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Best Recordings of 2011 (#1 - 10)

Time for a review of classical CDs that were outstanding in 2011. My lists for the previous years: 2010, 2009, (2009 – “Almost”), 2008, (2008 - "Almost") 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004.

# 1 - New Release

W.A. Mozart, Piano Sonatas, Kristian Bezuidenhout, Harmonia Mundi 907498

available at AmazonW.A.Mozart, Piano Sonatas v.2,
Harmonia Mundi

For the longest time (well, a couple years, at least) my favorite Mozart Sonata CD on the fortepiano had been Kristian Bezuidenhout's disc on Fleur de Son. Well, move over Bezuidenhout and make room for... Bezuidenhout. Volume 2 of his survey of Mozart's music for solo keyboard on Harmonia Mundi is played on a Paul McNulty instrument, a copy of a Anton Walter & Sohn fortepiano from around 1802. (McNulty also supplies the incandescent Ronald Brautigam, arguably the king of the fortepiano if Bezuidenhout is its “prince” [The Times, UK].) The disc is choc-full of favorites (The sonata K.330, the Rondo K.511, the Adagio K.540...) and each one of them is played with freshness and a vividness that delights from the first note to the last. The playing and the quality of the instrument are such that we get all the intended benefits from the fortepiano (note separation, quicker decay, greater nimbleness, the more heterogeneous sound) with virtually none the downsides of the often clangy, twangy sound of the badly restored, dried-up fortepianos of yesteryear. Total joy!

# 1 – Reissue

A. Bruckner, Symphonies 3 - 9, Te Deum, Sergiu Celibidache, Munich Philharmonic, EMI 85578

available at AmazonA.Bruckner, Symphonies 3-9, Te Deum,
Celibidache, Munich Philharmonic

Celibidache’s work is least controversial in Bruckner, where that mysterious touch yielded lots of magic. Even if some performances don’t come across as well on record than they must have in the concert hall (specifically the Eighth), there’s so much greatness on this near-complete set (3 - 9 + Te Deum) that it has been one of the most sought after when it was hard to get… and should be the natural complimentary set to more mainstream cycles like Eugen Jochum’s or Günter Wand’s. The Third, Fifth, and Sixth are each my favorite interpretations of those symphonies – with his incredible slow-glow, he turns the often underrated Third and Sixth into highlights of the Bruckner canon, and the Fifth—despite a similar, very fine Thielemann interpretation with the same orchestra. (“Slow Food for the Ears”)—is non-pareil anyway. Finally they’re easily available again!

# 2 - New Release

J.S. Bach, Original Works & Transcriptions, Evgeni Koroliov, Duo Koroliov, Tacet 192

available at AmazonJ.S.Bach, Original Works & Transcriptions,
E.Koroliov, Duo Koroliov
Tacet 192

Transcriptions in general—and of Bach’s works or by Bach in particular—are a favorite topic of mine, and I collect recordings that suit that topic in a special box. The pile is ever growing; Marimba versions of the Cello Suites and Goldberg variations variously for harp, accordion, or various saxophone conglomerations abound. My favorite release of 2009—the Goldberg Variations in the Rheinberger-Reger arrangement—belonged to the category as well and this year’s Bach-transcription choice with Evgeni Koroliov and his wife continues very neatly in that line: Adaptations and arrangements for piano duo (and solo piano) by romantic composers (Liszt, Prelude & Fugue in A minor BWV 543), by Bach via-performer (the “Organ Mass” a.k.a. Clavierübung III, which are arrangements of chorales for organ performed on the piano), by the performer (Passacaglia for two pianos), and most delightfully of them all: various organ pieces by György Kurtág for two pianos on the audiophile Tacet label.

Taking Bach’s work from the organ to the modern grand piano is perhaps the most ‘natural’ among all the transcriptive steps, despite the fact that they’re based on two as-different-as-can-be ways of producing sound. With all the differences from one organ to another, and considering the piano’s ability to create a great variety of tonal colors (further increased when two pianos are aat work), the piano is really an organ by other means. If the organ is the king of instruments (although I’ve always thought of it, for all its pipes, as more or a resplendent queen or something gender-unspecific), the grand piano is the prince (and workhorse).

Leaving the ‘what’, ‘why’, and ‘how’ of transcribing and transcriptions aside for the time being, this disc is an absolute marvel. The work of the creative agents isn’t in this case the equal of their lowest common denominator (which would still be lofty, given the musicians involved), but achieves something as wonderful as—and just-slightly, wonderfully different than—the Bach original.

The Passacaglia, so dear to my heart, is oft transcribed and very happily so for two pianos, a version where I feel it can achieve its greatness almost more easily than in an average organ performance. Instigated by Busoni (who never made his own transcription of it), Bösendorfer even designed its Imperial Grand Piano to accommodate Bach’s writing for the grand organ sound of the Passacaglia. Koroliov’s idiomatic transcription is one of several two-piano arrangements (most famous of them probably Max Reger’s). Whether it is Koroliov and Ljupka Hadžigeorgieva’s playing or the transcription (or both) that makes the textures sound occasionally leaner than I am used to from the Reger versions is hard to tell; easy to tell is the propulsive-compelling excellence of the performance, though. Ditto the Liszt and Clavierübung III. Koroliov’s Ricercar a 6 from “The Musical Offering” (a transcription-favorite of mine in Webern’s brilliant orchestrated version) is a superb lead-in for the six Kurtág transcriptions that are such things of beauty that they bring metaphorical, sometimes literal, tears to my eyes.

Bach-Kurtág, Sonatina from "Gottes Zeit" BWV 106 (excerpt), Duo Koroliov, Tacet 192

The two and a half minutes of the Sonatina from the Actus Tragicus alone are invaluable, just for the beauty of the piece itself. But if you listen closer, also for how Kurtág teases out the interplay of the voices that, in the original, are made up of two recorders, violas, and da gambas. Elsewhere he emulates overtones by doubling the melody a twelfth above in pppp. Everywhere he exudes musical intelligence and humble passion for the great master’s music.

(Tacet does need better distribution in the US, though, and doesn't like working with German Amazon. The best deal can usually be had on

# 2 – Reissue

W.A. Mozart, The String Quartets, Quatuor Talich, La Dolce Volta 100

available at AmazonW.A.Mozart, Complete String Quartets,
Talich Quartet
La Dolce Volta

The Talich Quartet is one of my favorite string quartets on record and their sets of Mozart’s String Quintets and Mendelssohn’s String Quartets on Calliope atop my personal list in that repertoire. What makes them special is a relaxed musicality with just a hint of old fashioned comfort and genial musicality make up for sound that isn’t the equal of the best modern recordings, and for playing with something less than laser-like precision. Their Mozart String Quartet set includes the whole 'canonic' set of 23 Quartets, starting with K.73f "Lodi", making its way through the "Milan", "Vienna", "Haydn", and "Prussian" Quartets (+ “Hoffmeister” somewhere in there)... but not the early Divertimenti for string quartet – and it’s not far behind the String Quintets in quality Anyone with a hankering for old-world deliciousness will find the set tremendously rewarding… now that it is easily available again, thanks to a new re-issuing label called “La Dolce Volta”

# 3 - New Release

M. Weinberg, "Die Passagierin", Teodor Currentzis, Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Michelle Breedt et al., Neos Blu-ray & DVD

available at Amazon
M.Weinberg, The Passenger ♀,
T.Currentzis / VSO / Breedt,
NEOS Blu-ray

I had tickets to Weinberg’s “The Passenger” (♀) in Bregenz, but something or other got in the way and I had to cancel. What a missed opportunity. It’s almost hard to say whether the recording of the production (NEOS) alleviates the regret, or heightens it – because everything: the work, the production (directed by David Pountney), the performance, and the transfer onto DVD/BluRay is terrific.

It is one of the happy developments of the last few years that Mieczysław Weinberg doesn’t even need an introduction anymore. When I first came across him in “Surprised by Beauty” (expanded second edition in the making) and when filing him at Tower Records (RIP), we still had about six different spellings of his name to make cross references for. Now that’s settled and Weinberg is enjoying a much deserved boom to which releases on Chandos, Toccata Classics, cpo, and Naxos (who are planning a symphony cycle with Antoni Wit) have enriched the catalog tremendously. ArkivMusic now lists over 60 CDs on which at least some Weinberg is found. (Compare that to poor Walter Braunfels who is still stuck at eight.)

Shostakovich, the most obvious reference in matters musical to Weinberg, said of this Holocaust-themed opera from 1967/68: “I simply cannot stop enthusing about Weinberg’s The Passenger. I’ve heard it three times now, studied the score, and every time I understand more of the beauty and greatness of this music. It is a work of consummate form and style and its subject extremely relevant. …Weinberg’s own life and fate have de facto dictated him the work; the drama of the opera’s music is harrowing… there isn’t a single ‘empty’ or indifferent note in it. …I’m glad for every opportunity to help this opera which I love and believe in.”

In 1960 two passengers recognize each other on an ocean liner to Brazil: Lisa – who was a guard at Auschwitz, now the wife of a West German diplomat – and Martha, who was under a polish inmate under Lisa’s direct jurisdiction. Flashbacks and Lisa’s attempts (with her husband) to deal with her past and the impossible moral schism that results from it lead the viewer through eight scenes and an epilog in two acts. Librettist Alexander Medvedev’s invention of Tadeusz, the musician-fiancé of Lisa, who fatally plays Bach’s Chaconne (which strikingly moves and morphs from soloist to orchestra to chorus) instead of the concentration camp commandant’s favorite waltz, introduces music ‘naturally’ into the opera.

Beyond brimstone, drama and harrowing bits, there are moments of radiant Britten-esque beauty and calm in the multi-lingual (German-English-Polish) Passenger; climaxes that could be found in Prokofiev, and admittedly brittle stretches. The Prague Philharmonic Choir and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under Teodor Currentzis are worth singling out; ditto Michelle Breedt, who sings the part of Lisa. (Interview with her about that character here.) Production values are great throughout, except for the Chia-Pet-like shorn-hair ‘wigs’ that make the inmates look like cartoon hedgehogs in the close-ups… one of the snags of the superb picture quality of the BluRay. It comes with an exemplary booklet that includes a synopsis, Shostakovich’s text in full, and the libretto in four languages (English, German, French, and Polish). The DVD is out in Europe, and when the distributor Qualiton gets its act together, also in the US, soon.

# 3 – Reissue

G. Mahler, Symphony No.8, Kent Nagano, DSO Berlin, Sophie Koch, Sally Matthews et al, Harmonia Mundi 501858

available at AmazonG.Mahler, Symphony No.8,
K.Nagano / DSO Berlin
Harmonia Mundi

With mystery and sensuality second only to Seiji Ozawa (Philips), Nagano offers that sound from other spheres that few, if any, other Mahler Eighths (recent, live, or otherwise) achieve. The prominent organ in Nagano is a much appreciated touch, too. At 88 minutes (the time it takes him for the second movement is well spent!) it comes on two CDs, which made the—unfathomably short-lived—original release pricey compared to its rivals. In the lower priced hmGold re-release, that’s no longer an issue and the Mahler-addict can be glad to have one of the finest Eighths back in the catalog.

(Review of the original [SACD] release here: Live recordings of Mahler’s Eighth. The release was maligned by a hatchet review in Grammophone when it came out and was torn apart in comparison to Simon Rattle's lame Mahler 8th on Grammophone's 'in-house' label, EMI.)

# 4 - New Release

R. Strauss, "Poesie", Diana Damrau, Christian Thielemann, Munich Philharmonic, Virgin Classics 628664

available at Amazon
R.Strauss, Orchestral Songs,
D.Damrau / C.Thielemann / MuPhil
Virgin Classics

Her playfulness, her ease, her joyfully purled high notes, her melodious allure and the coy sparkle: Whether in opera or concert, Diana Damrau is a perfect joy to experience... capable of making believers out of doubters and turning hackneyed roles into three dimensional, intriguing characters. If you haven't the opportunity to hear Mme. Damrau live, the proof is in her latest pudding... err: CD release on Virgin Classics. Strauss' finest orchestral songs, recorded with the best Strauss-team available at the time: Christian Thielemann and the Munich Philharmonic.... The loving, caring sensitivity of Thielemann's support is oozing through the music everywhere; he accompanies in the best sense: eager to let Damrau and Strauss shine in the best possible light.

(Full review here: “Diana Damrau’s Strauss Sublime”)

# 4 – Reissue

F. Schubert et al., Symphonies, Dialog & Epilog, Jonathan Nott, Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, Tudor 1610

available at AmazonF.Schubert, Symphonies et al.,
J.Nott / Bamberg SO
Tudor SACDs

This damn set, because it is so incredibly fancy and shiny, doesn’t fit into any CD shelf. That’s beautifully annoying, but depending on how picky you are about sorting your music, it may not matter… or you will find a creative work-around. In any case, it’s the music that (presumably) matters. And this Schubert cycle is absolutely fantastic, making the most of the lesser symphonies (1-4) and turning in highly competitive versions of the magnificent Fifth, the “Little C major”, the unfinished Eighth, and the “Great” Ninth. Better, still, it includes the “Dialog” and “Epilog” CDs of their Schubert exploration, and those two CDs alone would be worth the recommendation. I’ve written about Luciano Berio’s Rendering just recently (“Schubert’s Ghost”), and the other works included (Aribert Reimann’s Metamorphosen on a Schubert Minuet, Hans Werner Henze’s Erlkönig, Schubert Choruses by Hans Zender, and Kurt Schwertsik’s Rosamunde Epilog) are also highly intriguing, consonant works of modern beauty. The “Dialog” CD includes Schubert-infused and tuned works by Jörg Widmann, Wolfgang Rihm, Bruno Mantovani, and Dieter Schnebel and is just as fascinating. That’s contemporary music made very, very easy… with a generous Schubert dollop to boot.

# 5 - New Release

A. Scarlatti, Sonatas, Alexandre Tharaud, Virgin Classics 42016
available at AmazonD.Scarlatti, 18 Sonatas ,
Virgin Classics

Alexandre Tharaud is a regular on this list, with Bach (HMU, 2005), Chopin (HMU, 2006), Couperin (HMU, 2007), and the re-issue of the “baroque” trilogy (HMU, 2010). He has moved from Harmonia Mundi to the Virgin Classics label now, where he has released a decent Chopin album (“Journale intime”) and most recently a very lovely recording of Bach Concertos. But inclusion on this list comes courtesy of his Scarlatti (live review here: “A Case of Perpetual Puppy”), which is more than just lovely.

Tharaud cares about every note of Scarlatti he plays, which his D-minor Sonata Kk.64 demonstrates well. On the surface this is a straightforward firecracker that one might play faster or slower, more or less abrupt… but otherwise find little differentiation in. Yet the way Tharaud enriches every space between the notes with atmosphere is surprisingly, enjoyably distinct. In Kk.141 Tharaud proves Pletnevian spunk, and a peckish-puckish Elsewhere he shows a perfect balance of attitude and cool, quicksilver fleetness and coy bumps; is delightfully whimsical here, and employs ruffian vigor elsewhere. (Full review here: “Original and Happy Freaks”)

# 5 – Reissue

J.S. Bach, Wanda Landowska, Le Temple de la Musique Ancienne • Saint-Leu-la-Forêt, Paradizo PA0009
available at Amazon
Italian Concerto et al.,
Wanda Landowska

The collection of Bach works performed by Wanda Landowska titled “Recordings from Le Temple de la Musique Ancienne” was specially re-mastered for Skip Sempé’s “Paradizo” label. The Partita in B-flat, Three Little Preludes, the Italian Concerto, the English Suite in A minor, and the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue (recorded in 1935/36) present Landowska from her best side, they haven’t ever sounded that good before, and they certainly have never been re-issued with so much TLC. Sometimes her idea of “historical performance”, including her custom-built Pleyel instrument (which reminds me of Wendy Carlos' Bach, actually), are bemusedly belittled. But for all the anachronisms from a 21st century perspective, Landowska was earnestly concerned with early music, and in the 1920s its foremost champion without which the revival of old music in modern times but historical guise would certainly have come significantly slower and later. The release is a beautiful shrine to Landowska, her importance and her playing, but also to the lasting and multifaceted beauty of Bach.

(The DVD with the high resolution rare photos and documents somehow doesn’t work for me, despite having the latest version of the Adobe Reader… which means missing out on the letters from Landowska to Jean-Charles Moreux that she wrote while embarked on a concert tour of the US. I await word on how that .pdf file might be made to work and whether the file is at fault, or somehow my computer. Edit: I've been told that my troubles seem unique; a new DVD is on the way. Edit 2: Mea culpa: I did not have the latest version of the Adobe Reader, but 8.0. With 9.0 and above it works just fine and presents a real bonus, especially to those with an additional interest in architecture.)

# 6 - New Release

F. Mompou, "Silent Music", Jenny Lin, Steinway & Sons 30004

available at Amazon
F.Mompou, Música Callada ,
Jenny Lin
Steinway & Sons

Frederic Mompou’s life spans modern history. He was three when Brahms died. When he died at the age of 94, Ronald Reagan had just told Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this Wall”. The British pianist Stephen Hough has aptly described Mompou as “Satie without cynicism”. Piano miniatures are the prominent output of both, but unlike his good acquaintance Satie, Mompou doesn’t seem to be hiding behind (disingenuous?) self-effacing humor. Mompou is serious about his little gems; the fact that they look humble and are short doesn’t seem to worry him. Rightly popular is his Música Callada (“Voice of Silence”) – somber yet charming, nostalgic but affirmative. Only the occasional gentle dissonance reminds of the 20th century... breaking like waves against the stoic music. Played with enough warmth, they are as enchanting and accessible as the softer hued Impresiones intimas or his lilting little dances—and apart from Herbert Henck, it is Jenny Lin who does exactly that. She creates tapestry of subtlety into which the ears can sink like an exhausted cat on extra thick shag carpeting. Since Henck’s release, I haven’t heard such felt, beautifully simple Mompou.

# 6 – Reissue

Russian & French Music, Sergiu Celibidache, Munich Philharmonic, EMI 85606

available at AmazonRussian & French Music,
S.Celibidache / MPhil
EMI - 11CDs

Sergiu Celibidache, the first post-War conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, attained something of a mythical reputation in the last 17 years of his career during which he shaped the Munich Philharmonic into his instrument and celebrated music with it in unique, usually uniquely slow fashion. He divided opinions greatly—and even the orchestra had moments during which they wanted to get rid of him. Fortunately for them, they realized then that an artistic vision and a strong music director were the best shot they had at fame and glory (or even just an international reputation), even if it meant dealing with an extremely difficult individual as their boss. (How different from these days!)

The results might have been uneven (at least on recordings—which Celibidache disapproved of—they have a wildly varying success rate), but at their best they were of literally unheard-of glory. The orchestra still lives off the fame that combination attained; in Munich, of course, and in fervently devoted Asian pockets. The results in French and Russian repertoire are among the happiest and those where lasting greatness can be easily weaned off the recorded legacy. His Pictures at an Exhibition, his Sheherazade, his Concerto for Orchestra (Bartók being conveniently russified for the purposes of this set), and his Debussy Ibéria are all astonishing... In the good sense, largely. Inexplicably, his superbly lush Romeo & Julia Overture is not included, but that doesn’t keep this from being an essential re-issue for those who adore gloriously celebrated orchestral music.

# 7 - New Release

J. Friedman, Quartets, Chiara String Quartet & Matmos, New Amsterdam Records NWAM-030

available at Amazon
J.Friedman, Quartets,
Chiara SQ4t / Matmos
New Amsterdam Records

From reading the nearly non-existent liner notes, or glancing at the cover, you really don’t know what you are getting into: “Jefferson Friedman Quartets” – presumably string quartets, given the involvement of the Chiara String Quartet. With both those ingredients being unknown quantities to me, I just plopped the CD, which came recommended to me by a friend in the music-PR business whose unfailing instinct and honesty I know better than to resist, into the player and let exploration and surprise take its course.

I listened with intrigue to the 1999 Quartet no.2, which despite its three movements being suspiciously titled “I - = 120, II - Free = ca.60, and III - ♪ - 180” is a work with a strong lyrical and beauty-embracing bent... and (later) Shostakovichean drive. Modern, discernibly, but with the immediate appeal that a healthy amount of consonance brings about. Allan Kozinn calls them “neo-romantic” in his enthusing New York Times review, which is an apt, if liberal description.

As I listened, still under the fairly recent impression of Mojca Erdmann’s Yellow Lounge disaster in Salzburg (a ghastly failure of the otherwise well-intentioned experiment in forcing classical music to be hip), I thought during the propelling first and archaic-romantic slow movement, that this might actually be suited very well for a playback in a club, subtly underscored by a repetitive beat of my own imagining.

Lo and behold: the fourth track does just that. Turns out that the “Matmos” timidly emblazoned on the cover, which I therefore overlooked or ignored, is a Baltimore-based (!) two-man band that likes to amplify crayfish nerve tissue, modify the succulent sounds of liposuction surgery, and rattle rat cages. Go look, it’s all true. Friends with the young (south-of-40) Friedman, they took their re-mixing approach (fairly conventional in this case, I’d say) to the two quartets on this disc which results in two electronically re-imagined distillations (five and ten minutes, respectively) of the music one has just heard. I can imagine many listeners that are (or think themselves) allergic to that kind of treatment, which so blurs the sacred boundaries between “serious” and “entertainment” music. Well, all the power to Matmos, all the same. Both, the originals and the re-mixes on this disc make for terrific music (Gabriel Prokofiev comes to mind, although I find Jeffereson/Matmos catchier stuff) and help erode the remnants of artificial borders that wish to divide categories that need not be divided.

The long, 17 minute slow movement “Act” of the 2005 String Quartet is like a modern meditation on Beethoven’s “Heiliger Dankgesang” – with an ethereal but never perfumed or esoteric quality that ends on slippery and sliding business which provides the contrast to the serene concluding “Epilogue/Lullaby”. Then comes the remix… in this case not something that would get you dirty on the dance floor, but with space-industrial qualities that make the ears perk. A refreshing, smartly entertaining release from New Amsterdam Records.

# 7 – Reissue

N. Rimsky-Korsakov, The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh, Valery Gergiev, Kirov (Mariinsky) Theater Orchestra & Chorus, Decca 1615802

available at AmazonN.Rimsky-Korsakov, The Legend Of The Invisible City Of Kitezh,
V.Gergiev / Kirov O&C

“Kitezh”, or if you are into full names “The Legend Of The Invisible City Of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya” is the most important Russian opera you don’t know about. And if you already know about it, it’s still the most important Russian opera you haven’t heard. And if you’ve actually heard it, then you most likely already have this seminal (live) recording with of Rimsky-Korsakov’s finest and (in the best sense) strangest opera. Or maybe you were so lucky to be at one of the two New York performances in 1995 and 2003, also with Gergiev. If you haven't, read Alex Ross’ article in the New Yorker about the latter performance here, and his 1998 Kitezh-themed Gergiev article.

If this is a seminal recording, it’s not because it somehow beats the competition to smithereens; there is no competition. But it’s also not just seminal because it’s the lone plausible recording, which might abuse its monopoly position with a lazy reading or shoddy performance. No, this is one of the early-ish examples on Philips (now rescued into the Decca catalog) of how Gergiev came to be the omnipresent maestro… It combines all his musical and persuasive strengths; his gruffness and his sweetness in music that is gorgeous and mystical, a Парсифаль—a Russian Parsifal—of sorts, a work that shows off why Rimsky was the undisputed master of orchestration, not just among Russian composers.

Story: The Prince Vsevolod , defender of legendary Kitezh, wishes, against family opposition, to marry the ‘common’ maiden Fevroniya, the very model of virtue. The latter endures mudslinging, then kidnapping, then the battle-field death of her betrothed. Tartars attack, but are foiled by the titular invisibility of Kitezh. Vsevolod (revived) and Fevroniya get to enjoy life-eternal within the city and the bad lead Tartar is forgiven. It’s not the worst, as far as opera story-boards go, but if you don’t understand Russian, your enjoyment-loss for this opera is minimal and the libretto very optional.

# 8 - New Release

B. Bartók, The Violin Concertos, Arabella Steinbacher, Marek Janowski, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Pentatone SACD 478 2721

available at AmazonDSCH, Piano Concertos, PQ5t,
M.Helmchen / V.Jurowski / LPO

Technically Arabella Steinbacher’s recording of the Bartók Concertos is a 2010 release. But logistical issues kept me from getting it in time for the 2010 “Best of” list and I certainly don’t want it to fall by the wayside. (The fact that her latest recording—the Brahms Violin Sonatas—is such a gruesome dud only increases my determination to sing this release’s most deserved praises.)

Since hearing this violinist in concert some 11 years ago, I’ve followed her career with interest—an interest that regularly pays dividends in the form of excellent recordings. First there were the Milhaud concertos, an interesting and intelligent, if not particularly emotional release (Orfeo). Eventually, by way of totally committed Piazzolla, came the Shostakovich concertos that gave a sneak preview of the skill of Andris Nelsons (with the BRSO, Orfeo). The release after that might be the best to-date: The Beethoven concerto because of Nelsons (and the WDR SO) and the coupled Berg concerto because of Mlle. Steinbacher’s heart-wrenchingly lyrical interpretation.

As her Chumachenco-classmate Julia Fischer moved from Pentatone to Decca, Steinbacher filled the gap and moved from Orfeo to Penatone. The first release on the new label meant tantalizing Dvořák coupled with Szymanowski ‘One’ (Marek Janowski, RSO Berlin). A straggler on Orfeo with the Brahms Concerto (coupled with a Schumann ‘Four’, all with Luisi piloting the VSO) came out this year but hasn’t made it across my desk yet.

Despite these fine releases with nary a clunker among them, I still never know what to expect from the violinist, whose interpretative range runs the gamut from earthy tenacity to dainty prettiness; from fierce to polite to bland. Perhaps I should have been less surprised at how good this Bartók is, and more at how boring the Brahms, but happy surprise isn’t the reason why this CD makes the list – it’s the combination of the above mentioned qualities applied in just the right measure in the right places.

Bela Bartók’s first, two-movement, concerto is a story of admiration and infatuation gone wrong; Bartók wishfully hoped for a relationship with the Swiss violinist Stefi Geyer who would, alas, have none of it. Image-googling the lady makes Bartók’s fixation look somewhat reasonable; pictures show a beautiful (but cool, dispassionate) face attached to the fiddling rest. Miss Geyer made sure Bartók didn’t harbor any false hopes, but she still accepted the concerto, kept the score, put it in a drawer, and never played it. It needed Paul Sacher to instigate the world premiere performance in 1958; thirteen years after Bartók’s and two years after Geyer’s death.

The liner notes call the Second Concerto “arguably [the] most important violin concerto of the 20th century”. That’s a little ambitious, given Berg, Sibelius, and Prokofiev in the wings, especially for a work that somehow manages to just fly beneath the radar, despite being well recorded. (James Ehnes, Barnabás Kelemen, and Valeriy Sokolov in 2011 alone.)

In sweetness as well as grit, the soloist, Marek Janowski, and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, offer a tremendous reading that seems to get everything right, in both concertos. Hearing Bartók’s Second like this, ever tasteful but never boring, one is actually tempted to believe the bit about it being the most important violin concerto of the 20th century… or at least the most fascinating one.

# 8 – Reissue

R. Strauss, An Alpine Symphony, Bernard Haitink, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Newton Classics 8802054

available at AmazonR.Strauss, Eine Alpensinfonie,
B.Haitink / RCO
Newton Classics

Newton Classics is one of the most interesting new re-issue labels. It produces high quality, mid-priced releases (rather than super-bargain budget cheapos without corporate design or liner notes) of venerable classics, emotional favorites, and curiously out-of-print performances both recent and mature. Its founder Theo Lap has worked in licensing ‘from the other side’ for EMI and Universal and knows that aspect of the business inside out. He knows that even recordings that never quite garnered universal praise (or, to be more blunt: recordings I wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole) can find a nice and steady market of ‘appreciateurs’, and that the success of a performance need not depend on whether it is (or isn’t) available in other versions and at different price points. Many of Newton Classics re-releases are from the digital age that saw so many mainstream issuances that many a disc never made the splash a similar such recording might make today: a Brahms Cycle with the Vienna Philharmonic under Giulini, or a Schumann cycle with the same band under Muti, for example.

Most of Newton Classics' sources come from the Universal Music catalog so far – with lots of former Philips products among them; perhaps because Universal itself can’t catch up with re-issuing that rich catalogue on Decca, since they no longer have the rights to the Philips name. Mercury Living Presence (like Byron Janis’ Liszt) is well represented, too. Standouts are Firkusny or the Hagen Quartet in Janáček, Markevitch’s Tchaikovsky-cycle with the LSO, or a 1998 HIP “Trout” around Jos van Immerseel that Sony let slip through their fingers.

Bernard Haitink’s 1985 Alpine Symphony, with its stupendous mix of dainty touches, ferocious dynamism, and lyrical tenderness – all in excellent sound and with the colorfully glittering Royal Concertgebouw – was one of the finest Alpine Symphonies when it came out on Philips in 1986. With Haitink recordings, it’s an odd thing – the worst of them are still good and ‘tolerated’ in the catalogue as inoffensive, solidly played and usually good sounding 'also-rans'. And the best ones don’t inspire particular fervor, either… go underappreciated sometimes, and occasionally are not loved for what they were until after they have been deleted. Something like that happened to this Alpine Symphony… but Newton Classics has revived it now and the man from the Low Countries can show of his mountainous glory again.

The only snag: Haitink has since delivered another blistering account with the LSO (LSO Live, Best of 2010) that plumbs the depths a little deeper, and shines brighter atop, which would make up for the minimally smaller amount of color and surprise (present here). If one had to chose only one. Which one doesn’t, anymore.

# 9 - New Release

L. v. Beethoven, The Symphonies & Overtures, Riccardo Chailly, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchester, Decca 478 2721

available at AmazonLvB, Symphonies & Overtures,
R.Chailly et al. / LGO

Somehow Riccardo Chailly has managed never to record any Beethoven* (except for the Mass in C) in his long conducting career. Not, that is, until he performed and recorded Beethoven with his Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchester over the last couple of years. (Interview with Chailly about Beethoven here: “The Band that Beethoven Knew”) Decca issued the recordings—which includes all the Overtures—on a beautiful, luxurious box, and for the most part the interpretations fulfill the promise of Chailly’s statements:

“If we don’t surprise with the works we play, at least I hope we will surprise with the interpretations. Our Beethoven has come a long way and has shook up things a little, here in Leizpig. It was new for the orchestra, but after the initial surprise, the players saw the musical reasons behind it and followed with great believe and courage. That doesn’t mean changing the sound of the orchestra, though. You can’t ‘improve’ that. And it would be criminal to do so.”

The readings are also in line with my impression of Chailly aging into an ever more interesting, more daring, darker musician, instead of letting a mellow, routine dangle creep into his conducting. The First and Second Symphonies are bold works of romantic brawn and classical speed. The Third is very tightly argued and at 42 minutes (with repeats) one of the quickest on record. The Fourth, strangely, falls flat – at least to my ears, spoiled by the dancing Fourth from Vänskä & Minnesota, it’s a near-total dud. It remains the only unsatisfactory work… the next, the Fifth, is downright threatening with grim drama; well suited to frightening children and pets. The first time I listened to it, I underwent a strange sense of fascinating discomfort, not unlike a touch of vertigo… An experience ultimately much more fascinating than discomfiting.

The Overtures are irritable and gruff, dissonances are emphasized and while the lyrical lacunae are always serene, they are usually short. The “Name Day Overture” which kneels before Chailly a humble, forgotten work, rises a grand, superbly entertaining piece. Coupling it (plus the King Stephen Overture) with the wild but breezy Ninth Symphony further highlights Beethoven’s use of earlier works to sketch out the famous themes of his last symphony.

Part of the robust darkness of the set stems from the famously ‘dark’, varnished Gewandhaus sound, already impressive in the previous Leipzig Beethoven cycles under Franz Konwitschny (Berlin Classics) and Masur (1970s, Philips/Pentatone and again in the 90s, Philips). Masur’s first cycle has its followers, but except for the LGO-sound (not yet performed in the new hall, and sonically not ideal), it’s a drowsy affair. With superb sound taken from the new Gewandhaus hall, a contemporary interpretive edge, and brimming with personality, Chailly’s Beethoven—combining in it the new and old—isn’t just the Leipzig-cycle of choice, it is one of the most interesting and finest modern cycles, and utterly unique. Not my first-choice for a Beethoven cycle (Järvi, RCA or Vänskä, BIS currently), but one of the top complementary cycles.

* As a few readers have rightly pointed out, Chailly did record some more Beethoven; in the 80s he and Alicia DeLarrocha put down the five Piano Concertos on Decca. Long since deleted, it made a brief re-appearance on Decca Eclipse, but those recordings are also OOP.

# 9 – Reissue

D. Shostakovich, The String Quartets, Mandelring Quartet, Audite 5 SACDs 21.411

available at AmazonDSCH, SQ4ts 1-15,
Mandelring Quartet
Audite 5 SACDs

I have written about the Mandelring’s Shostakovich recordings before (2008, “Shostakovich with the Mandelring Quartet”, “First Impressions and Shostakovich” 2010, (“Notes from the 2011 Salzburg Festival ( 18 )” 2011) – and always with calm enthusiasm… not unlike the playing of the German quartet in these interpretations. It goes something like this:

“The sheer beauty of all of Shostakovich’s brilliantly harrowing ugliness that these discs offer […] is something to behold… The Mandelring Quartett offers more beauty and less gore in Shostakovich than one would expect if the only reference were the performances of the (all-Russian) “Borodin”, “Beethoven”, or “Shostakovich” Quartets. They accentuate surfaces more than spikes and corners; their rhythmic beat is propulsive but rarely maniacal. They are DSCH-seducers, not DSCH-enforcers… which is not to say that they can’t work up an awesome storm. One must merely first get out of ‘Borodin-mode’ to listen to the Mandelring Quartett and gain the maximum reward from their sessions with Dmitry.”

In short: there's much awesomeness to be had here, and in state-of-the-art sound at that.

# 10 - New Release

D. Shostakovich, Piano Concertos & Piano Quintet, Martin Helmchen, Vladimir Jurowski, LPO, LPO 0053

available at AmazonDSCH, Piano Concertos, PQ5t,
M.Helmchen / V.Jurowski / LPO

During a musical tour of London in 2009, the orchestral highlight was a night with the London Philharmonic Orchestra under their Principal Conductor Vladimir Jurowski. A cracking, tight Mahler First was still topped when Martin Helmchen married Mozartean lightness to Chopin-romanticism in a world-class performance of Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto. The LPO’s own label recorded that performance, added it to a performance of the First Concerto (with similar qualities) from exactly one year before that, and waited another year to generously add the Piano Quintet in G Minor, performed by Helmchen with the LPO’s principal string players at Henry Wood Hall.

Helmchen, admittedly, wouldn’t have been the first pianist to come to my mind thinking of ‘great Shostakovich’. I know him as a master of moderation, terribly serious, at home with the ‘Viennese Classics’, 19th century repertoire, and of a disposition that favors subtlety over attack; refinement over edges, depth over flash. His performances usually kick in on the third listen, rarely on the first.

But then Shostakovich’s Piano Concertos—certainly not the Second and not the First, either—are hardly the gruff-and-rough works that his symphonies would suggest or as tensely focused and acerbic as his string quartets. They’re among the lightest, even fluffiest among Shostakovich’s ‘repertoire works’… closest in spirit to his Ninth Symphony, and sometimes closer still to works like Tahiti Trot or The Golden Age. Nor does Helmchen hold back when holding back would be a hindrance; the cadenzas and the furious closing gallop before the gleefully celebratory finale of the First Concerto are all played up with abandon and humor… the Andante of the Second with such superlatively touching, restrained and pliable lyricism that it must be heard to be believed.

# 10 – Reissue

A. Boito, Mefistofele, soloists, Julius Rudel, LSO, EMI 0879562

available at AmazonA.Boito, Mefistofele,
Rudel / LSO / Treigle, Domingo, Caballé et al.

Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele is one of my favorite operas; certainly one of my favorite Italian operas. Like many non-German treatments of the subject, Boito has no compunctions about going straight to Goethe for his self-written libretto. With Germanic sincerity (lacking, as Boito found, in Gounod’s Faust) and great admiration for Wagner, he tackled the daunting subject in a style that was well ahead of his time. If you wonder how important Boito and his advice were to Verdi’s last few operas, just check out Mefistofele!

For years, there have only been two realistic choices among recordings: Julius Rudel’s EMI account (1973, Treigle, Domingo, Caballé), and Oliviero de Fabritiis’ on Decca (1985, Ghiaurov, Pavarotti, Freni). Riccardo Muti’s recording from La Scala (RCA, 1995, Ramey, La Scola, Crider) was in and out of print so fast it never quite registered; ditto Giuseppe Patané’s Budapest recording (Sony, 1988, Ramey, Domingo, Marton). Everything else is either old, pirated, or negligible. Only this year did Naxos add an account from Palermo to this (also available on DVD from Dynamic).

I grabbed the excellent Decca account when it was re-issued a few years back, but the EMI recording still reigns supreme. Not only is the swift and bold conducting of Rudel so much more entertaining than the languorously celebratory style of Fabritiis, the EMI cast also seems more dramatically involved and homogenous, rather than just concerned with sounding good. That goes particularly for Norman Treigle who simply does not sound as gorgeous as Ghiaurov in his prime, but whose embodiment of the role—especially when he starts whistling with gusto—just gels. How good to have it re-released as part of EMI’s “The Home of Opera” series.


Spotify Classical said...

"...thanks to a new re-issuing label called 'La Dolce Volta'"

It should be La Prima Volta.

jfl said...

Shouldn't it be "La seconda volta", if it is a re-issue label?

It *is* La dolce vita, in any case. :-)

jfl said...

No, wait, it's "La Dolce Volta" after all.

Inger said...

Wonderful list. I got four of those, already, and am looking forward to adding the Mozart Sonatas and the Mompou before the new year. :-)