Classical music: Seven recordings for under the Christmas tree

12/09/2012 12:00 AM

12/10/2012 2:04 PM

The music industry is changing.

Last year saw the first jump in total album sales since 2004, with classical music boasting an increase of nearly 7 percent. Most sales were digital – surpassing physical CDs for the first time.

Nonetheless, there's nothing like the tradition of tearing open Christmas wrapping to find a CD and reading through the booklet and liner notes.

Here are seven recent noteworthy recordings – some best suited to lovers of the classical canon, others for the adventurous. Most can be downloaded, though the best quality will likely be from CD.

Chopin: 24 Preludes, Nocturnes, Mazurkas and Scherzos

Maurizio Pollini

Deutsche Grammophon

CD and download

Is it emotional musical restraint and technical brilliance? Or is it cerebral coldness? These are usually asked about Pollini as a master Chopin interpreter.

Who cares? The 70-year-old Pollini's bond with Chopin's music has stood the test of time. This excellent CD offers trademark Pollini performing Chopin's 24 preludes – the ones he first explored on vinyl in 1974. Here is the telltale austerity. He delivers the preludes as a set of powerful but small-scaled gestures. It's a caress, not an embrace. The B-flat minor Scherzo is the highlight. A fine no-nonsense introduction to Chopin.

A Late Quartet

Angelo Badalamenti

Brentano String Quartet



Soundtracks often verge into messy musical territory. But when the subject of the film is the personal dynamics of a string quartet as it struggles to stay together – as is the case for "A Late Quartet" – there's no room for musical error.

Badalamenti, who has written music for many David Lynch projects, ("Twin Peaks," "Mulholland Drive"), is charged with the soundtrack and has written earnest and hypnotic music – some of which stands on its own – like the swirling and hopeful theme introduced in "A Jog in the Park." Also included in this recording is the Brentano String Quartet in a layered, bracing performance of Beethoven's String Quartet #14, Op. 131, (upon which the film is structured). It also includes Anne Sofie Von Otter singing Korngold's "Marrietta's Song" from "Die Tote Stadt."

Bach and Beyond, Part 1

Jennifer Koh, violin


CD and download

Some say Koh is an up-and-comer as a top-tier violinst. I say she's arrived. Her stellar tone, coupled with an intuitive sense for plumbing works of living composers, is noteworthy. The proof is found on this CD, which includes a smart arrangement.

Koh begins with a radiant performance of Bach's Partita No. 3, followed by Eugène Ysaÿe's Sonata No. 2. This gives way to Kaija Saariaho's pensive "Nocturne." Then comes a highlight of this CD – Missy Mazzoli's pliant and compelling "Dissolve, O My Heart." This, in turn, is capped by a sonorous Bach's Partita No. 2. That's as circular a musical evolution as you're going to get – and Koh delivers.

American Mavericks

San Francisco Symphony

Jeremy Denk, piano

SFS media

CD and download

When historians write of Michael Tilson Thomas' tenure with the San Francisco Symphony, they'll write glowingly about how the orchestra blossomed by performing a swath of the 20th century repertoire. These form the crux of this CD, which shows the orchestra in top form with musical modernism. From the bewitching solo that opens Henry Cowell's slinky "Synchrony" to the percussive eloquence of Edgard Varèse's "Amériques," there is urgency in the playing. The music plays on the ear as if part of an esteemed contemporary musical fabric. The captivating pianist Denk does not disappoint on Cowell's Piano Concerto.

Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi, the Four Seasons

Daniel Hope, violin

Konzerthaus Kammerorchester Berlin

Duetsche Grammophon

CD and download

A brilliant reconception of one of the most iconic works in the classical canon. Is it sacrilege? Far from it. The genre-bending Richter undertakes a note-by-note exploration of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons," and the result is an injection of much-needed life to a well-trod work. The CD begins, with the first movement of Spring, with music that cascades in bright, gleaming notes, like light snow. It then gives way to violin music with underpinnings suggesting Sigur Rós as much as Vivaldi. As the seasons progress, it is as if Richter is channeling Philip Glass and Arvo Pärt – and imprinting these voices into Vivaldi's musical DNA.

An interesting portal into how a work of art lives on best through interpretation.

Elgar Cello Concerto; Elliot Carter

Alisa Weilerstein, cello

Daniel Barenboim,

Staatskapelle Berlin



Here, firebrand cellist Weilerstein is led by Daniel Barenboim in Elgar's iconic Cello concerto – in a performance that lives in the shadow of the great cellist Jacqueline du Pré. Barenboim coaxes a highly emotional, and at times too emotional, reading from Weilerstein and the Staatskapelle. However, the highlight here is Eliot Carter's Cello Concerto, which the late composer wrote when he was 93.

In this work, Weilerstein's great talent shines through. She performs the seven movements with a bold command of the complex rhythms and she honors each of Carter's musical ideas – the Staatskapelle plays brilliantly, too.

Songs of Innocence and Experience

Walter Zimmermann

Sonar Quartet


Two-disc CD set and download

This recording introduces Zimmerman's complete quartets – and lays the brilliance of his music bare. His "10 Franconian Dances" mines dance music from the German hinterlands circa the 1930s. In some parts the violin plays as a whisper, and the music conjures quiet, fog-laden landscapes. In the four-movement "Festina Lente" musical notes appear like a slowly appearing armanda of ships. The iconoclastic "Songs of Innocence & Experience" offers 20 ritornellos based on William Blake's cycle of poems "Songs of Innocence." Each poem is condensed with children singing them. These were recorded by Zimmermann on the streets of Nuremberg. The inaccuracies and pauses oddly deepen the depth of this enchanting music.


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