Sure, classical music is thriving in the digital world. Nowadays, record labels are counting on streaming and digital downloading for sales growth, and not the CD.
But for gift giving, there is nothing quite like unwrapping and finding a coveted CD in your hands. And reading the liner notes in the booklet while listening to the music? Sublime.
Below are my picks of 10 noteworthy recent releases. The music ranges from the Renaissance to cutting-edge contemporary classical. Something special and unique is going on in each of them.
The Artistry of Christopher Parkening
Notes radiate with a mature clarity and an honest intimacy, even when the music gets fast, emotional or tricky. On this excellent introduction to Parkening, works from his first four releases are included. You'll also find rarely performed works by Federico Mompou and Francis Poulenc as well as two Parkening signature works: J.S. Bach's Chaconne and Maurice Ravel's "Empress of the Pagodas."
A Naxos re-release of a 1993 recording that is a must-have for fans of Renaissance music and composer John Dowland. The Lachrimae was Dowland's seminal work, and as a musical exploration of melancholy it is unmatched in the classical repertoire.
Here, the Lachrimae is arranged for five viols and lute and expertly and lovingly performed by the British-based Fretwork ensemble.
The pairing of keyboard and percussion defines this stark but poetic eight-movement concerto, which Bresnick based on Francisco Goya's book of etchings "Los Desastres de la Guerra." Like the etchings, there is something bold and unapologetic about the 30 minutes of music that make up this concerto. Bresnick's concise and George Crumb-like music is performed with urbane brilliance by pianist Lisa Moore, who adds much light and lyricism. The So Percussion ensemble plays with fire and drive, and what is wrought is painterly music that grows on you with every listen.
This live recording is a testament to how a subtle and thoughtful approach to Mozart adds more, not less, to the music. Grimaud reveals an elegant, buoyant and no-nonsense approach to Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 19, yet the highlight of this CD is Grimaud's take on Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23. She plays with poise. Small moments bloom under Grimaud's care, and when a larger musical statement is needed, Grimaud meets the challenge. The highly nuanced performance by the Kammerorchester des Bayerischen adds much to the merits of this excellent disc.
Sometimes a breath needs to be taken before listening to the music of Franz Liszt. The scope of his music can be large, and pulling it off is a tricky affair. On this disc, Lugansky doesn't shy from Liszt's challenge. His playing is technically brilliant, crystalline and poetic. That much is clear in the Russian pianist's "Chasse-neige," where swirling trills are dispatched with a steely virtuosity. In his "La Campanella," each note alights brightly and starkly.
Nixon in China
Orchestra of St. Lukes, conducted by Edo de Waart
The Nonesuch label reissues the operatic recording by the Grammy-winning original cast. It comes redesigned here as a three-CD recording featuring a 68-page booklet with the complete libretto and new notes by Adams and director Peter Sellars, and original liner notes by librettist Alice Goodman and Michael Steinberg. De Waart coaxes a wonderful performance from the orchestra and his singers, elegantly seizing upon Adams' fluid, minimalist writing. With James Maddalena as Richard Nixon and Sanford Sylvan as Zhou Enlai. This is an excellent recording to get ahead of the San Francisco Opera's "Nixon in China," occurring in June.
Signs, games and messages
This will be a surefire treat for any string player with an adventurous streak. On this disc, we get music from the Hungarian-born Kurtág that, at first, plays out as fragments or short musical sentences. But taken as a whole they form a larger conversation where the violist speaks as poet and madman, sometimes in the same phrase. Here that role falls to violist Maurizio Barbetti, who gives Kurtág's music a gritty and virile sheen.
Rainbow Music of Central Asia, Vol. 8
with Alim and Fargana Qasimov
The ever-expansive Kronos Quartet collaborates with Azerbaijani singers Alim and Fargana Qasimov on the music of Central Asia on this CD and bonus DVD. A highlight is the ethereal 28-minute "Rangin Kaman," which proves how a Western string quartet can blend seamlessly with musical instruments such as the Afghan rubâb and the Indian tabla. Alim and Fargana Qasimov bewitch with their singing.
The Goat Rodeo Sessions
Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, Stuart Duncan and Chris Thile
In this excellent crossover experience, four string virtuosos show off their chops. Here, the dream team of cellist Ma, bassist Meyer, fiddler Duncan and mandolinist Thile perform original music melding folk, Celtic, Appalachian and jazz with a dose of drive and fun-loving personality.
Melancolía: Spanish Arias and Songs
Known for her interpretations of French Baroque music, Petibon turns to the melancholic music of Spain and Latin America on this fetching release. Petibon's waifish but crystalline colaratura is well-matched to this music of longing and loss. Petibon casts a wide net by exploring the Spanish zarzuela as well as Brazilian music of West African origin. Her finely shaped soprano is a blessing on Falla's "Vivan los que rien" from "La Vida Breve."