CD Reviews | CTD (Briefly Noted) | JFL (Dip Your Ears) | DVD Reviews


Best Recordings of 2011 - "Almost List"

Since 2008 I have been cheating my way around the “Top Ten” quantity limitation with my “Almost Lists”—selecting a few (usually 10) new recordings I just couldn't not include in the “Best of” list. Even if it is a bit late now.

The procedure of assembling the list looks something like the following: Until December 12th I groan that this year I rather wouldn’t assemble any “Best-of” lists at all… nothing really stands out. Then I begin to jot down the two, three records that would be obvious inclusions, and then, every day, five more that might make the list… and after I’ve written it all up, I think of twenty more that really deserve mention. These Almost Lists are the results of those determined Johnny-come-lately inspirations (and getting my hands on some releases only recently). Listed alphabetically by composer.

Here are the previous lists:

Best Recordings of 2008 - "Almost List"
Best Recordings of 2009 - "Almost List"
Best Recordings of 2010 - "Almost List"

Hans Gál, Violin Concerto, T.A.Irnberger, R.Paternostro / Israel CO, Gramola 98921

available at Amazon
Gál, Violin Ct. et al.,
Irnberger / Paternostro /
Israel CO

UK | DE | FR
How could I forget that 2012 was not just the year of Mieczysław Weinberg’s solidification (viz. presence in the recording catalog), but also the year of the Hans Gál ascendency. Thanks first and foremost to the Avie label and the enthusiasm of Kenneth Woods and Thomas Zehetmair, but also another enterprising label: Gramola from the heart of Vienna. I could really include four Gál release in this list: Symphonies No.3 (Woods), No.1 (Zehetmair), No.2 (Zehetmair), and the Violin Concerto (Paternostro). It is the last-named that I feel most like singling out. There’s already a wonderful recording available on Avie (Woods / Annette-Barbara Vogel, 2010), but Thomas Albertus Irnberger, Roberto Paternostro, and the Israel Chamber Orchestra add just that extra little touch of lyrical sweetness to the work that makes it not just take off, but soar. A must-listen for the lover of the unknown ‘Third Viennese School’ of lost romantics à la E.W.Korngold, J.Marx, F.Mittler, etc.

A great next step would be a really good new recording of the excellent Gál String Quartets; the recent account on Meridian Records doesn’t, unfortunately, quite cut it. Perhaps a superbly talented group with easy access to the idiom—I’m thinking Acies or Minetti Quartet—will fall in love with them, and give them the time and effort they clearly deserve.

Mieczysław Karłowicz, Symphony op.7, “The White Dove” op.6, Antoni Wit / Warsaw PO, Naxos 8.572487

available at Amazon
Karłowicz, Rebirth Sy., White Dove,
Wit / Warsaw PO

UK | DE | FR
Mieczysław Karłowicz’s music is much better than it is original. Even if you’ve never heard of his name, the music will sound familiar, but always in a good way. Influenced by the neo-romantic school and especially works of Wagner and Richard Strauss during his studies in Berlin from 1895 to 1901, Karłowicz further added touches to his work that sound of Brahms, Tchaikovsky, hints of Scriabin, and vaguely dark Scandinavian romanticism. He would probably have found a more distinctively unique voice, but Karłowicz died in 1909, aged 32, in an avalanche, skiing in the Tatra Mountains. Tragic, but fittingly ironic for a fatalistic pantheist.

Almost all of the mentioned influences can be heard in the ambitious “Rebirth” Symphony op. 7 and “The White Dove” Overture op.6 on a terrific new Karłowicz release from Naxos. The recordings of Yan Pascal Tortelier and Gianandrea Noseda with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra (Chandos) made Karłowicz’ name better known in the West, there are several fine releases on the Polish DUX label, but Antoni Wit and the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra get the most out of this already gorgeous music, yet.

Gustav Mahler, Symphony No.5, V.Gergiev / London SO, LSO Live 664

available at Amazon
Mahler, Sy.5,
Gergiev / LSO

UK | DE | FR
Gergiev’s Mahler had been a series of disappointments for me. For a variety of reasons I expected much from his First, Sixth, and Seventh, and got little to nothing out of them. The Eight, with its generous reverb from St. Paul’s cathedral, found me impressed—just when I had given up hope. The Fifth and Ninth came last in Gergiev’s cycle, because earlier performances recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra’s own label—LSO Live—were not deemed good enough for release. By the time the Fifth was taken on tour a second time, orchestra and conductor had it down pat. I was in London for the concert at which it was recorded, and for the first time in several years I found myself truly enjoying and very much impressed by a Gergiev conducted performance. (Shchedrin’s Concerto for Orchestra No.1 (Naughty Limericks) and Strauss’ Duett-Concertino for Clarinet & Bassoon were addition, superb boni.) The recording of the Fifth captures most of the excitement of the live event, from the drastic-yet-winsome Trauermarsch via bolting-lilting Scherzo and nicely unsentimental Adagietto to the ecstatic finale. Among SACDs, this is a worthy contender—next to Markus Stenz’ recording (Oehms)—for ‘first pick’.

Wolfgang A. Mozart, “Dissonances”, Quatuor Ébène, Virgin

available at Amazon
Mozart, 2 SQ4ts,
Quatuor Ébène

UK | DE | FR
In 2008 the Quatuor Ébène issued its debut disc for Virgin—Ravel-Debussy-Fauré, an easy inclusion in the “Best of the Year” list. Brahms followed, and then a disc of their Jazz and film score encores: L'Autre Ebène. Good and entertaining stuff, if not as outstanding as the potential of the Ébènes would always suggests. Their Mozart recording of the ‘Haydn’ quartets in d-minor K421 and K465 (plus the charming F-major Divertimento K138) suggests a refreshed return to their unique combination of joy, accuracy, and weightless intricacy enclosed in a bold exterior.

Nino Rota, Cello Concertos, F.Kleinhapl / D.Kaftan / Augsburg Philharmonic, ARS 38105

available at Amazon
Rota, Cello Ctos.,
Kleinhapl / Kaftan /
Augsburg Phil.

UK | DE | FR
Nino Rota was too successful a composer for film to ever establish a good reputation as a serious classical composer. You can’t write the scores for , La Strada, Il Gattopardo, and The Godfather and hope for concert-hall exposure. That Rota is present next to Brahms and Berlioz, all the same, is in good measure due to his advocates Riccardo Muti (a one-time student of Rota’s), Josep Pons, and Yannick Nézet-Séguin—all of which have also recorded his music. Cellist Friedrich Kleinhapl (Best of 2009 with his Beethoven; wonderful Bruch) joins them, with his recording of the Cello Concertos (1972, 1973), two unforgivably approachable, shamelessly musical pieces.

Offenbach or Dvořák can be said to lurk behind the First Concerto of Curtis Institute student Rota, and his neo-classical streak, generously supplied with the vitality he found in jazz comes out in a more explicitly Mozartean spririt—in the Second. Kleinhapl excels in both (with more emphasis on excitement than dead-accuracy), and David Kaftan and his Augsburg Philharmonic show off the capability for greatness (especially in the waltz-happy Il Gattopardo score) that Munich critics have enthusiastically attested them for some time.

Franz Schubert, Die Schöne Müllerin, E. Belakowitsch, S. Delaney, Gramola

available at Amazon
Schubert, Müllerin,
Belakowitsch / Delaney

UK | DE | FR
When I first listened to this, another (yawn!) Müllerin, I was taken aback—almost immediately—by the strange piano sound. Was this a robust, late forte-piano being taken to its limits? No. Why did it make such a happily-rambunctious noise? What is Stephen Delaney doing, and why? Then Erwin Belakowitsch’s baritone comes into play, and its natural, gruff, growling character not just justifies its own heaviness, it makes sense out of the active, lively accompaniment. Stephen Delaney’s playing, in turn, takes on a character of its own—from oddity to asset. There is a directness and honesty about this Müllerin that makes it stand out amid the crowded field. No silly claims about “the best”. Belakowitsch hasn’t the dark nuance of Gerhaher (from whom I wouldn’t mind a re-recording of his Müllerin), is about the opposite of Ian Bostridge’s heady introversion (EMI), the honeyed ease and sophistication of Werner Güra (HMU), the sensitive brawn of Goerne of Goerne (HMU)… But then if he had those exact qualities, he wouldn’t stand out. It makes me wish I had heard the excitingly dramatic Christopher Maltman’s 2011 recording (Wigmore Hall Live, with Graham Johnson)… alas, not yet. But it also makes me want to hear this version. Again, and again.

Geirr Tveitt, “From a Travel Diary” et al., Fragira Vesca, Simax PSC1222

available at Amazon
Tveitt, Travel Diary,
Fragira Vesca

UK | DE | FR
Earlier this year I had finally found my way around to Geirr Tveitt, after being intrigued for years thanks to Robert Reilly’s chapter in “Surprised by Beauty”. Much of Tveitt’s music (albeit not much in relation to the quantities that were lost in that horrific fire that consumed his house and with all the manuscripts) is being restored, but there’s still very little chamber music of Tveitt’s to go around. The eight-movement “From a Travel Diary” (String Quartet No.1) is the only work for string quartet that survives, and even that has only recently had a missing movement restored thanks to a transcription from an old radio broadcast. In his “Favorites of 2011” column for CRISIS Magazine, Reilly rightly calls it “…the best musical postcard and chamber music form that I have heard… marvelously idiosyncratic, inspiriting music!” Vaguely covering the romantic spectrum from Brahms to Shostakovich, Tveitt is full of unexpected, newly familiar sounds that celebrate lyricism and sweetness one mo(ve)ment, and compelling angular rhythms the next.

Richard Wagner, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, S.Weigle / Bayreuth Festival Orchestra / Vogt, Hawlata, Volle et al., Opus Arte DVD & Blu-ray 1041

available at Amazon
Wagner, Meistersinger,
Weigle / Bayreuth FO / Vogt et al.

UK | DE | FR
Die Meistersinger is by far the most difficult opera to update – because it is much more literal and concrete than Wagner’s other works. No monsters, gods, or myths that can be transformed at will to represent abstract ideas in other shapes. But the Meistersinger takes place in a very identifiable Nuremberg, with very real people and every-day props. The options are limited. And while a dwarf-raised hero may smith his sword any which way he wants to, a medieval cobbler must always fix a shoe with his little hammer. No?

Miss Wagner can do without old shoes or hammers. And without a lot of other symbolic Meistersinger mainstays. This re-interpretation that is at once radical and at the same time very, very smartly aiming at the core message of Wagner and this opera, has invited lots of invective, most of it shortsighted, if not outright ignorant. In her hands, the opera now spells out the warning: beware one-time innovators becoming the new reactionaries! There couldn’t be more acute message for Bayreuth.

With principles Franz Hawlata (Sachs), Klaus Florian Vogt (Stolzing), Michael Volle (Beckmesser) and a superb rest of a cast (the 2007 weak spot, Amanda Mace’s Eva, is replaced by Michaela Kaune), this Meistersinger is musically top notch—a fine junior partner alongside Kubelik, Sawallisch, and [yes!] Goodall. Full review here.

Mieczysław Weinberg, Sinfonietta, Symphony No.6, V.Fedoseyev / Vienna SO, NEOS SACD

2010 was a good year for Weinberg, starting with the Bregenz-performance of his opera “The Passenger” and its subsequent release on DVD/Blu-ray (Best of 2011). On the financial coattails of The Passenger, the enterprising Munich record label NEOS—for which Weinberg is a relative classic in their otherwise contemporary-focused repertoire—several other Weinberg-releases have followed: live recordings from the Bregenz Festival, all. Most of them have great merits and singling out is difficult. Better let attrition work on it:

available at Amazon
Weinberg, Trumpet Cto., Three Palms,
Korsten / Ellensohn

UK | DE | FR
Weinberg Edition No.5: The Trumpet Concerto No.1 op.94 is superb and this recording a happy first choice amid surprisingly busy (given Weinberg’s limited-but-growing discography) competition from Bibi Black (Chandos), the excellent Sergei Nakariakov (Warner), Carl Albach (ASO download), and Timofei Dorkshitser (with Kirill Kondrashin, out of print on Russian Disc). But the Three Palms [not Psalms] for string quartet and soprano is rather dour stuff and the String Trio too slight to make up for it. Of the latter there is an excellent recording with the Beethoven String Trio of London on Praga Digitals, coupled with the cello sonatas.

Weinberg Edition No.4: The Second Cello Sonata op.63 and the Piano Quintet are among the most recorded Weinberg works. The sonata exists with Yablonsky/Liu (Naxos), Moser/Rivinius (Hänssler), Chaushian/Sudbin (BIS), Kanka/Borges Coelho (Praga Digitals). The Quintet op.18—one of the unequivocally great chamber pieces of that time—is available on perhaps the most famous Weinberg recording of them all: that of the dedicatees Borodin Quartet together with the pianist-composer on Melodiya. But it can also be had with the superb ARC Ensemble (RCA), the Vilnius String Quartet (Delos), the Kopelman Quartet (Nimbus), and the Szymanowski Quartet (Hänssler). That would make it difficult for the EOS-Quartett Wien et al. to compete even if it were better than it is. As it is, it might be the only recording in this edition that can’t garner a recommendation.

Weinberg Edition No.3: Weinberg’s 1967 Requiem: See “Dip Your Ears, No. 112

Weinberg Edition No.2: Symphony No.17: See “Dip Your Ears, No. 113

available at Amazon
Weinberg, Sy.6, Sinfonietta,

UK | DE | FR
Still, my pick for inclusion in this list is Weinberg Edition No.1: The Sixth Symphony is a wonderfully grim work with lots of moments evoking (but not copying) the sound of Shostakovich. At three quarters of an hour, this choral symphony is obviously the main ingredient of the disc. But the Sinfonietta (also available on Chandos’ Weinberg series, vol.1, Gabriel Chmura & Polish NRSO), half as long and four times as light, is the reason why I like this release so much: Get your dancing-boots out!

All the NEOS Weinberg releases are on SACD. Often expensive or unavailable on ArkivMusic and, they are most easily and inexpensively gotten via

No comments: