Guest Columnist Favorites of the year

I will not presume to present you with the best classical recordings of 2011, but will inflict upon you my favorites - those CDs that have found themselves most often on my player for repeat auditions simply because of the generally enjoyable nature of the music and performance. I have so many discs to recommend that, in most cases, I'm going to save space by not listing the performers. Trust me; they wouldn't have made the list if the performances were not more than fine.

From the past 16 years, patient readers know that I am a musical adventurer. Sometime ago, I absorbed the main repertory and decided to move on. Rather than repeatedly seeking the latest recordings of the classical staples (how many versions of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony do you really need?), I search for the new and obscure in hopes of uncovering hidden treasure. Nevertheless, I'm occasionally struck between the eyes with a new performance of a mainline favorite that is so good it reminds me all over again how sublimely great the music is. This was the case with the New Orford String Quartet's performance of Schubert's String Quartet No. 15 and Beethoven's String Quartet No. 16, on the Bridge label (Bridge 9363). These works were the last complete quartets written by both composers. This premiere recording by the New Orford Quartet displays the kind of heightened sensitivity and concentrated attention that allows heart to speak to heart. These are profoundly moving performances.

I have often contended that the Classical era of music had the highest standards of any subsequent period. Further evidence of this contention comes in the first three string quartets, dedicated to Haydn, by Hyacinthe Jadin, an almost unknown French composer of extraordinary gifts, who died at the age of 24. Appropriately enough, the Atma Classique disc containing the string quartets is played by Franz Joseph Quartet. I usually loathe original instrument recordings because of the wheezy, flatulent sound of the string instruments, but the level of musicality here is so high, my reluctance was more than overcome. If he ever heard this music, Haydn would have been flattered.

The budget Naxos label has released Volume No. 4 of the complete String Quartets of Alfred Hill (1869-1960), adroitly played by the Dominion Quartet. Hill wrote 17 string quartets and, after having listened to the first 11, I am prepared to proclaim him the Australian Dvorak. By this, I mean his music has a similar sweetness and sense of domesticity to it. There is nothing to shake the rafters here, but plenty to warm the heart. I'm not suggesting that you begin with the fourth volume. You may as well start with volume 1, but I'm sure you will find this music so attractive that you will want every installment, including this one, which contains Quartets Nos. 10 and 11, along with a Quintet for Piano and Strings, which ends, most unusually, with a choral version of the Gloria.

Here is a fairly simple proposition. If you find the Impressionist period chamber music of Maurice Ravel and Albert Roussel appealing, you must try the new CD with the String Trio by Jean Cras (1879-1932) on the Timpani label. Yes, it is that good - a masterpiece. It is joined by Cras' enticing Impromptus for Harp, the Suite for Flute and Harp, and the Quintet for Flute, Harp and Strings. Since I discovered it, this disc has never been far from my CD player, and it will remain there for some time to come. I am determined to find more of this man's music.

I think that Gian Francisco Malipiero (1882-1973) was the greatest Italian orchestral composer of the 20th century. The Naxos label has been transferring his symphonies from its full price Marco Polo label to the budget Naxos line. Try them. Even better news is that Naxos is releasing some world premiere recordings of other orchestral works in very fine performances by the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma. These include the Impressioni dal vero ("Impressions from life") and two suites from his Pause del silenzio ("Breaks in silence"). Essentially, these are highly imaginative little tone poems. If you could imagine an Italian Janácek who had studied with Debussy, you might come up with Malipiero. There is a delicious languidness about this music. The level of sheer fancy is irresistible. Listen, for instance, to the Dialogue of the Bells at the beginning of the second Impressioni. This is one of the best Malipiero CDs out there and a great introduction to this magician's music.

Geirr Tveitt (1908-1981) was an extraordinary Norwegian composer, who tragically lost most of his life's work when his family home went up in a blaze in 1970. Since then, people have figuratively been picking through the ashes, trying to reconstruct some of his works. What remains still places him at the forefront of Norwegian music in much the same way as Bartok is in the forefront of Hungarian music. I once said of Tveitt's aphoristic tone poems based on Norwegian folk music that they are "little lightning flashes of music that illuminate the landscape of life and nature." It is tremendous good fortune that the Simax Classics label has now given us world premiere recordings of the Tveitt's Quartet for Strings, titled "From a Travel Diary," a little ballet called the Household God, a short Septet for Two Violins, Viola, Cello, Double Bass, Oboe and Horn, and Midsummer's Eve, which is also in septet form but with a cor anglais instead of an oboe. The Quartet, in suite form, has eight parts depicting various places in the Mediterranean. This is the best musical postcard in chamber music form that I have heard. Particularly entrancing is Tveitt's depiction of the Mediterranean itself in the opening movement and the "starry skies over the Sahara" in the closing one. I was also delighted by his portrayals of Spain in El Escorial and Sevilla, the latter offering what sounded like a Norwegian and a Spaniard dancing together in a conflation of a Sevillana and a Hardanger folk tune. What marvelously idiosyncratic, inspiriting music!

I have been crusading for the music of Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996) for some years. I can no longer speak of him as a neglected composer since there are some 60 CDs available of his music. (I have more than 40.) However, there is more to come, as is shown by the premiere recording of his Concertino for Violin and String Orchestra, Op. 42 (1948) on the Naxos label. This 20-minute work is an absolute charmer and displays Weinberg's ability to create insinuating or, perhaps I should say, ingratiating melodies. It is accompanied by two fairly forgettable late 19th century Russian violin concertos by Julius Conus and Anton Arensky. Don't worry - the bittersweet Concertino is worth the price of the disc.

One of my most delightful discoveries of the year was made by mistake. I thought I was ordering a CD of music by Herman Koppel, a significant Danish 20th-century composer. What arrived was the music of his son Anders (b. 1947). I ended up listening to three CDs of his music on the Dacapo label. The first featured a Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola, Clarinet, Bassoon and Orchestra, a Concerto for Flute, Harp and Orchestra, and a Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra. There is no room to review these works individually; so let me give a general characterization of his music. It soon became clear to me that this man has music in his blood. These works are playful, good-humored - even humorous - lyrical, rhythmically diverse and catchy, using whatever idiom or genre that he seems to take a fancy to at any given moment. In other words, he captures the spirit of spontaneity. Without failure, the musical textures are beguiling. This is highly entertaining, very engaging music. Clearly, Koppel does not have an ideological bone in his body. There is nothing doctrinaire in these works. Koppel said, "I don't want to demonstrate some manifesto. I just make the music I can, and I speak the language that is mine."

As is clear from Koppel's First String Quartet, part of his language comes from Latin America, particularly Argentina. This quartet is a hoot, with the music slithering across the dance floor in tangos and sambas. I find it irresistible. His String Quartet No. 2 was composed a decade later (2008) and is from a different world. According to Koppel, it "is inspired by the host of stars that appear above your head on an August night when you go outside and look up in the back into vast space - and by the thoughts about time, eternity, and the now that this sight can spark off." The music leaves behind the dance floors of Argentina and inhabits a world of spiritual stillness of the kind captured so effectively by Arvo Part, the great Estonian composer. Koppel depicts not the terrifying vastness of endless, empty space, but an intimate, sparkling place, a harmony of the spheres in which man is at home. The concluding Quintet for Mezzo Saxophone and String Quartet returns to the more funky fluid style of the First Quartet, but with more jazz inflections. This comes close to my favorite string quartet album of the year.

The third Koppel CD features double concertos: the Concerto for Violin, Accordion and Orchestra, and the Concerto for Saxophone, Piano and Orchestra. The first work comes out of the chute like a Martinu double concerto, with his typical motoric rhythms and chugging ostinatos. It certainly maintains the rhythmic vivacity of Martinu throughout, but travels back down to Argentina, where, apparently, the violin and accordion combination is not so unusual. Koppel makes magic out of the pairing, particularly in the larghetto, based on a 17th century hymn. Following it, a marvelously animated scherzo bubbles happily along. This is hugely entertaining, inventive music.

Actually, I have more favorites than this, but will wait for the restoration of your finances to recommend them to you.

This article originally appeared in Crisis Magazine.

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