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Best Recordings of 2007 / These Are a Few of My Favorite Things: I - Crossover

For 2007 I wrote something similar to the "Best Recordings" list for WETA's long-defunct blog, naming it: "These Are a Few of My Favorite Things", which ended up being divided into eleven parts:

II - Concerto

This is the first part, restored to ionarts:

For the last three years (2004, 2005, 2006 [and beyond, since]) I have invested much time and effort into coming up with elaborate “Best of the Year” lists. And even if such lists are not much more than highly subjective reflections of one’s personal likes and exposures, I had listened to such an exhaustive amount of new releases and re-releases that there was some justification for the underlying presumptuous claim inherent in (all) such “Best of” lists.

2007 was a little more hectic for me—and I know I missed out on a good amount of recordings that I might at least have wanted to sample in order to make any sort of semi-definitive judgment. So I will restrict myself to a list of CDs with a more humble, more realistic claim: Instead of the ten best new issues and re-issues I’ll simply point to a few artists and works that have brought a particularly wide smile to my face or particularly content listening-hours this year and perhaps in 2008 I will be back with the more ambitious account.

These ‘most liked’ recordings are organized in random categories I made up on the spot: Bach, Choral/Lied/Vocal, Concerto, Contemporary, Crossover, DVD, Keyboard, Opera, Obscure Composer/Work Rescued, Orchestral. (If you are shocked, surprised, or confused to see “crossover” amid these groups, be assured that I am not talking about the banalities and travesties à la Il Divo, “Bocelli and Friends” or the like, but simply music that crosses over from classical to another genre or vice versa.)

I start in equally random order with the least expected category:

“I - Crossover”

Uri Caine plays Mozart, Uri Caine Ensemble, Winter & Winter 910130

available at Amazon
Uri Caine plays Mozart,
Uri Caine Ensemble,
(Winter & Winter)

From the moment I heard Uri Caine’s Urlicht, an ethno-musicological exploration of Mahler that is full of spunk, avant-garde jazz, and heart-wrenching lyricism… a wild, but reverent and insightful, flimsy and dedicated declaration of love from the New York musician Caine to Mahler, I was hooked.

Caine is not out to make particularly pretty music, even though in Urlicht he achieves achingly beautiful moments with the simplest of means. Caine is special and dear to my heart because he makes music that is really like nothing you have heard before. Like the best of Tom Waits or Coldplay or Björk or Leonard Cohen, to name four completely different and unrelated artists, Caine is unique as a result of his creativity, not unique for its own sake.

Uniqueness by collage—like a Thomas Mann novel—which all lack of pretension but plenty of whimsy. Bach, Beethoven, Schumann, and Wagner have all gotten his (mis)treatment. Now it is Mozart’s turn. The first movement of Piano Sonata K545 in C-major starts out innocent enough under Caine’s hands. But just eight seconds into the music it derails and becomes an instant train-wreck. Except, no… it vividly seems to struggle against a jazz beat taking over. Caine is in constant conflict of finding a lovingly conventional jazzy groove in this work (that you’d never have expected to exist) and the actual sonata—unsuccessfully—trying to reclaim its primacy. The tension and instability caused in the cracks between these two musical ideas is unsettling and even unnerving. And yet, as I listen to this more often, it starts to attain that excellence of inevitability that ingenious musical ideas purvey.

Electric, ethnic, and avant-garde jazz influences imbue (others might unkindly say: rape) Mozart between those sections where the ensemble (piano, violin, clarinet, trumpet, electric guitar, turntables, double bass, drums) plays Mozart more or less straight. There are truly wild musical departures here that will strain many a listener’s benevolence or concept of what is a beautiful sound. And yet I think that all exploratory-minded ears will get to the end (were the third movement of the C-major sonata brings the Caine-Mozart experience full circle) and hit, both disturbed and intrigued, the play button again. And again.

re-issue: Jacques Loussier Trio Plays Bach—Encore!, Telarc 2CD 83671

available at Amazon
Jacques Loussier Plays Bach—Encore!,
Jacques Loussier Trio

There cannot be many classical music lovers who have not heard, or at least heard of, Jacques Loussier. Since he burst on the scene in the ‘50s with “Play Bach”, his brand of ruminating Bach-as-Jazz that the pianist Loussier, his bassist Pierre Michelot, and drummer Christian Garros brought to millions of titillated ears, he has successfully toured and recorded with this classical-jazz crossover from a time long before the word “crossover” even existed.

Indeed, Loussier’s work, whether solo, with his old trio, or his second trio with Vincent Charbonnier and André Arpinos (bass and drums, respectively), is of such consistent high quality that the phrase or category “crossover” doesn’t ever come to my mind. If I had to file his CDs in a record store, I’d file under Loussier in Jazz and in Classical under the respective composer he takes on. His sound is clearly that of Jazz and with his new trio it incorporates many more flavors and a rather more modern beat, too. But wherever the inspiration and basis of his playing is Bach, or Beethoven, or Chopin, or Debussy, or Handel, or Mozart, or Ravel, or Satie, or Vivaldi – and especially Bach! – it ought also be seen as a legitimate extension of classical music. (“Legitimate” is a rather silly word in this context – replace that with “enjoyable”, “wonderful”, or “capriciously fanciful”.)

I enjoyed his recent Chopin and equally so his latest Bach, where he took on the Brandenburg Concertos. And so the re-issue of his second trios’ early Bach recordings coupled with original compositions of Loussier is very welcome. In best hi-fi Telarc sound, the g-minor Fugue BWV 1056, the two concertos (for one and two harpsichords in f-minor and c-minor, BWV 1056 and BWV 1060), and the Partita in B-flat major BWV 825 sound fresh, invigoratingly accented, modern. Those already familiar with Loussier ought to give this a listen – those still skeptical about jazzifying Bach are better off with one of the early “Play Bach” releases.

Jacques Loussier’s own music may not be the primary reason for purchasing this 2-for-1 CD, but anyone who is intrigued how a classical concerto reminiscent of Jazz, Astor Piazzolla, Mark O’Connor, Mike Mower, Villa-Lobos, Fritz Kreisler, Porgy & Bess, tiny dashes of Mozart and Baroque, and a slew of other influences might sound like will listen with interest and be rewarded for it. 

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