It’s been a different sort of music listening year for me. Starting last January, I largely took a break from listening to popular music and reconnected with my first love, classical music. The last few years of increasingly commercial ‘indie’ rock had left a decidedly bad taste in my mouth. (The pretence of innovation when things are so blatantly derivative of something that’s derivative itself will eventually do that to you.) And the classical area on my CD shelves left much to be desired — even in core repertoire.
What I discovered was that the culture of indie labels is alive and well in the classical genre — more so than in rock or electronic music, I’d venture. This is probably because classical music listeners still buy CDs (for audiophile reasons, or simply because their pursuits aren’t as readily available for download, paid or otherwise). I also discovered that I now love whole sub-genres I never cared much about previously (such as string quartets, piano trios, Sibelius symphonies and Schubert Lieder).
Of course, I didn’t completely eschew all other musical genres. Overall, my listening patterns shifted towards music with a more natural acoustic footprint — I found pleasure in jazz, bluegrass, ‘alt’ country, folk and a variety of world music. And yes, the odd rock release piqued my interest too, but they were few and far between, and often idiosyncratic choices.
So this year’s best of list (I notice I didn’t create one last year… hm) is broken down into two sections: a classical top 10, and an ‘everything else’ top 10. The only criterion was that the disc had to have been released in 2010 and not be a re-release. The ‘top 10’ lists aren’t ordered in any particular way, so what’s at the top isn’t necessarily the best of the best.
Best new classical music
Alexander Melnikov — Shostakovich: The Preludes and Fugues: A brilliant young Russian pianist tackles one of the great collections in the repertoire. Inspired by Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier but written in a neo-classical style in the 1950s, this cycle easily slots into the top shelf of the piano literature together with Bach’s Clavier and Beethoven’s and Schubert’s sonatas. Melnikov’s is a flawless contemporary performance.
Angèle Dubeau & La Pietà — Noël: Is there such a thing as a ‘credible populist’? Dubeau is a bona fide virtuoso from Quebec who has been selling increasingly large numbers of CDs on the Analekta label. She strikes a golden balance between classical credibility and record sales by tackling such composers as Arvo Pärt and Philip Glass with her all-female string orchestra La Pietà. Noël is a beautiful collection of Christmas music for string orchestra that will not get your hackles up. Seasonal, and a keeper.
Dunedin Consort & Players, John Butt — Bach: Mass in B minor: This is the best recording of the Mass in B minor I’ve ever heard. John Butt is an academic who is spearheading some of the current refinements in period performance practice with Scotland-based Dunedin Consort. The main attraction here is that the entire mass is performed with only 8 singers — 4 principals and 4 ripienists — so the soloists double up as the choir. In certain quarters, this approach is controversial, but for me it creates an unbelievable sense of clarity, especially in Bach’s intricate inner part-writing. I can’t stop listening to this (and Linn Records’ recording is brilliant, too).
Isabelle Faust — Bach: Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin: I first noticed Isabelle Faust when I acquired her and Alexander Melnikov’s Beethoven Violin Sonata cycle last year (which subsequently won a Grammophone Award). Faust is a fiercely focused violinist who blazes her own trail, and while I’ve previously always preferred a true period approach to the sonatas and partitas, this recording (on a modern instrument but with period technique) is making me reconsider. I can’t wait for the second instalment (I hope there will be one).
The Netherlands Bach Society, Jos van Veldhoven — Bach: Magnificat: The second seasonal choice in this list. The Dutch — perhaps because of their close geographic proximity to Germany? — definitely have a way with Bach, pronouncing the all-important words much better than your average British choir. I enjoy this recording tremendously. The performances are at least on par with the best of Philippe Herreweghe’s Bach, and the ‘inserts’ of various Dutch composers lend it a certain additional charm.
Paul Lewis, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Jiri Belohlavek — Beethoven: Complete Piano Concertos: This was one of the most-hyped releases of the year given the immense (and deserved) success of Lewis’ Beethoven sonatas from the years before. I liked this cycle very much and would highly recommend it if you’re looking for a complete modern recording with no particular idiosyncracies or artistic license. I’m not sure I would pick it as a desert island disc over Brendel’s final recording with Rattle, but it’s conceivable that I might.
Rachel Podger, Brecon Baroque — Bach: Violin Concertos: Rachel Podger is one of the most ‘musical’ of period performers. With an impeccable pedigree as a period violinist honed in years as a soloist, ensemble player, leader and teacher, she returns with her own very small Baroque orchestra, Brecon Baroque. The approach is to play these concertos almost as if they were chamber music — comparable to Richard Egarr’s Brandenburg Concertos, for example. Two well-known violin concertos are paired with two transcriptions for violin of keyboard concertos, but everything is very idiomatic and spot-on.
Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Charles Mackerras — Mozart: Symphonies 29, 31, 32, 35, 36: Before sadly passing away earlier this year, Charles Mackerras released two collections of Mozart symphonies on Linn Records that are probably the most balanced and well-judged performances of these works I’ve ever heard. Their lucidity illustrates — for me, for the first time — how ‘late Mozart’ connects to ‘early Beethoven,’ a connection I knew was there but that I had never heard so clearly before.
Emerson String Quartet — Old World/New World (Dvořák String Quartets): In a way, the Emerson Quartet never ‘goes wrong’ in anything it cares to release; instead, the question is simply whether you like the repertoire or not. I love Dvořák but wasn’t previously aware of his string quartets, so these pristine, lively recordings were a revelation for me.
Florilegium — Pergolesi: Stabat Mater: Sad and beautiful, Pergolesi’s most famous sacred work is performed by soprano Elin Manahan Thomas and counter-tenor Robin Blaze. Florilegium is an excellent British Baroque ensemble and beautifully recorded here by Channel Classics.
Best new ‘everything else’ music
Natalie Merchant — Leave Your Sleep: Natalie Merchant (of 10,000 Maniacs and Tigerlily fame) returns with a double CD of self-penned musical settings of famous and not-so-famous poetry written by, or for, children through the ages. It took her 6+ years of work, and the cover booklet is a beautiful bound book in which she tells each author’s story. The music is wonderfully wacky, entertaining and poignant. If I had to pick one ‘everything else’ disc to be my album of the year, this would have to be it.
Natacha Atlas — Mounqaliba: For going on 20 years, Natacha Atlas has merged sounds of the Middle East with Western electronica. This CD, and the previous one, are a slight return to more traditional Arabic music. Interspersed with spoken word academic and/or political commentary, Mounqualiba is a postmodern masterwork. Note, though, that if you don’t already have some sort of appreciation (or at least inclination) for this kind of music, this record may not be the best starting point.
Bedouin Soundclash — Light the Horizon: I’ve loved at least the last two of Bedouin Soundclash’s three records prior to this. They’re an intelligent reggae/ska/pop band from Kingston, Ont. who forge very much their own path with a highly melodic, folky blend that should appeal to hippies, hipsters and aging punks alike. Brilliant songwriting, and also an immensely concise record at roughly 35 minutes (though some would call that an EP).
Black Dub — Black Dub: Daniel Lanois’ latest project achieves a great, dense sound with all the trademark Lanois elements, and Trixie Whitley is a very good white soul singer. I think the critics were somewhat divided about this, but I think it reveals its depths the more you listen to it. It’s not stylistically related to anything au courant and may thus be a bit of a navel-gazing album. You’ve been warned.
Elvis Costello — National Ransom: An outstanding return to form, this time featuring members of both the Imposters and the previous CD’s more country-tinged backing band. Costello’s songcraft is like nobody else’s — from the uniformly literate lyrics to the sophisticated harmonies. He no longer tries on genres, he authentically inhabits them. I had not expected to actually like this as much as I do, having been ambivalent about Elvis Costello for most of my adult life. I’m glad he’s done (for the time being) with jazz standards.
Johnny Cash — American VI: Ain’t No Grave: There really ain’t no grave for Johnny Cash; he keeps releasing new records. This one — like the rest of the Rick Rubin produced ‘American’ series — is nothing short of astonishing. If you’re not familiar with Cash’s last records, you owe it to yourself to explore them, regardless of what you think you think of him.
Keith Jarrett & Charlie Haden — Jasmine: A beautiful, quiet accomplishment. Jarrett and Haden play jazz standards in a minimal setting, bringing their combined experience to bear on the material. This is very much a ‘late night’ record that requires focused listening to be fully appreciated. Then again, it could also just be really great background music to a dinner party.
Edgar Knecht — Good Morning Lilofee: A German piano trio re-imagines German folk songs as jazz standards. Wildly imaginative even if you’re not familiar with the source material (you can always look it up on Youtube). Stylistically related to trios like E.S.T. and some of the other Scandinavian groups, Knecht does very much his own thing and succeeds spectacularly. The top notes of folk here make this CD sound similar to some of Tord Gustavsen’s trio records on ECM.
And with that, I wish each and every one of my readers happy holidays, a wonderful Christmas and a prosperous start to the New Year.