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.
# 5 - New Release
Johann Strauss II & Bros., Polkas and Waltzes, Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Manfred Honeck (conductor), WS005
J.Strauss II & Bros., Polkas & Waltzes
M.Honeck / VSO
The fifth release of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra’s is also their first interesting new release, after two historic gems (Celibidache, Giulini) and twice Mahler with Fabio Luisi. In fact it’s more than interesting, it’s absolutely, positively delightful: Manfred Honeck performs an ostensibly light program of Strauss Polkas and Waltzes (mostly Johann, but also four by his brothers Eduard and Josef). The result is slightly more wistful, and sometimes more rustic than one might expect, and bird-whistles (as per the score) are liberally included. Manfred Honeck, forced to learn the dreadfully uncool zither when he was a teen, has a knack for the rhythms that allows him a never-facile ease that reminds of me Carlos Kleiber conducting Strauss.
# 5 – Reissue
Arnold Schoenberg, Complete Songs, C.Barainsky, M.Diener (sopranos), C.Mayer (contralto), M.Schäfer (tenor), K.Jarnot (baritone), U.Liska (piano), Capriccio 7120
A.Schoenberg, Complete Songs,
Who’s afraid of Arnold Schoenberg? Oh, just about everybody, then. Put his name on the bill and it’s a given that you sell fewer tickets, even if it is the most famous bunch of performers in an otherwise popular program. The Capriccio label tackles this inherent handicap ingeniously, for nothing says “Schoenberg” more (and more covertly), than an elusively gorgeous model on the cover: “Great beauty to be had…but the average mortal isn’t likely to get any (or much) of it.” That’s unfair, of course, but you might know what I mean. Schoenberg’s beauty is often only the source of labor, effort, and willingness on the listener’s part—but it sure can yield. Aside, only about half of Schoenberg is scary. And not at all scary are the posthumously released early songs, which are more like good, weirdly-late Schubert. Like the single digit opus numbers—the vast majority in this collection—it’s a smorgasbord of high romantic pleasure.
Among the exceptions: the delicate-brilliant baritone song cycle The Book of Hanging Gardens, which sits right at the point where the pantonal harmony (or re-definition thereof) starts… and which it does terrifically thanks to Konrad Jarnot at his (brief) best. This is fragile music, romantic yes, but only in a faint sense; and somewhat beyond the average listener’s easily accessible listening-comfort-zone. But gorgeously fragile! Theodor Adorno said that Hanging Gardens intends to seduce the listener to the cause of new music. Adorno is not the measure of the average classical music listener, but he was right on, in this case. The Cabaret Songs meanwhile come with hints of circus, banana-skirts, and Mime (from Wagner’s Siegfried). The pleasure taken from these is more a matter of taste than harmonic ideology, but it’s good to know about all the kinds of things Schoenberg was inclined to write, before one embraces him more fully (or rejects him selectively). A most welcome re-release for the inclined musical explorer.