Off the shelf: favorite albums of 2010

Charles Ives Piano Sonatas; Jeremy Denk (Think Denk Media)
Along with Michael Tilson Thomas, Jeremy Denk is one of the few musicians fervently promoting Charles Ives in concert today. Through his regular appearances at the Seattle Chamber Music Society summer festival, Seattleites have come to appreciate Ives in large part because of Denk’s enthusiasm. With this album, the rest of the world is now be able to experience Denk’s insights into this neglected American iconoclast, abundant musicianship, and sharp musical wit. It can be downloaded from iTunes, purchased at the Seattle Chamber Music Society winter festival, or special ordered from Silver Platters.

William Schuman Symphonies; Seattle Symphony (Naxos)
Gerard Schwarz’s cycle of William Schuman’s published symphonies reached completion in February and quickly appeared as a box set. The cycle is a welcome addition to the catalog of American classical music recordings. This set wins as one of the best of 2010 because of the insight Schwarz and the orchestra bring to each piece as well as the virtuosic playing of the SSO.

Daron Hagen Complete Piano Trios; Finisterra Trio (Naxos)
2010 was a banner year for Hagen. A new opera and a lauded recording of his piano trios are but two examples of his successes. This CD caps a multi-year project by the local Finisterra Trio which commissioned the Angel Band Trio and premiered Wayfaring Stranger Trio as well.  You can’t help but love both the Finisterra’s playing and Hagen’s music.

Verdi Requiem; Chicago Symphony (CSO Resound)
Ricardo Muti took the podium as the CSO’s new music director in 2010 and CSO Resound – the orchestra’s own label – released their first Muti recording as well. Verdi’s Requiem is like comfortable pair of shoes for this the veteran Italian conductor, but this is an inspired recording, combing the CSO’s legendary power with refinement only Muti can achieve.

Mahler Symphony No. 9; Roger Norrington (Hanssler)
People tend to either love or hate Roger Norrington. His recordings often come under fire from period performance critics. For me personally, Norrington always elicits extreme reactions. His Elgar and Holst recordings are dreadfully pallid but his interpretations of Bruckner and Mahler have been luminous listening experiences. Fortunately, this new recording is one of the later.  Norrington’s swift tempos and customary transparency created by his performance ideas pay off.

Mahler Das Knaben Wunderhorn; Cleveland Orchestra and Pierre Boulez (DG)
This is the last installment in Boulez’s divisive Mahler project and it stands as one of his best in the series. The Wunderhorn selections benefit greatly from Boulez’s laser focus and disdain for hyperbolic indulgences. His soloists – Magdalena Kozena and Christian Gerhaher – are superb. As expected the Cleveland Orchestra plays brilliantly.

JS Bach Sacred Masterpieces; JE Gardiner (Archiv)
In the re-release category, Archiv’s limited edition box set of all JE Gardiner’s Bach recordings for the label was certainly at the top of the heap for 2010. Gardiner approaches Bach with a period performance mind set but doesn’t relegate the music’s inherent feeling to the background. Grab it while you can.

Tchaikovsky Piano Trio in A minor; Gould Piano Trio (Champs Hill)
Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio doesn’t hang together very well as a piece. The first movement’s exaggerations don’t blend with the ho-hum theme and variation second movement. Nevertheless the Gould Piano Trio makes the piece work by digging into the piece, reigning in its excesses, and turning its banality into a source of guilt free pleasure.

Brahms Piano Pieces Opp. 118 and 119, etc.; Murray Perahia (Sony)
Perahia’s latest recording hit shelves weeks before he canceled countless recitals on account of a nagging hand injury that has plagued him from time to time. This is the pianist’s first Brahms recording in 20 years. Perahia’s playing is uniformly beautiful and each phrase resonates with poetic warmth. Hearing this recording it is easy to conclude that Perahia is one of the most important pianists of the last fifty years.


One thought on “Off the shelf: favorite albums of 2010

  1. I received Denk’s recording of the Ives sonatas for Christmas, and I have to say, on first hearing, I don’t care for it as much as others – and I have close to a dozen recordings of the Concord. Denk seems to think Ives is an American Liszt (as if we needed one), and he goes in for romantic bombast while smoothing over the mood shifts and jokes with lots of pedal. The result is aggressive but homogenized. The Emerson movement suffers in particular. It’s loses much of its grandeur in this recording. In contrast, the Thoreau movement is overly misty, like a parody of Debussy. (The flute at the end is so distant and washed out that its entrance makes hardly any impression at all.) Ives’s wit is lacking here, and his more homespun elements lack flavor: the hymns aren’t very hymnlike, the rags aren’t very raggy, and you can’t march to the marches. And for the very first time in my life, the First Sonata left me with a headache. Denk made me wonder if I have been wrong about the value of Ives’s music for so many years. Needing reassurance, I went back to Alan Mandel, Nina Deutsch and William Masselos, and gratefully, I found it in them. .

    Maybe I’ll feel differently with further listening. Every new recording of Ives should be welcome, and, as multifaceted as he is, he should be able to support a range of approaches. Not today, though.

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