Music: Best of the Rest

I have not done a “best of the year” list for 2006 because I fell too far behind in covering a multitude of excellent releases from last year. I must use this space to catch up. Some of these, no doubt, would qualify for the “best of designation. The general quality is staggeringly high and the repertory is fascinating. It would be an injustice not to mention, at least briefly, the items below, which I cover in roughly chronological order.

Joseph Eybler (1765-1846), beloved of Mozart, was lauded by his teacher, Johann Albrechtsberger, who said Eybler was, “after Mozart, the greatest genius that Vienna has in music.” That may be overselling him, but anyone who loves Haydn’s style of chamber music, with a dash of Mozartean charm, should get this delightful new release of his String Quintet and String Trio, Op. 2, with the Quintett Momento Musicale (MDG 603 1321-2).

Coming somewhat later, French composer George Onslow (1784-1853) specialized in chamber music every bit as deserving of audition as that of Ludwig Spohr, his exact contemporary. Onslow’s Nonet (for winds and strings) on a new CPO release (CPO 777 151-2) is redolent of Spohr’s masterpiece in that genre. It is joined by an equally engaging quintet for strings. The MDG label adds to Onslow’s reputation with a new release (MDG 603 1390-2) in its series of recordings of Onslow’s many string quintets with double bass—here, Ops. 38 and 67, delivered by the superb Quintett Momento Musicale. Charm is the hallmark.

The single most thrilling release of orchestral music from the early Romantic era is CPO’s CD of Johann Wenzel Kalliwoda’s Symphonies Nos. 5 and 7, played with extraordinary verve and dash by the original instrument ensemble, Das Neue Orchester, under Christoph Spering (CPO 777 139-2). This exhilarating music is a revelation of a major talent in the wake of Beethoven. Please, CPO, record the rest of these symphonies with these same forces.

Günter Wand was one of the great Bruckner conductors. In an earlier issue (February/March 2006), I praised his performance of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony from the Profil label as one of the greatest performances of anything I have ever heard. Now Profil has released a Wand performance of the Fifth, with the Munich Philharmonic (PH 06012). While Bruckner’s music, in the hands of a lesser conductor, can sound like the sonic equivalent of a boa constrictor, Wand has a way of breathing Bruckner and making everything sound completely natural—as if moving sonic mountains were natural. With incredible concentration, Wand unfolds this massive work with an organic cohesion that is gripping.

Do you love great chamber music from the late-19th and early-20th centuries? Then you need to obtain the Northern Flowers series of five CDs containing the eight numbered and two unnumbered string quartets by Sergey Taneyev (1856-1915), a Russian composer who combined contrapuntal genius and mastery with great passion. These indispensable late- 1970s recordings by the eponymous Taneyev Quartet were once available on the now-defunct Olympia label. It was a cultural crime that they ever disappeared. These restored treasures are distributed by Albany Records.

With Christoph Eschenbach’s new recording of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony with the Philadelphia Orchestra (Ondine ODE 1084-5D), one hears Mahler afresh. Eschenbach deals with the Mahler Sixth as if it were music rather than a neurotic breakdown. One reviewer found his approach similar to Bernstein’s. I find it the polar opposite and breathtakingly beautiful. The sound is unbelievably transparent— revelatory of myriad orchestral details. This fabulous performance is enough to undermine the reputation of the Sixth Symphony as being “difficult.”

One of the two reasons I fell in love with music was Jean Martinon’s recording of Carl Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony, performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. After an unconscionable absence, this recording has finally been remastered and re-released by RCA Red Seal (82876-76237-2) at mid-price. Here is Nielsen’s visionary music in its greatest performance that easily earns the work’s subtitle: Inextinguishable. This irreplaceable CD is a mandatory acquisition. It is paired with Morton Gould’s electrifying performance of the Second Symphony.

Before Warner Classics’s recent cessation of activity, the label issued its second release in what appeared to be a planned complete series of the orchestral music of maverick English composer John Foulds (1880-1939). Alas! At least we have the second entry with the Dynamic Triptych, the Music Picture Group III, and two other pieces, again performed by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, under Sakari Oramo. This entry may not be quite at the level of the first in terms of the revelatory character of its material, but it is still a big gift.

The Musiques Suisses label has released a CD (MGB 6238) containing Othmar Schoeck’s String Quartet No. 2 and Fritz Brun’s String Quartet No. 3, beautifully played by the Amar Quartet, These two works, both conservative for the times in which they were written (1923 and 1943, respectively), are simply gorgeous. The Schoeck has the autumnal glow typical of its composer’s music. The Brun is a major find, a work of real substance, contrapuntal richness, and, in the second movement, an almost Shubertian poignancy. I am entranced every time I listen to it.

Known today principally for his religious choral works, Ernst Pepping (1901-1981) was also apparently a symphonist. CPO has issued a two- CD set with his Three Symphonies and Piano Concerto (CPO 777 041-2). Pepping’s music is surprising in its pleasantness. In the first two symphonies, written under the Nazi regime, Pepping was obviously not reflecting his circumstances; perhaps he was escaping from them. These neoclassical charmers could not be further from the German worlds of angst or bloated solemnity. These works are fleet and extremely melodious (with an intriguing premonition of the theme from Close Encounters of the Third Kind in the First Symphony).

A CD of Malcolm Arnold’s music from the London Philharmonic label (LPO-0013) arrived unbidden the same week I learned the sad news of Arnold’s demise. I love the mercurial works of this master of hijinks, Mozartean charm, and Shostakovich-like orchestral onslaughts. This CD offers him at his puckish best in the Beckus the Dandipratt comedy overture, the lovely suite from the score to The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, and the Sixth Symphony, delivered in definitive manner by Vernon Handley and the LPO in these live recordings.

Music critic Walter Simmons doubled as a record producer to bring us the neglected works of Nicolas Flagello (1928-1994) on a new Naxos CD (8.559296) that offers his Piano Concerto No. I (performed only the second time for this recording), Dante’s Farewell, and the Concerto Sinfonico, with the National Radio Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, under John McLaughlin Williams. What if Rachmaninoff had been an American writing in the 1950s to the 1980s? Flagello composed in that highly dramatic, Romantic vein, and did so brilliantly. What price the avant-garde? Keeping vital music like this buried until Simmons and these fine artists finally let it live.

Speaking of neglect, I have never understood why the music of James Yannatos has not received more notice. One must be grateful that, as its director, he has had the excellent Harvard Radcliffe Symphony Orchestra at his disposal and has commanded the fidelity of the Albany Records label, which has issued several CDs of his highly engaging music. The latest (Albany TROY 835) is one of the best, with a sweetly meandering Violin Concerto firmly anchored in the Copland/Harris/Barber world of open, achingly lovely melody, exhilarating syncopated rhythms, and highly colorful orchestration. It is accompanied by a wonderfully jazzy Symphony Brevis and a Concerto for Contrabass that mixes the Baroque with an imitation of a gamelan orchestra.

I only just caught up with a stunningly good Albany Records CD of String Quartets Nos. 2, 3, and 4 (TROY 480) by Kenneth Fuchs, re-leased in 2001. 1 wrote an enthusiastic review of Fuchs’s ebullient orchestral work, An American Place, for Naxos recently; as a result, he contacted me and suggested I listen to his chamber music. I am glad that he did; these are among the best pieces of American chamber music I have encountered. Fuchs writes with a Janacek-like wildness, employs at times a piercing intimacy of a highly lyrical nature, and has a haunting Bernard Hermann—like quality to some of his themes and mysterious ostinatos. It is hard to imagine better or more gripping performances than those by the American String Quartet.

Somewhere in this list, I know you can find some of the “best of the year.” I leave it to your adventurous ears to discover them.

  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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