Classical music, some argue, is currently experiencing, if not an outright crisis, at the very least some discomfort over itself, its legacy and how that all can manage to remain relevant to a wide audience in the 21st century. Trends in the recording industry and attendance of major musical organizations reflect this situation, with a panoply of critics, musicians and listeners engaging in often-heated debate as to how to interpret what these statistics portend.
One thing that can be agreed upon is that never before has there been such a wide repertoire enjoying their day in the recording studio. The big name composers still draw the widest attention from musicians, but even composers whose works remain largely unknown can count on performers willing to compellingly testify against their unjust neglect.
Another thing: we live in a golden age of quality and inexpensive CD reissues. How long this will last remains to be seem. But listeners around during the heyday of the 1990s CD boom have reason to watch agog at the veritable landslide of boxset after boxset retrospective of performers famous and obscure lavished upon classical buyers today.
Finding only five discs to choose as my “favorites” is a challenge, but a pleasant one. I’m hoping that the following — which is presented in no particular order — is indicative not only of my personal preferences, but also of the variety of recordings available the likes of which have probably have never been equaled hitherto.
● George Perle: Orchestral Works, 1965 – 1987 (Seattle Symphony Orchestra/Ludovic Morlot) [Bridge Records] — The fourth volume in Bridge’s ongoing survey of George Perle’s music continues with this superb survey of the composer’s orchestral works delivered by the Seattle Symphony under their soon-to-be-departing music director, Ludovic Morlot. Perle’s dynamic, colorful and softly expressive music gives the lie to the tired notion of atonal and freely tonal music of the mid-20th century being “cold” or “cerebral.” Here is music abounding with delicate beauty, painted with a palette of shimmering hues touched as much by Schoenberg as by Debussy, and realized in performances that touch the heart as well as the mind.
● Debussy and His World (Marius-François Gaillard, et al) [Arbiter] — Perhaps the most revelatory release in this Debussy centenary year has been Arbiter’s exquisitely curated set of early recordings of the composer’s music, all of them little-known to most collectors. The jewels in this glittering crown of pearls are the recordings by Marius-François Gaillard, a French pianist who championed Debussy’s music in the years prior to the Second World War. Walter Gieseking’s recordings of this repertoire are justly renowned, but Gaillard deserves equal esteem. His is a crisply effervescent Debussy, redolent of earth, of fragrant fruit blossoming in the springtime: sweet at first taste, then quickly following with an unexpected bite. Excellent liner notes round off an exemplary reissue.
● Debussy, Ravel, Fauré: Selected Piano Works (Menahem Pressler) [Deutsche Grammophon] — Speaking of Debussy, one of the most delightful surprises of the past year was this unassuming recital of some the composer’s best-loved piano pieces. Menahem Pressler, now in his 95th year, seems to distill a lifetime’s experience into this album, the music coursing through his fingers like amber roulades of honeyed bourbon. Eloquent and heartfelt, this is a treasurable gem of a disc which listeners will want to dip into time and again.
● Stockhausen: Klavierstücke I – XI (Sabine Liebner) [Wergo] — Few composers of the 20th century provoked as much adulation and controversy as Stockhausen. His Klavierstücke, which spanned nearly the entirety of his career, stand as one of the core musical utterances of the 20th century; a testament to his artistic mastery, not to mention his often confounding stylistic turns. Sabine Liebner presents the first 11, all penned in the 1950s, in this invaluable Wergo set. These craggy études on the musical grammar of the then avant-garde ring forth here as defiant as ever, yet Liebner’s clarity and seemingly endless hues of tonal nuance not only demonstrate how audaciously beautiful these pieces are, but also how deeply rooted the new world of sound that Stockhausen had erected was in the old world of late Beethoven.
● George Szell: The Complete Columbia Collection [Sony Classical] — Love him or hate him, George Szell left a permanent imprint on the American orchestral world, namely in his elevating of the Cleveland Orchestra into an ensemble of world renown. Already excellent in the 1930s and 1940s, Szell polished the orchestra further into a finely tuned band whose precision and corporate virtuosity was a source of wonderment and envy. Despite that (or because of it), his conducting often gets typecast as “controlling,” “micro-managed” and “sterile.” Sony offers his fans and detractors alike ample evidence to the contrary in this massive integral set of all of Szell’s recordings for Columbia and Epic. Among the most memorable: the surprising lilt and sweep of his Strauss waltzes, the color and youthful stride of his Beethoven Seventh Symphony, the vice grip-like power of his Prokofiev Fifth Symphony, the surprising nostalgic glow of the trio in his Dvořák Eighth Symphony, the sparkle of his Rossini overtures, the rhythmic bite and verve of his recordings of Walton and Hindemith, the impeccable sheen of his Mozart. A handsomely produced set as well as a fitting testament to one of the last great podium lions.
—Néstor Castiglione, Culture Spot LA