My Life an Album a Year: Classical

Here's the last of my retrospective articles inspired by my 50th birthday. It was the hardest one to write, because it involved the toughest choices in the music I love most. This is nothing like my Top 111 Composers list, where I'm relatively objective and tried to cover a representative sampling of major works; here I'm totally subjective. These are favorite recordings, and/or milestones in my listening life. So there are two sets of Chopin’s Nocturnes, and no Beethoven symphonies, and no Mozart at all. Don’t read anything into that. Going year by year, that's just how it worked out. Sviatoslav Richter is my favorite pianist, but he's not here (though if I'd been born earlier, his Prague-recorded "Appassionata" Sonata or his 1960 Carnegie Hall concert would've been included). 

1961 J.S. Bach: Mass in B minor, BWV 232
Maria Stader/Hertha Topper/Ernst Haefliger/Kieth Engen/Dietrich Fischer‑Dieskau/Munich Bach Choir & Orchestra/Karl Richter (Archiv)

Again I will state the obvious: in 1961 I wasn't listening to this album. I didn't really pay attention to LPs until around age 8 or 9. But Bach is an apt choice to kick off this list, because as a young pianist and choirboy, I deeply loved his music. This wasn't my first Bach record; that was a two-LP collection called The Greatest Hits Album: Bach, a 1972 Christmas present, featuring such stalwarts of the Columbia catalog as Eugene Ormandy/Philadelphia Orchestra (lots of arrangements), organist E. Power Biggs, Moog synthesizer whiz Walter Carlos, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and Glenn Gould; I still have it but haven't listened to it in decades. Nor was this my first Bach Mass recording; that was a budget-priced version led, if memory serves, by Hermann Scherchen. But Karl Richter seemed the epitome of Bach scholarship at the time, and when I could finally afford his Mass (and Christmas Oratorio, and St. Matthew Passion), I was thrilled. Now, of course, his claims on authentic performance might be snorted at, but this still sounds good. (On iTunes, this is part of a large compilation entitled Bach: Sacred Masterpieces.)

For years this was THE version of the Brahms Horn trio, or at least it's the only one I remember hearing on WNCN, the excellent classical radio station (sad to say, defunct since 1993), which I listened to religiously. It was in a collection of recordings made at the Marlboro Festival, a collection my parents owned, to my delight (when I heard Mendelssohn's Octet on WNCN and immediately fell in love with it, it too was in that collection). Now the Brahms is on CD paired with another fine Marlboro Brahms performance (from 1967). There have been more polished recordings in the five decades since, but French horn player Myron Bloom, violinist Michael Tree, and pianist Rudolf Serkin play with infectious vigor, and this is still my favorite.

One of the great masterpieces of the 20th century, from one of its great pacifists. As a chorister I was eventually lucky enough to sing in a performance at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine; nothing helps one appreciate a piece of music like learning to perform it. I wrote about the piece, this recording, and others at greater length.

Karajan recorded this more than once, and people put down his interpretation and this performance, but this LP was in my parents' collection and was my introduction to this great work. Yeah, I eventually figured out that there are better versions and Herbie's sounds more Germanic than Bohemian, but it was nonetheless a fine way to fall in love with this piece of music. And it was a DG LP pressed in the U.S. by RCA, so it sounds great on the vinyl, which I still have.

1965 Handel: The Messiah
Royal Choral Society; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Sir Malcolm Sargent (Chesky)

To tell the truth, I didn't have this entire performance in my youth, just a one-LP selection of the most famous arias and choruses. The complete version in my house was the massive Goosens rearrangement (with its steroidal orchestration) that Sir Thomas Beecham recorded for RCA in his third go at The Messiah. Sargent's rendition is more sedate, and nowadays I’d go for Mackerras or Colin Davis, both of which are a lot more vigorous. But the mighty majesty of Sargent's massive choruses retains a certain appeal and a lot of nostalgia for me.

1966 J.S. Bach: Cantatas BWV 80, 140
Agnes Giebel, Hertha Topper, Peter Schreier, Theo Adam; Thomanerchor Leipzig; Mitglieder des Gewandhaus‑orchesters Leipzig; Erhard Mauersberger (Archiv)

Acquired by me in April 1973: I penned that info in ink on the back (back then, my anal-compulsive urge for documentation was stronger than the desire to have a collector-condition cover; I also added up the track times and wrote that on the back, and inside I added his birth and death years under Bach's name, although they already had that on the back cover). It was a bit of an anal package even before I got my hands on it: Archiv had some historical matrix planned, and this LP fit into "IX. Research Period/The Works of Johann Sebastian Bach" -- he was so big a figure in music, he was his own period, apparently -- and under that, "Series: Cantatas."  And all of this is in both German and English, and the back cover detailed the text source in the Berlin library, first print edition, performing edition and its editor, and the manufacturer and year of each instrument, and much more. Now, this might not seem all that amazing nowadays, but back then you were lucky if you even got a copyright date on the back of an LP (this one proudly proclaimed its actual recording dates, and you hardly ever saw that back then). But how about the performances? Pretty good, actually. Oh, the stiffly aspirated vocal lines on eighth-note runs fell out of fashion long ago, and good riddance; though they sing well, the heavy tones of the soprano and alto soloists would never be tolerated anymore, also to the better. But the warmth of the strings' vibrato is sinfully sweet, but I like sweets; the small size of the instrumental forces is around authentic levels; the boy sopranos and altos in the choir (resident at Bach's own church) very echt-Baroque. Even Mauersberger's tempos, which in longer works could drag things out tediously (though I didn't know that at the time -- maybe nobody but Nikolaus Harnoncourt did it differently back then), are perhaps a tad earnest at times, but not downright stodgy. I just listened again and still enjoyed it.

1967 Ivan Moravec Plays Debussy: Clair de Lune: Children's Corner Suite; Clair de lune; 5 Preludes (Connoisseur Society)

I'm going by copyright date on this early venture into used-LP buying (I think I found it at a yard sale, though I'd also discovered the wonders to be had at the local Salvation Army store). Boy did I hit the jackpot. First of all, the ability of this label to record and reproduce piano sound was unsurpassed, and they used high-quality vinyl. But most of all: Ivan Moravec in some of his greatest performances. Such finely gradated touch and dynamics! Such magical pianissimos! Such a seamless legato! Such organic interpretations! The five Preludes on side 1sustain their individual moods without the least hint of artificial imposition. I have yet to hear any other version of "The Engulfed Cathedral" that so perfectly embodies Debussy's ideal of the hammerless piano. And he plays the "hit," "Clair de lune," as if this little gem of a tone poem were freshly premiered: not as a warhorse, not as a cloying requirement to sell the album, not to distinguish himself from those who played it before him, but with unselfconscious naturalness and ideal proportions. On CD, all of this LP was on an out-of-print VAI two-CD Moravec set called French Keyboard Masterpieces; alas, I've never found it. The Preludes are also on the Supraphon CD Ivan Moravec Plays French Music.

1968 Philadelphia/Cleveland/Chicago Brass Ensembles: The Antiphonal Music of Gabrieli (Columbia Masterworks)

My dad and I both played the trombone, so this was a big hit in our house. The brass sections of the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra collaborated on two- and three-choir music by Giovanni Gabrieli, and it may not have been an authentic sound but we didn't care.Columbia wasn't much into the growing "early music" movement, and when they did pay attention to the Renaissance and Baroque eras, it was with recordings on modern instruments, such as this one and Glenn Gould's piano Bach. But when the results were this good, it was hard to complain. Nineteen of the best brass players in the country ('The Virtuoso Brass of Three Great Orchestras," the cover crowed) convened to play the music of Giovanni Gabrieli, drawn from 1597 and 1608 publications and written for St. Mark's in Venice, where the musicians would be split into two or three groups in opposing locations in the building that gave a physical component to the interplay among the groups.

1969 Franck: #Symphony in D minor; *#Symphonic Variations; @Prelude, Choral & Fugue
*Philippe Entremont, piano; #French National Radio Orchestra/Jean Martinon, cond.; @Pascal Devoyon, piano (Erato Bonsai, #1969, @1984, CD)

I certainly wasn't listening to this in 1969 or any time close. My Franck appreciation was slow to develop. I only picked up this album in the mid-'90s when, after realizing I’d been wrong about Mahler and Bruckner, I systematically went through the Penguin Guide to Compact Discs and the Gramophone Classical Good CD Guide each year, and the composer overviews in the bi-monthly American Record Guide, to figure out what CDs I should get to fill in the gaps in my collection/knowledge (focusing on symphonies). Containing as it does not only the two 1969 orchestral recordings led by that paragon of French conducting, Jean Martinon, but also the 1984 piano recording added for good CD value, this provided one-stop shopping for Franck. His is the least sensual French music, though it does have a sort of stern intellectual passion at times; I'm still, 15-odd years later, coming to grips with its attractions and repulsions. (And the use of typographic symbols in the heading to sort out who plays what gives you a taste of how I catalog my collection, for the sake of which taste I also left in all the information instead of extracting instrumentation, dates, and format.)

Perhaps not quite the best Scriabin sonatas collection at this point, but it was for many years, even decades. More to the point, this was my first, and a fine, fine introduction to that strange man's strange music. From Chopinesque beginnings he went on to create a new and revolutionary harmonic system leaning more heavily on fourths than thirds. Laredo may not have the jaw-drop-inducing chops of Marc Andre-Hamelin in this repertoire, or the demonic intensity of Sviatoslav Richter and Vladimir Horowitz (neither of whom recorded complete sonata sets), but she handles the technical challenges with aplomb and her quiet intensity is often chilling. And beyond the 10 sonatas, she also includes a well-chosen assortment of other works, leaning towards the middle and late works, notably the unearthly "Vers la flamme," Op. 72. She's made considerable study of Scriabin's oeuvre and offers subtle insights and well-proportioned readings of these hothouse flowers, readings that still hold up quite well.

Jochum started recording this set in '71, continuing the next year and finishing in '73. This set is an ideal compromise between the older and heavier style of Haydn playing and the leaner, lighter period performance style that later came into vogue. The LPO plays with grace and elegance, mostly holding its power in reserve, but providing welcome heft in weightier movements (such as in No. 94, the "Surprise" Symphony). Everybody needs a healthy amount of Haydn, and these, his most mature symphonies, make an eloquent case for his witty genius. There's so much greatness in his music, even though it’s "easy."

1972 Domenico Scarlatti: 23 Sonatas
Anthony di Bonaventura (Connoisseur Society)

Another Connoisseur Society album; I wish someone would reissue their entire catalog! Bonaventura is a much-praised but little-recorded pianist who has recorded two albums of Scarlatti in the CD era (iTunes has the one issued on Centaur), but nothing can ever match the magic of this two-LP set, which was a 1974 Christmas present. There's a piano vs. harpsichord debate in Scarlatti’s sonatas; unfashionably, I come down on the side of piano (while still enjoying many harpsichord versions), and di Bonaventura's velvety tone in slower pieces such as the beautiful Sonata in B minor, K.87, is a big reason why. He's gracefully sparkling in the uptempo sonatas, some of which require great virtuosity. Though playing a modern piano, he manages to usually seem idiomatic, with brilliant snap in the Spanish-dance pieces such as the Sonata in F major, K.17. Okay, his tender tempo in the charming Sonata in D minor, K.9, may not be Allegro, but it's absolutely haunting. The programming of this two-LP set uses tempo and mode contrasts to keep things varied, but never lapses into predictable patterns either. I dearly love this album!

1973 Poulenc: Lenten and Christmas Motets; Stravinsky: Mass
Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford; London Sinfonietta; Simon Preston (Argo/Decca)

I got this early in the decade following its release, when as a member of the Barnard-Columbia Chorus I was smitten by these works after learning them for performance. The Stravinsky, requiring the hiring of instrumentalists for his eccentric accompaniment – and also requiring extra rehearsal time to master the tuning of its tricky harmonies – was an especially memorable milestone in my musical education. That's not to slight the Poulenc pieces, though, which impressed me by being easier to sing than the harmonies suggested, driving home the importance of good voice-leading. The irreverent expressions of reverence by both composers made this an effective pairing.

I could never understand why people consider all 12-tone music difficult, academic, or dry. I taped a copy of this LP from the college library and was overwhelmed by the aching angst of Schoenberg's harmonic language. From my very first hearing, I was hooked. Though Pollini's performance is unsurpassed on its own terms, a model of clarity, in their very different ways Paul Jacobs (more richly Romantic in tone) and Glenn Gould (more ardent without being Romantic) are his equals. That they all find varying yet equally valid and compelling ways of playing these pieces shows that the music is not some arid academic exercise. (I've chosen to link to a CD with all of the original Pollini LP plus some bonus material: more than I got at the library, but better value for you.)

At the time, I was listening to Alfred Brendel's earlier Beethoven sonatas on the budget Vox label, which still stand up well, but the imperial precision of Pollini's renditions is even more powerful in these works, to the extent that Pollini's Apollonian approach and Beethoven's late sonatas, so elevated above our petty world, seem made for each other. (And nowadays one can get this pair plus the three Pollini recorded in '77 (Nos. 28, 29, and 32) in a two-CD set for $20-25, which adjusted for inflation is less than the mid-'70s cost of just one of the three LPs they were issued on.) Maestro Pollini proved himself personally above the exigencies of the mundane when I interviewed him in 2002: he patiently waited while I dealt futilely with my tape recorder's technical problems, then kindly adjusted his question-answering cadence while I wrote down his quotes with pen and paper. Thanks again, Maestro!

1976 Morton Feldman: #Rothko Chapel; *For Frank O'Hara
#Karen Phillips/Gregg Smith Singers/James Holland/Gregg Smith
*Eberhard Blum/Allen Blustine/Benjamin Hudson/David Gibson/Julius Eastman/Dennis Kahle/Donald Knaack (Columbia Odyssey)

In college (a few years after this was released) I took this LP out of the library and taped it. I wish I could remember what prompted my interest. I do know that after hearing it, I was absolutely fascinated by the textures of Rothko Chapel. For chorus, solo soprano, viola, cello, and percussion, it's full of swathes of colors glinting out from shadows (much like the Mark Rothko paintings that inspired the music). Clouds of sound hover and dissolve, the viola occasionally waxing lyrical in their midst. This 1971 piece comes from the end of Feldman's middle period and is just 24 minutes, so it strongly contrasts with his next, final period, where the instrumentation and color were drastically reduced even as the time span was massively spread out towards the three- and four-hour marks. The more abstract For Frank O'Hara is for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and percussion; there is more space to it, longer silences separating the sound events, which are so sparely spread out that each individual timbre can be contemplated meditatively, pointing towards Feldman's later style. Sad to say, this is another classic LP never issued on CD.

I first heard the amazing Tabula Rasa at a January 1982 concert at Avery Fisher Hall, sandwiched between Handel's Concerto Grosso Op. 6 No. 10 and Vivaldi's The Four Seasons; with Kremer and the English Chamber Orchestra. I’d never heard anything so hypnotic in my life, so when this 1984 release (listed here for its recording date for the title track), ECM's first Arvo Pärt album, came out, I was primed and ready and quickly acquired it. It has three highly representative 1977 instrumental works in his bell-like Tintinnabuli style. Tabula Rasa, for two violins, prepared piano, and chamber orchestra, is of course the greatest of them, a gently undulating, slowly turning spiral of sound, "Fratres" exists in at least seven different arrangements; here it's heard in versions for violin and piano (Gidon Kremer and Keith Jarrett) and for cellos (the 12 cellos of the Berlin Philharmonic). "Cantus in memory of Benjamin Britten" is an aptly somber work. This disc remains a wonderful entry into Pärt's distinctive musical world.

Impressionist qualities suffuse Debussy's two sets of 12 Préludes each for solo piano. Two perfect examples are "Voiles" (Veils), with its extreme use of the whole-tone scale and then the pentatonic scale, and "Des pas sur la neige" (Footprints in the Snow), which perfectly evokes a quiet winter night. There have been many superb Debussy pianists, from the already-mentioned Ivan Moravec to Golden Age lions Walter Gieseking, Claudio Arrau, and Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli to current stars Pascal Rogé, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and Krystian Zimmerman. The late Paul Jacobs (1930-83) ranks high among this company, and this, the first one I got, is one of the most sensitively shaded recordings of the Préludes. He has apt vigor in the lively pieces, but it's in the slower pieces where Jacobs produces the greatest effect. Though he uses especially deliberate tempos in these tracks, his focus is so tight that the music never drags; rather, he allows the notes enough space to resound in to achieve a sort of haloed luminescence.

Off at college, I naturally fell in with the music crowd, and at a recital by a friend and collaborator, soprano Naomi Itami, I was introduced to the magic of Gerald Finzi’s songs. I then rushed downtown and acquired this LP (which included only the vocal music shown here; his incidental music for Love's Labour's Lost was added to the 2007 CD reissue). Do I now wish that baritone Case had a less obtrusive vibrato in the Shakespeare Garlands cycle? (The very set that Naomi had sung!) Yes, but it's merely a minor matter of taste. The unabashed melodicism of this and the other songs – with Farewell to Arms a true masterpiece setting a pair of Renaissance poems, and the holiday work In terra pax his best-known piece – mark Finzi as quintessentially English.

Until college, I'd heard very little pre-Baroque music, but singing in a college choir (very different from the experience of banging out a new service every week in a small church choir) and studying music theory soon exposed me to more ancient wonders. The best choirs in polyphonic Renaissance repertoire was and still is the Tallis Scholars, though paradoxically it was a chordal work from the cusp of the Baroque, Gregorio Allegri's Miserere (on this, their debut album) that garnered the most attention at first. Set in the reverberant acoustic of the Merton College Chapel at Oxford (the famous high Cs hang in the air brilliantly) and taking full advantage of spatial effects by separating the choir and the solo group, it is the most evocative performance of the piece on record unless you insist on a boy soprano soloist. With the Vox Patris caelestis of William Mundy (c.1529-91) the group is doubly on home ground with an English polyphonic masterpiece of vast scope. It's Palestrina, though, who's at the core of their repertoire, and with his most famous Mass here, it's an apt start to the group's long recording career of 50 albums over three decades. It's a contemplative take on the work, all the more beguiling for its lack of insistence and complete rejection of flashy effects, yet with a full range of dynamics and no dearth of drama where appropriate. The Tallis Scholars will figure on this list again.

As a young (sub-mediocre) piano player who loved Bach, I worshipped Gould. When, always eager to exploit recording technology, he made his second studio recording for Columbia of this work to take advantage of digital sound, it was the event of the year for me -- and for lots of other people as well. Later in '82 when it was released, he suddenly died at age 50, and his two studio Goldbergs (the 1955 one, his debut, had made him famous) immediately seemed like bookends on his remarkable Columbia career, though a few later recordings eventually were issued. Hearing his interpretation change after over a quarter-century had passed is fascinating; he takes some repeats (after utterly avoiding them before) and plays the opening/closing Aria much more slowly; the effect was to make this performance seem more expansive and contemplative, though largely his tempos otherwise were similar. His tone, though, had mellowed, and that made a big difference, gave his new interpretation an autumnal glow compared to his brash and bravura 1955 reading. Eventually Murray Perahia dethroned Gould as my favorite Goldbergs player, but I can still listen to Gould's two studio versions, and his 1959 performance at the Salzburg Festival, with unalloyed pleasure.

Many great pianists have excelled in Chopin's Nocturnes, notably Earl Wild, Ivan Moravec, and of course Artur Rubinstein. But there is no other set of all 21 Nocturnes available at this low budget price that matches Simon's set in terms of quality of recorded sound (luscious 1982 analog recordings by Marc Aubort and Joanna Nickrenz), beautiful piano tone, and interpretation. Simon's elegant renditions of these pieces can stand proudly alongside the competition. Simon's tone is meltingly gorgeous, accented by his liquid legato. The notes seemingly flow from his fingers effortlessly, and he never makes an ugly sound or seems to strain. He makes abundant use of rubato (the slight hesitations and catchings-up within a measure that keep the overall rhythm from stiffening), but it is never exaggerated, always organic, and emphasizes the play of light and shadow in the music just as much as his variations in tempo, dynamics, and tone. This is Romanticism without the ear-catching extravagances of, say, Vladimir Horowitz. Simon is a master of subtle nuances, yet the overall effect is not so much understated as touchingly intimate and deeply felt.

1983 Messiaen: St. Francis of Assisi
Christiane Eda-Pierre, Jose van Dam, Kenneth Riegel Michel Philippe, Georges Gauthier, Michel Sénéchal, Jean-Philippe Courtis; Paris National Opera Chorus & Orchestra; Seiji Ozawa (Cybellia)

One of my concert-going highlights was Ozawa's 1986 NY premiere at Carnegie Hall of three movements of this work, with Kathleen Battle as the Angel singing from the balcony above mine, just a few feet away. It seems inevitable that a composer so focused on Catholicism and birdsongs would come to treat the story of St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals, whose legend says that he conversed with animals and preached to birds, who did not fly away when he approached them. That Messiaen, who wrote the libretto as well as the music, would do so in the form of an opera was a surprise, but even though he composed this piece (from 1975 to 1983) to fulfill a commission from the Paris Opera, he was uncomfortable calling it an opera, and it is more of an oratorio, or a collection of eight tableaux. Taken from two December 1983 concerts the week after the world premiere with the same forces, this remains my favorite (not that there’s much competition). It's a four-CD set, lasting nearly four hours, long out of print, but thanks to the internet still available: as I write this, there are eight used copies on Amazon.com.

I have a great fondness for The Desert Music, which sets poetry of William Carlos Williams in absolutely entrancing fashion, full of majestic beauty. This 1984 composition is my favorite piece of American Minimalism. This is far from the beginnings of Minimalism, actually sounding quite "maximal" in the accretion of the various instrumental layers in this rich, rhythmic setting of poetry by William Carlos Williams. This recording has the composer's participation, excellent digital sound, a polished and precise performance, and -- most important -- is the full orchestra version (hence far superior to the skinny version on offer from Alarm Will Sound). Now would whoever borrowed my copy please return it?!?

Yes, finally some opera on this list. One of the first operas, in fact, from 1607, and certainly the earliest to still show up in opera houses. Gardiner, who at the start of his career was not an original-instruments adherent, makes sure even when using them here to allow no unpolished playing or singing. With such an all-star team of soloists, most of all the buttery-voiced Anthony Rolfe Johnson as Orpheus but also featuring Julianne Baird (Euridice), Lynne Dawson (Music), Anne Sophie von Otter (Messenger), and Nancy Argenta (Nymph), among others, there's plenty of fine singing, if hardly the florid theatrics of later opera, while Gardiner's well-drilled Monteverdi Choir blends well. Since Monteverdi's title page was explicit as to which instruments were in the orchestra yet the score itself is sometimes vague, instrumentation has long been a controversial issue in this work. Gardiner works with a large and varied continuo group including keyboards (chamber organ, chest organ, regal, harpsichord, virginal), plucked strings (chitarrones, ceterone, Baroque guitar, double harp), and bowed strings (viola da gamba, cello, double bass) from which small combinations are chosen according to the music's mood and setting. Within the larger orchestra, the winds (trumpet, cornets, sackbuts [Baroque trombones]) are largely associated with Hades. The results are colorful yet dramatically logical.

In the late '80s or early '90s I was recruited as a fill-in for some summer concerts by the Russian Chamber Choir of New York. Singing under its founder/conductor Nicolai Kachanov was a great education; hanging out with him and talking about music, even moreso. He recommended this recording most highly, and fortunately BMG licensed this and a bunch of other great recordings on Melodiya, the official Soviet record label, making them easily available in the U.S. This is easily one of the most beautiful pieces in the choral repertoire, and achieves its fullest effect when sung by an authentic Russian choir, as the Orthodox choral tradition teaches a more uninhibited style of vocal production that allows a broader, richer tone.

Schubert was one of the composers I came to appreciate more during my '90s catch-up program. Sure, I'd liked the "Unfinished" Symphony since hearing the Toscanini version, and the songs were easy to relate to, but the appeal of the monumental Ninth was more elusive, and (I can't believe this now) I didn't "get" the piano sonatas either. Mackerras's energetic approach with an original-instrument orchestra was my "aha" moment with the Ninth. While working as the Classical editor at CDNOW.com, I had the privilege of interviewing Sir Charles, who proved as delightful and unpretentious as his music-making. (Now the Ninth comes with the Fifth and the "Unfinished" on a bargain two-CD set.)

I first heard some of this album on WNYC; either Tim Page or John Schaefer played a track or two and said that a listener had called up complaining about the weird modern music. But Pérotin was a French composer of the late 12th and early 13th century, apparently based at Notre Dame. The strangeness of his music to some modern ears is part of what makes his music so fascinating. He pioneered three- and four-part choral music and, with his technique of stretching out melodies over time and utilizing semi-repetitive patterns, anticipated or at least influenced Minimalism. This is music of unearthly beauty, and by far my favorite album by the Hilliard Ensemble.

1989 Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen
Hildegard Behrens, Julia Varady, Marjana Lipovšek, Lisbeth Balslev, Waltraud Meier, Nancy Gustafson, Julie Kaufmann, Robert Hale, René Kollo, Ekkehard Wlaschina, Kurt Moll, Robert Schunk, Helmut Pampuch, Matti Salminen, Robert Tear, Hans Günter Nöcker, Jan-Hendrik Rootering; Chorus & Orchestra of the Bavarian State Opera; Wolfgang Sawallisch (EMI Classics)

This was recorded in 1989 in performances taped for television, released on video in '93, and finally released as audio in a very inexpensive (for a 14-CD set) and compactly packaged box in 1998, at which point it became my go-to Ring Cycle. Heresy, I’m sure. Well, I could never afford the whole landmark Solti (just Rheingold on LPs), and of the ones I have, Böhm (Bayreuth, 1967, on Philips) is thrilling but has some cuts, and Knappertsbusch (Bayreuth, 1956, on Music & Arts) and Furtwängler (Rome radio recording, 1953, on EMI) are "vintage" and though artistically great are sonically limited. A real operaphile would keep acquiring more, but I'm happy with these four (although if somebody wants to give me Krauss (Bayreuth, 1953), with what's said to be Hans Hotter's best Wotan, I'd love to hear it!), and the Sawallisch offers excellent sound and largely excellent performances by all concerned, with the conductor’s pacing and the orchestral playing impeccable. So that's why when I want to hear the entire Ring, this is the one I most often put on.

1990 Ingram Marshall:Three Penitential Visions; Hidden Voices (Nonesuch)

Marshall, who became known on the West Coast in the 1970s and '80s and is now based in Connecticut, works in a distinctive and highly personal style of Minimalism influenced by his experiences with Indonesian music. Few have more seamlessly integrated sampling and electronics with modern composition. The two masterworks here were my introduction to his music. Hidden Voices mixes a "live" soprano, electronics, and digitally sampled voices from old recordings of Eastern European laments; Three Penitential Visions was inspired by an old German church and Alcatraz prison and conjures dark moods using a variety of samples, most notably digitally extended bells. Again and again, he builds slowly wafting clouds of misty dissonance, performing the sonic equivalent of Joseph Cornell’s boxes: small things combine in profoundly emotion-inducing ways.

Henryk Górecki (b. 1933) was a respected Polish avant-garde composer who evolved from his early, confrontationally dissonant music of the late '50s and early '60s into what got tagged as Mystic Minimalism. His Symphony No. 3, Op. 36 "Symfonia Piesni Zalosnych" of 1976 was controversially received at its premiere at the modernist Royan Festival, where Górecki's move to largely consonant, slow-moving music was disdained. But it eventually paid off; in 1992, this recording surprisingly topped the classical album charts in both the United States and England; in the latter country, it even entered the pop charts. A few years back I wrote in detail about the piece. Oh, and I once moved soprano Dawn Upshaw's couch.

Shostakovich composed this set in 1950-51, inspired in the bicentennial of Bach's death by his Well-Tempered Clavier. For years the standard was established by what was available: the 1987 Melodiya set of Tatiana Nikolaeva, the pianist for whom Shostakovich wrote them -- it had been her WTC performance that inspired him in the first place. But her playing of them doesn't much resemble the composer's (who, alas, didn't record them all); she is always slower, sometimes ridiculously so (he plays No. 16 in 6:57, she in 12:02); overall she clocks in at 2 hours, 48 minutes, and 27 seconds total (necessitating a third CD) -- to some degree reflect declining technique, complete with muddied passages and outright wrong notes on a tinny-sounding piano. Her interpretation is not to be ignored, as she finds much profundity in these pieces and can achieve a hypnotic intensity of focus, but it's difficult to wade through more than a few pieces at a time the way. So it was a huge relief when Jarrett whizzed through the set in 2:15:20. It's undeniably accomplished technically and sonically, but a cry went up immediately that his interpretation was superficial. I find it neither shallow nor glib, just not Russian-sounding, and vastly less dour than Nikolaeva's. I retain a great fondness for its sparkling wit (best exemplified by the most scintillating rendition of No. 15) and its more Bachian tone.

Celibidache was a mystical, eccentric conductor noted for insisting on much more rehearsal time than most modern orchestras are willing or able to provide, for much broader tempos than any other conductor, and for an extreme, philosophically grounded dislike of recording music. His early recordings show a relatively conventional style, but after being profoundly influenced by Zen Buddhism, he developed an approach based on allowing sounds more space in time for full appreciation and resonance, something he applied quite strongly in his last years in a monumental series of concert recordings -- issued after his death -- with the Munich Philharmonic, which really hit the artistic jackpot by agreeing to Celi's rehearsal demands. In some repertoire his protracted renditions didn't work so well (for instance, La Mer bears no resemblance to the sea in his hands). It produced stunning results in Bruckner, however, and this performance of the mighty Eighth is both the most extreme example (104 minutes and 13 seconds, amazing in the 1890 Nowak edition, which is shorter than the Haas edition; the longest recording by another conductor is Giulini's 87:32) and the most stunningly satisfying interpretation. Amazingly, Celi keeps the musical lines so taut and focused that tension is always maintained; the effect is never sluggish or slack.

Probably like most pianists, I was assigned various Bach Inventions. This started my life-long love affair with his music. Unlike most beginners' pieces, the Inventions weren't dumbed down or boring; his intelligence and musicality shone through. For years I'd been waiting for a piano Inventions I could listen to instead of Glenn Gould's, which was recorded after his favorite piano had been dropped and its action had been ruined; he stubbornly insisted on using it, and the repeating notes began to drive me crazy. Finally along came Hewitt with a replacement that also offers spectacular performances of the more virtuoso fantasias with which she frames the Inventions. And she imbues the Inventions with as much of her subtle art as she applies to her other fine Bach recordings. Lord knows I never could match her, though I'd be curious to hear her reaction to my innovative rendition of the seventh Three-Part Invention at Lento tempo with liberal sustain pedal.

Sanderling's 20-bit digital rendition with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic on the Italian label RS came out of nowhere in 1995 and impressed not only aficionados but also my younger self who hadn't previously found Mahler particularly interesting. This recording changed my mind. It's out of print, and even finding a used copy is difficult, so hooray for iTunes. That said, MP3 sound will not reveal the full glories of this recording, which displays a level of detail beyond any other along with a killer combination of power and refinement. In the first movement, Sanderling's on the slow side, but I can only tell that by the timing, because it sounds taut and urgent and the notes sparkle with energy. His whiplash Scherzo is a continued harrying of the hero, every bit of optimism countered by a touch of terror, and he's not afraid to let the brass bray unbeautifully (yet precisely). He moves through the Andante with relative alacrity -- a true Andante, not the near-Adagio of Horenstein and Tennstedt -- but still creates enough tenderness to offer the necessary contrast to what's gone before and what's to come. And his finale pays heed to Mahler's structural organization and maintains proportion in emotional terms as well rather than crushing the hero too quickly.

1996 Chopin: 24 Preludes, Op. 28; 2 Preludes, Opp. 45 & posth.; Barcarolle, Op. 60; Andante spianato & grande polonaise brillante, Op. 22
Juana Zayas (Music & Arts)

Zayas shone early in her career (her 1983 Chopin Etudes, reissued by M&A, is also excellent), then withdrew from public performance to raise a family. Her comeback, of which this Preludes set is the most famous result, has otherwise been unfortunately under the radar, but that can only be due to the nature of the business, as she's certainly got the necessary talent. She achieves all the right effects here without resort to either exaggeration of details or distortion of the musical line; her playing exudes passion, but she seems to channel the music more than to mold it, recalling Artur Rubinstein in that respect. The major showpiece here is the solo piano version of the Andante Spianato & Grand Polonaise, which she tosses off with great bravura and no apparent strain. But she is equally at home in the intimate world of the 24 Preludes. This is the Preludes set I listen to most often; to call it the best when Rubinstein, Novaes, Argerich, and others recorded this repertoire would strain credulity, but as a Chopin player Zayas easily stands as their equal.

One of the great joys of being a critic is that it eases the discovery of great but relatively obscure music. This French composer is a prime example, and this CD's a great place to get to know his work. The best-known of his four, Magnard’s Symphony No. 3 in B-flat minor (1895/6) is a masterpiece. It opens with an archaic sound achieved through parallel fifths in the brass, then blossoms into effusive, nostalgia-tinged melody. In his development, these opposites by turns alternate or mingle to superb effect. As always, there is a restlessness to Magnard's deployment of abundant thematic materials that combines with a striving quality to suggest an epic quest. After a somewhat rustic, dance-imbued second movement (though with a certain brassy majesty at times) and a lovely if haunted and tense slow movement, the restlessness of the first movement returns in the fourth movement. Following the cyclical ideas of D'Indy, the parallel fifths of the first movement eventually return, building to nearly Brucknerian magnificence, albeit thronged about by the busy main theme from the beginning of the fourth movement. Contrasts between major and minor emphasize the sense of struggle, and the ending is properly dramatic. Magnard finished his final symphony, in C-sharp minor, in 1913, a year before his tragic death in World War I after German cavalry set fire to his house. His Fourth is more intensely angst-ridden. The swift changes of mood in the opening are positively kaleidoscopic, and the harmonies are rather slippery. Again the short second movement has dance elements, especially in an odd little solo violin section. The lengthy third movement is achingly beautiful, nearly vocal in its melodiousness, but not without its tensions. Its mood reappears at times amid the tumult of the fourth movement, an ever-shifting structure which seemingly tries to hint at optimism but continually gets swept into an emotional maelstrom which tosses the music's mood about and incorporates thematic material from the first movement to end in a subdued and somewhat questioning manner. It is not a work offering comfort to listeners, but it certainly takes them on a stimulating trip.

There have already been a few performers on this list who have not reaped the rewards their talents deserve (di Bonaventura, Zayas), but the most mystifying disconnect between talent and fame is that of recently retired violinist Aaron Rosand. It might be partly because he dedicated so much time to teaching (including two decades at the Curtis Institute, returning to the site of his own schooling and following in the footsteps of Efrem Zimbalist, Sr., his teacher at Curtis), partly because concert presenters and record labels prefer younger musicians who have the marketing power of major labels behind them (and Mr. Rosand's long association with Vox Records, while artistically fruitful, lacked the big budgets and marketing cachet of, say, Deutsche Grammophon). He specialized in rare Romantic repertoire, but this CD proves that he was the equal of the greatest on his instrument in its two biggest concertos. Between his early study with Leon Sametini, a student of Ysaÿe, and Zimbalist, a student of Auer, Rosand combined two great violin traditions into a style of warm, silky tonal refinement. Imagine a soloist combining the best aspects of Nathan Milstein and Jascha Heifetz (whose cadenzas Rosand uses in the Beethoven), recorded in excellent digital sound, and you'll understand why I cherish this album so much. And my copy was autographed by Mr. Rosand in 1999, when I interviewed him at Curtis; his personality is as warm as his playing. Though he has retired from performance, I hope he can keep passing on his great knowledge of the violin to students for many more years.

The Emerson's five-CD survey of this epic cycle was recorded in concert at the Aspen Music Festival in 1994 and '98-99. No quartet cycle of the 20th century matches Shostakovich's 15 in sheer nerve-wracking impact, emotional breadth, and imaginative variety, not to mention debatable subtexts and hidden meanings. The Emerson's intonation, blend, and balance are impeccable, its intensity and musicality unstinting. This is the lean, knife-like alternative to the Borodin's more expansive Melodiya cycle, equally recommendable and sure to stand the test of time. The sonics are as good as studio sound, but the playing carries an extra edge that's undeniable. One of the benefits of being a critic was that I got to hear them perform this complete cycle in NYC, all on Sunday afternoons if memory serves. Those were some seriously intense afternoons.

In the field of lieder, German baritone Thomas Quasthoff proved himself a superlative successor to Hans Hotter and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau with sensitive and attractive readings of these major cycles. With his dark, rich vocal tone, Quasthoff honors Brahms's solemn mood without slipping into grayness or drudgery and conveys Schubert's full emotional turmoil (in occasionally over-the-top poetry) while avoiding hysteria -- his reading of the magnificently brooding and mournful "Die Stadt" is a masterpiece of understatement. His interpretations are detailed and vivid without seeming exaggerated, entirely natural in effect. I chose this particular recording because his voice is so perfect for Brahms’s Four Serious Songs, and because those are my favorite lieder.

2001 Anonymous 4: la bele marie: Songs to the Virgin from 13th-century France (Harmonia Mundi)

This trend-setting female vocal quartet has combined exquisite voices, imaginative programming, and serious scholarship to make many, many wonderful concept albums, in the process popularizing medieval music more than perhaps any other group (certainly more than any other American group). Angelic, heavenly – all the bad puns are nonetheless quite appropriate to describe their sound. And our old friend Pérotin puts in an appearance with his Beata viscera, the only non-anonymous work here, most of which consists of conductus, with a few chansons for variety. I can also say I heard these singers before they were famous, as they sang in the same Manhattan church choir as my friend Susan Altabet – I just didn't know then that I was hearing them.

Written about the dead of 9/11 and, just as much, about those who survived them, this New York Philharmonic commission was premiered a year later. I was at the premiere, which was an immensely moving occasion, and listening brings back that emotional communal experience. It would have been so easy for this commission to go awry, yielding a shallow response that wouldn't have held up over the years, or a jingoistic reaction, or an overtly religious work that not all would have been able to relate to, or something abstract that -- minus its title -- would have conveyed no particular emotion. Instead, with just enough concept to define the exact experience, Adams nailed it.

While not as odd to our ears as the Pérotin mentioned above, this is another example of how old styles can still deliver unexpected sounds. The effects are more subtle here, having to do with the tuning of the violin; in this period, scordatura tuning of equal-tension gut strings was used to alter the instrument's timbres; there is a different tuning prescribed for each of the 15 pieces in this set. Andrew Manze, the violinist here, is expert in period practice, and produces a recording of stark beauty not only through his adeptness in scordatura but also through using minimal accompaniment, usually just Egarr on organ, occasionally on harpsichord, and joined just once by cellist McGillvray.

2004 Pierre de La Rue: Requiem; Brumel: Requiem
The Clerks' Group; Edward Wickham (Gaudeamus)

I had long been a fan of de La Rue's great Mass for the Dead, but this recording best conveys the work's profound sense of mystery. One of the great Franco-Flemish polyphonists (strongly influenced by Josquin), his trademarks are dense textures, extreme chromaticism, and favoring lower ranges – and part of what makes this recording work so well is that of the three I have of this piece, it's the lowest pitched. Another thing in this album’s favor is the pairing with Brumel's setting of the same text. I like to sit and let the soundwaves wash over me and the vibrations massage me. Afterward I feel purified.

The conductor of VivaVoce, Peter Schubert, was my music theory professor at Columbia, I sang under him in the Barnard-Columbia Chorus (and briefly in New Calliope Singers), and he encouraged and guided my composing ambitions in ways I will always be grateful for. When, decades later, I found him on Facebook and he mentioned having recorded this album, I of course bought it immediately (easy to do, even though it's a two-CD set, as it's on the world's greatest budget label), and was happy to hear that his musical touch was defter than ever. The only thing he's lost is his moustache, alas. And, of course, the music being by de La Rue, it’s magnificent (no pun intended).

This profoundly moving fifty-minute masterpiece was written in 1995 but withheld for a decade. I reviewed it for Culture Catch here.

With Rosand retired and Vengerov less active, Hahn's my fave violinist, not just because of her superb technique but equally for her superlative musical mind. This recording of the Schoenberg cemented that stature. Hahn's legerdemain here, at faster speeds than the competition (as her booklet notes say, "to the oft-ignored tempi printed in the score"), moves the focus beyond the physical aspect of playing so that the work’s true musical value is more readily apprehensible. Hahn and company present a performance of chamber-music-level interaction, balance, and transparency, highlighting Schoenberg's complexly ingenious structural interplay and unique textures. If you think this isn't a great work because you've never heard it played as such before, this could change your mind – and it sounds even more Romantically expressive than its coupling.

Despite being every bit as magical an a cappella Russian masterpiece as his Vespers, Rachmaninov's Liturgy is not nearly as famous, so there are about half as many recordings currently available. This one may not be quite its best performance on record (I'd lean towards the Moscow Chamber Choir led by Vladimir Minin on an out-of-print Melodiya disc), but it's certainly the best combination of authentically rich/deep vocal tone and spectacular sonics (SACD, but even in regular stereo it's got both clarity and fullness), and offers more precision without sacrificing much atmosphere. Minin's is more prototypically darkly Russian, but the Latvians are no light-voiced English choir, and as a purely musical performance this surpasses that lustier 1988 Melodiya while being light years ahead of it sonically.

I didn't think the world needed another set of Chopin's 20 Nocturnes. Then I heard Freire overcoming the burden of recorded history. This one ranks with Ivan Moravec, Abbey Simon, and Artur Rubinstein. Nor does the massively underrated/underrecorded Freire make his mark in this repertoire via gimmicks or eccentricities. Oh, he has some special ideas that set a few of his interpretations apart from the norm, but there's nothing garish or indulgent about them, nothing deliberately controversial. No, he does something even rarer: plays with velvety tone/touch in a time when most pianists are clangorous, plays with exquisite taste and subtle Romantic character, deploys rubato impeccably, and conjures a magical level of intimacy.

The Tallis Scholars long ago proved their mettle in Victoria (1548-1611) with a top-notch recording of his Requiem; here they follow up with a less famous but equally moving masterpiece, his music for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. His counterpoint favors simple beauty over complexity, and a fervent but slightly restrained performance best conveys its power, so the Scholars are ideal proponents. His long vocal lines flow from their throats with unparalleled smoothness, the parts perfectly balanced and the sonics wonderfully atmospheric even as the singing's absolute clarity is maintained. The emotional intensity of the music is communicated through smoothly built crescendos; piquant dissonances organically bloom without overemphasis. For a most interesting bonus, we get the Maundy Thursday Lamentations of Juan Gutierrez de Padilla (ca. 1590-1664). - Steve Holtje

Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer whose New Year’s resolution for 2011 is to record his Rilke Sonnets to Orpheus and Japanese female poets song cycles.

steve-holtje

Sierra Club

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