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Best Recordings of 2011 (#8)

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.

# 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.

-> Best Recordings of 2011 #1-10

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