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.
# 2 - New Release
Thomas Larcher, A Padmore Cycle, What Becomes, Poems, Tamara Stefanovich, Thomas Larcher (piano), Mark Padmore (tenor), Harmonia Mundi
T.Larcher, A Padmore Cycle, What Becomes, Poems,
T.Stefanovich, T.Larcher, M.Padmore
I knew Thomas Larcher [on Twitter] as a pianist, primarily from one of my very favorite piano recordings, the Three Piano pieces of both Schubert and Schoenberg (ECM [on Twitter]). Now, a little late to the party, I know him as a composer, too—with a release that has gripped and fascinated upon first listening as much as it does now, a good dozen times later. Thomas Larcher writes in the (excellent and funny) liner notes that he “had wanted for a long time to get away from the piano’s natural sound… Over time I associated this sound… with a sense of something… obsolete, at a dead-end.”
What doesn’t bode well—if you’ve ever heard a modern work in which a violin is stroked on the rim of a pasta pot (not that I have; I’m exaggerating for effect), you know what I mean about gratuitously using instruments against their intended ways—turns out most delightful. A well-prepared piano still works along the lines inherent to the nature of its sound-production (whereas amplified power-drilling into one of its legs might not be such an “inherent way”) and brings out its nature as the percussion instrument it is. So much about the whimsy and feisty two opening short pieces entitled Smart Dust, music that appeals like the most accessible of John Cage rubbing up to Gia Kancheli (if that is helpful).
After that, Larcher turns back to the conventional piano, the Poems and the Leif Ove Andsnes-inspired and Tamara Stefanovich-performed What Becomes. The opening of “Frida falls asleep” (Poems) has all the catchiness of a Van Halen riff and on a dime it turns into meditative mood that would befit Erik Satie. Both works prove to be lyrically seductive, contemplative, and occasionally ardent. These insinuated qualities are also plenty present in the real heart of the disc, the Padmore Cycle song-cycle (curiously commissioned by the Alois Lageder winery, not a concert venue or performer), as are neat dissonances and strewn-in shards of anguish. Tenor Mark Padmore throws himself into ‘his’ cycle with his typical abandon and artistry; tasteful even in the extremes and by sheer conviction always staying well clear of the naff. The result is modern, yes, but not abrasive but instead wholly absorbing in a way that is easier to feel than to understand.
# 2 – Reissue
Leoš Janáček, Erwin Schulhoff, String Quartets, Talich Quartet, La Dolce Volta 256
L.Janáček, E.Schulhoff, String Quartets,
La Dolce Volta
In “Surprised by Beauty” [updated second Edition to be published this year], Robert R. Reilly praises “both of Janáček’s two string quartets [as] masterpieces. They evoke, in Janáček’s words, ‘exaltation, passionate declarations of love, anxiety, indomitable yearnings’. They are among the most nakedly emotional works ever written.” Fortunately for the listener, there has not been a dearth of good recordings of these quartets. The music is so good, it rarely get less than the best from the performers that tackle it. Still there are emotional favorites and performances of such vitality and perfection that they knock your socks off. The Talich Quartet’s performances (also one of Reilly’s recommendations), in generous acoustic, are among them.
They are finally back in print, since the La Dolce Volta label tenderly and lovingly takes care of the catalog of the Calliope label. Their re-issues are more lovingly made than the originals ever were. Still, what makes this so special—even among the many La Dolce Volta re-issues of the Talich Quartet catalog this year—is the inclusion (as on the original release) of First String Quartet of Erwin Schulhoff which elicited this praise at its 1924 premiere: “I defy anyone… to match the tempestuous pace of the first movement, its natural musicality, its clarity, and its homophony” (Erich Steinhard). That still applies in every way—Schulhoff’s works for string quartet are masterpieces on par with the best of the 20th century and the Talich Quartet’s rendition of the First String Quartet is still the finest around. Regardless which (Schulhoff or Janáček) you’d consider the bonus to the other, this is a most attractive disc.