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Best Recordings of 2013 (#1 - 10)

High time for a review of classical CDs that were outstanding in 2013. My lists for the previous years: 2012, 2011, (2011 – “Almost”), 2010, (2010 – “Almost”), 2009, (2009 – “Almost”), 2008, (2008 - "Almost") 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004.

# 1 - New Release

Johann Sebastian Bach, Original transcriptions, Ensemble Contraste, La Dolce Volta #004

available at Amazon
Original transcriptions
Ensemble Contraste
La Dolce Volta

Bach—and especially Bach transcriptions—are a favorite musical category of mine, and I acknowledge positive bias. I don’t mean the latest marimba-Cello Suites, or Goldberg Variations on the harp, although I’ll have those, too, and like them. But more typically The Art of the Fugue for Viol Consort or the like. Bach on the accordion. Flute sonatas with guitar continuo. Busoni-Bach-Anything. The Italian Concerto on the organ. A Sonatina transcribed by György Kurtág. Souped-up Goldberg Variations for Four Hands. Jazzed. Webernized.

The French La Dolce Volta label’s releases are like candy, with their colorful, meticulously designed packaging and original artwork covers. Actually, make that “Belgian pralines”, because it only gets better on the inside. Performances to match the outer craftsmanship come—in this case—from the Ensemble Contraste, whose original transcriptions for piano quintet and string trio of Bach works are sublime in conception and execution. It’s like hearing old favorites as new friends: The intertwining lines of the Passacaglia are more transparent than ever; the organ chorale “Ich ruf zu dir” ineffably sensitive and touching. Busoni-like boldness and baroque strings meet with a degree of delicacy that simply needs to be heard to be believed.

# 1 – Reissue

Schöne Wiege Meiner Leiden, Johannes Brahms, Clara & Robert Schumann, Werner Güra (tenor), Christoph Berner (piano), Harmonia Mundi 501842

available at Amazon
J.Brahms, C & R.Schumann,
Schöne Wiege Meiner Leiden
W.Güra & C.Berner
Harmonia Mundi

The concept album Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden with tenor Werner Güra and pianist Christoph Berner, contains songs by Johannes Brahms (ten of the Volkslieder), seven songs by Clara Schumann, and her husband's Liederkreis, op. 24… and it’s simply the best single disc of German Lied there is. It took far too long for it to be re-issued, but thank heavens here it is again, ready to introduce (hopefully) legions of new ears to this art. See: “Schöne Wiege Meiner Leiden

# 2 - New Release

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart / Kasper Holten, Juan, Lars Ulrik Mortensen (conductor), Concerto Copenhagen et al., axiom|FILMS AXM044

available at Amazon
W.A.Mozart / Kasper Holten
L.U.Mortensen / Concerto Copenhagen
C.Maltman, M.Petrenko, E.Futral,
M.Bengtsson, K.Dragojevic et al.

available at Amazon
axiom|FILMS Blu-ray

Juan sits in the audience and relishes the overture of Don Giovanni. At intermission, he relishes Anna—daughter of the police commissioner and girlfriend of his buddy Ottavio. They conspire to meet afterwards. “Lep”, Juan’s Russian, broken English, pronoun-dropping man-for-hire, his fucking sentry as he grumbles, “freezes ass off outside” as he films “boss’ exploits in HD for archive of love and conquest.”

Kasper Holten’s Juan is a film “based on Mozart & Da Ponte’s Don Giovanni”, a defensively deflecting claim to convey that the work has been translated, tailored, and adapted from the original. What it really is, though, is the freshest, most authentic reanimation of the opera I know… a masterpiece in itself for its treatment of another masterpiece. Not authentic, of course, to those who look for authenticity in form and on the surface, rather than in essence and meaning.

The venture, always sung on location rather than set to a superimposed soundtrack, seems like it was tailored around the ravishingly suave Christopher Maltman, and in a way it’s a continuation of the stupendous “perfect conservative production” that Claus Guth produced in Salzburg between 2008 and 2011. (See 2010 review.) The cast includes a host of brilliant singing actors, one more moving, touching, arousing than the next, chief among them Elizabeth Futral’s tragic Elvira, Maria Bengtsson’s potent Anna, Katija Dragojevic’s tantalizing Zerlina, and Mikhail Petrenko’s rough hewn Leporello. The music is driven splendidly by the original instrument Concerto Copenhagen and Lars Ulrik Mortensen who are as vivid as the images of this thrilling movie (that happens to be an opera).

As Paul Johnson writes in (the just about only insightful part of) his “Mozart – A Life”: The notion of the irresistible force (Giovanni) crashing into an immovable stone object (Commendatore) is a glorious one, well spelled out by some of the best music Mozart ever wrote. Holten spells it out on film, literally, in a way that has to be seen by anyone with half an open mind. The release schedule for this film is all over the place. If you have an international-region player (or computer), you can best get the DVD or Blu-Ray very cheaply from the UK or Germany.

# 2 – Reissue

Ludwig van Beethoven, The String Quartets, Quatuor Végh, naïve 4871

available at Amazon
L.v.Beethoven, The String Quartets
The String Quintets
Quatuor Végh
naïve 4871

For old world Beethoven gorgeousness in “yesteryear-glow”, there’s no substitute for the Végh Quartet. Just mentioned last year while hailing the very fine Quatuor Talich, their frightfully unavailable second recording has been re-issued at last—seemingly with the same barcode and the same production oddities: jewel cases inside a fold-up box. No matter: No one, not even the Amadeus Quartet, offers even more musicality especially in the Razumovsky Quartets. A delight!

# 3 - New Release

Francis Poulenc, Mélodies on poems by Paul Éluard & Louise de Vilmorin, Holger Falk (baritone), Alesandro Zuppardo (piano), m|DG 3071815

available at Amazon
Mélodies v.2
H.Falk / A.Zuppardo

Dramatic and nuanced, impeccably articulated, honey-toned, sweeping and musically partnered. The Lied recital disc of the year. See review here: Dip Your Ears, No. 158 (Le Travail du Peintre)

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# 3 – Reissue

Joseph Haydn, Select String Quartets, Quatuor Mosaïques, naïve 5357

available at Amazon
String Quintets
Quatuor Mosaïques

The Quatuor Mosaïques have been ionarts’ Haydn favorites from when we first heard their groundbreaking recordings. They converted hard-boiled modern instrument insisters to the HIP-cause… or at least their potential for sublime beauty. That beauty is so pure (but also very lively and engaging), that they’re sometimes looked down upon by the other extreme, the tightest among the HIP-proponents, for “playing too beautifully and too accurately”. Bollocks. Their Haydn is the measure—well, one measure certainly—of how these quartets can sound at their very best. To see them re-released, for the first time in one place and after repeatedly being out of print, is great. If you don’t already have them, shame on you. Here’s your chance.

See also: Dip Your Ears, No. 11 (A Mosaïque of Haydn), Quatuor Mosaïques Worth the Wait, and Dancing Boots with Quatuor Mosaïques.

# 4 - New Release

Othmar Schoeck, Notturno, (+ F. Schreker, Der Wind for Strings-Winds-Piano Quintet), Stephan Genz (baritone), Leipzig String Quartet, m|DG 3071815

available at Amazon
Notturno et al.
S.Genz / Leipzig SQ4t

I adore Christian Gerhaher’s art, and especiallyso in his cherished song cycle for baritone and string quartet, Notturno. But it takes five musicians to make Notturno work, and on the ECM recording he is let down by the then already disintegrating Rosamunde Quartet. Enter Stephan Genz, whom the tremendous Leipzig String Quartet carries on romantic wings to the most wonderful recording of the cycle set to nine poems by Nikolaus Lenau and Gottfried Keller yet. The foursome drinks in the romantic language behind the atonality of Othmar Schoeck’s darkest piece as if it were rich hot chocolate. Like Genz, they treat the chromatic, incredibly long, intertwined lines, with the utmost precision and tenderness, turning a rasping and prickly work into masterful seduction.

# 4 – Reissue

Wolfgang Gottlieb Mozart, Complete String Quintets, Talich Quartet, La Dolce Volta 109

available at Amazon
String Quintets
Talich Quartet
La Dolce Volta

The Talich Quartet’s Mozart Viola Quintets should have been on the 2012 list, technically, but I missed them then and it is imperative that they be on some “Best of” list. Ten years older than the Mendelssohn recordings mentioned previously (or below), and technically an entirely different quartet with violinists Petr Messiereur and Jan Kvapil, Jan Talich Sr., viola, and Evzen Rattay, cello (Karel Rehak is the second viola), they’re a little more old-world still, with occasionally lingering wistfulness between the notes. But still, they sound surprisingly similar to the younger incarnation. In light of Mozart’s sublime chamber music output it’s almost unseemly to speak of the Viola Quintets as the best of the lot, but aren’t they just? Not content with dazzling beauty and prettiness, the Talich Quartet explores emotional extremes not just in the dark and gorgeously desperate K516, but the last two Quintets, also. Perhaps the Mozart recordings I am most likely to reach for, when in a generous mood or need thereof. 

# 5 - New Release

Mieczysław Weinberg, Complete works for Violin and Piano, Linus Roth (violin), José Gallardo (piano), Challenge Classics 72567

available at Amazon
Works for Violin & Piano
L.Roth / J.Gallardo
Challenge Classics

I make no pretensions of being partial about this set: I love Weinberg and I love the fact that the complete* works for violin and piano were recorded in one fell swoop, with the Sixth sonata discovered in the process (one of two world premieres on this set). The Strad writes: “Recorded in exemplary, perfectly balanced sound, Roth and Gallardo capture the sense of despair that underpins the composer’s later music with nerve-jangling precision, most hauntingly the Sixth Sonata… It is their exploration of the lower end of the dynamic spectrum that particularly grips the imagination here—at times Roth appears to be merely breathing on his 1703 ‘Dancla’ Stradivari as he fearlessly probes Weinberg’s harrowing cries of anguish. Not an easy listening experience by any means, but a profoundly moving one.”

By way of disclaimer (to be honest, not to be pretentious): I wrote the liner notes for the release. There’s an ongoing cycle on Toccata Classics with Yuri Kalnits and Michael Csányi-Wills that’s most excellent, too, and includes the works for solo violin (and may include the Two Songs Without Words, which was discovered shortly after the above set was finished), but it’s going to be a while in the making.

* The set was complete at the time of recording. The unpublished Two Songs Without Words for violin and piano from 1947, though known to exist, had not yet turned up. Now Weinberg expert David Fanning has found them, in a Moscow archive over Easter 2013.

# 5 – Reissue

Ludwig van Beethoven, The Very Nearly Complete String Quartets, Amadeus Quartet, Audite 21424

available at Amazon
String Quartets
Amadeus Quartet

As part of their excavating activities at the RIAS tapes, the Audite label has now come up with a very nearly complete* Beethoven string quartet cycle from the famed, great Amadeus Quartet, recorded between 1950 and 1967**. In a sense this is hardly a re-release, but a first-time-ever issue on CD. Still, a half-century old recording seems a better fit under re-issues, so here it is.

What makes the set stand out is the Amadeus Quartet’s complete command of that chamber-music feel: the musicians—headed but not dominated by Norbert Brainin—become one organism that finds its expression through Beethoven (in this case). The fact that each movement of every work has been recorded in one continuous take only helps with this impression of a continuous arch and development. Warmth and an eager tension are combined to great results, leaving plenty younger interpretations that take the either athletic-Olympic approach or a merely beauticious one well behind.

There’s no need to pretend that many modern string quartets haven’t even greater technical mastery today. Or that recording quality hasn’t considerably improved*** (admittedly pointless when it’s voided via mp3 or poor streaming). Or that there aren’t select quartets which have just as much artistic and musical urgency and expressiveness. The qualities that make the Amadeus Quartet in Beethoven great are still most appreciable today: Among the great historic cycles, this is one that Beethoven lovers will immediately embrace alongside the first Budapest and second Végh cycles (more of the latter soon or above) as their go-to choices for old-world nostalgic beauty and musical insight.

* Only the “Harp Quartet” No.10, op.74 is missing, but to fill the void the String Quintet op.29 (with Cecil Aronowitz) is added. The Grosse Fuge is performed separately from op.130, as on their slightly later, fine but less vigorous, studio DG set.

** Really 1950 through 1962; only op.127 stems from 1967

*** The sound quality of these re-masterings off the original high speed analogue tapes are actually of superb quality and far better than anything one would ever expect from to hear from recordings that old.

# 6 - New Release

Ivan Karabits, Concertos for Orchestra, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Kirill Karabits (conductor), Naxos 8.572633

available at Amazon
Ivan Karabits,
Concertos for Orchestra
K.Karabits / Bournemouth SO

Ivan Karabits Concertos for Orchestra: I love thee. What imaginative, colorful creatures you are, and never pandering! There isn’t a lot of music completely unknown to me that I’ve felt as immediately and strongly about as the three concertos for orchestra that the Ukrainian composer Ivan Karabits (1945-2002) wrote in the 80s. Whether violent outburst or lyrical episode, everything sounds compelling, with harpsichords and Glockenspiel, clapping and whispering and all. Shostakovich meets Poulenc. The two Valentin Silvestrov pieces added are both moving musical memorials to Karabits. The Bournemouth SO plays it to the hilt; his son Kirill conducts: Rarely has nepotism sounded sweeter!

Made possible by Listen Music Magazine.

# 6 – Reissue

Johann Sebastian Bach, L'orgue concertant - Sinfonias, Sonates & Concertos, André Isoir (organ), La Dolce Volta 118

available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, Organ Concertos et al.
La Dolce Volta 115

André Isoir’s Bach organ cycle has been very much out of print on the Calliope label. Only his Art of the Fugue was reasonably available for a bit longer. For a good reason, too, as it’s an outstanding achievement and the crowning highlight of his Bach survey. There’s another real set of gems in that set, too, and that’s the collection of the organ concertos of Bach’s, which are easily overlooked next to the more famous original solo pieces—presumably because they are ‘only’ parody works, which is to say arrangements of either violin concertos by Vivaldi (BWV 593, 594, 596), himself (BWV 592a), adaptations from yet other sources (BWV 592, 595, 597), reconstructions (BWV 1059a) or even arrangements by another (CP.E. Bach) of J.S.B. (BWV 1052a). But since Bach makes originals out of anything he touches, by way of superadding to its essence (a point every ionarts-reader has been harangued with, with mantra-like repetition), these works are marvels, too. Isoir, playing on two Lëtzebuergesch Georg Westenfelder (1977, 1990) and a German Gerhard Grenzing organs (1982), is particularly effective in them and throws a splendid set of Trio Sonatas into the mix.

# 7 - New Release

Dimitri Shostakovich, Complete String Quartets v.3, String Quartets 9-12, Pacifica Quartet, Cedille 138

available at Amazon
D.Shostakovich, Complete String Quartets v.3
(String Quartets 9-12)
Pacifica Quartet

There’s no shortage of superb Shostakovich String Quartet cycles. On SACD, pristine, borderline anodyne, the Mandelring Quartet (Audite) is a great complement to the classic Borodin cycle (Melodiya), as is the Danel Quartet (fuga libera).

But for excitement and ingenuity, the Pacifica Quartet is hurtling toward the pole position. In their combination of ferocious attack, grit, and accuracy—but also a strong lyrical strain—they are only rivaled by the Jerusalem Quartet, who bring out—or so my imagination hears it—a bit more Russian flavor and irony in their two discs on Harmonia Mundi. The kicker is the Pacifica’s ingenious coupling with DSCH-contemporary quartets —Weinberg’s Sixth String Quartet in volume 3, Prokofiev and Myaskovsky previously.

# 7 – Reissue

Felix Mendelssohn-B., Complete String Quartets, Talich Quartet, La Dolce Volta 115

available at Amazon
F.Mendelssohn-B., Complete String Quartets
Talich Quartet
La Dolce Volta 115

With La Dolce Volta, the re-issues don’t just look like treasure boxes in silver and pink, they also contain treasures. Namely the best from the wonderful Calliope label, in this case the complete Mendelssohn Quartets in the Talich Quartet interpretations. They were my favorites when they came out between 2000 and 2003, and although the Mendelssohn-Quartet-Competition has increased exponentially in the years since (Mandelring, Pacifica, Eroica, Leipzig, to name just the best), the combination of old-world charisma, elegance, saturation, and vibrancy makes the Czech outfit around Jan Talich jr. my continued frontrunner in what includes some of Mendelssohn’s finest, most profound musical statements.

# 8 - New Release

Johann Sebastian Bach, Cantatas BWV 30, 69, 191 (Volume 55), Bach Collegium Japan, Masaaki Suzuki (director), BIS SACD 2031

available at Amazon
Cantatas v. 55
M.Suzuki / Bach Collegium Japan

Lobet den Herrn, Meine Seele (Praise the Lord, my Soul, BWV 69) and Freue Dich, erlste Schar (Rejoice, you flock redeemed, BWV 30) are the two cantatas that are included on the last installment of Masaaki Suzuki’s Bach Cantata cycle. You could read something into that: gratitude and rejoicing brought to bear in the first cantata, a bit of cheekiness in the second title as the group has completed its nearly two-decade project. The disc is rounded out with pure praise as befits the project: the Gloria in excelsis Deo BWV191—music for Christmas Day and/or the Treaty of Dresden.

What comes to a very happy conclusion is nothing less than the far and away finest, most dedicated Bach Cantata cycle that a label started and actually pulled through with and brought to fruition*—through all the changes and upheavals that the classical music record industry has endured over the last 18 years! It is a testament to the dedication of BIS, the devotion of Suzuki and his fellow artists, and the glorious (if also ever precarious) state of the classical music industry.

Happily the conclusion is as glorious a celebration as the project deserves. Out of the box, Suzuki & Co. are their explosive self. This hasn’t changed that much over the last 18 years, but the innate coherence and musicality that has been invariably part of the last two-dozen or so releases ( which had not been so consistently present in all the earlier releases) gives it irresistible appeal. His singers—regulars Hana Blažíková, Robin Blaze, Gerd Türk, and Peter Kooij—bring their usual high standards to the three works.

For those who like the spunk of Sigiswald Kuijken’s One-Year cycle in their complete Cantata survey, fleet tempi, bright playing, accuratezza, and glorious, well-nourished choruses and chorales, Suzuki is the go-to choice as a whole. For those who are into certain singers—Carolyn Sampson(!!!), Gerd Türk, Dorothee Mields among them—the late releases are ideal for picking favorites and raisins out of the lot.

# 8 – Reissue

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Gran Partita K.361, Sérénade No.12 K.388, Harmonie de l’Orchestre des Champs-Élysées, Philippe Herreweghe (conductor), Harmonia Mundi 501570

available at Amazon
W.A. Mozart, Gran Partita,
Sérénade No.12

P.Herreweghe / H.d.l’O.d.Champs-Élysées
Harmonia Mundi

Harmonia Mundi has been busy re-releasing a slew of favorite recordings of mine, including this splendid recording of Mozart’s Grand Partita. The Serenade No.10, K.361 is very, very beautiful but also got a bit very grand in the process. Especially when listened to as never intended: in serious context, in one uninterrupted, dedicated sitting, it’s not that easy to stay focused or even delighted for the whole 50 to 60 minutes a performance will take. That is, after all, very considerably longer than any of Mozart’s Symphonies.

Few make that act so easy and desirable as Philippe Herreweghe and his Harmonie de l’Orchestre des Champs-Élysées. Lively, chattering, rambunctious, and happily chugging along, spirits are high at all times, the Menuettos don’t grow tedious, and the slow movements never dawdle. Herreweghe throws in the Serenade No.12, K.388. Sometimes called “Nacht Musique”, it is not to be mistaken with the next—also short—Serenade No.13, K.525, the famous “Eine kleine Nachtmusik”. It’s less overplayed and just as much fun.

# 9 - New Release

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Complete Symphonies, volume 2, Danish National Chamber Orchestra, Adam Fischer (conductor), Dacapo SACD 6220537

available at Amazon
W.A.Mozart, Complete Symphonies, volume 2
A.Fischer / Danish National CO
Dacapo SACD

Mozart’s early works are, all mindless Mozart-veneration aside, not masterpieces. All the more surprising that Adam Fischer makes so very much of some of the earliest (1767/68) on this second volume in a well-advanced complete cycle (released in seemingly random order). With the Danish National Chamber Orchestra’s extraordinarily spirited playing, Symphonies 6 through 8, K45a (doubtful), and K.45b (“Old Lambach”) are kid’s stuff no longer. With Karl Böhm (Berlin Philharmonic DG), some slow movements rise to notable beauty, but the rest is tame. With Fischer, it’s fun, if not rapturous going throughout. Comparing to earlier releases of their now complete Mozart Symphony cycle, you can hear how much ensemble and conductor have come to grow into this project, how more self-assured, how much more daring they have become, how much more into their own they have come, how much they have grown to arrive at a functionally-bold Mozart-synthesis. Splendid, nifty liner notes and presentation round off this most enjoyable release.

# 9 – Reissue

Johann Sebastian Bach, Orchestral Suites (Overtures), Berlin Akademie für Alte Musik, Harmonia Mundi 501578

available at Amazon
J.S. Bach, Orchestral Suites (Overtures)
Harmonia Mundi

It is true that with Bach’s Orchestral Suites, I find myself most readily pleased by any good performance, whereas with the Brandenburg Concertos I find the differences not just obvious but considerable with decided preferences for one over another interpretation. Most recently I found the Concerto Köln’s recording of the Orchestral Suites very pleasing, and if dancing be the issue, Concerto Köln might well be my top choice. The 1996 recording of Berlin’s Akademie für Alte Musik (Akamus) isn’t so much a dancer, it’s a charmer. A consistently beautifully played performance without kinks or extremes, there’s a reason it has been my standard against which to measure all newcomers in this still less-crowded-than-might-be-expected field. Now that it’s back, it deserves mention here, even if it means that this year's list will be particularly Bach-heavy.

# 10 - New Release

Vagn Holmboe, Concertos, Dima Slobodeniouk (conductor), Erik Heide (violin), Lars Anders Tomter (viola), Norköpping Symphony Orchestra, Dacapo 6220599

available at Amazon
V.Holmboe, Concertos
E.Heide, L.A.Tomter / D.Slobodeniouk / Norköpping SO

This Dacapo disc brings us three world premiere recordings of concertos that bookend Vagn Holmboe's career. The forceful Allegro moderato of the 1992 Viola Concerto has the timpanist so pound away, it would do Nielsen’s 4th Symphony proud. Focused yet lavishly folk-inspired, it's bound to be acknowledged as one of the great Viola Concertos. The 1929 Concerto for Orchestra, brash and dark, is finest neo-classicism, asserting its youthful quality with confidence and severity. The 1979 Second Violin Concerto is a stellar firecracker, prompting thoughts of Mendelssohn here, Enescu there. The persuasiveness of the works reflects on the ability and verve of the performers, making this an ideally accessible and rewarding Holmboe entry-point. (See Dip Your Ears, No. 168 (Holmboe Surprises))

# 10 – Reissue

Antonio Vivaldi, Cello Concertos, Roel Dieltiens (cello), Ensemble Explorations, Harmonia Mundi 508235

available at Amazon
A.Vivaldi, Cello Concertos
R.Dieltiens / Ensemble Explorations
Harmonia Mundi

Roel Dieltiens’ recordings of Vivaldi cello concerto have been released piecemeal over the last 15 years. Long only available as single discs, a two-CD set of a dozen of Vivaldi’s about two-dozen such concertos was released in 2007, to surprisingly little fanfare, given their enormous quality. They’ve been re-issued now on the Harmonia Mundi Gold line and remain some of the most immediately and lastingly pleasing Vivaldi discs in my collection and an obvious go-to item for a dose of inspired pre-Romantic cello concertos. The (historically informed) Ensemble Explorations and the soloist engage in almost unseemly playfulness which gives their interpretations a quasi-improvisatory spontaneity.

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