Best New Classical Albums of 2011


Here's what I have to say to all the people who bemoan the state of classical music: My classical list is the last one I'm posting (as has often been the case) because there were so many great releases to listen to that I didn't finish until now.

I want to once again admit the biases operating in my best-of-the-year classical lists: I am most interested in the piano, choral, and symphonic literatures. I’m happy to listen to other things when they come my way, but those are what I seek out, vastly tipping the balance in their favor (tipping the balance against opera is the increasing disinclination of record companies to send promos for new opera recordings unless one specifically asks -- and even that is no guarantee). Also note: no reissues or compilations here. That disqualified even the first box-set appearance of David Zinman's fine Mahler cycle, because it had all been released separately in past years.

And one more thing, since there are fewer and fewer record stores and even fewer that stock much classical music: Whenever possible, the heading for each album links to that album on iTunes.

1. Silent Music: Jenny Lin Plays Mompou (Steinway & Sons)

Lin's rendition of Catalan composer Federico Mompou's solo piano cycle Musica Callada is as good in its own way as the composer's own recording, and a clear alternative to him and other versions I've heard because, in an entirely appropriate way, Lin (above) plays it with a Romantic, Chopinesque level of expressiveness (Mompou adored Chopin, so that makes sense). There's a level of intensity here, of great investment in achieving the full emotional impact of each individual piece, that's downright startling. This makes for a longer running time of 71:03, but there is enough variety among the pieces that this approach doesn't make the entire cycle overwhelming, and nothing ever seems overly elongated; when she dwells on a piece, interpretive rewards are reaped. Mompou's expressive markings are followed pretty closely, though not inhibitively so.

The Romanticism of Lin's playing doesn't include the composer's left-hand-first tic, by the way. It does include a songful projection of melodies, wide dynamic range, deep characterization of each piece, and a wonderful sense of flow with plenty of tastefully applied rubato and agogics, yet no violations of structure, no distensions. Nor does this approach diminish the vividly modernist aspects of this unusual music; in fact, it heightens it, with its outbursts set off powerfully and its brooding passion granted Expressionistic starkness. Sonically, this is superb, as one would hope for from the house label of the most famous piano company. All in all, when I want to hear Música Callada, this will be the one I'll put on most often.

(For the long version of this review, which also includes background on Mompou and competing recordings of Musica Callada, go here.)  

As I've noted in the past, Hahn is my favorite violinist, not least for her adventurous repertoire. The Ives Sonatas for violin and piano are mature Ives (however early their beginnings), with all the knotty dissonances and eccentricities he'd developed into his highly personal style, but it's great to hear them played with supremely beautiful tone -- not that Hahn undercuts their originality a whit. Further thoughts/background here.

The highly respected Italian Renaissance composer Alessandro Striggio(ca. 1536/1537–1592) was known to have written a mass with forty independent voice parts (plus instrumental doubling) -- sixty in the Agnus Dei! -- but it was lost (the only remaining copy misfiled in a Paris library) until 2005. Well, here it is: Missa sopra "Ecco sì beato giorno," a polychoral parody mass for five eight-voice choirs (expanded to twelve voices each for the Agnus Dei). It is a glorious work, and it's easy to understand why Tallis was spurred, either by it or by Striggio's forty-voice motet Ecce beatam lucem, to match this feat of polyphonic complexity with his own now more famous forty-voice motet Spem in alium, which is included for comparison, and which unlike other Tallis Spem performances includes instruments, emphasizing the similarity with Striggio's works. The program also includes eight secular madrigals by Striggio, a purely instrumental interlude by Vincenzo Galilei, and the Sarum "Spem in alium"chant. It's the biggest choral event of 2011.

Thierry Lancino (1954- ) gives us the wildest Requiem in decades, a multi-culti affair that's certainly not suitable for church use but makes for a most bracing musical experience. More here.

Duo Runedako is pianists Ruth Neville and Daniel Koppelman; they actually perform together on only two pieces, though those are the second- and third-longest tracks; one is for two pianos, the other for piano four-hands. Another track is Neville alone; the other ten are by Koppelman alone, though in one case he's playing four pianos via overdubbing. Furthermore, one of the duo tracks is the combination of two solo tracks. As the composer puts it, "The interconnected pieces of Recombinant Nocturnes all share the same musical DNA: materials, gestures, rhythmic ideas and brief melodic fragments drift from one piece to another in the set, constantly recombining in new ways...." On two tracks, he adds an electronic element, but largely this music is a meditative exploration of bell-like timbres deployed in kaleidoscopic patterns. The nocturnal title is apt; shadows and flickerings of light dance about, intertwining in striking juxtapositions.

Beginning their fourth decade of recording, the Tallis Scholars remain the supreme early music choir, and every album from them is a treasure. This one contains a particularly fascinating pair of masses, both built around canons quoting chant melodies; between them we also get a Credo constructed along the same lines. The vocal ranges are wide, and Josquin's various striking effects are continually stimulating. The amount and quality of intricate polyphony here is dazzling; the Scholars sing with their usual highly polished phrasing and tonal allure, matched by their refined expressiveness.

My favorite new label this year was Honens, dedicated to disseminating recordings by the laureates of the Canadian piano competition of the same name. While all four I heard were excellent, this one ranks highest  -- the best piano Goldberg Variations I've heard since Perahia's. Sohn's take on it is a little more playful, with some unusual ornamentation that keeps it fresh and a few agogic pauses (though he hardly overdoes it) that make it seem likely he's done some period-performance reading, or at least listened to how some harpsichordists play it. That said, this is nonetheless a gloriously pianistic performance, and the label's sound quality is further evidence that they know a lot about how pianos should sound.

It's kind of stunning that the Emersons are now on Sony after decades on Deutsche Grammophon. Such a momentous move deserves to be marked by momentous music, and it is: the last three quartets of Mozart (the Emersons' first Mozart recording in twenty years). These pieces are noteworthy in the literature for the relatively even-handed parceling out of spotlight passages for each instrument, something that came about from their being written for the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm II, a cellist. Mozart thus wanted to feature the cello more than usual, and while the first violin still gets the most prominence, the cello's not far behind and the other two instruments also get featured more often that had generally been the case up to that point in the string quartet's then still brief history. Emerson cellist David Finckel is well up to the task in this full-bodied reading of these works -- no thin, wimpy Mozart playing here. The Emersons have rarely played with such welcoming warmth of tone as here.

Anonymous 4 returns to its medieval and feminist roots with a program of 13th- and early 14-century polyphony and sacred Latin songs collected at the Las Huelgas convent at Burgos in north central Spain. The music is quite varied in origin; some was written there, some came from France and England. The beautiful purity of vocal production by this quartet, still with three of its original members, remains marvelous as they enter their third decade of music-making.

There were a lot of Liszt albums in 2011 for the bicentennial of his birth. It was no surprise that the king of Romantic pianists made the best of the purely Liszt programs. It culminates in a masterful interpretation of the monumental Sonata, managing to deliver it with all its drama displayed yet without -- as many past performances by even great pianists have done -- overly sectionalizing it, walking a very fine line to do so, yet somehow, even while highlighting its contrasts, he keeps the structure taut. He also, no surprise here, gives its virtuoso elements full expression, yet always tastefully, and the even touch displayed in his runs is worthy of envy. The extremely quiet rendition of the coda is magical (although Hyperion should have put more silence at the end). The Sonata caps the album; the works leading up to it are a varied selection designed to display Liszt as serious composer, and do so quite well while also indulging Hamelin's poetic side most gloriously.

Another Liszt album, but as one might expect from Aimard, with a twist. Across a two-CD program, he demonstrates the lineage that connects the ultimate Romantic with the evolution of modern music into the 20th century: From Liszt ("La lugubre gondola"; "Nuages gris"; "Unstern: sinistre, disastro"; Années de pèlerinage, Book 3 Nos. 2 & 4; "Vallée d'Obermann"; Légendes No.  1, "St. Francis of Assisi Preaching to the Birds"; and of course the Sonata) to Wagner (Sonata for Piano in A flat major) to Scriabin (Sonata No. 9 "Black Mass"), Berg (Sonata, Op. 1), Bartók (Dirge No. 4), Stroppa ("Tangatu manu"), Ravel ("Jeux d'eau"), and Messiaen (Catalogue d'oiseaux, Book 2 No. 4). The Berg and Scriabin are also one-movement sonatas, but much more condensed, but in Aimard's hands, Liszt's Sonata's structure is rock-solid. Its poetry comes through naturally, if not quite as expressively as above with Hamelin; its drama is a bit short-changed (it's very much on the quiet end of the spectrum). The shorter pieces show how influential Liszt's wild harmonies were (other connections are made -- Liszt's and Bartók's nationalism, Liszt's and Messiaen's evocations of birdsong (Stroppa's as well) and their senses of time, Liszt's and Scriabin's love of tritones); Aimard makes Liszt, in turn, sound more modern, and lessening the drama in the Sonata is part of that approach, perfectly valid if hardly what we are used to hearing (though things have been moving that way over the past decade). That interpretation and the program as a whole prove most stimulating.

As pianist and conductor in these familiar concertos, Grimaud delivers one of the most audacious reinterpretations of 2011: her luscious take on the Adagio of No. 23 is radical, but utterly convincing on its own terms. Read all about it here.

When a conductor records all of Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů's symphonies, it's probably for love, not commerce; when a Czech conductor does it, there's an invigorating element of heartfelt advocacy as well. Though a bit pricey as a physical entity, this is well worth hearing. The English orchestra's winds aren't as pungently individual as a Czech orchestra's, but Bělohlávek shapes the works masterfully and dramatically, the sound is good, and the quality of dark fairytale mystery at the heart of so many of these symphonies is expressed with scintillating delicacy.

The increasingly great Polish conductor Antoni Wit (who will reappear on this list) delivers the best digitally recorded version I've heard of the standard edition of the Glagolitic Mass. For comparisons and encomiums, my review is here.

Another favorite from Honens, not least because the pianistic talent on display is matched by the adventurous programming. The theme is the musical unrest during and after World War I: Szymanowski's suite Masques of 1915-16 with its startling mix of Impressionism and Scriabin; Hindemith's Suite '1922' with its mixture of parody and poignance; Schoenberg's Klavierstucke, Op. 23 (1923) with its game-changing 12-tone strategy; and Stravinsky's Neo-Classical reaction in his Sonata (1924).

Naxos's Penderecki series is Wit's finest legacy so far:Poland's best living conductor at the service of its top living composer. Cellist Vassiljeva and especially violist Zhislin also excel here. I have more to say here.

I started with the Ninth, the most likely stumbling block in a Beethoven cycle due to the addition of vocal soloists and choir. With an exemplary quartet of soloists, excellent choir, and well-balanced sonics, it passed with flying colors. Although working with a proudly traditional orchestra, not a "period performance" group, Chailly has incorporated ideas we associate with "historically informed practice," notably in matters of tempo, but with the heft of a modern orchestra when he wants it. The best of both worlds. My recommendation for a digitally recorded Beethoven cycle has changed to this one.

Obviously Naxos got top-notch soloists for this project, especially Thibaudet for the piano part in the Fantasy and clarinetist Meyer for the First Rhapsody (which is not to slight Doisy in the Sax Rhapsody or harpist Ceysson in the Dances). Ultimately, though, what is most striking about these performances is the magical lightness of the orchestra. People say orchestral sound is more homogenized in this global era, less distinct from one country to the next, and it's true that one can no longer tell a French orchestra by its acerbic woodwinds, but there's still a very French touch to the playing here, a graceful elegance that makes points clearly without insisting too forcefully. And although Naxos is a budget label (THE budget label), its sonics are audiophile quality. This is Impressionism at its best.

This French pianist has been flying under the radar in America, quietly amassing an impressive discography that stretches from the Baroque to living composers. Years of wonderful work on the Harmonia Mundi label attracted the interest of a major, which is not always good news, but aside from slowing down his release schedule, Virgin seems to have avoided undue meddling. For his first Scarlatti collection, Tharaud has picked a generous 72-minute program nicely mixing familiar and less famous pieces. His pearly tone and crisp articulation (but not dry -- crisp like a good apple) are put in the service of fleet tempos -- this is some dazzling pianism -- and expressive lyricism, offering all the verve of period performance on a modern instrument.

20. Trio Mediaeval: A Worcester Ladymass (ECM)

A three-woman exploration of territory similar to that covered by Anonymous 4, this is just as beautiful. The vocal blend is impeccable, and the tuning, in music full of perfect intervals, is uncannily precise. The program consists of 13th century polyphony from a Benedictine abbey in Worcester, England. In a bold move, when the Mass they compiled had no Credo, Trio Mediaeval got Gavin Bryars to compose one. It's not exactly a stylistic fit, but it's so obviously inspired by the period, and so gorgeous on its own terms, that it works.

Another product of the Liszt bicentennial, and definitely going against type. This program is about Liszt the Poet, with practically no flag-waving. Not that plenty of technique isn't required to play some of these pieces, especially the title track! In fact, it's because Freire is so good that these pieces seem so effortless, relatively, though positioning "Harmonies du Soir" at the end definitely provides a bravura finish, not that he hams it up even slightly. He plays with impeccable taste and musicianship, in the process proving, in case you didn't already know, that Liszt was more than a showoff.  Definitely the most supernally beautiful of the Liszt recitals that proliferated in 2011.

22. Harley Gaber: in memoriam 2010 (innova)

The composer's detailed booklet notes go on at considerable length about how this monumental work was inspired and constructed, but this is music the value of which depends  on the merits neither of the philosophy behind its creation nor the mechanisms of its making. This is haunting electronic music that reminds me at times of Ingram Marshall's work, which is to say that some of its textures sound similar and it has an equally strong emotional impact, not that it's even remotely imitative.  Long threads of sound float shimmering in the air while other threads or clusters revolve around them, weaving a tensile sonic fabric that implies a narrative without insisting on it. A profoundly affecting achievement.

Music of incredible harmonic intensity and originality, given eminently precise and interpretively apt performances. Another commendable series on Naxos. Read more here.

The most famous Chinese pianist has matured as a player in his decade in the spotlight, refining not only his technique but also his taste -- no more "Bang Bang." His contribution to the Liszt bicentennial seems to deliberately avoid typecasting. The big item here is the Piano Concerto No. 1, which gets a much less impulsive reading than I expected from the combination of Lang and fiery Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, bringing out its songful aspect rather than emphasizing fireworks. Before it we're given a selection of solo works (Romance "Ô pourquoi donc"; "La campanella"; Consolation No. 3; Grand galop chromatique; Liebestraum No. 3; Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6; "Un sospiro"; Hungarian Rhapsody No. 15 (arr. Horowitz); Ave Maria (Schubert)) that, while providing a few bravura pieces (not least the spicy Horowitz arrangement), emphasizes lyrical pieces that Lang plays with limpid beauty.

Irish Post-Minimalist composer Donnacha Dennehy's Grá Agus Bás incorporates the ancient Irish sean-nós singing style with its high degree of ornamentation and inflection, and its repertoire as well, drastically rearranging two traditional songs (sung in Irish) and then building upon them in a complex interweaving of patterns and rhythms. It's sung by sean-nós specialist (and Afro Celt Sound System member) Iarla Ó Lionáird in a striking performance. More immediately accessible, thanks to its English texts -- six mostly angst-ridden poems of W.B. Yeats -- That the Night Come is sung by Dawn Upshaw in a rawer style than her usual classical singing. Dennehy's clangorous orchestration and dense polyrhythms provide a much edgier accompaniment than any Yeats setting you've heard before. - Steve Holtje

Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based editor, poet, and composer whose song cycle setting tanka by Fumiko Nakajo is finally complete at twelve songs. It is the most depressing set of songs since Mahler's Kindertotenlieder.


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