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Best Recordings of 2008

Putting together these end-of-year lists isn't as easy as it might seem. In order to give any sort of credibility to the (possibly daft but alluring) "Best of" tag, the amount of CDs to be listened to is enormous. And as late December creeps up, the fear to have missed something essential strikes home. The most difficult thing is to listen to all the records still wrapped that had been put off until now. It's like cramming for finals.

While no recording stood out for me as much as some had in years past, by the time I had assembled ten new releases, I could easily think of 20 new releases alone worthy of inclusion. (Which is where the "Almost List" came in handy.) Now that I have thought of 20, I can think of still more that would have deserved mention. I might have to get to those in separate posts. Here are those that passed final, last-minute scrutiny.

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V.D’Indy, Orchestral Works, v.1,
R.Gamba / Iceland SO

# 1 - New Release

D’Indy, Orchestral Works, volume 1, Rumon Gamba, Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Chandos 10464

I know I’ve come across – and dismissed – the music of César Franck-student Vincent D’Indy (1851-1931) before. I faintly remember an old EMI disc with a symphony and I seem to recall a Marco Polo disc with a selection of chamber works. I remember that - and being unmoved. But my ears have been opened now, by a new Chandos release that makes me re-evaluate d’Indy at once and thoroughly. Instead of being in my mind an also-ran of French music of the turn of the last century somewhere well behind Ravel and Debussy, I find him catapulted to the forefront of French symphonic writing, all courtesy of Rumon Gamba’s recording of three tone poems with the marvelously performing Iceland Symphony Orchestra. This is “Volume one” – I very eagerly anticipate forthcoming releases.

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J.S.Bach, Motets,
S.Kuijken / La Petite Bande,
Accent 10087

# 1 - Reissue

J.S.Bach, Motets, Sigiswald Kuijken, La Petite Bande, Accent Plus – ACC 10087

Two years ago Sigiswald Kuijken recorded the motets for Challenge Classics – in accordance with the latest in One-Voice-per-part (“OVPP”) Bach-dogmatism. I’ve not heard it yet, but after hearing his re-issued earlier recording (on the mid-price Accent Plus) I wonder what he could have improved on. Even next to as splendid a new recording of the Bach motets as Peter Dijkstra’s with the Netherlands Chamber Choir (Channel Classics), which would have made it onto this list, had it not been for this Kuijken-re-release from 1992, said reissue shines! For many listeners, the standard recording for Bach’s Motets (usually six, although “Lobet den Herren” is more than doubtful and not included on the latest Kuijken disc) might still be Eric Ericson’s (EMI), but it doesn’t stand comparison well at all. Lacking verve and esprit, the motets, except for a fairly explosive “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied”, sound deflated; Ericson’s famed choir is slightly off on more than one occasion. Compare to that Kuijken who leads La Petite Bande and his soloists (Greta de Reyghere, Katelijne van Laethem, Martin van der Zeijst, Sytse Buwalda, Hans Hermann Jansen, and Johannes-Christoph Happel) in readings of palpable joy, freshness, with just enough, yet generous, orchestral support that, crucially, never plays itself into the foreground. It has just slightly more of an edge than the incredibly mellifluous Dijkstra (who employs minimal basso continuo accompaniment on a recording of demonstration-class sound), which makes the whole affair more involving to these ears.

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I.Stravinsky, Firebird Suite, Le Sacre du Printemps,
Mariss Jansons / RCO
RCO live

# 2 - New Release

I.Stravinsky, Firebird Suite, Le Sacre du Printemps, Mariss Jansons, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, RCO live 08002 (SACD)

Gramophone Magazine wanted to list the 20 best orchestras in one of its last issues – a daft and highly entertaining venture. What they ended up doing, inadvertently, was crowning Mariss Jansons the luckiest conductor alive. Even without a list to tell us so, I’ve been happy to point out that he did in fact have the best deal in (orchestral) conducting: He heads the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam (voted No.1), one of the supreme “Old European” orchestras that has, more than most other bands, preserved its distinct voice even at the highest levels of playing – and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (voted No.6), one of the most skilled and flexible orchestral bodies in the world. Negligible travel time between the two cities sweetens the deal for a conductor who increasingly suffered from the effects of jet lag.

When Jansons took over the RCO in 2004, it coincided with them issuing their own audiophile record label. As I have pointed out in the “Almost Best of 2008” list, I had looked forward to every release with immense anticipation and excitement – and all too often found that if the conductor didn’t suffer from jet lag anymore, at least the performances did. They were – are all-round excellent, as far as the playing is concerned, but at their best they lacked that last kick to make them special, at their worst they were dull run-throughs that happened to sound pretty good.

A little bit of that last kick – or in this case: bite – might be lacking from Janson’s second Stravinsky recording with the RCO, too, but the combination of sensational, superlative playing and fantastic sonics overrides all possible other concerns on this disc with the Firebird Suite and Le Sacre du Printemps. In particular the Firebird here is stunningly rich and colorful, with plenty ‘oomph’ and the softness of its hues contributing greatly. Le Sacre can be had with sharper rhythms and tarter climaxes, but once Jansons gets the score rolling, it develops an unstoppable force here, too. In any case, the all-around gorgeousness of this release overrides any and all such quibbles. If you want to hear why the RCO is so highly thought of, and can’t make it to Amsterdam any time soon, this (and the Mahler Fourth) should give you all the answers you need.

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O.Messiaen, The Complete Works

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O.Messiaen, The Works for Orchestra
S.Cambreling / South-West RSO Baden-Baden / Freiburg
Hänssler 93225

# 2 - Reissue

O. Messiaen, Complete Edition, various artists, DG 001226902

Big boxes have traditionally fared well in this list (Scarlatti 2005, Messiaen 2006), and 2008 – with the several, various anniversaries Vaughan-Williams, Messiaen, Carter, Britten (95), and Haydn’s coming up – was particularly rich in them. Deutsche Grammophon’s Messiaen cube includes 32 CDs, which contains the entire official output of the composer that Messiaen himself sanctioned as worthy of publication. It starts with the 8 Preludes for piano (1929) and ends with the Concert à quatre (1992). It includes the only recording of his (rather difficult and very long) opera: Saint Francois d’Assise (Nagano, Upshaw, van Dam, Hallé Orchestra, full notes and text included!), which makes it unique and surpass the only other comparable collection, Warner’s 18-CD set re-issued in 2006. Other highlights are the complete organ works with Olivier Latry on the organ of Notre-Dame (as good as it gets, as far as I am concerned), Myung-Whun Chung’s recordings of the Turangalîla Symphony (1948), Des canyons aux étoiles (1974), and Eclairs sur l”Au-Delà (1991), Pierre Boulez’ Cleveland recordings of Chronochromie (1960), Et exspecto… (1964), Poèmes pour Mi (1937, also included in the piano version), Réveil des oiseaux (1953), and Sept Haïkaï (1962), the Concert á quatre played by five dedicatees (Holliger, Loriod, Rostropovich, Cantin, Chung), Yvonne Loriod & Olivier Messiaen playing Visions de l’Amen, and Thème & variations (1932) with Argerich and Kremer.

Roger Muraro plays the piano works (Yvonne Loriod plays them for Warner, I also cherish Håkon Austbø on Naxos), the quartet for the end of time with Barenboim and Desurmont (not the newer recording with Chung, Gil Shaham, Jian Wang and Paul Meyer). Hardened Messiaen-fans might already have a good number of these recordings, and for anyone but hardened Messiaen-fans, this might be excessive. (There are some strange pieces included, after all – the chicken chorus-like a capella Cinq Rechants, or the surprisingly enchanting “Fête des belles eaux” for ondes Martenot Sextet!) But for the price (a hefty $255 on, but just €77! on individual discs, this ought to be attractive even to those wishing to get to know the music of the most important French composer of the 20th century.

For those who – understandably – find the effective, ecstatic orchestral works a sufficient introduction, the 8-CD (nine hour) Hänssler Box set might be more interesting: Sylvain Cambreling and the South-West Radio Symphony Orchestra extract the greatest variety of subtle colors out of this music; create a diaphanous rainbow of sound; are capable of colorful acoustic stasis. On average he manages to be even more interesting, and certainly more catholic, than Chung or Nagano. The included liner notes (French, English, German) are exemplary, the works very conveniently arranged chronologically, starting with Les Offrandes oubliées from 1930 and moving up by way of L’Ascension (’34), Poèmes pour Mi and Turangalîla (’48), Réveil des oiseaux (’53), Oiseaux exotiques (’56 – both with Roger Muraro), Chronochromie (’60), Et exspecto… (’64), La Transfiguration… (’69), Des Canyons aux étoiles (’74), La Ville d’En-Haut (’87) and Un Sourire (’89) to, finally, Éclais sur l’Au-Delà, Messiaen’s last large work.

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G.Mahler, Symphony No.4,
B.Haitink / C.Schäfer / RCO
RCO live

# 3 - New Release

G.Mahler, Symphony No.4, Bernard Haitink, Christine Schäfer, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, RCO live 07003 (SACD)

There was no shortage of Mahler recordings in 2008, either: From Gergiev and his LSO we got Symphonies One, Three, Six, and Seven (mostly disappointing, so far), early in the year Boulez finished his cycle on DG with the Eight (good but decisively not “triumphant”), Rattle recorded a new Ninth (first rate but overrated, us usual), the ongoing Zinman cycle continued with Symphonies Four and Five (a fine Fourth following an excellent Third), a beautiful Fourth with Sinopoli from Dresden surfaced (Profil), Gianandrea Noseda and Danny Harding both put the Tenth (Cooke III versions, reviews forthcoming), Haitink played the Sixth with the Chicago Symphony, issued on the CSO Resound label.

But only one Mahler recording issued in 2008 truly stands out among the lot – and that’s the Concertgebouw’s performance of the Fourth Symphony with Bernard Haitink conducting and Christine Schäfer taking the soprano part. A Fourth Symphony can easily be undone by an inappropriate soprano (Gielen/Whittlesey, Abbado/Fleming), but it can’t be ‘made’ by a great singer. Well, maybe Schäfer could actually, because her soprano is simply perfect for “Das himmlische Leben”. Clarity and beauty of tone are a given with her, but the innocence, the angelic ring that she believably exudes is exactly what the symphony (and Mahler) asks for. In theory a treble might be better, still, but put into practice it simply doesn’t work.

Fortunately Schäfer doesn’t have to rescue anything here, she’s simply the crowning glory of what is a superb performance, already. Haitink is generally short on cutting and acerbic tones in Mahler, and long on beauty. So here. The Fourth Symphony benefits from beauty and suffers not from the absence of tortuous and biting sounds, as for example the Sixth would. Generous, rich, and yet transparent, there is plenty of that beauty to go around here. The RCO plays with near-perfection (this is a true live recording, not patched from several performances), its usual gorgeousness and grandeur of sound, which is caught perfectly by the recording engineers. This sumptuous performance has now replaced my long-held top choice for the Fourth, which had been Inbal’s recording with Helen Donath (Denon/Brilliant).

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R.Wagner, The Bayreuth Operas,
various artists,

# 3 - Reissue

R.Wagner, Bayreuth Operas, various artists, Decca 001123902

Almost every year and to my great delight, a ring cycle is re-released. Janowski in 2004, Barenboim in 2005, Keilberth in 2006. This year it was Haitink (EMI) – but more importantly Karl Böhm’s recording has been re-issued (again) as part of Decca’s “Wagner from Bayreuth” box, which is an unbelievable bargain of some of the finest Wagner recordings there are. Sawallisch’s Lohengrin with Jess Thomas, Anja Silja, Ramon Vinay and most importantly: Astrid Varnay as Ortrud is a dream, his Tannhäuser (Silja, Bumbry, Windgassen) and Dutchman (Silja, Crass, Greindl) nearly as good, Böhm’s Ring (as mentioned) possibly unsurpassed, his Tristan with Windgassen and Nilsson a rightful classic. Silvio Varviso’s Meistersinger is so-so, but James Levine’s 1985 Parsifal – unavailable for years – would be worth the box alone: Even more elegiac than his 1991 studio recording for DG, with Waltraud Meier as Kundry (instead of Jessey Norman) and Peter Hofmann (instead of Plácido Domingo) and yet overcoming its lengths with a chamber-music feel. 33 CDs with almost all the Wagner you need or at least with Wagner you’ll want to have.

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Langgaard, Symphony No.1,
Dausgaard / DNSO

# 4 - New Release

R.Langgaard, Symphony No.1, Thomas Dausgaard, Danish National Symphony Orchestra, DACAPO 6.220525 (SACD)

I would have included Mikhail Pletnev’s set of Beethoven Piano Concertos here, a wonderfully played, mildly wilful, at times spunky but also genial account that could offend thin-lipped purists but delight most everyone else. (Review here.) Except it still doesn’t seem to have been issued in North America. No matter, there’s a CD of a composer dear to my heart whose achievements have remained largely unsung so far… except that the Danish record company DACAPO is joining the chorus of vocal supporters of Rued Langgaard (1893-1952). It was the second volume of the Dacapo recordings of Langgaard’s Violin Sonatas that turned me on to this marvelous, lovably strange, utterly romantic, occasionally acerbic, short-lived 20th century composer. Since then, I’ve tracked down most Langgaard releases – especially his symphonic œvre. Alas, not until Dacapo started recording the symphonies with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra under Thomas Dausgaard (on hybrid SACDs, no less), were there truly credible, excellent versions of these works available - the laudable and fine efforts of Ilya Stupel (and the “Artur Rubinstein State Philharmonic Orchestra”) or various Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra performances (Danacord) notwithstanding. I reviewed Symphonies 12 through 14 earlier last year (“There is Something Wonderful in the State of Denmark”) and the latest release with Symphony No.1 is in some ways even more impressive.

That’s in most part due to the work itself. Although written when Langgaard was still a teenager (1908-1911, premiered by an enlarged Berlin Philharmonic off 100+ musicians on April 10th 1913), it betrays a master craftsman and – most importantly – a master melodist. Langgaard, who went on to found a music society to “counterbalance the horrors of modern music”, never adjusted to (much less adapted) the dissonant and dodecaphonic style of his contemporary composers. Consequently he was shunned by critics after 1918.

Langgaard is not ashamed of the occasional Tchaikovskean melodic phrase (four minutes into the first movement, check for yourself if you resist the urge to figure skate to that music), Wagnerian bombast, and it’s all put to perfect, sumptuous use in this five movement symphony. Although programmatic music (the symphony depicts a hike from the rocky shores of a mountain to its pinnacle, the movements are named “Surf and Glimpses of the Sun”, “Mountain Flowers”, “Legend”, “Mountain Ascent”, and finally: “Courage”), it works perfectly well as absolute music. It’s a bold, audacious, uninhibited, unabashedly pleasant symphony – perhaps like early, very frivolous Mahler – minus the Angst and the chromatic twists. Or might it be described as de-kitsched Rachmaninov? Whatever the case, it’s a glorious sixty minutes played exceedingly well and captured in glorious sound. Urgently recommended to anyone who likes romantic orchestral music, whether Tchaikovsky or Sibelius, Bruckner or Respighi.

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Karajan Symphony Edition,
H.v.K. / BPh,

# 4 - Reissue

Karajan Symphony Edition, Berlin Philharmonic, DG 001211702

Yet another big box: This time for Karajan’s 100th birthday a re-issue of all his important symphonic cycles for Deutsche Grammophon. You may have other favorites for each composer, but Karajan’s survey of Beethoven (75-77) is absolutely terrific, his smooth Mendelssohn my favorite, despite strong competition, his Brahms unarguably among the best, his Bruckner not the last word (in part marred by their digital sound) but among the most interesting cycles, anyway. His Tchaikovsky (thankfully the analogue 70s recordings) is terrific and widely regarded so. Admittedly his glossy Schumann is more a matter of personal preference and certainly his Haydn and Mozart (only the late symphonies with Mozart, the “Paris” and “London” symphonies for Haydn) have no claim to being ‘library versions’. I understand why they didn’t include one-off symphonic masterstrokes like Shostakovich’s 10th, Mahler’s 9th, or the 1968 Prokofiev
5th. But why didn’t they throw in the Sibelius recordings. (At 38 discs, three more would hardly have made the difference.) But it’s a deal as it is – even for those (like me) who generally look at Karajan’s achievements with a healthy modicum of criticism.

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Haydn, The Creation, McCreesh, Archiv 4777361

#5 (New Release) – Haydn, The Creation (engl.), McCreesh, WPh – Archiv 4777167

In a discussion among musicologists and musicians on whether harpsichord continuo in all of Symphony 98 was appropriate, necessary, or neither, I believe it was Armin Raab, head of the des Cologne Haydn Institute, who mused whether “Historically Informed Performers” weren’t just interested in reducing everything to the minimum necessary to play the music. And how he’d never see them, for example, follow Haydn’s instructions for “The Creation” to double the winds and horns for any venue bigger than the Schwarzenberg Palace (like the Burgtheater), and redouble them again for any yet bigger venue. Haydn with eight horns? Hardly.

Enter Paul McCreesh, among the first One-voice-per-part Bach performers to have married Joshua Rifkin’s preaching of the skinny-Bach gospel with high-quality music making. He doesn’t use eight horns, but he uses a (relatively for typical modern Haydn) huge orchestra, doubling (tripling?) winds and adding a large choir in alleged accordance with the official premiere at the Burgtheater. The Gabrieli Consort & Players thus beefed up to over 100 musicians and singers each, they deliver a magnificent, broad, sweeping, punchy, and fresh performance that is drunk on its own grand sound and the glorious music Haydn wrote. The continuo playing is done on a fortepiano – whose mellow sound, compared to a harpsichord, blends nicely with the orchestra (a fact I also much appreciate in René Jacobs’ Le Nozze di Figaro, for example.)

The whole thing is performed in English, one of the ‘official’ languages of this work, but with the recitatives reworked by McCreesh & Co. to better fit the English text. William Christie’s “Schöpfung” on Virgin, released just before McCreesh’s, might have been a worthy recommendation had I heard no other “Creation” this year. But next to McCreesh it is reduced to a quick whimper. And Roger Norrington’s “Schöpfung” just released on Profil 07074 (but made in 1990) packs as much a punch as the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (and the very excellent RIAS Chamber Choir) can, but it’s a bit muffled and, compared to McCreesh again, a tempest in a teapot. Aside, with Sandrine Piau (!), Mark Padmore, Neal Davies, Peter Harvey, and Miah Persson, he has the superior vocal team to any Creation since Harnoncourt (2002, DHM) and Bernstein (1986, DG), who feature excellent casts, too.

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Sibelius, Symphonies 5 & 7, Davis, Pentatone 5186 177

#5 (Reissue) – Sibelius, Symphonies 5 & 7, En Saga, Colin Davis, BSO – PentaTone PTC 5186 177

Colin Davis’ Sibelius is probably overrated, but his Philips cycle with the Boston Symphony Orchestra least so. In fact, there is greatness among those recordings and it’s most evident in the Fifth and Sevenths Symphonies. These are terrifically well played, sweeping performances in great sound that has only got better with PentaTone’s reissuing them on a hybrid SACD. (Which also allows to hear them in their original “Quadro Recording” state that never took off when Philips experimented with it in the 70’s and 80’s.) But even in stereo this is first rate stuff, and with half-decent speakers at your disposal, you will feel like the timpanist is in your living room, sitting atop the stereo. Along with Blomstedt (Decca, 5th) and Segerstam (Ondine, 5th and 7th), this is one of the great performances that also offers great sonics. Better still, PentaTone throws in En Saga and the performance (hitherto not available on CD in the US) and sound are equally good here. If you don’t already have the two Philips Duos that constitute Davis’ first Sibelius cycle (the Fifth on volume 1, the Seventh on volume 2), or wish to benefit from the SACD sound – stereo or surround – this hopefully hopefully first in four, five BSO/Davis Sibelius re-issues is most highly recommended.

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Mozart, Piano Concertos 12 & 24, Pollini, DG 4777167

#6 (New Release) – Mozart, Piano Concertos No.12 & 24, Maurizio Pollini, WPh – DG 4777167 (B001099402)

Getting further up in this list means an increasing certainty that I won’t be able to include other recordings that suddenly seem worthy of inclusion, too. I’ve already created an “Almost Best of 2008” list, and still I can think of recordings that could easily be in this spot as well. Isn’t Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s third volume (in part as a stand-in for the equally excellent previous two releases) a marvel? (Chandos 10467) Or how about the invigorating performance of the Brahms Horn Trio and First Violin Sonata by Isabelle Faust, Alexander Melnikov, and natural horn player Teunis van der Zwart? (Harmonia Mundi 901981) Anyone who likes Bartók ought to listen to Ahmed Adnan Saygun’s Piano Concertos Nos.1 & 2 – perhaps the best of a series of Saygun releases this year. (cpo 77 289-2) Bach-lovers should be steered toward the one-voice-per-part, “one liturgical year” cantata cycle that Sigiswald Kuijken is recording on hybrid SACDs and to which I am warming more and more. (Accent 25307) And the first volume of Carl Nielsen’s String Quartets with the Young Danish String Quartet was on my 2007 list, and volume two is wonderful, too. (Dacapo 6.220522)

Alas, an old acquaintance makes the cut: Maurizio Pollini appears again after doing so with Beethoven in 2004 and a Schumann re-release in 2005. This year it’s not for his Beethoven op.2 or his Chopin recital, nor even the re-issue of the excellent Piano Concerto set with Claudio Abbado, but for his Mozart Piano Concertos. Only last year did Pollini return to these works after not releasing an official recording of Mozart since 1976. This is the second of the recent (live) Mozart recordings which are with Pollini conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. Understated, sunny, and genial – that’s why this (as well as the preceding) recording is such a delight. The early A-major concerto K.414, among the first that Mozart wrote to introduce himself in Vienna, is a gentle delight – sophisticated in its simplicity and receiving precisely that kind of a treatment. No-nonsense, arguably understated, in pianistic perfection – in the big c-minor concerto these attributes remind me of Keith Jarrett’s Mozart playing, but with ‘warmer’ results not the least thanks to the accompaniment from the Philharmonic’s radiant strings and sonorous, perfect winds.

Pollini plays Mozart’s candezas for K414 (and the second available cadenza for the second movement). For K491 no cadenza by Mozart has been found, which is why Saint-Saëns wrote one, as did Fauré, J.N.Hummel, Humperdinck, Carl Reinecke, J.B.Cramer, Reynaldo Hahn, Brahms, Smetana, and Busoni. Many pianists use their own – like Vladimir Ashkenazy, Alfred Brendel, Rudolf Buchbinder, Géza Anda and Paul Badura-Skoda. George Szell wrote one, too, which Clifford Curzon uses in this concerto. Pollini uses Sicilian contemporary composer Salvatore Sciarrino’s – which are, unlike the Kalevi Aho cadenzas for the flute concertos, not in any way modern but Mozartean, predictable, harmless, lovely, even unnoticeable and not particularly spontaneous. That’s not a bad thing at all, because this disc isn’t going to be purchased for “Sciarrino cadenzas” but for Mozart – and the cadenzas are never in Mozart’s way. There are other lovely recordings of K414 or 491, of course (Goode, Curzon), but when a record like this is in the CD player, comparison becomes pointless; enjoyment paramount.

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Prokofiev, Complete Symphonies, Järvi, CHAN 10500(4)

#6 (Reissue) – Prokofiev, Complete Symphonies – Chandos CHAN 10500(4)

Prokofiev’s seven Symphonies can be tough nuts to crack – at least numbers 2 to 6. That must be the reason why there are relatively few complete cycles of them available; eight, by my count: Walter Weller was the third with the LPO and LSO (1974-78, Decca), behind the iron curtain Zdenèk Kosler recorded them with the Czech Philharmonic (1976-82, Supraphon). In 1985 Chandos issued Neeme Järvi’s set with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra which became an instant hit. A little later Rostropovich followed (French National Orchestra, 1985-87, Erato), then came Ozawa (Berlin Philharmonic, 89-92, DG), then Theodore Kuchar (Ukrainian National Symphony Orchestra, 1994/95, Naxos), and finally Valery Gergiev with the only live recordings of the bunch (LSO, 2004, Philips). Rozhdestvensky (Melodiya), Martinon (Vox), and Kitajenko (Melodiya) seem to have fallen by the wayside. Kitajenko has put down a new cycle (Gürzenich Orchestra Cologne, Phoenix Edition) which, if it is as good as his Shostakovich cycle (Capriccio), will be a hot item.

The recent Gergiev cycle was much hailed of course; as a whole, I found it curiously unsatisfactory. Something didn’t seem right, even if the grittier approach, compared to Ozawa, certainly benefited Symphonies Three or Six, which are very fine with the brooding, sloppy Russian maestro. The sound is good, but not great and too dry, the playing very good, but not outstanding. Almost all the symphonies have great moments, but none an unbroken arch. The Seventh lacks pensive beauty. So far I preferred Kuchar’s Naxos cycle (I’ve not heard Rostropovich’s or Kosler’s) if it had to be a complete cycle at all. But now Chandos has reissued its Järvi cycle in a slim, inexpensive box and the performances simply knock your socks off. The recorded sound is great, the Scottish National Orchestra plays like a world class band, and the symphonies don’t just have bite (or that pensive beauty as in the case of the marvelous, charming, sweeping Järvi Seventh), they are coherent and unified structures. Like Gergiev, Järvi includes the 1930 original version of the Fourth Symphony (concise, restrained) as well as the 1947 revised version (epic, sprawling-impressive), and both get first rate performances. Making due without resorting to exaggeration, Järvi gives the spiky works a beauty I’d never heard or even expected. At the same time, he doesn’t let a brutal work like the Third fall victim to harmlessness. There’s still blood on the floor when Järvi is finished with it, just not as much (and fewer crushed bones) than when Muti (Philips) goes through it. All in all, this is not only a set to complete your Prokofiev collection, it’s also the one to start it (if you haven’t yet).

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Bruckner, Symphony No.7, Karl Böhm, Audite 95.494
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Bruckner, Symphony No.7, Haitink, CSOR 901 704

#7 (New Release) – Bruckner, Symphony No.7, Karl Böhm, BRSO – Audite 95.494

Never have I received two such excellent performances of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony in one year. Both are live and both are with conductors known for their Bruckner but not known to be “Bruckner conductors” (in the way, say, Wand, Celibidache, or Jochum were.) There is Bernard Haitink’s recording taken from four performances of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in May of 2007 and issued on their own label, CSO Resound. And then there’s a new live recording of Karl Böhm with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra from thirty years before – recorded on April 5th 1977 in the Herkulessaal. Audite has issued the Bavarian Radio tape of it and since it has never been available before, it doesn’t count as a re-issue.

Both conductors bring a gentility to the work that exudes moving tenderness: elaborate, reticent and glowing at once in Haitink’s recording, slightly tighter in the outer movements with Böhm. Both include the cymbal crash. Haitink’s CSO plays Bruckner better than I’ve ever heard that orchestra do (better even than Barenboim’s better efforts) and Böhm’s Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra outperforms the Vienna Philharmonic in all but Böhm’s own VPO studio recording of the same work from 1976 (DG), which is also excellent albeit ‘on a tighter leash’. The CSO appeals with playing that’s anywhere from luminous to luxurious to blazing and ever precise, while the BRSO reveals the music’s structure beyond the notes, playing more lively and with great understanding of Bruckner’s symphonic build up - without resorting to epic swooning and booming. I hate to chose between the two, especially since both offer first class sound. Haitink, also available as an SACD hybrid, a notch better (as you’d expect), but not by much. In the end I’ll have to go with Böhm, whose sparse Bruckner discography contains only the Fourth (on Decca – a reference recording, also), the Seventh (trice), and the Eighth (also trice) of which this recording the finest Seventh. Yes, technically both of these discs were released in late 2007, but they got around to me so late that they need to be included here.

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Brahms, Complete Chamber Music, HyperionCDS44331/42

#7 (Reissue) – Brahms, Complete Chamber Works – Hyperion CDS44331/42

This box of the complete Brahms chamber works is a treasure to behold – compiled of releases the worst of which are good, most of which are superb, and a good few of which are reference material. I’ve discussed it in great length in October (part 1, 2, and 3) and I repeat my conclusion: exceptionally well engineered recordings that offer a continuity of great sound, extraordinary production value, and a dozen performances that are my favorite versions make the Hyperion set my pick among the four complete such sets (two of which are currently unavailable, anyway).

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Ravel, Debussy, Fauré, String Quartets, Quatuor Èbéne, Virgin 519045-2

#8 – (New Release) – Ravel, Debussy, Fauré, String Quartets, Quatuor Èbéne – Virgin Classics 519045-2

The Quatuor Èbéne have left moved, enthralled, excited audiences behind them, wherever they have appeared. They have turned impartial critics into groupies and conservative audiences into Jazz-fans, and along the way they’ve convinced the EMI / Virgin record company to give them contract. I loved the luxurious releases on the Mirare label (and wish Virgin would lavish similar attention on the presentation of the Èbéne’s releases), but moving from a boutique label to one of the big players is certainly a move that can only help bring the quartet to yet more audiences. A good thing, too, because their first release is a hit that deserves Billboard status, not notable obscurity cherished by insiders. Ruthlessly and unabashedly pandering to their strengths, they are chose the gems from their repertoire: the Debussy and Ravel quartets, appropriately rounded off with Fauré’s Quartet, the then 78 year old composer’s last work.

This choice of Fauré is ideal. It distinguishes them from their in-house rivals’ – the Belcea Quartet’s – debut album on EMI which throws in Dutilleux (as does the Juilliard Quartet), it offers the most intense, but never fussy or too extroverted, reading of this somewhat neglected work. The Èbéne’s, who have been joyfully reckless and exciting in the recent live performances I’ve heard them in, show that they are as capable of very taut, detailed, extraordinarily defined and controlled playing, much to Fauré’s benefit. Debussy and Ravel, with overtones of warmth and spunk, respectively, are wilder affairs, unafraid of exploring extremes. It’s the most exciting recording of either I’ve heard, and one of the most beautiful, too. I’m not giving away my Quartetto Italiano (Philips) recording any time soon, but Virgin’s ambience-rich all-French version might just be the best disc of these works issued in the forty-plus years since.

Virgin’s little “Making of” video on YouTube is worth watching.

available at Amazon
Sibelius, Works for Orchestra & Voice, BIS 1906

#8– (Reissue) – Sibelius, Works for Orchestra and Voice, BIS 1906

Yet another box: This time volume 3 in BIS’ grand Sibelius Edition. Once finished, it will be a monument to the spectacular achievement of the founder of BIS, Robert von Bahr. Meanwhile, the six-CD set with works for voice and orchestra (technically released in late December of 2007, but that can’t keep me from including it here) is the most interesting of the six volumes issued so far and a collection of music that isn’t available so conveniently elsewhere. Osmo Vänskä’s recording of Kullervo, that imposing choral symphony, is among the best – outdone only by Leif Segerstam’s brand new recording on Ondine. Väinö’s Song, Snöfrid, and The Wood Nymph are all little known gems, and a few completely unknown works (“Maiden in the Tower”, “Rapid-Shooter’s Brides”, “Song of the Earth” and ) worthy discoveries, always interesting. This, together with the Tone-Poems and the upcoming Symphony-box, is a cornerstone of this Sibelius Edition and indeed a cornerstone of anyone’s own Sibelius collection.

available at Amazon
Pfitzner, "Eichendorff Cantata", Metzmacher, Phoenix Edition 145

#9 – (New Release) – Pfitzner, “Von Deutscher Seele” (“Eichendorff Cantata”), Radio Choir Berlin, German Symphony Orchestra Berlin (RIAS), Ingo Metzmacher – Phoenix Edition 145

This is the first recording of the genial yet neglected Hans Pfitzner “Eichendorff Cantata” since Martin Sieghart’s (Arte Nova) in 1999, only the sixth ever made of this hour and a half-plus oratorio, and only the third made in the last 50 years. The neglect has political reasons, not musical ones, because Pfitzner’s high-romantic blend of Schumann and Wagner (the results occasionally reminiscent of Humperdinck, Schoeck, Schreker, and Schmidt) is here, as in his magnum opus, the opera “Palestrina”, as good as it gets. Unfortunately this friend of Bruno Walter’s was a rabid (though inconsistent) anti-Semite, and, in Thomas Mann’s words, an “anti-democratic nationalist”. Stubborn, naïve and ignorant, he uttered unambiguously racist phrases, was apologetic of Hitler, and blamed everyone but Germany for World War II. Yet he went to great lengths to help and save “good Jews” (as he thought of them) like director Otto Ehrhardt, Felix Wolfes (a student of his), or his friend Paul Crossmann for whom he went all the way to Reinhard Heydrich to save. In vain, in that case, Crossmann died in Theresienstadt. He didn’t make friends with the Nazis, despite agreeing with much of their philosophy, either: Hitler derisively spoke of him as a “Jewish rabbi” and Pfitzner was ignored, if not shunned, by the officialdom of the Third Reich. Perhaps Bruno Walter put it best, writing to his publisher after Pfitzner’s death: “Have we not found in [Pfitzner’s] personality the strangest mix of true greatness and intolerance that has ever made the life of a musician of such a rank so problematic?”

In any case, the obnoxious political undertones of Pfitzner have made his music less played than it should be on account of its musical merit (if we can listen to the murderer Gesualdo, can we listen to Pfitzner?). When the Munich Philharmonic chamber music series programmed the excellent Pfitzner Nonet (the Jewish community center might not have been a good venue of choice, admittedly), the concert had to be canceled due to pressure from the Central Council of Jews in Germany. When Ingo Metzmacher, a stalwart supporter of music suppressed by the Third Reich, performed the cantata in October of 2007 (from which this recording was taken), the Council protested again, claiming that in doing so, Metzmacher strengthened right-wing and nationalist activities. (Apparently more skinheads listen to Pfitzner than I thought possible.) Yet there is not an objectionable line or thought in this cantata (which in German has the additionally unfortunate title “Of the German Soul”), written in 1921 and premiered in ’22. Part one deals with “Man and Nature”, part two with “Living and Singing”, and Solveig Kringelborn (soprano), Nathalie Stutzmann (mezzo), Christopher Ventris (tenor) and Robert Holl (bass) do this as well and better (Stutzmann) than their predecessors from half a century ago. Phoenix Edition has superior sound to all previous releases, the finest mezzo along with Jochum (Christa Ludwig), a more engaged orchestra than all but Jochum (Orfeo, BRSO), and no intrusive audience noises. It’s great that ArkivMusic has made available again the (stodgy but star-studded) Keilberth recording with the BRSO, Fritz Wunderlich, Hertha Töpper, Agnes Giebel, and Otto Wiener, but unless price is an overriding argument (in which case Arte Nova wins out), this is the Eichendorff Cantata recording of choice.

available at Amazon
Bach, Complete Organ Works, Weinberger, cpo 777363-2

#9 – (Reissue) – Bach, Complete Organ Works, Gerhard Weinberger – cpo 777363-2

For some reason, I’ve not come across (or particularly noted) many re-issues that weren’t extravagant box sets. So here’s the first of a few, in this case the complete organ works of Bach. Gerhard Weinberger has been recording this canon since 1997, and he finished earlier this year with a (world premiere) recording of the recently rediscovered Chorale Fantasia BWV 1128 and Die Kunst der Fuge. This is the most complete set of Bach’s organ works yet, including more Bach (and works once thought to be by Bach) than my Wolfgang Stockmeier set on Art & Music. I wasn’t very fond of the last two releases: on volume 20 the Carl Christian Hofmann Organ (St.Marien Mecterstädt, 1770) is tuned in a way that cannot please my ears and Die Kunst der Fuge I have heard more to my liking, elsewhere. But hearing the 19 preceding volumes, only some of which I had already owned, I was delighted throughout.

Weinberger doesn’t aim for bombast (near-impossible, on the historic instruments from Saxony and Thuringia, anyway), and he is not the most impressive in some of the ‘biggest hits’ works. (Karl Richter’s 3 CD set is still a mandatory addition to any Bach organ collection, no matter who the interpreter). But apart from minor quibbles, it is a magnificent complete set.

available at Amazon
Vasks, "Pater noster" et al., Klave, Ondine 1106-2

10 (New Release) – Vasks, “Pater Noster” et al., Latvian Radio Choir, Sinfonietta Riga, Sigvards Kļava – Ondine ODE 1106-2

The Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks was asked by his father, a minister, why he didn’t write a setting of “The Lord’s Prayer” to ‘simple’, singable music. A charming anecdote that brings the trials of a contemporary composer to life for the listener, but with the sad twist that Vasks could bring himself to the task only after his father died. Vasks relates so much in the liner notes to his most recent recording for Ondine which brings together the Pater Noster (1991) with Dona nobis pacem (1996) and his Missa (2000/2005). The result is one of the most moving modern choral works I have heard, very much in the same league with Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna.

available at Amazon
Haydn, Complete String Quartets, Kodály Quartet, Naxos 8502400

#10 (Reissue) – Haydn, Complete String Quartets, Kodály Quartet – Naxos 8502400

2009 is the 200th anniversary of Haydn’s death and Naxos is already bringing out the big guns for its Haydn celebration: Complete sets of the symphonies, concertos, piano sonatas, and string quartets are to be had in very well constructed, well made boxes. The symphonies have too much competition with Adam Fischer’s set (available on Brilliant and in smaller units on Nimbus), the concertos are not that interesting, and although I very much like Jenő Jandó’s recording of the piano sonatas (terribly underrated, these works), it is the string quartet box with the Kodály Quartet’s recordings that is the crown jewel of this Haydn-set bonanza. It’s the only available such set that is actually complete (opp.3, 51, 103 are all included) and it is consistently well played. The Kodálys don’t match the Quatuor Mosaique in character, soul, or wit, wherever there is overlap; the latter are a better choice for those who wish to pluck the plumpest raisins out of Haydn’s raisin-filled catalog of string quartets. But the survey of all of Haydn’s string quartets is something very special to listen to, and this is the way to go about it, if the idea tickles you.


Anonymous said...

Greatly enjoying the countdown, Jens-- thanks for your wonderful commentary. I bought a bunch of the CDs recommended so far.

Random stuff:

1) What's the best Resurrection Symphony for someone new to Mahler?

2) I finally got around to buying a bunch of Martin Stadtfeld's CDS: his Goldberg, Bach Klavier concertos and Well-tempered. I'm curious why you called his Goldbergs "wacky" at one point-- if anything they are far too conventional, for my taste. The klavier concertos are brisk but don't seem to say anything or have an overall vision.. His Well-tempered sounds pretty but likewise forgettable. All those things said, he's an artist I'll continue to follow because he's young, talented, and clearly ambitious. We'll see where that ambition takes him.

3) Is it just me, or are both Stadtfeld's Well-Tempered and that Tharaud Bach CD you and Ionarts loved so much CRIPPLED by bad recording? I don't know if it's an audio engineering artifact or the microphones picking up the piano pedals or what, but in almost every single instance of silence between notes on these recordings I hear a very noticeable, very loud, muffled... SOMETHING sound. Did you guys notice this??

Keep up the great work,

jfl said...

Hi Erik -

On Tharaud's Bach? No, I suppose I don't. And I've listened to that disc so often, on so many different setups, that I should think I would have noticed it. Certainly if it were "crippled". I don't have Stadtfeld's WTC.

As per Stadtfeld's Goldbergs: The switching of voices and the changing of octaves were, for one, the reason why I called it 'wacky'. Not that I have a problem with that in principle (even though it comes close to mimicking a harpsichord without actually playing on one), but he seems to do it so much more gratuitously than, say, Feltsman. Did you really find them "straight forward"?

His concertos - listening to them as I write - aren't particularly notable one way or the other, I'll grant.

Mahler 2nd:

As an intro - and factoring in price - I'd probably recommend Zubin Mehta's recording.

Mehta Mahler

My personal first choice is - currently, at any rate - Pierre Boulez:
Boulez 2nd

...but the searing Ozawa/Saito Kinen, the grand yet taut Michael Gielen, or the round & tender Ivan Fischer are very good first choices, too.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the Mahler recs--

I have no idea why I'm hearing this strange audio artifact throughout the Tharaud Bach. I purchased it as a download off Amazon, so maybe it was a bad rip job on their end... Whatever.

Re: the Stadtfeld Goldbergs, I guess I was hoping that based on the octave switching in the snippet I saw on Youtube that he'd apply considerable experimentation throughout the entire work. I want wackier!

My issue with all Goldbergs is that Gould's 1981 towers so high in my mind that for any other recording to warrant a place on my shelf (not to say a listen or two), it had better damn well do something *substantially* different. And Stadtfeld's, like Perahia's and a number of others I've heard, is just not different enough. They're outclassed by Gould at every turn and their unique qualities aren't unique enough. The funny thing is that the more Goldbergs I hear, the more I admire Dinnerstein's, a disc I initially kind of dismissed. Technically speaking, she is nowhere near the level of a Perahia (or even Stadtfeld, from what I've heard), but her Goldberg is something indisputably new and unique. A lot like Zinman's Beethoven, obviously not as Capital G Great as Karajan's or take your pick, but fresh and different and a wholly new approach to the piece. And I don't think Stadtfeld or Perahia bring terribly new approaches to the Goldbergs-- just minor variations.

All that said, Stadtfeld is still a musician I greatly admire. He's a technical powerhouse, and although he still keeps his piano stool set inches from the ground, he seems to have moved past his youthful imitation of Gould. In his WTC, he's really following his own path. I'd love to see him live.

Just started watching David Fray: Swing, Sing, Think, the French Stadtfeld :) Worth a watch.

Have you ever posted a run-down of your audio set-up at home? Please do, if you get the chance. Rather than wasting my life on audio forums (which I've already done a fair but of!), it would be great to have a classical critic I admire simply say, "These (speakers, headphones, etc) are what I use."



Anonymous said...

I too appreciate your listing, since it clues me in to all the stuff I don't know about in the ordinary course of things.

I would place a dissent on your opinion of Gergiev. I've never heard a First I liked until I heard his (to the point that I began to suspect the fault was with Mahler and not any of the performers), and his Third I think to be the best of the five I have (vs. Mehta/Thomas/Zander/Zinman)--although I can understand why others might consider his celerity a flaw (I think Thomas' audience would be just starting to applaud about the time Gergiev's audience was looking for their car in the parking garage). The Sixth and Seventh are, however, lesser efforts, but I like them well enough.

And--although trombone players may vent their wrath at me--I happen to like Kaplan's recording of the Second with the VPO. It may not be the best, but it gets me "there" everytime I play it. Of course, that's probably due as much or more to the members of the VPO as anything else, but I'd suggest it as a good benchmark to judges the rest by.

And, btw, my current favorite recording of the Goldbergs is Haimovitz and Co. playing Sitkovetsky's arrangement--if only because, with three instruments, the musical lines stand out in a way they may not on a single keyboard.

jfl said...

I'll certainly give Gergiev a few more spins and to see if I can get as much out of them as you do. Perhaps I had been too deflated from the disappointment of his Sixths, which I thought HE, if anyone, could do in the gritty, grueling way I want to hear it in again.

The two recordings of Kaplan are pretty good, actually. I like the earlier one better, though, because despite the flaws, it seems more passionate... not so routine.

A string-trio Goldberg Variation was already on my 2007 list... it is a beautiful arrangement, isn't it?!

Anonymous said...

Re: Vincent D'Indy: what we reaaly need are recordings of his operas, Fervaal and L'étranger. The old Radio France recordings are massively cut to begin with and also hard to find.

How about Placido Domingo as Fervaal? I can dream, no? - and to make the dream even sweeter I will also recruit Jose van Dam for the recording...

Anonymous said...

"In the end I’ll have to go with Böhm, whose sparse Bruckner discography contains only the Fourth (on Decca – a reference recording, also), the Seventh (trice), and the Eighth (also trice) of which this recording the finest Seventh."

Don't forget Bohm's recording of the Bruckner 3rd, also on Decca.