The year began, as so many have, on a note of dire -prophecy from the gloomiest of Britain’s cultural observers. Norman Lebrecht’s "rock-solid prediction," offered in an online magazine last January, was that "The year 2004 will be the last for the classical record industry." Well, now.
Assume for a moment that Mr. Lebrecht’s latest prediction contained a scintilla of veracity. The least you could say is that the classical record industry in the year 2004 threw itself one helluva wake. My own list of memorable achievements from that industry — and its cousins over in the DVD factories — reflects a cultural accomplishment worthy of any time in the history of recording, glory days or no. What’s more, the mail has just produced the January handout of releases from Naxos and its related labels, and it looks as if that one branch of the classical industry may have missed its own death date. Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, Mr. Lebrecht, life goes on.
All but one entry in my personal list is of vocal music; that is a matter not of taste, merely of happenstance. Anyone so prejudiced against the sound of the human voice as not to be stirred — deeply stirred, down to the last lumbar synapse — by the sound of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson turning a simple phrase of Handel into the essence of love, devotion and passion unalloyed is, I am afraid, lost to all music. She sings Handel arias on an Avie CD, and on an Image DVD she joins with Dawn Upshaw in Peter Sellars’ sublime production of Handel’s Theodora. If all other discs were to disappear, these two would suffice.
When I began my collection there existed only one Marriage of Figaro, and that one abridged. Now there are dozens, some with superstars, some with uptight "authentic" conductors. The new Harmonia Mundi set, led by René Jacobs, has extraordinary clarity, above all in the ensembles; this gives the work a dramatic strength that seems entirely new and entirely exhilarating. I could not keep this as my only Figaro (the old London set under Erich Kleiber is the perfect counterbalance), but I would need them both on that island.
It was the year of Schubert’s Winterreise — two marvelous recordings, and I was lucky enough to hear both performances live as well: Matthias Goerne with Alfred Brendel here and on a Decca disc; Ian Bostridge with Leif Ove Andsnes at Carnegie Hall and on EMI. The dark resonance of Goerne’s doom-haunted voice comes closer to what we tend to draw from Schubert’s tragic wanderings, yet it is the voice of Bostridge — fragile, insistently human, singing for the most part in the music’s original keys — that brings us closer to the composer himself, doomed to an early death not long after creating these songs. Both pianists, it goes without saying, add immeasurably to the overall impact.
The great Leon Fleisher, halfway out of circulation since 1964 due to partial paralysis of his right hand, returned eloquently on a Vanguard disc titled, appropriately, Two Hands and containing, best of all, a wise, spacious journey through the last of Schubert’s piano sonatas. An adequate collection would need several performances of this baffling, momentous work, with this Fleisher disc and Mitsuko Uchida in the lead.
"Baffling, momentous": Finally, something like justice has been done to the entirety of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens, a DVD (on Opus Arte) of a performance at Paris’ Théâtre du Châtelet conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner, designed and directed by Yannis Kokkos and with a cast brightly lit by the Dido of Susan Graham, the Aeneas of Gregory Kunde and the Cassandra of Anna Caterina Antonacci. It’s something of a challenge, I know, adjusting the size of Berlioz’s grandiose conception to your video screen, but this one is truly worth the effort.
A BETTER WAY
For the Decca DVD of John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer, no operatic stage was enlisted; the opera was studio-produced for its medium, and it gains immeasurably. Neither side of the conflict — Arab terrorist, Jewish victim — is in any way softened. Intercut footage serves, if anything, to illuminate the basis for Arab hatred; the murdered Klinghoffer, moved center stage as he was not in the original production, heightens the tragedy and deepens the power of Adams’ intense, disturbing score, possibly the masterpiece among his dramatic works to date.
Setting the entirety of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience as a whole musical evening took the kind of derring-do that William Bolcom has mastered: some ragtime here; some deep, dense lyricism there; a setting of "Tyger, Tyger" for men’s chorus and drums; some rock; a smidge of reggae. Twenty years after its premiere, there is finally a recording on, of course, Naxos, one of the few labels left capable of derring-do. Leonard Slatkin conducts, and rest assured, Mrs. Bolcom (a.k.a. Joan Morris) is all aglow among the soloists.
George Crumb turned 75 last year. He doesn’t seem to get the performances he once did, although his music remains bright, edgy and startling; Bridge Records, bless ’em, keep it alive. Volume 7 has the sensational Black Angels for amplified string quartet that moved troubled spirits back in Nixon days, and Unto the Hills, a lovely new set of Appalachian folk settings for soprano (his daughter Ann) and a glorious array of percussion. It goes on the shelf alongside the Bolcom.
Valentin Silvestrov lives on the near horizon through marvelous discs on ECM. His Requiem for Larissa pounds on our consciousness with jagged savagery. Winds and brass hurl fragments of troubled melody over empty vastness, and at the end a soft wind seems to caress a troubled landscape. That all seemed like poetic nonsense when I wrote it a few months ago, but I listened again and don’t need to change a thing.
Guilty pleasures: I Like Your Eyes Liberty has Terry Riley’s music and Michael McClure’s poetry from spontaneous recording sessions at the Sri Moonshine Studio, and suddenly you’re in San Francisco, 1964. It’s on the Sri Moonshine label. Brian Wilson’s milewide Smile is on Nonesuch, the feel-good almost-classical album of the year, or maybe 10 years.