Christmas Stocking

All I want for Christmas is more CDs.
Let me qualify that request, as piles of unplayed material accumulate in my study, my family room, my bedroom, my briefcase, and my car. Defying the “death of classical music” predictions, there have been some 1,500 CD releases yearly — and bargains abound. When I was in London this fall, despite the decline of the dollar against the pound, I picked up the entire Stravinsky oeuvre (22 CDs), conducted by Stravinsky or Robert Craft, for $2 per CD. Even though I am not a devotee of conductor Simon Rattle, I picked up his complete Mahler cycle for the same price per CD.
This has to stop, or my wife will stop me. Also, I am coming to realize that classical music is not going to die, but I am. And I cannot take these CDs with me. But how about my Panasonic portable SX-450, with the Sibelius 5th Symphony looped to play forever? (Since they stockpiled everything they thought they would need in the afterlife, I wonder what the ancient Egyptians would have done with all this stuff? Would it have fit in the pyramids? What kind of sound system would they have put in the burial chambers?)
Accumulation is probably not your problem. You may be normal, or you may have a budget. You probably do not get review CDs that, like bad cholesterol, can clog your listening system, or your home. I am not complaining — just explaining. And it brings me to this mélange of Christmas gift suggestions and my very own “best of the year” list.
Let’s do this by period or nationality. You may have noted that I do not cover much from the Baroque period. This is because it sounds too much like sewing machine music to me. This is emphatically not true of Bach, or of Jan Dismas Zelenka. If you want to alarm someone with a small house, give the complete Bach edition on Brilliant Classics — 155 CDs for less than $1 each (see myMay 2007 review). If you are feeling more discrete, give one of the Zelenka Masses. They are all wonderful. Try the Berlin Classics, Carus, or Supraphon labels.
My discoveries of the year in the Classical era include Dutch composer Johann Wilhem Wilms, whose premiere symphonic recordings on Archiv two years ago I found extremely bracing. Now, more of his symphonies are available on an excellent 2-CD release from the Challenge Classics label (CC72147).
Mozart was not alone. His exact years were overlapped by Joseph Martin Kraus, whom Haydn proclaimed one of the only two “geniuses” he knew. When you hear his music, you will agree that Kraus earned the appellation the “Swedish Mozart.” A few years back, the Naxos label released four stunning CDs containing Kraus’s symphonies. Naxos has now added a CD of exquisite ballet music (8.557498) and another with Krauss’s Violin Concerto and the substantial incidental music to Olympie (8.570334). Get them all.
The late Classical and early Romantic periods also contain many treasures, none finer than the Masses of Luigi Cherubini, whom I have often praised in this column. I mention him again because Riccardo Muti has finally continued his recordings of Cherubini’s Masses with the EMI release (3 94316 2) of the Missa Solemnis in E. This is the eighth of Cherubini’s 11 Masses. They contain some of the most glorious music ever written for the Church. Get them all.{mospagebreak}
The Marco Polo label gets the “persistence in the pursuit of excellence” award by releasing Vol. 12 in its recordings of Louis Spohr’s 36 string quartets (8.225316). It has sometimes been a long time between releases, but now we have Nos. 33 and 35, the latter consciously patterned on Haydn and Mozart. The best of Spohr’s chamber music approaches the level of Schubert, which is why I have not missed one of these revelatory CDs.
Born the same year as Spohr in 1784, Ferdinand Ries strove to imitate his teacher Beethoven. The CPO label revealed how well he did in its excellent series of recordings of Ries’s eight symphonies. Naxos has been recording Ries’s Piano Concertos, equally well worth knowing. Vol. 2 is now out (8.557844), with the Concerto in C sharp minor, Op. 55. Ries was not always storming the heavens, as shown in a lovely Naxos CD of his Flute Quartets, Op. 145 (8.570330). In whatever form of expression, Ries exhibited a first-class musical intelligence.
The CPO release of Johann Wenzel Kalliwoda’s Symphonies Nos. 5 and 7 was one of the most galvanizing CDs of 2006. These works showed how thoroughly Kalliwoda had been able to assimilate the lessons of Beethoven without slavishly imitating him. In what I think is one of the single best chamber music releases of the year, the Calliope label offers Kalliwoda’s three string quartets, performed by the Talich Quartet (CAL 9357). These works were commissioned in 1831 to be “in the beautiful style of Mozart.” Kalliwoda delivered to order; how lovely.
My discovery of the year from the Romantic era, a period I generally despise for its bathetic self-indulgence, is the oratorio Christus, by Franz Liszt. How could my prejudices have kept me from this sublime work all these years, as so wonderfully put forth on the budget Brilliant Classics label with Helmuth Rilling and his Stuttgart forces? Don’t make the same mistake. Now I am going to listen to the new CPO release (777 3392) of Liszt’s The Legend of Saint Elizabeth so I do not make another such blunder.
From the late Romantic era, I unqualifiedly recommend the chamber music of Russian Sergei Taneyev. The Northern Flowers label has all of his quartets, and Naxos has started a new cycle. By all means you must hear his great Piano Quintet, either on Northern Flowers or Deutsche Grammophon.
As we enter the modern era, do not leave me, as I give my picks by nationality.
Switzerland: For this time period, my discovery of the year was the chamber music of Paul Juon (thanks to Martin Anderson). The Musiques Suisse label has his marvelously melodious string quartets on 2-CD release (MGB 6242), and there are two versions of the wonderful Piano Quartet available. The Piano Trios are also superb.
Denmark: Carl Nielsen was one of the greats. My pick for the best orchestral CD of the year is the DACAPO release (6.220518) of his orchestral music, with riveting playing from the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, under Thomas Dausgaard. Spellbinding.{mospagebreak}
Italy: Gian Francesco Malipiero strove to put Italy back on the map of instrumental music, which had been drowned out for two centuries by Italian opera. He succeeded sublimely, as demonstrated by his symphonies (get the Marco Polo cycle). This man had one of the most fertile, unorthodox musical imaginations of the 20th century. His music is fantastically colorful and often highly lyrical. CPO has given a Christmas gift of all of Malipiero’s Six Piano Concertos on a 2-CD set (777 287-2) — in gorgeous SACD sound and exquisite performances by the Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra, under Michele Carulli, with pianist Sandro Ivo Bartoli. Thank you, CPO. Also, Supraphon Archiv (SU 3904-2) has resurrected the 1971 recording of Malipiero’s entrancing Violin Concerto, with Andre Gertler. It is accompanied by the equally beguiling Violin Concerto of Malipiero’s soulmate, Alfredo Casella.
Germany: This is easy — Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s complete Wind Concertos on the CPO label (777 157-2) has to be one of the most deliciously enjoyable CDs of the year. The three concertos for oboe, bassoon, and English horn, respectively, are an antidote to anyone who thinks the 20th century did not produce music of immense warmth and charm, though admittedly they sound like idylls from another age.
France: Joseph-Guy Ropartz is my French discovery of the year, thanks to the Timpani label, which introduced me to his Quartets Nos. 4-6, played by the Quartet Stanislas (1C1115). This strikes me as some of the finest French chamber music I have heard from the period between Frank, Faure, and Ravel. Even more striking is Ropartz’s Piano Trio (1918), in which he successfully sought to capture impressions of his beloved Brittany. The first movement is a wonderfully effective evocation of the surging sea, as put forth by the Trio Hochelaga on Atma Classique (ACD2 2542). Atma also offers us a Piano Quartet and a Piano Quintet by Ropartz’s teacher, Theodore Dubois, another neglected Frenchman, who is perhaps best know today for his choral work The Seven Last Words. These two works are meltingly lovely and completely charming, as played by an augmented Trio Hochelaga (ACD2 2385).
Great Britain: John Joubert (born 1927, in South Africa) faced the prospect of his 80th birthday this year thinking, “I thought I’d been forgotten.” Not so. I was so impressed by the Toccata Classics release of Joubert’s exquisitely set Four Song-Cycles (TOCC 0045) that I ran out to buy his Symphony No. 1, on the resurrected Lyrita label (SRCD.322), and a superb 2-CD release of his chamber and piano music on the Somm label (SOMMCD 060-2). I especially like the excellent Piano Trio, a major half-hour work, and the First Symphony, which, in its arresting presto movement, comes close to the galvanizing excitement of Walton’s First Symphony, under whose salutary influence it must have been written. I hope this means more music of this superbly gifted man is on the way.
I am out of space here, as well as at home. So I must leave you, but not before declaring Naxos the label of the year ( — or rather of the past two decades, as it celebrates its 20th anniversary — and not before commending to you two special producers, who get my “imitative of the year” award for sheer nerve and daring.
I do not know how your parish music program is going, but I can tell you that Rev. Eduard Peronne’s parishioners are the luckiest in the state of Michigan, if not the whole country. Aside from his excellent liturgical music program, Father Perrone has recorded seven volumes of French composer Paul Paray’s music. An extraordinary accomplishment. See and obtain the treasures at the Grotto Production site.
Lastly, Martin Anderson has achieved what daring and imagination can with his Toccata Classics label. Since launching in 2005, he has issued 26 CDs of works you would never have likely heard otherwise, like the stunning music of Peteris Plakidis, Ester Mägi, or Matthew Taylor, along with the Joubert disc mentioned above. His recent release of Mily Balakirev’s Grand Fantasia on Russian Folksongs, Op. 4, for piano and orchestra, and 30 Songs of the Russian People just bagged two Grammy nominations. Survey the treasures at the Toccata Classics Web site.
I wish you a Merry Christmas — and, if you need something specifically related to this blessed occasion, get Frank Martin’s great oratorio, Le Mystère de la Nativité, Berlioz’s touching L’enfance du Christ, or Gabriel Pierne’s enchanting Les Enfants à Bethléem. Joyeux Noël!

Robert R. Reilly is the music critic for E-mail him at [email protected]


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