As classical music isn’t my usual beat I often look to the company of “friends” to entertain me. Joseph Campbell advised that we focus on one artist and follow him or her, rather than just collect information on everything that’s out there. So here are 10 to choose from.
Two of the best friends a classical music lover, particularly a contemporary classical music lover, could have the past couple of years, are conductor-composer Esa-Pekka Salonen and violinist Hilary Hahn. That both of them, and many others on the list, record for Deutsche Grammophon speaks well of that label’s commitment to talent and the relative freedom the artists have to record contemporary music (though the label's 20/21 series is certainly missed).
1. Esa-Pekka Salonen. Salonen’s own music is a bracing blend of French soundscapes and Bartokian dramatic development. That’s also reflected in the other composers he champions and this past year he championed three of them on three different labels — a disc of three compositions by one of his teachers, Henri Dutilleux, on DG; fellow Finn Kaija Saariaho on Ondine with Dawn Upshaw; and the completion of his traversal of the four symphonies of Witold Lutosławski on his old label, Sony. He has had long associations with all three composers — Saariaho is the only one still living — and he makes them all sound as accessible and exciting as Ravel or Bartok.
2. “In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores,” DG. Hahn was a champion of 20th century composers when she first burst onto the scene in the late ‘90s. She’s now a champion of 21st century music. She solicited short encore pieces from 27 of her contemporaries and previewed several at Jordan Hall early in the year at a Celebrity Series of Boston concert. Now they’re all together on this recently-released CD and it’s remarkable how each flows so beautifully into the next regardless of tonality or ethnicity. Perfect for iPods. I haven’t downloaded it yet, but my guess is that the order on the CD isn’t essential to appreciate this rich contemporary cavalcade.
4. Pierre Boulez, Complete Works, DG. Is there a beloved atonalist in your heart? Boulez, who succeeded Bernstein in New York, played Apollonian composer-conductor to Bernstein’s Dionysus — from the Frenchman’s cool, unemotive conducting style to his crystalline performances of modernist masters. Yet these recordings show there has been plenty of warmth and emotion in his compositions over the years, furthered by his love of Asian instrumentation. DG also released a smart pairing of his Salzburg Festival performances of Mahler’s “Das Klagende Lied” and “Lulu-Suite.”
5. Gidon Kremer, Victor Kissine, “Between Two Waves,” ECM New Series. Kremer has set the standard for violinists like Hahn and Anne-Sophie Mutter in terms of championing his contemporaries, and near-contemporaries. Kremer has focused more, though not exclusively, on his fellow artists from the Soviet diaspora, such as Kissine, a Russian native now living in Belgium. Kremer only appears on one of the three selections here that evoke the sea with a style and grace that goes well beyond minimalism.
6. Yuja Wang, Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 3, Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 2, DG. Wang combines the excitement of Lang Lang with the elegance of Krystian Zimerman and as her YouTube videos show, it doesn’t hurt to look marvelous. It’s her talent that shines through on this disc, however, and that of another hot personality, Gustavo Dudamel, here conducting the Simón Bolívar Orchstra. She was in Boston earlier in the season with the Celebrity Series; she’ll be back with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in late March playing the same Prokofiev piece. Can't wait.
7. Anne-Sophie Mutter, Dvorak Violin Concerto, DG. Back to the 19th Century we go with Mutter after a sparkling contemporary CD last year. This isn’t the romantic warhorse of other composers nor do we hear it as much as Dvořák’s cello concerto and last three symphonies. Mutter, reunited with the Berlin Philharmonic, makes you wonder why. She’ll also be performing the piece with the Boston Symphony, but you’ll have to wait for Tanglewood in the summer.
8. Jeremy Denk, J. S. Bach, Goldberg Variations. I just started listening to Denk last year. He reminds me somewhat of Gilbert Kalish in his ability to make Ives and Ligeti as flowing as Bach and, this year, he makes Bach seem as melodic as Mozart and Beethoven. I wish I had seen him when he performed the Goldbergs in Boston this year.
9. Hélène Grimaud, Brahms Piano Concertos, DG. This is about as fiery a recording of the two Brahms concertos that I’ve heard and Andris Nelsons, the BSO’s incoming maestro, is there every step of the way with the French pianist.
10. Boston Baroque, Haydn, “Lord Nelson Mass” and Symphony No. 102, Linn. I’m not the world’s biggest period instrument fan, but every now and then a recording like this comes along that makes me think I should be. The first performance was canceled by the Marathon bombing, which perhaps accounts for the special urgency for the mass, which as the liner notes point out, was originally called “Mass in Difficult, Uncertain or Anxious Times.”
Great concert coming in February. The best classical performance I saw all of last year was the Boston Sympony Orchestra accompanying the film, “West Side Story” at Tanglewood. The BSO will be repeating the experience Feb. 14, 15 and 16. It’s a great way to see the film and hear the music anew. You’ll thank me later.
More Classical Music
One other friend I use to guide me to the best CDs of the year is Jeremy Eichler, Boston Globe classical music critic. Terrific taste. Here's his list. He also singled out the Young People's Concerts.
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This program aired on December 26, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.