Posts Tagged ‘Hilliard Ensemble’

Favourites of 2014: Classical music

January 8, 2015

I had a good and rewarding year of listening. Much of my time was devoted to a few listening projects: for the Strauss anniversary year I listened to a big chunk of his operas (some of which I wrote about), and I listened chronologically to the symphonies and string quartets of both Shostakovich and Mieczyslaw Weinberg. In the cracks between these slabs, I enjoyed quite a few new, and new-ish, releases. Of those, the following were my favourites:

hilliard-transeamusTranseamus
The Hilliard Ensemble
(ECM New Series, 2014)

In December 2014 the Hilliard Ensemble gave their final concert, finally hanging up their tuning forks after 40 years of exquisite music-making. Though they long since parted ways with their founder, Paul Hillier, and though the membership of the four-man ensemble has changed over the years — countertenor David James being the only original member still singing — they sustained a remarkably consistent sound and sensibility, and few, if any, vocal ensembles could match their technical excellence and artistic adventurousness. Their work has been important to me personally. I had the privilege of hearing them live on two occasions, one of which (a performance of Arvo Part’s Miserere) I count among the great concert-going experiences of my life, and my music collection is littered with dozens of their recordings, many of which I hold close to my heart. I am sad to see them go.

The Hilliard Ensemble has had two principal artistic faces: they are specialists in medieval and renaissance polyphony, and the bulk of their recorded legacy has been devoted to exploring that music, but they are also well-known for commissioning and championing the work of contemporary composers, most especially that of Arvo Part. On Transeamus, said to be their final recording, they return to their roots with a collection of carols from late medieval England. Some of the finest pre-Reformation English composers are represented, including William Cornysh and John Plummer, but most of these pieces are anonymous. The performances are excellent and frequently superb; I might prefer a little more swing in a jaunty carol like “Thomas Gemma Cantuariae” (Paul Hillier’s earlier recording with Theatre of Voices is my touchstone here), but hearing the Hilliards singing “Ecce quod natura” or Sheryngham’s marvellous “Ah, Gentle Jesu” makes clear why they have been ranked with the world’s great vocal ensembles. I miss them already.

[Info] [Review]

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bach-levitBach: Partitas
Igor Levit
(Sony, 2014)

These days it can sometimes seem that the major classical labels do little more than reissue recordings from their glory days, or, when they do issue new recordings, their roster of artists seems to have been chosen based more on consideration of shapely figures than of artistic excellence. But then along comes a pianist like Igor Levit to undermine all such gloomy ruminations. Still in his 20s, he made his recording debut last year with a much praised recording of the late Beethoven piano sonatas, and this year he followed it with this set of Bach’s six partitas (BWV 525-30). These pieces don’t get as much attention as the Goldberg Variations or the Well-Tempered Clavier, much less Beethoven’s late sonatas, but Levit opens them up in a way that I have never heard before. As usual it is hard to put one’s finger on just what sets one pianist apart from another, especially at elite levels where technically proficiency is assured, but nonetheless Levit’s playing has a special quality: muscular, poised, self-effacing, but yet somehow intensely inward-looking and contemplative. I find him mesmerizing, and heartily recommend this superb recording.

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ludford-heronLudford: Missa Inclina cor meum
Blue Heron, Scott Metcalfe
(Blue Heron, 2013)

Blue Heron is an American choir that is engaged on a long-term project to record music from the Peterhouse Partbooks, one of the relatively few sources of pre-Reformation English polyphony to have escaped the bonfires of the reformers. This is the third volume in the series, and it is a jewel. Polyphony in England in the fifteenth-century was clearly part of the same tradition as continental polyphony, but it was just as clearly an offshoot with its own distinctive qualities: there is a harmonic sweetness to the music, and the long, soaring soprano lines give the music an ecstatic quality that exceeds what one would typically have encountered on the continent. And this is music written on an ambitious scale: Nicholas Ludford’s Missa Inclina cor meum takes nearly 40 minutes just to present the Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei, and John Mason’s motet Ave fuit prima salus is 20 minutes long. I wish that I knew more about the context within which this music was originally written and performed. In any case, this is the first time these pieces have been recorded, and it has been worth the wait.

[Info]

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morales-bremenMorales: Christmas Motets
Weser-Renaissance Bremen, Manfred Cordes
(CPO, 2013)

A couple of years ago I praised a recording by Weser-Renaissance Bremen of Josquin’s music during my annual round-up, and here I am again with this disc of Christmas-themed music by Cristóbal de Morales. Morales was an important composer in sixteenth-century Spain, holding appointments in Avila and Toledo. He is probably best known today for his sublime setting of Parci mihi, Domine (made (relatively) famous by the Hilliard Ensemble in their collaboration with Jan Garbarek), but he was a prolific composer of masses, motets, and the like. This recording, with Manfred Cordes leading the choir, gathers together a set of motets on Christmas themes, ranging from settings of standard Christmas texts (O magnum mysterium, Puer natus est nobis) to pieces in honour of the Blessed Virgin (Sancta et immaculata virginitas, Salve nos stella maris). Some of the pieces are not directly associated with Christmas (Salve regina, for example), and others are actually more closely associated with other feasts (Missus est Gabriel, for instance, with the Annunciation). It must be said that the singing on this disc is spectacularly good. The pieces don’t pose any particularly dire technical challenges, but they do call for clarity, balance, and beauty of tone, and at these this choir is impeccable. As I said of their earlier Josquin recording, the sound has a burnished quality, as if glowing from within, and the recorded sound is immediate without being too close. It’s the single best recording of Morales’ music that I know of.

[Info] [Listen to samples]

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podger-angelGuardian Angel
Rachel Podger
(Channel, 2013)

I suppose it is possible that the prospect of 80 minutes of unaccompanied baroque violin playing might set some people on edge, but when the bow is wielded by Rachel Podger there is no need for concern. She plays a variety of early baroque pieces which might have been — though whether they were in fact, I do not know — models for Bach’s more famous contributions to the repertoire. Two sonatas by Giuseppi Tartini (not his most commonly heard “Devil’s Trill” sonata), one by Johann Georg Pisendel, and a few short pieces by Nicola Matteis were all new to me. Podger also includes a transcription for violin of one of Bach’s flute sonatas which, though it might be an odd choice from a programmatic point of view, is nonetheless wonderful to hear. The disc closes with a performance of Biber’s stunning Passacaglia (from his Rosary Sonatas), the piece which was arguably the pinnacle of solo violin music until Bach’s own Chaconne came along. Podger is one of the world’s greatest baroque musicians, and she plays like an angel. For what it’s worth, this disc won the recital award at last year’s BBC Music Magazine awards.

[Info] [Listen to samples]

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invocation-schuchInvocation
Herbert Schuch
(Naive, 2014)

A few excellent piano recitals came my way this year but I kept returning to this one, which features music inspired by the sound of bells. There are several pieces of French modernism with explicit bell-resonances — Ravel’s La vallée des cloches, Messiaen’s Cloches d’angoisse et larmes d’adieu and a piece inspired by it, Tristan Murail’s Cloches d’adieu, et un sourire… — but for me the chief attractions are the pieces by Liszt and Bach. Schuch plays selections from Liszt’s Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, including a moving performance of his glorious Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude, but the recital as a whole is held together by transcriptions of several of Bach’s beautiful chorales, played quietly and with great devotion. The overall feeling of the disc is one of meditative stillness, hushed and attentive. The sound is a bit distant for my liking, and the recording level is a bit low, but the playing and the choice of repertoire more than make up for it.

[Info] [Listen to samples]

Here is a promotional video for the disc:

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pacifica-shostThe Soviet Experience
Shostakovich, Miaskovsky, Prokofiev, Weinberg, Schnittke
Pacifica Quartet
(Cedille, 2011-14)

Over the past few years the Pacifica Quartet has recorded a complete cycle of Shostakovich’s fifteen string quartets; the fourth and final volume appeared this year. The competition in this repertoire is tough: the famous (but incomplete) recordings by the Borodin Quartet are always in the back of one’s mind, and I have also long treasured the cycle by the Emerson String Quartet. But this new set deserves to be considered alongside those ones. The Pacifica Quartet plays with all the muscle and acerbity that one could wish for, really digging into the scores to bring out their nervous energy. The ensemble playing is immaculate, and the recorded sound is as clean as a whistle. It’s a superb collection of what is, almost certainly, the greatest chamber music of the twentieth century.

And, as if that were not enough, each of the volumes in the set has been programmed with an additional quartet by one of Shostakovich’s contemporaries: Miaskovsky, Prokofiev, Weinberg, and Schnittke. Whether this broadening of focus is really enough to warrant the “The Soviet Experience” title under which the series has been proceeding is debatable, but the supplementary quartets do give one an opportunity to compare what Shostakovich was doing with what else was happening in Russian music at the time. And, as good as these other quartets are, it must be said that they renew one’s appreciation for just how colossally good Shostakovich was.

[Info] [Review] [Listen to samples]

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Honourable mention:

dvorak-stabatDvorak: Stabat Mater
Collegium Vocale Gent, Royal Flemish Philharmonic, Philippe Herreweghe
(Phi, 2013)
[Info][Promo video][Listen to samples]

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where-late-sweet-birdsWhere Late the Sweet Birds Sang
Magnificat, Philip Cave
(Linn, 2012)
[Info][Review][Listen to samples]

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josquin-pratensisJosquin: Missa Ave Maris Stella
Cappella Pratensis
(Challenge, 2014)
[Info][Listen to samples]

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schubert-bostridge-wigmoreSchubert: Lieder
Ian Bostridge, Julius Drake
(Wigmore Hall, 2014)
[Info][Review][Listen to samples]

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bach-contrasteBach: Transcriptions
Ensemble Contraste
(La Dolce Vita, 2013)
[Info][Review][Listen to samples]

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weinberg-kremerWeinberg: Symphony No.10; Chamber Music
Kremerata Baltica, Gidon Kremer
(ECM New Series, 2014)
[Info][Review]

Remembering Victoria

August 27, 2011

Today marks the 400th anniversary of the death of Tomás Luis de Victoria. Unquestionably one of the great figures in late Renaissance music, he also happens to be one of my favourites. A Spanish priest during the Counter-Reformation, he wrote (so far as I know) exclusively sacred music, and is probably best remembered today for his Holy Week music, a Requiem Mass, and a handful of gorgeous motets, principally O quam gloriosum, O magnum mysterium, and a lovely Ave Maria.

His music, while being broadly in the style of contemporaries like Palestrina and Byrd, often has a special quality that is hard to describe, but which makes it somehow especially alluring. I have had the privilege to sing his music on a few occasions, and I can testify that it is just as beautiful from within as from without. Harry Christophers, director of the British choir The Sixteen (which has itself recorded some of the most attractive performances of Victoria’s music), summed him up in this way:

“Scholar, mystic, priest, singer, organist and composer – six persons all rolled into one and that is, quite simply, why Victoria is the most outstanding composer of the Renaissance. He devoted his life to the church, and his works reveal such heartfelt passion that there are times, in performance, when we are almost overwhelmed by their intensity.”

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Here are a few of the best Victoria recordings of which I am aware, with samples where available:

Victoria: Cantica Beatae Virginae
Jordi Savall; Hesperion XX; La Capella Reial de Catalunya

This collection of a dozen or so Marian motets is a gem. Instruments are used to fill out the aural background, giving the music a lush, rich texture. The singing is robust and warm, not at all the cool, bloodless kind of singing one sometimes associates with polyphony. Here is the Ave Maria:

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Victoria: Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae
La Colombina

A big (3+ hours) collection of Victoria’s music for Holy Week, superbly sung and evocatively recorded. Passion narratives, Tenebrae music, motets, antiphons, and hymns are all included, intermixed with some Gregorian chant. It’s a beautiful experience to hear it. I have written about this recording before.

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Victoria: Et Iesum
Carlos Mena; Juan Carlos Rivera

This disc was on my best of the decade list last year, and I haven’t changed my mind about that. The concept is unusual: Victoria’s polyphonic sacred music is arranged for solo voice and instrumental accompaniment, a practice that was apparently current in Victoria’s own day. The simplicity of the settings brings out the beauty of the vocal line, and the singing, by counter-tenor Carlos Mena, is ravishing. As far as I am concerned, music does not get much better than this. Here is the Salve regina:

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In Paradisum: Music of Victoria and Palestrina
The Hilliard Ensemble

This disc includes only four pieces by Victoria, but it warrants inclusion on this short list because of the absorbing and exalting singing. Victoria’s music is heard alongside that of Palestrina, and both are interwoven into the Gregorian Requiem. It’s a special recording. Here they sing Peccantem me:

Arvo Pärt: Recommended recordings

September 12, 2010

In response to yesterday’s post marking Arvo Pärt’s birthday, I was asked to recommend one or two recordings for someone interested in hearing his music for the first time. Rather than confine my recommendations to a follow-up comment, I thought I’d put them here, where all may see.

I was asked for one or two recommendations, but I’ll go one better, to three.  The first two focus on his music for voices, and the last on instrumental music.

My first recommendation is Arbos, a recording from 1987 on ECM Records.  ECM made a series of Pärt recordings at around that time with the Hilliard Ensemble (Arbos, Miserere, and Passio), and in my opinion they still have not been surpassed. Of the three, Arbos is the most approachable and has the most variety.  It includes several short pieces, including Pärt’s wonderful setting of De Profundis, and closes with a large-scale work, the Stabat Mater.  It is an excellent all around introduction.

My second suggestion for choral music is a disc from Theatre of Voices, released in 1997 on Harmonia Mundi.  Again it includes a nice variety of different works, and has little overlap with the previous disc. It also includes a little-recorded piece called And One of the Pharisees, which I am personally very fond of.  The singing and recording quality are top shelf.

When it comes to Pärt’s instrumental music, my first recommendation in the past has always been Tabula Rasa, also on ECM.  This recording, from 1984, has achieved something of classic status in Pärt’s discography, principally for its excellent performance of the title piece, written for two violins, prepared piano, and string orchestra.  Recently, however, another recording of that piece has edged into top spot in my estimation, and I will recommend it: Arvo Pärt: Portrait was released in 2010 on the Montreal-based label Analekta.  In addition to a very beautiful and poised performance of Tabula Rasa, this disc also includes a number of other instrumental works, including the wonderful Speigel im Spiegel, and even one choral work (Ein Wallfahrtslied) not included on either of the two previous recommendations.   It is, once again, a very fine introduction to Pärt and his music.

Happy listening!

Sunday night Morales

May 2, 2010

This evening I have, for some reason, been thinking of the desolate beauty of Cristóbal de Morales’ motet Parce mihi Domine.  The music can be found on YouTube, but almost always in a performance from the Hilliard Ensemble, with Jan Garbarek improvising in the background.  I like that well enough [listen], but it’s not the real thing.  This is the real thing; I’d have chosen different images, but beggars can’t be choosers.

Spare me, O Lord, for my days are nothing.
What is man, that thou dost make so much of him, and that thou dost set thy mind upon him,
dost visit him every morning, and test him every moment?
How long wilt thou not look away from me, nor let me alone till I swallow my spittle?
If I sin, what do I do to thee, thou watcher of men? Why hast thou made me thy mark? Why have I become a burden to thee?
Why dost thou not pardon my transgression and take away my iniquity?
For now I shall lie in the earth; thou wilt seek me, but I shall not be.

— Job 7:16-21

Best of the Decade: Classical Music

December 17, 2009

This week I look back at my favourite classical music recordings issued between 2000-2009.   Though I have listened to hundreds of recordings, it goes without saying that there is a lot of music, much of it no doubt excellent, that I have not heard.

I have decided to structure this post according to genre.  For each genre I have selected two outstanding recordings, with a third “runner-up” sometimes slipped in.  The exception to this rule is the choral music category; my initial short list had about twenty-five recordings on it, and it was too cruel to cut that down to just two, or even three.  I compensate for this surplus by omitting an opera category altogether.

I have also included links to more thorough reviews and to streaming samples of the music when it was possible to do so.

Without further ado:

Choral

I have chosen six discs of choral music, plus a few runners-up.   They are arranged in rough chronological order.

Paolo da Firenze: Narcisso Speculando (Mala Punica, Pedro Memelsdorff) [2002; Harmonia Mundi]: This is music of the medieval avant-garde. Paolo da Firenze, who died in 1425, belonged to the ars subtilior school of late medieval composition.  The music is incredibly intricate, and must be exceptionally difficult to sing, but it is also marvelous to hear — in that respect, the medieval avant-garde consistently bested the modern.  The ensemble Mala Punica specializes in this music, and their awe-inspiring performances must be heard to be believed.  This is one of the most ear-opening recordings I’ve ever heard.  (Reviews: ClassicsToday)

I don’t know why this video is nine minutes long; the piece ends at 3:43.

Richafort: Requiem (Huelgas Ensemble, Paul van Nevel) [2000; Harmonia Mundi]: For sheer ravishing beauty, this is my choral music pick of the decade.  Richafort (c.1480-c.1550) is a mostly forgotten composer, but on the evidence here that forgetfulness is unjust.  His Requiem, which may have been written to commemorate the death of Josquin Desprez, is a thing of glories, with wave after wave of beautiful music spilling over the listener.  Just when you think it can’t possibly get any lovelier, it does.  The disc is filled out by a selection of motets, including a gorgeous Salve regina for five voices, and even a drinking song (rendered, it must be said, a little stiffly).  The singing of the Huelgas Ensemble, which is always excellent, is here focused and luminous to an uncommon degree.  (Reviews: ClassicsToday)

Here is the Introit of the Requiem:

In Paradisum (Hilliard Ensemble) [2000; ECM New Series]: The Hilliard Ensemble sing the Gregorian setting of the Requiem Mass and interpose motets by two of the grand masters of Renaissance polyphony: Victoria and Palestrina.  As is fitting, the music is dark-toned and somber.  The singing is as good as singing gets in this vale of tears: concentrated, responsive, inward-looking, and incredibly beautiful.  The richness of the sound is astonishing.  Part of the credit obviously goes to the four voices of the Hilliard Ensemble, and part to ECM’s superb engineers, but thanks must also be rendered to the walls and vaults of St. Gerold monastery in Austria, where the recording was made. (Reviews: ClassicsToday)

Bach: Missae Breves (Pygmalion) [2008; Alpha]: Before hearing this recording I had not known of the group Pygmalion, and I expect they are new to most listeners too.  I still don’t know anything about them — except that they sing Bach to perfection.  This disc includes two of Bach’s short Masses, BWV 234 and 235.  (A Missa Brevis includes only the Kyrie and Gloria.) This music has never sounded better.  The voices are confident, clear, and precise, with none of the raggedness or wooliness that sometimes plagues choirs who try to sing Bach.  The instrumental accompaniment is lively and vivid.  This is simply terrific music-making. (Reviews: AllMusic) (Listen to samples)

Bach: St. John Passion (Philippe Herreweghe, Collegium Vocale Gent, soloists) [2001; Harmonia Mundi]: Bach’s St. John Passion is not as well-known as his St. Matthew Passion, and with some justification, for it is not as ambitious as its more famous companion.  Its comparative modesty in scale makes it a tighter and more dramatic account of the Passion story, and I find that attractive.  This performance from Bach-specialist Herreweghe, with a starry cast of soloists and his usual crack choir Collegium Vocale Gent, is uniformly excellent.  This music was a great discovery for me this decade.  (Reviews: ClassicsToday) (Listen to samples)

Here is the final section of the work, Christe, du Lamm Gottes (an adaptation of the Agnus Dei):

Grechaninov: Passion Week (Charles Bruffy, Phoenix Bach Choir, Kansas City Chorale) [2007; Chandos]: The prospect of hearing Russian sacred music sung by a choir from the American Midwest does not immediately inspire confidence, but this disc upset my expectations.  The music, written in 1911, is inspired by the Holy Week services of the Orthodox Church.  The texts are in Old Slavonic, and the music communes with the long history of Russian Orthodox music.  It bears an obvious similarity to Rachmaninov’s Vespers, and, to my surprise, it does not suffer greatly in the comparison.  It is extremely well sung — all praise to the basses! — and the recording, though perhaps a bit boxy, still allows us to hear the music clearly.  I was very pleasantly surprised by this recording. (Reviews: AllMusic) (Listen to samples)

Here is the section of the work titled “The Wise Thief”.  (Sorry about the flowers.)

Runners-up:

  • La Bele Marie (Anonymous 4) [2002; Harmonia Mundi]: This is a collection of Marian songs from thirteenth-century France.  Some are in Latin, some in French.  As befits their subject, they are bright, lovely, and mostly joyful.  The four women of Anonymous 4 sing with their customary blend and luminosity.  A very heart-warming record.  (Reviews: ClassicsToday ) (Listen to samples)
  • A Scottish Lady Mass (Red Byrd) [2005; Hyperion]: This disc contains thirteenth-century music from St. Andrews, Scotland.  It includes polyphonic music (for two parts) that is not known elsewhere, and there are some real curiosities, including troped versions of the Kyrie and Gloria, as well as some unique sequences.  The record’s cover, which shows an old church at night across a foggy moor, perfectly captures the feel of this music.  The voices of Red Byrd are manly and resonant, creating a warm sonic blanket to wrap oneself in. This is my kind of singing. (Reviews: ClassicsToday) (Listen to samples) (Listen to a troped Kyrie: Rex, virginum amator)
  • Dufay: Quadrivium (Cantica Symphonia) [2005; Glossa]: Guillaume Dufay is my favourite medieval composer, and this collection of sacred motets serves his music very well.  Cantica Symphonia make the interesting decision to bring instruments, as well as voices, into the music, and although this necessarily involves some improvisation and guess-work, it sounds great.  The singing — just one voice to a part — is confident and idiomatic, and the music is dazzling.  (Reviews: AllMusic) (Listen to samples) (Listen to Anima mea liquefacta est)
  • Heavenly Harmonies (Stile Antico) [2008; Harmonia Mundi]: This disc is a superb collection of Elizabethan sacred music by William Byrd and Thomas Tallis, illustrating the parting of the ways between Catholic music (intricate polyphony, in Latin) and Protestant music (simple and strophic, in English).  As I have said before, the singing of Stile Antico is amazingly good.  (my Music Note) (Reviews: ClassicsToday, AllMusic) (Listen to samples)
  • Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius (Sir Mark Elder, Hallé Orchestra and Chorus, soloists) [2008; Hallé]: Elgar’s setting of John Henry Cardinal Newman’s poem about death and the afterlife has not really attracted me in the past.  I had heard a few recordings, but I found them stodgy and sluggish.  When this disc from the Hallé Orchestra began earning accolades in the British press, I thought it might be another case of patriotic fervour overwhelming sound judgment, but I decided to give it a try anyway.  I am glad that I did.  The sound is much clearer, with far better articulation from the choir than on previous recordings, and the soloists are tremendous.  There’s a real sense of occasion too.  (Reviews: AllMusic)   Here is the section “Praise to the Holiest”:

Solo Voice

Victoria: Et Iesum (Carlos Mena, Juan Carlos Rivera) [2004; Harmonia Mundi]: We naturally associate Victoria with the high Renaissance style of polyphony, of which he was a master.  Himself a priest, his music was intended to serve the sacred liturgy.  Yet, as this intriguing recording informs us, some of his music was adapted for performance on a more modest and intimate scale.  In such cases, one of the polyphonic vocal lines was given to a solo voice, and the other musical lines were put into the instrumental accompaniment.  The result is something like a madrigal or song, but with a sacred text.  The comparative simplicity of the music allows us to relish the beauty of the exposed vocal melody without interference.  Carlos Mena, my favourite counter-tenor (and yours?), has marvelous breath-control in the sometimes very long vocal lines, and his voice has a creamy richness that is very satisfying.  Counter-tenor singing has come a long way in the last few generations of singers, and Mena has it all.  He is tastefully accompanied by Juan Carlos Rivera on the lute and vihuela.  This is a very special recording. (Reviews: ClassicsToday, AllMusic)

Here is Carlos Mena singing Victoria’s adaptation of Salve regina.  If you enjoy this, consider clicking through to YouTube; the same person who posted this song has also posted several other tracks from this disc.

Strauss: Lieder (Soile Isokoski, Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Marek Janowski) [2002; Ondine]: Finnish soprano Soile Isokoski turns in an unforgettable performance of Strauss’ great Vier Letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs).  She has a full-bodied, very expressive voice, and it suits these opulent late flowerings of Strauss’ muse perfectly.  Competition in this repertoire is stiff, but Isokoski has displaced Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as my favourite.  The disc is filled out by a selection of Strauss’ other songs.  They are not among Strauss’ greatest inspirations, but they are still beautifully sung. (Reviews: ClassicsToday) (Listen to samples)

In this live performance (not taken from the recording), Isokoski sings “Fruhling”, the first of the Four Last Songs:

Solo Instrument

Messiaen: Complete Organ Works (Olivier Latry) [2002; DG]: As I think I have said before, to a first approximation there has been only one composer for the organ, and that was J.S. Bach.  But if we broaden our vision just a little, Olivier Messiaen comes into view.  His music is nothing like Bach’s, of course, but in its own way it is perfect music for the instrument: immense, deep, ecstatic, glorious, and overwhelming.  It is a major body of work.  Olivier Latry plays the mighty organ of Notre Dame de Paris, where he is house organist, and the DG engineers have caught the sonics in spectacular fashion.  This set is a cornerstone for my collection of twentieth-century music. (Reviews: ClassicsToday)

Bach: Goldberg Variations (Murray Perahia) [2000; Sony]: Starting in the 1990s Murray Perahia began at last to record the music of Bach.  He started with the English Suites, and has since moved through the keyboard concertos, the Partitas, and, in 2000, he made this excellent recording of the Goldberg Variations.  It is a superb, finely calibrated performance that positively dances, and it has become my favourite recording of this inexhaustible music.  (Reviews: ClassicsToday)

Here is Perahia playing the opening Aria and the first three variations:

Chamber

Shostakovich: Complete String Quartets (Emerson String Quartet) [2000; DG]: One of the two or three greatest concert-going experiences of my life was hearing the Emerson String Quartet play Shostakovich’s devastating final quartet, No.15.  It left me reeling and exhausted, but deeply grateful.  Afterward I bought this complete cycle of Shostakovich’s quartets, on five well-filled CDs.  It is an incredibly rich collection.  Some consider his string quartets to be his greatest music, and I am among them.  I have since heard a few other cycles of these quartets, including the famous recordings by the Borodin Quartet.  I love them too, but they do not include the last two quartets, and the Emersons have the edge on precision and sound quality.  This is another cornerstone of my music collection. (Reviews: AllMusic)

Here is a short video I have posted before of the Emersons playing the third movement of String Quartet No.3.  Not one of my very favourite movements, but the only one I can find on YouTube:

Weinberg: Cello Sonatas (Alexander Chaushian, Yevgeny Sudbin) [2007; BIS]: Mieczysław Weinberg is not a well-known composer.  I had never heard of him until I heard this recording, and, now that I have heard this recording, I cannot understand why he is unknown.  His music is fantastic.  Weinberg (also sometimes called Vainberg, or Vaynberg) was born in Poland in 1919 and lived most of his life under the Soviets.  He was a close friend of Shostakovich — the two would play their new compositions to one another.  His music is in many ways quite similar to Shostakovich’s, and that is a very, very good thing!  It is tough and lyrical, full of interesting ideas and genuine feeling, and it sounds urgent and important.  These cello sonatas — two for cello and piano and one for solo cello — are almost unbelievably beautiful.  When I first heard this record I was struck speechless by it, and I hung on every note until it was over.  I have since heard several other recordings of Weinberg’s music, and I have not been disappointed.  He is a major discovery for me. (Reviews: AllMusic)  (Listen to samples)

Here is the first movement of his Cello Sonata No.2, Op.63.  I hope somebody likes this as much as I do.

Runner-up: Pärt: Alina [2000; ECM New Series]: ECM Records are known for their innovative and unusual programming, but, even so, it took a certain audacity to put this disc out.  It includes just two compositions: Für Alina for piano and Spiegel im Spiegel for piano and violin (or cello), together amounting to about 20 minutes of music.  Both pieces are devotedly minimalist, with very sparsely notated scores and absence of dramatic effects.  An uncharitable listener might say that “nothing happens” in either of them.  ECM, in their wisdom, interleaved on the disc two versions of the first piece with three versions of the second!  And, strangely enough, it works.  The record, by the very simplicity of the music, asks the listener to really pay attention to each note.  Close listening becomes a kind of meditative experience.  It’s a rather special disc. (Reviews: ClassicsToday)

Gus van Sant’s 2002 film Gerry used Speigel im Spiegel during the opening scene.  This five-minute clip includes roughly half of the piece.  The visual is perfect for this music.  (Incidentally, in the early days of our courtship I took my wife to see Gerry.  I am lucky that she was willing to see me again.)

Concerto and Orchestral

Schoenberg & Sibelius: Violin Concertos (Hilary Hahn, Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen)  [2008; DG]: I confess with some shame that I had ignored Hilary Hahn’s recordings in the past.  I assumed that her success had more to do with her youthful attractiveness than the quality of her playing.  (Yes, sex sells even in the beleaguered marketing departments of classical music labels.)  After hearing this recording I am happy to say that this assumption was totally false: her playing stands firmly on its own merits.  She has chosen to couple the violin concerti of Sibelius and Schoenberg, which is a bit like having a meal of truffles and tacks.  To her great credit, she actually manages to find music in Schoenberg’s concerto.  She gives shape to the almost unremittingly angular musical line, and her tone is steely and firm, as though she’s taken this anarchic music in hand and shown it who is master. She makes as good a case for it as is likely to be made.  But it is in the Sibelius concerto that she really shines.  I’ve heard three or four other recordings of this wonderful concerto, but none has gripped me as hers has.  Her playing is precise, with no wavering or wooliness in her violin’s tone, and she really gets inside the music, allowing it to speak for itself.  (Reviews: ClassicsToday, AllMusic)

Here she is playing the final movement of the Sibelius concerto:

Messiaen: Des Canyons aux Étoiles… (Myung-Whun Chung, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio-France, soloists) [2003; DG]: This massive orchestral composition was written to celebrate the bicentenary of the United States, and it was inspired by Messiaen’s visit to Utah’s Bryce Canyon.  It celebrates in sound the canyon’s rocks, cliffs, and — of course, since this is Messiaen — its birds.   Scored for a large orchestra with piano, horn, xylorimba, and glockenspiel soloists, it is a colourful and essentially joyful composition, both weird and wonderful, and animated by Messiaen’s Catholic nature-mysticism.  The recording is sonically spectacular.  (Reviews: ClassicsToday)

Symphonic

The length of these symphonies prevents my linking to whole movements.  I hope the samples will give some idea of what is in store.

Bruckner: Symphony No.9 (Günter Wand, Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR) [2006; Profil]: This is a live recording made in 1979, but this 2006 disc was (I believe) its first commercial appearance, so it qualifies for inclusion on this list.  Günter Wand apparently said of this performance that it was “one of the most memorable of [his] life”, and I believe it.  It is tremendously beautiful music that seeks, as Bruckner said, to make the transcendent perceptible, and Wand leads his orchestra about as far in that direction as it is possible to go.  When called for, they play with thunderous power, and at other times with the most delicate sensitivity.  The sound is excellent.  (Reviews:  AllMusic) (Listen to samples)

Vaughan Williams: Symphony No.2 “London” (Richard Hickox, London Symphony Orchestra) [2001; Chandos]: This splendid recording of the “London” symphony was named Record of the Year by Gramophone Magazine in 2001, and it was a richly deserved accolade.  It is a wonderful symphony, and it has never sounded better.  The music glows on this recording.  It is a great interpretation too, with drama and presence.  (Listen to samples)

***

I have not seen any “Best of Decade” lists from major critics, but a number of “Best of 2009” lists have appeared: