The year’s bounty of CDs: a readers’ guide

December 27, 2013

Here’s a nomination for the Best of 2013: the CD industry.

“Industry” is perhaps the wrong word, since it implies commerce. I don’t think most CDs these days make a heck of a lot of money. And the ones that do are not necessarily the ones the big commercial labels are putting out.

But the emancipation from commercial concerns — to some degree — has meant an accompanying flowering of what these days is unfortunately known as “content.” There are more CD releases out than ever, from more and more labels, some of them operating as nonprofits, many of them relying on Kickstarter campaigns to fund individual projects. The blockbusters of yore, a la Karajan Conducts the Beethoven Symphonies, are fewer and farther between (with exceptions like Gustavo Dudamel or Valery Gergiev, who churns out a veritable cornucopia of recordings — the start of a new “Ring” cycle, the Szymanowski symphonies — on the LSO and Mariinsky labels). In their place, we have artists fundraising to realize their own visions, whether it’s a reinterpretation of an old master (Il Pergolese), an exhumation of a less-remembered composer (Mieczyslaw Weinberg, Marcel Tyberg), or a performer’s own compilation of music new and old (Brooklyn Rider’s “A Walking Fire”; Claire Chase’s “Density”; Andrew McKenna Lee’s “The Knells,” and the list goes on).

For every full-bore opera recording (Cecilia Bartoli as “Norma”) there are a couple of earlier works by Montsigny (“Le Roi et le fermier”) or Hasse (“Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra”), a rediscovery or two (Schreker’s “Die Gezeichneten”), and a couple of chamber-scaled works by living composers (“Soldier Songs” by David T. Little; “Glory Denied” by Tom Cipullo). For every hyped solo opera-singer album on a major label (Jonas Kaufmann’s Verdi), there are dozens of soloists offering more eclectic fare (Talise Trevigne, Miranda Cuckson).

Keeping up with the stream of new releases is like trying to drink from a fire hose, with the difference that what’s coming out is a lot better than plain water — and the realization that everyone going to this fount is going to come away with a different vintage, a different flavor on the tongue. In keeping with the democratization of the industry is a democratization of reception. Recently, I was charged with picking out some new CDs for someone whom I only knew as “liking classical music,” and found myself challenged to figure out how that “liking” might translate into current taste. I threw open the question to readers — on my blog, on Facebook and Google+ and Twitter — and came up with a rich and eclectic selection of recommendations that I wouldn’t have arrived at myself.

First, of course, you have to dispense with the question of what is meant by the term classical music. “Classical means to some the music around the time of Mozart, in the ‘classical time,’ ” wrote Tim Healy, the head of the local Marlow Guitar Series. “Or it might mean. ‘I appreciate the finer things but can’t articulate it any better than in general terms.’ Or it might mean, ‘I appreciate whatever wallpaper music I hear that doesn’t have words.’ ” For his own picks, Healy nominated, not surprisingly, guitar music. “We have recently enjoyed John Feeley’s CD ‘The Immigrant’s Song,’ presenting classical guitar music arrangements of works mentioned in the writings of James Joyce (catching both the literary and the musical in the same CD), [and] a new CD by the Duo Amaral called ‘Textura.’ ”

There were plenty of new recordings of music from the canon. “For new CDs, cannot go wrong with ‘Helene Grimaud Brahms Piano Concertos,’ ” wrote one blog commenter, citing an acclaimed new CD conducted by Andris Nelsons. “Jeremy Denk is a must,” said the music writer Samantha Buker, referring in part to the pianist’s new account of the Goldberg Variations. “I liked Sara Sant’Ambrogio’s Chopin recording,” wrote Bruce Wolosoff, referring to the new release by the cellist. “Think it would make a nice Christmas gift.”

Another suggestion, from Caroline Rodgers: “For the Beethoven lover who already has everything: the new version of the Beethoven Violin Concerto by Alexandre da Costa on Acacia Classics (distributed by Warner Classics). It’s just amazing and very special; the cadenzas are inspired by klezmer music. And surprisingly, it works!”

“If the friend likes brilliantly played piano works,” wrote Donald Isler, “I could suggest the new KASP Records Constance Keene CD with the Chopin Ballades, the Rachmaninoff Corelli Variations, music of MacDowell and more. I’d recommend it even if I hadn’t produced it.”

Several other people suggested CDs of their own, including the composer Robert Paterson: “I know this is a shameless living composer plug,” he wrote, “but my CD Winter Songs is seasonal [and] also new.” He was seconded by another commenter, the composer/presenter Armando Bayolo, who said “I haven’t heard Rob Paterson’s new disc yet, but I’m a big fan of his music, so you can’t go wrong with it.”)

As for contemporary music, suggestions ran the gamut from the prominent — Hilary Hahn — to the offbeat.

“My own favorites in new music run toward Jennifer Higdon, Nico Muhly, and Thomas Adès,” wrote one blog commenter. “A new recording featuring two of these composers is Hilary Hahn’s ‘In 27 Pieces,’ consisting of new violin encores that she commissioned. A feature of this CD is that it introduces [the listener] to a variety of living composers, and the works are bite-sized, so if she finds any one not to her liking, she won’t have long to wait before it’s over. (Hahn’s new disc has been on continually repeat in my own player for the last 5 days.)”

“Several people on my list are already getting copies [of] these two insanely beautiful discs,” wrote Joshua Cheek: “Songs by Geirr Tveitt, performed by Slagr and Camilla Granlien” (an album that has been a huge hit in Norway), “and ‘Cantus,’ performed by the amazing Kuniko Katoh,” which features the percussionist’s own arrangements of music by Steve Reich, Arvo Part, and Hywel Davies.

“For new releases that are also of new music, ‘Evensong’ by Caleb Burhans is awesome,” wrote Aaron Malone.

A couple of D.C.-based commenters mentioned their own local groups. The chamber orchestra Inscape released “Sprung Rhythm”; “It’s a terrific-sounding album with some surprises from composers who are not necessarily household names but should be better known,” wrote Bayolo. Bayolo also observed that his own Great Noise Ensemble (originally founded on Craigslist) had put out an album this month, “Guerilla New Music.”

One of the fun things about opening up the floor is hearing someone’s excitement about a recording you yourself have never heard. One blog commenter called the CD “American Art,” on which the flutist Amy Porter and pianist Christopher Harding perform music by Robert Beaser, Michael Daugherty, Christopher Caliendo, and others, “one of the most exciting finds for me this year.” I’ll look it up.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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