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Sunday, January 03, 2016

Another Classical Year

CLASSICAL MUSIC, OR WHAT’S LEFT OF IT, retrenches and redefines itself with impressive alacrity, trying again to do what it did before it was pushed out of sight: absorb the sounds that please the ears of the many, even as it clings to the big orchestral sound that continues to price it out of existence.

Put simply, there are far bigger profits to be made from music that’s less demanding. The corporate hand grabbing money from your pocketbook is impatient, and has taught us to be impatient, too. But new recordings soldier on, impressively redefining the old and discovering younger works.

Thus, a couple of composers unfamiliar to me lead my list of the year’s favorites. New York City-born Mohammed Fairouz, a wildly successful 30-year-old (he’s been on Morning Joe!) weaves the textures of his Middle Eastern roots into his engaging music, and the album Follow, Poet (DGG) adds poetry both in an emotionally affecting setting and in spoken texts by Auden and Heaney, with a paean to poetry by John F. Kennedy to kick things off.

The poetry of José Santos Chocano inspired the work “América Salvaje” (“Wild Americas”), the compelling concluding work on a Harmonia Mundi collection of the music of Peruvian composer Jimmy López. It’s also different enough from the other three orchestral works on the CD to show how easily López can summon the texture he needs, even while embracing indigenous aspects of the music he grew up with — especially as demonstrated in “Perú Negro,” as excitingly danceable as a Ginastera ballet.

A guitar’s textures would seem more limited, but in the hands of Russian-born Sofia Gubaidulina, there’s an orchestral breadth made the more complex by her use of a chromaticism that can go into quarter-tones. David Tanenbaum performs the four works on a Naxos recording of her Complete Guitar Works, at its heart the 25-minute “Repentance” from 2008 that also includes two more guitars, a cello, and a bass. It’s haunting stuff.

A bumper crop of pianists, from young to dead, graces this list, beginning with Valentina Lisitsa. Her two-disc Plays Philip Glass (Decca) features what I’ll dare term the composer’s lighter fare, including piano transcriptions of music from the films “The Hours,” “Mishima,” and the Janáček-inflected “The Truman Show.” Especially powerful is the five-movement Metamorphosis, given its challenging due by the virtuoso Lisitsa.

Pianist Kai Schumacher peers at you from the cover of Insomnia (Hanssler Classic) through what’s supposed to be an opaque sleep mask. It’s my favorite cover of the year. And the opening selection, Gershwin’s “Sleepless Night,” lovingly performed on an out-of-tune upright, hardly prepares you for a journey that will reach its tortured depths in George Crumb’s gorgeous “A Little Midnight Music,” a set of variations on Thelonius Monk’s “Round Midnight.” Then go ahead, try to lie peacefully while Brian Belet’s “Summer Phantoms: Nocturne” adds electronics to the piano’s cries. Works by John Cage and Bruce Stark complete the brilliant program.

Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco
’s inevitable destiny was Hollywood, and his Violin Concerto No. 1, written in 1924, fuses Vivaldi with a lush orchestral sound. Jascha Heifetz was impressed enough after performing it to commission another, the more reserved (but still lush) Concerto No. 2, subtitled “I Profeti” and weaving in traditional Jewish melodies the composer learned in his native Florence. Heifetz also recorded the piece, but in this new, great-sounding Naxos recording, violinist Tianwa Yang shows technical and interpretive mastery–and restores significant measures of the music that Heifetz omitted.

A more familiar violin concerto is Prokofiev’s No. 2; on a new Onyx recording it’s played with characteristic brilliance by Viktoria Mullova, with Paavo Järvi conducting the Frankfurt Radio Symphony. Mullova admirably makes attempt to over-interpret here, and the second movement is as gorgeous as it’s ever going to sound. Even better is the unusual programming that follows: Prokofiev’s Sonata for Two Violins, with Tedi Papapvrami, and the droll, rarely heard Solo Violin Sonata.

The most fun disc of the year–and maybe my favorite disc of the decade–is William Schimmel’s Theater of the Accordion (Roven Records). The opening work, his arrangement of music from Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier,” has the mood of a late-night café, which is where that piece belongs, which leaves you all set for his surprising medley inspired by “Fiddler on the Roof.” But then there’s the indescribably funny “Wozzeck the Winner,” a poignant tribute to Mahler’s Ninth with trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, and the best version of Bernstein’s “Candide” Overture ever recorded. And be sure to listen with headphones to the Schimmel-Marsalis “St. Louis Blues.”

Let’s not abandon the warhorses. Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 taught me to adore classical music, and the late Claudio Abbado’s final recording of it, from September 2011 (DGG), is a culmination both of a conducting career and, I believe, a tradition of the Romantic orchestra. Its opening solo horn call seems to signal something out of the past; its rollicking finale summons Rossini. Yet the dying Schubert looked ahead to Wagnerian Romanticism, and Abbado welcomes this aspect with the splendid young players of his Orchestra Mozart.

Bach’s Suites for Solo Cello
also looked backward (at dance forms) and forward (towards an ineffable beauty I’ve yet to fathom, as with most of Bach’s works). The suites (and the solo violin sonatas) have inspired a bunch of recent recordings, but cellist Philip Higham’s two-disc set (Delphian) reveals the beauty of understatement. Higham allows the dances to dance without the sticky mortar of tortured interpretive devices.

The ever-reliable Jordi Savall turned to the skies with Les Éléments (Alia Vox), a romp through the thunder and rain as depicted in theatrical works by Telemann, Vivaldi, Marais, Rameau, and more, spanning two discs and a hundred years. With the added continuity of a wind machine, Savall’s first-rate ensemble, Les Concerts des Nations, plays the works as if they were written yesterday, with Matthew Locke’s 1674 Music for “The Tempest” a highlight.

You don’t hear much in the way of new solo-piano recordings from Martha Argerich these days. She prefers to perform chamber works or with piano-playing partners. But the Complete Martha Argerich on Deutsche Gramophon offers 48 CDs at a bargain price, encompassing her earliest recordings–lots of solos there, along with the best of her concerto work–and later discs for both DGG and Philips.

DGG also released Martha Argerich: Carte Blanche this year, a two-disc set drawn from her performances at the 2007 Verbier Festival, including Beethoven’s “Ghost” Trio with Julian Rachlin and Mischa Maisky, Bartók’s Violin Sonata No. 1 with Renaud Capuçon, and Schumann’s (solo) “Kinderszenen.” Meanwhile, Argerich’s other regular summer gig yielded Live from Lugano 2014 (Warner Classics), a three-CD showcase for Argerich and colleagues, on which she plays Mozart’s Concerto No. 20, Poulenc’s Sonata for Piano Four Hands (with Dagmar Clottu), and Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s Violin Sonata No. 5 (with Gidon Kremer), and pretty much leaves the rest (by Mendelssohn, Scriabin, Bridge, Borodin, and others) to her virtuoso colleagues, in a delightful collection (as usual) of familiar and discover-me works.

Metroland Magazine, 31 December 2015

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