cycle of choice and a competitive challenge to any live cycle, including the prime Karl Böhm cycle on Philips (which has just been re-issued in the U.S. as a budget edition and, too, deserves mention in this list.) Die Walküre makes the point extremely well: you can hear the orchestral splendor of the finale in high quality stereo that belies its age and defies all expectations of what a recording from 1955 can sound like. Comparison to other Ring Cycles from the time (Krauss ’53, Keilberth ’52, Knappertsbusch ’56) show a little less sonic improvement upon a quick listen. It is not until you hear a whole opera from start to finish that the difference becomes really striking: It takes much less concentration to follow the Decca/Testament recordings than it does with the various mono (and monaural) issues on Melodram, Archipel, or Music & Arts. If money is not an issue (the list price for the tetralogy’s four installments is almost $300), this is the historical Ring to have. (P.S. Yes, I am aware that that is the third Ring Cycle I recommend in as many years. What can I say other than it's been a good time for Wagner...)
“Canciones Argentinas” was one of the first wonderful surprises for me this year (“Dip Your Ears, No. 59”): songs by Carlos Gustavino, Astor Piazzolla, Carlos Lopez Buchardo, Luis Gianneo, Abel Fleury, Angel E. Lasala, Manuel Gómez Carrillo, Floro M. Ugarte, and Alberto Williams make for wonderful listening individually or as a program – sung by Bernarda Fink and her bass-baritone brother, Marcos (who surprises with a very pleasant voice – faintly reminiscent of a low-register Domingo), this is humble fair – but certainly not of modest quality. Being far away from main-stream repertoire, it is one of those little gems that hops into the CD player when the ears need a break from all the more ‘high-brow’ music listening.
The Messiaen Edition,
O.Messiaen, Y.Loriod, K.Nagano, P-L.Aimard, et al.
It’s not quite a cube like the complete Scarlatti Sonatas with Scott Ross, but at 18 discs, the Warner Classics collection of the important Messiaen works in all genres - dating from the early 1960s to 2000 with most recordings having been supervised by Messiaen himself - is nearly as impressive and just about the same format. The Box is largely a re-issue of the mid-80s Erato Messiaen box (17 CDs, the 18th in the new edition is an interview with Messiaen in French) but strengthened in specific points – like with Kent Nagano’s Turangalîla with Pierre-Laurent Aimard and the Berlin Philharmonic, a terrific, if not likely definitive recording.
But then, few of the recordings in this collection are “definitive” (a description I dislike, anyway), while many are essential to the Messiaen lover. Take Yvonne Loriod’s (Messiaen’s second wife for whom most of his piano music was written) performances of Petites esquisses d’oiseaux, the Préludes, Quatre Études de rythme, Poèmes pour Mi, Chants de terre et de ciel (with Maria Orán), Harawi (with Rachel Yakar), La Fauvette des jardins, Révail des oiseaux (along with Nagano and the Orchestre National de France), and most importantly the Catalogue d’oiseaux and Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jésus. Stephen Osborne, Håkon Austbø, or Aimard offer different, equally valid, and every bit as enchanting versions of all or some of these works (don’t forget Peter Hill or Peter Serkin, either) – and sometimes of greater technical proficiency. Still, if you are into Messiaen’s music (it ain’t necessarily easy), you will need to hear Loriod’s playing – just like you will want to hear Messiaen’s own of Méditations sur le mystère de la Sainte-Trinité on the Cavaillé-Coll organo of La Trinité, Paris – ‘Messiaen’s organ’. The Huguette Fernandez - Guy Deplus - Jacques Nielz - Marie-Madeleine Petit Quatour pour la fin du Temps may not immediately push your favorite version off its pedestal (I like Loriod – Poppen – Fischer-Dieskau – Meyer / EMI, DG’s all-star Jian Wang – Myung-Whun Chung – Shaham – Meyer recording, and the classic Sherry – Stoltzman – Serkin – Kavafian on RCA), but its good to have in the collection, not the least for Deplus' clarinet playing and Loriod's authority with all things Messiaen.
Beethoven, Piano Sonatas,
For a while I thought of including Mitsuko Uchida’s first Beethoven-Sonata traversal (opp.109 – 111) in here. After all, she has proven the first player to whose op.111 I've listened without secretly thinking about Pollini all along. Her op.109 with those dreamy touches of Debussy, too, is worth hearing. But unlike other discs, this one did not make a greater and greater impression upon (oft!) repeated listening. It started to sound oddly common, despite all its great qualities. I’d rather point to a less starry Beethoven sonata recording here: Kent Nagano’s wife Mari Kodama is recording a Beethoven cycle for the Pentatone label – and volume three (Nos.16-18) is a stupendous example of her art and her recording label’s craft. Seldom will you have Beethoven chords rollick so thunderously and thick into your living room; or heard such satisfying pianissimos. Mari Kodama “employs masculine power towards feminine-sensitive ends” is what I said in “Dip Your Ears, No. 61” and revisiting this recording was a little Christmas present of its own. Among the four Beethoven cycles currently under way (Schiff, Bräutigam, Lewis being the other three) this might well be the most intriguing.
L.v.Beethoven, Cello Sonatas & Variations,
P.Fournier / F.Gulda
One of my favorite cellists is Pierre Fournier, whose Bach Suites are my touch-stone, and whose patrician tone I can’t get enough of. I’ve said elsewhere that the man could play “Three Blind Mice” and still send chills down your spine. There are three cycles of Beethoven Cello Sonatas with Fournier, each with one of the absolute Greats of pianism. Schnabel, Kempff, and Gulda. Friedrich Gulda is the least famous of the three, although he might well be the finest among them. A technique that outshines either (especially Schnabel, who did not overly emphasize that aspect of interpretation), an unaffectedness that rivals Kempff. (Gulda’s second Beethoven Sonata Cycle reissued on the super-budget Brilliant label would be listed here, were it not for its December 2005 release date – it’s the most pleasing complete survey of these works I have heard yet.) The Fournier/Schnabel set is marred by its age and bad engineering (at least in the version I know, the balances are blatantly manipulated); the Fournier/Kempff set only by its unavailability on the North American market. Fournier adored the playing of Gulda and tried to lobby Herbert von Karajan into taking Gulda ‘back into his graces’ (apparently Gulda pulled some stunt during rehearsals with HvK once that ‘his Excellency’ was unwilling to forgive), telling Karajan that he knew he had had a problem with Gulda at some point, but that not collaborating with him was “his loss”. Nothing came of that, but Fournier’s own collaboration with Gulda is happily caught on record here. The sound is very good (the piano, at times, a little distant), the playing noble but with warmth, Fournier’s sonorous tone being a thing I can only marvel at. Gulda’s contribution is a treasure chest of musical ideas, tasteful touches, and confident engagement. The Beethoven Sonatas for Cello and Piano have enjoyed three wonderful new recordings in the last few years (Perényi/Schiff – ECM, Brendel père & fils – Philips, Wispelwey/Lazić – Channel Classics), but even if you have one of them, this classic recording is very worthy joining it on your shelf.
L.v.Beethoven, Symphonies 3 & 8,
O.Vänskä / Minnesota O.
Last year, Osmo Vänskä's recording of symphonies Nos. 4 and 5 of his current Beethoven cycle on BIS held this place. There is no reason not to give the 2006 spot to his second issue of symphonies 3 and 8. If perhaps neither are as – literally – outstanding as his Fourth (at the top of my list of Fourths, by all means), the combination of recorded sound, vigor, and orchestral perfection make it worthy of inclusion in this list. Under Vänskä the Minnesota Orchestra play, well, perfect: Not a note, not an accent, not the tiniest detail is out of place. All that might not impress too much if it were not for the liveliness that is, thankfully, not given short shrift. This is perfection serving a higher purpose, rather than being a goal in itself. Suggesting width, even in crisp tempos, the Eighth brings a heft to the work I have not heard in any ‘modern’ interpretations (Barenboim, who has plenty of that in all of the symphonies of his superb second cycle (Warner Classics) does that, too, but his Beethoven is an altogether more old-fashioned animal, compared to Vänskä’s). The Third is as crisp as a starched white shirt and has as much bite as a Granny Smith. Like Pentatone’s sonata cycle, this is recorded in the Super Audio format. Although the SACD may die a slow death yet, without having taken off as much as the format deserved, issues like these are worth getting into the technology, all the same. But even in standard Red-Book CD sound (all the discs are hybrids, playable on any CD player) this is more than worth trying to get your stocking stuffed with!
(Vänskä’s Ninth is out already and on Alex Ross' "Apex 2006" list.)
Mitsuko Uchida’s Debussy Études were never out of the catalog – and they were a bargain, even at full price. It may well be Uchida’s best album; the playing is astonishing on an interpretive and technical level. You can more or less cover your entire Debussy piano needs with four albums: Gieseking for everything (EMI), Zimerman for the Preludes (DG), Michelangeli for Children’s Corner (DG), and the Uchida Études which are part of Decca/Philips’ new “Originals” series, which follows the success of the “DG Originals” and has already brought back several gems at mid-price. If you don’t have this performance already, get it.
G.Mahler, Symphony No.2,
P.Boulez / WPh
G.Mahler, Symphony No.6,
C.Eschenbach / Philadelphia
It was Mozart’s and Shostakovich’s year – but it has been particularly good to Gustav Mahler. Four CDs stood out. The Eighth on Naxos with Anton Wit conducting largely unknown forces to great effect…, Christoph Eschenbach’s recording of the Sixth with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and two recordings of the Second Symphony. First came Pierre Boulez’ penultimate recording in his Deutsche Grammophon cycle (presuming he will record the Eight for them, also) – then Ivan Fisher’s second Mahler recording with his Budapest Festival Orchestra, recorded in their glorious sounding, new hall. (Fischer, coincidentally does not intend to record a cycle as he told me recently – in particular the Eighth is not one he would see himself committing to record.) If I restrict myself to one Mahler recording in this ‘Top 10’ – and that’s difficult – I must give the nod to Pierre Boulez. Somewhat controversially received by critics (unlike the Fischer, which was universally hailed), there is so much sweep and warmth (yes – warmth with Boulez! It’s possible) in this interpretation (at least from the second movement on), that I am all caught up in the music every time I listen, even if I only mean to give it a ‘casual ear’. It is this intangible force that Boulez creates that puts his second above Fischer’s (whose Sixth I find even more outstanding than this Second – also available as an SACD from Channel Classics) which impresses me on a somewhat less visceral level.
I would be remiss not give at least an extended nod to Eschenbach’s (SACD – again) Ondine recording of the Sixth, though. Not only did Eschenbach get the Philadelphia to record on a major label again, as one of the first US Orchestras in some time, but he has now issued three superb sounding recordings. I can’t be bothered with another Tchaikovsky Fifth, no matter how great it sounds (aside, the Gatti SACD recording on Harmonia Mundi would be difficult to beat) and I didn’t like his interpretation of the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra. But right in the wake of his announced departure from Philadelphia (he and the Orchestra never really gelled) he fires a parting salvo of grand proportions. The first ‘aggressive’ Sixth to be issued since Benjamin Zander (Telarc) and like Zander also taking the Scherzo before the Andante (but only two ‘Hammerblows’) this interpretation bites the head off the Abbado (DG SACD) reading and competes on the same level (if, interpretatively on a rather different plane) as the Fischer Sixth. It is heavy and heavy hitting, sometimes slow to get its own weight moving in the first movement – but rarely ever to its detriment, usually to the benefit of its ransacking, pillaging quality. The dainty, ‘Nutcrackery’, interludes and gentleness in the same movement sound all the more like false calm. Coupling it with the Mahler Piano Quartet (filling out the second disc) was a great idea, too, especially when the playing is as good as here.
(See also: Ionarts Gustav Mahler Survey)
C.Nielsen, Sys. #4 & 2,
J.Martinon & M.Gould / CSO
RCA’s “Classical Library” mid-price line includes some real treasures (Wand’s Schubert and Bruckner among them) and some more questionable releases. The 2006 reissue of Nielsen’s Second and Fourth Symphonies is surely among the ones most looked forward to. Especially the Martinon-conducted Fourth (Det Uudslukkelige), which had been out of print for a long time... apparently due to copyright uncertainties. Robert R. Reilly kindly pointed me into its direction, having this to say about it: “This music relies on a sense of overwhelming forward drive to express "The Inextinguishable." No one propels it as convincingly as Martinon and the members of Chicago Symphony Orchestra, who capture all the symphony's terrifying and exhilarating progress. Music simply does not get better than this.” My former colleague and audiophile Bob McQuiston (who runs “Classical Music Lost & Found” at www.CLoFo.com) feels the same way about it and has the following to say about the Morton Gould conducted performance of the Second: “Most think of Gould as a composer, but he was also a very gifted conductor, as you'll discover when you hear this disc. In fact, prior to this recording many considered Nielsen's second was kind of a yawner, but he changed all that by making its movements the musical epitome of their markings as choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic and sanguine respectively. If there was ever a temperamental performance, this is it!” In short: ‘unmissable’.
W.A.Mozart, La Clemenza di Tito,
C.Mackerras et al.
There was plenty from René Jacobs this year that was wonderful (his Saul occupied this spot last year) – but it wasn’t his La Clemenza di Tito that took the prize in a year that proved heavier on ‘Clemenzas’ than any innocent Mozart lover could have expected (or would want to listen to, for that matter). It was the Mozart Grand-Master Charles Mackerras with his Magdalena Kožená-fortified DG / Archiv recording who rolled out the finest ‘Clemenza’ production currently on the market. (Davis, Hogwood, Gardiner, Böhm are the other mainstream issues.) If it is going to be a CD for you, not a DVD, this remarkable performance can really sell the sub-par Mozart opera as if it were the masterpiece that some conductors or commentators periodically make it out to be. Perhaps it is Mackerras’ moderate pace that makes the difference: He doesn’t take the ‘HIP’ Mozart style to the extreme and gives the opera just the right amount of gravitas that sets it apart from just being a late, retrogressive Idomeneo copy. If you like opera on DVD, though, skip the CD and go straight to the Harnoncourt conducted production from Salzburg: You’ll get singing that is as great (the conducting is more ‘retro’ and broader than Mackerras’) in a staging that achieves the impossible: it makes La Clemenza a dramatically convincing story!
A.Berg, Lulu / Wozzeck,
K.Böhm, E.Lear, D.Fischer-Dieskau, F.Wunderlich et al.
Universal, the parent company of Deutsche Grammophon/Archiv, Decca/London, Philips has proved to be the best of the ‘old majors’ among recording companies… and by far. EMI seems content to recycle schlock and spice it up with the occasional Simon Rattle album (all of which are decent, none horrible – pace Mr. Hurwitz, none outstanding – pace Gramophone Magazine). Warner has ceased to produce classical music recordings altogether and will only re-issue existent material under their Rhino label. The Sony/RCA-BMG behemoth still records Yo-Yo Ma and Yevgeni Kissin, but not much more… notable are only Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s recordings on RCA and Deutsche Harmonia Mundi (not to be mistaken with Harmonia Mundi) – and, to their credit, they have taken over the Arte Nova label (distributed by Allegro) which, a couple bucks cheaper than even Naxos discs, is currently the best budget label to explore new repertoire on.
DG and its company-siblings stand out not only for their relatively broad range of new releases (only the Naxos and HMU distributed labels’ offers merit equal excitement in looking forward to) but also their open ears to customer demands. Earlier last year, the regional representatives were told to ask their clientele, the music buyers, to report what Opera releases, currently out of the catalogue, they and their customers would like to see back. A cute effort, I thought. Half a year later, there they were: just about all of the recordings on my wish-list back on the North American market. Among them the Böhm Ring Cycle mentioned above, Rameau and Lully with Minkowski (reviewed earlier this year), Anatol Dorati’s complete Haydn Operas, and Karl Böhm’s recordings of Lulu (without the third act completion) and Wozzeck. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Evelyn Lear are, apart from the conductor, the common denominator in the operas. DFD is a particularly good Wozzeck; Lear (whose husband Thomas Stewart just passed away this September) a delight as Marie. Fritz Wunderlich as Andres and Gerhard Stolze as the Hauptmann round out the cast that makes this such a desirable release, even next to DG’s Abbado recording. The same goes for Lulu, where Pierre Boulez (also DG) offers the completed third act but Böhm does not. As a double set, this pack is unbeatable, though… at least for those who can open their ears to the harbinger of 20th century opera.
W.A.Mozart, Piano Sonatas,
A disc I didn’t suspect would make this list is Mikhail Pletnev’s of Mozart Sonatas. There is the issue of the works themselves: Slight and plenty available in more or less definitive versions as part of excellent complete sets. (Uchida, DeLarrocha, Schiff et al.) But his quirky, personal way with these works exudes such joy and good humored attitude that I could not resist listening to it over and over – and ultimately could not resist including here, either. “It’s just damn enjoyable” I surrendered to it, in “Dip Your Ears No. 55”. It’s a dose of ditties (although Sonatas, K. 330, 331, 332, and 457 are the most substantial of Mozart’s piano sonata ‘ditties’) that does not ask questions like “how many versions of these works do I already own?” or “is this the ‘best’ recording available?”. The answers would, in any case, be “too many” and “no”. And yet it ought to be given a chance to delight. Broad smile just about guaranteed upon purchase.
E.Elgar, Cello Concerto,
J.du Pré / J.Barbirolli
The vigorous, almost aggressive way that Jacqueline du Pré had with Elgar’s Cello Concerto isn’t the only way to play this work (a more loving, gentle opening – think Lynn Harrell - suits it rather well, too), but it is mesmerizing all the same and her EMI recording has become the standard bearer on disc. Testament now has issued another version (like above Ring, also for the first time) with [Ed. almost] the same team: Barbirolli, Du Pré, BBC Symphony Orchestra. [On the EMI recording, as I was reminded in the comments, it is the LSO.] This live recording from Prague (coupled with two Bach Cello Suites, du Pré recordings of which are few and rare) sounds nearly as good as the EMI studio effort and is, if anything, even better, interpretively . Particularly the opening captured me immediately: With the notes set apart, like fleeting touches, I have never heard the concerto in a more modern light. For those who don’t already have the EMI recording – or those who simply can’t have enough Elgar or du Pré, this is worth the (hefty) Testament price tag.
HK.Gruber, P.Eötvös, M-A.Turnage, Music for Orchestra & Trumpet,
P.Eötvös / H.Hardenberger / Gothenburg SO
N.Rorem, Flute Cto. & Piano Cto.,
J.Serebrier / Royal Liverp.PO
Contemporary music always gets a spot on this list – not out of ideological concern (although finding great recordings presumes taking a liking to the music) but because there is plenty of really good music being issued. DG’s Gruber-Eötvös-Turnage CD of recently composed works or orchestra and trumpet is an excellent example… not only because of Håkan Hardenberger’s tremendous contributions (regular trumpet, Flügelhorn, piccolo trumpet etc.) in Aerial (H.K. Gruber), Jet Stream (Peter Eötvös – who also conducts the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra on this disc), and From the Wreckage (Mark-Anthony Turnage) – but because of the quality and innovativeness of the music itself. Whether I allow the music to waft by me without engaging with it or whether during concentrated listening, the variety and craftsmanship hold my attention and nurture my goodwill. From distilled Sibelius (Gruber) to a visit at “The Blue Note” (Turnage), from moments of sheer loveliness to torn-apart fragments of musical space (Eötvös) this is a bag full of great surprises that might delight even those who bulked at Peter Maxwell Davies’ string quartets (recommended in 2004) and will find friends with all those who liked Thomas Adès’ Piano Quintet (the "modern" 2005 choice).
The disc that I cannot not mention here is José Serebrier’s Naxos recording of Ned Rorem’s Flute and Violin Concertos. Philippe Quint (violin) and Jeffrey Khaner (flute) work with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra to superb effect. The music always intrigued me, the playing always impressed me – but I had somehow not gotten to write about it. Finally, in listening to it on headphones for this End-of-Year summary (alas, after I wrote about Gruber & Co.) it has done for me what it needed to do: fascinate me. The 2002 Flute Concerto could restore your believe in modern music as being new and appealing (not to conservative ears, perhaps, but to all open minded ones), ditto the firmly tonal 1985 Violin Concerto. The 1958 Pilgrims that march before either are a splendid aperitif that gets the ears ready for what follows. Of many excellent Serebrier releases I’ve heard this year (Mussorgsky’s Pictures in his own orchestration, Bach à la Stokowski, William Schuman, Shostakovich) this is the one dearest to me.
M.Jansons et al.
This is another creative interpretation of “Reissue”: Three of the recordings in this Shostakovich Cycle were issued this year – and the cycle as a whole is brand new, too. It may not beat out the Kitajenko cycle (Capriccio SACDs) as a whole, but it contains so many wonderful interpretations that it demands high praise. Jansons once said that with Shostakovich, it’s the conductor who matters more when it comes to idiom, and less so the orchestra. It isn’t surprising he should have said something along those lines: His cycle is almost as international than the Kubelik's Beethoven traversal that was given the moniker of "International Cycle" (Kubelik recorded the nine Beethoven symphonies for DG with nine different orchestras.) Jansons uses the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (Nos. 2, 3, 4, 12, 13, 14), the Berliner Philharmoniker (No. 1), the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra (No. 7), the London Philharmonic Orchestra (No. 15), the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra (Nos. 6 & 9), the Philadelphia Orchestra (Nos. 10 & 11), the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (No. 8), and the Wiener Philharmoniker (No. 5).
I am not being partial when I single out the Bavarian RSO recordings for extra praise. Symphonies 13 and 14 have rarely sounded so good; the Fourth with the same forces is the finest recording of that symphony I know. The sound is excellent throughout and best again in those, the most recent, recordings of the cycle. Although the Eighth continues to elude me as a work, his Philadelphia recording must be among the finest on the market. His Petersburg Seventh is much edgier than the soft-cornered recording with the Royal Concertgebouw he recently turned in on RCO live SACD – a style that suits it better, I find.
J.C.Spinosi / Ensemble Matheus et al.
Many new operas delighted me – and apart from above mentioned La Clemenza and the Ring, there were Abbado’s swift, delighting Zauberflöte on DG, Thielemann’s superbly conducted live Parsifal on the same label, and – somewhat further off the beaten path – Ruud Langaard’s Antikrist (Dacapo) – a short opera by the wonderful, sourly neglected, Danish 20th century romantic that strikes me as a spiritual brother (or antipode) to Parsifal with its mystically incense laden atmosphere. But it is the latest issue of the naïve / opus 111 survey of Vivaldi’s operas that should make this list: Griselda, which Ionarts reviewed earlier this year, is the most immediately appealing issue in this series to date, together with La Verità in cimento which I prefer by some margin over the more written and raved about Orlando Furioso. Jean-Christophe Spinosi (here with the Ensemble Matheus has a tendency to exaggerate and accentuate far beyond what the music calls for, which can be tiresome but is more likely to inject the music with energy that we would not suspect in it. Compared to Orlando he seems more even tempered in Griselda (and Verità), making either of these issues a perfect starting point for the Vivaldi Opera journey. Depending on how much of a journey you want it to be, that could be quite an undertaking. I can’t blame anyone stopping after one or two stops or steps, but those do deserve to be experienced, even by listeners who don’t put baroque opera on the top of their ‘favorite genre list’.
W.A.Mozart, Complete Piano Concertos,
M.Perahia / ECO
Murray Perahia is unfortunately not likely to play again in concert or record (a hand injury has sidelined him – perhaps permanently), but it is wonderful to have his Mozart Piano Concertos on Sony/BMG back as a complete set (the individual discs had still been available, the box only as an import from France or Germany). Now on 12 CDs (unlike the bare bones Import, the US version includes the concertos for two and three pianos [except no third pianist is actually needed] with Radu Lupu which explains one of the additional discs, the other stemming from rearranging the concertos) this is one of the classic renditions of the complete works, and considered the best – over-all – by many. The English Chamber Orchestra, which also plays on the Barenboim and Uchida cycles, is impeccable, delectable, dependable. Schiff/Vegh (oop/Decca), Uchida/Tate (Philips), and Buchbinder/himself (Hänssler) are the main rivals, but after holding up Uchida for years as the set against which to compare all others, I am now turning to Perahia for that purpose. Concertos Nos. 12, 14, 26 can’t be bettered, anyway, and if you have some selected Pires (17, 21), Curzon (23, 24), Haskil, Gilels, Gulda, and Schiff in your collection, you’ll be set.
Foulds, Tryptich et al.,
P.Donohoe / S.Oramo /BirmSO
Warner’s second issue of John Foulds’ music is one of that label’s parting gifts. I want to include Folds, even if it means passing over Andrew Manze’s Mozart Concertos or his CPE Bach recording. (Manze's Mozart - Concertos 3-5 - especially, stuck out in a year in which we were inundated with Mozart.) But back to Foulds: This British (sometimes very British) composer (1880 – 1939) has been plenty neglected, even compared to neglected-but-revived British composers of his time like Alwyn, Arnold, Bainton, Bax, Brian... but should now receive some deserved attention through these recordings (the first volume has aroused all kinds of different passions – negative and positive), because the music is terrific in all its conventional and all its modernish guises. Dynamic Triptych is the main work; a piano concerto (Peter Donohoe, piano) that comes across like a British Gentleman trying to sound like Stravinsky with an accent of Prokofiev. Even after just a few hearings, it sounds like an old acquaintance; the written-out orchestral portamenti (call them quarter tones, if you wish) throw in a sense of the modern that goes beyond what the rest of the work offers. Some of the rhythmic hammering in the work borders the repetitive – but it all comes together: not just pleasantly, but as quality music, possibly ahead of its time. Not ahead of its time is the Keltic Lament, but in its film-score like beauty it shows a side of Foulds that could produce the very best in British ‘Light Music’. This issue follows on the heels of Three Mantras, the first Foulds CD of Warner’s which was a Gramophone Magazine choice of the year in 2005. Both discs were recorded with Sakari Oramo and the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra where he succeeded Simon Rattle.
F.Schmidt, Sy. #4, F.Welser-Möst
J.S.Bach, Complete Decca Recordings, C.Rousset
Christoph Rousset and Pierre Hantaï are two of my favorite harpsichord players in Bach (Rondine Blandeau has joined them upon discovery of her English and French Suites) – but it has been Rousset’s recent recordings on Ambroise that have me impressed more than the earlier Decca disc of the Concerto Italiano and other miscellany. But in the package that includes his other Decca recordings – the Goldberg Variations and the Partitas – it becomes part of a very attractive set of performances, indeed, with virtuoso playing and a surprisingly resonant sound. A delicious bargain for the Bach-lover.
On second thought (and because I am running out of space and can’t not include it), I’ll give the nod to EMI’s budget-reissue of the Fourth Symphony of Franz Schmidt with Franz Welser-Möst and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Schmidt is known – to the extent he is known at all – for his large Oratorio Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln (“The Book with Seven Seals” – the best recordings are the historical Mitropoulos / Sony and Welser-Möst / EMI), and possibly for this symphony. Yakov Kreizberg has added a wonderful version to it on the audiophile Pentatone label, but unless you need SACD and surround sound, the humble $8 EMI disc “will do”. In fact, it is by any account the finest interpretation and the most inspired playing in that symphony I’ve heard (Mehta and Järvi being the other recordings I know). The music sounds like that of a conservative romantic with a Wagnerian sensibility. You can hear elements of Tristan and Parsifal in the slow movement; other ears might find traces of Bruckner (his teacher, along with Robert Fuchs), Liszt, and Reger. Perversely it was Brahms who came to my mind – even if the sound is distinctly more modern. Modern, however, is relative, because the symphony can’t be said to sound much like its 1933(!) tag might suggest. Maybe Schmidt’s Fourth isn’t a “masterpiece”, but under Welser-Möst it sure sounds like one.