Sunday, December 31, 2017

Best Of 2017: Classical

The word “classical” is just shorthand for the vast array of (mostly) composed music that stems from that tradition, a mere iceberg’s tip of which I was able to cover throughout the year. If you missed those posts, I list them and the albums they included below (aside from those I included in The Top 25), all of which are among the best of the year. Following that is a brief look at some other incredible recordings bequeathed to us in 2017.

Piano Players
Leif Ove Andsnes: Sibelius The Swedish giant is mostly associated with the epic sweep of his symphonies, tone poems, and THAT violin concerto. Leave it to Andsnes to dig deep and find a wealth of solo piano music to further round out our picture of the composer. And if you’re expecting sketchy juvenalia, take note of the fact that these pieces span Sibelius’s whole career, from the cheery Opus 5 Impromptus to the Funf Skizzen (OK, it means "five sketches") of Opus 114, which find him elaborating on folk-like melodies with sophisticated sparkle. As you would expect, Andsnes plays everything with total command and a well-modulated warmth in a sonically perfect recording. The year’s essential Sibelius album. 
Rafal Blechacz - Johann Sebastian Bach If you want to wind me up, get me talking about the endless recordings of canonical works, many of which already have several brilliant interpretations from which to choose. Then someone like Blechacz comes along, on Deutsche Gramophon no less (yellow banner and all), playing such a well-conceived program of Bach and playing it so goddamned beautifully that my walls come tumbling down. Even if you have an aversion to Bach on modern piano, I urge you to check Blechacz out in the Italian Concerto, Partitas 1 and 3, and the shorter works here. There is command of tempo and timbre, as you would expect, but also spontaneity, warmth, and even joy, all of which make the music feel new. Blechacz is not as young as he looks, so I wondered why I had been unaware of him, even though he has won multiple competitions and was only the second Polish pianist in history to get an exclusive contract with DG. It comes down to repertoire, as he made his name in Chopin, which is never going to get my attention. This record is so astonishing, however, that I might just give Chopin another try.

Hauschka - What If Instead of turning his elaborately prepared piano toward Cage-ian abstraction, Volker Bertelmann, who performs as Hauschka, constructs propulsive little art-pop miniatures filled with all kinds of spine-tingling flourishes and emotional echoes. What If finds him developing his techniques further and also improving the recording of his handmade sonics to an almost three-dimensional degree, making for perhaps his most consistent album yet. I've heard other prepared pianists and they all try to be Hauschka - just stick with the original!

Sarah Cahill - Eighty Trips Around The Sun: Music By And For Terry Riley As the title hints, Cahill conceived this four-disc set as an 80th birthday tribute to Riley and it is a gift indeed. Featuring the first commercial recordings of his puckish early opus, Two Pieces, along with world premieres of pieces by his son Gyan Riley and a raft of other luminaries including Pauline Oliveros and Evan Ziporyn, this is a fully stocked treasure trove of keyboard goodness. Cahill is the ideal person to have put this together as she not only has the technique and concentration to show off the music at its best, but her working relationship with Riley spans more than a decade of commissions and performances. In short, she gets him, and is a persuasive and passionate advocate for his music and the way it has influenced composers for decades. Oliveros is definitely one of those and it is her A Trilling Piece For Terry that closes out the set, taking up all of disc four. This improvisational work is here performed as a duet with Samuel Adams, and every part of the piano is coaxed into participating resulting in a thrilling traversal of possibilities that you will want to experience more than once. There's over three hours of listening on Cahill's magnum opus, and a host of moods, so I recommend taking your time with the whole collection, which should prove definitive.

Choral Creations

The Crossing and International Contemporary Ensemble - Seven Responses This massive undertaking finds one of our finest vocal ensembles commissioning seven new works in "response" to the same number of cantatas in Buxtehude's Membra Jesu Nostri, a 17th century monolith of religious music. But you don't need to be a believer to fall for these works by Caroline Shaw, David T. Little, Pelle Gudmunsen-Holmgreen, Hans Thomalla, Santa Ratniece, Lewis Spratlan and Anna Thorvaldsdottir. It was the latter that caught my eye when the album came out, recalling her marvelous work for Skylark's Crossing Over, and she doesn't disappoint here. Her contribution is the 10-minute Ad Genua, where fragmented strings seem to stake out a moonlit clearing for the voices to occupy in almost ghostly fashion. There's a hint of Ligeti here, as there is elsewhere on Seven Responses, and fantastic solo singing by Maren Montalbano-Brehm, a mezzo who is one of The Crossing's secret weapons.

Donald Nally, the conductor, is also a critical factor, keeping perfect balance between the voices and the complex soundscapes of the music played expertly by ICE. While the overall mood is one of nuanced contemplation, Little's dress in magic amulets, dark, from My feet, is a shock to the system with bold, dramatic gestures straight out of the Trent Reznor playbook. But that variety is key to keeping us involved as the the scale of the thing, at nearly two hours, is demanding. Stay the course, however, and you'll find the rewards are many. The Crossing's album of John Luther Adams' Canticles Of The Holy Wind is also a fascinating listen and I'm looking forward to catching up with their other 2017 releases, featuring music by Ted Hearne and Edie Hill.

Trondheim Vokalensemble and Symphony Orchestra - Ståle Kleiberg: Mass For Modern Man Grammy-nominated classical music is a mixed bag if ever there was one, but I have found it a good source to catch up on things I missed. If you want to go spelunking yourself, check out this playlist which includes nearly all of it. That's how I came across this somewhat conservative but emotionally engaging work, which strives to cover the issues of "modern man" with movements revolving around refugees, bereavement after losing a child, and even loss of faith. While the lyrics in English translation are admittedly clunky, the work succeeds on sheer feel thanks to the convincing performance by the Trondheim singers and players. Give a listen and then watch the Grammys to see if LL Cool J will have to learn how to pronounce "Trondheim Vokalensemble."

Chamber Explorations

Cadillac Moon Ensemble - Conrad Winslow: The Perfect Nothing Catalog The inspiration for the title piece on this wonderful collection of Winslow's compositions is Frank Traynor's store/gallery/art installation of the same name and there is almost the sense of moving through various rooms of random stuff as you listen to the seven movements. Footsteps, boxes falling, distorted electronics and little tunes crop up, each shift in texture, tone, melody and rhythm leading you through the cabinet of curiosities cooked up by Winslow and his collaborators, which includes producer Aaron Roche, himself a guitarist and songwriter. Roche also plays on the final work, Benediction, a quirky and atmospheric miniature for guitar and piano, demonstrating a sure hand in a technically demanding piece. Ellipsis is the other short work on the album and was composed for vibraphone and "electronics resonance" - but I also hear voices, and I don't think they're in my head! Abiding Shapes features all of Cadillac Moon, a unique ensemble of flute, violin, cello and percussion, and has Winslow composing using sawtooth, sine, and square waves, which are usually associated with electronic instruments. Somehow it comes together very musically, with even a hint of forms from the "old weird America" of folk music. Both Winslow and Cadillac Moon were new to me but this extraordinary album has put them solidly among my favorites of those making music that seems truly new and of our time.

American Contemporary Music Ensemble - Thrive on Routine 
I may be in the minority here - or maybe I'm just a Stan for John Luther Adams - but the distance in how captivated I am by In A Treeless Place Only Snow, his contribution to this superbly performed and recorded collection, and the other works has only grown since it was released. But listen for yourself and trust ACME's instincts before mine before making up your own mind.

Molly Joyce - Lean Back And Release This EP got a lot of people excited earlier this year and rightly so. Joyce shows a versatile and confident touch on these two pieces for solo violin and prerecorded electronics, each one developing from minimal material into something deep and involving. The performances by Adrianna Mateo and Monica Germino are highly persuasive and I suspect we will be hearing much more from Molly Joyce in the future.

Jasper String Quartet - Unbound This excellent quartet has long played newer music alongside canonical works but on Unbound they jump into the 21st Century feet first and perform seven pieces by living composers. I think they found the water to their liking as these are fantastic performances of well-curated works by Caroline Shaw, Missy Mazzoli, Annie Gosfield, Judd Greenstein, David Lang, Donnacha Dennehy, and Ted Hearne. The Sono Luminus recording is - as usual - perfect, with a close but not clinical acoustic that puts you in the center of the music, which is alternately spacey, fun, folksy and severe. Unbound easily takes its place as one of 2017's essential string quartet releases, alongside Brooklyn Rider's terrific Spontaneous Symbols and the Del Sol String Quartet's instant classic, Dark Queen Mantra.

Orchestra For One

Australian Chamber Orchestra - Jonny Greenwood: Water "And I should raise in the east/A glass of water/Where any-angled light/Would congregate endlessly" - that's the final couplet of Philip Larkin's poem, Water, which is where Greenwood, also the lead guitarist in Radiohead, gained inspiration for this sparkling piece. Alternately lush and jagged across its nearly 16-minute span, Water has a narrative thrust, which is unsurprising when you consider all of Greenwood's stellar work for Paul Thomas Anderson movies such as The Master and Inherent Vice. The piece also shows Greenwood developing as an orchestrator and he makes good use of the texture and power of the ACO's strings. I do have to complain - loudly - about the orchestra's decision to pair the piece with the umpteenth recording of Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusik, which even he was probably sick of as the ink dried on the manuscript. Benjamin Britten's Four Sea Interludes, which is not underrepresented by any means, would have made a more apropos companion. And Greenwood's beautiful work is priced at "album only" if you want to buy it on MP3 - argh. Stream Water, though, and if you become a fan of Greenwood's work you can join me in eagerly awaiting the soundtrack to Anderson's Phantom Thread, which will have more of his polished and intriguing music.

Holiday Hangover

I saw Easter candy in a store the other day, but that doesn't mean you have to stop listening to seasonal tunes. Christmas comes every year, in any case, and we're always looking for something new to play amidst the Bing Crosby classics. When guests pile into your house for Wassail and you're needing something whimsical that might satisfy everyone, try Imagine Christmas, in which artists from the Sono Luminus family put their own spin in familiar tunes, my favorite being ACME's (yes) imaginative take on Silent Night, a most unexpected delight. For the quiet moments before bed on Christmas Eve, there's nothing better than Winter's Night by the Skylark Vocal Ensemble, a truly glorious album of sublime choral music based around Hugo Distler's seven variations of the hymn Es ist ein Ros Entsprungen. This is one you can play any time of year, especially when you find yourself exclaiming "Serenity now!"

Listen to tracks from all of the albums below and if you're still seeking more new sounds, catch up with dozens of albums in the 2017 Archive (Classical) playlist. Whatever happens next year, you can keep track of what catches my ear in Of Note In 2018 (Classical).

Coming soon: More Best Of 2017 featuring: Hip Hop, R&B and Reggae, Electronic, and Rock, Folk, etc.

You may also enjoy:
Best Of 2017: The Top 25
Best Of 2017: Out Of The Past
Cage Tudor Rauschenberg MoMA
Best Of 2016: Classical

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