1: Esa-Pekka Salonen has shot to the top of the list of composer-conductors with the two most exciting classical CDs of the year. “Out of Nowhere” features his own violin concerto, a dramatic soundscape that brings to mind Bartok, Debussy, and Bernard Herrmann, but the music is all the sensual Salonen’s. It’s great music to read Scandinavian mysteries by, though Salonen’s depth of emotion is so much richer than that. Leila Josefowicz plays the concerto as she did with the Boston Symphony in April and in the above clip.
2: Salonen’s music just keeps getting better by the year, as does his conducting, witnessed by the world premiere recording of Shostakovich’s “Orango” prologue and his Symphony No. 4. “Orango” was to be a three-act opera about a half-man, half-ape that would satirize various aspects of Soviet culture. Stalinism got the better of the opera, alas, because what was recently pieced together for the prologue is pretty spectacular. If Salonen ever wanted to return to running an orchestra, I know of an empty podium in Boston. Both CDs are on DG.
3: A welcome trend in classical music has been the way pianists have been mixing and matching past and present composers. Pierre-Laurent Aimard had a wonderful disc mashing up Liszt and contemporary composers last year; in 2012 the honors go to Israeli pianist David Greilsammer’s “Baroque Conversations,” (Sony) a discourse across the centuries between the likes of Francois Couperin and Morton Feldman, releasing each from his baroque or contemporary ghetto.
4: Jeremy Denk has similar fun sandwiching Beethoven’s late sonata No. 32 in between György Ligeti’s bracing etudes (Nonesuch). As he’s shown in the past, Denk can make the modern feel as comfortable as the classical.
5: Hilary Hahn keeps turning out one great CD after another and she broke new ground this year on “Silfra,” a DG CD with the avant-garde pianist Hauschka that combined all kinds of genres inspired by the Icelandic landscape where they recorded the music. It was even better seeing them live at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, but the CD is still a beauty if you don’t mind a little new-age and Cage experimentation.
6: Looking for a post-Christmas gift? You can’t do better than Gidon Kremer’s “Complete Astor Piazzola Recordings” on Nonesuch. Kremer has been championing the Argentinian composer since 1996 and has just the right feel for Piazzola’s blend of café and classical. Kremer is our most important violinist around today in a very talented field – Hahn, Mutter, Batiashvili – and it’s always fun to see and hear him let down what’s left of his hair. There’s also a live Astor Quartet concert thrown in with Kremer’s previous Nonesuch and Teldec recordings. For some a little Piazzola goes a long way, but Kremer finds all kinds of nuance among the tangos. Kremer also had a very nice “Homage to Glenn Gould,” on Nonesuch as well, mostly consisting of new realizations of Bach works made famous by Gould.
7: And another gift from the record company gods. Is there a classical pianist out there who’s more fun to listen to than Martha Argerich, another Kremer amiga from Argentina? DG has released a handsomely-bound four-CD set of her Lugano concerto recordings that traverses some of her favorite compositions while adding a few more to the mix like Poulenc and Milhaud. The Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana isn’t the best she’s recorded with, but she sounds right at home at her festival. DG also put out huge sets of the collected works of Claude Debussy and pianist Wilhelm Kempff. I didn’t splurge for those boxes since I have most of the music on both collections and they would also make great gifts.
8: Pierre Boulez seems to be winding down his conducting career. His label, DG, seems to be mostly interested in recordings of late romanticism and he had a beauty this year, Wagner’s prelude to Act 1 of “Tristan und Isolde,” paired with Schoenberg’s “Pelleas und Mellisande.” Boulez has often made the case that the two composers are kissing cousins and he proves it with this recording.
9: The late Hungarian composer, Ligeti, seems to be the go-to guy in recent years. New England Conservatory violist Kim Kashkashian featured him and another Hungarian György boy — Kurtag — on an atmospheric ECM CD that gives the viola its due, not to mention the two composers.
10: Technically this was released in 2011, but I just heard it, OK? The Boston Symphony Chamber Players added to its sterling discography with “Profanes et sacrée” 20th century French music. The BSO has a long tradition of championing French friends from Debussy to Dutilleux and this one, on its own label, adds to the glory.