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Best Classical Record Albums of 1997  Print E-mail
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Written by John Sunier   
Monday, 01 December 1997

Each of the past 12 years as I have hosted my national radio series Audiophile Audtion I have selected about 60 to 65 concert music CDs which during the year past struck me as combining great music, great performances and exemplary sonics. These Cds are selected based first on superior performances and secondly on excellent sonics. With that said here are the top ten best classical records of 1997.

BACH: Brandenburg Concertos (complete) - Il Giardino Armonico/Giovanni Antonini(Teldec 4509-98442-2, 2 CDs):
The six Brandenburg Concertos were the first major Bach works that I became familiar with in my youth. The source, as I recall, was a mono open reel prerecorded tape. I've heard a lot of Brandenburgs since then and this one is the most exciting, muscular and awake interpretation around. My previous favorite, and I'm not ditching it, was the one conducted by composer Benjamin Britten on the London label.

The first of the six concertos is the most elaborate and colorful, with stirring solos by two French horns, not found in the other five concertos. All five have different instrumentation, with the sprightly underpinning of the harpsichord. The gusto with which these Milanese musicians tackle their Bach makes nearly all other versions sound like the players are on Valium. Both musicological and sonic purists may cavil against an occasional rough string attack, but I think the almost revolutionary enthusiasm that is conveyed here is well worth it. This is definitely NOT Bach-to-snooze-by. The sound is very clean and close, with good balance among the various players of the chamber ensemble, especially with the harpsichord (which often seems to either overide the ensemble or not be heard at all). If you dig this set, you'll probably also want their previous CD, also on Teldec, Il Giardino's amazingly pepped-up Vivaldi Four Seasons.

BRAHMS: The Four Symphonies; Academic Festival Overture; Haydn Variations - Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Sir Charles Mackerras (Telarc CD-80450, 3 CDs)
Yes, there's a lot of complete Brahms symphonies on CD - - some of the best are from Abbado, Ormandy, Walter, Haitink, Furtwangler and Karajan. Yet this one boasts something unique. It is part of the musicological thrust toward trying to achieve a performance style today that is closer to the way the music was performed when it was originally composed - and this whether it is very early music or works as recent as these, from the middle of the last century. The CD boxed set is subtitled "In the Style of the Original Meiningen Performances."

This was a Court Orchestra of 49 players with whom Brahms had a special relationship. A push toward ever-increasing size of orchestras was going on in Brahm's day, but this one resisted that. Various performing styles were different from today's general practices. For example, less vibrato was used by the string players. A generally more chamber, delicate sound of Brahms is what you get here, and it actually serves to emphasize some of the music's climaxes instead of dulling them with an overly dense sound. There's plenty of variety among the four symphonies, all brimming with lovely melody. My favorite has long been the stentorian No. 1, which has become something of an audio buff's test record because the repeated bass drum heard at the very opening of it is a very good test for absolute polarity in a system. Telarc's engineering (using only a pair of Neumann vacuum tube mikes) delineates the simpler instrumentation with great clarity and fine spatial distribution. Mackerras is one of the best conductors this label has - his major Mozart series for them is beyond criticism.

HANDEL: Concerti Grossi Opus 6 - Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon 447 733-2 (3 CDs):
This set of a dozen concertos for strings with harpsichord continuo is among Handel's finest concerto groupings just as the Brandenburgs are among Bach's. The composer was stimulated to write them by the great success in England of similar sets of concertos by Corelli and Geminiani. Handel's are also in the Italian style, with a small body of instruments (the concertino) pitted against the larger group. In the late 1600's-early 1700's this normally consisted of outside musicians brought in for the concert, while the concertino was the `house" band and the better musicians being shown off.

The variety is captivating in these dozen works though all follow the general form and structure. Most include movements that are derived from dances of the period and some really swing, with chugging chordal rhythms that are infectious. The slow movements frequently have lovely violin themes. Altogether a fine introduction to Baroque instrumental music and to some of the Italian composers (other than Vivaldi) writing in a similar vein. DGG's 4D sound process is a major step beyond most of their previous recordings, and finally we come to the performers: the conductor-less Orpheus is one of the two or three finest chamber ensembles in the world today. All of their recordings have been superb without exception. They play as if they are genuinely into the music and wide awake; just compare their version of almost anything to the same done by "members of" any of the top five major orchestras in the U.S. - - one needn't be a musicologist to detect the difference.

BERNARD HERRMANN: The Film Scores:
Sel. From The Man Who Knew Too Much, Psycho, Marnie, North by Northwest, Vertigo, Torn Curtain, Fahrenheit 451 & Taxi Driver
Los Angeles Philharmonic/Esa-Pekka Salonen (Sony Classical SK 62700):
This project is not your usual film score album, which often fails to credit performers or conductor. Conductor Salonen hoped that hearing a major symphony giving this great film music the same attention it gives other symphonic works would create more curiosity among non-classical listeners to want to hear other classical music. And after all, Herrmann is regarded as the Beethoven of Hollywood film music, at least in the stature department.

While the German Romantic style pervaded most classic film scores, Herrmann leaned more toward Debussy and Sibelius, often writing for small, quirky groupings of instruments. He was the favorite of Welles and Hitchcock, and most of this CD's music was created for the latter director. The seriousness and craft here show that the young Finnish conductor and his LA players regard the music as worthy of their interpretive skills as other 20th-century repertory they advocate. The wide dynamics are particularly effective; this may be the first Sony surround sound album since the days of quad - perhaps to put it on an even basis with the classic RCA series of Dolby Surround film score CDs involving the National Philharmonic conducted by Charles Gerhardt. However, music surround enthusiasts will find a more pronounced and natural soundfield on the standard stereo classic "The Fantasy Film World of Bernard Herrmann" with the composer conducting that same orchestra (Mobile Fidelity UDCD 656).

SHOSTAKOVICH: Ballet Suites Nos. 1 & 3; Suites Nos. 1 & 2 for Jazz Orchestra - Frankfurt Radio Symphony/Dmitri Kataenko (Victor Red Seal 09026-68304-2):
This is definitely the "other side" of Shostakovich; not the long-suffering, dour Shostakovich of most of the symphonies, concertos, quartets and the rest of his powerful body of works. These works were ordered by the Soviet authorities or Shostakovich would never have written them. But while he was at it anyway, it's clear he decided to have the maximum fun in the process and turned to Broadway and jazz for his inspiration.

The ballet suites are collections of short wonderfully rhythmic and melodic bon-bons that couldn't be further from the common picture of Russian musical expression as sad and put-upon. Some of these waltzes, polkas, galops and so forth have shown up on American pop concert programs and as filler on classical radio stations. Andre Kostelanetz recorded a sparkling LP of selected ones some years ago, but this version keeps the pieces in their original order in the suites, and RCA's sound is topnotch for its clarity and snap. The Jazz Suites aren't really for jazz orchestra, but only a bit more syncopated than the ballet suites, using some instruments associated with jazz (such as the saxophone), and some of the effects of modern pop music.. . modern in l934, that is. The composer dove into this whole area of popular music via a bet with a conductor that Shostakovich couldn't orchestrate within an hour a tune titled "Tahiti Trot" that they had just heard on the radio. Shostakovich won, the tune turned out really to be Tea for Two, and it ended up as a movement in his ballet The Golden Age!

TCHAIKOVSKY: Swan Lake Ballet (complete) - Marinsky Theatre Orchestra, St. Petersburg/Victor Fedotov (JVC Classics JVCCC-6500-2, 2 CDs):
A return to an earlier view of the music, similar to the Brahms set described above, is found in this important issue of the best-known ballet music in the world. The music we're all familiar with came from a revival production of Swan Lake following its unsuccessful premiere and a period of neglect. Many changes were made in the music. This version goes back to the original arrangement by Drigo for the premiere and brings to today's listener a number of unfamiliar yet completely Tchaikovskian passages in the score. All are detailed in the sizeable booklet of notes with the album, but you don't need to fuss with them if you want just to relax and be surrounded by this superb and classic music of the dance. Four additional tracks at the end are of pieces added later or alternate versions. The newly-recorded sessions in St. Petersburg used analog tape and JVC's 20-bit K2 Super-Coding system was used in mastering, producing a wide-range orchestral presence with more clarity in dense climaxes than heard on many all-DDD recordings.

"Alma Brasileira" - Music of VILLA-LOBOS: Bachianas Brasileiras Nos. 4, 5, 7 & 9; Chôros No. 10 - New World Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas (Victor Red Seal 09026-68538-2):
The gorgeous Brazilian melodies and rhythms of its greatest classical composer are lovingly presented here by one of America's greatest conductors together with his own orchestra of top young virtuosi from around the world. Villa-Lobos' own musical creation, the Bachianas Brasileiras, can be translated as "Tributes to Bach in a Brazilian style." They encompass suites for many different combinations of instruments and voices. No. 5 is undoubtedly the best known for its achingly-lovely Aria. (Renee Fleming is the soprano in this recording.) No. 9 and the Choros use a wordless chorus in addition to the instruments. Exotic bird calls and other sounds of the Amazon jungle come through in the music, plus melodies and dances from the native Brazilian culture. The variety of sounds Villa-Lobos produces with the orchestra are often astonishing. This is surely some of the most exotic and rich concert music ever to come out of South America. The Victor engineers use a multi-mike technique which misses nothing in the sonic details, but still hangs together in the denser sounds of the full orchestra.

"Earquake" - "The Loudest Classical Music of All Time!" Sel. By Hanson, Rangstrom, Khachaturian, Prokofiev, Druckman, Revueltas, Nielsen, Ginastera, Schulhoff, Segerstam, Bolcom, Ibert, Respighi, Shostakovich, Rautavaara & Leifs - Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/Leif Segerstam (Ondine ODE 894-2):
Look closely at this cover illustration: See that yellow area in the upper left corner? That's a pair of yellow foam earplugs, supplied with each CD just in case. The liner notes say they're for your neighbors. They also tout the "steel plates, rocks, anvils, heavy metal chains, sirens, cannon and a 140-piece orchestra..." This explosive collection is obviously presented with irony, but it is more worthwhile than similar efforts at the noisiest classical music that have been offered by some other labels.

There is no 1812 Overture, Iron Foundry, Finale of Pictures at an Exhibition. The most expected loud piece choice here is probably Ginastera's well-known Malambo from his Estancia Suite, but others are really obscure and can serve as an introduction to the music of some fascinating off-the-beaten-track composers, including Schulhoff, Segerstam (also the conductor of the album) and Rautavaara. The final and longest work is the nine-minute Volcano by the Icelandic composer Jon Leifs. It's the one with the steel plates, rocks etc. and boy is it loud - sort of a classical aural "Dante's Peak" of sound! This CD is a welcome alternative to the usual audiophile classical test material. Most of the major labels are coming up with "concept" classical albums recently and some of the themes are really lame. This one makes a fun education/informational trip out of the classical hype!

BERLIOZ: The Complete Orchestral Works - London Symphony/Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Royal Opera House Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis (Philips 456 143-2, 6 CDs):
Davis is widely regarded as one of the finest Berlioz interpreters alive today. Hector Berlioz wrote orchestral works that even today sound like creations of the last few years of the 19th century rather than of its beginnings. He pioneered the large Romantic orchestra, and a whole new world of orchestral expression and contrasts. These recordings date variously from l965 through 1980. I had many of them on LP and the recently-remastered CDs are in most cases an improvement over the vinyl, not even taking the surface noise into consideration. The major works here are the Symphonie fantastique, Harold in Italy, Romeo and Juliet, and the seven overtures. There is plenty of competition in most of these, but Davis holds his own even if some (such as the famous Fantastic Symphony) can be heard with more exciting performances and more modern sound than these.

Other less well-known Berlioz works covered in this six-CD, extremely compact boxed set are Lelio, Reverie and Caprice, and excerpts from Tristia, The Damnation of Faust, and his opera The Trojans at Carthage. There are a number of solo vocal and choral sections in some of these works in spite of the "all orchestral" subtitle of the collection. Lelio (the sequel to the Fantastic Symphony) even sports long and boring sections for a spoken narrator, in French. It's no wonder this work has been forgotten in the face of its predecessor. Sonics throughout the set vary due to the various original tape sources, but are well up to standards of today even if not audiophile-level fidelity.

SCRIABIN: The Complete Piano Sonatas - Ruth Laredo, piano (Nonesuch 73035-2, 2 CDs):
The strange musical visions of Alexander Scriabin grew out of a boiling cauldron of extreme philosophies, styles, textures and techniques. His evolving piano works give more clarity to his singular approach than most of his massive works for orchestra. The early ones clearly show his love of Chopin's music, but as his messianic philosophy developed the piano sonatas become progressively more mystical, sensuous and ecstatic. Scriabin composed them with such abandon that he often felt the piano was not enough to express himself, and then turned to the orchestra for such unique works at The Poem of Ecstasy. The Ninth Sonata was subtitled The Black Mass and the composer thought it so dangerous that he refused to perform it in public.

These magnificent realizations of Scriabin's piano works by Ruth Laredo were recorded for Connoisseur Society in l970 and have not been bettered except for perhaps a few of the Sonatas under the able fingers of Vladimir Horowitz. In addition to the ten sonatas, this double, heavily packed CD set also presents the popular Etude in C Sharp Minor, Eight Etudes of Op. 42, Desir, Caresse dansee, and Towards the Flame. The remastering is without fault, and easily bests the original LPs I still had in my collection (as do almost any CD versions of piano music originally on LP). With wider distribution now via Nonesuch, perhaps the neglect of this amazing and unique Russian composer - one of the greatest of this century - will be remedied.





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