There's nothing quite like the sustained pleasure of immersing one's self in a huge chunk of a top-notch artist's output for a significant period of time. This was easily accomplished in 2012, because lately it seems like the classical arms of the major labels are trying to get all their best material into budget-priced box sets (in Europe even more than in the U.S., so check the imports, especially for Sony). And anything they aren't doing that with, another label would be happy to license. In that sense, it's a great time to be a classical fan. Nonetheless, I'm keeping this list shorter than my new releases list, because, well, there's too much to listen to all of it! So to make my list, these items had to make me very, very happy in 2012.
1. Hilliard Ensemble: Franco-Flemish Masterworks (Virgin Classics)
This eight-CD box is a delight for fans of choral music, surveying a century and a half of the most glorious musical style of the early Renaissance. Mostly it contains sacred polyphonic works, though there are some chordal chansons. It kicks off with two CDs of Johannes Ockeghem (c.1410-1497), including his Requiem, Missa "Mi-mi," Missa prolationum, and Marian motets. From Josquin Desprez (c.1450-1521), who gets a disc and a half, we get his Missa Hercules Dux Ferrariae, motets, and chansons, with the other half a disc filled out with motets by Nicolas Gombert (c.1500-1556). A disc of Pierre de La Rue (c.1460-1518) has his Missa "Cum iocundiatate" and motets. The final three CDs are all Orlande de Lassus (1532-1594): one of motets and chansons, the other two containing his Penitential Psalms. The performances are of the highest quality: This is the Hilliards in their prime period, before founder/leader Paul Hillier departed, and before the mannerisms that crept into their style after they signed to ECM.
2. Leopold Stokowski: The Columbia Stereo Recordings (Sony Classical)
This ten-CD set is overflowing with some of the most passionate, sensual recordings of this wide repertoire you'll ever hear. Sound is good to great. It's a limited edition, so don't wait too long. Here's what you get, with my comments: Falla: El amor brujo (very colorful -- the magician here is really Stoky!) Wagner: Love Music from Acts II and III of Tristan und Isolde (absolutely luscious); J.S. Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 (sure it's old-fashioned and about as inauthentic as imaginable, with molto vibrato, a huge string section, and some naughty rubatos and ritardanos -- though he does use harpsichord rather than piano -- but who in their right mind wants authenticity from Stokowski?); 3 Choral Prelude orchestrations (even more inauthentic, even more glorious); Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 "Emperor" (with Glenn Gould the soloist, a most interesting alternative approach to this warhorse); Ives: Symphony No. 4 (the first recording; Stokowski took modern music very seriously and featured more of it than most mainstream conductors); Robert Browning Overture; 4 Songs for Chorus and Orchestra (bonus material); Bizet: Symphony in C (his last recording, still marvelously youthful); Carmen Suite (not only passionate, but playful as well); L'Arlesienne Suites 1 & 2 (as majestic and dramatic as they've ever sounded); Stokowski Transcriptions (a whole CD of delightful trifles, or should I say truffles because they're so rich?: Rimsky Korsakov: "Flight of the Bumblebee"; Debussy: "Claire de Lune"; Chopin: Mazurka in B-Flat Minor; Prelude in d Minor; Debussy: "La Soiree dans Grenade"; Novacek: "Perpetuum Mobile"; Tchaikovsky: Humoresque; Albeniz: "Fete Dieu a Seville"; Shostakovich: Prelude in E-Flat Minor; Rimsky Korsakov: Ivan the Terrible); Sibelius: Symphony No. 1 (in Stoky's hands, this sounds more modern and profound than usual); The Swan of Tuonela (more lusciousness, really emphasizing the bittersweetness); Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 4 (fresh and vibrant, with a lovingly Romantic presentation of the Andante); Brahms Symphony No. 2 (Stoky always was a superb Brahmsian; this is warmly radiant); Tragic Overture (packs quite a punch); Tchaikovsky: Aurora's Wedding Ballet Music from The Sleeping Beauty (graceful and joyous). Every minute of this set is wonderful.
3. The Eleanor Hovda Collection (Innova)
I had never heard of composer Eleanor Hovda (1940-2009) until I got this four-CD set. Asked in 1982 by interviewer Bob Ashenmacher what she might be remembered for, Hovda answered, "...for exploring the qualities of sound, the different mixtures of plump and dry sounds, very brittle and very sonorous sounds. And I've looked into using natural time, breathing time, as opposed to metric time. [...] It's like the opening of a flower. It can't be measured in increments, but only in its totality. I'm trying to work in that totality, with that totality." As that quote strongly hints, this is very modern music, unconcerned with traditional constraints, but it is also highly accessible if you are open-minded; it's not aggressive or confrontational or abrasive. Rather, it seems utterly organic, welcomingly spacious and quite beautiful in its own ways. A wide array of modern-music luminaries realize Hovda's works here, including Relache, the Cassatt String Quartet, California EAR Unit, Prism Players, Libby van Cleve, and Hovda herself in a variety of roles.
Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613), Prince of Venosa, composed the most amazing series of madrigals in history. The thirty songs of his first two books are excellent but unremarkable; then his style evolved drastically as he embarked on a quest for extremely heightened musical expression of the texts he set. His later works reached a level of chromaticism unequaled until centuries later. When Quintetto Vocale Italiano recorded this set in 1965, it was the first complete traversal of all six books. (Not until four decades later was another complete set recorded, by Kassiopeia Quintet.) Back then, there hadn't been the study of authentic performance practice that informs current early-music groups. The rich vibratos and voluptuous slides of the singers of Quintetto Vocale Italiano would be criticized nowadays, but for collectors who grew up listening to this style of singing, this six-CD sreissue provides a warm glow of nostalgia. Authentic or not, it sounds great, and these interpretations really indulge Gesualdo's expressiveness in lavish, dramatic readings.
5. Colin Davis: The Early Recordings (EMI Classics)
A six-CD set covering the years 1959-63 (after which Davis moved to the Philips label), this is perhaps a tad subpar in tonal allure on the Sinfonia of London tracks (it was a pickup band), though it's worth it in the Mozart Oboe Concerto to hear Leon Goosens in the solo part. Otherwise it is most charming; no complaints about the Philharmonia Orchestra or the Royal Philharmonic. We get plenty of Mozart, especially symphonies, and the beginning of Davis's Berlioz expertise with Harold in Italy, and a superb Beethoven Seventh Symphony. Of special interest is his advocacy of Michael Tippett's Piano Concerto, a fairly new work at the time, with John Ogdon the soloist. Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex, with Ralph Richardson a fine narrator, is also notable. The price, about $6 per CD, makes it a very easy decision to acquire this set even if one already has pieces of it (most likely that Beethoven Seventh). - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor. His song cycle setting five of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach can be heard here.