Music Review

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.

Best New Jazz/Improvised Music Albums of 2011

This is the point at which I'm supposed to ponder the immediate present and near future of jazz and improvised music. Not gonna do it. No matter how dire the straits of the music industry, changing distribution and presentation, etc., this music will continue to be made because it has to be made, and artists feel compelled to keep it going despite travails. It's all about the music and its amazing power for catharsis, its ability to lift us and inspire us. So without further ado, here's what inspired me most in 2011.

Best Rock, Pop, Electronica, and Soul Albums of 2011

1. PJ Harvey: Let England Shake (Vagrant/Island)
A great concept album, a statement about England's proclivity for war and how it has costs both (more or less) countable -- lives, injuries -- and unquantifiable: shattered psyches and tainted national morality. That Harvey is able to do this not in essays but in songs, including some of the best in her long and distinguished career, is an achievement that has eluded many. I wrote about this album at greater length in a review early this year.

Catchiest Songs of 2011

I was toying with the idea of calling this list "Ephemeral Pleasures," but if there's anything I've learned in my decades of music fandom, it's that the silliest stuff can show surprising durability thanks to the tenaciousness of nostalgia. And "silly" certain describes three of these songs.

As will quickly become clear, I find Asian pop music more alluring than most of the cliched bombast on American radio. There were many catchy songs I omitted because they were also supremely annoying. I suppose to some people even some of my picks here are annoying, but that's the thing about catchy songs: there's a fine line between pleasure and -- after sufficient repetition -- pain.

Note that though I tried to avoid overlap between this list and my best albums list that will soon follow, I had to include the #1 song.

Every Day I Have the Blues

Don't get your 2012 calendar by waiting until mid-January to buy a crappy one at half price. Get a cool calendar that comes with a CD of classic and rare old-school acoustic blues and hokum songs from (mostly) the 1920s and '30s. In other words, get volume 9 of the Classic Blues Artwork from the 1920's calendar (and pardon that incorrect apostrophe and inaccurate title).

Almost a decade ago, a cache of Paramount material -- blues 78s, ad art for promoting them, etc. -- was discovered, and Blues Images has been putting out these great calendars since 2004. 

The CDs alone are worth the $19.95 to any serious blues fan; long-lost tracks are "re-debuted" on Blues Images CDs, and this year's has some especially interesting surprises.

Swedish Romanticism

Niklas Sivelöv/Malmö Symphony Orchestra/Mario Vengazo
Stenhammar: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2
(Naxos)

Wilhelm Stenhammar (1871-1927) has been called "the finest Swedish composer after Berwald" by none other than Robert Layton. The PR materials and booklet notes for this release freely admit the heavy influence of Brahms on Stenhammar's Piano Concerto No. 1 (1893), but of course that just makes me like it more. A pianist himself, Stenhammar made his debut in 1892 with Brahms's First, and Stenhammar's own First is definitely influenced, right down to its four-movement structure, but it's also more extroverted and showier, less profound and densely woven (though just as big and thick). And not as great, alas, but that would be surprising; it is an extremely good work for lovers of big, Romantic symphonic works, especially its lovely, soaring Andante.

ANNIVERSARIES: Mozart's Requiem Premiered at His Funeral 220 Years Ago

On December 10, 1791, after Mozart had died five days earlier at age 35, there was a memorial service in Vienna, and for the first time some of his Requiem was performed. It was not noted then what parts were played, but H.C. Robbins Landon, who has studied the Requiem completion in some depth and made his own edition, makes the obvious nomination: the movements that Mozart had largely completed, the Introit (Requiem aeternam), which was fully finished, and the Kyrie, for which Mozart had written all the vocal parts and the basso continuo, and which thus needed only the orchestration, which was accomplished at least well enough for that first performance by Franz Jakob Freystädtler (a student of Mozart's) doubling the choral parts with instrumentation, while another student of Mozart's, Franz Xaver Sűssmayr, composed original parts for trumpets and timpani.

Ralph Carney's Funny That Way

Ralph Carney's Serious Jass Project: Seriously (Smog Veil)

One of the great things about recycling old jazz is that there are so many styles to choose from. On the evidence of this CD, saxman Ralph Carney (known as a member of Tin Huey and Oranj Symphonette as well as for his contributions to records by Tom Waits, the Black Keys, Black Francis, the B-52's, Bill Laswell, Elvis Costello, Galaxie 500, Allen Ginsberg, Marc Ribot, William Burroughs, Pere Ubu, and many more) has a great fondness for small-group swing and jump blues, but taps a few additional subgenres as well. He's even more versatile as an instrumentalist, credited on this album with six types of saxophone, two types of clarinet, and flute, trumpet, English horn, lap steel guitar, and vocals, with a moderate amount of overdubbing at times.

ANNIVERSARIES: Mahler's Fourth Symphony Premiered 110 Years Ago

Mahler's Fourth Symphony (1892/1899-1900) is his sunniest, vastly less concerned with existential questions and therefore less laden with angst than all his other symphonies. There are some shadows in the first two movements, but the lengthy slow movement is gorgeously lyrical, and the finale (originally written in 1892 for the Third Symphony) is a setting for soprano of "Lied der himmlischen Freuden" (Song of the Heavenly Life" from Des Knaben Wunderhorn), a child's amusingly prosaic description of heaven. It's also his second-shortest and much the shortest of his vocal symphonies (under an hour in most readings, and yes, by Mahlerian standards, that counts as short). Furthermore, it's in the most standard four-movement symphony form. All of these things combine to make it his most immediately accessible symphony. It thus has been many listeners' entry point into his highly personal sonic world. It was premiered on November 25, 1901 in Berlin, with the composer conducting.

Paul Motian (March 25, 1931 - November 22, 2011)

Paul Motian passed away at age 80 yesterday after complications from the bone-marrow disorder myelodisplastic syndrome. In a career that exceeded five decades, Motian was one of the most respected drummers in jazz history as well as a superb composer and adept bandleader. Critic Art Lange called him "that rare commodity, an intimate drummer." And here's a bit of trivia: Motian played at Woodstock, in Arlo Guthrie's band.

Even music lovers largely unfamiliar with jazz have heard his work with pianist Bill Evans, whose trio Motian played in from 1959 to 1964. Other piano greats who availed themselves of Motian's subtly swinging sense of rhythm included Thelonious Monk, Herbie Nichols, Keith Jarrett, Paul Bley, Carla Bley, Lennie Tristano, Mose Allison, Martial Solal, Enrico Pieranunzi, and Marilyn Crispell.