Sunday, December 18, 2016

A Short Dozen of the Year's Best CDs, 2016

Past Beethoven's birthday and only my first entry for 2016. Unfortunately my weak wrists and right arm, victims of years of abuse through driving and spending too much time on the computer, prevent me from writing as much as I used to. But I will not be totally silenced! Thus my usual "Baker's Dozen" new, new to me, or, in one case, dusted off from the shelf CD list is a bit shorter this year. But as usual,each disc has stood out from all the rest I listened to or even bought in 2016.

In no order in particular:

1) Gounod: Complete works for pedal piano and orchestra
Roberto Prosseda, pedal piano;
Howard Shelley, Orchestra Della Svizzera Italiana                         Hyperion CDA67075

The pedal piano, popular in the late 1800's, is an impressive contraption meshing two pianos together with a pedal board much like an organ. Roberto Prosseda is the foremost proponent of the pedal piano and shines in this interesting and excellently recorded disc. This is volume 62 of the indispensable "The Romantic Piano Concerto" series on Hyperion which has brought back some incredible yet forgotten jewels from the Romantic era.

2) Martha Argerich "Chopin: The Legendary 1965 Recording"
Martha Argerich, piano
Warner Classics 5568062

This recording first became legendary because it was not available for years. Finally released in 1999 it lived up to its hype. Chopin is not always my first choice in listening, but Argerich blows the cobwebs off the music and brings it to life. Dusting this one off (literally) revealed anew Argerich's superb combination of steely technique and consummate musicianship.

3) Post-Haste Duo "Beneath a canopy of angels ... a river of stars."
Sean Fredenberg, Saxophones, Javier Rodriguez, Bassoon
Aerocade Music AM001

A bassoon and saxophone duo? Really? Yes, and it works just fine, thank you. A highly entertaining and inventive program so you just gotta hear this one! See my whole review on I Care if you Listen.

4) Charles Ives Piano Sonata # 2 "Concord, Mass. 1840-1860" Aaron Copland Piano Sonata
Easley Blackwood, piano
Cedille Records CDR900000 005

I love this work. Much of Ives leaves me cold, but the "Concord" (along with the 4th Symphony which shares much in style and form with the sonata, The Symphony: Holidays and a few others) is a masterpiece in the truest meaning of the word. Blackwood is an accomplished composer (listen to his symphonies sometime) as well as a formidable pianist. Blackwood brings out the inner voices and quirky but often breathtaking harmonies and, importantly, has some fun with the piece when required. A fine performance of the seldom heard, knotty Copland is a perfect filler. This is an older recording (1991) that I just got around to exploring this year.

5-7) Ben Johnson The Ten String Quartets
Kepler Quartet
New World Records 80637-2 Quartets 2, 3, 4 & 9 (2006)
New World Record 80693-2  Quartets 1, 5 & 10   (2011)
New World Records 80730-2 Quartets 6, 7, & 8,  "Quietness" for quartet and narrator  (2016)

I ran into Professor Johnston a few times at the University of Illinois in the late 70's. This music crazed but musically untalented psych major (organizational and industrial) regularly studied at the music library and thus occasionally rubbed elbows (including getting smashed drunk with a soon-to-be famous singer, no I will not name the guilty party) with the esteemed faculty and students. Johnston was famous then, as now, for using microtonal techniques and influences of Harry Partch in his works. His quartets, written between 1951 and 1995, are his most familiar works, if you can call them that. The final disc features the world premiere of Quartet # 6, alleged to be the most difficult quartet in the repertoire. It, along with most of the other works, defies description by this amateur. Suffice to say, all are totally absorbing works that transcend their frightful complexity.

There may be more than that out there, I am probably forgetting one or two discs, but I am leaving it at that. If I remember, I might add one or two.

See you around sometime.