As the over-eager “crossover” nonsense simmers down, we suffer through fewer attempts at audience-pandering. Aside from Sting singing “Dowland” a few years back, which was terrific, I have heard much that seemed truly sincere.
Until getting my hands on Bruce Wolosoff’s Songs without Words (Naxos). It’s a set of eighteen miniatures for string quartet, played by the commissioning ensemble, the Carpe Diem Quartet. They asked the composer for “rock and jazz based music,” and he hit on the idea of improvising along with the 30-second samples you find online to familiarize himself with the sounds they sought. The resulting pieces aren’t rewrites, and they’re rarely even pay recognizable homage to their sources. Wolosoff produced an engaging and, dare I say, literate piece that does what classical music is supposed to do: give a more formal voice to the music of its day. And it’s a very fun disc to listen to. It’s at the top of my own gift-giving list.
Beethoven had no trouble working in the tunes he heard around him, and quotes and little jokes abound in his Ten Violin Sonatas, well served in a new recording by violinist Renaud Capuçon and pianist Frank Braley (Virgin Classics). Only a couple of these are ever heard in concert with any regularity, so it’s a treat to go through them all. What distinguishes this recording is what the artists don’t do: they don’t try to stamp the works with distracting over-interpretation. They serve the music well. And they share an easy-to-perceive excitement.
For the past several summers, pianist Martha Argerich brings talented young players together in Lugano and EMI puts out a three-disc set of the highlights. I worry that it could become dull and predictable, but Argerich & Friends’ Live at Lugano 2009 features her in a gorgeous recording (with orchestra) of Falla’s “Nights in the Gardens of Spain” that’s worth the price right there. Add to it Bloch’s Piano Quintet No. 1, little-heard sextets by Mendelssohn and Glinka, Renaud Capuçon in Bartók’s Violin Sonata No. 2 and Argerich and the Capuçon brothers (Gautier plays cello) in Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Op. 88, and you have a great array. And there’s even more.
Also in the piano realm, Leif Ove Andsnes in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concertos Nos. 3 and 4 (EMI) completes the concerto cycle brilliantly, with excellent support from Antonio Pappano and the London Symphony.
One of the most fascinating piano cycles of the 20th century is the set of 24 Preludes and Fugues by Shostakovich. Alexander Melnikov’s new recording, The Preludes & Fugues (Harmonia Mundi), spreads 23 of them over two CDs; the mighty 24th shares a disc with a DVD side of performance and interview footage. These are brisker interpretations than those of Tatiana Nikolaeva, the work’s dedicatee, and far less eccentric than Keith Jarrett’s. Like Glenn Gould, Melnikov has a way of giving each contrapuntal voice its own identity so you stop thinking in terms of fingers at work and instead enjoy the glorious intertwining.
Harmonia Mundi also issued the unusual and gratifying Gershwin by Grofé, saluting the composer’s association with Paul Whiteman’s chief arranger. Lincoln Mayorga plays the Rhapsody in Blue and “I Got Rhythm” Variations, and is also in the arrangement of “Summertime.” He’s a specialist in this kind of thing and is thus terrific. The late Al Gallodoro, who worked with both Whiteman and Toscanini, was in his 90s when he sat in on these sessions, and you’d never know it. If you think you have enough Gershwin—well, without this, you don’t.
And add to it Gershwin: Porgy & Bess, which Nikolaus Harnoncourt recorded in performance in Austria last year (RCA Red Seal). Harnoncourt? You heard me. He brings a stylistic understanding to the score you might not expect—but versatility is one of his hallmarks. And there’s intensity to this, underscoring the bigger-than-life theatricality of the piece. Jonathan Lemalu as Porgy and Isabelle Kabatu as Bess have big voices that don’t always seem suited to the material, but the overall effect is utterly convincing. As soon as you hear Bibiana Nwobilo peal out with “Summertime,” you’ll be hooked.
There’s a fairly wacky jazz version of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio out there now with the King’s Singers as soloists, but for a splendid reminder of what this sextet does when at their best, look for their Pachelbel Vespers (Signum). Instrumental accompaniment is by Charivari Agréable, directed by Kah-Ming Ng. Seven works by Johann Pachelbel are featured, with two instrumentals by contemporaries Johann Krieger and Johann Kerll—nicely programmed.
Music of the past is brilliantly served by the astonishing flow of recordings from gamba virtuoso, arranger and conductor Jordi Savall, who always makes this list. His three-disc survey of music in an around The Borgia Dynasty (Alia Vox) in Renaissance Europe makes for evocative listening, although I wished for more detailed texts about the music. Still, it’s a beautiful book-and-CD package that will delight the eclecticist on your list. Other Savall highlights this year, all on his Alia Vox label, were a set of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, The Celtic Viol, Vol. 2, and a fresh survey of music from the Spanish Caribbean titled El Nuevo Mundo.
A high-energy survey of recent Mexican music is conductor Alondra de la Parra’s Mi Alma Mexicana (Sony), conducting her Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas in works by Moncayo (the ever-popular Huapango), Revueltas, Chávez and others, including Manuel Ponce’s Guitar Concerto (with soloist Pablo Sáinz Villegas). Contemporary composers are also represented, with works by Federico Ibarra, Eugenio Toussaint, Mario Lavista and Enrico Chapela.
Morton Gould (1913-1996) seems to have a legacy more as a light-music composer and arranger than the hard-core (but still fun) classical guy he was at heart. Once again, David Alan Miller and the Albany Symphony seek redress with a CD, Morton Gould: Interplay (Albany Records), that features Findlay Cockrell as pianist in the American Concertette No. 1, renamed “Interplay” when Jerome Robbins choreographed it. Also here: American Symphonette No. 2, with its well-known Pavane, a 1944 Concerto for Orchestra and much more.
Last year I suggested that, if your generosity is fueled by deep pockets, you’d get Sony’s 70-disc Original Jacket Collection of Vladimir Horowitz putting all of his Columbia recordings in little reproductions of their original LP issue. This year it’s Jascha Heifetz, with a 103-disc Original Jacket Collection (Sony). And one more big-box recommendation: the 60-CD Leonard Bernstein Symphony Edition (Sony), which collects his New York Philharmonic symphonic repertoire, giving you complete symphonies by Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Sibelius, Schumann, Tchaikovsky and Bernstein, with generous helpings of Mozart, Haydn, Dvořák, Nielsen, Prokofiev and much, much more.