Picks of the Year: 2007

by Walter Simmons



Once again I’ve been unable to come up with five recent CDs that meet my criteria of great, little-known 20th-/21st-century music, definitively performed and expertly recorded. However, I hasten to emphasize that I do not attribute this to any diminution in quality or quantity of new releases, but, rather, to my own involvement in a variety of musical activities that have limited my ability to stay abreast of all the recent recordings—of which, I know, there are many—within my area of repertoire interest. 

Bloch’s String Quartet No. 1 and his Piano Quintet No. 2 derive from approximately opposite ends of his career, more than 40 years apart. The Quartet No. 1 is an expansive, passionate post-romantic work nearly an hour in duration. This Laurel release captures what is without question the work’s best modern performance to be recorded. Originally released on LP in 1982, this is its long-awaited first appearance on CD (reviewed in 30:5). It is coupled with an equally fine performance of the Piano Quintet No. 2, Bloch’s last major work—a terse, energetic statement no less passionate and intense than the early quartet. This reissue replaces Laurel’s previous CD release of that work, which is now out of print.

And then we have the first-ever complete commercial recording of Howard Hanson’s masterpiece, the opera Merry Mount (reviewed in this issue). (Naxos did release a documentary recording of the opera’s 1934 world premiere by the Metropolitan Opera, with Lawrence Tibbett and Göta Ljunberg [not Gladys Swarthout, as I incorrectly stated in my review] in the leading roles. But that recording is not allowed to be sold in the United States, for copyright reasons, and the sound quality is barely listenable.) Those listeners who love the familiar orchestral suite from the opera, along with Hanson’s other popular favorites, are sure to find the complete work to be a treat. And this Seattle performance, which took place in 1996, in honor of Hanson’s centennial, represents the work handsomely, and is the natural capstone of Gerard Schwarz’s valuable, comprehensive survey of the composer’s orchestral music.

And then there is one more recent release to mention, but this is one in which my own involvement as producer prevents me from presuming any real objectivity: Artek AR-0036, which comprises the first-ever performance/recording of Nicolas Flagello’s 1956 Violin Concerto, played brilliantly by soloist Elmar Oliveira. I believe that this work warrants consideration alongside the likes of the Barber Concerto, the Bernstein Serenade, and, perhaps, the Korngold Concerto. It is accompanied by seething, brooding orchestral interludes from two of Flagello’s operas, and orchestrated versions of six passionate songs, sung beautifully by Susan Gonzalez. The National Radio Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine is under the direction of John McLaughlin Williams, an excellent conductor with a sympathetic understanding of American neo-romanticism. In their reviews (in the previous issue) two of my colleagues expressed some reservations that are not unjustified, but I believe that those listeners who have enjoyed previous Flagello recordings will be comparably pleased with this one.

BLOCH String Quartet No. 1. Piano Quintet No. 2 • Pro Arte Quartet/Karp • LAUREL 820

HANSON Merry Mount • Soloists/Schwarz/Seattle SO/Ch • NAXOS 8.669012-13 (2 CDs)