Time for a review of classical CDs that were outstanding in 2014 (published in whole on Forbes.com). My lists for the previous years: 2013, 2012, 2011, (2011 – “Almost”), 2010, (2010 – “Almost”), 2009, (2009 – “Almost”), 2008, (2008 - "Almost") 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004.
# 8 - New Release
Nicola Porpora, Arias, Franco Fagioli (countertenor), Alessandro de Marchi (conductor), Academia Montis Regalis, Naïve 5369
F.Fagioli / A.de Marchi / Academia Montis Regalis
Countertenor Francoa Fagioli, whom I heard as a wonderful Andronico in the 2012 performance of Handel’s Tamerlano and whose outings on the Carus-label (Teseo, Canzone e Cantate) I have enjoyed well enough, has made a disc comprised of the best arias that Nicola Porpora (1686-1768) ever penned. I have a funny feeling it’s awfully good of him to spare us the other bits of this completely-unknown-except-perhaps-as-a-historic-voice-teacher-in-the-early-18th-century composer. On the other hand, the quality of the pieces he did opt for is astounding! At his best, this Neapolitan-style gallant-era composer seems to have written nothing but hard rocking, socking, and heart-string-pulling opera highlights that the Academia Montis Regalis under Alessandro de Marchi plays with unremitting zest. Then again, it could be Fagioli who elevates this music towards greatness. He is of a generation of counter-tenors (which also includes Philippe Jarrousky, David Hansen, Terry Wey, Xavier Sabata) whose sheer ability and complexity of timbre makes them transcend the early-music specialist niche. When my step-father, reasonably classical music loving but frankly on the unadventurous side, walked in on my listening to the Porpora arias I expected him to flinch. Instead he perked notably, inquired what I was listening to, commented on how beautiful it was, and lamented my unwillingness to part with the disc. Back in Salzburg I admired Fagioli’s wide timbered voice with a particularly good lower register but cautioned that looking at his grimacing made him a dramatic liability. He’s only added quality to his impressive voice since, and on CD you can’t see him anyway. That makes this disc an easy and simply gorgeous inclusion in this list.
# 8 – Reissue
Christoph Willibald Gluck, Orfeo ed Euridice, Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, René Jacobs (conductor), Harmonia Mundi 921742
C.W.Gluck, Orfeo ed Euridice,
R.Jacobs / Freiburg Baroque Orchestra
If I were to pick a favorite label of the year, I would be faced with the annual decision which label I could possibly choose, other than Harmonia Mundi. Their artists (René Jacobs, Philippe Herreweghe, Collegium Vocale, Isabelle Faust, Jean-Guihen Queyras, the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, to name just the first few that come to mind), their production quality, the results, the repertoire… everything strikes a chord with me and fewer labels’ releases excite me more even just on paper. Having such a catalogue full with favorites, their re-issuing rounds (also very thoughtfully done) are full of beloved modern classics… same this year as every year. Still, it’s easy settling on René Jacobs’ recording of Orfeo ed Euridice, Christoph Willibald Gluck’s opera that paved the way for the next level of achievement (namely Mozart’s) in the genre, much like Monteverdi did before him, and Wagner after.
Gluck is the beginning of equivalence of music and text in opera, and the beginning of intelligent operatic drama. But it’s still needs to be played well to sound it. When performed as homogenized proto-Mozart, it can be dreary, drab, and dull—as Ricardo Muti so excellently demonstrated in Salzburg at a painful 2010 performance that still rankles with me when I think of it. Under René Jacobs’ the opera sounds something like this: Funky and rocking and just terrific in every way. Robert Levine, the sane reviewer at “ClassicsToday”, remarked on the original release: “Neither stinting on overt theatrics nor pathos, René Jacobs has managed to remove Orfeo from its exquisite shelf, normally labeled ‘reform opera’, and present it as a drama never previously heard or discussed, and therefore without its baggage.” There’s little more to add other than that it’s now easily had again, at a bargain price.