Picks of the Year: 1997

by Walter Simmons



We read that the classical record business is in bad shape.  This is most unfortunate; but from the standpoint of the serious music lover, there has never been such a wide range of repertoire available—and so well performed and so superbly recorded. As usual, my list highlights lesser-known works of the twentieth century whose adherence to mainstream musical values gives them a broad appeal.  Heading the (alphabetically arranged) list is Dominick Argento’s profoundly compelling setting of excerpts From the Diary of Virginia Woolf, available for the first time in Janet Baker’s exquisite world-premiere performance (reviewed last issue)—a reading that garnered for the work the 1975 Pulitzer Prize.  Another composer whose creativity was stimulated by fine literature was Gerald Finzi.  This year Hyperion issued a disc (also reviewed last issue) featuring the two works that best capture and illuminate the poignant and nostalgic themes that pervade his entire output, in performances of great sensitivity and insight.  Peter Mennin’s Symphony No. 7 is considered by many (myself included) as a leading contender for the position of “greatest American symphony.”  CRI has reissed on CD (reviewed in 20:6) the first and finest recorded performance of the work thus far, along with excellent renditions of two earlier major statements by the composer.  The discography of Arnold Rosner continues to grow, most recently with first recordings of three of his highly individualistic string quartets (reviewed in 20:5).  Though Rosner’s music is difficult to classify, as it belongs to no “school,” it is not difficult to enjoy; admirers of Hovhaness and/or Vaughan Williams are well advised to seek it out.  And speaking of Vaughan Williams, music by his student Grace Williams has been recently made available on a Lyrita CD (reviewed last issue).  Featured are three impressive, powerfully characterized works by the Welsh composer.

 Withheld from my “official” list in order to avoid the appearance of a conflict-of-interest is a new release (reviewed last issue) featuring six works by Nicolas Flagello that highlight violin and/or piano (Albany TROY-234).  As I noted with regard to another Flagello disc in last year’s Want List, I am recommending this disc not because I produced it; rather, I produced it because I believe there is great music here, and no one else was there to do the job.  The pieces on this disc all date from the 1960s, Flagello’s most fertile creative period, and are performed by violinist Setsuko Nagata and pianist Peter Vinograde.  Hear for yourself.

ARGENTO:  From the Diary of Virginia Woolf.  Vocal music by Wolf, Fauré, Duparc, Debussy.  Baker/Isepp.  (D’NOTE DND-1019)

FINZI:  Intimations of Immortality.  Dies Natalis.  Ainsley/Best/Corydon Singers and Orchestra.  (HYPERION CDA66876)

MENNIN:  Symphonies:  No. 3; No. 7.  Piano Concerto. Mitropoulos/NYPO; Martinon/Chicago SO; Ogden/Buketoff/Royal PO.  (CRI CD-741)

ROSNER:  String Quartets:  No. 2; No. 3; No. 5.  Duet for Violas.  Ad Hoc String Qt.  (ALBANY TROY-210)

Grace WILLIAMS:  Symphony No. 2.  Ballads.  Fairest of Stars.  Handley/BBC Welsh SO; Groves/London SO.  (LYRITA SRCD-327)