Best Classical Albums 2015, Part One


As I struggled, as every year, to get my end-of-year lists finished in a reasonably timely fashion, it occurred to me that I could publish half of the classical list earlier if I could find a reasonable way to split it into categories. Thus the non-contemporary/contemporary divide this year. The newer composers' work requires more listening; that's the only reason the older repertoire comes first.

Supposedly this release of a previously unissued concert recording was approved by the pianist shortly before his passing in July 2015. Certainly it's hard to hear anything of significance that he wouldn't have liked about it, because it is a magnificent testament to everything that made him one of the greatest pianists who ever lived: one of the most beautiful piano tones ever heard, allied to liquid phrasing that gave him one of the greatest legato touches ever recorded. 
The 90-minute recital opens with a reading of Bach's Chromatic Fantasia & Fugue that exudes drama and grandeur in equal measure. Mozart's Sonata No. 13 in B-flat major, K.333, is delivered with lyrical grace. Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata (No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 27 No. 2) is far from a cliché in his hands; his rubato even makes it suspenseful. He follows with a selection of Chopin works -- two Mazurkas, two Nocturnes, a Ballade -- that confirms his status as one of the masters of Chopin interpretation, and concludes with a heartwarmingly lovely Debussy "Clair de lune."
This extremely good 15-voice Boston choir has been recording all the music copied by Thomas Bull for a collection apparently intended for Canterbury Cathedral in the last decade of Henry VIII's reign. Over half of the 72 works in Bull's partbooks (each book having one choral section's line) are unavailable from any other sources, but unfortunately the tenor partbook is lost, along with some pages of the treble partbook. Musicologist Nick Sandon has endeavored to fill in the missing parts. This is the first volume of Blue Heron's series of the complete music that I've heard, and I'm extremely impressed. The prize here is the Spes nostra Mass (based on the chant antiphon of that name) of Robert Jones, about whom nearly nothing is known. Though generally similar to the style of Tallis, it has distinctive harmonies, more melodic leaps, and occasionally unusual chord voicings. Since, as usual for the time and place, it has no Kyrie, the Sarum chant for that text precedes it. Other works here are a Stabat Mater by Robert Hunt, even more obscure than Jones, and the more famous Nicholas Ludford's Ave cujus conceptio. The choir's blend is rich, its phrasing smooth, expressive without making a fetish of it. All connoisseurs of English Renaissance choral music need to acquire this, and I will be getting the earlier volumes and looking forward to the concluding Vol. 5.
This is the first release in a project focusing on the symphonies Shostakovich created during Stalin's reign, thus it makes sense that the Lady Macbeth excerpt is included, since that work incited the first Stalin-decreed denunciation of Shostakovich's work. The Tenth was completed after Stalin's death, and Nelsons says the way he conducts the finale depicts the composer dancing on the dictator's grave. These pieces, therefore, are the bookends of the project. Of course, an intriguing conceptual framework is not sufficient by itself to make great art. Nelsons, the orchestra, and the engineering (with an assist from the naturally superb sound in Boston's great concert hall) go the rest of the way, though; this Tenth ranks among the best (Barshai, Kondrashin, Ancerl, Mravinsky). This is not the going-through-the-motions BSO of the later Ozawa years; based on this concert recording, it's back to being the fabulous ensemble it was in the 1950s and '60s. The Latvian Nelsons, born and educated in the Soviet Union himself, doesn't get the brass to sound echt-Russian, but he does get them to let go of their inhibitions and blow; if the vulgarity of Russian brass is missed in the brutal second movement, the Bostonians still create an aptly frightening din. The long, brooding opening movement lets the plush Boston strings shine, and as usual this hall lets the bass resonate wonderfully. The finale's manic glee is also excellently conveyed. Nelsons is a young talent to watch, and I eagerly await the other installments of this project.
Herreweghe, first known as a period-performance conductor, has been branching out into Romantic repertoire for quite a while now, and has already given us a fine recording of Dvořák's Stabat Mater; here's an even better Requiem. It's a large and slightly unwieldy work (1:33:22 here), but he makes it cohere well even while delivering significant emotional wallop that great recordings of this work are capable of. As one expects from Herreweghe's choir, its performance is impeccable, all dynamic balances perfectly achieved and all timbres beautiful. The soloists are generally good, full-voiced without drifting into operatic excess; I especially enjoy Berg's fine bass range (lack of projection or full tone on low notes has diminished the impact of more than one Dvořák Requiem). This is a stellar interpretation and performance all round.
A label specifically devoted to "music the microphones have been ignoring" taking on Krenek (1900-1991)? True, he's hardly unknown, but he's more talked about than performed/recorded -- not even all of his piano sonatas are currently available on CD, and one of them is only out there because of a 2012 Khristenko CD on Oehms. This cycle kicks off with the Piano Sonata No. 4, Op. 114 (1948), 12-tone yet looking back to Beethoven in some ways, especially structurally, though also with some jazz feel in the third movement. The striking fourth and final movement is, in the composer's words (remarks appended in the Universal Edition publication of the complete piano sonatas), "A very slow and misty minuet with five variations, ethereal." The witty and fantastically deconstructive George Washington Variations, Op. 120 (1950 -- Krenek had fled to the United States when the Nazis, who had already banned his music in Germany, took over Austria in 1938) starts as a jaunty work but transmutes its material into a succession of eerier styles before returning to a more upbeat if still shadowed feeling for the finale. Also included is the small Prelude, WoO 87 (1944), written for his patron, and Krenek's stylistically convincing 1921 completion of Schubert's Sonata in C major, D.840 (Schubert had sketched out thematic material for the last two movements but completed neither). Krenek was a prolific composer -- his Piano Sonata No. 7, written three years before his death, is Opus 240 -- so I expect this series to be quite an undertaking; this first volume is thoroughly successful.
6. Emmanuelle Bertrand/Pascal Amoyel/Lucerne Symphony Orchestra/James Gaffigan
Dutilleux: 3 Strophes sur le nom Sacher; Tout un monde lointain; Debussy: Sonata for cello & piano (Harmonia Mundi)
The centenary of Dutilleux attracted less attention than it should have, but at least we got this magnificent new recording of the amazing cello-concerto-in-all-but-name Tout un monde lointain, along with the short three-piece dedication to great music patron Paul Sacher and a fine recording of Debussy's beguiling sonata. Bertrand is a virtuoso who meets all of Dutilleux's considerable demands with aplomb. Amoyel on piano is a sympathetic accompanist in the Debussy (all of his sonatas, written late in life, are masterpieces). The bravura solo Sacher pieces progress to the autumnally profound Debussy, leading to the larger Tout un monde lointain (A whole distant world...). The program is not long, but it is of such highly concentrated intensity that more would only dilute its impact.
Having acquired early in life an antipathy to Villa-Lobos's (1887-1959) most popular works, the Bachianas Brasileiras, I'd since then paid no attention to his music. Then this CD came in the mail and impressed me. It's part of an ongoing cycle of his complete symphonies (he wrote twelve; the cycle isn't proceeding chronologically), apparently just the second such cycle -- needless to say, I haven't heard the other one. It seems like I've been missing out on some very colorful composing all these years and at the least I should track down Karabtchevsky's earlier volumes in this cycle. This disc kicks off with an earlier work, the tone poem-cum-ballet Uirapuru, which the composer dated 1917, though apparently that's just when he started working on it and he actually kept developing it in the '20s, when he was living in Paris, and premiered it in 1935. It's a tad discursive, but rhythmically redolent of Brazil (and, perhaps, The Rite of Spring) and brightly orchestrated, musically relating a tale of a magical bird of the Brazilian forest. The symphony, from 1957, is more solemn and high-minded, with noble themes (the Adagio is especially fine in this regard), but still masterfully orchestrated for maximum effect even as Villa-Lobos's development of the structure is far tauter and more pointed than the tone poem. The disc is filled out with another prospective ballet, Mandu-Çarará (1940), like the earlier tone poem concerning itself with Brazilian mythology, but adding an adult choir and a children's choir to the mix.
As many choristers have learned, Poulenc's a cappella choral works are harder than they sound -- the harmonies are beautiful, but also slippery and surprising in the way they subvert established expectations. Even the best recordings have often basically concentrated on getting notes and dynamics right, assuming that the music is so well-written that it will make its good impression once delivered precisely -- and, Poulenc being the genius that he was, it always does, since the Mass and both sets of motets -- four for Christmas, four for Lent -- are sheer masterpieces. Thus have I gotten used to loving fairly staid renditions, and thus was this disc a bit startling for the greater emotiveness of Edison's interpretations. And, yes, they get the notes and dynamics right, and in Naxos' usual excellent sound. The staid interpretations do seem more coolly French in character, but it's great to have this beautiful alternative.
This Chinese pianist's Bach is always superb, and her take on these cycles (AKA Two- and Three-Part Inventions) also functions as a much-needed corrective to the overly interventionalist style of Simone Dinnerstein, who nagged and tugged at these pieces so much that it went beyond application of Romantic style into a seemingly OCD presentation of weird tics and mannerisms. Zhu, by contrast, manages to give each little piece character and expression without exaggerating or interrupting Bach's flow. Don't think these are minor works just because they're short and many beginner pianists study them; as Zhu correctly notes in the interview that fills this CD's booklet, "there's an extraordinary density of music in the Inventions and Sinfonias. 
Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) started young (he was perhaps the greatest child prodigy in music history) and lived long, so even though 28 years separate the creation of his two piano trios, they both come from the middle of his career. They nonetheless display contrasting temperaments. The Second, in E minor, Op. 92, is both large and serious, but also a little unconventional -- the second movement's meter is 5/4, and there are five movements. Its seriousness, however, is never heavy; there are dazzling runs that must be deployed nonchalantly by the pianist, and even the more portentous passages are elegant. Violinist Livia Sohn's playing has the quicksilver grace this music needs, and pianist Bernadene Blaha makes the finger-busting bits sound easy. Cellist Luigi Piovano's rich tone and songful phrasing also fit the ticket. The earlier trio, in F major, Op. 18, was premiered with legendary violinist Pablo de Sarasate and is more straightforward and sprightly, but still has enough breadth to be taken seriously even as it dazzles. Saint-Saëns's chamber music is less well known than his Symphony No. 3, the Second Piano Concerto, and the originally-for-private-consumption-only Carnival of the Animals, but these trios, especially the Second, deserve just as much exposure, and this ensemble makes an excellent case for their merits here.
My love of Mompou's music is documented multiple times on CultureCatch, so of course I am happy to see Mompou's songs recorded in their entirety, the more so as some of them are not otherwise available (and if you want them sung by a soprano rather than a tenor [which I prefer in these cases], this CD is your only option for both of the song-cycles here. Where Mompou's piano music tends toward the quiet and contemplative, the songs have a lot more Catalonian flavor and "snap," though his exquisite sense of harmony is still in full evidence. Mathéu's voice is not too big for these intimate pieces, and Maso, who has also recorded Mompou's piano music, has the touch and expertise in this milieu that make him an ideal accompanist. The release of this (and the equally excellent vol. 1 by the same artists) makes me a happy man.
I had never found the string quartet version of this work -- the one most often heard -- especially enjoyable in the past. Even the composer himself had commented on the difficulty of making eight consecutive slow movements work ("quite impossible"), and that's how I felt. This one, while not entirely overcoming that hurdle, surprised me by not only holding my attention but by actively stimulating it. The difference, and boy is there ever hubris in this, is that this group's cellist, Andrew Yee, decided that the string quartet arrangement was not Haydn's best work and could be improved on. He went back to Haydn's even later arrangement with chorus (it had started as a purely orchestral composition -- this work has an oddly backwards history) and incorporated aspects of it into a new string quartet arrangement, along with opening some doublings into octaves, which gives it a richer tone that by itself goes a long way toward making it sound better. So now I like it. I think Haydn would too.

Best Historical Release

Sokolov (b. 1950) entered the Leningrad Conservatory at age seven and won the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition's Gold Medal in an upset at age sixteen. The Scriabin Etude and Chopin Etude Op. 25 No. 11 heard here were recorded at that competition. He is a very Russian player: utterly pianistic, huge tone, oscillating between brooding and dramatic, a bit eccentric at times, emphasizing contrast. He's also an amazing virtuoso who can seemingly play anything and has the finger independence to bring clarity to the thickest lines. In 2014 Melodiya celebrated its 50th anniversary with, among other things, a series of Sokolov concert compilations from which this two-CD set seems to have been broken out in early 2015, or maybe just finally was released in the U.S. The two Prokofiev sonatas are particularly stunning, and I mean that in all senses: the outer movements feel like attacks in which the listener is pummeled with bright blocks of sound -- not a comfortable listening experience, but certainly a compelling one. The Schubert is the epitome of my comment about oscillating between brooding and dramatic; this is Schubert as neurotic as Schumann. Speaking of whom, if there was ever a pianist perfect for Schumann's trademark mood swings, it's Sokolov; ditto Scriabin's fever dreams. He puts more chiaroscuro in Chopin than most as well, and it works. Performance dates range from the 1966 Tchaikovsky Competition tracks to 1988. Fans of Russian pianism need this.

Best Box Sets

This appeared in mid-December 2014, and I didn't get it in time for my list last year, so here it is now. I was worried for a while that Pollini might never get around to finishing this cycle, begun in June 1975, but he finished in June 2014. I can't think of another Beethoven cycle that took four decades to complete. By the end, his once-impeccable technique was slightly frayed, but this affects only a few sonatas, and a certain autumnal warmth (yes, warmth from Pollini) compensates. While the lack of passion keeps a few of the middle-period sonatas from ranking among the very best, they are still fine, and his steely intellectual readings of the late sonatas (Nos. 28-32) remain the best of their objective kind thanks to his superb structural understanding and brilliant tone that keeps this still-challenging music from seeming dry. His "Hammerklavier" (No. 28) sets the standard (along with Richter's) in this most demanding of Beethoven's sonatas. He is also excellent in the early sonatas, playing with wit and lightness at times and with passionate intensity at others, as each occasion demands. His concert performances (there are a few here) carry an extra frisson -- notably, he plays the "Waldstein" with tightrope bravura in a reading that takes risks successfully -- so it is unfortunate that the bonus concert performances of Nos. 23 ("Appassionata") and 24 included in the 2003 release that brought us the studio performances as well are not here. I'll be saving that set alongside this box, as the "Appassionata" in particular caught fire "live" in a way that surpassed the studio version. Also MIA is the CD-ROM "plusscore" feature (musical scores synchronized with Pollini's performances) that came with the CD of Nos. 11-12/21, so that stays on my shelf as well (though I'd be keeping that one in any case, as Pollini autographed my copy). But these nits I've picked matter not, especially since they do remain available outside the box; the main point is that this cycle is a milestone in the history of the Beethoven piano sonatas, and its completion and highly compact packaging -- and $40 price for eight CDs -- are a boon to collectors.
This cycle started to appear in 2012, when I included vol. 1 on my best-of list; now, completed at four CDs, a slipcase has been put around them all and the resulting set sells for less than two-thirds the cost of the individual CDs combined. Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996) was born in Warsaw but fled the Nazis to Russia in 1939. Shostakovich became a friend and mentor. Weinberg’s symphonies and his controversial Holocaust-themed opera are better known than his piano music, but his sonatas are impressive. Many of the smaller works in this set are premiere recordings. There’s no question, though, that the most significant works here are the sonatas. Harmonically slippery, by turns ironically wry or darkly elusive, they are excellent works, and Franzetti’s bravura performances make an emphatic case for their artistic significance. Weinberg's work has been revived in recent years; this set is a welcome addition to that trend. - Steve Holtje

Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor. Earlier this year, his soundtrack for director Enrico Cullen's film A Man Full of Days was heard at the film's debut screening at Anthology Film Archives, and more recently at the Lausanne Underground Film & Music FestivalThe CD of the soundtrack  was releaseby MechaBenzaiten Records (distributed by Forced Exposure) on August 7.