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Best Recordings of 2010 - "Almost List"

2008 and 2009 saw “Almost Lists”—selecting a few (10) new recordings I just couldn't not include in the general “Best of” posting spirit but which didn’t make the cut for the 'official list' of the ten best new releases. Even though we’re already into 2011 (a most persistent cold had reigned my productivity in, in the last few weeks) I confine these recordings to such a list again. Cheating? Yes, but in the name of good music. (Listed alphabetically by composer.)

For technical reasons the recordings and reviews are after the 'jump'. (If you've come to this page via direct link, you will see everything as is, already.)

available at AmazonJ.S.Bach, Christmas Oratorio, Chailly / Leipzig Gewandhaus, Decca

J.S. Bach, Christmas Oratorio, Riccardo Chailly / Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra et al., Decca

With “the supreme Carolyn Sampson (Angel, indeed!) among [the singers] as primus inter pares”, this is a smashing success not just for its individual instances or moments of gory but the overall impression. It has probably just become the Christmas Oratorio I’ll now reach for, before any other. Review on ionarts here: Dip Your Ears No. 105

available at AmazonJ.S.Bach, Orchestral Suites,
Concerto Köln
Berlin Classics

J.S. Bach, Orchestral Suites, Concerto Köln, Berlin Classics

Another gorgeous Bach disc, this time from HIP-masters Concerto Köln: There is a wonderfully relaxed, flexible buoyancy to the Orchestral Suites as it is played here. The players really bring out the dancing character of thee works and while I am unwilling—even just for myself— to rank the different recordings of these works I have, this yields way too much joy not to be included here. Review on Classical WETA here: Bach is for Dancing II

available at AmazonJ.Brahms, "Piano Concerto No.3",
Lazić / Spano / ASO

J. Brahms, Piano Concerto No.3, Dejan Lazić / Atlanta SO / Robert Spano, Channel Classics SACD

Perversion or inspiration? The pianist Dejan Lazić, based in Amsterdam as of this year, took the Brahms Violin Concerto and transcribed, played, and recorded it as a piano concerto. How dare he. Who would do such a thing, turn a violin concerto into a piano concerto?! Apart from Bach, that is. Or Beethoven. Well, faux outrage aside, Brahms didn’t, of course… but even that shouldn’t be seen as an ominous sign of caution but rather the exception to the rule… Brahms was constantly transcribing his own (and others’) works into various different forms. If anything, I’m half surprised that no version of the Violin Concerto can be found among his oodles of transcriptions for four hands or two pianos. His Piano Concertos, String Quartets, and Symphonies certainly are. It’s a gutsy undertaking that won’t be up everyone’s alley. Even Beethoven’s own piano version of his Violin Concerto isn’t really embraced; sharp tongues might say the best thing about it is the cadenza—when reapplied to the Violin Concerto.

But it is fun, of course, to hear such a familiar favorite in a guise that sounds so similar-yet-different. And even though Lazić doesn’t go all-out romantic on us, transcribing with brazen romantic spirit à la Liszt, he provides many moments where we can get lost in this new form and enjoy a known-unknown piano concerto. In adopting the work for his instrument, Lazić plays around the melodic line, more timidly than bold, adds harmonies, and doubles the orchestra in the left hand… but sticks faithfully to the original. Whether that’s ultimately a good thing or not is hard to say and probably immaterial because ultimately Lazić didn’t transcribe this for what any given listener’s ideal way of a transcribed Brahms concerto might be, but out of sheer selfishness: He wanted to get his performer-hands on this gorgeous concerto that happened to be written for—from a pianist’s perspective—the ‘wrong’ instrument. That in mind, it doesn’t surprise that he wanted to stick as close to the original as possible, rather than make it a high-romantic pianistic circus act. Perhaps someone else will come up with the circus act; meanwhile I’ll greatly enjoy this pervers performance—helped by a very fine Atlanta Symphony Orchestra under Robert Spano and especially by Channel Classics’ reference quality sound. (Two sensitive-luscious Rhapsodies from op.79 and the e-flat minor Scherzo op.4 are thrown in for good measure.)

available at AmazonW.Braunfels / A.Busch, String Quintet & Sextet,
ARC Ensemble

Walter Braunfels & Adolf Busch, String Quintet & Sextet, ARC Ensemble, RCA

This is a no-brainer inclusion that just didn’t make the other Top Ten: Walter Braunfels’ String Quintet coupled with the Adolf Busch String Sextet on RCA. Ahead of the performance of Pro Musica Hebraïca I wrote about it for WETA here; and in the Summer of 2010 more about the composer (Braunfels) here. I parphrase Robert R. Reilly who wrote about the work (and same recording) in his column at InsideCatholic: The Braunfels’ Quintet is a work steeped in melancholy and cuts to the heart with Schubertian poignancy. The fourth movement, though, slips into a Janáčekian dance that lifts the spirits and dispels all gloom.

available at AmazonA.Bruckner, Symphony No.6,
Norrington / SWR RSO Stuttgart

Anton Bruckner, Symphony No.6, Roger Norrington / SWR RSO Stuttgart, Hänssler

There is more new Bruckner coming out than I can shake a stick at, and a lot of it is excellent. Two recordings stood out in 2010—for very different reasons. Not quite enough to make the “Best of” list, but more than enough to deserve their spots on this list. One is Roger Norrington’s way with Sixth Symphony. When Norrington was in DC with the NSO and performed Bruckner’s Fourth, the title of my review was: “Bruckner Like You’ve Never Heard Before”. The unwritten subtitle was: “…and how you’d never want to hear it again.” It was a bad performance and Norrington’s shtick of having symphony orchestras perform without vibrato backfired completely. His Stuttgart players, however, know what they are doing… and their sharp attacks, crisp tempi, and lean textures work much better in Bruckner’s Sixth than I would have guessed—especially since my favorite recording is the polar opposite: Celibdiache’s with the Munich Philharmonic followed closely by Haitink/Dresden (see review on WETA). Idiosyncrasies aside, they do work up a storm and make the music sound feisty where it should, and gleam along where it may. An excellent alternative reading to have on hand.

available at AmazonA.Bruckner, Symphony No.8,
Thielemann / Dresden Staatskapelle

Anton Bruckner, Symphony No.8, Christian Thielemann / Dresden Staatskapelle, PROFIL Hänssler SACD

This is Bruckner rather done in a different manner than Norrington. Christian Thielemann celebrates the many moments in Bruckner; enters a musical world where sound, more than anything (and certainly more than the finishing line) is paramount. This (one-off) live recording of the Eighth Symphony (Ed. R.Haas) was made in September 2009 at the Dresden Semperoper and was, as Thielemann has called it, his “courtship concert” with the orchestra which he will take over next season after getting the ignominious boot from the MPhil. It brings together the best Bruckner ingredients that can be found in Germany; the Dresden orchestra (sure to fully recover its luminous tone) and the sound-fetishist Thielemann with a special touch in Bruckner. (See his Fifth on DG, for example. Review on ionarts.)

Given that, the expectations are naturally extraordinarily high and almost as naturally disappointed: for its many excellent qualities, this isn’t—even if it were possible—the definitive Eighth, merely an excellent one. A natural sense for tempos makes every flowing movement feel ideal, though, and every climax is carved out with supreme care. ‘Perfection’ might be—among other things—an even keener sense for the long line (especially in the finale), but even shy of perfection this is such an impressive Bruckner document that it ranks very high in the crowded field of excellent 8th Symphonies. A minor quibble: I almost wish this was a regular CD, not an SACD, because then the total 82 minutes and 57 seconds could have been squeezed onto one disc.

available at AmazonL.Couperin, Six Suites,

Louis Couperin, Six Suites, Christophe Rousset, Aparté

Christophe Rousset now records for a new label, Aparté—a little article about which will be up on WETA on January 30th. The first solo recording of Rousset’s on that label is most promising indeed; Couperin Suites played on the 1658 Louis Denis harpsichord, one of oldest surviving French harpsichords. If you are into very early baroque music, composed well over a hundred years prior to Bach, this will be a treat for your ears. Listen, for example, to the sweetly sour tones and dissonances when L.Couperin-via-Rousset delectably pushes and bends the harmonies in ways our Equal-Temperament-environment doesn’t usually yield anymore.

The L.Couperin “Suites” were not composed—or at least not preserved—as read-to-play Suits but rather handed down as a lot of single movements. There is evidence, though, that they were meant to form Suites, readily incorporating bits from other composers. Rousset, rather than going the completist’s way of recording every surviving L.Couperin movement, put together the movements he thinks are the best, and in a way that he finds most sensibly combines as an entertaining, none-too-long Suite: a most entertaining solution.

available at AmazonG.F.Handel, Concerti Grossi op.6,
Beznosiuk/ Avison Ensemble

Georg Frideric Handel, 12 Concerti Grossi op.6, Avison Ensemble, Linn SACD

This is the Avison Ensemble’s first recording for the Scottish label (and HiFi equipment maker) Linn after a few outings on “Divine Art” and Naxos. Under their director Pavlo Beznosiuk they bring us a three-disc set of Handel’s Twelve Concerti Grossi op.6. Along with the Water Music and the Music for the Royal Fireworks, this is Handel’s most ingratiating and engrossing music—especially if you don’t need the human voice in your baroque music.

What helps this project is that here isn’t a world of competition. Sure, there are Hogwood (Avie, ex-Decca), Manze (Harmonia Mundi), Orpheus (DG), Harnoncourt (Warner), Gester (BIS), Pinnock (Archiv), Il Giardino Armonico (L’Oiseau Lyre) et al., but even if this includes a few of the big names in baroque music, many of them are fairly old recordings, hide inside bigger Handel-boxes, are out of print, or spottily available. Unless I’ve missed something, Linn’s audiophile production is only the second recording (along with BIS’) that offers Super Audio sound (for those who care and have the setup). This isn’t to suggest that Beznosiuk & Co. win a recommendation by default. They do so, because it’s the best sounding recording of these works I’ve heard, and the interpretation that best manages a ferociously energetic spirit without obviously trying to break any new wildness records.

To mix metaphors: this drives the music to the edge, never over the top. The ensemble (13 string players and Roger Hamilton on harpsichord/organ) plays with spot-on intonation. You won’t find a trace of the stiffness that afflicted English early music ensembles in their early days, nor pseudo-Italian flair that has occasionally replaced the sewing-machine baroque style of the (fortunately) long bygone “I Musici” years. What you will find, however, is one concerto after another with sensuous rhythmic inflection—with so much unexaggerated variety between the pieces that they yield nothing in entertainment to, say, the Brandenburg Concertos. Especially if you have playback equipment capable of high fidelity*, this is a Handel-must.

* Was it raining heavyly during those 2008 Newcastle Upon Tyne recording sessions, or do I hear—ever so faintly—a running faucet in the background at one point?

available at AmazonG.Mahler, Symphony No.9,
Norrington / SWR RSO Stuttgart

Gustav Mahler, Symphony No.9, Roger Norrington / SWR RSO Stuttgart, Hänssler

I’m already listening to the next excellent Mahler 9ths (Nott / Bamberg / Tudor SACD and Jukka-Pekka Saraste / WDRSO / Profil), but in 2010 Norrington’s Ninth was one of the outstanding records. Perhaps a bit of a surprise, given that Norrington really likes to push his non-vibrato agenda on anything with five lines through it… But then there lies music beyond the ideology even for Norrington, and his Stuttgart Radio band—which he is leaving this season to make place for successor Stéphane Denève—really knows how to pull along. They give Norrington what he asks for with commitment and the consummate skill of playing modern instruments without consta-vibrato. Historically accurate or not, the results are most pleasing in this case... which is to say: pleasing to me, whereas other listeners are, as so often, polarized by Norrington. Reviewed for WETA here: Mahler Today

available at AmazonA.F. Titz, String Quartets,
Hoffmeister Quartet

Anton Ferdinand Titz, String Quartets (volume 3), Hoffmeister Quartet, Profil

After spending years and years on intimate terms with classical music, it wasn’t until early in the past year that I discovered Titz. [See WETA review here: Chamber Music You Didn’t Know You Love (7)] Profil’s third volume of the String Quartets of this Petersburg-residing contemporary of Haydn is almost as good as the stupendous second volume that was my vessel of discovery. Or perhaps it’s just as good, but the extraordinary surprise has given way to high expectations? Whichever it is, it’s fantastic stuff and merits hearing if you are into the genre of classical string quartets.

1 comment:

Vincent Wang said...

Enjoyed this post, just to add a bit,

"total 82 minutes and 57 seconds could have been squeezed onto one disc"

In fact, CD can only hold at most 82 min 30 sec. For SACD, it could be from around 80 min (both stereo and surround) to a few times more if only stereo SACD layer is required