2016 Classical Releases—The Last Word

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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.

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Special Edition

(First in a regularly occasional series) Turner Classic Movies has “The Essentials,” the BBC has their long-running “Desert Island Discs” program, and Alex Ross’ new book is titled “Listen To This; ” lists of things they consider the very best, the most special. I have my own, and this post inaugurates what will be an ongoing sub-series. As time passes, I’ll be accumulating an annotated list of recordings that are personally important. They are not necessarily all my favorites, or the ones I love and listen to the most, but they are ones that have some quality (which hopefully I’ll discern and explain) that makes them stick in my mind, recordings that have a powerful effect on me and that, if I were to have to choose discs to keep, would make up that list.

Now, in a particular order but in no particular rank . . . First is a recording I’ve been living with since it first came out in 1980, Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition . The title is also the name of the ensemble that he led, off an on, for roughly a decade or more. On this debut recording, the group is made up of Arthur Blythe on alto sax, David Murray on tenor and bass clarinet, Peter Warren playing cello and bass and the leader playing piano and melodica, along with sitting behind the drum kit.

When the LP first came out, I was fascinated and baffled by it. As I wore down the grooves, I replaced it with the CD and find that through the years it’s grown on me to the extent that there are times when I have to listen to it out of an almost physical need. It’s great urban music. Things that sounded a little stiff and arty at the beginning are now fully rooted in my psyche as stylish and sincere sophistication.

What is it like? It’s explicitly Modernist, explicitly dedicate to certain musicians and certain styles, explicitly involved with playing around with existing ideas and teasing out new responses and possibilities. There’s only five tracks, and they are easy to break down; “One For Eric” and “Zoot Suite” have bi-modal structures, with the former alternating between a riff that could have been played by Dolphy, and a choppy but still flowing rhythmic structure supporting the solos, while the latter is a jump tune, distilled down to it’s densest essence, again alternating with a completely different and more modern solo structure. DeJohnette doesn’t try and synthesize these concepts, he merely juxtaposes them and offers the question, what do you think? “Central Park West” is a simple and lovely arrangement of the Coltrane tune, with the leader filling out the voices on melodica, and the burning “India” is more re-arranged Coltrane. The closing “Journey To The Twin Planet” is, like the first two cuts, a DeJohnette piece, and culminates in a peaking intensity before settling back into a literally composed, Minimalist repose.

What makes it special? One part is the tone, a combination of intellect, wit, and seriously intense playing. The music is committed and elusive, coherent but with an abstract expression that has one coming back to discover more. Another is the interesting and musically successful feature of DeJohnette himself playing multiple instruments, but without overdubbing. His piano intro to “India” drops out after the bass and horns enter, then the drums come in once he slides onto the stool. It’s the type of detail in a studio recording that makes it bracingly live. This is also one of the prototypes for what can be called the ECM sound; a balance of sharp transparency and just enough resonance – the music seems to jump off the surface, with the cymbals sizzling and shimmering. Ultimately, though, it’s about the horns. Blythe and Murray were young and relatively new to the scene when the recording was made, and they are great complements, each with a personal and unique combination in their sound of the past and the future. For each, this is some of their keenest, hottest playing. There’s also an involving retrospective sadness inescapable in listening to Special Edition, as their careers diverged drastically. Murray has become one of the Titans of contemporary jazz, a tremendous and tremendously prolific musician who has created a beautiful synthesis of Ben Webster and Albert Ayler, while Blythe somehow lost his chops and, when his wind returned, it could be heard that he lost his ambition. He made two LPs for Columbia that are exciting, great and important – Lennox Avenue Breakdown and Illusions – and that demonstrate some of the most fertile and successful post-fusion, post-avant jazz thinking, and then essentially fell off the face of the musical earth. His sound was one of the most beautiful ever produced on the alto sax, and his playing on this disc was his finest ever.

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Dig This

(First in a regularly occasional series) Turner Classic Movies has “The Essentials,” the BBC has their long-running “Desert Island Discs” program, and Alex Ross’ new book is titled “Listen To This; ” lists of things they consider the very best, the most special. I have my own, and this post inaugurates what will be an ongoing sub-series. As time passes, I’ll be accumulating an annotated list of recordings that are personally important. They are not necessarily all my favorites, or the ones I love and listen to the most, but they are ones that have some quality (which hopefully I’ll discern and explain) that makes them stick in my mind, recordings that have a powerful effect on me and that, if I were to have to choose discs to keep, would make up that list.

Now, in a particular order but in no particular rank . . . First is a recording I’ve been living with since it first came out in 1980, Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition . The title is also the name of the ensemble that he led, off an on, for roughly a decade or more. On this debut recording, the group is made up of Arthur Blythe on alto sax, David Murray on tenor and bass clarinet, Peter Warren playing cello and bass and the leader playing piano and melodica, along with sitting behind the drum kit.

When the LP first came out, I was fascinated and baffled by it. As I wore down the grooves, I replaced it with the CD and find that through the years it’s grown on me to the extent that there are times when I have to listen to it out of an almost physical need. It’s great urban music. Things that sounded a little stiff and arty at the beginning are now fully rooted in my psyche as stylish and sincere sophistication.

What is it like? It’s explicitly Modernist, explicitly dedicate to certain musicians and certain styles, explicitly involved with playing around with existing ideas and teasing out new responses and possibilities. There’s only five tracks, and they are easy to break down; “One For Eric” and “Zoot Suite” have bi-modal structures, with the former alternating between a riff that could have been played by Dolphy, and a choppy but still flowing rhythmic structure supporting the solos, while the latter is a jump tune, distilled down to it’s densest essence, again alternating with a completely different and more modern solo structure. DeJohnette doesn’t try and synthesize these concepts, he merely juxtaposes them and offers the question, what do you think? “Central Park West” is a simple and lovely arrangement of the Coltrane tune, with the leader filling out the voices on melodica, and the burning “India” is more re-arranged Coltrane. The closing “Journey To The Twin Planet” is, like the first two cuts, a DeJohnette piece, and culminates in a peaking intensity before settling back into a literally composed, Minimalist repose.

What makes it special? One part is the tone, a combination of intellect, wit, and seriously intense playing. The music is committed and elusive, coherent but with an abstract expression that has one coming back to discover more. Another is the interesting and musically successful feature of DeJohnette himself playing multiple instruments, but without overdubbing. His piano intro to “India” drops out after the bass and horns enter, then the drums come in once he slides onto the stool. It’s the type of detail in a studio recording that makes it bracingly live. This is also one of the prototypes for what can be called the ECM sound; a balance of sharp transparency and just enough resonance – the music seems to jump off the surface, with the cymbals sizzling and shimmering. Ultimately, though, it’s about the horns. Blythe and Murray were young and relatively new to the scene when the recording was made, and they are great complements, each with a personal and unique combination in their sound of the past and the future. For each, this is some of their keenest, hottest playing. There’s also an involving retrospective sadness inescapable in listening to Special Edition, as their careers diverged drastically. Murray has become one of the Titans of contemporary jazz, a tremendous and tremendously prolific musician who has created a beautiful synthesis of Ben Webster and Albert Ayler, while Blythe somehow lost his chops and, when his wind returned, it could be heard that he lost his ambition. He made two LPs for Columbia that are exciting, great and important – Lennox Avenue Breakdown and Illusions – and that demonstrate some of the most fertile and successful post-fusion, post-avant jazz thinking, and then essentially fell off the face of the musical earth. His sound was one of the most beautiful ever produced on the alto sax, and his playing on this disc was his finest ever.

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