Best Of 2004
As Chosen By Editor Steven R. Rochlin
Nigel Kennedy And The Kroke Band
This is a recording that grows on you. Not content to confine himself within the limits of the classical repertoire, Nigel Kennedy continues his exploration of world music. On this disc he plays Klezmer with the Polish musicians of the Kroke Band. He brings a fresh perspective to this spirited and until recently much-neglected art form. He is sensitive to the idiom and resists the temptation to use his virtuosity to beat the music into submission. This is a beautiful partnership and one of the most successful collaborations I have heard between musicians from such widely different arenas. Kennedy deserves great respect for this excellent adventure.
For 2004, the Blue Note Best Line-crossing Ingénue Music Award to Norah Jones, for the torchy jazz singer/songwriter is tearing up the airwaves, first with her Grammy-gathering first album, then with her more sedate, yet chart-topping second one too.Her elegant albums wore out grooves on smooth jazz and popular rock stations in 2004. Her assured phrasing and precise timing, interweaves with clean and simple piano, guitar, bass and brush drums allowing Jones' stylish vocals to breathe through the speakers. Jones blends classic tunes from Hank Williams, J.D. Loudermilk and Hoagy Charmichael in a mature, professional presentation with the promise, voice and hope of youth, and the control and style of record-setting jazz singer Diana Krall.
Arthur Rubenstein changed the way we think of Chopin. This 1961 recording of the Funeral March Sonata epitomizes his approach to the music of Chopin, giving us passion, power, sublime sonorities, structure and integrity. This reissue goes further than any previous release in bringing to life Rubenstein's amazing piano sound. This artist is famed not for his cerebral intelligence or his technique. These are tools that a great artist may use in creating a masterpiece, but they are only tools, not ends in themselves. Rubenstein is a complete artist, and he majors in communication, hiding all technique and thought processes behind the burnished magic of his playing. Music just flows from his fingers, and Chopin has the champion he so richly deserves.
This is not the most profound music Shostakovich ever wrote, but these performances must rank among the best of these two sparkling works. Hamelin is in magnificent form, placing his virtuosity at the service of the music with strong support from Andrew Litton and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Mark O'Keeffe has a wonderful time with the trumpet solos, and the Hyperion engineers have captured the performers in a clear, dynamic acoustic. Icing on the cake is the Shchedrin Concerto, biting and amusing, performed here with exquisite panache.
An unqualified success, Emmanuelle Haïm's account of Purcell's most famous work satisfies at every level of performance. The zestful playing by Le Concert Astree is only the first of the pleasures of this disc. It's the virtuoso, heartfelt singing by Susan Graham as Dido and Ian Bostridge as Aeneas, aided by a superb supporting cast that for me clinches this as the definitive recording of the opera. Add to this the beautifully realized sound world of Virgin's engineers and you have one of the outstanding recordings of 2004.
Though it is not what I would consider a flawless interpretation of Mahler's most approachable symphony, I so admire the passion and insight that Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony draw from its last two movements that I have to include this disc in my picks for the best of 2004. Soprano Laura Claycomb's voice perfectly suits the innocence Mahler calls for in the last movement, and she sings with a lovely sense of the wistfulness of the lyrics. But the greatest strength of Tilson Thomas's recording is the third movement Adagio, which unfolds with such slow beauty that your heart aches with the pleasure of it by the time it ends.
Jennifer Higdon's new Concerto for Orchestra is brilliantly performed by the Atlanta Symphony, under Robert Spano, and brilliantly recorded by Telarc. The 5-movement work is predominantly high-energy, with dazzling velocity in the first movement and finale, but also with a lovely slow movement at its center and two quirky but highly contrasting scherzo-like movements--the first for strings, the second for percussion--filling out the piece.
Divas of Mozart's Day
This is an unusually rewarding CD for several reasons: (1) its concept: 13 lesser-known, or completely unknown, arias written by Mozart and five others for five legendary sopranos who also "created" five of Mozart's greatest operatic heroines; (2) the excellence of the music itself, almost all written in the late 1780s; (3) the fascinating, detailed booklet notes; and (4) the lovely voice of Patrice Michaels, who may not be a diva but who displays taste and lyricism in her renditions, with excellent accompaniment by the Classical Arts Orchestra and fine sound from Cedille.
Carlo Maria Giulini: The Chicago Recordings
I have been fortunate enough to review a lot of great recordings during this past year. After struggling to choose between established artists such as Rafael Kubelik and Vladimir Horowitz and relative newcomers such as conductor Oleg Caetani or the brilliant pianist Piotr Anderszewski — all deserving of special recognition--I'm awarding my "Blue Note" to the EMI set I review in this very issue: Carlo Maria Giulini: The Chicago Recordings. It's a treasure trove of extraordinary music making that documents one of the great partnerships of conductor and orchestra.
Hantai's new recording has great imagination and strength. The music is imbued with the freedom and purpose that a singer would give it. Each variation is uniquely characterized, yet that never compromises the overall structure of the work. His variety of touch and the way it is used to support and reveal the music is wondrous.
Casa Guidi was the house in Florence where poets Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning took up residence after their mid-19th-Century elopement. The texts are from letters that Elizabeth wrote to her sister during the couple's early time together. The tuneful and frequently dramatic full-orchestra accompaniment occasionally challenges but does not obliterate Frederica von Stade's vocally flawless and insightful rendition of Mrs. Browning's words.
The Capriccio is a showcase for clarinetist Burt Hara, to makes the most of the score's varied virtuosic and expressive opportunities. In Praise of Music comprises seven short movements, each named for a historical or mythological figure: David, Apollo, Pan, Orpheus, Israfel, St.Cecilia, Mozart. It makes an attractive concert piece.
Johann Sebastian Bach
These French Suites are, to borrow from Madison Avenue, "not your father's J. S. Bach." My Enjoy the Music.com™ colleague David Cates' ear-opening recreations of what are generally regarded as among Bach's most decorous keyboard compositions are by turns impetuous, assertive, tender and warmly romantic. Cates makes telling use of rubato, and favors a greater dynamic range and more emotional treatment of melody than we are accustomed to hearing in this music. These performances have involved me far more deeply in this music that I would have expected from prior acquaintance.
[Editor's note: because our esteemed mono maven is not temporally bound to recently recorded music, we present his top choice from the many fine historical recordings he has covered this past year. -- Wayne Donnelly]
By a league, this is the best performance of Swan Lake on record. Antal Dorati is the master of ballet. His sense of the kinetic combined with his keen, heartfelt understanding of the dramatic narrative nearly always makes him first choice for the genre. This is as true for Stravinsky or Copland, as it is for Tchaikovsky. Despite better-sounding recordings from Ansermet and Fistoulari on Decca, this 1954 recording in mono from Mercury manages to convey all the pathos and delicacy that Dorati and his Minneapolis players endeavored to convey. When I reviewed this set I neglected to mention that it is also available on a 2-CD set from Mercury Living Presence 462 950. So there is no excuse not to have this near-definitive performance.