Top Ten Recordings of 2016

December 31, 2016
By Charles T. Downey

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1. Christian Gerhaher, Gerold Huber, Sebastian Klinger, and Anton Barachovsky, FolksLied (BR-Klassik) 
German baritone Christian Gerhaher is a favorite singer, especially in the gloomy world of German Lieder. This live recital captured on disc by Bavarian Radio was a surprise, a compilation of folk tunes from the British Isles. The arrangements are by German, Austrian, and English composers, some with German texts and some in English and other insular dialects, including Haydn’s Schottische und Walisische Lieder, Beethoven’s Schottische Lieder, op. 108, and Britten’s folk song arrangements. Gerhaher even attempts the Scots dialect of Robert Burns’s “Ca’ the Yowes to the Knowes” in the Britten setting, down to the evocatively guttural R’s.

2. Sibelius, Third, Sixth, and Seventh Symphonies, Minnesota Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä (BIS) 
Things looked bleak in 2013, as the lockout of the Minnesota Orchestra dragged on. The orchestra’s managing body dug in its heels over stalled salary negotiations with the musicians, causing the cancellation of the 2012-2013 season and Osmo Vänskä’s resignation as music director. Suddenly in 2014 the lockout was called off, and Vänskä returned to the podium. The celebrated Finnish conductor was then able to complete his postponed new cycle of Sibelius symphonies. That last volume was released this summer, and it caps off what has become one of my favorite versions of the Sibelius symphonies.

3. Dmitri Hvorostovsky Sings of War, Peace, Love and Sorrow, Russian Federation Academic Symphony Orchestra, Constantine Orbelian (Delos) 
Dmitri Hvorostovsky took a leave of absence from singing last year, to receive treatment for a brain tumor. The Russian star baritone returned triumphantly to work that fall, including making this superb recording of Russian opera excerpts. It impressed me when it first hit my ears, that Hvorostovsky’s voice was still in top form. Hvorostovsky had to withdraw from a production at the Metropolitan Opera earlier this month because of worsening balance problems, putting an end to singing in staged opera at least for now, but this is a major star in the perfect repertoire. In addition to some of his greatest baritone set pieces from Tchaikovsky’s Mazeppa, Iolanta, and Queen of Spades, there are two long excerpts from rarely heard Russian operas, Prokofiev’s War and Peace and Anton Rubenstein’s The Demon. Rising soprano Asmik Grigorian is also a beautiful discovery.

4. Honegger/Ibert, L’Aiglon, Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, Kent Nagano (Decca) 
In 1937 the Opéra de Monte-Carlo premiered this operatic adaptation of a play by Edmond Rostand about the son of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, with music by Arthur Honegger (Acts II-IV) and Jacques Ibert (Acts I and V). Rostand created the title role for Sarah Bernhardt, who played “The Eaglet” at the play’s premiere, and the opera kept the convention of the trouser role. Belgian soprano Anne-Catherine Gillet sings as the young man who is sent to live with relatives in Austria until he dies of tuberculosis at age 21. The prettiest music, aside from some charmingly Viennese waltzes by Ibert, is the angelic music that accompanies Napoleon II on his deathbed, including a touchingly harmonized version of the chant Ubi caritas.

5. Christopher Rouse, Third and Fourth Symphonies, Odna Zhizn, Prospero’s Rooms, New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert (Dacapo) 
What a shame that Alan Gilbert will step down as music director of the New York Philharmonic next year. He has done extraordinary work programming new music during his tenure, including premiering three of the four new orchestral works on this disc dedicated to the symphonic renaissance of Christopher Rouse. The Baltimore-born composer wrote his first two symphonies in 1986 and 1994, not returning to the genre for more than twenty years. Both of these new symphonies mark Rouse’s supremacy among living American composers in terms of melodic invention and calculated use of the orchestra. He will premiere a Fifth Symphony with Jaap van Zweden and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in 2017.

6. Wagner, Das Liebesmahl der Apostel / Bruckner, Seventh Symphony, Staatskapelle Dresden, Saxon State Opera Chorus, Christian Thielemann (Profil-Hänssler)
Wagner’s early choral work about the Pentecost meal of the Apostles is somewhat legendary, in that it is larger than life and seems unlikely to have ever happened. It did happen, though, in 1843, when over a thousand male singers convened in Dresden’s Frauenkirche to perform this unwieldy piece by the 30-year-old composer who would go on to revolutionize the world of German opera. German conductor Christian Thielemann brought together men from seven different choirs with the Dresden Staatskapelle to make a rare recording of it in the Frauenkirche, the vast acoustic for which it was intended. It was one of the highlights of Thielemann’s inaugural year as this orchestra’s principal conductor, a season that opened with Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony in the original 1885 version (ed. R. Haas). Both works are captured in vibrant live performances.

7. Carl Orff, Gisei — das Opfer, Berlin Deutsche Oper, Jacques Lacombe (CPO)
The precocious Carl Orff completed an opera in 1913, when he was only eighteen years old, but Gisei — the Victim did not see the light of day until 2010. Orff was fascinated by Japanese theater, and he made this adaptation of a section from the Japanese play Terakoya (The Temple School). Orff draws forth all sorts of delicate sounds from the amassed orchestra, including a glass harmonica you hear as the stars begin to twinkle at the end of the prelude, to create a heavily charged atmosphere of raised eyebrows and coded betrayals. Mezzo-soprano Ulrike Helzel is magnificent as Tonami (the schoolteacher’s wife), and soprano Kathryn Lewek is just as exceptional as Kwan Shusai (the Chancellor’s son). This disc pairs nicely with an adaptation of the same play by Felix Weingartner called Die Dorfschule, recorded by the same conductor at the Deutsche Oper.

8. Erkki Melartin, Marjatta and other orchestral works, Soile Isokoski, Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Hannu Lintu (Ondine)
Ondine continues to reveal the delightful music of Finnish composer Erkki Melartin (1875-1937), after recording his six symphonies two decades ago. His tone poem Traumgesicht (“Dream Face”), an adaptation of his own incidental music, evokes the murky world of a Symbolist play with ethereal combinations of instruments. In Marjatta, Finnish soprano Soile Isokoski deploys a shimmering high range, veritably purring on the high, soft B-flats in the opening description of silvery birds singing. It features more iridescent orchestration as backdrop to an odd story drawn from the end of the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, about a girl who miraculously conceives a son by eating a lingon­berry. The latest of the three works is Sininen helmi (“The Blue Pearl”), the first full-length ballet written in Finland, heard here in a selection of pieces arranged by conductor Hannu Lintu.

9. J.S. Bach, Complete Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, Rachel Barton Pine (Avie)
Violinist Rachel Barton Pine has finally brought her impeccable musicality, astounding technique, and beautiful tone to the six unaccompanied violin works by Johann Sebastian Bach. She came home, in her choice of recording venue, to the sanctuary of St. Paul’s United Church of Christ in Chicago, where she attended church as a child. It was here she first performed Bach’s music, at the age of four, as she explains in her booklet essay, and an image of Bach from one of the church’s stained glass windows adorns the album. “You must practice Bach. It is the music of Gott!” Barton Pine recalls being told by elderly German ladies there. This recording ranks among my favorite recent recordings of the “Sei solo,” including those made by Isabelle Faust, Viktoria Mullova, and Rachel Podger.

10. Walter Braunfels, Lieder, Marlis Petersen, Konrad Jarnot, Eric Schneider (Capriccio) 
The time for the rediscovery of the music of Walter Braunfels is at hand. In addition to another recording of this composer’s excellent Grosse Messe (also on the Capriccio label and included in the Honorable Mentions below), soprano Marlis Petersen made a superlative case for his songs. She sparkles with irrepressible energy in high-flying treble songs, but she’s also a pool of silvered water in the charming “Die Nachtigall.” That song is part of the Fragmente eines Federspiels (Fragments of a Feather Play), a set of eight songs devoted to different birds. Braunfels made a set of nine further bird songs, the Neues Federspiel, as a companion piece, also recorded by Petersen to the same beautiful effect.

Honorable Mentions

François Couperin, Ariane consolée par Bacchus / Apothéoses, Les Talens Lyriques, Christophe Rousset (Aparte)

Galina Grigorjeva, Choral Works, Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Paul Hillier (Ondine)

Jan van Gilse, Eine Lebensmesse, Heidi Melton, Radio Filharmonisch Orkest, Markus Stenz (CPO)

François Couperin, Leçons de Ténèbres, Lucy Crowe, La Nuova Musica, David Bates (Harmonia Mundi)

Edmund Rubbra, Motets / Missa Cantuariensis, The Sixteen, Harry Christophers (Coro)

Max Reger, Complete Violin and Piano Music / Complete Cello Sonatas, Ulf Wallin, Roland Pöntinen, Reimund Korupp, Rudolf Meister (CPO)

Walter Braunfels, Grosse Messe, Berlin Konzerthaus Orchestra, Berlin Singakademie, Jörg-Peter Weigle (Capriccio)


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