Five cool classical CDs of 2011
Here's a small and personal choice of some of the most enjoyable and creative "out-of-the-way" classical CDs of 2011. You remember 2011, don't you?
Two pianists used J.S. Bach's "Goldberg Variations" as the starting point for their contemporary explorations. In her "13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg", Lara Downes invited a stylistically varied baker's dozen of composers to contribute their own variations upon which Bach based his Goldbergs. Alas, one of them, Lukas Foss, died since the works were composed in 2004. I didn't like all the variations equally, and you probably won't either -- that's the modern music scene for you -- but, to borrow the cliché, found the collection's strength to be in its diversity. No composer style-war in-fighting here! Meanwhile, Dan Tepfer performs all of Bach's notes in his "Goldberg Variations" -- and plenty of his own, too. Tepfer, you see, is a promising young jazz pianist and composer, and follows each of Bach's variations with his own improvised reflection. It's a tour-de-force of musicianship and creativity (hat tip to Jazz a la Mode's Tom Reney for pointing this one out).
We did not lack for excellent new Vivaldi albums in 2011, but one stood out for its imaginative programming and spirited playing. In "Vivaldi & Friends: La Folia (Madness) and Other Concertos", harpsichordist Jeannette Sorrell and the Cleveland-based Baroque orchestra Apollo's Fire play two Vivaldi works straight, one of them also in Bach's arrangement, two others ("La Folia" and "Summer") in Sorrell's clever versions, and then save the best for last. The orchestra's principal cellist, René Schiffer, under the pen-name René Duchiffre, wrote a knockout concerto for two violas da gamba, an archaic stringed instrument that enjoyed a final flourishing during Vivaldi's time. You'd almost be convinced that the concerto was authentically baroque -- until, that is, you hear its "Tempo di Tango" finale. What fun!
Another example of innovative and effective early music programming came from American bass singer Joel Frederiksen and his Ensemble Phoenix Munich. In previous CDs, they've delved into the rich Renaissance repertoires of England, France and Italy. But on "Rose of Sharon", Ensemble Phoenix explores the diversity of American music from 1770-1870. And put the accent in the last sentence on diversity -- Shaker spirituals, political marches, Revolutionary laments, shape note hymns, minstrel music, William Billings, "Singing Billy" Walker and Stephen Foster. With superb voices -- standouts are Frederiksen and mezzo Deborah Rentz-Moore -- and warm recorded sound, this is one of the year's most treasurable albums.
You don't have to have been an old trombone huffer, as I was, to enjoy an all-brass album, indeed, quite a lot of creative and enjoyable new work is now being done for brass and wind ensembles. The Bay Brass, made up of members of several San Francisco-area orchestras, feature a half-dozen composers on their "Sound the Bells!", including John Williams, Morten Lauridsen, Bruce Broughton, and even San Francisco Symphony Orchestra conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. MTT's "Street Song", originally composed for the Empire Brass but here re-scored for large brass ensemble, is worth the price of the disc itself. Of course, most of the music download sites allow one to cherry-pick selections rather than spring for the entire album, a freedom-of-choice that has greatly reshaped the world of classical recording . And for the better, as far as I'm concerned, though I strongly advise going to sites that provide high-quality downloads, not just poor-sounding mp3s. If you think you can't tell the difference, try downloading both mp3 and "lossless" (e.g., FLAC or WAV) files of some piece of music, and hear what you've been missing. Now, here's to whatever off-beat, out-of-the-way sounds are in store for 2012.