Ten Recordings to get you through the shutdown (Part I)

March 30, 2020
Chicago, Michigan Avenue Bridge, Wednesday March 25. Photo: L. Johnson

All live performances across the country have necessarily come to a screeching halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Consequently, all eight Classical Review sites will be largely on hiatus until local quarantines are lifted and public performances are allowed once again. Let us all hope that day comes sooner rather than later. 

With most of us locked in our homes during this national shutdown, the internet and recordings are the only avenues available for non-musicians to get our daily dose of great music.

Hence I decided to compile a list of Ten Recordings to get you through the Shutdown (five recordings today and the balance to be posted April 7). I have tried to avoid the usual suspects for the most part. In Luddite fashion, I’m citing CD labels, though some recordings may also be available via online sources.

Again, this is not meant to be the Best or Greatest of anything—just ten favorite recordings that have helped me maintain some degree of mental equanimity during the current crisis. They are offered in the hope that Classical Review readers may find some enjoyment, diversion, comfort or solace during this difficult time.

Readers should feel free to add your own favorite recordings as Comments as well.

Parkening Plays Bach. (EMI/Angel)

This has long been a personal desert-island disc and remains so. Few composers suffer as little from transcription as Johann Sebastian Bach, and guitarist Christopher Parkening brings such tonal sensitivity and a subtle range of hues and expression to this music that even the most familiar items emerge uncommonly fresh. The arrangements are unfailingly inspired, with especially deft handling of Bach’s contrapuntal lines.

Beethoven Symphonies Nos. 1-9. Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Sir Georg Solti (Decca)

Since his death in 1997, Sir Georg Solti’s posthumous reputation has taken a hit in the broader classical journalism firmament, especially in Europe, and that negative reevaluation has been largely unfair. Such is not the case here in Chicago, where positive memories reign and many of us came of classical age attending Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts in the Solti era (1969-91).

Riccardo Muti’s Beethoven 250 cycle this season is likely to be affected by the ongoing rolling cancellations. One can avert any sense of Ludwigus Interruptus with Solti’s first CSO set of the Beethoven symphonies. Recorded early (1972-74) in the Hungarian conductor’s Chicago tenure, there is the bristling dynamism and rhythmic urgency one would expect, but also an uncommon freshness and lyrical repose in the slow movements. (the “Pastoral” is charming and wholly delightful). Beautifully played across all sections, this still-underrated Beethoven set (with all repeats) holds up extraordinarily well and is superior to Solti’s digital redo with the CSO.

Elgar: Symphony No. 1. Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Andre Previn (Philips).

Sir Edward Elgar’s two symphonies have never quite gained the popularity of other Late Romantic works on this side of the pond. But these are magnificent symphonies, rich in melody and masterfully scored, with drop-dead beautiful slow movements. 

Sir Andre Previn, who passed away one year ago, was at his finest in English music—most famously so in his widely acclaimed Ralph Vaughan Williams recordings. Yet Previn proved no less inspired in music of Elgar, and in the English composer’s Symphony No. 1, Previn leads the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance that brings out all the restless energy, expansive lyricism and nobilmente nostalgia.

Mozart: Piano Sonatas and other keyboard works. Mitsuko Uchida (Philips).

Mitsuko Uchida’s bona fides in Mozart require little advocacy, and the pianist has become a beloved figure in Chicago for her many seasons of winter CSO concerts leading Mozart concertos from the keyboard.

As memorable a those concerts were, Uchida’s Mozart is heard to even finer advantage in the composer’s solo piano works. Her Philips recordings (available in a box and singly) remain unsurpassed, with the pianist’s elegance, intimacy of expression, and subtle poetry feeling inseparable from the music itself.

Officium: Jan Garbarek, saxophonist, with the Hilliard Ensemble. (ECM).

In 1994 the unlikeliest of crossover collaborations became an international sensation when ECM released “Officium,” with saxophonist Jan Garbarek laying down jazz improvisations over the Hilliard Ensemble’s singing of early monastic choral music. The album wound up selling over a million copies and launching an international tour. I covered the Chicago stop for the Tribune, where Garbarek and the Hilliards played, amazingly, to a packed Holy Name Cathedral.

“Officium” didn’t exactly start a trend of jazz saxophone and early music vocal jams, and the album remains something of an outlier. But at its best, this when-worlds-collide partnership produced some striking musical moments, a sense of solace and transcendent beauty—all of which we could use right now.

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