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.

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Off the shelf: Chicago bound

Next week I take off to Chicago for business and pleasure. The pleasure includes ushering in the Muti era with the CSO and Berlioz’s justly famous (and loved Symphonie Fantastique) and his less known Lelio. The Muti era is sure to build on the successes of Pierre Boulez and Bernard Haitink — the orchestra’s two post Barenboim placeholders. Neither will be gone from the Windy City’s classical music scene however. Boulez is slated to conduct a few weeks while Haitink returns for a series of Mahler concerts toward the end of the season.

Later this month CSO Resound will release a new recording of Verdi’s Requiem. The recording comes from a Muti led concert last season I believe. My favorite recording of the piece has always been Solti’s blazing performance on RCA. I expect this new recording to be as muscular, but with Muti’s signature elan.
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Off the shelf: Schwarz’s Schuman cycle released as box set


Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony’s survey of William Schuman’s complete published symphonies has been packaged and is in stores now in a convenient boxed set (Naxos, 8.505228). This is a set that is years in the making. I picked up the first few disks for pennies when the Queen Anne Tower Records was clearing out its stock at least three years ago.

The Third Symphony is especially good. Recorded in 2005, it benefits from improved sound over Leonard Bernstein’s version with the New York Philharmonic. I gave both recordings a listen in advance of this year’s season ending performance of the piece this year. Schwarz’s recording of the piece gets a thumbs up from me. It is a more focused performance than Bernstein’s. This helps listeners swim rather than slog through Schuman’s complicated textures.

The other symphonies come off just as well. For me the shorter orchestral works are the real discoveries, causing me to wonder why these works aren’t performed more often. Orchestra Song (which I am listening to right now) is a charming three minute work featuring every section of the orchestra including a wonderful trumpet solo by (I am assuming) David Gordon. A new recording of the Violin Concerto would have been a nice addition too.

The set is nicely packaged and nicely priced, though the documentation is limited to the notes that came with the original CD’s. Would it have been too much to ask of Naxos to include an essay or statement from Schwarz on why Schuman’s music means so much to him?

Off the shelf


Two innovative new releases highlight the course of classical music in the 21st Century: Cortical Songs (Nonclassical) by the duo John Matthias and Nick Ryan and Provenance (Innova) cellist, Maya Beiser’s new album. Both albums underscore a growing desire by musicians and composers to avoid confining forms, formats, and labels. Both releases come right up to the classical music line; neither crosses it.
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Off the shelf: Seattle Symphony, Ehnes, and the Prism Quartet

A number of notable albums have landed on shelves over the past few months. A number of them with local connections. Leading the bunch are two William Schuman releases from Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony. Schwarz and the local orchestra have been slowly recording all of William Schuman’s published symphonies and assorted orchestral pieces for Naxos. The final two releases in the series, disks featuring the Eighth Symphony and the Sixth Symphony , come coupled with shorter orchestral pieces also played by the SSO. The former includes the ballet score Night Journey and Variations on America; the later, Prayer in a Time of War and the New England Triptych — two patriotic pieces. On both releases, Schuman’s pieces are given heartfelt readings and the recordings are natural, faithful representations of the orchestra and the Benaroya Hall acoustic.

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Off the shelf

It has been a busy fall for live performances and equally busy for new, recommendable album releases.  A survey of some of the best, new recordings is overdue. One of the most notable releases, is the San Francisco Symphony’s recording of Gustav Mahler’s 8th Symphony. It is hard to get this piece to sound right in performance and on disk. So much is happening at all times where do a conductor, sound engineer and musicians begin? MTT seems to have a handle on all of the forces before him, and that allows him to proceed with an idiosyncratic performance, full of energy, which captures the spirit of the performance the recording is taken from. Whether you will enjoy this album depends on how you like your Mahler. If you want a performance which is straight faced and buttoned up then you should steer clear of MTT’s romp. However, if you like your Mahler, unpredictable and inventive then this disk is for you.

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Off the shelf

Peter Breiner, New Zealand Symphony Orchestra; Janacek Orchestral Suites from the Operas Vol. 3 (Naxos) ****

I am a fan of volume I and II in this series of orchestral suites drawn from Janacek’s various operas. Peter Breiner is both an able composer and conductor. He has produced a number of successful orchestrations and arrangements for Naxos, but his work arranging Janacek’s operas into orchestral suites is his best to date. In this recording, which includes two suites, one from the “Cunning Little Vixen” and the other “From the House of the Dead” is helped by a dearth of orchestral music in both operas for Breiner to work with. As was the case with the previous two releases in this series, this recording will undoubtedly introduce Janacek’s rarely heard operas to new listeners and give Janacek fans a new way to experience the composer’s operas.

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