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Ten (+2) Best Recordings of 2009

I know that this goes against my soft-spoken, diffident nature, but for some reason I’m in the mood to opine about my ten favorite releases of 2009. So here they are, in no particular order:



Lincolnshire Posy: Music for Band by Percy Grainger

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Percy Grainger: The Duke of Marlborough Fanfare / Lincolnshire Posy; The Merry King / Children’s March / Colonial Song / Mock Morris / The Gum-Suckers March / Molly on the Shore / Spoon River / After-Word / Lads of Wamphray / Irish Tune from County Derry / Shepherd’s Hey
Dallas Wind Symphony / Arts District Chorale / Brian Allison, piano / Jerry Junkin, conductor
Robert Carnochan & J. Tamblyn Henderson,
/ Keith Johnson, engineer / Sean Royce Martin, recordist / Paul Stubblebine, editing and mastering

Reference Recordings RR-117 (CD)

Full review here.


Alfano: Cello Sonata / Concerto [Trio] for Violin, Piano and Cello

CoverElmira Darvarova, violin / Samuel Magill, cello / Scott Dunn, piano
Recorded at M&I Studios New York

Naxos 8.570928 (CD)

Darvarova, Magill and Dunn make you wonder where — and why — these outstanding late romantic works have been hiding all these years.

Perhaps part of the reason is the chequered reputation of Alfano, who was tasked by Ricordi with the thankless job of composing final scenes for Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot following that composer’s death. I find Alfano’s ending immensely satisfying, even in the truncated version usually recorded (you can hear the complete verasion in a few recordings, most notably the “Forbidden City” production — and there is an even longer unpublished version recorded about twenty-two years ago for a Josephine Barstow “Opera Finales” CD on Decca that I would love to see staged). The bad rap stems from Toscanini’s behavior leading up to the opera’s debut, culminating in his stopping the work where Puccini’s music ended, making a comment on the composer’s death — and then walking off the podium. I don’t care how much Toscanini liked and admired Puccini; his conduct in this case was unprofessional, selfish, and arrogant. It also damaged Alfano’s reputation unjustly.

Many critics have compared the present works to the chamber music of Ravel. I find stronger parallels with music of Alfano’s contemporaries, particularly Malipiero, Respighi, and de Sabata. This is Italian romantic music at its finest, played with passion and commitment and beautifully recorded.


Handel: Samson

Cover artSophie Daneman, soprano (Dalila) / Franziska Gottwald, contralto (Micah) / Thomas Conley, tenor (Samson) / William Berger, bass (Manoa) / NDR-Chor / Festspiel-Orchester Göttingen / Nicolas McGegan, conductor
Bernhard Güttler, producer

Carus 83.425 (3 SACDs)

How this recording of Handel’s Samson slipped under the reviewers’ radar is beyond me. Nic McGegan leads a bold reading with a solid, characterful cast and a hand-picked festival orchestra featuring some of the leading exponents of period instrument playing in you-are-there surround sonics that put you in the acoustic sweet spot inside Dresden’s landmark Frauenkirche.  Easily the new preferred recording of Samson, and one of the best Handel recordings of the decade.



Edition Wilhelm Furtwängler — The Complete RIAS Recordings

Cover artBerlin Philharmonic / Wilhelm Furtwängler, conductor (Yehudi Menuhin, violin / Gerhard Taschner, violin)

Recorded 1947-1954 by RIAS / Ludger Böckenhoff, remastering

Audtie 21.403 (12 CDs)

Full (preliminary) review here. I must add that a listen to the entire set reinforces all of the points made in the original review. If you’re a Furtwängler fan, you need to get this super-value set.


Mengelberg — the Dawn of Electrical Recording

Cover artexcerpts from Richard Strauss: Tod und Verklärung / Felix Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in e minor / Richard Wagner: Der fliegende Höllander — Overture
Samuel Gardner, violinPhilharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York
Recorded April 2, 1924 by Bell Laboratories
Mendelssohn: A Midsummer Night’s Dream — Overture, Op.21 / Nocturne and Scherzo, Op.61 / Hector Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique, Op.13 — excerpt from II. Un bal
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Recorded January 18, 1938
Willem Mengelberg, conductor
Andrew Rose, audio restoration

Pristine Audio PACD-184 (Download)

A vitally important release for music lovers interested in the great technological leap forward that came in the form of electrical recording.

Andrew Rose has done a stupendous job of retrieving the music contained in sources derived from noisy (and damaged) discs originally cut in 1924. Bell Laboratories recorded these bleeding chunks of a Philharmonic-Symphony concert by tapping into a telephone-line broadcast transmission feed from Carnegie Hall and recording them to discs using a then-experimental electrical cutting head. The result is stunning — and maddening, especially in the second of the excerpts from Strauss’s Tod und Verklarung that ends just a few beats before the beginning of the enormous climax in the coda (believe me, you will wish it had been captured). The Philharmonic-Symphony, then under Mengelberg’s music directorship, is revealed in these excerpts as a world-class virtuoso orchestra well before Arturo Toscanini held the position. The Mendelssohn Concerto excerpt receives its first-ever general release here, and  Philharmonic violinist Samuel Gardner proves a remarkable soloist.

Less than a year after these sides were cut, Victor Records would make its first electrical recordings — and instantly transform the industry.

The disc also contains the only surviving Mengelberg sides with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, recovered from damaged acetates made in 1938, including what is believed to be the only archival fragment of Mengelberg conducting a section of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique.


The Dawn of Recording — The Julius Block Cylinders

Cover artAnton Arensky / Piotr Tchaikovsky / Egon Petri / Josef Hofmann / Jascha Heifetz / Eddy Brown / Elena Gerhardt / Artur Nikisch and many more
recorded by Julius Block, 1891-1923
John Maltese and John Anthony Maltese, producers
Ward Marston, audio restoration

Marston 53011-2 (3 CDs)

This extraordinary set, drawn from an archive thought lost for decades but “rediscovered” in 2002, brings together nearly four hours of music captured by international entrepreneur and amateur recordist Julius Block, whose wax cylinder machine recorded the playing (in some cases, only the voices) of many of Europe’s leading classical artists and composers over a three decade period. This important release opens a window into performance practice and style in Europe, and is accompanied by enormously informative essays by the Malteses, Gregor Benko and Ward Marston. While it was announced for late 2008 release, most of the people I know who had to own it received it in the first days of January, making it a 2009 release.


Mahler: Symphony No.2

Cover artEmilia Cundari, soprano / Maureen Forrester, contralto / Westminster Choir / New York Philharmonic / Bruno Walter, conductor

Sony Classical SICC-20075 (Blu-Spec)

A full review of this issue — remastered and released in the best audiophile format you’ve probably never heard of — will follow in the coming weeks. This landmark Mahler recording sounds better than it ever has, and can be ordered from HMV Japan and Tower Records Japan.


Shostakovich: 24 PreLudes and Fugues, op.87

Cover artJenny Lin, piano
Dr. Lotte Thaler, producer / Malgorzata Albinska, engineer

Hänssler CD 98.530

A full review will follow this week. I received this set a couple of weeks ago, and it’s getting repeated playings despite a backlog of other recordings I’m supposed to be listening to!


Monteverdi: Madrigali Libro VI

Cover artKassiopeia Quintet
Paul Janse, producer / Tom Peeters and Arnoud Probet, engineers

Globe GLO 5226 (CD)

This recording caps the Kassiopeias’ series of the complete Gesualdo madrigals. The performances are remarkably polished, yet compromise nothing in this music’s forward-looking passion and edginess.


Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.1 / Mahler: Symphony No.1

Cover artMargarita Höhenfelder, piano / Staatskapelle Dresden / Fabio Luisi, conductor

Medici Arts 2057718 (DVD)

This is overall the most satisfying new concert DVD I’ve seen this year. Höhenfelder plays the Beethoven with more than a hint of capricious mischief, and Luisi brings an energetic approach to the Mahler; the Staatskapelle Dresden lives up to its reputation as one of the world’s greatest orchestras with playing that shows off their inimitable sound, technical poise, and playing that projects the music with depth and power.

The “Plus two” are items that I have had to disqualify because either I was somehow involved with the release, or a friend or friends masterminded the release.

Mieczyslaw Weinberg: Symphony No.2 / Chamber Symphony No.2

Cover artUmea Symphony Orchestra / Thord Svedlund, conductor

Alto ALC1037 (CD)

Those of you who were as bowled over by Olympia Records’ series focusing on the music of Polish-born Soviet composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg (Moisei Vainberg) – or missed the boat when the limited supply of those outstanding recordings dried up – will be pleased to know that Alto Records has partnered with Olympia and is releasing more music by Weinberg, a major figure in the latter years of the Soviet era. His music shows the strong influence of Shostakovich – and communicates with a similarly unvarnished directness. Full disclosure: I’ve done marketing and information technology work for Alto.


Alfred Deller: The Complete Vanguard Recordings

Cover artAlfred Deller, countertenor / The Deller Consort

Musical Concepts MC193-197 (35 CDs plus bonus CD-R)

This ambitious project, which brought together for the first time all of legendary early music pioneer Alfred Deller’s recordings for US indie Vanguard Records in one series, was undertaken by Greg Barbero and Todd Landor for Musical Concepts under license from Vanguard Classics, and was released in six multi-disc volumes over the period of a year. My involvement was the CD compilation and mastering from David Baker’s exemplary analog-to-digital transfers. Many selections were released for the first time on CD. The last two volumes in this series were released in late spring. There are so many delights in every one of these sets that one is hard-pressed to recommend a place to start, but if I were cornered I’d go with the Madrigals and/or Folk Songs box.

So what were your favorites this year? Drop me a line here and let me know.

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