At the New York Classical Review, my colleagues Eric Simpson and David Wright, and I have our choices for the best classical performances of the calendar year. The top spot is Eric’s pick for The Exterminating Angel. The critics were wild about this, but I have a dissenting viewpoint that will be part of a Web Exclusive at the Brooklyn Rail; you’ll be able to read it starting early 2018.
You’ll see my picks are weighted heavily toward early music. I explained that in an introduction, edited out, that I reproduce here:
2017 was an odd year in classical music performances. The range and depth of talent in—and coming through—this metropolis leads one to expect that superior interpretations and concert experiences will always be norm. But this calendar year, there were so few outstanding events in the standard repertory, and so few memorable premieres, that they can be seen as an idiosyncratic set of mountains breaking out of a flat landscape.
The exception was in early music—it seemed there was one deeply enriching, enlightening, and beautiful performance after another. So pride of place as the single best concert of 2017 goes to:
The master release, again, is easy enough to either own or stream. This was Gould’s debut on the major commercial stage; at the time he was a prodigious young talent who was much talked about by critics but had yet to be exposed to the type of mass audience that Columbia had at hand. And an artist could not dream of a better debut—this began his notoriety, which made him a subject of public fascination even before he left the concert stage and began side projects like his documentaries for Canadian radio.Detested or beloved, the album launched his career.
Sixty years later, it’s still an astonishing recording that remains outstanding in the discography of the piece (it stands out from his 1981 recording, itself unique in the discography but for different reasons). The tempos seem ridiculous—the overall duration is 38 minutes, as opposed to a common one of an hour or more—and I still find myself laughing in disbelief when I listen, but they are neither frenetic or senseless. Gould’s playing is always under control, always clear—it is his ability to parse each contrapuntal voice and play them all clearly that separated him from every other pianist in the 20th century—and always has the foundational certainty of purpose that comes from thinking through every variation and passage.
And now you can hear him put it all together. Five of the seven CDs are the recording session (spanning June 10-16), which began with the Aria and proceeded in sequence through every variation. What you hear is very different than the usual collection of complete studio takes; though there are moments when Gould starts again after playing a bar or two, there is nothing like the false starts, incomplete takes, and exploratory versions you hear on complete sessions from Charlie Parker or Bob Dylan. What predominates is Gould playing a variation, then playing it several more times, before moving on to the next.
While that probably seems dry and tedious as hell, it’s the opposite; it’s immersive and often exhilarating. What the session tapes do is amplify the pleasures of the original recording. If you put on the album and marvel at the beauty of the Aria and the thrill of the variations, then you will marvel over and over again at each. It not only is never dull, but it has the effect, just like the Miles Davis Bootleg series release of the entire Miles Smiles recording session, of making the the finished recording that much more exciting, wonderful, and satisfying. The process at these sessions was Gould playing each Variation until his hand realized exactly what was in his head. This is thinking made into sound. And while it’s a given that the Goldbergs are one of the real masterpieces of classical music, hearing each variation multiple times reinforces Bach’s genius as much as it does Gould’s.
Despite the overall duration of around five hours, this set is lean as a whippet—there is very little studio chatter, almost all of it is calling out the takes and Gould asking to hear a playback. The one extended section of discussion is itself a joy to hear; Gould explaining the origins of the Qoudlibet and then playing his own. He relates how it came to him in the bathtub, harmonizing the Star-Spangled Banner and God Save the King together. Better put, though, is that there is nothing superfluous here, instead there is what I find in the takes of Variation 26: Gould plays it twice at an amazing tempo, then starting with the third take, he plays it…faster!
Gould pissed of a lot of people with this album, and continues to be a troublesome figure to those who try and hoard the past for themselves. And Gould is troublesome, in the best sense. There is nothing shallow or show off-ish about his tempos. He could play fast because he could think fast, and he could think fast because Bach holds together at the speed, and becomes something else, something real, unusual, meaningful, and 100% Bach. That is what Gould gave us.
Beyond what this set is, there’s the question of it’s worth—it’s $90. The package is substantial, and not just because it weighs close to nine pounds. Along with complete sessions, there is a CD of conversation between Gould and Tim Page from the 1981 session, and both a CD and LP of the final 1955 album. There is also a nice poster and a hardcover coffee-table style book covering the session that’s full of pictures of Gould, many of them showing him with a young man’s unselfconscious joy in the music—he’s dancing—and for the nerds like me that are excellent pictures of the hallowed 30th Street Columbia recording studio.
Is it perfect? In my copy, it’s difficult to keep CD 5 secure in it’s spot. Is it worth it? That question can only be answered by those who can spare the money, obviously. My answer, since I find myself listening to the session more than I listen to the album, is an unqualified “yes.” This is not just Gould’s Goldberg Variations album, it’s something different, and something more—it’s art being made and preserved.
In the course of a year, I listen to more jazz on record and hear more classical music in the concert hall. That’s a matter of circumstances; I would prefer that were reversed, but there are few opportunities for me to write about live jazz, and jazz venues are generally unwelcoming to the those without prestige credentials.. The New York Classical Review, or the other hand, gives me the opportunity to cover classical music performances, and before I started writing there, classical music venues were always been open to me as an independent critic.
This is the context for my relationship with recordings. While I’d prefer to get more of my jazz live, recordings are necessary to hear new musicians, and hear what players who aren’t getting gigs are doing.
For classical music, recordings can be puzzling. For new music, recordings are a logical and necessary means to document expansion of the tradition—likewise recordings of obscure but worthwhile music (there is still a lot of stuff like that from the Renaissance and Baroque eras). But for the standard repertoire, it’s often unclear why recordings are made. Do we need more recordings of the Beethoven symphonies, more Chopin Preludes, more Vivaldi Concertos? No, we do it. But we get them anyway.
This is the staple of the last vestiges of the big record labels, like Deutsche Gramophone sign a new a star performer and put them through the cycle of recording all the appropriate standard works. It makes sense for unique talents like Daniil Trifonov, who has many new ideas about older pieces. It makes less sense for even spectacular talents like Yuja Wang, who gives music unbelievable life in concert, but is it not rethinking anything. For solid but unsurprising musicians like Yannick Nézet-Séquin, it makes no sense.
This is because classical music, despite common perceptions, is a living art. Like plays from the past, the art needs to be performed and experienced in the moment. The sense of occasion, community, and time in the concert hall is entirely different than in the living room, and music is also made an entirely different way in the recording studio. Nézet-Séquin, at his best, leads performances that are exemplary renditions of what’s on the page. At his best, this makes for another fine recording. but the classical music discography general is clogged with fine recordings, and reissues are the best recordings from the past are plentiful and cheap.
So again, why make these, and why listen to them? Because Trifonov appears to be a musician of historical greatness, and it is exciting to witness him discovering his own thoughts about the tradition. Same is true for Murray Perahia’s CD of Bach’s French Suites-not only is his playing superb but his thinking is fresh (this recording was made for Sony as part of Perahia’s exploration of Bach, but the label dropped him without release it, and DG picked it up).
But even with exciting musicians like Trifonov and Igor Levitt, most of what comes from the big labels is exactly what you expect: more Brahms, more collections of arias, more cross-overs. Classical music is where the independent labels are more interesting, and more important, than in any other genre. Here are my continuing favorites with their best releases from 2016 and early 2017.
Harmonia Mundi is the home for some of the finest musicians in classical music and well-chosen repertory. This is where you’ll find recordings of Monteverdi’s and Mozart’s operas and Bach’s Passions, led by René Jacobs, that are among the finest and most important ever made and that should be part of your music library. The label is also where you’ll hear the fresh intelligence of musicians like fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout, violinist Isabelle Faust, pianist Alexander Melnikov, baritone Matthias Goerne, harpsichordist Richard Egarr, the Jerusalem String Quartet, and cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras. They put out a substantial number of period performance practice recordings, and also the beautiful contemporary choral music of Craig Hella Johnson. Here are some of the finest recent releases:
Bridge, founded by guitarist David Starobin, maintains a catalogue of under-represented common practice period composers, and specialized in comprehensive series from modern and contemporary composers. The most important of these is their recordings of music by Stefan Wolpe. Wolpe’s music comes out of early 20th century European modernism, but is really unclassifiable. He could write atonally, he could use popular music, theatrical elements, pretty much anything. His work is imaginative, expressive, made with refined, strong structures, and full of surprises. He was one of the finest composers of the 20th century, and had an important influence as a teacher once he emigrated to America. Other recommended series and 2016 releases:
ECM, while not originally a classical label, has now pioneered a new music style that is predominantly tonal, and mixes pre-baroque, minimalism, and improvisation, either as a collection or as a synthesis. And through contemporary composers like Steve Reich, Meredith Monk, and Arvo Pärt, they’ve used their New Series to explore both modern and common practice period repertory. While the results have been inconsistent—there’s some recordings of 19th and early 20th century music that are surprisingly poor, while Andras Schiff’s Beethoven Piano Sonatas cycle is full of fascinating thinking and draws one back again and again, and Gidon Kremer’s two collections of music by Mieczyslaw Weinberg have made an extraordinarily strong case for the composer—the label has completely filled the classical music niche that Nonesuch used to fill, and continues to expand in both the standard repertory and such extra-classical composed music as by Anouar Brahem and Tigran Mansurayn.
Winter & Winter is an addendum, but worth noting. Their classical releases are few but extremely well-chosen. They’ve produced interesting, but non-essential, recordings of modern and avant-garde music played by accordionist Teodoro Anzelotti, but of late have become the home for two major artists, Barbara Hannigan and Hans Abrahamsen. Their two Abrahamsen releases, Schnee and let me tell you, and Hannigan’s recording of Satie’s Socrate are must-haves.
The depth and range of 2016 reissues and archival releases was not as great as previous that of previous, years (especially 2015), but there were a small handful of such releases this year that were of rare quality and importance.
The most notable was Decca’s release of their Mozart 225 complete edition of his works. I’ve gone into more detail on this release here, and the short version is that this is the greatest collection of some of the greatest music in human civilization. The choice of performances is superior throughout, and if there is an emphasis on the new thinking that has come out of the Period Performance Practice movement, there is also a generous selection of wonderful performances that are historically important due to their sheer, exalted, quality. Round that out with fragments, works with unclear provenance, a good, short, hard-bound biography, and a new Köchel catalog, and this is a cornerstone collection for a serious classical music lover. But yes, it is expensive, and even with that cost it’s not perfect—my copy has a misprint in the booklet for opera and theater music. At this price, that type of quality control error should not happen, and it’s unclear to me if Decca will replace it, they don’t seem to have anything in the way of customer service.
(Note: Amazon price as of this posting, $340, is the best I’ve seen since it was released, and very close to the best pre-order price that had been available)
(Billboard reports that this is a surprise best-seller, moving more CDs than anything else released this year. This is misleading because they are multiplying the number of boxes sold—6,000 or so out of a total of 13,000 in this limited edition—by the 200 CDs contained within.)
For those sensitive to their budgets, there are still some amazing releases out within a wide price range. My favorites are:
This set of the Haydn symphonies in period performances is fantastic, easily on the level of the Dorati and Fischer cycles, and the price is more than reasonable, one of the great bargains of the year.
There were some good Bruckner boxes out this year too, but I’ll be writing about them in January.
Miles Davis Quintet: Freedom Jazz Dance: Bootleg Series Vol. 5. On the surface this might seem to be only for the specialists—the complete tape from the session that produce the great Miles Smiles album. But that means you are there while arguably the greatest ensemble in jazz history puts together a classic recording on the fly. An indispensable look into jazz as process, full of invaluable insights into what made Miles such an unsurpassed band leader. It’s tremendously exciting and makes the original album sound even better.
The Complete Savoy Be-Bop Sessions, 1945–49. Savoy is best known as Charlie Parker’s label. But these 10 CDs from the vaults have everything else on the label from that period, vintage early bebop excursions from Dexter Gordon, Milt Jackson, Stan Getz, and many more. One marvelous track after another, complete with alternate takes and the typical excellent documentation from Mosaic.
Sun Ra, The Singles Volume 1. Sun Ra’s singles are more than just fodder for condescending hipster lifestyles, they are a Rosetta Stone that decodes American popular music. If you don’t already have the original Evidence collection, absolutely get this. And if you do have it, this new set from Strut has plenty of additional tracks recently unearthed.
UPDATED (Can’t believe I forgot this):Peter Erskine Trio: As It Was. This is a 4 CD collection from ECM, everything that this trio produced. Taken together, this series of albums from the 1990s make for a pinnacle of modern piano trio jazz, and the late English pianist John Taylor is simply outstanding on every track.
Harry Bertoia: Complete Sonambient Collection. A marvelous box from Important Records. This beautifully remasters and documents the records sculptor Bertoia made playing his Sonambient sound sculptures. Hours of rich, mysterious, beautiful, and immersive sounds.
Led Zepellin, Complete BBC Sessions. While it might be hard to imagine you would want to hear five different performances of “Communications Breakdown” in the same collection, the playing here is so exciting and powerful that you will enjoy every one. Some spectacular moments in Zepellin’s history.
Hey Colossus: Dedicated to Uri Klanger. A compilation of fairly recent music that had limited release previously, this should serve as an ideal introduction to this noise band. Their sound is heavy and warm and completely exhilarating. Not a dull moment to be heard.
52 of the best new releases of the year, 52 out of the the 430 (as of this writing) new releases I listened to. Every year I fiddle with how to make and present these lists, and the idea here is obvious; one record to every week. For this I used the criteria of releases that I would gladly listen to, non-stop, for an entire week. That is, music that not only satisfied critical thinking, but that was a complete pleasure in the way it swamped critical thinking and just occupied the pleasure centers of my mind and body. Each note or sound was like a brick in a marvelous structure, and I wanted to hear it being built, piece by piece, over and over again. I could add an “honorable mentions” list with recordings that could move in an out of my 52, depending on mood, but I’ll that for the comments section, if anyone cares to discuss this.
I’ve placed this in rough genres that should be self-explanatory (“Popular” is any music that can be placed in a popular music category, from metal to hip hop; “New Classical” is music in that classical tradition that was both composed in the last generation or two and newly heard on recording). If you compare the Jazz/Blues below to my best jazz post, you’ll see some differences: the previous post was for Francis Davis’ categories, here I’m using mine, and I differentiate between musicians playing jazz and jazz musicians improvising in non-jazz idioms.
(Note that these are unranked because the criteria gives them equal value. Also note that I will have a separate list of for reissues and archival recordings.)
Again, this list could be longer, but without limits I never would have gotten to the end. There are more worthy releases this year that I’ll get to in an upcoming post on notes and trends of 2016. Happy listening.
No composer is as loved for all the wrong reasons than Erik Satie.
No composer is as loved for all the wrong reasons (there must be a German word for that) than Erik Satie.
Now that we are in his sesquicentennial year (May 17, 1866 – July 1, 1925), promiscuous love is erupting all over. This listicle is indicative; no need to look past the title “Composer Erik Satie Was So Much Weirder Than You Realize”—Satie as an object for those who make a fetish of an eccentricity or quirkiness that stands in opposition to their consumerism.
I imagine Satie would have enjoyed that attention, though in his particular irreverent and ironic way. Quite the opposite of eccentric, he was acutely aware of his audiences and his social milieu, and had the calculating self-consciousness to present himself to differently to each audience asthe bohemian, the mystic, the bourgeois master. Those were guises, uniforms, and they continue to effect those who lack the curiosity to hear the music itself. And I do mean hear: another complete misapprehension is that Satie created simple background music, like a naïve outsider artist.
Satie was a skilled composer who put in the hard hours. His music is made with exceptional rigor—the apparent simplicity is a challenge to pull off. Repetition of minimal material is the easiest thing to do as a composer and one of the hardest things to do well, and to make interesting.
He is both graced with and suffers from music that Virgil Thomson said “…can be enjoyed and appreciated without any knowledge of the history of music.” The result is that millions and millions of people have heard and loved the Gymnopédies, or an arrangement of the Gnossiennes on the soundtrack of Diva, and maybe a few tens of thousands of people have heard one piece beyond that (His catalogue is substantial. Maybe a few thousand have listened through all this works).
Satie, the pop-cult figure, was also Satie, the serious and important artist. As anniversary seasons tend to do in classical music, this one has seen a good number of new and collected releases that treat his legacy seriously and show many different facets of his work. (I recommend the Erik Satie volume in Reaction Book’s Critical Lives series as a fine, compact biographical and critical introduction.)
Because we all know them, the Gymnopédies are the place to start. Even already interested listeners will likely be surprised to find that there is an interpretive argument over this music, that seems so lovely and simple. The nub is captured by the title of a relatively recent release, Satie Slowly.
This is a fascinating collection of piano pieces put out by Philip Corner, who makes the argument that musicians, like the great Aldo Ciccolini, have been playing Satie too fast for decades. And technically he’s not wrong. The tempo most commonly heard from pianists is moderato, a kind of slow stroll. Yet the markings for the Gymnopédies are, respectively, lent et douloureux, lent et triste, lent et grave. Faster tempos brighten the music, and while that is pleasing in and of itself, Satie wanted sadness and seriousness, there can be no argument over that.
The flaw in Corner’s recording is that he is not that good a pianist, he can demonstrate the argument but he can’t quite make it work; playing slowly is more difficult than playing quickly, it means phrasing, not agility, has to work, and phrasing is the thing that separates the greats from the also-rans.
Jeroen van Veen is a great pianist who has no such problems with Satie. He has recorded all of Satie’s piano music on the Brilliant Classics label, and it is fantastic, superseding all previous collections, including those from Ciccolini (yes, I have loved it too) and more recent ones from Jean-Yves Thibaudet, et al. At $8.99 for digital (CDs are also available), it is also the finest value in the Satie discography.
Van Veen plays the music slowly, more slowly than Corner, with exceptionally graceful, limpid phrasing. Each line and the accompanying counterpoint flows along like a gentle, mesmerizing country stream, rippling steadily. In great sound, this set is utterly gorgeous and completely fulfilling, making and winning the implicit argument that this is all great music.
Van Veen has also accomplished the seemingly impossible, of producing a complete recording of Vexations, all 840 repetitions, sitting at and playing the piano straight through for 23 hours and 51 minutes.
This may seem a stunt, the piece a gimmick, and some people think so. An article at Hyperallergic, “Why Composers Make Music to Drive Us Insane” takes as its premise that the music is nothing but an effect. But it’s a report on a rumor, something someone heard about, like taking an urban myth seriously. It’s about an attitude about Vexations, because the writer has never experienced the entire work.
If the music was ever to drive anyone mad, is was Satie himself. Written in the difficult aftermath of a failed love affair, it is tonal but unsettled, packed with diminished chords and with a solo theme that hints at constant modulation. This harmonic ambiguity, free of Wagnerian drama and without inherent meaning, is the epitome of Satie’s art. The command of 840 repetitions is a natural part of his irreverence, and there is more than a little wisdom in the idea of constant repetition of a harmless, meaningless task as a way to soothe the mind and soul. It turns out to be surprisingly easy and pleasurable to have Vexations playing for 24 hours—the music not only is lovely, but the constant flow makes for an actual realization of the musique d’ameublement concept, especially because the digital files are played from an object that is part of our contemporary furniture.
There are other excellent new recordings of Satie. Noriko Ogawa’s first volume of Satie’s piano music (on the Bis label), has something of a superficial gimmick: she plays the music on Satie’s own piano. But like Corner and van Veen, she has thought this through.
Her approach is the fast one, and it is superb and absolutely convincing. Ogawa’s approach to rhythm—different than any I’ve heard with Satie—shows how to make a quicker pace work. Like van Veen, her phrasing is terrific, and Satie’s piano turns out to be far drier than the one’s contemporary ears are used to, as well as far drier than those heard on other Satie recordings (you’d think that Satie indicated reverb in all his scores for the way they are engineered). All these elements combine in a view that is a revelation for the composer’s construction of rhythm and pulse; his scores often eschewed bar lines, and Ozawa’s is pretty much the only playing I’ve heard that makes the music sound that way. This is essential as Van Veen’s take.
Satie also wrote songs, many of them stepping out of the classical tradition and into the popular styles as they existed in the theater and dance hall in turn of the century Paris. He also wrote Socrate, a work for voice and piano (or voice and orchestra) he ironically called a “Symphonic drama.” It may be better known as the springboard for John Cage’s Cheap Imitations (Cage was a deep admirer of Satie and made a two-piano arrangement of Socrate).
Soprano Barbara Hannigan has recorded the piece, accompanied by Reinbert de Leeuw, and it is another exceptional new release in the Satie discography (Reaching this point, I’ve reached the conclusion that there was a consensus in the musical zeitgeist to rethink Satie, go back to his core, and present him anew, and van Veen, Ogawa, and Hannigan have made that happen). This is a lovely recording all around, sung and played with simple grace, and it filled out by two other sets of songs and by Hymne. Absolutely recommended on its own qualities, not just for the value of hearing some of Satie’s vocal music.
These new recordings don’t invalidate the older ones, Ciccolini and Pascal Rogé still deliver pleasures. And Sony has dug through their considerable back catalogue and put out a superb 13 CD collection, Erik Satie & Friends – Original Albums Collection. This is one of the most enjoyable archival releases of the past few years. It is Satie, with a generous helping of piano, vocal, and orchestral music, and friends (or at least colleagues); there are pieces by Debussy, Ravel, Ibert, Milhaud, and others, with the special highlight being Francis Poulenc. Poulenc was indeed a true friend, and he is represented both as composer and artist, playing his own piano music and that of Satie.
Those albums are particularly wonderful, but so is everything else in one way or another. There is something special about hearing the great pianist Robert Casadesus and his wife Gaby playing Satie, or Regine Crespin singing his songs. Those performances represent how at one time the composer was at the core of the modern, and especially French, repertory. The new thinking noted above should bring about his return.
If you’re in New York December 13, you can catch Anthony de Mare and other pianists presenting “The Velvet Gentleman: Eric Satie at 150,” at the Sheen Center
Another year in which classical music didn’t die, was not dying, was not suffering, etc, just like every other year. I attended easily over 100 classical music performances, spanning music from the Renaissance to something like last Thursday, and listened to over 200 recordings that were issued just this year—and one important caveat is that there is still about 48 hours of music I have not yet been able to get through. If you only read stories about economic issues in classical music (or jazz) you would only ever think that the music is vanishing. It is not so, never has been, will never be. Yes, it’s fucking impossible to make a living, much less a buck, but people are still doing it. Who are you going to believe, mainstream cultural writers/editors, or your lying ears?
The composition of these lists is something I still fiddle with, because of this historical tradition of classical music and the nature of recordings. This year, I have two main lists, Classical Recordings and New Music; the former is new recordings of previously recorded music, the latter is new recordings of music that is heard on record for the first time.
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An interesting year to say the least, a big year for Schumann (primarily thanks to Harmonia Mundi, with Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov), and also for Morton Feldman and Fred Rzewski: two new recordings for each of Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello and The People United Will Never be Defeated! respectively. I’m not alone as a contemporary composer and critic who can never get enough of new music on recordings and concert programs, but as we get further into the 21st century, the actual evidence of performances and recordings tells me that new and contemporary is active and pervasive. It’s all one stream of time, and arrow pointing into the future, the vanguard supported by the centuries that came before. I like to spread things around, so it’s an indication of how fine the albums are that I put both new recordings of The People United on this list. Both Levit and Oppens are tremendous in this music, but Levit’s album is a better one because it also has the Golbberg and Diabelli Variations.
An extraordinarily difficult category to rank this year. Michael Pisaro’s release had the most acute effect on me as a listener, so I’ll put that at the top, but everything else was strong, involving, and fascinating in one way or another, together they made 2015 a notable year for new music.