There are a few recordings I just couldn't not include, but limiting myself to ten new releases on the upcoming 'official list' I have to outsource the rest to this list. Cheating? Yes, but in the name of good music.
Joseph Ryelandt (1870-1965) was born and died in Bruges where he studied law until Edgar Tinel took him in has his sole student of composition. I knew absolutely nothing of his music before I came across this CD of his chamber music, but apparently he was one of Belgium's eminent post-romantic composers whose grand oratorios and five symphonies were once well known and admired. Volume 55 of Phaedra's indefatigable "In Flanders' Fields" edition, discovering little known and lost Belgian music, brings us some chamber music (1901 Piano Quintet in a-minor and the 1903 String Quartet No.2 in f-minor) that, like volume 51 (Jef van Hoof) makes me want to hear much more of this composer. The music here really doesn't sound as much late-romantic in the 20th century vain as it does classical-romantic in the Beethoven-Brahms-Mendelssohn vain, but when has that ever kept listeners from enjoying chamber music? The works are not derivative nor do they sound like Ryelandt's craftsmanship was not up to the task: the CD means a worthy discovery for me and is a winner all-around.
Ryelandt, Piano Quintet, String Quartet et al., Spiegel String Quartet et al. - Phaedra 92055
There isn't a (really) bad recording of Kullervo op.7, Sibelius' most wonderful 'failed' composition. It was first put on vinyl in 1971 by Paavo Berglund and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (just re-re-released by EMI) who also re-recorded it in 1985 with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra (also EMI). Esa-Pekka Salonen recorded it in 1992 for Sony (oop), Leif Segerstam for Chandos (the first time around) and Neeme Järvi for BIS in 1994, his son Paavo in 1996 (?) for Virgin, the same year Jorma Panula recorded the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra for Naxos and Jukka-Pekka Saraste the Finnish RSO for Finlandia (oop).
Sibelius, Kullervo, Segerstam / Helsinki PO / Isokoski, Hakala - Ondine 1122-5
In 1997 Colin Davis recorded his first Kullervo for his second Sibelius symphony cycle (on RCA), in 2006 his second (better, but still overrated) Kullervo for his third Sibelius Symphony cycle (on LSO live). Osmo Vänskä's most transparent Kullervo with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra came out in 2001 (BIS). Then, in the last two years, companies discovered the potential for this dark choral symphony to showcase SACD (surround) sound: Said Colin Davis' recording made the start in February, Ari Rasilainen on cpo followed in November, released on the same date as Robert Spano's Atlanta performance on Telarc (regular / SACD). Which brings us to May of 2008 and Leif Segerstam's second recording of Kullervo, again with Soile Isokoski who is absolutely terrific as is the YL Male Voice Choir, the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, and Ondine's sound. I've heard Segerstam live only in Tristan & Isolde (Vienna), which was second rate, at best. But in Sibelius he knows what he is doing, he's evidently in his element. His new soft-lit symphony cycle on Ondine is superb (except for the included Violin Concerto), and this Kullervo is, too. Less dark and harsh than this piece about orphans separated at birth finding each other (in incestuous rape, alas) years later, leading to suicide (her) and post-heroic battle-field-action suicide (him) is usually portrayed. Segerstam draws this out to 78 minutes (only Vänskä takes longer while keeping it cohesive), lets Kullervo go to war in most mirthful manner and lets him fade softly into dead grass on his sister's grave.
Herreweghe's Bach is always something I look forward to - more so even than Gardiner's. Christus, der ist mein Leben with cantatas BWV 95 that gives the disc its name, 27 ("Wer weiss, wie nahe mir mein Ende"), 84 ("Ich bin vergnügt mit meinem Glücke"), and 161 ("Komm, du süsse Todesstunde") is the latest installment in his unofficial (complete?) Bach traversal and was worth waiting for. If it isn't included in the Top 10, then only because the earlier release "Weinen, Klagen..." with Carolyn Sampson was so good that even consequent excellence pales a little in comparison. Dorothee Mields' soprano is particularly pleasant in the aria "Ich esse mit Freuden mein weniges Brot" (BWV 84), tenor Thomas Bauer in "Ach, schlage doch bald, sel'ge Stunde" (BWV 95). But Matthew White's "Komm, du süsse Todesstunde", although faultless, somehow doesn't doesn't gel with me.
Bach, "Christ is my Life" et al., Herreweghe / Collegium Vocale Gent / Mields, White et al. - HMC 901969
Berg, 3 Pieces for Orchestra op.6, Lulu Suite, RCO / Gatti - RCO live 08004
Since the Concertgebouw has founded its own label, I have always looked eagerly looked forward the the newest "RCO Live" release. But that anticipation often stood in stark contrast to the bland, unexciting, and sometimes even dull results that Jansons and his super-orchestra achieved. Strauss' "Heldenleben", the first release, sounded great but was too flabby - Thielemann/Vienna (DG) do this better. Dvořák’s Ninth was pretty good, but Bruckner’s Eighth (with Haitink) too soft-edged. Beethoven’s and Brahms’ Second Symphonies very nice, Stravinsky (Petrushka) I skipped, and Sibelius’ Second (my favorite Sibelius Symphony, no less) was a lukewarm flop. Mahler’s Sixth too soft and polite again, like Jansons’ earlier recording on LSO live. But since late 2007, there’s been one hit after another.
Mahler’s Fourth (Haitink) and Stravinsky’s Firebird (with Le Sacre) made it both unto my upcoming “Best of 2008” list. Debussy’s La Mer is a colorful, sonic dream, Jansons’ Alpine Symphony I don’t have yet, and Daniele Gatti’s disc with orchestral works by Alban Berg, too, is marvelous – and it’s that disc that I must include on this “Almost Best of” list. The Three Pieces for Orchestra here rival the Berlin Philharmonic’s sumptuous recording with Karajan (DG Originals), coming very close to how the latter makes the music sound like molten romanticism. The Lulu Suite (also found in good hands with Abbado, DG Originals) benefits equally from the Concertgebouw’s gorgeous sound and Gatti’s sensuous inflection, but suffers from being less suited to letting phrases glide into another: a bit more rhythmic precision might have allowed it to shine even more.
Berg, Schoenberg, Webern, Lyric Suite (Largo), String Quartet No.2, Langsamer Satz, Petersen Quartet, Christine Schäfer - Phoenix Edition 133
Mozart, Symphonies 38-41, Mackerras / Scottish Chamber Orchestra - Linn CKD308
Weingartner, String Quartets vol.1, Sarastro Quartett - cpo 7772512
The Peterson Quartet’s Berg - Schoenberg - Webern disc would be more than just “your Second Viennese School CD of the year” if it included all of Berg’s Lyric Suite and not just the movement with the ‘hidden’ vocal part. Christine Schäfer sings it and the part in Schoenberg’s Second Quartet; Webern’s Langsamer Satz caps this recital off. I wrote more about it on WETA.
Felix Weingartner’s String Quartets are a high-romantic delight to listen to – and I’m so glad that cpo is giving his music so much attention. (Chamber Music You Didn’t Know You Love – 4)
Sir Charles Mackerras doesn’t tire, and he seems only to get better. I liked his English Cosí fan tutte (although a bit too out of the way to include here) and re-recording Mozart Symphonies 38-41 for Linn with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra he strikes gold, too. Lively, sprightly, intimate, joyous throughout… Mackerras makes Mozart’s ‘big’ Symphonies sound a little more compact in size without the idea that something might be missing ever entering the listener’s mind.
Bach, Matthew Passion (1742 version), Butt / Dunedin Consort et al. - Linn CKD313
Also from Linn comes a new recording of the Matthew Passion with John Butt and the Dunedin Consort. It’s the first recording of the 1742 performing version (not much different from what we know) and it’s strictly in accordance with the latest “One Voice per Part” dogma. At first I was enthralled, ready to put this far up on my “Best of 2008” list. I’ve become weary of some of the voices, though, and the lacking balance during tutti passages of the singers. But it’s still a terrifically exciting performance and surely the most invigorating of its (radical) kind.
Schumann, Violin Sonatas, C.Widmann & D.Várjon - ECM New Series 2047
Bach, Cello Suites, Sebastian Klinger - Oehms OC718
This just in: ECM’s disc of the three Schumann Violin Sonatas. I’d almost forgotten how wonderful these works are: Carolin Widmann (sister to the clarinetist/composer Jörg Widmann) reminds me vividly and energetically. There is no dearth of recordings, but not glut, either. You really want a complete set of them – including the Third Sonata, (new Grove says WoO27, the Bärenreiter and Schott Urtext scores say WoO2) , not just opp. 105 and 121. The last work Schumann composed before he decomposed three years later, it’s a sonata spotted with inspired, echt-Schumann moments. It was created when Schumann added two movements to the “FAE-Sonata” that he (second and fourth movement), Brahms (third), and Albert Dietrich (first) co-wrote for the birthday of Joseph Joachim.
Widmann really digs into these works, making sure that Schumann isn’t mistaken for Brahms. It’s more like Isabelle Faust plays it (cpo), and less like Anthony Marwood (with Susan Tomes, Hyperion, and in any case not including Sonata #3) does, the latter being on the mellifluous side. Widmann isn’t afraid of letting some of the labor shine through, but a labor of love. Jennifer Koh released the three sonatas on Cedille last year (with Reiko Uchida) and Ara Malikian’s well regarded recording on Hänssler Classic is another choice, too but I’ve heard neither of them. Based on what I’ve heard on this disc (including the sensitive playing of Dénes Várjon that balances the strident vigor of Widmann a good deal), though, I’d be surprised if they are more recommendable than this marvel.
Oehms’ recording of the Bach Suites with the young Sebastian Klinger is not superior to Queyras and Lipkind, but it is very, very good and a worthy addition to anyone who doesn’t mind having a half dozen or more performances of the Suites.