Sunday, December 07, 2014

Baker's Dozen Best Recordings 2014

Well! Here we are again. It is time to reflect on the past 12 months, review the defining events of 2014, recall celebrities who have passed away and of course the best of this and that. I concentrate on the latter, leaving the obits and news analysis to the talking heads of the TV. So yes, the best recordings of 2014 list is here. As usual, since the list is mine, I make the rules. These are not always brand new recordings, sometimes they are ones I heard for the first time in 2014 or dusted off my shelf. No pop or jazz, since that is not really my thing, and I am sure I have missed some “blockbusters” because the artists or repertoire were not of interest to me. No “Dude” or Sir Simon Le Rat (sic) or other “big names” recording more Mahler or whatever they are into now. You are more likely to find recordings of Havergal Brian (none this year though) or Morton Feldman (one this time around) than Bach, Beethoven or Brahms. So with all that, here are my baker's dozen favorite recordings, as usual listed in no particular order.
Britten: Works for String Orchestra Camerata Nordica, Terje Tonnesen, Director
BIS 2060

Britten tuned 100 in 2013 and of course big box releases were plentiful. With all the big guns firing, this 2013 release escaped me until this year. I have been slow to appreciate all of Britten's works; the “War Requiem”, “Peter Grimes” and “Sinfonia da Requiem” are givens, but much of his work long has baffled or left me cold. But this charming, well performed and enlightening disc opened the string orchestra works to my enjoyment. There is nothing “simple” about the “Simple Symphony”, the Bridge Variations is a masterpiece and Lachrymae is simply beyond description. Get this disc.
Yevhen (Yeven or Evgeny) Stankovych (Stankovich): Symphonies 1, 2 and 4 Theodore Kuchar, Ukraine National Symphony Orchestra
Naxos 8555741

These are actually 1995 Marco Polo recordings re-released on Naxos. I enjoy exploring the vast unknown of 20th century Russian/Soviet Bloc music. A lot of junk was produced (even by the big names) but there are many, many jewels buried in the trash heap. Ukrainian Yevhen Stankovych (seemingly the preferred spelling) is prolific yet lyrical, dramatic and listenable. Unlike many, the ghost of Shostakovich and Prokofiev is not overwhelming, but still always there. One of the jewels hidden in the pile.

Brahms and Schumann Piano Quintets Joyce Yang, Piano/Alexander String Quartet
Foghorn Classics FCL2014

The talented Alexanders and brilliant Joyce Yang take on two towers of 19th century chamber music, the Brahms Piano Quintet in f Op 34 and the Schumann Piano Quintet in Eb op 44. Frankly any recording that elicits a positive comment about Brahms from me is worth noting. No stodgy, elegant (read dull and technical) readings here, these are gutsy, lively, exciting and maybe even a bit edgy performances. Excellent production, including concise yet informative notes.

Bartók And Kodály Complete String Quartets Alexander String Quartet
Foghorn Classics FCL2009 (3 discs)

While we have the excellent Alexanders in front of us, mention must be made of this always intelligent, intense, musical, satisfying and well recorded set. Add this to the list of recordings that challenge and maybe surpass the classic Julliard recording of the Bartók cycle. Combine the fine and less well known Kodály quartets and you have a special release indeed.

Troubadour Blue: Nils Bultmann Works for Viola. Nils Bultmann, Hank Dutt violas, Parry Karp cello, Stephen Kent, didjeridu.
Innova 851

Thanks to I Care if You Listen and my fellow contributor Jarrett Goodchild, I had the notion to listen to this disc of works by San Francisco based composer/violist Nils Bultmann. Bultmann is one of the rare composers who can open your ear while not assaulting it, his music is tonal but inventive, rhythmic and visceral. The works on this recordings will both challenge and please. One simply has to hear “From the Depths” an imaginative and strikingly beautiful set of duos for viola and didjeridu and the “10 Viola Duets” for 2 violas are as often amusing as they are fascinating.

Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center: Music by Babbit, Arel, Davidovsky, Luening, El-Dabh, Ussachevsky.
Columbia/Sony 3268 (Available as an ArchivMusic on demand CD)

I remember this recording, released in 1964, from my teen years as I explored classical music. I don't think I ever owned a copy, but heard it at the library where probably most of the copies ended up. But it, along with other trail blazing recordings, led me to daydream about being an electronic music composer, which of course did not come to pass. This disc was on the cutting edge of the avant garde in the 60's, but now we giggle at the almost absurd series of bleeps, buzzes, warbles and squeals that comprise the works' electronic elements. The big names of the early electronic era are here and the compositions are representative of their time.... 50 years ago... seems like yesterday. Nostalgia for the radicals out there.

American Masters: Violin Works by Mason Bates, John Corigliano and Samuel Barber. Anne Akiko Meyers, Violin, Leonard Slatkin London Symphony Orchestra
eOne 7791

Three works for violin and orchestra from three American masters who share much more than is obvious. Barber (Violin Concerto 1939) was a mentor to Corigliano (Lullaby for Natalie 2010) who was Mason Bates' (Concerto for Violin “Archeopteryx” 2012) teacher. I reviewed this disc for I Care if You Listen in November and frankly I think I was too hard on the Bates Concerto. Further listening reveals a finely crafted, tuneful work that fits and compliments the other two works. The Barber is an utter masterpiece so maybe the others pale in comparison, but in that case, so do many others. Fine, fine recording. A keeper for sure.

Stanislaw Skrowaczewski: The Complete Oehms Classics Recordings. Music of Bruckner Brahms, Beethoven, Berlioz, Schumann, Skrowaczewski and others.  Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra,  Bavarian Radio Chorus,  Saarbrücken Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, Oehms Classics 90

The great Stanislaw Skrowaczweski turned 90 in 2013 and Oehms released this wonderful set of his recordings for them late last year. Complete Beethoven, Brahms, and Bruckner and Schumann Symphonies plus some Bartok, Berlioz, the two Chopin Piano Concerti and some of Skrowaczewski's own excellent compositions. I first heard him when he was the Music Director at Minnesota and always find his performances suave, exciting and musical. My conducting god, I drove 4 hours one way to hear him do Bruckner 8 and would do it again in a heartbeat. Lucky the performance here is first rate so I can stay in tonight.

Organ Polychrome: The French School. Jan Kraybill, Organ. Casavant Organ, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, Kansas City, MO                                         Reference Recordings RR133

A hallmark of a great concert hall is a great organ. Not used every day, but when a work requires an organ it is nice to have one around. The Casavant here is a fine “symphonic” organ and blends well with the orchestra. As a solo it is a fine instrument, especially under the control of Jan Kraybill, who oversees it and two other wonderful organs in Kansas City. Great, idiomatic performances of many of the French masters, including Widor (thankfully not the overdone “Toccata”), Vierne, Gigout, Guilmant, Franck, Alain... et al. Lease breaking sonics to boot.

Morton Feldman String Quartet #1, Three Pieces for String Quartet, Structures for String Quartet. Flux String Quartet                                                                               Mode 269 3 discs and DVD

At a mere 90 minutes instead of the 6 hours required for String Quartet # 2, # 1 is a trifle. But what a trifle; serene, glowing, glacial, energetic, softly ringing.... one incredible sound after another. Feldman is an acquired taste, but like that of scotch, anchovies or whatever... it is worth it for those in the know. The recording perfectly captures all the subtle changes in dynamics and harmonics. The DVD allows you to hear the whole quartet without interruption. Three Pieces and Structures are also vintage Feldman and are much, much shorter. It is a cold, misty dark December evening as I write this... I think I will pull this disc out... it fits.

Miraculous Metamorphoses: Bartok, Miraculous Mandarin Suite, Prokofiev, Love for Three Oranges Suite, Hindemith, Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber. Kansas City Symphony, Michael Stern. 
Reference Recordings RR132

Performances that can stand with the best of them and sonics that sound fabulous even on my computer speakers combine for another Reference Recordings/Kansas City Symphony “hit”. One also has to give the Kansas City Symphony, Reference Recordings and all involved great credit for daring to record major standard repertoire pieces that often have some very heady competition.

Shostakovich Symphony # 14 (1969) Gal James, Soprano, Alexander Vinogradov Bass Vasily Petrenko Royal Liverpool Philharmonic                                                         Naxos 8.573132

Overall, an excellent performance but I still can not live without the Barshai led performances with Vishnevskaya/Reshetin or with Simoni/Vaneev in the Cologne recording. Barshai was there at the beginning and had the music in his veins. The Curtin/Estes Ormandy is a sentimental favorite, with some of the most impressively ghoulish cover art ever devised. I thought the Liverpool strings were a bit weak and James less impressive than Vinogradov, but other critics disagreed. Overall a fine addition to the Shostakovich canon.

Shostakovich Symphony # 13 “Babi Yar” Alexander Vinogradov, Bass, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and Chorus                                                                               Naxos 8.573218 

If the 14th was a fine recording, then the powerful 13th was perfection. Vinogradov is dark, brooding, frightening and frightened with deep voice that is still clarion clear. The chorus is not as idiomatic as a fine Russian ensemble, but is clear and present, well blended with the other forces. This is also one recording that does not let down after the long and dramatic first movement, the other four are equal in their drama and pathos. Great performance and a fitting end to a fine cycle. Petrenko is just 38 so he may yet have an even finer cycle in store some day.

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