I listened to scores of new classical CDs this past year. From this ocean of music, I've plucked 10 favorites, from Bach to Birtwistle, with a few alternate choices tossed in.
1 Colin Andrews, "Messiaen: L'Ascension/Messe de la Pentecote" (Loft): Sound the intergalactic trumpets! These big solo organ works will levitate you, then rock your soul toward Messiaen-ic salvation.
2 Veronique Gens, "Berlioz/Ravel" (Ondine): The French soprano leads a magic-carpet excursion through Berlioz ("Herminie" and "Les Nuits d'ete") and Ravel ("Sheherazade"). An exquisite recording, plush and hushed. John Axelrod conducts the Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire.
3 Jeanne Golan, "Viktor Ullman:
4 Helene Grimaud and Sol Gabetta, "Duo" (Deutsche Grammophon):Put on your headphones, close the door and soak in these direct-connection performances of Schumann, Brahms, Debussy and Shostakovich by pianist Grimaud and cellist Gabetta. (And try this chamber music nomination: the young Danish String Quartet's "Haydn/Brahms -- String Quartets," on BR Klassic. I especially love their Hadyn, quartet No. 63; the playing is brisk and scrubbed, a total charmer.)
6 Alexei Lubimov and Natalia Pschenitschnikova, "John Cage -- As It Is" (ECM New Series): These short works for piano and voice are deliciously sonorous and relaxing, yet wind up yanking you into a state of total alertness. These early works, mostly from the 1930s and '40s, include settings of verse by Gertrude Stein and e.e. cummings. There's playfulness and gentle melody here, along with intimations of medieval chant and the bell-like influences of gamelan (via prepared piano). Pianist Lubimov and singer Pschenitschnikova guide listeners to a zone of deep riveting stillness.
7 Mark Padmore, Britten Sinfonia, "Benjamin Britten: Serenade for tenor, horn & strings" (Harmonia Mundi): As Britten's 2013 centennial approaches, we'll hear more of the British composer's works. Start celebrating with this bracing and lovely piece, featuring tenor Padmore, whose technical range -- and range of expression -- is astonishing. Jacqueline Shave leads the intimate ensemble performance.
8 Esa-Pekka Salonen, "Out of Nowhere: Violin Concerto-Nyx" (Deutsche Grammophon): Salonen's concerto (which he conducts here with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra) is awash in color and flight right off the bat: Its first movement, "Mirage," begins with blurs of scale patterns from the soloist, flying upward into cushiony chords played by celesta, glockenspiel, vibraphone and harp. When the full orchestra enters, a few minutes later, with groaning, slow-changing harmonies, it's an Icarus-sees-earth-again moment. Sibelius and John Adams are presences throughout the four-movement piece, but this dreamy, mysterious and moving work is very much Salonen's own. Soloist Leila Josefowicz brings it all off with panache.
9 San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor,"American Mavericks" (SFS Media): Recorded at Davies Symphony Hall during last season, this is a wild, wondrous postcard from the edge. Varese's "Amerique" builds to a rattling wallop; cover your ears. Lou Harrison's Organ Concerto (with soloist Paul Jacobs) sounds as if Messiaen sat down with Sun Ra, took some LSD, then traveled to Bali, jamming out with a gamelan orchestra and ceremonial drum corps. But I give my No. 1 vote to Henry Cowell's Piano Concerto: Whap! Wham! Crunch! Pianist Jeremy Denk's climactic wind-milled passages cap this tour-de-force piece, which has big granite melodies, reminiscent of Ives, and surprising moments of lyricism. (Further explorations: Denk's "Ligeti/Beethoven," on Nonesuch. The pianist addresses Beethoven's Op. 111 and Ligeti's Etudes, making them transparent and fresh, playing with colors and sonorities, much like a jazz musician.)
10 Andras Schiff, "J.S. Bach: The Well Tempered Clavier, Books I and II" (ECM New Series): Schiff moves with astonishing clarity through Bach's solo keyboard works. It's like looking down into a bubbling stream, seeing all the crisscrossing rivulets and the tumbling stones at the bottom. (Alternately, try David Greilsammer's "Baroque Conversations," on Sony Classical. The Israeli pianist singingly performs Rameau, Handel, Gibbons and other Baroque masters. Then, worlds collide as he puts them into "conversations" with contemporary composers. One example: He segues from Couperin's elegance to Matan Porat's "Whaam!"
Contact Richard Scheinin at 408-920-5069.
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