Sunday, December 19, 2010

Favorites of 2010: Music

A continuation of my Favorites of 2010: Books and Favorites of 2010: Movies and television. As before, my favorites weren't necessarily produced, but instead first encountered, in 2010.


Favorite rock recording: Patti Smith, Twelve. Columbia 87251 (2007).

Twelve is Patti Smith's album of covers, but it sounds and feels like a really good Patti Smith record. Some of the songs were originally by artists with whom she obviously has a strong affinity: Jimi Hendrix ("Are You Experienced?"), Mick Jagger & Keith Richards ("Gimme Shelter"), Jim Morrison ("Soul Kitchen"), Bob Dylan (though the song is a surprise: the born-again era "Changing of the Guards"). Other choices are more unexpected: Tears for Fears ("Everybody Wants to Rule the World"), Allman Brothers ("Midnight Rider"), Paul Simon ("Boy In the Bubble"), Stevie Wonder ("Pastime Paradise"). Many of the songs she includes are so iconic in their original versions that it's an act of daring even to attempt to cover them--only such a strongly individual performer could get away with it. A good companion to her recently released memoir, Just Kids. Thanks very much to Robin for sending this along.

Favorite classical instrumental recording: (tie)

Joseph Haydn: Baryton Trios. Balázs Kakuk, baryton; Péter Lukács, viola; Tibor Párkányi, cello. Hungaroton 31174 (1989).

The baryton was an 18th-century instrument that falls somewhere between a viola da gamba and a cello in its sonority. In addition to bowed gut strings, though, the baryton had another 8 to 20 sympathetic metal strings that could be plucked by the performer. These baryton trios were originally written for Haydn's patron Prince Nicholas Esterházy, an avid amateur baryton player; Haydn himself may have played the viola part. They are lovely works that generally reach neither for deep profundity nor for spectacular virtuosity, but instead for intimacy and melodic pleasure. One remarkable thing about the trios is that they involve only low(ish) strings, which results in a very rich sound. An utterly charming recording.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: Sonatas for viola da gamba and basso continuo. Paolo Pandolfo, viola da gamba; Rinaldo Alessandrini, harpsichord. Brilliant Classics 93362 (2008, originally recorded 1995).

Johann Sebastian Bach's second son, in contrast to his father, is sometimes accused of a lack of profundity. But these sonatas are masterful and expressive works that stand comparison with the senior Bach's own viola da gamba sonatas. At least, in these performances, which involve two of the most brilliant musicians to emerge from Italy's early music movement. This wonderful disc makes me wonder what other C.P.E. Bach treasures I've overlooked.

Favorite classical vocal recording: Lorraine Hunt Lieberson: Lorraine at Emmanuel: Celebrating the Lives of Craig Smith and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. The Orchestra of Emmanuel Music; Craig Smith and John Harbison, conductors. Avie 2130 (2008).

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's voice was "primally beautiful, rich in tone and true in pitch, warm and deep and wine-dark," as Alex Ross once wrote.[1] If you ever had the privilege of seeing Lorraine Hunt Lieberson onstage, you know what a thrilling experience it was to hear that voice live. And it wasn't just that her voice was gorgeous; her commitment to conveying textual and emotional meaning was total. During the time you'd spent in her company you felt that you had lived more deeply.

This disc documents three concert performances given at Boston's Emmanuel Church: two arias from Bach cantatas, and Dejanira's arias from Handel's oratorio Hercules. At first glance the programming seems a bit odd: the Bach works are sacred, the Handel secular; the Bach is in German, the Handel in English; and the dates of recording are several years apart (the earliest is from 1992, while the latest is from 1999). But this disc holds together thanks to Hunt Lieberson's superb performances. She was once a violist with the Orchestra of Emmanuel Music, and it's easy to believe that she felt a special connection with the ensemble. And with the music: conductor Craig Smith famously founded Emmanuel Music in order to perform Bach's cantatas, and Hunt Lieberson had performed many as both a member of the orchestra and as a featured vocalist. She also clearly loved Handel: she became famous in part for her assumption of the role of Sesto in Peter Sellars' production of Handel's Giulio Cesare at Glimmerglass in 1985, and made a specialty of Handel roles in her recordings with the Bay Area's Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. Hunt Lieberson's life was tragically cut short by breast cancer in 2006, making even more precious the rare documents (such as this one) of her profound gifts.

Favorite (semi-)opera recording: Henry Purcell, The Fairy Queen. Jonathan Kent, stage director; Paul Brown, designer. Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/The Glyndebourne Chorus; William Christie, conductor. Opus Arte DVD 1931 D (2010).

The Fairy Queen of the title is Titania, from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Purcell's music was originally performed as a masque in between acts of a heavily cut performance of the Shakespeare play, and remarkably that is how it is performed here. It makes for a long performance—the running time is 230 minutes, or nearly 4 hours—but in restoring the Shakepearean context the director Jonathan Kent allows Purcell's songs to reflect and comment on the action of the play. And the staging of the musical material is highly imaginative and really fun: I'm pretty sure that Purcell's original score didn't call for giant bunnies to bound onstage and start having sex in a variety of acrobatic positions (the, er, choreography is by Kim Brandstrup). The cast of vocalists (which includes Lucy Crowe and Carolyn Sampson) is excellent and quite characterful. Conductor William Christie's long familiarity with this score is evident in the sparkling playing he draws from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. A wonderful example of how Baroque theater can be reimagined for modern audiences without doing violence to its original meanings.

Favorite opera performance: (three-way tie)

Mozart and Da Ponte: Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). San Francisco Opera, with Danielle De Niese (Susanna), Luca Pisaroni (Figaro), Ellie Dehn (The Countess), Lucas Meachem (Count Almaviva), and Heidi Stober (Cherubino); Nicola Luisotti, conductor. Seen September 21 and October 5, 2010.

In an earlier post I wrote about why Le Nozze di Figaro is, for me, the greatest opera ever written. The San Francisco Opera's handsome Figaro, directed by John Copley, showed how effective a production can be when it pays attention to what the composer and librettist intended. It's set in the late 18th century (the time of its composition), and the sets and costumes realistically attempt to evoke a rural Spanish estate. There were a few missed opportunities—for some reason directors almost universally feel that they have to mess about with the garden scenes, which have no need to be changed—but mainly the action was straightforward and persuasively realized. Of course, it helped to have an excellent cast, with Danielle De Niese as an especially delightful Susanna, and Ellie Dehn as a touchingly vulnerable Countess. So good we saw it twice! (Photo: Danielle De Niese as Susanna; credit: Marty Sohl.)

Handel: Serse (Xerxes). Berkeley West Edge Opera, with Paula Rasmussen (Serse), Angela Cadelago (Romilda), Ryan Belongie (Arsamene), Anna Slate (Atalanta), Sonia Gariaeff (Amastre), Don Sherrill (Elviro); Alan Curtis, conductor. Seen November 21, 2010.

I wrote about this production in an earlier post. A wonderfully ambitious production for a small local company, with a conductor and prima donna of international stature and an accomplished supporting cast. This is exactly what companies like BWEO should be doing: programming under-performed gems in clever productions that make virtues of tight-budget necessities. I hope that the success of Serse leads to future productions of other comic or semi-comic Baroque operas: I vote for Cavalli's La Calisto.

Blow: Venus & Adonis. Magnificat, with Catherine Webster (Venus), Peter Becker (Adonis), and José Lemos (Cupid). Warren Stewart, conductor. Seen October 10, 2010.

I also wrote about this production in an earlier post. Venus & Adonis, like its successor by Purcell, Dido & Aeneas, is a lovely chamber opera that packs an emotional punch well out of proportion to its size. As I wrote earlier, "Magnificat made a compelling case for the work; given its obviously high quality and modest scale, I'm amazed that it isn't programmed more frequently....Thanks are due to Stewart and Magnificat for bringing this unjustly neglected work to life."

1. Alex Ross, "Fervor: Remembering Lorraine Hunt Lieberson," The New Yorker, September 25, 2006.

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