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Best new music of 2013 — Classical

Bach Cantatas

To round out the year (and in customary fashion), here’s a quick post to list my favourite classical music releases of 2013. The picture above shows the box and looming contents of John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach Cantatas box set — which finally arrived at a ‘reasonable’ $300 in late 2013, just in time to become an excellent Christmas gift to myself. More on this below.

This year’s preferred listening clearly skews towards the earlier side of the Common Practice Period. I have no particular explanation for this other than: that’s where my interest was sustained in 2013. If I had to offer a theory I’d venture that it has as much to do with the grain and texture of the sound of period instruments as it does with the music itself. I have previously written about my love of the slightly ‘acidic’ quality of close-miked gut strings. It reminds me of folk music in the best sense — of music made by people, by rubbing and plucking strings and striking wood objects. This quality is significantly reduced after the Baroque period, somewhat regardless of whether period performance principles are applied or not; I’d suggest that composition from high classicism onwards strives to minimize this quality, and that the evolution of instrument design towards what we know as the ‘modern’ versions of these instruments is symbiotically complicit in this.

The Age of Passions — Telemann Paris Quartets 1-3: The Age of Passions is a German chamber group consisting of Petra Müllejans (Freiburger Barockorchester), Hille Perl (renowned viola da gamba player), Lee Santana (Baroque lute) and Karl Kaiser (flute). This is their second release, and it’s very successful. It’s interesting to observe the differences between Baroque chamber playing in the UK and continental Europe. I have been trying to follow Deutsche Harmonia Mundi’s releases for a few years now (it’s a Sony Music subsidiary which Sony doesn’t seem to readily import into North America for mysterious reasons), and it’s clear to me that there is a distinct ‘European school’ of period chamber playing that’s sonically distinct from more commonly available fare, characterized, perhaps, by a greater readiness to include unusual instruments, such as viols, archlutes, hammered dulcimers and the like; but also by a forceful, dynamic performance style informed more by Reinhard Goebel’s Musica Antiqua Köln and Harnoncourt’s Concentus Musicus Wien than the slightly more mannered ‘British’ period performance approach. I also appreciate the ongoing reinstatement of Telemann as a major composer of the Baroque.

The Avison Ensemble — Corelli Chamber Sonatas Op. 2 & 4; Violin Sonatas Op. 5: These are fantastic two-disc sets (most cost-effectively available as lossless downloads from Linn Records, whose physical CDs are unfortunately too expensive) of core Corelli material. Pavlo Beznosiuk’s Avison Ensemble do an extraordinary job of playing these works in a controlled but always engaging manner. There are many recordings of these works, but this is the one that I like the most for the time being. A set of Church Sonatas is forthcoming in 2014, and last year saw the release of Corelli’s Concerti grossi also from a (slightly larger) Avison Ensemble. All are worth getting.

Bejun Mehta, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, René Jacobs — Che puro ciel: The Rise of Classical Opera: Bejun Mehta is an outstanding American countertenor (the same high vocal range as an alto). He returns here with a follow-up disc to 2010’s amazing Ombra Cara, a record of Handel arias, also with René Jacobs. This time,  he’s exploring the rise of classical opera, and both the material selection and performances are outstanding throughout. Composers include Mozart, Johann Christian Bach, Gluck and Hasse. Sonically — in typical Harmonia Mundi style — this is spacious and athmospheric, and Mehta sings engagingly and beautifully. Highly recommended.

Calmus Ensemble, Lautten Compagney Berlin, Wolfgang Katschner — Backarkaden: Perhaps the odd one out in this list, I came across this in L’Atelier Grigorian’s monthly ‘new arrivals’ racks of releases not major enough to make it onto the display walls. I knew about the Lautten Compagney from previous releases of Purcell and Dowland but had never heard of Calmus. They are a German vocal group specializing in somewhat eccentric versions of Baroque material. Bach Arcades is a collection of Bach chorales and related compositions, both new and old. The idea was to record new perspectives on Bach’s music — to do so with humour and inventiveness, but also respectfully. The sonic spectrum is deliberately limited by the Lautten Compagney’s entertaining collection of period instruments, but here is Bach with hand drums and chorales that have distinct jazz harmonies. I enjoy this rather more than I initially felt I ought to.

Christine Busch — Bach ‘Sei solo’ (Sonatas & Partitas): Christine Busch is Philippe Herreweghe’s principal violinist. This is her complete recording of Bach’s sonatas and partitas for violin solo. It’s an outstanding recording that I have enjoyed thoroughly (although it is also one of a string of excellent period performance recordings in the last few years, each of which seems to marginally best the previous one). If you don’t already own an overwhelming number of recordings of this material, consider this — it’s excellent.

Dunedin Consort, John Butt — Bach Six Brandenburg Concertos: A joyful, quick and vivid recording of the Brandenburgs, probably Bach’s best-known instrumental works. The Dunedin Consort has released one-to-a-part-oriented Bach oratorios and Handel’s Messiah (early version) to much acclaim before and here ventures into purely instrumental works for the fist time. The present concertos found essentially universal critical acclaim, and for me they take their rightful place at the top of my list (I think this is at least the 6th version in my collection).

Hopkinson Smith — Bach Suites Nos. 1, 2 &3, and Nos. 4, 5 & 6: Hopkinson Smith is an American lutenist (generally, a classical plucked-string instrument specialist) who lives in Switzerland. In 2013, he released two magnificent discs of theorbo transcriptions (his own) of Bach’s cello mysterious suites. (Suites 4, 5 & 6 were in fact recorded in the 80s and 90s and have been remastered by Naïve Classique in 2013 to coincide with the other disc, which is newly recorded.) It can be hard to imagine that transcriptions of iconic material such as this would hold the ear and continue to engage the brain, but Smith’s music and playing are in fact so sensitive and touching as to be able to stand entirely on their own — it is like hearing the works for the first time. Much of this surprise is of course due to the fact that the theorbo allows for the possibility of actually hearing the bass lines that Bach’s original cello can only hint at through double-stopping (and our imaginations). Both of these are very worthwhile releases. Beautiful late-night music.

Memet Lüthi, Les Passions de L’Âme — Spicy – ‘Exotic’ Music for Violin: This CD has been a surprise and delight. It’s a collection of Austrian Baroque pieces from the time of the Turkish wars. The programme includes music by Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, Andreas Anton Schmelzer, Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber and Johann Joseph Fux and focuses mostly on ‘unusual’ compositions which — in one way or another — are thought to have been influenced by oriental music. Sometimes, this means de-tuned strings; sometimes the Bern, Switzerland based group includes unusual (and entertaining) percussion instruments; sometimes the music has a programmatic, representational agenda. All of it is exceedingly well-played and thoroughly enjoyable. (This is another Deutsche Harmonia Mundi release; see my notes about this label’s approach above.)

Rachel Podger — Guardian Angel: Works by Biber, Bach, Tartini, Pisendel: Rachel Podger is an extraordinarily gifted English violinist who specializes in period performance. I have followed her career since I first encountered her work with the Palladian Ensemble and Florilegium, groups she co-founded. This release, a selection of works for solo violin, is another entry into her peerless catalogue (which really does not contain a single weak disc). The music captures one’s attention and easily manages to transport the listener into a meditative state.

Rachel Podger, Brecon Baroque — Bach Double & Triple Concertos: Podger also released a second disc with her new ensemble, Brecon Baroque, in 2013. A complement to a previously released disc of Bach’s concertos for solo violin, this recording has the double and triple concertos. This isn’t new material for Podger, who has recorded these works at least once before (with Andrew Manze). However, Channel Classics (as always) has managed to capture Podger’s small, chamber-sized group with extraordinary warmth, soundstage and clarity, and the performances are — for me, at least — representative of how, exactly, this music should be played today. A joy.

Stimmwerck — Die helle Sonn leuchtet: Deutsche Kirchenlieder: Stimmwerck is a Munich-based vocal ensemble that sounds, at times, somewhat similar to the Hilliard Ensemble. This delightful album presents sparsely-accompanied versions of old Lutheran hymns in artful arrangements. Where Bach’s (late) Baroque renditions of chorales, in his cantatas, often seem shorter than one would like (the custom of through-composed church music at the time), these versions are singular in their full breadth (all verses are rendered). Spanning the late Renaissance to the early Baroque, this release feels like it filled an important gap in my collection, and I often go back to playing these.

Zsófia Boros — En otra parte: Zsófia Boros is a Hungarian classical guitarist of astonishing technique and musicality. This is her debut release for ECM Records (there is a previous album on a smaller independent label, also entirely worth seeking out) featuring an eclectic selection of music that Boros says chose her as much as she chose it. Featured compositions by Leo Brouwer, Ralph Towner and Vicente Amigo come alive from her technique (which seems to have no technical limitations) and positively sparkle from Manfred Eicher’s customary spacious production. (Curiously, this was the album that unequivocally pointed out to me that my trusty Totem Arro speakers — 13 years old  and counting — needed new drivers. A $300 repair later, Zsófia Boros can now once again be heard in her full glory…)

Catalogue and Reissues

Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner — Bach Cantatas: I have coveted a complete set of these recordings every since I heard the first release in the early 2000s. Gardiner’s monumental Bach cantata pilgrimage (all cantatas recorded in a single year, on the liturgically correct Sunday, across Europe and North America) was recorded in 2000 and the final single-disc release came in 2012 (in fact, the final disc contained four cantatas that could not be used from the original batch due to noise issues and were thus recorded later). Until November of this year, however, the complete set was only available as individual releases which, together, would have cost $700 or more. This limited edition box collects all 56 CDs in a single box, and at $300, it’s almost affordable (at least for the serious enthusiast). I’ll close with mentioning Alex Ross’ review of Gardiner’s Bach cantatas in the New Yorker (worth reading) and his brief mention of driving across the Australian outback listening to nothing but Bach cantatas (which I’ve always thought would make for a great vacation).

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