Picks of the Year: 1998

by Walter Simmons



There are two worlds of classical music today, and they are increasingly distinct from each other. One is the world of superstar soloists, conductors, and their orchestras, who carry on a saprophagous relationship with a more or less fixed repertoire of music from the past. This group attempts to keep its aging, passive, and dwindling audience alive and awake through pathetic, desperate measures–pandering, “dumbing down,” or exaggerating its pretensions—all of which prove ever more futile, as the indifferent multinational entertainment companies that attempt to market their recordings are only too aware. The other world is that of small independent record companies, which target groups of listeners who are jaded by the moribund standard repertoire and are eager to discover the vast realms of music beyond—realms largely unknown to those in the former group. These smaller companies fill the hungry appetites of active listeners with interesting, worthy music from all historical epochs and from all corners of the globe. Leafing through this section of Fanfare reveals the enormous scope of music now available on recording, as well as the range of advocacy that fuels it and is fueled by it.

The foregoing serves as introduction to my particular picks of the year. The Bloch disc (reviewed in 21:5) features the first recording of the last (unnumbered) symphony by this most cosmopolitan expressionist, whose importance rests not only on the intrinsic merit of his body of work, but also on his use of tonality as an expressive continuum, offering to the next generation one of the more fruitful paths away from the dead-end polarization of tonality and atonality. In addition, the disc illustrates the initial crystallization of Bloch’s musical language through two excerpts from his early opera, Macbeth.

Anthony Payne’s elaboration and completion of Elgar’s Third Symphony has been much discussed in these pages (see 21:5 and 21:6). Suffice to say that no Elgarian can possibly pass it up.

Benjamin Lees is a low-profile American composer who began as a Neoclassicist, but who has evolved in a highly individual way during recent years.  His music, while not immediately ingratiating, is compelling nonetheless—and increasingly so with greater familiarity. This disc (reviewed in 21:3) features brilliant performances of some significant piano music.

After several years during which little interest was shown in his music, the past two have seen major infusions into the discography of Peter Mennin, one of America’s greatest composers. This recent release (reviewed in 21:4) features exciting, powerful performances of some of his most important middle-period works.

The distinguished choral conductor Robert Shaw turns his attention to two of the greatest choral works of this century on a Telarc disc (reviewed in the last issue). The Vaughan Williams and Barber works represent the composers at their very best. (The Bartók is of somewhat less interest, but worthwhile nonetheless.)

BLOCH Symphony (No. 5) in E-flat. Macbeth: Two Interludes. In Memoriam. Three Jewish Poems – Sternberg/Royal PO – ASV CD DCA 1019

ELGAR/PAYNE Symphony No. 3 – Davis/BBC SO – NMC D053

LEES Piano Sonata No. 4 et al. piano works – Ian Hobson – ALBANY TROY-227

MENNIN Symphonies 5, 6 et al. orch. works – Miller/Albany SO – ALBANY TROY-260

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Dona Nobis Pacem. BARBER Prayers of Kierkegaard.BARTÓK Cantata Profana – Shaw/Atlanta SO & Ch – TELARC CD-80479