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Best Recordings of 2011 (#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.

# 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.

-> Best Recordings of 2011 #1-10

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