Favorite Albums of 2017


The music on this album shares a captivating sense of landscape and texture. While I quickly tire of repetitive "minimalist" music that could be easily repurposed into a movie score, this is much more than that: constantly evolving and absorbing, full of shifting details, and often dark. I've been to Iceland, and there's a lot in this that feels like what I saw there. I've listened to this via the Naxos streaming service, but I'm impatiently waiting to get my hands on the blu-ray surround disc, especially for the shivery last track: "Dreaming" by Anna Thorvaldsdóttir.

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"Les Troyens" is a holy-grail opera: huge both in terms of forces required and length, difficult to stage, and difficult to perform. It's also fantastic music, though I failed to really get it from the old recording I still have buried in my stacks of CDs (and I even have a DVD video of a staging that also falls flat). Not so this time! I had this album playing nonstop for over a week, mostly on the way to work and back again. This performance is tight and committed (as if the musicians were really, really into it), and the recording is 3D, though only stereo (come on Erato!). You can hear a lot of orchestral detail that makes all the difference. There are some unbelieveable, holy-shitballs sequences (like a lot of act two) that I would love to hear live some day. I feel like the last act just sort of ends, like it could have been more broad and impactful, but I'm not sure if that's a problem with the performance or Berlioz. On Amazon, of course, a commenter says this isn't the best one, because Les Troyens is supposed to be "grand", and that another one (out of print with Levine conducting) is the best one, even though it's recorded poorly, etc. Whether or not that's true, this performance really communicates, and makes the shape of the music so vivid. I'm keeping it.

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I ended up down a rabbit hole about the first piece on this album: the violin sonata by Gabriel Pierné. I've known this work from a different recording I found while chewing through Pierné's music, but this performance really grabbed me. The energy of it — the ardent nervousness — takes you skitting along a tightrope from the start. One reason is that through the endless flow of notes the pianist Nathalia Milstein shapes the phrases and is sparing with the pedal, allowing the interesting textures to show instead of blurring them as I've heard in other recordings. As for her violinist sister Maria Milstein, her sound tends toward lithe, digging in where needed instead of all the time, though I wouldn't call it soft — more like woody or resiny. This combined with the clear piano lets you hear the details often flying by, and in the parts where the violin line follows that of the piano you can hear them balancing together. Hearing this recording helped convince me that this is one of the best violin sonatas ever, and it has a glorious ending.

So I wanted to compare: I went listening to every other recording I could find on the Naxos streaming service. I found some interesting points of comparison, and ended up writing it up separately.

"Vinteuil Sonata" refers to a mystery sonata mentioned in Proust's "In Search of Lost Time". It's possible Proust actually heard some of the music on this album (aside from the Pierné, works by Camille Saint-Saëns, Claude Debussy, and Reynaldo Hahn) but in any case it's all performed with the same level of focus and zing.

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This is magic, and completely absorbing organ music. The earliest piece here is from 1970, and the latest was written just a few years ago in 2015. While there is considerable variety here, the music all shares a sense of irregular tempo relationships that keep a grip on your attention. In some cases, if not all, Nørgård calls it the "infinity series" and has created alternate versions of the score — one in traditional notation and the other a "proportional" representation. Both appear extremely difficult to learn. Organ recordings tend to be muddy but not this one, though there is no lack of mystery. It's simply incredible in surround-sound, and I can't wait to play the Toccata "Libra" for friends who venture over to my house.

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Here we have pure, sweet happiness, two discs for the price of one! The duo Alina Ibragimova (violin) and Cédric Tiberghien (piano) have recorded three previous double-disc albums of Mozart's violin & piano music, every one great, but this one tops them all. Part of it is the tasty, tasty music, none of which I knew. The other part is the playing. Music like this can be ruined by reverence, and often is — by a layer of furniture wax slathered over every surface. But here the character of each phrase is allowed to be itself. It's a case study in the right way to be "serious": in the craft that lets the wit and color wriggle free.

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Want something different? This is fantastic. The "cantata" is a church music form, but these are more like children's fairy tales, each with its own atmospheric character and instrumentation. The first even has an accordion, and one has a narrator. The titles give you an idea of the childlike exoticism:

  • The Legend of the Smoke from the Potato Tops
  • The Opening of the Springs
  • Romance of the Dandelions
  • Mikeš of the Mountains

This is Martinu in more risk-taking mode (Martinu wrote a ton of music, and in some I feel bothered by his same tropes reappearing, but not here). It's the kind of overlooked music that would usually receive a poor recording on a minor label by dedicated second-string musicians, but I can't imagine anything about this release being more excellent: the playing, the recording, even the packaging and booklet, all created with obvious love.

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Music is universal, sort of. I mean, could a teenager ever get this music? Elgar's 2nd is a hard nut to crack to begin with, but I can't imagine it being comprehensible to someone with less emotional experience.

Beyond form and color, or through it, this music presents a contrast between a triumphal public face and internal turmoil. The very first notes introduce this pattern with a doubtful hold, as if hesitatiting to march out on stage. Throughout all four movements, what's inside asserts itself by pressing up from underneath or by diverting the music into a dream.

It was the first movement that I found fascinating at first, but now it's the last movement that's the most amazing to me. Here again what's going on outside (like a walk in the sunny countryside complete with twittering birds), is tuned out as the music turns inward. A kind of struggle ensues, like in grief or heartbreak where you reach for every way to deny the truth, developing into a full-blown battle with the peal of a trumpet. While in some music the model of acceptance is "anger, anger, anger, subside into peace", what happens here is less simplistic: the path to acceptance is interrupted first by waking back to the exterior — to the beautiful sunny reality that was there all along — and then by paroxisms of anguished pleading, as if to yell "please no!" even as the truth is clear.

More than once I've had the experience of listening to a piece of music but not hearing it, feeling that there is something left un-revealed by the particular performance. Elgar's 2nd symphony is an example. It tends to sound like sludge. If I were a conductor I would hesitate to play it in the first place; it would be so easy to screw up, and the orchestra would have to be top-notch. I've gone through a number of performances, but this one digs the deepest (I haven't heard them all of course). It's a new recording, and the sonics are pretty good but not great — I only wish this were in surround sound with the kind of recording clarity that labels like Channel Classics and BIS regularly pull off. In any case, this music well rewards repeated listening. Let it sink in. Circle back later.

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I hate Mahler's 3rd! Or I did. Maybe I still do, a little, but after this recording a lot less.

For me, each time getting to like a Mahler symphony has been sort of like joining a cult: "This is ridiculous!" I feel at first. But then later, well of course the blig-blugs fly through the blidder-boop. The 3rd however has been harder for me to like. Even live it wore me out: it's the perfect cartoon parody of classical music, with a choir that sits and waits to sing like f'ing forever then only sings once, not to mention the soprano. But then again, there's no denying how original and colorful this sprawling work is, or I suppose there is denying — until you hear this performance, in which every detail is delineated with incredible color and warm musicianship. Also this is one of the best-sounding orchestral recordings I've yet heard.

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The shifting colors of this music are vividly revealed here (mostly by the playing but in part by the beautiful-sounding instrument). This is Aline Piboule's first solo album, but instead of boring us with yet another heap of tepidly-played Chopin she has chosen two composers close to her heart (and mine): Faure and Dutilleux. This is the best performance of the Dutilliex piano sonata I've heard yet, alive to it's most subtle changes in the quiet parts and elsewhere pulling off its rhythmic games with a cool swagger — rather than the awkwardness or blurry rushing this music usually falls subject to. Add to that truly fine Faure playing on the other tracks: two of his longer pieces, both packed with incident.

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This is the third and last volume of Cedric Tiberghien's Bartok series. I've loved every volume, and this features the ultimate recording of the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. This is it baby! I mean really, nobody needs to record it again. I can't imagine it done better (well I guess surround-sound would be nice, but oh well — this recording is vivid enough to be sure). When it comes to Bartok's piano music, everybody compares to the recently-late, great Zoltan Kocsis, but with all due respect I like Tiberghien's way with this music more. Bartok's own recordings had a certain roundness and human warmth that Kocsis often lacked, and while Tiberghien doesn't sound like Bartok, there is a sense of micro-fascination that comes across even in the most sparse music (especially on the other albums), making passages that are meant to be gray or brown absorbingly so.

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Here's a great Faure album, by a pianist who has this music in his blood. Every performace is penetrating and vivid, aided by a Bechstein piano with a distinctively woody old-world sound, which prevents the music from becoming overly-smoothed and draws out every pearly detail. The recital ends with one of the best and most heatbreaking piano pieces of all time, the 13th nocturne, here played in a way that left me crushed.

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These are live performances, apparently, and what a mother-lode of great string playing this is, committed to the last degree. Weinberg wrote tons of good music, and recent years have seen many new recordings. I especially like the first chamber symphony here, but all four are good in their own ways. This album also features an arrangement of an earlier piano quintet for piano, string orchestra and percussion, which I like better than the original. This is the second Weinberg album from Kremer on the ECM label — get the first one, too.

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The thorough craft of Faure's music withstands markedly different aproaches to playing it, not simply at the technical level but also emotionally. Just compare the recordings by Germaine Thyssens-Valentin, Paul Crossley, Michel Dalberto, Kathryn Stott, Jean-Claude Pennetier... And here is another example, played with both tonal richness and clarity. At first glance it's easy to mistake Faure's piano pieces for salon music, but no matter how innocent the begnining there will be a deepening. Take the 5th Barcarolle for example, which passes through some dark places, and Faure's later music is embedded with a lonesome regret that only adults could understand. There is some of that late music here: the harmonically-out-there Nine Preludes Op. 109.

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Wanna have a good time? Well here you go. Don't worry — the man on the cover isn't going to strangle you. He's just tuckered out after playing all this wacky stuff. This album actually came out in 2016, but it didn't land on my shores until well into this year so it still counts as a 2017 favorite.

Wanna have more good times? Check out this pianist's Alkan albums, especially the one subtitled "Song of the Madwoman on the Seashore", and the albums that contain the "Overture" and the "Concerto for Solo Piano".

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