Best of the Year Classical List for 2017
Recommendations by Fritz Balwit
Bela Bartok: Complete String Quartets – Heath Quartet – Harmonia Mundi 907661.62
This young quartet has achieved the highest levels of concentration on this complete set of the quartets. All aspects of Bartok, from prickly agitation and folk humor to serene contrapuntal abstraction, are perfectly rendered. There is real excitement in the playing and the soundscape is outstanding. This recording narrowly edges out a release by the superb Chiara quartet, which, uniquely, plays the music without scores.
Bjarte EIKE: The Ale-House Sessions – Rubicon 1017
This recording, reviewed on these pages this past summer, has only gotten better with repeated listening. Bjarte Eike has succeeded in presenting a frothy, joyous and surprising repertoire of Purcellian inspired fiddle music to popular audiences. The fiddlers can bawl out sea-shanties as well, but when Mr. Eike turns his bowing talent to a lament, there won’t be a dry eye in the house. Grand fun and superb musicianship. Star rating has been upgraded to *****!
DVORAK & SCHUBERT: String Quartets “Death and the Maiden” & “American” – The Dragon Quartet – Channel Classic 39417
Four young Chinese musicians, who have established themselves as premier soloists in a variety of international orchestras, have formed an All-Star unit to promote Chinese contemporary composers. This recording on Channel Classics shows their mastery of the mainstream 19th century war-horses. The pairing is ideal, with boisterous high-spirits balanced by both tender sweetness and nostalgia (Dvorak) and melancholy (Schubert).
J.S. Bach: Goldberg Variations – Beatrice Rana – Warner 88018
We were astonished at the musical reach and grasp of this young Italian pianist. The sunlit Aria and initial fleet variations show a remarkable technique, but it is in the later descent and “Black Pearl” that Rana measures up to the impossibly high standards of her predecessors. Audiophile Audition has this to say about her artistic wisdom:
It is in the depths of the Goldberg Variations that we are finally able to evaluate just how good a performance is. The marks of the best performances of this work are the ability to transcend mere technical challenges and to leave the instrument behind so as to comprehend the special universe of this creation in all its darkness and light. I am continually astonished that this young artist is able to do this and join the ranks of the greatest exponents of the GV, Andras Schiff, Murray Perahia, Angela Hewitt, Edward Aldwell, Jeremy Denk and Samuel Feinberg.
HAYDN: String Quartets opus 54 & 55 – London Haydn Quartet – Hyperion
I never thought that a HIP (historically-informed performance) quartet such as the London Haydn Quartet would ascend to the level of the greatest quartet of our generation, the Mosaiques Quartet. For three decades the latter has set an absolute standard for authentic 18th-century rendering of Haydn and Mozart. Now they have a serious challenger. Both ensembles feature illustrious old Italian fiddles, deep knowledge of Haydn’s rhetorical style, and lively dynamics. The London Quartet is patiently and chronologically proceeding through the mature works of the Master. The transparency of the recording of this lesser-known opus number is remarkable.
Morton FELDMAN: For Bunita Marcus – Marc Andre-Hamelin – Hyperion
This music sounds like something being assembled, with great care but also skepticism, as if there were no assembly instructions but all the time in the world to try infinite possibilities. It asks much from the listener, over 72 minutes, in which very little happens. Everything is a barely audible fff with damper pedal on. There is rarely more than one note at a time. After battling our way through boredom, we experience strange epiphanies. The possibility of such a radical restructuring of one’s own musical experience might make this recording a reference point for extreme music. Hyperion has matched an ideal sound to a first-rate performance (and liner notes) by Marc Andre-Hamelin.
DEBUSSY & RAMEAU: The Unbroken Line “Images Book I, Preludes Book II, etc” – MSR Classics 1654
It is a good idea to connect these iconic French composers by bookending two substantial Rameau pieces on either side of half of each of the Preludes and Images. This pianist has remarkable articulation and subtlety in his Debussy playing. However, his interpretation of Rameau is out of this world. Tristes Apprets from Castor and Pollux is offered in a stunning arrangement, and it instantly takes its place in the 18th-century repertoire as a keyboard masterpiece. The final Gavotte et six doubles is played more conventionally with a refinement that never becomes fussy.
Danish String Quartet: Last Leaf “Scandinavian Folk Tunes” – ECM New Series
This recording of sublime beauty consists of old hymns, such as Now Found is the Fairest of Roses (1732), and a variety folk songs, all exquisitely set for string quartet. There is admirable craft in the traditional melodies, but what prevails above all is the quintessential ECM aesthetic of sparseness, spaciousness, and precision. The Danish String Quartet is surely one of the most innovative in the business, and they have found an ideal label to pursue this sort of crossover genre.
J. S. BACH: Solo Works for Marimba – Kuniko Kato-Linn CKD 585
In midsummer, we received one of the finest recordings of the year from Linn Records, Kuniko Kato playing Bach’s cello suites on the marimba. We were familiar with her outstanding recordings of Reich and Xenakis, which amply demonstrated her agility and polyphonic legerdemain. Her Bach playing is of another order, however. Here there is more rapt contemplation than we usually find in these dance suites. In the end, the ravishing sound of the instrument sweeps away any cavil about tempo or voice phrasing. Here are some excerpts from the original review:
Throughout, she focuses the deeply resonant sound of her instrument) on the contrapuntal and melodic power of this music. She opts not to make these dance suites dance; the minuet and the gigue and fleet courante are all played with measured contemplation. Kuniko avoids lethargy and somnambulism by means of her exquisite rhythmic finesse. No lines are ever blurred, and the subtlest use of rubato gives the most pleasing shape to phrase, evoking sway and movement at every turn. The final demonstration of Kuniko’s art, as well as the Kapellmeister’s deep science, unfolds in the 12-minute fuga of BWV 1005. Never has the ponderous harmonic tension been borne aloft so easily; it is a summation and the final ascension of these grand works. The final Allegro assai has the marimba racing along, all four mallets warbling up a terrific chorus of semi-quavers. For sonics, this would be my demonstration piece, the full range of the instrument on marvelous display–along with the technical prowess of this gifted artist.
TELEMANN: Concerti per Molti Stromenti – Akademie fur Alte Musik – Harmonia Mundi
2017 marked the 250th anniversary of Telemann’s death. There were many fine releases including the 7 disc Telemann Companion issued by Harmonia Mundi, which included an excellent biographical essay. The single finest disc may well be this collection of concerti, which captures both the diversity of the composer’s genius and his love of unusual instrumental combinations. This is bracing and inventive music at the highest level played by the world’s best ensemble for the genre. It ranges from the elegant “Table Music” to riotous treatments of the fringes of the Baroque Style, with stylized Slavic dances and farcical French Court dances. Not to be missed by Early Music fans.