For this year's classical mega-meta-list, I found 70 "best classical of the year" lists from 27 countries, entered them into a spreadsheet, and hit "sort." A few albums soared to the top, and in Part 1 I celebrated those that made 10 lists or more. But I tried to keep the party sober by emphasizing that we can't call these blockbusters the "best." After all, you can't meaningfully rank art at the highest level even within a single genre, and "classical music" is way more than a single genre - the term covers hundreds of genres from over a millennium. So the justification for a meta-list is not to find the musical equivalent of the Koh-I-Noor diamond, but to cast light on as many gems as possible.
You'll find 60 gems in the numerical "lower tiers" of picks (those that made 4-9 lists), and they shine in more varied hues than the top picks. That's not surprising. For one thing, expanding my sources to way more countries might help to reveal global trends, but it also might give undue prominence to releases from conglomerates, which can afford worldwide promotion and distribution. Indeed, with the exception of the breakout album of the year, Hans Abrahamsen's Let Me Tell You, the "top-tier" albums all came from Sony or Universal. By contrast, in the "second tier" list below, indie labels play as big a role as the majors.
For another thing, worldwide consensus is less likely for releases in non-blockbuster genres like a cappella choral, vocal recitals, early instruments, and new music (Let Me Tell You was again the exception). Finally, even in standard repertory fame depends as much on chance as on quality. Speaking personally, my keepers of the year were mostly in the second and third tiers.
I'll organize the 60 picks into categories, rather than just listing them, and will publish them in two posts. The categories are:
1) Music by mavericks [below]
2) Collections that were more than the sum of their parts [below]
3) Classics spoken fluently [Part 3]
By the way, I didn't even bother with classical reissues, and if I had there'd be dozens more releases. Anyway, on to the list:
MUSIC BY MAVERICKS
MICHAEL DAUGHERTY: Tales of Hemingway; American Gothic; Once Upon a Castle - Nashville Symphony, Zuill Bailey, cello; Paul Jacobs, organ; Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor (Naxos 8.559798) - Yay, Iowa! This album by Cedar Rapids native Michael Daugherty won three Grammys, so we can no longer call it "overlooked,” but it is definitely a gem. You don't need to be a Hemingway devotee to fall instantly for the cello concerto exploring his life, Tales of Hemingway, or to be moved by the heartfelt playing by soloist Zuill Bailey. And as for the piece Daugherty wrote for Orchestra Iowa about Grant Wood and Cedar Rapids, American Gothic, it's one of the great works of music inspired by Iowa, so it's wonderful to see it becoming a repertory piece.
MEREDITH MONK: On Behalf of Nature - Meredith Monk and Ensemble (ECM New Series 2473 ) - Monk will turn 75 this year, but has lost none of her innovative edge. This latest work is meant "to expand our awareness of what we are in danger of losing," but while it has a message, by no means does it feel like a sermon, lecture, or agit-prop. It has singing but no text. Instead, writes Kate Molleson, the music "sounds as if it comes from the earth, feet planted in the mud, voices erupting and gusting and keening." Bird have inspired composers from Sumer Is Icumen In through Vivaldi, Beethoven, Sibelius, and Messaien to field recordings used in works by Einojuhani Rautavaara and Daniel Strong Godfrey, so I would have thought that nobody could find a new way to represent them in music. It is a measure of Monk's achievement that she does. Molleson found that although On Behalf of Nature was originally a theater piece with dancing, she preferred the purely auditory experience of this album. The work, she says, "is more articulate as music alone."
BEN JOHNSTON: Complete String Quartets - Kepler Quartet (New Focus, several CDs) The Georgia-born, Midwest-based composer turned 90 last year, and the ideal tribute was this first recording of his string quartets. The ten works were written between 1951 and 1995 but have rarely been performed because they are so challenging to play in tune. Nothing less than radical ear-retraining is required of the players, since Johnston explores what NPR calls "the notes between the notes," the microtones other than the 12 notes on the piano. They result from the overtones that resonate when a note is sounded, so they are in some ways "natural," and when this music is played well, our ears adjust quickly. I was there for the premiere of Johnston's Fourth Quartet, a set of variations on "Amazing Grace," and it was an ecstatic experience for the audience. That impression is confirmed by this recording. The Milwaukee-based Kepler Quartet came together in 2002 for the sole purpose of recording this cycle under the composer's supervision, and it took 14 years. Kyle Gann called it "possibly the most ambitious string quartet project in history." The result is a triumph. A bonus is a Rumi setting that the composer recites as the Kepler plays.
STEVE REICH: Mallet Quartet, Sextet, Nagoyas Marimbas, and Music for Pieces of Wood - Third Coast (Cedille 163) The revolutionary post-minimalist Steve Reich turned 80 last year, and while many recordings honored his range, the one that captivated critics was pure percussion music. One reason was the playing of the Chicago-based Third Coast ensemble. As David Hurwitz put it, instead of sounding like machines, they bring "a buoyancy to the perpetually pulsating rhythms" that "somehow conveys that joy in movement that seems to be what this music is all about." The other reason was the engineering by Chicago's leading indie classical label, Cedille. Says Hurwitz, "The sonics are just perfect–amazingly lifelike, placing the ensemble in an ideal acoustic so that the actual timbres never become fatiguing." He correctly sums up the overall result as "mesmerizing."
JOHN CORIGLIANO: The Ghosts of Versailles - Patricia Racette, Christopher Maltman , Kristinn Sigmundsson, Joshua Guerrero , Los Angeles Opera/ James Conlon (Pentatone 5186538) - In 1991, the Metropolitan Opera premiered its first new work in 25 years. Now, after another 25 years , the opera received its first commercial recording, and critics were ready to appreciate it. John Corigliano based it on one of the Figaro comedies by the French polymath-revolutionary Pierre Beaumarchais. The other two became Rossini's Barber of Seville and what many of us consider the greatest of all opera, Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. Corigliano transforms the third and final play in the trilogy, La mere coupable, into something supernatural and historically potent. His central character is not Marie Antoinette but her ghost. This new version has scaled-down orchestration heartily approved by the composer, and by numerous critics.
ERROLLYN WALLEN: Photography - Matthew Sharp, cello, Continuum Ensemble, Orchestra X, Ensemble X, Quartet X, Errollyn Wallen (NMC 221) The Belize-born British composer was the first Black woman whose music was performed at the BBC Proms. I've been a fan since I came across her earlier short pieces, but this new release shows her to be a master of larger instrumental works, including a glorious cello concerto. In the booklet note, John Butt observes that it's a "disservice" to call Wallen "eclectic" or "cross-over," since her huge range of musical references "are all heard and re-sounded together by a single mind that is both outside the sources and also at their very center." Take the Cello Concerto, which will make you think of the cello works of Bach and Britten AND of the blues, but above all of English pastoralists. The result is unified, moving, and deeply personal. A revisiting of Dido's Lament, sung by Wallen herself, is haunting. More, please!
ARVO PART: The Deer's Cry - Vox Clamantis/ Jaan-Eik Tulve (ECM B002538202 ) In 1984, Manfred Eicher's ECM label made the music world aware of the mystical Estonian minimalist Arvo Part. In 2016, the now 81-year-old Part was the most widely performed living composer in the world, and still championed by Eicher and ECM. This latest album features 21st-century choral works by Part, performed by one of Estonia's leading choral groups.
JOHN ADAMS: Scheherazade 2 - Leila Josefowicz, violin, St. Louis Orchestra/ David Robertson (Nonesuch 557170-2) The legend of Scheherazade spinning forth tales gave Rimsky-Korsakoff a colorful frame for tone poems. But she was telling the stories in order to charm her husband into not murdering her quite yet, and that oppressively violent background is what John Adams explores in this new work. Like Rimsky-Korsakoff, he represents the storytelling title character with a solo violin, played here by the MacArthur-winning Leila Josefowicz, but unlike his predecessor, Adams lets us feel what she was up against.
JULIUS EASTMAN: Femenine (Frozen Reed) - The 49-year-old composer/ singer/ dancer/ keyboardist Julius Eastman died alone in a hospital room in 1990, and eight months passed before an obituary appeared. A few years earlier, Eastman had became homeless, and when he was evicted many manuscripts of his compositions had been tossed along with him onto a New York sidewalk. Yet since 1990, his legend has only grown. Last year, this small Finnish label released an archived 1974 concert recording of a minimalist masterpiece he called Femenine. Says Zoe Madonna of WQXR, "I don’t know what I was expecting,.... Something more confrontational, maybe, or angrier. Contrary to these expectations I didn’t know I had, the first sound on Frozen Reeds’ release of Femenine is the jingle of mechanized sleigh bells, the second, laughter of the audience at the whimsical contraption. Femenine is music for lovers, outwardly and inwardly joyous."
MORTON FELDMAN AND GEORGE CRUMB: Palais de Mari, etc. - Steven Osborne (Hyperion 68108) - The Scottish pianist is renowned for his recordings of Rachmaninoff, and Beethoven, so how does he fare in Morton Feldman (1926-87)? That American original could hardly be more different from Beethoven or Rachmaninoff. His "compositions don't impose themselves on you, and refuse to shout about their meaning or importance," as Tom Service writes, but instead are "intimate, quiet, small and often slow." As it happens, Osborne conveys their elusive essence, and does the same for the little Christmas suite by another American maverick, George Crumb (born 1929).
VIRGIL THOMSON: Complete Songs - The Florestan Song Project, Sarah Pelletier, soprano; Lynn McMurtry, contralto; William Hite, tenor; Aaron Engebreth, baritone; Linda Osborn, piano; Alison d'Amato, piano; John McDonald, percussion (New World 80775) - Thomson is remembered above all for his operatic collaborations with Gertrude Stein, Four Saints in Three Acts and The Mother of Us All, but as Jed Distler points out, his skill in setting words was honed by a lifetime of songwriting. Thomson set texts by Stein and many other authors from Shakespeare, William Blake, John Donne, Edward Lear, and Marianne Moore to the Bible and the ordinary of the Latin Mass. And in doing so he used a wide variety of musical styles. As for the performers, Distler calls them "accomplished... precise.. free of artifice, and .. intent on doing right by Thomson and making the words clear."
CHRISTOPHER ROUSE: Odna Zhizn; Symphonies 3 and 4 - New York Philharmonic/ Alan Gilbert (Da Capo 99) - Another major American orchestra near the top of the list, this time with one of America's foremost living composers. Alan Gilbert has just left the post of music director of the New York Philharmonic, but this recording with the Danish indie label DaCapo is an example of his underrated legacy and impressed critics worldwide.
COLLECTIONS THAT WERE MORE THAN THE SUM OF THEIR PARTS
LARA DOWNES, piano, America Again - Lara Downes (Sono Luminus 92207 8) - An Iowa favorite, Lara Downes has a rare skill: she knows how to make little-known music fascinating to ordinary listeners. The key has been innovative programs organized around themes we can all relate to. For this new recording, she took her title from Langston Hughes's Let America Be America Again. Her selections span a huge range of American genres and eras, some well known but much of it new or neglected. Anyone would find it engaging, and eight critics found it among the highlights of 2016.
JOHANNES BRAHMS, ERIC EWAZEN, DANIEL KELLOGG: Inspired by Brahms: Horn Trios - Michael Thornton, horn; Yumi Hwang-Williams, violin; Andrew Litton, piano (Albany 1616) - An excellent performance of the Brahms trio for violin, horn, and piano is always welcome, and we have one here, but what made this album stand out are its two other works, both inspired by the Brahms trio and using the same unique scoring. I'm a longtime devotee of Ewazen and his noble, melodious imagination soars here. And I'm now an admirer of Daniel Kellogg, whose A Glorious Morning is also irresistible.
CARBONCHI, CORBETTA, GRANATA, PELLEGRINI: Scaramanzia - Rolf Lislevand (baroque guitar, chitarra battente [strumming guitar], lute); Thor-harald Johnsen (chitarra battente, baroque guitar); Bjorn Kjellemyr (colascione); Ulrik Gaston Larsen (baroque guitar and theorbo) (Naive V902755) - The theme unifying this collection is bad luck and superstitions for avoiding it, as both were understood in 17th-century Italy. The spell-like music centers on repeated motifs, and the results are bewitching. It can only be good fortune to hear so many plucked strings played with such creative mastery and recorded so beautifully. I do mean the "creative" part specifically: some of the tracks are improvisations rooted in the style and practice of the period.
HANDEL, PURCELL, MONTEVERDI, LEO, JOMMELI: In War and Peace - Joyce DiDonato, mezzo-soprano; Il Pomo d'Oro/ Maxim Emelyanychev (Erato 2-557754 8 )- "In the midst of chaos, I find peace by loving," said Joyce DiDonato to NPR, and that search for peace amidst violence shaped her latest album - a moving recital of Baroque pieces on war and peace, some well-known, some deserving to be. The Kansas native is one of those rare singers with a voice as agile as it is warm, and an art that not only sings but also speaks.
HANS GAL: Piano Concerto: WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART: Piano Concerto no. 22 - Sarah Beth Briggs, piano/ Royal Northern Sinfonia/ Kenneth Woods conducting the Gal (Avie 2358). A pianist I hadn't heard of plays an expansive Mozart concerto superbly and conducts it as well. But the reason her album made the lists was the other work she plays, a 1948 masterpiece that had never been recorded before and that formed a perfect pair with the Mozart. The composer, Hans Gal, born to a Jewish family in Vienna in 1890, had a brilliant career that was cut short by Hitler. Gal and some, but not all, of his family escaped to the UK, where he was briefly interred in a British camp for "enemy aliens" then found work in Edinburgh. He taught there until his death in 1987, but his music was too tonal for mid-century fashions. It's only in the last decades that we've become aware of its greatness, thanks to champions like Annette-Barbara Vogel (who once taught in Iowa), and especially Kenneth Woods, a conductor who hails from Wisconsin. Woods recorded what is the reference version of the Gal symphonies, and is the ideal collaborator here. As with the symphonies and the Violin Concerto (recorded by Vogel), we can only be grateful for the chance to hear genuine neglected masterpieces.
SCHUBERT, SCHUMANN, BRAHMS, WAGNER: Rheinmadchen [Rhine Maidens} - Ensemble Pygmalion (Harmonia mundi 902239) - The first track of this disk features a female choir singing a chamber arrangement of music from Wagner's Twilight of the Gods, accompanied by period instruments. It shouldn't work, but it's irresistible, as is the whole album. Brahms's settings for female voices, harp, and horn are old favorites of mine, as is Schubert's birthday serenade for alto and female chorus, but in this context they are even more enticing.
SHAKESPEARE SONGS - Ian Bostridge, tenor, Antonio Pappano, piano, Elizabeth Kenny, lute (Warner 9029594473) - From Thomas Morley in the day, to Haydm, Poulenc, Stravinsky, Korngold, and numerous British composers, the words of Shakespeare have inspired great settings, and these performers give a memorable recital, which will bring welcome discoveries to almost any listener.
DANISH STRING QUARTET: Music of Thomas Ades, Per Norgard, and Hans Abrahamsen (ECM New Series 2453) - The artists write, "What drew us to the string quartets by Per Nørgård, Hans Abrahamsen and Thomas Adès was at first the instantaneous quality of the music: these quartets, each one very different from the others, felt like fountains of ideas, flowing over with honest, direct music, written without any hint of fear and insecurity." They enchanted a number of critics.
DEBUSSY, ELGAR, RESPIGHI: Violin Sonatas; SIBELIUS: Berceuse - James Ehnes, Violin, Andrew Armstrong, piano (Onyx 4159) - A varied program of works written in the shadow of World War I. If you haven't heard of Canadian violinist James Ehnes, try this album, which shows him to be not only a master of his instrument but an exceptionally insightful and communicative artist.
ERICH WOLFGANG KORNGOLD AND BENJAMIN BRITTEN: Violin Concertos - Vilde Frang, violin/ Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra/ James Gaffigan (Warner 0825646009213) - The young Norwegian violinist shows that an artist conveys maximum emotion not by "emoting" overtly but by probing beneath the surface. David Gutman in Gramophone nicely describes "several paradoxes at the heart of Frang’s captivating performance style. Playing with almost intimidating dexterity and polish, not to mention impeccable intonation,,,her music-making still manages to project an impression of honesty and naturalness. An exciting player, she prefers taking chances to playing it safe, in spite of which her interpretations feel airily unforced rather than ostentatious."
On this album she let us feel the hidden relationship of two contrasting concertos written quite independently by Europeans who were in the US because of World War II. Erich Wolfgang Korngold, born in Vienna in 1897 was a prodigy so gifted that Mahler called him "a musical genius." He grew up to become a leading composer of opera in Europe, but had to flee in 1938 because he was Jewish. In exile in Hollywood, he raised the film score to the level of high art, having vowed, it is reported, to write no concert works while Hitler was in power. After the Allied victory in 1945, he wrote a violin concerto that uses some of his best ideas from film scores. By then, however, postwar critics favored modernism, and they derided it as "corn." Only in recent decades has it been recognized as a masterpiece and programmed frequently, but Frang reveals its greatness as few artists have managed. The Strad writes, "She may not choose the fatness of sound that others have traditionally opted for but she brings an effortless lyricism and an unreal, shining sweetness of tone, no matter how high she soars." Similar depth allows her to give one of the supreme performances of Britten's sadder concerto, which he composed in New York in 1939. Says Gramophone, Frang's performance is "at once spacious and tautly held together, cool where it needs to be but eminently emotive with just the right kind of ‘perilous sweetness’." Overall, it says, "These are urgently communicative, potentially transformative accounts of scores which, if no longer confined to the fringes of the repertoire, have yet to command universal admiration." If any recording could change that, it is this one.
_________________________________________________ In the next post, I'll cover releases chosen for four-to-nine lists and focused on mainstream, classic repertory. Stay tuned!