From Bach to Bryars, best classical albums
bring repeated cheer
Here are 10 albums from 2016 that I have returned to again and again, with renewed pleasure each time. May they bring you comparable listening enjoyment this holiday season.
Beethoven: “Missa Solemnis”; Concentus Musicus Wien, Arnold Schoenberg Chorus, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, conductor (Sony Classical): After his retirement last December, Harnoncourt expressed the desire to have this album — derived from concerts and rehearsals in Graz, Austria, in summer 2015 — be his recorded testament. And so it is: A magnificent performance of Beethoven's great mass, filled with joy, wonder, humility and, above all, devotion.
Morton Gould: “The Complete Chicago Symphony Orchestra Recordings” (RCA Red Seal, six CDs): Gould was one of the most popular guest conductors to appear with the CSO during the Jean Martinon era, and the six albums he recorded for RCA Victor between 1965 and 1968 (including pathbreaking performances of Charles Ives) set standards for musical and technical excellence. Their reappearance in a bargain-priced boxed set should win new fans for Gould and the orchestra, especially among those who missed them in their LP incarnations.
Bach: “Goldberg Variations”; Mahan Esfahani, harpsichord (Deutsche Grammophon): Every decade or so, an interpreter comes along who takes you beyond what you thought you knew about this baroque keyboard masterpiece and makes the music feel startlingly alive. So it is with Esfahani, who scrubs Bach's intricate contrapuntal designs to reveal their structural logic, observing all repeats and the original tunings. Here's a back-to-Bach performance that lives wondrously in the present.
Schumann: Violin Sonata No. 1 and “Fantasiestucke,” works by Brahms and Bach; Itzhak Perlman, violin, and Martha Argerich, piano (Warner Classics): The freshness and immediacy to this live 1998 performance of the Schumann sonata shows what can result when two towering artists make music on the same intuitive wavelength. The three studio-made companion works get much the same royal treatment.
“Sephardic Journey: Wanderings of the Spanish Jews”; Apollo's Fire, Jeannette Sorrell, conductor (Avie): Most of the 20 selections on this disc are traditional folk songs and liturgical chants of the Sephardim, whose expulsion from Spain in 1492 led them to spread their culture to, and be influenced by, the various cultures of the Mediterranean world. Psalm settings, in Hebrew, by the early Italian baroque composer Salamone Rossi complete an absorbing collection of early music, beautifully performed by the Cleveland-based instrumental-choral ensemble and three vocal soloists.
Gavin Bryars: “The Fifth Century”; PRISM Quartet, The Crossing, Donald Nally, conductor (ECM New Series): The otherworldly surface calm of the composer's setting, for chamber chorus and saxophone quartet, of texts by the 17th-century English poet and theologian Thomas Traherne, belies the intense spirituality beneath. A fine premier recording brings us a glimpse of the infinite.
Sibelius: Symphonies Nos. 3, 6 and 7; Minnesota Orchestra, Osmo Vanska, conductor (BIS): This release, which concludes the ensemble's Sibelius symphony cycle under its Finnish music director, is a winner in every respect. Instrumental detail registers luminously within ice-blue musical landscapes.
Johnson: “Considering Matthew Shepard”; Conspirare, Craig Hella Johnson, conductor (Harmonia Mundi): Choral director Johnson's 106-minute oratorio for chorus, soloists and chamber ensemble is a powerful, highly personal response to the horrific hate crime — the 1998 murder of a gay college student in Laramie, Wyo., — that raised America's awareness of the need to push back as a nation against bigotry and homophobia. Moving among styles ranging from Lutheran hymnody to blues to Broadway, this modern-day Passion will move many listeners to tears even as it reaches beyond tragedy to peace, understanding and forgiveness.
Glass: “Einstein on the Beach”; soloists, Philip Glass Ensemble, Michael Riesman, conductor (Opus Arte, two DVDs): If you have the time and patience to absorb all that this bizarre if fascinating 1976 opera by composer Glass and director-designer Robert Wilson throws at you in the course of four hours and 40 minutes, you will find it a music theater experience unlike any other. Recorded in performances at Paris' Chatelet Theatre in 2014, “Einstein” is a visual and aural mind-blower.
“The Menuhin Century”; Yehudi Menuhin, violin (Warner Classics): Few if any recorded collections ever issued on behalf of any classical musician can approach the quality or scope of this mammoth Menuhin centenary set, which spans 53 years of his singular career and comprises 80 CDs, 11 DVDs and a hardcover book, lovingly produced and housed in a sturdy, LP-sized box — a bottomless grab bag of musical riches honoring the noblest and most humane of the great violinists.
John von Rhein is a Tribune critic.