Best New Classical Albums of 2012

My usual explanation in this space: I am especially interested in piano and choral music, plus symphonies, so that’s what I get the most promos of. Other stuff obviously gets through my filters, but the percentages of what comes in inevitably affect what comes out, i.e. this list. That said, in terms of number of centuries spanned, rather than genres or formats or whatever, I think I'm covering as much or more musical territory than most critics. By the way, look for a shorter list of my favorite classical reissues of 2012, to follow in a day or two.

 
There were recordings this year that were more important in terms of bringing new repertoire to light, or featuring young artists, or bringing classical into the 21st century, or being more controversially newsworthy. Examples of all of those follow. But this is the recording I played and enjoyed the most, because of the pieces involved, my love for the composer who wrote them, and the fine sound and performances. Review here.
 
 
Recorded at the 2011 Baden-Baden Festival, this is a vivid interpretation, its tautness and pointedness compensating for a few slightly less than ideal voices (never poor singing, just not quite fitting the characters, especially the Commendatore, who is less darkly imposing than the best). But then, hardly any opera recording is perfect in all aspects, and this one is better than most. Séguin moves things along at an exciting pace, emphasizing the dramatic flow. The focus is the sheer evil of the titular character, playing him as a callous rapist and murderer rather than a charming rogue. d'Arcangelo sings the role roughly, emphasizing the character's forcefulness far more than his seductiveness. All the female roles are pretty much perfect, but Damrau is especially compelling, and her coloratura is impeccable. I'm torn between saying that Séguin makes a verismo opera or a contemporary opera, but either way of looking at it makes it clear that he has given us a somewhat shocking reading -- not in a gimmicky sense of shocking, rather in the sense of a psychologically disturbing experience. No matter how many of the great Dons you have, you have to hear this one. That's quite an achievement.
 

Pilgrim's Song is nearly Pärt's greatest (shorter) choral hits: "Ein Wallfahrtslied" (its translation is the album's title), the brilliantly structured Magnificat (it alternates passages of quarter notes and longer notes in such a way that it never becomes predictable, even keeps one slightly off balance), Summa (a credo setting), the ethereal Nunc dimittis, and his mighty Te Deum. The sonic production here is stunningly good and utterly natural, especially appreciated in the half-hour Te Deum, which ends magically. There's also a little more breadth to Joost's rendition of the Te Deum, and Nunc dimittis as well, whereas in the Magnificat and the coolly intense Summa he offers slightly more taut readings than the competition, which works especially well in the Magnificat, which really is one of the great a cappella choral compositions of the 20th century. Bookending the three acapella pieces with the two including orchestra works well. This is an excellent album in every respect.

 
That this album was recorded in concert might raise concerns among choral fans aware of just how difficult many of the Bach motets are (specifically the ones for double chorus), but the level of precision this choir (with minimal continuo accompaniment) has achieved is dazzling. Most impressive, though, is how fluidly Gardiner shapes everything, his sense of rhythm organic and flowing. The Monteverdi Choir’s blend is impeccable, its dynamics dramatic without slipping into melodrama, and it’s all captured in impressively natural sound. They are also willing to do more than just sing beautifully; the vehement attacks in the “Unter deinem Schirmen” and “Trotz dem alten Drachen” sections of Jesu, meine Freude, BWV 227, and in the first section of “Fürchte dich nicht,” BWV 228, are downright thrilling. This is now the top choice in this repertoire. Full review here.
 
5. Weser-Renaissance Bremen/Manfred Cordes
Philipp Dulichius: Sacred Motets (cpo)
 
I'm pretty sure that this is the first album consisting solely of music of German Renaissance composer Philipp Dulichius (1562-1631). This choir sang three of his works on earlier multi-composer albums; none of them are among the 18 motets here. Dulichius was dubbed "the Pomeranian Lassus"; as one might expect from that appellation, stylistically his music looks backward. What little evidence there is here of the Baroque comes in the works for eight voices, which are in double-choir layout. Those for five, six, or seven voices are densely polyphonic, exemplary Late Renaissance choral music of noble beauty (with, as was normal, instruments on some parts). The seven singers (two sopranos, one male alto, three tenors, and one bass) and nine instrumentalists (one cornetto, two trombones, one dulcian [bassoon ancestor], one violin, two violas da gamba, one positive organ, and one chitarrone [bass lute]) emphasize the music’s beauty with their generally smooth phrasing and intonation. Director Manfred Cordes chose works in as many modes as was practical; between that and the shifting instrumentation, there's plenty of variety on this excellent album.
 
 
Tonus Peregrinus made its own modern edition of this music; their characterful application of scholarship to the questions of cross-relations and unwritten accidentals gives these performances a piquancy missing from some of the competition. Full review here.
 
 
Radiohead guitarist/keyboardist Jonny Greenwood’s fans have been curious about his classical composition Popcorn Superhet Receiver ever since his soundtrack for There Will Be Blood was denied an Oscar Best Original Score nomination because it included pieces of the former-- a big no-no given the word "original" in the category name. Thanks to this recording, they can hear it in full and compare it with one of Greenwood's biggest influences, Polish avant-garde composer Penderecki. Even if you're not a Greenwood fan, you should get this for the only available recording of Penderecki conducting his own "Polymorphia." Full review here.
 
 
This three-CD box is dazzlingly good. It has the three sonatas of Op. 2; the "Grand Sonata," Op. 7; the three sonatas of Op. 10 plus No. 1's original Prestissimo finale and the Presto WoO 52 that was also jettisoned from No. 1; the Pathetique, Op. 13; and the two Op. 14 sonatas. Bavouzetis never too heavy-handed, but -- using a Steinway, not a period instrument -- he definitely is not playing these works as though they are Haydnesque (even though Op. 2 was dedicated to the older composer), giving them a broad dynamic range, part of how consistently he follows Beethoven's markings. I do not mean to imply that Bavouzet is literal or cerebral or that the care he takes in following Beethoven's performance indications leads to cautiously plodding. Far from it; consider, for one of many examples, the lively finale of the first Sonata. The technical aplomb with which Bavouzet hurdles Beethoven's difficulties (no blurred rhythms here, which means the first movement of No. 2 comes off much better than usual) allows a degree of polish that far surpasses some more famous pianists' Beethoven, yet it still has considerable verve to go with its unsurpassed clarity. I look forward eagerly to further installments in this project. (The latest volume in his Haydn sonatas cycle almost made the list as well.)
 
 
As long as we're on the topic of Beethoven, here's Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes's debut on Sony Classical after two decades with Virgin and EMI. Andsnes is a pianistic poet, not a thunderer, so this is not bombastic Beethoven. There's a lot of contrast between the weight of the orchestra and the graceful elegance of the soloist, a sort of upending of the ingrained image of the giant Beethoven overwhelming his instrument and the orchestra. I exaggerate both, of course, but this is a most refreshing take on these warhorses.
 
 
An "environmental sound artist," Blackburn pushes sounds up against each other -- planned and created sounds (say, music) vs. what is there in the world, or different types of music that signify new things after the juxtapositions. As I wrote in my review in The Big Takeover, "In the 51-minute title track, he repurposes vocal music both ancient and modern, deploys speakers chanting plant names in five languages, percussion, conch shell trumpets, "balloon flute," organ,  ethnic instruments, cello, and bells in an impressive work that blurs the lines between composition, sampling, ambiance, and performance. The closest comparison I can think of is some of Ingram Marshall's music, but Blackburn's is much more variegated, a sort of sound analog to Joseph Cornell's boxes."
 
 
Young Canadian pianist David Jalbert’s rendition of the Goldberg Variations is technically and interpretively impressive, imaginative without crossing the line into quirky. It has a certain kinship with Gould’s 1981 recording (slow aria, generally sprightly tempos featuring counterpoint of crystalline clarity) but without Gould’s tendency to make his piano as dryly harpsichord-like as possible; Jalbert’s tone is quite pianistic without ever seeming anachronistically Romantic, and he sometimes spins out beautifully legato lines with a singing quality. Most of all, I quite enjoyed the way he varies ornamentation: his repeats -- he takes all of them except in the Aria -- are not the same as the first time through, sometimes with drastic differences; usually, only harpsichordists are this daring. So after living with this recording for a while, I have come to appreciate both its creativity and its more subtle merits, and would now rank it in my top ten piano Goldbergs.
 
 
Half-Italian, half-Latvian composer Antonio Cartellieri (1772-1807), educated in Berlin and Vienna, was tragically short-lived and fairly obscure; the conductor here had to spend around a decade tracking down two of the four symphonies here. It was well worth it for fans of Classical-era Viennese symphonies; these are excellent works of their type, not at all generic or formulaic. Cartellieri had a great ear for melody and had apparently absorbed the lessons of Haydn's work in the form while making it his own. Rather than get Barenboim's latest pompous, leaden run-throughs of the Beethoven symphonies, spend that money on these highly deserving works in dedicated and lively performances. The Taiwanese orchestra heard here acquits itself honorably in period performances, and the engineering is excellent.
 
13 & 14. Allison Brewster Franzetti

This was certainly the most intriguing new cycle of 2012 based on the criterion of revival of little-known yet often high-quality music. Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996) was born in Warsaw but fled to Russia in 1939. In Russia he began studying composition under Rimsky-Korsakov student Vasily Zolotaryov; Shostakovich also 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. Much of this series features premiere recordings: for instance, vol. 1 has the Lullaby, Op. 1; the Two Mazurkas from 1933 that are his oldest surviving pieces; and the unnumbered Sonata, Op. 49b, that was his 1978 revision of a 1951 Sonatina that in its original form may have been compromised by Soviet restrictions in the post-war era. The Lullaby’s chiaroscuro tints make it a strangely unsettling sleep song, and thus quietly striking. There’s no question, though, that the most significant works here are the Sonatas (No. 2 was premiered by Emil Gilels). 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. Vol. 2 is even more powerful, its works mostly weightier and more mature, the exception being the Sonatina that is the original version of Op. 49b on Vol. 1 Even though slight in its early form, it is not insubstantial. In the outer movements, its harmonic and rhythmic shifts within its minor key give it a shadowed mien, while in the Adagietto lugubre middle movement, with its trudging counterpoint, the shadows lengthen. The 22-minute Partita is in ten movements that culminate in a Canon finale, altogether a larger and more serious work than its Baroque models yet not unmindful of its origins. Both these works are recorded here for the first time, and both deserve to be taken up by other pianists. The mighty Sonata No. 4 is better known, since it was premiered and recorded by, again, Gilels. With three Allegros and an Adagio, it is a restless work, yet finely proportioned.

15. Magnificat/Philip Cave: Where late the sweet birds sang: Latin Music from Tudor England (Linn)

The composers here are Robert Parsons (c.1535-c.1572), Robert White (c.1538-1574), and William Byrd (c.1540-1623). Basically, anybody who sings White's Lamentations (here, just the five-voice one, still a monumental work at nearly 23 minutes) this angelically is guaranteed to end up on my best-of-the-year list. (Of interest to collectors is that it and the rest of this exceedingly well-chosen program are sung at the pitches they're written at, rather than being subjected to the upward transpositions that were all the rage for a few decades. This makes them sound richer rather than more brilliant; I like both, but slightly prefer this lower approach.) There are four works by the best-known and longest-lived composer here, Byrd: his De Lamentatione, an interesting comparison with the White; his setting of "Christe qui lux es et dies," which bookends the program along with White's four-part setting of the same text; "Domine, quis habitabit"; and "Quomodo cantabimus." Parsons is represented by his most famous piece, "Ave maria," and a "Domine, quis habitabit" to compare to Byrd's. This is Elizabethan counterpoint at its finest, and the small choir Magnificat presents them all with gorgeous aplomb.

16. I Fagiolini/Robert Hollingworth: 1612 Italian Vespers (Decca)

Venetian composers are the focus on this album that includes several first recordings. Giovanni Gabrieli's Magnificat for seven choirs and motet In ecclesiis have been reconstructed by Hugh Keyte from incomplete or truncated sources. They are presented in the context of a Vespers service mostly otherwise drawn from five previously unrecorded four-choir Vesper Psalms, published 400 years ago,and two other works by Lodovico Grossi da Viadana. Also mixed in are plainchant antiphons, instrumental interludes by Bartolomeo, Claudio Monteverdi, and Andrea Gabrieli, Monteverdi's virtuoso motet for bass vocalist Ab aeterno ordinate sum, and choral works by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, and Francesco Soriano. This is a bountiful haul for fans of late Renaissance polychoral music. Full review here.

 
This agile performance emphasizes drama in a nearly operatic way -- by "operatic" I do not mean big-voiced, but instead theatrical, moving the action along. What makes it a quick performance is not just the tempos Huggett chooses, but also the lack of pauses (in this, she is diametrically opposed to, for instance, Harnoncourt). The quick transitions among soloists and the chorus that acts as both crowd and commentator come off very naturally. The forces are relatively small -- 12 singers (still much better than one on a part), and 14 instrumentalists -- though hardly skimpy, and the balance between them is good. Tenor Daniels is superb as the Evangelist, bass Hopkins is an affecting Jesus, bass Duncan is a vigorous Pilate, and all three other soloists are similarly fine. Full review here.
 
 
Ullmann (1898-1944), a Czech composer and pianist who studied with Zemlinsky and Schoenberg, was interned at the Nazi "model" concentration camp Theresienstadt AKA Terezin, where he wrote the final three of his seven Piano Sonatas, and was then executed at Auschwitz. The sonatas are all mature works, written from 1936 until the year of his death; they basically encompass his career as a composer, because after his studied, he had dropped out of music, and it was only in 1936 that he decided to concentrate on composing. Each sonata has a distinctive style and character. The First is an homage to Mahler in the 25th anniversary year of his death. The Second centers on a Czech folk song in theme and variations. The Third is polystylistic, starting atonally but ending with variations on a theme by Mozart. The Fourth is Bartokian, with a complex three-subject fugue at its center.  The Fifth, dedicated to his wife, who died at Terezin, is death-haunted. In contrast, the Sixth is jazzy. The Seventh, dedicated to his children, mingles the cultures that surrounded him, with themes drawn from a Yiddish folk song, a Hussite patriotic song, a Lutheran chorale, and the B-A-C-H motif. As a little coda, we get the original form of the Menuett written for the Fifth but not used there, instead recycled as the Totentanz (dance of death) in his opera Kaiser von Atlantis. Thanks to the efforts of the conductor James Conlon, that opera and Ullmann's orchestral music are better known, but Golan's sonata cycle amply demonstrates the considerable merits of his piano music.
 
 
Naxo's Penderecki series is the most important and impressive ongoing project in classical music right now. Even this collection of (mostly) choral odds and ends, covering a wide range of his career, offers great value. Of greatest significant is the one non-choral piece, Strophen (1959), for soprano, speaker and ten instruments; its premiere at the 1959 Warsaw Autumn festival, along with two other works, brought Penderecki's first fame.  My favorite is the a cappella "Song of the Cherubim" (1986), which has an attractive purity of focus, though the murmuring beginning of Canticum Canticorum Salomonis (1973) is also a striking a cappella moment. The superb engineering required to make the denser works, such as Canticum Canticorum Salomonis, come through the speakers with such crystalline clarity is a major contributor to the impact of this album and Naxos' whole Penderecki series. Of course, Antoni Wit is a extremely talented conductor who understands these works as well as anyone besides the composer, but Penderecki himself had already conducted recordings of many of the works Naxos has recorded; it's how much better they sound here that makes this series indispensable. Who needs audiophile labels when this mid-price label's sound is state-of-the-art?
 
 
After a dozen years of success on the piano competition circuit (seven first prizes and two seconds), Armenian prodigy Arghamanyan already sounds like a fully mature talent at a mere 23 years of age. On this program of solo sets, she manages to take wildly Romantic liberties with rubato without sounding mannered or tasteless. Okay, she shamelessly dramatizes the famous C-sharp minor Prelude from Op. 3, but that's not a criticism, it's a recommendation -- it's so passionate, it's irresistible. It helps that her sound is absolutely gorgeous, her quiet passages luscious yet fully projected, her fortissimos bold yet never harsh. - Steve Holtje

steve-holtjeMr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor. His song cycle setting five of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach can be heard here.