Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Baker's Dozen Best CDs, 2015 Edition

Here it is, for all it is worth, my list of best CDs of 2015. Everyone seems to do it, so why not? Since it is my list I make the rules, thus some of these are discs that have been released earlier but I first encountered this year. Fair enough?

In further news, no Havergal Brian this year but we have Handel and Vivaldi instead. Those who know my listening habits might know those two masters are not often on my list, but two great recordings changed that this time around. There are, as usual, discs of 'new" music, 5 out of 13, about a right mix.

Happy listening, there is something for all here from Vivaldi to Gibson.

Edward Burlingame Hill Symphony # 4, Concertino # 1 for Piano and Orchestra, Concertino # 2 for Piano and Orchestra, Divertimento for Piano and Orchestra
Anton Nel, Piano, Austin Symphony Orchestra, Peter Bey
Bridge 9443

Edward Burlingame Hill, 1872-1960, is more famous for his pupils, Leonard Bernstein, Elliott Carter, Roger Sessions, Walter Piston, Randall Thompson, and Virgil Thompson, than his own work. Bernstein never really championed his teacher; he recorded Hill's Prelude for Orchestra and that was it. The 4th Symphony and 2nd Piano Concertino are both world premieres. Hill's music combines a bit of Brahms and jazz with a French touch now and then, decidedly conservative, well crafted but really rather average despite the eclectic influences. The two Concertinos are the highlights here. Anton Nel, Piano, and the Austin (TX) Symphony under Peter Bay, are to be thanked for these revealing performances of a neglected figure in American music.

Antonio Vivaldi Concerti per Flauto
Maurice Steger, recorders, I Barocchisti, Diego Fasolis
Harmonia Mundi 902190

Vivaldi.....yawn.... yawn. Not so fast, well actually rather vivaciously fast. This stunning album of the flute concerti performed on recorders wins the “Most Fun” award this year. I am not sure if the quick (really quick) tempi, brash sonorities and virtuoso solo lines are “correct”.... I don't care; sheer musical excitement from first to last note. I have played this disc over and over, each track a jewel. A late 2014 release that I did not get around to hearing until this summer, much to my loss.

Otto Ketting Symphony # 3, Symphony # 4, “Printemps”
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic, JaapVan Zweden, Thierry Fischer, Otto Ketting
Etcetera 2009

Not a new recording, but as I mention, sometimes I note recordings that are new to me. Ketting (1935-2012) was a teacher, composer and trumpet player. The big names in Dutch music (Haitink, van Zweden, Vonk, Porcelijn) have performed his works, but recordings remain elusive. This is a great intro to his powerful, imposing works, that are boldly colorful (even in the strings and brass only 4th Symphony) and accessible. Check out his final symphony # 6 on a YouTube performance as well, probably will be a while before it gets a recording.

Zhou Long/Chen Yi: Symphony 'humen 1839'; Zhou Long: The Rhyme Of Taigu; The Enlightened
New Zealand Symphony, Darrell Ang.
Naxos 8570611

Pulitzer winner and KC based Zhou Long's music tends to be a bit more elusive and introspective than the more brash and colorful compositions by wife Chen Yi. but it is always worth the effort. The attraction here is “The Enlightened” which was premiered by the KC Symphony in 2005. Glad to see it finally committed to disc under the fine direction of Ang and the NZ forces.

Saint-Saëns Symphony # 3, Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, La Muse et le Poète"
Noah Geller, Mark Gibbs, Jan Kraybill
Kansas City Symphony, Michael Stern
Reference Recordings 136

In an earlier review, I called the Kansas City Symphony and all associated with this recording “gutsy” for tackling some pretty established repertoire. Here again, Reference Recordings, Michael Stern and he Kansas City Symphony have proved they can compete with the best. The two concertante works are performed with all the necessary gusto, poise and flair to bring them off most successfully. The Symphony, the big draw for this incredibly realistic, audiophile recording, comes off highly successful, with the organ well integrated into the texture as it should be.

“Woman at the new Piano” new piano works by Tom Flaherty, Peter Yates, Adam Schoenberg and James Matheson.
Nadia Shpachenko, Genevieve Feiwen Lee, piano
Reference Recordings “Fresh” 711

Prodigiously talented, California-based pianist and teacher, Nadia Shpachenko (with the highly able of assistance of Genevieve Lee on the two piano works) has recorded a delightful and diverse program of brand new works she commissioned in 2013 from four outstanding composers. The usual fine and clean Reference Recordings sound and a most varied and energetic program make this a must hear and, better yet, own disc.

G. F. Handel, The Messiah
Doyle, Davislim, Zazzo, Neal Davies, B'rock Belgian Baroque Orchestra Ghent, Bavarian Radio Chorus, Peter Dijkstra
BR Klassik 900510

The Messiah has been recorded about as many times as McDonald's has sold a Big Mac. So like a big, greasy burger, do we really need a new Messiah? In this case, I would say “heck with the diet, yes we do.” “Period” Messiahs are often dry, mechanical performances with a chorus of 6 and an orchestra of 4. On the opposite, there are the bloated, bellowing affairs with the whole town as chorus, soloists who think it is a Wagner opera, a couple of orchestras, and the biggest local organ for good measure. Dijkstra's ensemble and chorus is just the right size to propel the drama forward without overwhelming or getting lost in the whole affair. The Bavarian Radio Chorus is unmatched, with clear and crisp diction and tight ensemble. The soloists are uniformly fine, and Dijkstra takes things at a fair, but not excessive clip. This is how historically informed music should sound, full of drama and life, not slow, icy sludge.

Jean Martinon, The Complete Chicago Symphony Orchestra Recordings
Robert Casadesus, Piano; Benny Goodman, Clarinet; Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Jean Martinon
RCA/Sony 88843062752 (10 discs)

Oh Chicago... you did not know what you had with Jean Martinon. The caustic critics berated him and compared him unfairly to Reiner; Martinon being a polar opposite of the autocratic German. We are richer, however, for what we do have. Repertoire ranging from Weber (Clarinet Concerti with Benny Goodman) to the definitive performance of Peter Mennin's Symphony # 7 (tragically neglected) and Martinon's own 4th Symphony. The Nielsen 4th is still a benchmark today, as are the Roussel selections. A bargain price too.

NOW Ensemble “Dreamfall”
Music of Scott Smallwood, Mark Dancigers, John Supko, Nathan Williamson, Sarah Kirkland Snider, Andrea Mazzariello & Judd Greenstein
NOW Ensemble
New Amsterdam 64

Upon first listening, one might think of this as background music since much of it is consonant and melodic. Closer listening, which is highly recommended, opens a larger world of color, drama and sound. The brilliant members of NOW derive lots of color and textures from such a small ensemble, owing to the eclectic but well balanced instrumentation. The Gorgeous sound lets the listener hear all the sonic nuances and intricate rhythms.

ArtIfacts Recent Chamber Works Of Mara Gibson
Thomas Aber, Michael Hall, Robert Pherigo, Luisa Sello, Mark Lowrey, Ya-Ting Liou, Blas Gonzalez, Alvin Wong, Instrumentalists
Available on Spotify, CD Baby, Amazon or old fashioned CD by contacting

Kansas City based Mara Gibson writes demanding music requiring concentration and an open ear. A Gibson composition, either a solo work such as “Flone” for solo flute or a larger scale work “Moments” scored for clarinet, viola and piano always opens a world of color, drama and unexpected sound. These works are making their CD premiere so hopefully many more listeners will come to appreciate her distinctive voice.

Alan Hovhaness, Symphony # 48 “Vision of Andromeda”, Prelude and Quadruple Fugue, Soprano Saxophone Concerto
Greg Banaszak, saxophone, Eastern Music Festival Orchestra, Gerard Schwarz
Naxos 8559755

So what?? Hovhaness is my guilty pleasure...sue me. Yeah, I know the story, it all sounds the same, simplistic, uneven in quality, etc. etc. With performances this fine, in high class sound and music that is so perfectly melodic, exotically colorful and ultimately enjoyable, who listens to critics anyway? Listen and get absorbed in Hovhaness' world.

Vladimir Jurovski Symphony # 5, Russian Painters: Symphonic Pictures
Michail Jurovski, Norrköping Symphony Orchestra
CPO 777875

A bit of geneology, Vladimir Michailovich Jurovski (1915-1972), the composer of these two fine examples of Soviet era symphonic works, is the father of conductor Michail Jurovski (1945-) and the grandfather of conductor Vladimir Michailovich Jurovski (1972-). Got that? Symphony # 5 is one of those wonderful, colorful, bold, brassy works composed in Shostakovich's and Prokofiev's shadow toeing the line (usually) of Socialist Realism. Symphony # 5, (1971, one of his last works) is a big affair full of drama, but never over done. The recording is marred only by the inadequate organ in the final bars. “Russian Painters”, an earlier work, is an update on Mussorgsky, and quite interesting in its own right.

Patrick Castillo “The Quality of Mercy”, “Cirque”, “This is the hour of lead”
Abigail Fischer, Mezzo, Karen Kim, Violin, and Ensemble and electronics.
Innova 926

“This is the hour of lead” sets two poems (Dickinson and Yeats) that bookend a center section of short interludes and vocalise. A substantial meditation on death and loss,“this is the hour of lead” seems more of an opera scena than a song cycle. “The Quality of Mercy” combines the ensemble, mezzo (Fischer is excellent, never harsh or screachy) in an “abstract mediation on reconciliation.” “Cirque” is an austere outing for solo violin, a nice contrast to the busier larger works. Further proof that “classical” music is not dead, but evolving quite well, thank you.