2011 Year's Best Classical

Because it was a good year, another Baker’s Dozen …

1. Matt Haimovitz and Christopher O’Riley, Shuffle.Play.Listen/Todd Reynolds, Outerborough: Tied because they are so closely related and so very fine. There are musical and stylistic differences, but the underlying values are shared, making these ideal companions and, most of all, discs you should own.

Reynolds’ release is a disc of him playing his own compositions and another where he plays music written for him by Michael Gordon, David Lang, Phil Kline, David T. Little, Nick Zammuto, Paul de Jong, Ken Thomson, Michael Lowenstern and Paula Matthusen. As a solo player, Reynold’s works with the looping, structuring and processing features of tools like Ableton Live and Max/MSP, and the works written for him make creative use of electronic means as well, building multi-tracked parts, rhythms and electronic sounds. The overall sensibility is at the pinnacle of pop-inflected Post-Minimalism, from Phil Kline’s gorgeous, intense “Needle Pulling Fred” to the chattering flow of de Jong’s “Inward Bound” to the thrashing crunch of Lang’s “Killer,” a piece that combines the best of Bang on a Can classics “Industry” and “Lying, Chearting, Stealing.” It’s fundamentally all Reynolds, the playing and the view. It’s his ecumenical view and smart, refined taste that brings the pieces together, and it’s his tremendous musicianship that is at the core. Across both discs, there is a sense of freedom and spontaneity that come out of his skill and expression as a musician and that gives everything the feeling that it is unfinished in the best sense, that when you hit the repeat button (and you will) you will hear something you didn’t the last play.

Outerborough is the best example of the restless, creative relationship between composition and pop music going on in contemporary classical, as is Shuffle.Play.Listen. Where Reynolds is pioneering original work, Christopher O’Riley and Matt Haimovitz are mixing together a wide range of superb modern classical music with O’Riley’s transformative arrangements of current pop music. The result is densely packed with great sounds.

The first of the two CDs is structured through a suite of music from Bernard Herrmann’s exceptional score for the movie “Vertigo.” In between movements, there is Janacek’s “Fairy Tale,” Martinu’s “Variations on a Slovak Folksong,” Stravinsky’s “Suite Italienne,” (a reduction of his ballet Pulcinella), and “Le grand tango” from Astor Piazzolla. The playing is voluptuously fabulous, chamber music-making of the highest order. O’Riley has great touch and is a sensitive accompanist, while Haimovitz brings his unique ability to vocalize melodic lines to each piece, and everything sings, even the non-vocal compositions. The sequencing of the music is fascinating and rich.

The second CD traverses Arcade Fire, Radiohead, Cocteau Twins, Blond Redhead, A Perfect Circle and Mahavishnu Orchestra-era John McLaughlin. Like with Reynolds, O’Riley and Haimovitz accept as a given the quality of the songs and the play the shit out of them. Haimovitz’s ability to shape lines with the types of catches, fall-offs and the illusion of breathing that comes from the voice pushes these to an urgency of expression that makes the originals all sound a little cooler, and little more withdrawn. “The Pyramid Song” is haunting and plangent, “Melody” is ravishing, “Heaven or Las Vegas” is a flowing pastoral. The exception to this fullness they add to the pop music is the refined focus they give to “The Dance of Maya,” in a superb arrangement. The original is crushingly intense, here it’s quieter but just as provocatively obsessive. This great recording closes with “A Lotus on Irish Streams,” in a beautiful improvisation that rounds off all the music but leaves, like Outerborough, tendrils of questions and possibilities that will have you playing the music all over again.

3. Simone Dinnerstein, Bach: A Strange Beauty: Exquisite Bach playing, and refreshingly intelligent thinking about the composer.

4. Vincent Royer, Scelsi, The Works for Viola: Of all the avant-gardeists, Scelsi is the most deeply strange and, surprisingly, the most accessible. Audiences that know little to nothing of classical music find him compelling for the same reasons the classical world has been slow to turn to him: he speaks without guile and without any interest in the accepted protocols of craft directly from his soul to ours. The voice of his soul is in achingly beautiful microtonality, usually best expressed through string instruments. This collection of his works for viola is completely stunning. I’m thoroughly familiar with Scelsi’s work, yet the intensity of Royer’s playing was unexpected. If Scelsi’s music is a direct communication from the most abstract, non-verbal part of his mind and soul, then Royer seems to be communicating directly with the composer, or acting as a purely transparent vessel between Scelsi and us. It’s rare, even with the finest musicians, to hear such unmannered dialogue and expression with and from the the music. This is music-making on par with Uchida playing Schubert and is at the top of what is a growing Scelsi discography.


5. Chaya Czernowin, Shifting Gravity: I first heard Czernowin’s music at a Composer Portrait in April of this year, and it was enticing, so the release of this CD was a welcome balm for my curiosity. This is more than information, though, this is a terrific, vibrant collection. The music is for string quartets and chamber ensembles, at times enhanced with electronics. Czernowin’s language is right at the sharp point of contemporary classical tradition, making use of dissonance, atonality, gestures of timbre, the sonic power of rock and, always, a careful placement of musical events through times. Her structures and rhythms are subtle but so finely crafted that, as mysterious as the music can be, there is always the sense that something logical and meaningful will happen next, and it does.

6. Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, Ives/Brant: A Concord Symphony: Charles Ives’ body of work is unfinished. When he reached his compositional maturity, his work became restless, searching, striving, sounding at times like it was putting itself together on the fly. He stopped writing music long before he died, leaving an unfinished and expectant quality about his career, and he rarely finished a piece, in that he frequently went back to printed and published works and revised them. The notes on paper were a start, not an end.

Consider the symphonies — how many did he write? There are numbers 1 through 4, then there are the four orchestral movements that, when put together, become the American Holidays Symphony. He left behind sketches for another symphony, suggesting that someone put them together, and that become the Universe Symphony which exists in more than one, widely different, version. And there’s this, Henry Brant’s orchestration of Ives’ ‘Concord’ Piano Sonata. The ‘Concord’ is the single work that represents Ives’ aesthetic, intellectual, spiritual and moral values (expressed in the composition and also in his book length essay, “Notes Before a Sonata”). Brant’s adaptation turns this into another, true Symphony, and a great one, the most coherent profound of the bunch. The density of the piano writing opens up into clarity, and so the depth and complexity of the thinking can really be heard. Ives wrote all the notes, and of course it sounds like him, but with Brandt’s superior orchestral craft, and sounds like better Ives, as if Brandt was the editor that the older man needed all along to realize his ideas with the greatest expression.

It’s extraordinary music, and in the hands of the best Ives musicians of the current era Tilson Thomas combines intelligence and insight with the demanding technical skill the music requires, and the orchestra responds, in this live recording, with the type of energy and fervor that borders on agitation, and is really exciting. The paired piece, Copland’s cerebral, cool Organ Symphony is played with just as much commitment. The usual exquisite recording quality from the SFS Media engineers. This is some of the finest orchestral playing you will hear, and perhaps the greatest work from America’s most important, perhaps greatest, composer.

7. Marty Brabbins, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, William Walton Symphonies: Is it a lie if you believe it’s true? Walton’s Symphonies are solid works, this CD makes them sound like extraordinary ones.

8. Joel Frederiksen, Ensemble Phoenix Munich, The Rose of Sharon: A great survey of American music up to and through the Civil War, revelatory in some ways, and beautifully sung and recorded.

9. Pacifica String Quartet, The Soviet Experience Volume 1: Following on their great Shostakovich Cycle at the Metropolitan Museum from 2010 – 2011, the Pacific Quartet is starting to release their studio recordings of the music, filled out with quartets by Shostakovich’s contemporaries (in this first set, the Miaskovsky String Quartet No. 13). If my memory is still reasonably functional, the studio results are even better than the concerts. This first volume spans Quartets No. 5 – No. 8, and the performances have a sinewy toughness and a real understanding of psychological and aesthetic shifts, both quick and subtle, inside the pieces. I really like their lean sound in all this music, and their convey a special haunting quality when the composer calls for con sordino playing. One of their great strengths as a group is violist Masumi Per Rostad, who is one of the finer quartet violists in classical music, and the beauty and musicality of his voice — so important to Shostakovich — really makes these recordings sing.

10. Matthew Jones and Michael Hampton, Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet (arr. Borisovsky): I find Prokofiev’s beloved ballet score has its longuers, but not on this recording. The arrangement, by the composer’s colleague Vadim Vasilyevich Borisovsky, is excellent, preserving and emphasizing the melodic inventiveness, and the performance by Jones and Hampton is tremendous. They play the music as if it’s the finest they’ve heard, and want to tell us the good news. Hampton is a sensitive and powerful accompanist, and Jones is a tremendous violists, with a beautiful, powerful and flexible sound. A real pleasure throughout.

11. Marek Janowski, Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Henze Symphonies 3-5: Amid the fertile plains of Twentieth Century symphonies, Henze’s work stands out. His fascinating idiom constantly wrestles with the legacy of Romanticism in music, in a constantly shifting pas de deux of rejection and reconciliation. That gives his symphonies a compelling mixture of unsettling thrills and soothing moments of clarity and introspection. His own recordings of these works are an essential part of any classical library, and the thinking and playing from Janowski and orchestra are even better here. These works are no longer new, yet they are still fresh, and the time they’ve had to marinated in musicians minds and under their fingers pays off here. I hope these musicians will be recording the rest of this body of work, and if so the project will rival the current Edward Gardber Lutoslawski project as monuments to the most important music of the previous 100 years.

12. Chiara String Quartet, Jefferson Friedman: Quartets: These are fine pieces, Friedman’s voice is a really welcome exploration of what Romanticism means and how it sounds after post-Minimalism. The combination of ferver and agitation, and the balance between tonality and dissonance, the overall clear-speaking, is reminiscent of and and worthy addition to the great, important legacy of George Rochberg (see any and all of the Naxos and New World discography for his wonderful music), and, since this is New Amsterdam, you get remixes from Matmos!

13. Carlos Kalmar, Oregon Symphony, Music for a Time of War: I missed this program at the Spring For Music festival at Carnegie Hall in May, and it was the consensus pick as favorite concert. So it’s been a treat to listen to this SACD, from a series of life recordings from the orchestra’s home. It’s a great selection of music, pieces that have questions about existence, how we treat each other, how we view the future during times in which we may think there is none, from Ives’ existential “The Unanswered Question” to Vaughan Williams’ blistering Symphony No. 4. It’s not just a polemic — these are great pieces that stand on their own as works of beautiful art — but as a whole it does remind us that, despite the relative comforts of our lives, our country is not only at war but committed to being at war for … well, forever. We’ve become the very model of a Nineteenth Century decadent empire, and if the musicians are the only ones to ask the questions we need, then so be it. A riveting, moving way to get the mind racing with thoughts of how things are, and how they might be.

Honorable mention: Quatour Diotima, Agrippina, Ezio, Edward Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Kepler Quartet, Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Brad Lubman and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin

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