Top Ten Recordings of 2017

December 26, 2017
By Charles T. Downey


1. Alessandro Stradella: Lagrime e Sospiri. Chantal Santon Jeffery, Galilei Consort, Benjamin Chénier (Alpha)

Violinist Benjamin Chénier and his Galilei Consort, devoted to the music of Baroque Italy, are fairly new on the early music scene. Their second disc on the Alpha label is an exceptionally beautiful exploration of excerpts from oratorios and operas of the volatile Roman composer Alessandro Stradella. The instrumental ensemble has an affecting and rarefied sound, with a range of timbres filling out the continuo, including theorbo, harpsichord, and organ. French soprano Chantal Santon Jeffery is a sensation on the piquant vocal lines, limpid and clear of tone but eschewing that colorlessness that comes with total lack of vibrato. Major discoveries to be savored in repertory, ensemble, and singer.

2. Schubert: Works for Four-Hand Piano. Andreas Staier, Alexander Melnikov (Harmonia Mundi)

Keyboard specialists Andreas Staier and Alexander Melnikov, among others, have led an exploration of 19th-century keyboard repertory using pianos on which that era’s composers might have played. In the case of this delightful selection of Schubert pieces for piano, four hands, the instrument is a copy of a Graf fortepiano made by Christopher Clarke, complete with some outlandish Janissary effects. The only well-known piece of the bunch is the celebrated Fantasie in F Minor, placed first, allowing the listener to adjust to the instrument’s sound. The rest are dances, marches, and a set of variations (the slow seventh variation is a knockout) in music that draws you into the intimate salon of Schubert and friends.

3. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: The Tale of Tsar Saltan. Irina Churilova, Mikhail Vekua, Albina Shagimuratova, Mariinsky Theater, Valery Gergiev (Mariinsky Blu-Ray/DVD)

The operas that an average viewer knows in Helsinki, Prague, or Moscow differ from those in American cities. The Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg has brought many largely unknown Russian operas to Western audiences. This blu-ray/DVD double set on the company’s private label contains one such jewel, The Tale of Tsar Saltan. Based on Pushkin’s epic poem, Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera, premiered in 1900, commemorated the Russian national poet’s centenary. The magical storyline and score replete with wondrous instrumental effects–including the famous “Flight of the Bumblebee”–are mounted in a lavish production. Valery Gergiev conducts a stellar cast led by warm-voiced dramatic soprano Irina Churilova as Tsaritsa Militrisa.

4. Mozart, Serenades Nos. 9 (“Posthorn”) and 13 (“Eine kleine Nachtmusik”), Die Kölner Akademie, Michael Alexander Willens (BIS)

In addition to providing the orchestral part on Ronald Brautigam’s excellent Mozart keyboard concerto cycle, Michael Alexander Willens and Die Kölner Akademie have recorded a remarkable series of discs for CPO, devoted to neglected composers. The group’s latest is more Mozart, given the same robust playing on original instruments that is their signature: no ethereal or flavorless sounds of “early music” here. The sound is memorable in each movement of the long “Posthorn” Serenade, the last serenade Mozart wrote for full orchestra, augmented by Willens with the two delightful Marches of K. 335, associated with it. The more familiar Eine kleine Nachtmusik is made more valuable by filling in the missing second movement with the Menuet from Mozart’s first string quartet, a charming lagniappe.

5. Franz Schubert: Die Schöne Müllerin. Christian Gerhaher, Gerold Huber (Sony)

Schubert initally published his first song cycle in higher keys, and it has always sounded most successful to me when sung by a tenor. Matthias Goerne has made a case for the low-key version, but no baritone has been quite as convincing as Christian Gerhaher. In his second recording of this glorious piece, also made with his recital partner, the inventive pianist Gerold Huber, Gerhaher has restored the original conception of the poetry of Wilhelm Müller by reciting the five poems Schubert omitted from Müller’s collection, interspersed among the sung pieces. Gerhaher gives precedence to the lighter, tenor-like side of his top range, and with Huber explores each phrase of each song for the music of its poetry.

6. Lucrezia Borgia’s Daughter. Musica Secreta, Celestial Sirens, Laurie Stras, Deborah Roberts (Obsidian)

Laurie Stras, Professor of Musicology at the University of Southampton, has made a case that the sacred motets in the 16th-century collection Musica quinque vocum motteta materna lingua vocata is the work, published anonymously, of Suor Leonora d’Este. A highly educated woman, Suor Leonora became abbess of the Corpus Domini convent in Ferrara, where she spent her childhood after the death of her notorious mother, Lucrezia Borgia, daughter of Pope Alexander VI and eventually wife of the Duke of Ferrara. Whoever wrote this music, as performed by the all-female voices of Musica Secreta and Celestial Sirens, it is a gorgeous glimpse into the musical life of aristocratic nuns in a Renaissance Italian convent.

7. Arthur Honegger: Le Roi David. Ensemble Vocal de Lausanne and Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Daniel Reuss (Mirare)

Honegger wrote the score of Le Roi David on the fly, in response to a last-minute commission to provide incidental music for a long stage spectacle on the life of King David. That monumental production, mounted in Mézières, Switzerland, in 1921, made the young Honegger famous. Although the composer later adapted the work as a large oratorio with full orchestra, conductor Daniel Reuss has gone back to the original version Honegger wrote for an eclectic small instrumental ensemble. Actor-director Christophe Balissat recites the minimal narrative texts that link the story together, putting the focus on Honegger’s often economic musical numbers, each a small polished jewel. The long choral dance scene of “The Dance before the Ark” is particularly striking, with impeccably clear performances from both singers and musicians.

8. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. Tangere, Alexei Lubimov (ECM)

Something about C.P.E. Bach’s keyboard music often remains elusive, hard to appreciate. The tics of the composer’s empfindsamer Stil, sudden shifts of dynamics, dramatic pauses, unexpected changes of texture, or flights of melodic fancy in distant registers, seem like they should be more affecting than they are in most modern performances. It turns out the fault may be in the choice of instrument, as neither harpsichord nor piano has the ideal combination of sonic possibilities to do the music justice. Alexei Lubimov has recorded a representative sampling of this chimeric music on a replica of a 1794 tangent piano by Späth and Schmahl, built by Chris Maene in Belgium. The sound is closer to a harpsichord, but the mechanism strikes the strings with pieces of metal or wood, and Lubimov uses the various sustaining pedals and harp-like stops to bring out this composer’s varying moods to singular effect.

9. Voices of Defiance: Ullmann, Shostakovich, Laks, Dover Quartet (Cedille)

Since winning all the awards at the Banff International String Quartet Competition in 2013, the Dover Quartet has shown mastery over an astonishing range of the string quartet repertory. The group’s second disc is an intense slice of devastation, consisting of three quartets composed in the closing years of World War II. Viktor Ullmann composed his String Quartet No. 3 in 1943, while a prisoner at the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Szymon Laks, who was director of the camp orchestra at Auschwitz when Ullmann was executed there, wrote his String Quartet No. 3 in 1945, shortly after his liberation. Connecting the two, Shostakovich penned his String Quartet No. 2 in 1944, including a movement in reaction to what Russians were then learning about the horrors of the concentration camps. The group’s playing in all three works is plangent and rarefied.

10. Pyotr Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6, MusicAeterna, Teodor Currentzis (Sony)

Teodor Currentzis, after conducting studies in St. Petersburg, has created a wave of notoriety with his ensemble MusicAeterna, based first in Novosbirsk and, since 2011, at the opera theater in Perm, Russia. This deconstruction of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, a work often encrusted with pious sentimentality in performmane, finally convinced me of its worth. It should be required listening for any conductor thinking about yet another staid performance of a Tchaikovsky symphony. Currentzis’s “notes” on the piece, in the form of a rather ridiculous letter to the composer, are valuable primarily for knowing the source of the ideas played out in sound. It is good to be reminded of the potential ugliness of Tchaikovsky’s music.

Honorable Mentions

Mozart: Requiem (ed. Pierre-Henri Dutron), Freiburger Barockorchester, René Jacobs (Harmonia Mundi)

Handel: Messiah (1754 version), Le Concert Spirituel, Hervé Niquet (Alpha)

Bach: Cantatas Nos. 152, 199, 202, Carolyn Sampson, Freiburger Barockorchester, Petra Müllejans (Harmonia Mundi)

Beethoven: Late String Quartets, Quatuor Mosaïques (Naïve)

Pergolesi: Stabat Mater/Bach: Cantatas Nos. 54, 170, Tim Mead, Lucy Crowe, La Nuova Musica, David Bates (Harmonia Mundi)

György Kurtág: Complete Works for Ensemble and Choir, Asko | Schönberg, Netherlands Radio Choir, Reinbert de Leeuw (ECM)

Divine Theatre: Sacred Motets by Giaches de Wert, Stile Antico (Harmonia Mundi)

J. S. Bach: Mass in B Minor. Julia Doyle, Alex Potter, Daniel Johannsen, Klaus Mertens, Chor und Orchester der J.S. Bach-Stiftung, Rudolf Lutz (J.S. Bach-Stiftung, St. Gallen)

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