Picks of the Year: 2005

As far as I can recall, this is the first year that I actually had difficulty narrowing down my list of most significant new releases to five. I’m not sure how to explain it, but I am certainly glad that the much-observed and –discussed dwindling of the audience for classical music has not yet resulted in a corresponding tapering off of new releases featuring unusual repertoire. 

One most welcome entry is the Chandos recording (reviewed in 28:5) of Samuel Barber’s gorgeous opera Vanessa. This recent release appeared on the heels of a perfectly adequate Naxos recording of the same work. Hopefully, the latter, budget-priced, will draw new listeners to the opera, while the more expensive Chandos release provides an extraordinary performance, brilliantly recorded, to satisfy already-convinced enthusiasts who want an alternative to the almost-50-year-old Metropolitan Opera version.

The Griller Quartet’s fervently committed 1954 recordings of the first four of Ernest Bloch’s five string quartets (reviewed [most likely] in 29:1) have long been unavailable, and have achieved something like “legendary” status. Now re-issued on a modestly-priced two-disc set of CDs, these performances will presumably draw new listeners to these great works, still barely known to either the listening audience or the academic musicological world. The Griller performances offer persuasive evidence that Bloch’s quartets are comparable in stature to those of Bartók and Shostakovich. Indeed, the Quartet No. 2 is probably Bloch’s greatest work.

On the other hand, Bloch enthusiasts may want to pursue the first recording available in the United States of the rarely heard orchestral rhapsody Helvetia: The Land of Mountains and Its People (Kleos KL5134), performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, under the direction of David Amos. Further enhancing the value of this recording is the presence of two really obscure, but intriguing piano concertos by Isidor Achron, lesser-known younger brother of Joseph (whose music isn’t that well known either, except to violin specialists). 

Alan Hovhaness died in 2000, at the age of 89, leaving behind a legacy of more than 500 works—a legacy that even the composer’s most fervent admirers will concede is “uneven” at best. Pianist Martin Berkofsky is a most effective protagonist for this music, and for his new Black Box release has selected some of Hovhaness’s most unequivocal masterpieces, which he performs—sometimes enlisting the additional participation of other pianists—with a deep understanding of the aesthetic premises underlying these works. This is an indispensable release for all admirers of the composer.

Recipient of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize in music, Paul Moravec is the first such winner in the last few years whose selection seems warranted. Tempest Fantasy, the prize-winning work, is included on this brilliantly performed Arabesque CD (reviewed in 28:5), along with several other equally-rewarding pieces. Moravec’s is a compositional voice to follow: unmistakable for that of any other composer, yet clear and straightforward enough to be readily enjoyed.

The music and reputation of Vincent Persichetti, one of the supreme masters among American composers, have been in something of a hibernation since his death in 1987. Suddenly a spate of new recordings featuring his works has appeared, and will be discussed at length in a forthcoming issue. Perhaps the most significant of these is Albany’s new release of three symphonies (two of which have never been recorded before) on a two-CD set priced as one. The performances by David Alan Miller and the Albany Symphony are solid and sympathetic, while the recording is of revelatory clarity. 

Better known than Persichetti’s symphonies are his works for wind ensemble, which are among the cornerstones of the genre. Highly esteemed band director Eugene Corporon presents seven of these works in meticulous performances by the North Texas Wind Symphony and the Cincinnati Wind Symphony (GIA CD-627; available from www.giamusic.com); this release complements David Amos’s overlapping survey of Persichetti’s works for band featuring the winds of the London Symphony Orchestra, to be reissued imminently on Naxos American Classics.

BARBER Vanessa • Soloists/Slatkin/BBC SO/Ch • CHANDOS CHSA 5032(2)

BLOCH String Quartets: Nos. 1-4 • Griller St Qt • DECCA 475 6071

HOVHANESS Lousadzak. Two-Piano Concerto. Mihr. Vijag et al. • Berkofsky/Krimets/Globalis SO • BLACK BOX BBM1103

MORAVEC Tempest Fantasy. Mood Swings. B.A.S.S. Variations. Scherzo • Krakauer/Trio Solisti • ARABESQUE Z6791

PERSICHETTI Symphonies: Nos. 3, 4, 7 • Miller/Albany SO • ALBANY TROY771/72