Thursday, December 22, 2016

Memorable Recordings in 2016

Those who saw my report at the beginning of this month already know that the universe in which I live is almost entirely disjoint from that of the judges who determine the winners of the annual GRAMMY awards. When I looked back on the memorable recordings of 2015 on my site, I observed that my selections marked the largest departure from GRAMMY nominees since I began writing those retrospective articles. This year I seem to have gone the extra mile: None of my selections came even close to what the GRAMMY “experts” deemed to be prize-worthy. Furthermore, that observation gives me a comforting sense of satisfaction, perhaps the closest a writer about the performing arts can get to Mr. Dooley’s declaration that the newspaper “comforts th' afflicted, afflicts th' comfortable.”

However, when it comes to afflicting the comfortable, I have to preface any remarks about recordings by recognizing a documentary film about a man whose approach to the recording industry could not have been more revolutionary, at least in his own time. The man was Frank Zappa; and the documentary was Eat That Question—Frank Zappa in His Own Words, made by Thorsten Schütte. (Those with cable service who have not yet had the opportunity to see this film should be made aware that STARZ will start broadcasting it early next month.)

Zappa may not have been the most outrageous musician of his time (the latter half of the twentieth century); but he may well have been the most unabashed about being outrageous. The title of the film comes from one of the tracks on his album The Grand Wazoo, which is probably as good a way to establish expectations for listening to Zappa’s music as one is likely to find. However, while just about any Zappa track gives the listener a good feel for how he could afflict the comfortable, Schütte’s film is based on footage of interviews he gave, most of which were on television, in which his manners are always impeccable and his delivery always soft-spoken. Furthermore, because the film is, for the most part, organized chronologically, there is something almost heartbreaking about the conclusion, in which Zappa, only months before his death by cancer in 1993, assembled an ensemble of percussionists that he conducted in a performance of Edgard Varèse’s “Ionisation.” Taken as a whole, the film is a valuable lens through which we may all view what is now passing for modernism in our “new century.”

The impact of that film on my own thinking may explain why none of the recordings that I listened to over this past year involved instances of that modernism. On the other hand they all involved decidedly fresh approaches to performance, suggesting that modernism is more important in the immediacy of acts of making music with instruments than in any acts of putting marks on paper or, for that matter, laying down tracks. The best example of the significance of that distinction can be found in the recording by Graindelavoix of the Messe de Nostre Dame by Guillaume de Machaut, released on the Spanish Glossa label this past April. This music dates from the fourteenth century, a time when music notation was just beginning to admit of systematic interpretation, rather than serving merely as a memory aid. Nevertheless, there is an immediacy to the performance of that notation by the male voices of Graindelavoix led by Björn Schmelzer that suggests that spontaneous improvisation was part of the “package.” This is a performance of Machaut without the accumulated dust of six or seven centuries; and it is likely to have a significant (not to mention healthy) impact on how any of us think about the performance of “early music.”

A similar kind of spontaneity can be found in the recorded performances of the concertos of Antonio Vivaldi released by Brilliant Classics. These involve a string ensemble called L’Arte dell’Arco led by its concertmaster Federico Guglielmo, who is soloist in all concertos for violin. Brilliant has been releasing albums that have probably been extracted from the 66-CD “new, extended, improved and upgraded” box set called Vivaldi Edition. This year saw the release of three of those “piecemeal” albums, each taken from one of the twelve collections that Vivaldi published. Opus 8, given the title Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione (the contest between harmony and invention), was released in February. This is likely to be the most popular of the releases, since the first four concertos are known as a group as The Four Seasons. This was followed by the release in July of the twelve concertos in Opus 9, given the title La Cetra (the lyre). This collection may be less familiar but is particularly engaging for the ways in which the performances honor the plucked-string connotations of the title. Finally, this month began with the release of Opera 11 and 12 in a single album. (Opus 10 is a collection of six flute concertos.) No matter how much you think that there is something “routine” across the many concertos that Vivaldi composed, there is a freshness to each of these albums that will quickly seduce you into appreciating how every concerto that Vivaldi wrote has its own unique qualities.

Freshness is also the order of the day in at least two of the releases that celebrate the centennial of the birth of Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter in March of 1915 (better late than never). Having just discussed how that freshness can still be found in Vivaldi, it is appropriate to begin with release of a major Bach album by Richter. This is what seems to be the only recording of Richter playing all 48 preludes and fugues in Johann Sebastian Bach’s two Books of The Well-Tempered Clavier. As is the case with many of the available Richter recordings, the performances were taken from a series of four recitals (twelve preludes and fugues at each) that Richter gave in Innsbruck in July and August of 1973. Parnassus Records released the entire collection this past May and took the relatively imaginative packaging strategy of issuing everything on a single Audio DVD. Purists may grouse about the fact that these preludes and fugues are not being played on a “period” instrument. However, whether one is learning to play these pieces or learning to listen to them, what matters most is the clarity of the individual voices that contribute to Bach’s counterpoint (this is as true of the preludes as it is of the fugues); and it is extremely difficult (if not impossible) to find a performance in which Richter neglects that need for clarity. This album simply cannot be ignored by anyone who takes listening to Bach seriously.

Those who prefer breadth to depth will probably be more interested in the 24-CD box set Sviatoslav Richter: The Complete Warner Recordings. Because of its size, this site devoted three articles to this collection, one for solo piano music, one for concertos, and one for chamber music (including a single CD of art song). Here again, the factor that matters most across all three of these categories in the clarity that Richter brings to what he is playing, whether the music comes from the eighteenth, nineteenth, or twentieth century. Indeed, his skill at bringing clarity to his Bach performances serves him just as well with modernists at a considerable distance from Bach. Perhaps the best example in this collection is that of Alban Berg’s 1925 Kammerkonzert (chamber concerto) recorded at a concert performed at the Théâtre de l’Athénée in Paris in December of 1977. Richter shared solo duties with violinist Oleg Kagan, and they were accompanied by an ensemble of thirteen wind instrumentalists from the Moscow Conservatory conducted by Yuri Nikolayevsky. Having had to sit through at least one rather opaque performance of this work in concert (with an excellent set of performers whose names are best left not mentioned), I could not help but drop my jaw at just how self-evident this recording made the music seem.

The other major collection that occupied my time this year actually crossed the boundary between 2015 and 2016. This was A Tribute to Rudolf Barshai, a twenty-CD box set released by ICA Classics in November of 2015. My guess is that most readers will appreciate that I was not ready to write about everything in this collection until the first quarter of this year, which means that, for all intents and purposes, it is part of my memory of the current year! Over the course of this entire collection, one is exposed to recorded documents of Barshai as a solo violist, as the founding member of the Borodin Quartet and an distinctive performer of chamber music with other partners, as a conductor of orchestras (both full ensembles and chamber orchestras), as an arranger, and as the author of a performing version of all five movements of Gustav Mahler’s tenth symphony. In other words there is as much breadth here as in the Richter box set, and it would be safe to say that there is not a dull moment across the entire repertoire covered by this collection.

The other memorable collection of this year is the seven-CD box set released by Loft Records of Colin Andrews performing the complete works of Olivier Messiaen. This is definitely an appropriate time to consider this collection, since the very first disc is devoted almost entirely to the cycle La Nativité du Seigneur (the Lord’s Nativity). Almost all of the works in this collection are sacred in one way or another and probably grew out of Messiaen’s duties as organist at the Église de la Sainte-Trinité (church of the Holy Trinity), a post he held for over 60 years. Messiaen’s own approach to faith involved a balance of the liturgical and the mystical, and both elements can be found in his organ music. In addition many of the pieces are given to extended duration, so the curious listener may wish to begin by taking small samples. However, as one begins to get used to Messiaen’s sonorities and his approaches to phrase structure, one will eventually ease into his extended durations as well.

Finally, there is one “historical” recording that definitely made its mark this year. This is the two-CD album released by harmonia mundi of the two piano trios by Franz Schubert, D. 898 in B-flat major and D. 929 in E-flat major, along with an additional track for the D. 897 nocturne in E-flat major. The pianist is Andreas Staier, playing a “fortepiano after Conrad Graf” (as it says in the booklet notes). The sonorities of this instrument definitely throw lights on Schubert’s music that one may find unfamiliar but (hopefully) not alien. Staier is joined by violinist Daniel Sepec and cellist Roel Dieltiens, and those unfamiliar with period instruments may be struck by the narrowness of the dynamic range. However, on this recording that quality lends a sense of intimacy that might otherwise be spoiled by louder dynamics. Thus, things only really get loud when Staier engages the “special percussion effects” of his instrument for the trio section of the third movement of D. 929, suggesting that Schubert wanted this section to have a really rustic sound. Eyebrows may be raised, but it is easy to appreciate that Staier’s approach makes perfect sense.

On the whole, then, this was a very good year for recordings; and, if the GRAMMY judges did not “get it,” then that is exclusively their problem!

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