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Best Recordings of 2015 (#3)

Time for a review of classical CDs that were outstanding in 2014 . My lists for the previous years: 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, (2011 – “Almost”), 2010, (2010 – “Almost”), 2009, (2009 – “Almost”), 2008, (2008 - "Almost") 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004.

# 3 - New Release

Johann Sebastian Bach, Goldberg Variations , (after Busoni’s Edition), Tzimon Barto (pianist), Capriccio

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Johann Sebastian Bach, Goldberg Variations (after Busoni’s Edition)
Tzimon Barto (pianist)

This is wacky stuff that will horrify the purist: First it was Ferruccio Busoni, the Germano-Italian late-romantic composer and pianist who got a hold of them and made his very own edition of them. Double an octave, add a trill, spell out dynamics… that sort of thing. Then Tzimon Barto, known for doing things his way, goes from there and gets playful with it. A reviewer of this disc, unimpressed, suggested that “the wilful treatment betrays Baroque sensibilities”. Incidentally I agree, but I think we have a different meaning of “betray” in mind. I happen to think that this indeed wilful, this liberal, almost naïvely sensuous, improvisatory, on-the-moment, whimsical way with the work is, in its 21st century way, a very close approximation of the fluidity that distinguished baroque attitudes. (One need only think of the traditions of ad libitum adornment.) It does betray baroque sensibilities in Barto, whether he’s aware of them or not. The tempo of that Aria, in hushed pianissimos, is slow enough to make you check if the Capriccio release isn’t a 2CD set, after all. But no… 56 minutes and Tzimon Barto is done with it; repeats are for suckers.

Actually, I would have liked to hear what he does with repeats, assuming he’d have gone all kinds of different places with them… repeats should never sound the same, after all. No time for wistful thoughts, though: Barto crashes right into the first Variation with such vigor, you’d think he’s checking the instrument for sawdust. And so he goes on, following his nose for beauty and effect, arriving, for example, at Variation 28 where he depicts a music-box, steadily tinkling away in Debussy-esque colors until it slows down on the last notes, coming to a halting stop and then leads right into the steroid-induced brawn of Variation No.29: Part Bach, part Colonel John Matrix from Commando.

Perhaps most telling about the album: It gets better with every listening and doesn’t outstay its welcome. That compared starkly to another recent recording of the Goldberg Variations (by a well-regarded up-and-coming pianist with a consumer-friendly life-story) which were very impressive on first listening and then ground down to banality after repeat exposure. | Charles’ review of this album can be read here.

# 3 – Reissue

Igor Stravinsky, The Complete Columbia Album Collection, Igor Stravinsky (conductor) / Various artists and orchestras, Sony Classical

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Igor Stravinsky
The Complete Columbia Album Collection
Igor Stravinsky (conductor)
Various artists and orchestras
(Sony Classical)

This set contains everything that Stravinsky ever recorded of his own music for Columbia, plus some of what his willingly obliging aide-de-camp Robert Craft (RIP) recorded under his guise. And, unlike in previous editions, “everything” includes all the mono recordings from the 40s and 50s, which comes to 23 performances that have made it: The presentation and that inclusion of the early recordings. The production value of this set comes within a hair’s breadth of Warner’s Callas Remastered or Itzhak Perlman sets. Tracking is improved, the remastering amazing especially for the early recordings, the booklet has an original, compact essay from Richard Taruskin, and the sturdy sleeves are reproductions of the LPs, including the gorgeous, colorful artwork of the time and, on the back, the original liner notes (bring out the microscopes!). It’s just fun to handle the box and its contents. And, besting the Warner luxury releases in one significant way: It fits, even with box, onto a CD shelf. The collector rejoices!

That’s abetted by the fact that the early recordings sound great in every way: The sonic quality, firstly, given that they are up to three quarters of a century old. Secondly because the orchestras Stravinsky performs with – mostly the New York Philharmonic but also Cleveland – are better than the Columbia Symphony Orchestra out in LA. The 56 CDs (and the film “Stravinsky in Hollywood”, which is included in this set) are a fascinating journey through the many styles of Igor Stravinsky and a joy to behold in every way. 

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