Picks of the Year: 2004

by Walter Simmons



Another year has gone by, the mainstream classical music world continues to degenerate into terminal fluff, the number of retail stores selling classical recordings continues to dwindle, yet exciting repertoire continues to appear in superb recorded performances in sufficient quantity to tax most listeners’ budgets, not to mention their capacities to assimilate new material. Here is my list of recent offerings, all of it easily accessible via Internet sources, if not in neighborhood stores, presented in the belief that each of these entries will delight most listeners who seek new discoveries that embrace traditional musical values.

At 42, Jennifer Higdon is the youngest composer to appear on this list. Her music, presented here under the auspices of her longtime advocate Robert Spano, displays an appealing, though contemporary, surface, not unlike the recent work of Michael Torke, but with a greater sense of spiritual and emotional depth. This release is highly recommended to those interested in keeping up with the most talented composers arriving on the scene (see Andrew Quint’s interview and review in Fanfare 27:5).

Until recently, the name of Robert Kurka, whose career ended with his premature death from leukemia at age 36, had largely disappeared from notice. But this recent Cedille release (reviewed by me, probably in this issue) presents cogent evidence that he was among the most distinctive creative voices of his generation, and might have developed into one of the most significant, alongside such contemporaries as Ned Rorem, Peter Mennin, and Benjamin Lees (see below), had he lived longer. 

At 80, Benjamin Lees is three years younger than Kurka would have been. He has been the beneficiary of a number of fine recent recordings that confirm his stature as one of our most potent compositional voices, although his stern, uncompromising music has never achieved anything approaching widespread popularity. With three of his symphonies and an additional work of substance, Albany’s two-CD set (reviewed in Fanfare 27:6) is perhaps the most valuable representation of his music on recording.

Just a few years younger than Lees, Robert Muczynski has lived to see much of his work enter the active repertoires of both chamber music and solo piano literature; indeed, most of his music can now be found on current recordings in fine performances. This latest Centaur release (reviewed in 27:4) is perhaps the most impressive of all, featuring riveting performances of some of the most engaging and compelling American chamber music of the latter part of the 20th century.

Julián Orbón is the only composer on this list who was not from the United States (although Lees was actually born in China). However, a student of Aaron Copland, this Hispanic figure wrote music that often sounds American. Regardless, his work is remarkably ingratiating, and this recent Naxos release brings together three of his most appealing pieces, in excellent performances. Listeners who sample this recording are not likely to be disappointed.

HIGDON Concerto for Orchestra. City Scape • Spano/Atlanta SO • TELARC CD-80620

KURKA Symphony No. 2. Serenade. Music. Julius Caesar • Kalmar/Grant Park O • CEDILLE CDR-90000 077

LEES Symphonies: Nos. 2, 3, 5. Etudes • Gunzenhauser/Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz; Dick/Spano/Texas Fest O • ALBANY TROY-564/65 (2CDs)

MUCZYNSKI Piano Trios. String Trio. Gallery • Davidovici/O’Neill/Enyeart/Wodnicki • CENTAUR CRC-2634

ORBÓN Three Symphonic Versions. Symphonic Dances. Concerto Grosso• Valdés/Asturias SO • NAXOS 8.557368