Friday, December 22, 2017

Memorable Recordings in 2017

Those who have followed me not only on this site but previously on probably realize that Naxos of America has played a significant role in my building up the knowledge base without which I would not be able to come close to my personal goal of writing informatively. Going all the way back to when they would distribute downloads for review through ClassicsOnline, I have been building a familiarity with repertoire that would probably be the envy of students (if not faculty) at the Juilliard School. It is with that context that I found myself a bit puzzled, if not disturbed, by the “Editors Picks of 2017 from Classical Independent Labels” that Naxos circulated to my electronic mail Inbox this morning.

To be clear, those “classical independent labels” that Naxos of America distributed in this country are as important to me as the Naxos releases themselves, perhaps even more so, since collectively they outnumber the Naxos releases. So I eagerly went through the list of thirty labels, each with its respective “best in show” entry to see how many of them had been topics of articles I had written this year. To my surprise, only one such album surfaced, the Steve Reich album released by Cedille with performances by Third Coast Percussion. However, this was an album I had covered in 2016, making it one of the few items in my personal response to the 59th annual GRAMMY award nominees that actually went all the way to winning an award. The fact is that this album had been released in February of 2016, which seems to suggest that Cedille had not come up with anything of note in 2017. (To be fair, I did not write about any Cedille releases this year.)

The fact is that, while I was at least moderately satisfied with the 60th annual GRAMMY nominees, satisfaction due in no small part of my Naxos connection, when it comes to overall listening enjoyment, 2017 seems to have been the year in which I reveled in historical content. In particular, the lion’s share of that content involved recordings of the late Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter. Much of this material was probably originally compiled to honor the centennial of Richter’s birth in March of 2015 (the specific date depending on which calendar you choose to use); but most of the releases ended up in the twentieth anniversary year of Richter’s death, which was on August 1, 1997.

1966 photograph of Sviatoslav Richter, provided by Wikipedia user Yury Sctherbinin and posted on Wikimedia Commons ( licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

The role that Naxos played in my deep-ending on Richter recordings is so great that enumeration would be tedious. What was important about Richter was that, for the most part, he avoided recording studios; so almost all of the available recordings were taken from concert performances. This provides an excellent opportunity to appreciate how, while he may have preferred to play a particular piece at many recitals, it did not always turn out the same with each performance.

In this context my greatest admiration probably goes to two major box sets released on the Profil label from Edition Günter Hänssler (and distributed by Naxos of America), the first a ten-CD album entitled Sviatoslav Richter Plays Schubert – Live in Moscow and the second the twelve-CD set entitled Sviatoslav Richter Plays Beethoven. Both of these collections include works given more than one interpretation; and each one has at least one significant “guest artist.” The Schubert album includes Richter playing four-hand music with Benjamin Britten, while the Beethoven collection includes all five of the cello sonatas performed with cellist Mstislav Rostropovich.

Britten’s presence allows me to segue over to another significant collection that left me drooling with delight. That was the release of the second volume in the ICA Classics BBC Legends series of recordings taken from the BBC archives. (To be fair the ICA Classics release included in today’s electronic mail dispatch is an impressive one, but not as impressive as the twenty-CD box set.) I wrote about this collection this past Tuesday; but it is worth repeating that listening to the recording Britten conducting Gustav Mahler probably is worth the full “price of admission.” However, what I did not mention on Tuesday is that there is also an entire CD of solo performances by Richter, which is particularly valuable to my interests because it is the only one I have encountered to date that has him playing one of Joseph Haydn’s keyboard sonatas (Hoboken XVI/29 in F major). One probably does not usually think of Richter as “playful” pianist. However, playfulness was almost always part of Haydn’s spirit; and Richter acknowledged it accordingly.

To be fair, however, I did not spend the entire year obsessing over Richter or confining my attention to albums distributed by Naxos of America. I thus feel it just as important to single out Warner Classics’ release of the 25-CD Olivier Messiaen edition, which I reviewed piecemeal through a series of articles written between May 15 and June 15. (Warner Classics had released their own Richter collection, but I had written about it in 2016.) Warner chose not to release a “complete works” collection of Messiaen. Instead, the box set was divided into two parts, the first consisting of “authorized” recordings that Messiaen supervised and/or performed. The second part was described as “landmark” interpretations. Taken as a whole, this collection made for a very enjoyable spring this year; and I continue to consult it for the insights offered by both of its parts.

As a result 2017 turned out to be a very satisfying year, even if it was not dominated by “latest and greatest” recordings by current and rising talents.

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