Surprises and Delicacies in a Year of Exciting Classical CD’s

16. detsember 2005.

The classical music critics of The New York Times select the year’s most notable CD’s.

Anthony Tommasini

Grieg: ‘Peer Gynt’
Estonian National Symphony, conducted by Paavo Jarvi (Virgin Classics).

Grieg’s two short "Peer Gynt" suites have long been repertory staples. But Grieg actually wrote more than 90 minutes of incidental music for Ibsen’s existential play about a restless young man who leaves his devoted mother, his steadfast girlfriend and his homeland to seek exotic adventures, only to return in old age, broken and remorseful.

Paavo Jarvi’s brilliant recording presents a 60-minute version of the score, based on a scholarly edition that represents Grieg’s final wishes. The familiar music is here, including a chilling account of "In the Hall of the Mountain King," complete with shrieking chorus. But there are also the original "Arabian Dance," with an alluring women’s chorus and a sultry song for Anitra; "Solveig’s Song," complete, sung exquisitely by Camilla Tilling; and even pieces for solo violin that make Norwegian and Appalachian fiddle music seem not that far apart.

This is a surprise highlight of the year.

Beethoven: Cello Sonatas
Pieter Wispelwey, cellist; Dejan Lazic, pianist (Channel Classics; two CD’s).

The exciting cellist Pieter Wispelwey and the fleet-fingered pianist Dejan Lazic inspire each other to impetuous yet insightful accounts of Beethoven’s five sonatas and three sets of variations for cello and piano. Somehow, they make the two rambunctious early sonatas seem searching and mystical and the two experimental late sonatas seem forthright and youthful.

Rachmaninoff: Piano Concertos Nos. 1, 2
Leif Ove Andsnes, pianist; Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Antonio Pappano (EMI Classics).

The pianist Leif Ove Andsnes and the conductor Antonio Pappano team up with the Berlin Philharmonic for rhapsodic and revelatory accounts of Rachmaninoff’s youthful Piano Concerto No. 1 and his popular Piano Concerto No. 2. With his lucid, brilliant and unsentimental pianism, Mr. Andsnes makes every note count. These scores seem not just exciting but also important.

Schubert: ‘Die Schöne Müllerin’
Ian Bostridge, tenor; Mitsuko Uchida, pianist (EMI Classics).

An engrossing account of this touchstone song cycle. The tenor Ian Bostridge sings with his typical mix of choirboy purity in lyrical phrases and gruff outbursts when the mood turns intense. Passages of probing insight alternate with bold expressivity. His vibrant pianist is Mitsuko Uchida, who plays with an uncanny variety of touches and colors.

Spratlan: ‘When Crows Gather,’ Other Works
Sequitur (Albany).

Paradoxically, the composer Lewis Spratlan is best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning score to "Life Is a Dream," an opera that has never had a staged production. This compelling recording should help spread the word about his spiky and arresting chamber works, like "When Crows Gather," with its fidgety rhythmic energy and moments of Ivesian nostalgia.

Bernard Holland

Weber: ‘Oberon’
Steve Davislim, tenor; Monteverdi Choir, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner (Philips; two CD’s).

Carl Maria von Weber’s "Oberon" is an unperformable opera of great musical importance: the work of a dying man pitted against a dreadful libretto and a scenario requiring exotic and far-flung settings connectable only by awkward theatrical leaps. John Eliot Gardiner’s reclamation project for Philips forgets about original intentions and heavily edits the original while retaining the opera’s wonderful music.

There is a narrator to introduce scenes, and Sir John uses the originally intended English for his texts. (The opera was written for Covent Garden in London and had its premiere in 1826.) Sir John uses his usual forces – the Monteverdi Choir and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique – and a company of excellent solo singers.

An important gap has been filled.

Boulez: ‘Le Marteau Sans Maître,’ ‘Dérive I and II’
Hilary Summers, mezzo-soprano; Ensemble Intercontemporain, conducted by Pierre Boulez (Deutsche Grammophon).

"Le Marteau Sans Maître" fixed Pierre Boulez’s postwar place in music’s avant-garde. Mr. Boulez returns to the piece with the Ensemble Intercontemporain, and his "Dérive I and II" adds to the delicacy.

Dvorak: Tone Poems
Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Simon Rattle (EMI Classics; two CD’s).

"The Golden Spinning Wheel," "The Noon Witch," "The Water Goblin" and "The Wood Dove": these inexplicably overlooked homages to Dvorak’s Central European folk roots house music of great beauty and drama. They are at some distance from the symphonies and concertos, both in tone and in organization. Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic do well by them here.

Mozart: Piano Works
Richard Goode, pianist (Nonesuch).

The American pianist Richard Goode balances exuberance with watchful control in these excellent performances. Included here is the great A minor Rondo, along with the equally important A minor Sonata and some lesser-known delicacies.

Ravel: ‘Gaspard de la Nuit’; Carter: ‘Night Fantasies’
Pierre-Laurent Aimard, pianist (Warner Classics).

Pierre-Laurent Aimard says good night in French and English in these pianistic tributes to the late hours, as he continues to widen his recorded repertory. He plays the difficult Ravel with ease and restraint and is in full control of Elliott Carter’s complex and dramatic music. Multilingual commentary is included.

Allan Kozinn

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos. 8, 14, 23
Freddy Kempf, pianist (Bis).

Repertory doesn’t get more standard than Beethoven’s "Pathétique," "Moonlight" and "Appassionata" Sonatas, but in Freddy Kempf’s readings, the music still seems to resonate with the psychic turmoil that was Beethoven’s creative fuel. This English pianist, now in his late 20’s, takes a fluid approach to tempo, dynamics and articulation, and uses those qualities to transform these works into edge-of-the-seat dramas.

In the fast movements, his sharply etched lines, hard-driven phrasing and surprising fortissimo passages create an irresistible sense of urgency. The slow movements, played with a more velvety tone and a singing touch, offer intensity of a different sort, that of an unusually searching, volatile introspection.

Along the way, Mr. Kempf seems to revel in opportunities to reconsider Beethoven’s textures. In the opening bars of the "Pathétique," he punches out the chords with a staccato brusqueness, letting a single note ring as the rest of the chord dies. In their best moments, these performances make the music sound as if it were being invented on the spot.

Alarm Will Sound (Cantaloupe).

After a handful of superb but relatively conventional new-music discs, the enterprising ensemble Alarm Will Sound hit on an unlikely project: transcribing the idiosyncratic pop electronica of Richard D. James (better known as Aphex Twin) for orchestral instruments. Daft as the idea may seem, these reconfigurations work, often brilliantly. It’s almost enough to rehabilitate the concept of crossover.

Dowland: Lute Works
Hopkinson Smith, lutenist (Naïve).

A perpetual sad sack with a substantial list of grievances but also a supremely lyrical gift, Dowland pioneered the art of writing angst-inspired music three centuries before Mahler made it his trademark. Mr. Smith offers several choice essays in melancholia ("Semper Dowland, Semper Dolens," for example) but also touches on Dowland’s virtuosic side with beautifully ornamented readings of his livelier dances.

Eighth Blackbird (Cedille).

Frederic Rzewski’s musical languages cover the full range of contemporary techniques, from 12-tone and densely pounded clusters to several varieties of Minimalism, but his work virtually always draws its energy from an intense dramatic sense. The ensemble Eighth Blackbird illuminates that quality most vividly in the harrowing "Coming Together" (1971), based on a letter of Sam Melville, a prisoner killed in the rioting at Attica.

Salonen: ‘Foreign Bodies,’ Other Works
Finnish Radio Symphony, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen (Deutsche Grammophon).

Conductors who compose can seem to be dabblers, but Mr. Salonen has long been committed to this other side of his musical personality, and he has the technique and imagination to create brilliantly vivid and entirely original scores. Here are three particularly colorful ones: "Foreign Bodies" (2001), "Insomnia" (2002) and "Wing on Wing" (2004).

Anne Midgette

Wagner: ‘Tristan und Isolde’
Plácido Domingo, tenor; Nina Stemme, soprano; Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Chorus and Orchestra, conducted by Antonio Pappano (EMI Classics; three CD’s).

They say it may be the last major studio recording of an opera. It is also a document of just what a studio recording is good for: capturing a role that an artist would never do onstage. Plácido Domingo, with slightly slurred German and risk-taking ardor, tackles the punishing role of Tristan, and passes the test – especially in Act III, the make-or-break section of the opera.

It’s a warm recording, with Antonio Pappano coaxing the orchestra and supporting the singers at every turn, and René Pape proving to be one of the few King Markes in history who don’t seem mere anticlimaxes after the love duet. Nina Stemme is a pleasant Isolde. Rolando Villazón and Ian Bostridge make cameo appearances. No one sounds dutiful or labored. This studio recording has managed to capture something alive before fading into the dusk.

Bach Cantatas, Vol. 8
Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner (Soli Deo Gloria; two CD’s).

Call it a silver lining to the declining classical record industry: when Deutsche Grammophon’s Archiv label reneged on its plan to release all the recordings of John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach Cantata Pilgrimage in 1999 and 2000, Sir John formed his own record label and, this year, began releasing them himself.

Bartok: Piano Concertos
Krystian Zimerman, Leif Ove Andsnes and Hélène Grimaud, pianists; Chicago Symphony, Berlin Philharmonic and London Symphony, conducted by Pierre Boulez (Deutsche Grammophon).

Three orchestras, three soloists, one conductor: it’s an unusual way to present a cycle, but a nice reflection both of the varied character of Bartok’s piano concertos and of some of the many faces of Pierre Boulez as conductor. The highlight is the Second Concerto, with Leif Ove Andsnes and the Berlin Philharmonic.

Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 4, 5
Minnesota Orchestra, conducted by Osmo Vanska (Bis).

Yet another Beethoven cycle in the making? Yes, and it may be the definitive one of our time. Here is the first disc documenting the exciting work Mr. Vanska is doing in Minnesota: the hook is less the latest surround technology than the exciting, involved playing.

Reich: ‘You Are (Variations),’ ‘Cello Counterpoint’
Maya Beiser, cellist; Los Angeles Master Chorale, conducted by Grant Gershon (Nonesuch).

"Say little and do much," the final Hebrew text of the four-part "You Are (Variations)" advises. It could be an epigram for Steve Reich, whose work traces its own firm track, moving steadily forward as it processes what it has done before, and who, with this work, achieved a particularly felicitous synthesis. All that was lacking, once again, was the Pulitzer Prize.

Jeremy Eichler

Bach: Solo Violin Sonatas and Partitas
Gidon Kremer, violinist (ECM New Series; two CD’s).

A landmark rendition of Bach’s austere meditations for solo violin from one of the most probing violinists of our time. Mr. Kremer finds vast landscapes within these small movements and charts them with a depth of tone and expressive urgency that are unsurpassed.

Golijov: ‘Ayre’; Berio: ‘Folk Songs’
Dawn Upshaw, soprano; various instrumentalists (Deutsche Grammophon).

Jewish, Arabic and Spanish elements come together in Osvaldo Golijov’s inspired salmagundi of songs drenched in folk and pop traditions of the Mediterranean, from danceable laptop-powered grooves to radiant slow songs full of yearning. Dawn Upshaw sings with aching beauty. Much more of Mr. Golijov’s genre-defying music is on its way to Lincoln Center next month.

Ligeti: String Quartets
Artemis Quartet (Virgin Classics).

A young German ensemble offers fresh, polished readings of two important works by the great Hungarian avant-gardist Gyorgy Ligeti. The forbidding Second Quartet, full of violent contrasts, won’t be to everyone’s taste, but the Artemis Quartet makes a persuasive case for this music as a free-associative journey through an eerie lunar soundscape.

Lindberg: Clarinet Concerto, Other Works
Kari Kriikku, clarinetist; Finnish Radio Symphony, conducted by Sakari Oramo (Ondine).

The remarkable 2002 Clarinet Concerto from Magnus Lindberg, a giant of Finnish modernism, shows both a deep feeling for tradition and an electrifying ear for the new. Its 25 minutes swoosh by with an almost reckless abundance of fresh ideas and cool Nordic tints. Kari Kriikku’s solo playing comes in clean, fast-breaking waves.

Mahler: Symphony No. 6
Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Claudio Abbado (Deutsche Grammophon).

The excitement of the concert performance can be felt in every minute of this live recording, made when Claudio Abbado returned to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic for the first time since his departure as music director in 2002. You will be hard pressed to find a Mahler Sixth with more warmth, breadth and dignity.

James R. Oestreich

Albéniz: ‘Iberia’
Marc-André Hamelin, pianist (Hyperion; two CD’s).

And not a moment too soon. Alicia de Larrocha, who had long held the franchise on the wonderful body of Spanish piano music, retired three years ago at 79. It might not have occurred to anyone to look to Canada for her potential successor, but on the strength of this recording, Marc-André Hamelin seems perhaps the leading contender.

Berio: Orchestral Transcriptions
Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi, conducted by Riccardo Chailly (Decca).

Luciano Berio never met a piece he couldn’t tinker with, his brilliant elaboration of a Mahler scherzo in his "Sinfonia" being only the most famous example. Works left incomplete by other composers, in particular, drew him like catnip. Riccardo Chailly pulls together inventively anachronistic completions of Bach and Schubert along with arrangements from the straightforward (Brahms) to the bizarre (Mozart).

Handel: ‘Saul’
RIAS Chamber Choir, Concerto Köln, conducted by René Jacobs (Harmonia Mundi France; two CD’s).

The first sounds all but leap off the disc, and the performance crackles with energy throughout. The showy use of the xylophone in an Act I symphony and chorus sounds like a gleeful anachronism worthy of Thomas Beecham. It is not; Handel revealed the instrument to the world here, as Tchaikovsky would later do with the celesta in "The Nutcracker."

Rachmaninoff: ‘All-Night Vigil’
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, conducted by Paul Hillier (Harmonia Mundi France).

Otherwise known as Rachmaninoff’s Vespers, for its first section. Everything Paul Hillier touches turns to choral gold (as used to be the case with Robert Shaw, who also recorded this glorious work beautifully, late in his career). The Estonian choir, complete with the requisite Slavic-style deep basses, gives Mr. Hillier its all.

‘Stella Maris’
Trio Mediaeval (ECM New Series).

No one who heard the Trio Mediaeval’s concert last weekend at Weill Recital Hall will need to be encouraged to buy this disc, if only for the haunting folk-infused motet "Sancta Mater/Dou Way Robyn." These female singers have admirably filled the gap left by the dispersal of Anonymous 4, though the early-music world would happily – greedily – make room for both.