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16.12.10

Best of 2010: Other Picks for Recordings

Looking back over what made it onto our pages in the past year, here are ten more choices for the best recordings of the year -- to go along with the ongoing list compiled by Jens Laurson. A gentle reminder that if you buy a recording we recommend by clicking on the Amazon link provided, a part of the proceeds goes to support Ionarts. Happy shopping!

#1. Mozart, Die Zauberflöte, D. Behle, M. Petersen, D. Schmutzhard, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, R. Jacobs (HMC 902068.70)

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With his groundbreaking series of recordings of the Mozart operas, René Jacobs has forced serious listeners to rethink what they think they know about these most familiar works. For his stellar new recording of the late Mozart Singspiel Die Zauberflöte, Jacobs has examined every relevant piece of evidence about the work and come up with a version that redefines the boundaries of the piece's basic identity. Jacobs himself introduces liberties, some of them quite odd but all justified by a close reading of the score and libretto. The singers and players add many embellishments, including an extended cadenza that Mozart wrote for the end of the Three Ladies' first ensemble, later deciding to cut it during rehearsal. I never want to hear the piece again without it, and Jacobs goes one step further by creating similar cadenzas for other pieces. [Read complete review]

#2. El Nuevo Mundo: Folías Criollas, M. Figueras, La Capella Reial de Catalunya, Hespèrion XXI, Tembembe Ensamble Continuo, J. Savall (Alia Vox AVSA 9876)

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Savall's new recording, El Nuevo Mondo, an assortment of creole folías, that is, dance music on repeating bass patterns that represents a mixture of European and Native American forms. Recommending this outstanding disc is a no-brainer, as it is not only of significant musical interest -- Latin American secular and dance music drawn mostly from 17th- and 18th-century sources, performed with historically informed performance expertise from both the musicological and folk music perspectives -- but also just sheer fun as listening. The performances are so infectiously vivacious, with the historical sources refracted through more recent folk music traditions, but never following that unfortunate assumption that folk music has to be crude or ugly in sound. These performances are both refined and subtle, while simultaneously being joyous, rollicking, even raucous. [Read complete review]

#3. Mahler, Lieder, C. Gerhaher, G. Huber (Sony/RCA 88697567732)

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Christian Gerhaher made one of the recent Mahler recordings that is truly indispensable, an exquisitely programmed selection of songs from the Wunderhorn settings and complete performances of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and the Rückert-Lieder, the latter set in a different order than one usually hears. Judging by the performances and the insightful liner essay Gerhaher wrote, the German baritone has lived inside these songs and mines them for every gorgeous detail of diction, melodic lines, and vocal color. Even though some of these songs were conceived originally in orchestral versions, Gerhaher's gifted collaborator, pianist Gerold Huber, brings these versions with piano accompaniment to vivid life. [Read complete review]

#4. Victoria, Lamentations of Jeremiah, Tallis Scholars (Gimell CDGIM 043)

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We have sung the praises of the recordings of the Tallis Scholars many times before, especially the ones from the golden age of their sound. Musical settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah are a recurring topic here this year, to which we now add Victoria's settings of these texts for the Triduum, published as part of his large collection of polyphony for Holy Week. It is not particularly ornate music, like much of what Victoria composed, in a largely homophonic style, with bits of polyphonic imitation here and there, both austere and colored by unusual dissonance. This is a beautifully sung recording, filled out with another setting of a Lamentations reading, by Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla. [Read complete review]

#5. Handel / Haydn, A. Hewitt (Hyperion CDA67736)

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Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt is one of my favorite performers when I want to hear Baroque music, and especially Bach, played immaculately on the modern piano (she prefers a Fazioli). She has done it again with this recent disc combining some keyboard selections of Handel with Haydn's F minor variations and the piano sonata Hob. XVI:52. We have no problem with hearing Handel played on the piano and, as with her other recordings of Baroque music, Hewitt creates a version that manages both to sound authentic and to be highly idiosyncratic, bearing her own stamp in terms of variation of tempo and attack. Her approach is not as scholarly as you might expect: in her liner essay she notes that the Bärenreiter edition records a different conclusion to the G major chaconne recorded here (HWV 435). Preferring the edition she learned in her youth, she chooses to play it instead, and well she should. [Read complete review]

#6. Chopin, Sonata No. 2 / Ballades / Preludes / Nouvelles Etudes, E. Stern (Naïve AM 197)

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So what would Chopin's piano pieces sound like on one of the pianos that he owned and played on every day? Well, the Musée de la Musique has the Pleyel piano that Chopin had for a couple years in his apartment in Paris, but it is only for looking, not for playing. Chopin met Camille Pleyel soon after his arrival in Paris, gave his first recital at the piano manufacturer's showroom (in a building now called the Hôtel Cromot de Bourg at 9, rue Cadet): the relationship is the subject of a new book, by Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger, that just came out in France. So Edna Stern plays the next best thing, an 1842 Pleyel grand piano thought to be as similar as possible to Chopin's piano, the very instrument on which he composed some of the pieces recorded here. The hammers of this instrument, found still covered in their original leather, have been restored, and the surprising thing about its mellow sound is how it can veer from a thunderous boom to a surprisingly transparent piano. [Read complete review]

#7. Franck, Les Djinns (inter alia), B. Chamayou, O. Latry, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, S. Denève (Naïve V 5208)

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Bertrand Chamayou's new disc is devoted to the music of César Franck, again not something one sees many pianists going out of their way to play. This is yet another recording whose inspiration is owed at least in part to the Centre de musique romantique française, whose research also led to recent discs of music by Onslow and Boëly. From the Palazzetto Bru Zane in Venice the Centre's Scientific Director, Alexandre Dratwicki, authored the authoritative and informative liner notes of this disc. Chamayou gives urbane and color-filled performances of all the pieces on the disc, some more familiar than others: as noted in the liner essay by the pianist, these are works that used to be much more a part of the performing repertory of the world's great pianists. [Read complete review]

#8. F. Martin, Golgotha, Cappella Amsterdam, Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, D. Reuss (Harmonia Mundi HMC 902056.57)

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The opening howl of Frank Martin's intense, but gloomy and somewhat moodily subdued oratorio Golgotha -- "Père! Père! Père!" (a passage taken from Confessions) -- seems filled with the uncertainty that there is any father there to take the call. Indeed, the pairing of excerpts from the four Gospel accounts of the Passion with meditations by that great unbeliever turned Doctor of the Church (Augustine, one of my favorite theologians) focuses the drama less on Christ's suffering than on the travails of the doubting believer. In one of the more moving juxtapositions that illustrate this point, the shouts of "Christ! Christ!" of the chorus in the seventh tableau, Jesus before the Sanhedrin, become the opening of an excerpt ("Christ! Christ!") from Augustine ("It is my guilt that causes all your suffering"). The climax of the work to my ears is the sixth tableau, which features the alto solo (here the warm voice of Marianne Beate Kielland) as a lost soul yearning to find God but unable to do so. Against a gently oscillating instrumental fabric, the quietly intense bassoon solo going high enough to trick the ears into thinking it is an English horn, a disembodied chorus intones verses from Psalm 120 (121), like help from above that goes largely unheeded. [Read complete review]

#9. The Cherry Tree: Songs, Carols, and Ballads for Christmas, Anonymous 4 (Harmonia Mundi HMU 807453)

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The program heard on this new CD from the esteemed vocal quartet Anonymous 4 received the coveted Ionarts Best Holiday Concert award for 2009. In fact, a snippet from my review of that live performance, at Dumbarton Oaks, for the Washington Post, is blurbed on the CD's back cover. The CD's title is drawn from a 15th-century English carol, in which the yet-to-be-born Jesus, inside Mary's womb, causes a cherry tree to bend down for his mother to pick its fruit, as a sign to her betrothed, Joseph. This song also provides the thematic thread that weaves together this selection of late medieval chant, 15th-century English polyphony, and Anglo-American folk song: although the Cherry Tree carol is found in Renaissance English sources, Marsha Genensky sings it in a version written down in Kentucky in the early 20th century (just a few steps in style from versions of the tune by Joan Baez or Peter, Paul, and Mary). [Read complete review]

#10. Haydn, 'London' Symphonies, Les Musiciens du Louvre • Grenoble, M. Minkowski (Naïve V 5176)

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Marc Minkowski's new 4-CD set of Haydn's twelve 'London' symphonies, recorded live at the Wiener Konzerthaus last summer, contain a number of unexpected sounds. Besides the infamous surprise of no. 94, there is a delightful, particularly flatulent low C in the bassoon, marked ff, in the Largo of no. 93 (at bar 80 in the Robbins Landon edition) -- given such eructative prominence in this performance perhaps because Minkowski got his start in the early music movement as a bassoonist. Minkowski goes with the spirit of variety, not remaining content with that sometimes precious HIP kind of sound, instead encouraging the trumpets, horns, and percussion to punch up the dynamic contrasts -- as in the opening of no. 104 -- and spice up the "Military" symphony. Timpanist Sylvain Bertrand even indulges in an extended improvisation on the two "drumrolls" of no. 103, and Minkowski has the contrabassi rattle away violently at the bottom of the page in some places. The result is a recording of effervescent vitality. [Read complete review]

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