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Favorite Classical CDs of 2013

When I spoke with Charity Nebbe about favorite classical CDs of 2013, time was short, so I cut my list to 10 that I thought might appeal to the widest range of listeners. But my actual list is much longer. So much great music was written and so many inspired performance recorded that 10 is too few to do justice to how vibrant a year it was for classical music.  So here are about 29 favorites, in alphabetical order. (The 10 I spoke about with Charity are notated with a [C].  Also: I put the  three Iowa CDs first.)
[By the way, the list would be longer if I'd had access to more of the highly-praised releases of the year - for example, Daniel Barenboim AND Antonio Pappano in Verdi's sacred works, Riccardo Muti in Verdi's Otello, Riccardo Chailly's Brahms symphonies, Mariss Jansons' Beethoven symphonies, Beethoven from the Belcea Quartet, the Schubert Quintet from the Pavel Haas Quartet, Rene Jacobs in the St. Matthew Passion, Anne-Sophie Mutter in the Dvorak Violin Concerto, Hilary Hahn's "27 Encores," Sarah Cahill's "A Sweeter Music," Isabelle Faust et al. in Weber's chamber music, the Jerusalem Quartet in Brahms, Christine Busch's Bach solo music, said by Julie Anne Sadie to "set new standards," Sibelius from Minnesota or Atlanta - and surely more. If I get access to these and they "hit the spot," I'll add them.]

Part I: IOWA CDS (in alphabetical order. Full disclosure: I regard all the Iowa artists mentioned as friends  - that is the nature of music - just wanted to clear that up!)

Dave Camwell, Timescape - I didn't expect to like a saxophone album, I blush to admit, but this Indianola-based artist has created a varied, engaging recital of music from four centuries, some in arrangements, some brand-new. Like it I certainly did.

Bernhard Romberg, Complete Cello Music - Hannah Holman, cello, and Rene Lecuona, piano (Blue Griffin) -

If you're a cello geek, you know Romberg, and if you want to know what else was going on when Beethoven was writing, well, Romberg is the guy who turned down LvB's offer to write a concerto for him. He wanted to play his OWN music, but I can't imagine he played it better than by these two Iowa City artists, whose virtuosity and poetic communicativeness are well-known in Iowa and elsewhere (like NY, where Hannah plays in the NYC Ballet orchestra).

Una Vocis Choral Ensemble, Adveni - a new holiday CD from this Mason City ensemble, including some new works. If you're looking for a CD in the Christmas-choral-contemporary genre, this is fresh and lovely. The Ola Gjeilo piece alone is worth the price of the CD, and it's not the only one! [C]


Bach: The Six Brandenburg Concertos performed by the Dunedin Consort led from the harpsichord by John Butt (Linn CKD 430).

The Scottish ensemble takes performance of these works to a new level - justifying your going out and getting another recording of them! - and the recorded sound is the warmest, richest, and most realistic I can imagine. Here's my amazon review. [C]

Bach: St. John Passion - Dunedin Consort/ John Butt (Linn CKD 419) -The same musicians, offering a "liturgical reconstruction" that is a must-hear for anyone serious about this work. I found it indescribably thrilling to hear the opening chorus emerge not out of silence but instead out of an improvisatory-sounding organ prelude (actually by Buxtehude)  - as it would have in any performance in Bach's day.  The Passion itself receives the  most consistently excellent performance the Dunedin has yet recorded of a Bach choral work, and the extras are no throwaways. They include five chorale preludes by Bach, played with poetry and freedom by one of our foremost organists. There are also some non-Bach vocal pieces, including one by Jacobus Gallus that George Frideric Handel "borrowed" for a funeral ode of his, and hearing it we can understand why Handel was drawn to it: it is moving and beautiful.

Bach: The Goldberg Variations - Jeremy Denk, piano (Nonesuch, with free bonus DVD) - Denk - one of this year's MacArthur "Genius" winners - put off playing the Goldbergs for years, partly because the first question everyone asked was which Glenn Gould recording he preferred, and partly because of meeting a guy after every concert who had 70 recordings of the Goldbergs and started comparing. So let's not compare: it is a delightful addition - masterly, insightful, and with a feeling of play rooted in thoroughly assimilated Baroque "musical thinking" and sense of genre (e.g., the "Aria" moves like a sarabande and the ornamental layers sound ornamental). And the bonus DVD would be worth the price by itself but is free - it's fun and highly instructive. The set would make someone a nice stocking stuffer, including for yourself if you've been a good-enough little person!

Bartok: The Violin Concertos - Isabelle Faust (harmonia mundi 902146 ) - She is, I admit it, my favorite violinist right now, so I was primed for this. I was not disappointed, to say the least. It's great stuff.

Beethoven: The Late Piano Sonatas - Igor Levit, piano (Sony 88883703872) - The memo states clearly that nobody can do justice to Beethoven's profound late sonatas until they are at least 50-years old. Igor Levit did not read the memo. The 26-year-old Russia-born Germany-raised artist adds something special to the large discography of these works, combining magically liquid tone with truly polyphonic thinking that reveals patterns that are often muddied . [C]

Beethoven, Piano Sonatas vol. 2 - Jonathan Biss, piano (Onyx 4094) - The 33-year-old American continues what promises to be an absolute first-rank sonata cycle. Vol. 2 has three exceptional sonatas: the youthful no. 4 in E-flat (op. 7), the familiar no. 14 ("mis-nicknamed" the "Moonlight"), and no. 24, one of Beethoven's own favorites, whose first movement has a subtle poignancy and second an unbuttoned wildness (Biss captures both perfectly). Other Biss Beethoven news in 2013: his free online Coursera course on Beethoven attracted over 30,000 students and will soon be accessible on a free app.

Beethoven, Diabelli Variations, Piano Sonata no. 32, Bagatelles, op. 126 - Andras Schiff, piano/ fortepiano (ECM) - Back when I was a piano student, I struggled for years to do justice to Beethoven's crowning Bagatelle cycle, op. 126. And back in my pre-IPR days I sometimes Beethoven on period pianos. Neither venture left me with a feeling of satisfaction, so I was not expecting much from Andras Schiff's new recording of op. 126 on a period piano - but in fact, I am floored. Schiff shines new light on the works, making sense of difficult balances I never could quite manag, and joining Artur Schnabel in my inner circle of interpreters of this cycle. On top of that, he gives us not one, but two revelatory recordings of the visionary challenge that is the "Diabelli Variations" - one on a 1920's Bechstein like the one played by Schnabel, the other on the period piano, which under his hands sings and sounds not even slightly "tinny."

Caleb Burhans: Evensong, performed by Alarm Will Sound and the Trinity Wall Street Choir (Canteloupe) - July was quite a month for American composer-violinist-violist Caleb Burhans - his first child was born and his first CD came out. While the former is of course more significant, this CD is quite something. If you want to hear something new that is both profound AND beautiful, try it. Melodies from this CD come into my head unbidden sometimes, and they are always very welcome earworms.  Here's a sample track. [C]

Richard Danielpour: Darkness in the Ancient Valley/ Lacrimae Beati/ A Woman's Life - Hila Plitman, Angela Brown/ Nashville Symphony/ Giancarlo Guerrero (Naxos 8.559707) - Haunting settings of ancient Persian poetry and of Maya Angelou..

Lisa Dellans, "The Hours Begin to Sing" with Matt Haimovitz, cello, David Krakauer, clarinet, and more (Pentatone) - Dellans has my kinda voice - light but full of color. On this CD she sings Jake Heggie's settings of poems by Galway Kinnell, David Garnier's settings of the important Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever, Luna Pearl Woolf's settings of Rumi, John Corigliano's settings of Irish poems, some of William Bolcom's "Cabaret Songs" (texts by a friend of his), and Gordon Getty's settings of Dickinson.

Joyce DiDonato, ReJoyce (Erato) - For her "greatest hits" selection, Joyce DiDonato crowdsourced - her fans chose the 31 tracks, came up with the title, and even provided the photos. Good job, fans! I was especially moved by the selections from Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking (an example of the vitality of contemporary American opera), and by her live recording of "Over the Rainbow" (I dare you to listen with a dry eye!).  Her "Over the Rainbow" was a big moment at this year's "Last Night of the Proms" concert, itself a major 2013 music event as it was the first ever conducted by a woman, the American maestro Marin Alsop. [C]

Dvorak: Cello Concertos, performed by Steven Isserlis, with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra led by Daniel Harding (Hyperion CDA67917) - Cello lovers have waited 40 years for the awesome Isserlis to record the supreme cello concerto, Dvorak’s B-minor. This year, at age 54, he finally felt ready, and the wait has been worth it – it sounds not at all overthought but fresh, free, and inspired, as if he has fallen in love with this concerto all over again.  (It definitely had that effect for me!) He makes the CD that much more attractive by adding a delight that has not been recorded before in this version (I think), a  cello concerto abandoned by the young Dvorak and completed in the 20th century by Günter Raphael. [C]

Handel: “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato,” performed by the Cologne Chamber Choir and Collegium Cartusianum led by Peter Neumann (Carus 83.395). 

If you love Handel’s “Messiah,” where do you turn next? My suggestion is his inspired setting of words of (for the most part) John Milton. While those words are memorable (“Come, and trip it as ye go/ on the light fantastic toe”), it’s Handel's music that makes the work so irresistible. The “Laughing Chorus” alone is worth the price of the disc, and in the preceding aria, tenor Benjamin Hulett really sounds like someone laughing.[C]

Handel - Trio Sonata op. 2 -The Brook Street Band (Avie) - Handel - wait, wasn't he just on the list? But I loves me some 18th century - my favorite musical century, with the 21st a close second - and the Brook Street Band (named for Handel's London address) deserves mention because it played in TWO great CDs this year. (The other was Dixit Dominus settings by Handel and Alessandro Scarlatti, also on Avie.) Quite wonderful playing AND music.

A GOOD YEAR FOR HAYDN CONCERTOS #1 - Marc-Andre Hamelin: Haydn Piano Concertos - (Hyperion 67925) The "Haydn Curse" is that he wrote so MUCH great music in so MANY genres that much -even most - of it gets overlooked. It's a good idea to buy at least one CD of less-familiar Haydn every year, and this year a good focus might be his concertos. Marc-Andre Hamelin recorded three Piano Concertos and if that sounds enticing, wait'll you hear it!

A GOOD YEAR FOR HAYDN CONCERTOS #2 - Haydn-Mysliveček Cello Concertos - Wendy Warner, (Cedille 142) Most cellists perform the two surviving cello concertos, but it'd be hard to surpass Chicagoan Wendy Warner (on Cedille 142).  And she adds an overlooked gem of a concerto by Mozart's one-time buddy Josef  Mysliveček (aka, "The Divine Bohemian"). She uses a modernized Guarneri cello with a classical bow, and her teacher, Mstislav Rostropovich, would be proud of her playing; she gets excellent support from Camerata Chicago led by Drostan Halle.

Jennifer Higdon, "An Exaltation of Larks" (Bridge) - No fewer than threes cds of chamber music by this major American composer came in this year, each from a different label with different pieces. It's a touch choice, but I'll go with this one, especially for "Scenes from the Poet's Dreams."

David Lang, "death speaks" -  (Canteloupe 21092) - Of all the great new-music recordings I heard in 2013 this one by University of Iowa graduate David Lang moved me most deeply.  death speaks is based on English translations of Schubert texts, but you needn't know the originals to be moved and mesmerized. This reflects not only on the profundity of Lang but also on his choice of performers, notably solo singer Shara Worden (of "My Brightest Diamond").

Also profound and beautiful is the companion piece, depart, multitracked by cellist Maya Beiser with four wordless voices. It was commissioned by doctors at a French hospice to comfort the bereaved, and the composer says, "What I think is most noble about this project is not that.... the music can really make the pain any easier to bear, but that the doctors felt morally compelled to try everything in their powers to ease the suffering around them. It's a beautiful idea."

Francesco da Milano, "Il Divino," performed by Paul O'Dette (Harmonia mundi HMU 907557) - a major composer for the lute from Michelangelo's time - sound enticing? Luckily, American lutenist Paul O'Dette is "divino", too.

"Roomful of Teeth" (New Amsterdam) -

Credit Dashon Burton
Caroline Shaw

Until recent decades the Pulitzer typically went to thorny High Modernists whose motto might have been, "Who cares if they listen?" The prize has opened up  - Wynton Marsalis won in 1997, Ornette Coleman won in 2007 - but still, this year's award to 30-year-old Caroline Shaw stunned everyone, in a good way. Shaw herself jokes that once she realized it wasn't a prank, she wondered if she was having a psychotic break! Aside from her being little known until now, another discontinuity is that Shaw describes herself as a musician, not a composer; she is one of those young artists trying to break down the hierarchy of composer at the apex and humble performer as mere servant. In fact, she is one of the eight singers in "Roomful of Teeth" (what a name for a vocal octet!), as is Caleb Burhans (the disc includes a marvelous composition of his, too, by the way).  Also, it illustrates how "new music" is no longer marked by insular erudition but increasingly embodies the opposite: exceptional openness to everything in our whole, wide world (h/t to Nadia Sirota for that point - see below for more on Sirota). As The New York Times writes, Partita brings together "chanting, humming, the deadpan instructions for a Sol LeWitt mural and a 19th-century hymn," and we can add that one movement begins with the folk-dance caller's instructions for dancing an Allemande, which morphs into joyous, enthralling choral writing. [Anne Midgette mentions the work's joyousness, and notes it's been too rare a commodity in new music.]

Maria Schneider, "Winter Morning Walks" sung by Dawn Upshaw, with Schneider leading the Australian Chamber Orchestra and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (ArtistShare). Schneider, a (Minnesota-born) jazz great, wrote these cycles for the (Illinois-raised) mezzo great Dawn Upshaw. One cycle sets poems by Ted Kooser, the Ames-born Iowa State-educated former US Poet Laureate, about his recovery from cancer. Doctors' orders meant staying out of the sun, so he took walks in the pre-dawn Midwestern morning, and he wrote poems on the theme. The concert in which Upshaw and Schneider gave the world premiere was the last ever attended by Upshaw's sister Dana, who was battling cancer; she told her sister at intermission, "I have no words... I can't express what a powerful experience this was...."  It is powerful, too, on disc. The second cycle sets translations of the Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond (but only one song sounds at all Brazilian!). Deeply touching and human.

Pacifica Quartet, "The Soviet Experience, Vol. 3" (Cedille 138) - I have never heard better Shostakovich playing. This year the Pacifica completed their cycle, and this release is my preferred sampler. It includes the important quartets nos. 9-12, AND it adds the Sixth Quartet of Shostakovich's close friend, neighbor, and creative inspiration, Moishe Weinberg. (Where did the klezmer influence come from in DS? Largely Weinberg.) Not an easy listen to be sure - it really DOES take you into the Soviet experience - but for the ages.

Schubert, complete violin music -Alina Ibragimova (violin), Cédric Tiberghien (piano) -(Hyperion CDA67911/2) - Fellow Schubert lovers, and you know who you are, this one is special: CDA67911/2 CDA67911/2

Robert Schumann, Symphony no. 4 and Hans Gal, Symphony no. 2 - Orchestra of the Swan/ Kenneth Woods  (Avie) - In the performance of Schumann's most adventurous symphony, you can feel the musicians' inspiration (these people do not do "routine"); and the Gal is personal, special, and heartfelt, and could hardly receive more persuasive advocacy.

New Music for Guitar, vol. 8 - David Starobin et al. (Bridge 9404) - New classical music for plucked strings is an amazingly vibrant scene, and nobody has done more to make it so than David Starobin. This disc features one of his own works and music by Poul Ruders, George Crumb, and Paul Lansky - all excellent. And Lansky is one of my favorite Americans writing today. (I'm delighted that Bridge will be putting out an all-Lansky CD next year.)

John Taverner, Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas, plus three Magnificats - The Tallis Scholars/ Peter Phillips (Gimmell CDGIM 045) - Forty years ago, Peter Phillips and his Tallis Scholars gave their first concert, featuring this rich and soaring masterpiece, and the rest is history: the group created a new audience for Renaissance polyphony and set stunning technical standards. Earlier this year, they recorded this Mass for a second time, and the result is awe-inspiring; they are even better than before, and of course, the sound is warmer, clearer, and more beautiful than ever.

WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITES OF 2013?  Please let me know what YOU think should be on this list! My email is bsherman at iowapublicradio.org.

ONE RESPONDENT to the above question is Jason Weinberger, who is Music Director of the wcfsymphony in Waterloo-Cedar Falls, along with his various other musical hats. His personal CD of the year is Nadia Sirota's "Baroque" (New Amsterdam). It's not actually Baroque music at all, but new music of great variety for a violist with electronics, and it definitely belongs on the list!

Barney Sherman is a Senior Music Producer and Classical Music Host