Spending Time Listening To Old Friends In An Uncertain Age

As the year comes to a close, Ed Siegel has found himself listening to some of his favorites. (Album art courtesy of record companies)
As the year comes to a close, Ed Siegel has found himself listening to some of his favorites. (Album art courtesy of record companies)

At a time in which the political landscape of the country, if not the world, is frightening, I find it more compelling than ever to spend time in the company of friends and family. Similarly, with the political “shock of the new,” to quote Richard Hughes, I find the gravitational pull in music the strongest toward old friends, both popular and classical.

1. Leonard Cohen, "You Want It Darker" (Sony/Columbia)

Was the advent of Donald Trump too much for one of our two great rock poets? It probably only seems that way, as Cohen actually died the day before Nov. 8. His recent CD is not only one of his most heartfelt, and that's saying something, but it's also a guidepost for how to live poetically and die gracefully. "If I Didn’t Have Your Love" is perhaps his most beautiful love song. That, too, is saying something.

2. Leonard Bernstein, "The Leonard Bernstein Collection Volume Two" (Deutsche Grammophon) 

The other Lenny didn’t make it to the 21st century, but the post-'70s phase of his career saw him return to the standard repertoire with beautifully-executed performances — on this M-Z volume — of Mahler and Mozart, Schubert and Schumann. As a bonus, DG goes back to his pre-philharmonic days for his stadium concerts and music-appreciation lectures with the Symphony Orchestra of New York.

3. Gidon Kremer, "Complete Concerto Recordings" (Deutsche Grammophon)

We live in a golden age of classical fiddlers today, but Gidon Kremer is the gold standard. The 22 CDs here not only include the usual 19th century suspects but are as lively an investigation of contemporary music as you’re likely to find. Kremer, though, has never settled on one label so there’s even more gold on the Nonesuch, Teldec and ECM labels. Hopefully, DG will complement this box with his solo and small chamber recordings, which are equally brilliant.

4. Hélène Grimaud, "Water" (Deutsche Grammophon)

Grimaud takes something that's literally elemental, water, and turns it into a concept album so impressionistically engaging that it feels like a warm, classical bath. She interweaves the music of her collaborator, Nitin Sawhney, with Berio, Takemitsu, Ravel, Debussy and other composers evoking waterways of all kinds.

5. Esa-Pekka Salonen, various recordings

In a post-Bernstein-Boulez world, Salonen has become today's go-to conductor (when, as with the other two, he isn’t busy composing). He has three terrific recordings to his credit this year, conducting James Matheson’s violin concerto with Baird Dodge and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Yarlung); Bartók’s “The Miraculous Mandarin” with the Philharmonia Orchestra (Signum); and the most convincing, least gooey version I’ve heard of Grieg’s piano concerto with Alice Sara Ott on her superb “Wonderland” CD (DG). For good measure he went back to the West Coast to reunite with his old band, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, to play Frank Zappa's occasionally brilliant, often silly "200 Motels: The Suites" (Zappa/UMe), which was just nominated for a Grammy.

6. The Boston Symphony Orchestra, various recordings

Almost every generation of post-Koussevitzky BSO conductors is represented on CD this year. Andris Nelsons’ second recording in the DG Shostakovich cycle and James Levine’s Charles Wuorinen CD (Bridge) tell you almost all you need to know about their approaches to 20th and 21st century music. Shosty was too tonal for Levine, Wuorinen probably too atonal for Nelsons. Nelsons, though, doesn't shy away from contemporary music — check out his CD with Barbara Hannigan and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra of Hans Abrahamsen's "Let Me Tell You." If you want to go back to more genteel but elegant BSO times, all of Koussevitzky successor Charles Munch’s RCA recordings with the BSO and other orchestras are in a mega-Sony box. And if I can sneak a book in, Seiji Ozawa’s conversations with Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami were captured in "Absolutely on Music" (Knopf). Sometimes insightful, sometimes ho-hum. Ozawa and the BSO are also represented on the Kremer box with Shostakovich and Sofia Gubaidulina. And let's not forget the Boston Symphony Chamber Players on the BSO Classics label and their lilting "Brahms | Dvorák Serenades," whose producer, David Frost, was nominated for a Grammy this year.

7. John Adams, "Scheherazade.2" (Nonesuch)

The label "minimalism" has long ceased to be of value when describing the composer’s music. It’s by turns romantic, gritty, political — but always tonal. And there’s often a strong narrative in his work, as here Leila Josefowicz (another member of the golden age of violinists) "plays" the role of Scheherazade, a modern woman trying to escape the clutches of 21st-century oppressors.

8. Kim Kashkashian and Lera Auerbach, "Shostakovich/Auerbach" (ECM Records)

Vaunted violist and New England Conservatory professor Kim Kashkashian and composer Lera Auerbach unite for Auerbach’s adaptation of "24 Preludes" and her own, spikier "Arcanum," which more than lives up to its meaning — "mysterious knowledge." Kashkashian is to the viola what Kremer is to the violin.

9. Emil Gilels, "The Complete Recordings" (Deutsche Grammophon)

One more DG box of note this year. Emil Gilels didn’t achieve the celebrity of Vladimir Horowitz or Glenn Gould in his day, but the sonatas, trios and concertos in these 24 CDs make him the most accomplished of the three in my book. DG also unearthed, on a separate recording, "The Seattle Recital," a 1964 date that had never been released.

10. The Beatles, "Eight Days a Week" (Apple)

If you want to figure out what the excitement was about with The Beatles or just relive their glory days on the road, Ron Howard’s great documentary, “Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years,” will take you back to the more communal era that The Beatles helped usher in. As a companion CD, Apple has finally released the Hollywood Bowl concert. Scream along.

More From Our Year In Review:

Ed Siegel Critic-At-Large
Ed Siegel is critic-at-large for WBUR.



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