Thursday, December 27, 2007

Rembrandt Q. Einstein's Sixty-Ninth Annual List of the Top Ten Classical Albums of the Year!

Yesterday, I presented you the riff-heavy favorites of my filthy, out-of-style metalhead persona, complete with ridiculous black t-shirt. Today, you get the highbrow favorites of my well-groomed, out-of-style classical persona, complete with suave black suit. Oh, I'm still a moody, melancholy jerk - relax, I don't have any plans to blow shit up - yet - only the style of the strings has changed. And as much as I adore the power chord - and Lucifer, do I fucking ever - if I happen to get saddled with the desert island treatment, the complete symphonies of Beethoven it is. Now that is a pinnacle of the human soul, of all our hopes and fears, dreams and nightmares, loves and losses. In short, the world. Old Gustav was right, after all.

Thus, I present to you, not-so-gentle reader, the top ten classical albums of 2007 according to your friendly neighborhood jackass. Why only an even ten this time around? Because sonata forms are orderly, you bastards! All caveats outlined yesterday still apply.

1. Leif Ove Andsnes and the Artemis Quartet, Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms, piano quintets. The most romantic of the Romantics poured his Teutonic soul into this, for all intents and purposes, musical love letter to his hard-won bride, virtuoso pianist Clara Wieck, and the players on this disc prove more than worthy of baring that soul for all to hear, especially in the dark lament of the purely melancholy second movement and the shadowy joy of the propulsive finalé. Mr. Andsnes, a supreme player of all things Greig, provides the perfect counterpoint of romantic sensibility to the talented Artemis Quartet. If only the rest of us mere mortals could come up with as enduring a statement on love as Mr. Schumann did over a century-and-a-half ago. Oh, and the Brahms isn't too shabby, either.

2. András Schiff, Ludwig van Beethoven, piano sonatas, volumes IV and V. Yes, these have been recorded dozens upon thousands of times (as I'm sure has been, and is being, repeated ad nauseum by reviewers everywhere), but Schiff continues the brilliant interpretations that he started during his collaboration with cellist Miklos Perenyi on The Man's complete works for cello and piano. Schiff has peeled away much of the heavy residue that has dirtied up these works over the years. Everything sounds crisp and new. I still dig Wilhelm Kempff's 1960s recordings a lot, but these rank right up there. Plus, the Moonlight continues to make me well up every time I hear it, so one more fresh spin is always welcome.

3. Julia Fischer, Piotr Tchaikovsky, violin concerto. Sweet Mephistopheles, Fraulein Fischer is a looker. Oh yeah, she can play a mean bit o' violin, too. Notorious 19th century music critic and professional asshole Eduard Hanslick hated this piece, but he was a fucking fool. Humanity has come to its senses since then, and my dear Julia pushes the outer edges of the work with aplomb. And the central andante? Sigh. But just wait until the finalé, marked allegro vivacissimo, thunders like your heart feeling those first pangs of soul-melting love. Full-blown, supercharged romanticism, mes amis. I defy any cold, calculating, logical bastard to not love that. Vivacissimo, indeed.

4. Osmo Vänska, conductor, Ludwig van Beethoven, symphonies nos. 1 and 6. The edition of these musical pillars conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe have been the benchmark by which I, with my utter lack of grounding in musical theory, judge every other set that plods along. I just go by what stirs my soul. But you know what? These are about as close as anyone has gotten. No overwrought Bernstein-ian melodrama, no tinny, period-piece instrumentation - like the Maestro wouldn't have used the loudest fucking strings available - this series continues to be lithe, athletic, rhythmic, powerful, and when necessary, as in the nearly obscene beauty of the Pastoral symphony, gentle and uplifting. Awesome, in the most traditional sense of that now-trite word.

5. Graham Johnson, Kate Royal and others, The Songs of Robert Schumann, volume 10. Master pianist/interpreter/writer of the finest CD booklets ever Graham Johnson spearheads the penultimate volume of Hyperion's ongoing series. Running the gamut from 1840, his 'year of song,' through the rest of the decade into the next, Mr. Johnson has enlisted some of the finest singers around (Felicity Lott, Ann Murray - no, not that one) in addition to newcomer and supreme babe, Kate Royal. The obvious care that went into bringing out the sheer, unabashed romanticism (yeah, that again - what can I say, I'm a big sap) of the the tortured German is plainly evident. Beautiful, heartfelt songs, and if I was ever to create anything remotely decent enough to be published - stop laughing! - Mr. Johnson is the only man I'd choose to be my patron. You want to know about the poems and poets Schumann selected, the insights into the music? You've got it in overflowing, lucidly-written abundance.

6. Roglit Ishay and Peter Bruns, Charles Koechlin, Chansons Bretonnes. A series of short, enchanting works for cello and piano, the dreamlike world of ancient Brittany flush with slowly fading Arthurian tales is easily brought back from the brink of oblivion with the players' full-bodied, determined sound. Composed in the last century, these modern, yet tonal works carry nothing but the utmost respect for the traditions of the past. The bonus Koechlin and Debussy sonatas are just as exceptional. This is one of those discs where you press play, close your eyes, and let the notes take you somewhere magical.

7. Marc-André Hamelin, Charles-Valentin Alkan, concerto for solo piano. The French-Canadian is not human. Or if he is, he must've traded in his flesh-and-blood hands for the cold steel ones of the robot devil. According to the experts, a lot of Alkan's output is fiendishly difficult to play; it certainly sounds like it to this fellow's untrained ears, yet Hamelin continues his wizardry with these, if difficult, also immensely beautiful and permanent works. If there was any justice, we'd have a lot more Alkan in the performing repertoire. After hearing this, if you disagree, I'll ship you to Guantanamo myself.

8. Joel Frederiksen, The Elfin Knight. Given the tradition of fine countertenors who've interpreted Elizabethan-era song - the legendary Alfred Deller up to today's Daniel Taylor - it's a rare thing to hear a bass singing Watkin's Ale, Go From My Window or Greensleeves. Well, the man pictured to our left certainly can, and has risen above mere singer to become a storyteller in the best sense of the word. Songs that for so long were associated with lilting, higher registers gather an earthy, street-level quality that offers proof of the variety of interpretation available to the artist. A superb disc, and hopefully a precursor to record labels allowing the bass to stretch out beyond disc after disc of opera.

9. Yevgeni Sudbin, Alexander Scriabin, piano works. Alexander Scriabin was one wacky dude who composed some genuinely avant-garde works that even today have some listeners shaking their head. Yevgeni Sudbin may or may not be one wacky dude, but the young man can play with gusto, mixing well-known Scriabin pieces with some you rarely hear. Yes, the infamous - as far as classical pieces go - piano sonata no. 9 in F major, the 'Black Mass,' is here, and despite having been recorded probably more than anything the Russian ever composed, sounds novel, dangerous and full of controlled lunacy more than any other take I can remember. An exceptional recording.

10. Duo Trobairitz, The Language of Love. Faye Newton and Hazel Brooks skillfully bring 12th and 13th century France to life. Brooks' sweet, yet sinewy vielle highlights and strengthens Newton's soprano in tales of courtly and pastoral love. Her voice soars yet never overwhelms; it's strikingly reminiscent of Vivien Ellis' work with Sinfonye and the Dufay Collective. Though spiced with the occasional moment of medieval humor, the work beautifully presented on this disc is of an idealized world of rarely fulfilled, often heartbreaking stories of that most treasured, alluring and frustrating of human emotions. The imagined world of the troubadours and trouvères is mostly a creation of the medieval masculine-dominated mind, yet if Newton and Brooks don't inject that world with a modern feminism, they go far in making that time more universal.


Mary Ellen said...

That's better! I'll check out number 9, Yevgeni Sudbin, Alexander Scriabin, piano works. I'm a huge fan of piano concerto's and this guy sounds interesting.

La Belette Rouge said...

I am not much of a music gal--not a huge fan of classical or rock. I don't like sports and I hate the Christmas movie. I am so happy you are still my friend with my multitude of obvious and glaring flaws. ;-)

The Cunning Runt said...

Those aren't "flaws," lbr - claws would be "flaws."

If we were all as eclectic as Randall, who would do the shopping??

As far as Classical, it either bores me to tears or moves me to tears, no clear pattern to anticipate which. Though I'm consistently tumescent for solo cello works ;)

La Belette Rouge said...

Cunning Runt,
I love you!!! I am a well trimmed weasel. My claws are always well trimmed and properly filed :-)
I like a Cello solo, too. Does that count, Randal?

FranIAm said...

This is effin sweet Randal, really good.

Wow. So much better than that other list that made me feel like an old shrew.

BTW- I have given you some linky love. It is however in the form of a meme.

I told you to practice safe blogging but you had to persist, didn't you?

Mathman6293 said...

Classical type music is so difficult to gain a grasp of. I have been listening to it for most of my life and hardly recognize any of the artists you discuss. Funny though, I don't feel slighted at all because all the different recording and pieces are just that different due my different tastes. I really miss my old access to the classical the repertoire.

In fact, my classical records are the equivalent to classic rock compared to current rock. The collection is filled with Herbert von Karajan, Fritz Reiner and Sir Georg Solti recordings.

Anonymous said...

I have an affection for the cello and piano so #6 will no on my list. Now if all of this listening would sink into my fingers, my piano teach would love me.

Randal Graves said...

ME, you'll dig that disc and oh yeah, Scriabin was one interesting dude, mixing religion, theosophy, his belief in some universal messianic music, all kinds of fucked up esoterica.

LBR, you send pains through my soul with all these emotional assaults. But, if you still dig writing and France, sigh, I suppose we could be friends. ;-) And of course that counts! Go buy a copy of Casels' take on Bach's solo cello suites!

TCR, I may be eclectic, I'm just not good at anything. :) As for the cello, seriously check out the Koechlin then. It's not solo cello obviously, but there's a lot of it and it's beautiful.

Fran, my kids think I'm old for listening to this 'old man' music, so I'm right there with you. And hey, you sneak a link on me like that, naughty things can happen.

Mathman, there's just so much stuff out there, it can be overwhelming. And like you said, different tastes. We find a conductor, player, composer we dig and try to gather as much of it as we can.

I love some Karajan and Szell and all that, and these newer folks carry on that tradition. How far along are you on digitizing your old vinyl?

Colleen, you'll love that disc for sure. And try the arcane art of osmosis. It's foolproof and you'll be playing like Gould in no time.

FranIAm said...

Sneaking a link in is your specialty as I understand it... (ahem fran coughs nervously)

Randal Graves said...

You Catholic girls are the worst! I wonder what specialties you need to confess.

pissed off patricia said...

I feel like a lost lamb on this one. Try as I might, I cannot work up an appetite for classical music.

Candace said...

Oh good, at least I've heard of these guys. :)
I've learned to enjoy classical music over the past 20+ years, thanks to my hubster. His favorite is Wagner - the music, not the man. Although, he says when he listens to Wagner he sometimes gets an urge to invade Czechoslovakia...

Randal Graves said...

POP, I cannot fathom how that is, but then again, I cannot work up an appetite for a lot of stuff myself.

Candace, see, I'm not that out of touch with the world. ;-) I love Wagner too, but it's hard to not think about what a vile fuck he was when listening to his stuff.

Hmm, can we get him to invade the US and depose the current occupant of the White House?

dguzman said...

I'll have to check out Frau Fischer's work.

Is it sexist of me to say that I love it when classical singers/musicians are HAWT? I just think it's such a great irony, because most people expect classical music to be about old gray-haired dudes, or weird-looking geeks; so when it's a hot man or woman breakin' down the Mozart or the Chopin, it's just that much cooler, you know?

Randal Graves said...

Is it sexist? Probably. So what? ;-)

If someone can make beautiful music while hot, more power to them! I'd much rather look at a babe in a slinky getup that some stodgy senior citizen!