Best Recordings of 2007: Classical


songs_are_sungAny "death of classical" moanings can be safely dismissed merely by observing the continued profusion of classical recordings each year. Has it become more of a niche market? Yes. But the internet, especially the fine website (which has the best search engine), makes it easier to track down CDs on small labels - and big ones as well, in the wake of Tower's demise and the downsizing of the classical department at Virgin. And of course there's iTunes for those (unlike this writer) who don't fetishize the physical packaging. I don't pretend that this is a definitive list, but I am convinced of the lasting value of every item on it.

Kronos Quartet
Henryk Górecki: String Quartet No. 3

This fifty-minute masterpiece (CD cover above left) was written in 1995 but withheld for a decade. I reviewed it for Culture Catch here.

ashkenazyVladimir Ashkenazy
Beethoven: Diabelli Variations; Wranitzky Variations

This great Russian pianist turned 70 in July 2007, and his label’s website proclaimed, “To mark this special year Decca will be releasing the only major piano work that Vladimir Ashkenazy has not previously recorded – the Diabelli Variations.” Gee, I will have to look harder for his recordings of Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes, Stockhausen’s Klavierstücke, Bach’s Goldberg Variations…. Anyway, setting aside my snarkiness concerning major-label obtuseness, this is a wonderful recording in every way, as one would expect from this bona fide Beethovenian. Certainly Ashkenazy doesn’t sound like the advancing years have cost him much, if any, of his technique, or more importantly his superb musicianship and taste. This is a sparkling, witty reading of a piece that is best suited to exactly that interpretive outlook, since its heroicism often has an ironic tinge. And he makes the smaller set of variations sound better than it really is.

huelgas.jpgHuelgas Ensemble/Paul Van Nevel
La Quinta essentia: Three Essential Masses of the Renaissance
(Harmonia Mundi)

Another imaginative program from Van Nevel and his estimable choir, this contains Roland de Lassus’s Mass “Tous les regretz,” Thomas Ashewell’s Mass “Ave Maria,” and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’s Mass “Ut re mi fa sol la.” The Ashewell may be receiving its first recording and is certainly the only one currently available. Ashewell (c.1478-after 1513), whose name also, with the variable spelling of the English in that time, appears as Ashwell and three other variants, is the earliest of the trio and represents the ornate English style on this program. His second of two surviving masses, a six-part work based on the “Ave Maria” chant melody, is distinguished by the piquant dissonances of its cross-relations. It easily stands alongside its more famous companions here, with Lassus representing the Franco-Flemish polyphonic style and Palestrina the clean lines of the style of Rome. This disc is a must-own for all fans of Renaissance choral music.

neruda_songs.jpgLorraine Hunt Lieberson/Boston Symphony Orchestra/James Levine
Peter Lieberson: Neruda Songs

A loving musical gift from the late composer to his wife, who sings it here. I rhapsodized over it for Culture Catch in the second half of this review.

yundi-li.jpgYundi Li/Berlin Philharmonic/Seiji Ozawa
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 2; Ravel: Piano Concerto in G Major
(Deutsche Grammophon)

Ah, to be young and fearless – and blessed with the technique to pull it off! The Prokofiev is bold, brash, cheeky, dissonant, sparkling, stormy, and extremely hard to play; it glitters brilliantly in this recording by 22-year-old Chinese piano prodigy Yundi Li. Ozawa, who awhile back sometimes seemed bored, has tended to rise to challenges, and this is certainly a prime example as the conductor provides Li with alert accompaniment. Impressively, though it’s a concert recording, nobody rushes or bangs. The Ravel, a studio production, is a whole different world interpretively as well; though it also has its cheeky outbursts, they are jazz-inspired, and in general it is more lyrical and dreamy. The Berliners, who used to seem too heavy in French music, are light on their toes here.

emerson.jpgEmerson String Quartet/Leon Fleisher
Brahms: String Quartets; Piano Quintet
(Deutsche Grammophon)

The Emerson’s rank as the supreme American string quartet is further secured by this release. Their techniques, individually and as an ensemble, offer a rare degree of precision, but precision for them is, thankfully, just the means to an end. The two emotionally stormy Op. 51 quartets are as turbulent yet taut here as they’ve ever been on record, while the more amiable Op. 67 gets a warm reading that nonetheless avoids the temptation to relax into mushy prettiness. The Piano Quintet, though, is especially welcome, as it continues the comeback of pianist Leon Fleisher. For its full emotional range, highly focused interpretation, and resplendent sound, the fiery result is now my favorite recording of this masterpiece. And, commendably, this two-CD set sells for the cost of a single disc.

paavo-jarvi.jpgDeutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen/Paavo Järvi
Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 3 “Eroica” & 8
(RCA Red Seal)

The clichéd refrain of some classical reviewers – which basically boils down to “why record new versions of warhorses?” – is often an apt point, but there are still conductors finding valid interpretations that bring a fresh outlook to familiar repertoire. The “Eroica” heard here is a perfect example. This happens to be the fiftieth “Eroica” I’ve added to my collection. There is no question in my mind that it is the most viscerally exciting of all of them. Even ignoring its advantage of excellent SACD sound, it trumps even such thrilling worthies as Toscanini and Bernstein. Though using a modern-instrument group, Järvi delivers a period-performance interpretation bursting with rhythmic energy and keen clarity. The Eighth has much of the same character and is fine on those terms, but my personal taste is for a bit more charm and humor. Järvi is the artistic director of this 40-member chamber orchestra and has already performed the complete Beethoven symphonies with them in concert, and this CD is supposed to be the first in a full cycle. Here’s hoping Sony BMG doesn’t drop the ball, because I want to hear his takes on all nine. I express this concern because even this magnificent first installment came out last year overseas – why the wait here?

haitink-bruckner.jpgChicago Symphony Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
Bruckner: Symphony No. 7
(CSO Resound)

Speaking of multiple recordings, here’s Haitink’s third recording of this work (though it’s not quite a warhorse yet). I haven’t heard the second one, which I’ve never seen on CD, but this new one is better proportioned than the first, with perfectly judged tempos. Bruckner without good brass is not really Bruckner, but here the Chicago brass live up to their considerable reputation while remaining within the boundaries of good taste (no blaring), as one would expect with Haitink at the helm. The whole orchestra shines, actually, with fine engineering to boot (this is available as standard CD or SACD).

alsop-brahms3.jpgLondon Philharmonic Orchestra/Marin Alsop
Brahms: Symphony No. 3; Variations on a Theme by Haydn

One more warhorse! But it’s easy to go awry in the lovely Third, especially in the first movement. If the conductor is overly seduced by its beauty, the result can bog down in blandness or, even worse, slip over the line into schmaltz. On the other hand, the contrasts in mood can be overplayed, sectionalizing it detrimentally. A light touch and rhythmic acuity are essential. Maintaining tension throughout that testing first movement, conductor Marin Alsop shows – and in the Variations as well – that she has both attributes. To make it even better, this disc comes from the masters of mid-price, Naxos, yet boasts sterling sonics.

Rounding out my list, two reissues. The classical divisions of the major labels reissue tons of stuff, but most of it is classic material that gets reissued over and over. I prefer to spotlight items farther from the beaten path.

riley.jpgTerry Riley
Les Yeux Fermes/Lifespan
(Elision Fields)

This will represent the many Riley reissues this label is giving us. All are worthy, but I chose this particular disc because it has better sound and production than some. It consists of two soundtracks. From 1972, Les Yeux Fermes (The Closed Eyes) has two sections, “Journey from the Death of a Friend” and “Happy Ending,” each around 18-1/2 minutes in length; Riley overdubs soprano sax and keyboards in a jazzy sort of Minimalism that could please not only his usual followers but Krautrock fans as well. Lifespan comes from 1974 and consists of six varied movements that percolate enticingly as Riley combines organ drones, electronics, and his own wordless vocals.

finzi.jpgJohn Carol Case, Ian Partridge, Jane Manning, John Noble/John Alldis Choir/Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, New Philharmonia Orchestra/Vernon Handley
Gerald Finzi: Music for Love’s Labour’s Lost; Let us Garlands bring; Two Sonnets by John Milton; Farewell to Arms; In terra pax

The reappearance of the Lyrita catalog and its abundance of classic performances of British repertoire is cause for celebration. I suppose there are better examples of its quality than this recording, but I can’t think of any for which I have greater fondness. The bulk of it – all the vocal works – comes from a 1979 LP, and the packaging is vague about the vintage of the Love’s Labour’s Lost incidental music, which Vaughan Williams fans will find an excellent introduction to the younger but shorter-lived Finzi (1901-1956) and his talents. Do I wish that baritone Case had a less obtrusive vibrato in the Shakespeare Garlands cycle? 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. – Steve Holtje

sholtje.jpgMr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer who has twice as many CDs in his apartment as are in Sound Fix, the Williamsburg record store he works at. He has been informed by his wife that endless shelves displaying CD spines don't qualify as esthetically pleasing home decoration; thus, one of his New Year's resolutions involves removing all CD shelves from the bedroom.