2010 Top 10

Of all the music, of all kinds, released this year, these are my favorites, in alphabetical order:

Die Zauberflöte, MozartRené Jacobs, conductor, Akademie Für Alte Musik Berlin, RIAS Kammerchor; Daniel Behle, Marlis Petersen, Dainiel Schmutzhard, Sunhae Im, Anna-Kristiina Kaappola, Marcos Fink

René Jacobs has finished his series of recordings of the mature Mozart operas with this superb and wonderful Magic Flute that is easily one of the finest ever made and also the most constructively unique. Among period instrument and performance styles, Jacob’s work stands out from his peers via the orchestral sound he develops, his non-dogmatic way with singers and his attention to a dramatic ideal. He, perhaps, has a point to prove, but it’s not about the proper way to recreate Mozart, it’s about the proper way to present a staged drama entirely in an audio format. His achievement in this is both so full and also so natural and subtle that it almost escapes notice.

Jacobs is undemonstrative as a conductor, so it’s worth pointing out how fine the fundamentals of the recording are, the kinds of things that a conductor is responsible for preparing before the curtain lifts or the disc starts spinning. In an era in which both modern and period orchestras sound very much like each other, the sound Jacobs gets – woody, warm, with crunchy brass, a pleasingly brittle power – is remarkable for it’s color, sensuousness and intimacy. The singing is excellent throughout, and again notable for its naturalness in what is an unnatural form. All the voices are terrific, especially Behle as Tamino, Petersen as Tamina and Schmutzhard as Papageno. They not only sing the music but inhabit the characters. Jacobs maintains a relaxed sense of phrasing even at the fastest tempos (his Allegro in the Overture is incredibly fast) and so the singers always sound like they have something to say, articulating the notes and words clearly. Behle is especially fine. He shines in the company of his peers, who include Fritz Wunderlich and Nicolai Gedda. While those other two great singers draw you to the beauty of their voices and their singing, Behle sings with equal musicality and better characterization; it’s not him but Tamino we hear, the music and the things he thinks and feels.

And this, what makes this such a great recording, and a great opera recording, is the overall focus on the drama. It’s what Jacobs has done throughout his series, which is now one of the great documents of recorded music. There is something he does that I have not heard on any recording, studio or live, before; during the stretches of dialogue he has moments of continuo playing and snatches of song and vocalization from some of the other characters in the scene. This is scintillating, it makes the listening experience vivid and, in the audio dimension, integrates the spoken drama into the sung dialogue. But the overall thing, the subtle and profound feature that illuminates his care and musical intelligence, is to contain the entire recording within the frame of a story. Die Zauberflöte is Mozart’s story, and Jacobs and musicians tell it to us with love and dedication, they give us Mozart. It’s pretty simple, really. This tale is one of the great works in Western art music, it needs little more than skillful, sympathetic telling. This is as skillful and sympathetic as it gets, and that fundamental simplicity clears away what now seems like a burdensome legacy of demonstrative, self-involved performances.

Double Sextet/2×5, Reich – Eighth Blackbird and Bang On a Can

The first piece won the Pulitzer, and it’s a great example of late period Reich. 2×5, however, is even better, a complete knockout that shows the composer’s previously hidden prog-rock roots – maybe even he doesn’t know about them? – in a bright, chiming mesh of polyrhythms with such appeal that there’s some danger one’s dancing limbs will draw and quarter the listener. What a way to go.

I’m New Here – Gil Scott-Heron

The return of Gil Scot-Heron to active music is noteworthy in itself. That the result is the finest record from this great and important artist is a bit mind-boggling. The balance on this disc between modern R&B, the tragedy of worn out lives and the lyricism of life itself is impossible to describe and impossible to miss.

Katrina Ballads – Ted Hearne

This continues to excite and satisfy with the way Hearne harnesses anger and indignation into focussed, powerful, smart and incisive musical expression. Deeply impressive both as a work of composed music and a performance.

Mahler Symphony No. 1 – Netherlands Symphony Orchestra

Mahler Symphony No. 2 – Simon Rattle

Mahler Symphony No. 4 – Phillipe Herreweghe

Discussed here.

Radif Suite – Amir ElSaffar and Hafez Modirzadeh

My top jazz recording of the year.

Reservoir – Isabelle O’Connell

A great recording that does everything a recital of new music should do, present the pianist’s musical intelligence, taste and skill. The set of pieces O’Connell has chosen is wins through both variety and quality, they are exceptionally well made works from a group of composers who all have distinctive voices. And her playing is fabulous, technically precise, physically powerful and so very musical.

Television Landscape – William Brittelle

A great work of long form pop composition, a great record, and a great listening experience, something that connects the mind’s memories to the culture at large in a moving, beautiful way.

Honorable Mention:

Cortical Songs, Cathedral City, sweet light crude, Good Things, I Learned The Hard Way, Lift, Another Lifetime, City Noir, Puer Natus Est, Ombra Cara, Glass Violin Concerto No. 2, Solo, Chill Morn He Climb Jenny, Beethoven: Complete Piano Concertos, Stravinsky: The Fairy’s Kiss, Jeremy Denk Plays Ives, For 2 (Alva Noto), Farad: Vocoder Music 1969-1982, Écailles de Lune, Grinderman 2, Into The Trees, Ya-Ka-May, Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique

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