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The best and worst of 2009: Classical music

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 20, 2009; E07

Best

1. "Hindemith: Das Marienleben." Soile Isokoski, soprano; Marita Viitasalo, piano [Ondine]. Hindemith's cycle on Rilke poems, a highlight of his career, may never have sounded better. Even in the composer's more muted revision of the youthful original, Isokoski shines.

2. "Bernstein: Mass." Jubilant Sykes; Marin Alsop: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra [Naxos, 2 CDs]. One of Marin Alsop's happiest artistic achievements at the BSO has been the revival of "Mass" documented in this release.

3. "Shostakovich: The Nose." Valery Gergiev: Mariinsky Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus [Mariinsky, 2 CDs]. The Mariinsky launched its in-house record label with Gergiev's stellar account of Shostakovich's early comic opera.

4. "Shostakovich: 24 Preludes and Fugues." Jenny Lin, piano [Hänssler Classic, 2 CDs]. A superb performance of superb and oddly underappreciated works.

5. "Lang: The Little Match Girl Passion." Paul Hillier: Theatre of Voices [Harmonia Mundi]. Spare, lovely, quirky, this Pulitzer Prize-winning vocal work has stood up well to repeated hearings.

6. "A/Rhythmia." Alarm Will Sound [Nonesuch]. Rhythm and its uncertainties are the focus of this powerhouse chamber ensemble's cover album of six centuries of music.

7. "Salonen: Helix; Piano Concerto; Dichotomie." Yefim Bronfman; Esa-Pekka Salonen: Los Angeles Philharmonic [Deutsche Grammophon]. As the Finnish composer-conductor concluded his tenure in Los Angeles, this recording demonstrated the offbeat appeal of his recent and already much-played piano concerto with the soloist for whom it was written.

8. "Mahler: Symphony No. 1, 'Titan.' " Manfred Honeck: Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra [Exton]. In his first season as music director in 2008-09, Honeck brought a new vitality to the Pittsburgh Symphony, as documented in this vibrant account of Mahler's First.

9. "In C, Remixed." Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble [Innova, 2 CDs]. This recording, a fine sophomore effort from the GVSU ensemble, brings a new twist by having Terry Riley's hypnotic, repetitive piece reimagined by other composers, from DJ Spooky to Nico Muhly.

10. "Beethoven Past & Present." David Hardy, cello, Lambert Orkis, piano [Dorian, 4 CDs]. Beethoven's complete oeuvre for piano and cello is presented here twice: once on period instruments, once on modern ones. The strong performances (by two NSO principals) afford new levels of insight.

Worst

CD: Paul Potts: "Passione" [Sony].The conjunction of let's-find-talent-"Idol"-style reality shows and crossover, Il Divo-style "pop-era" has yielded "Britain's Got Talent" winner Potts, whose sophomore album included an unlistenable rendition of Puccini's "E lucevan le stelle."

Performance: Carole Farley: Recital: "La Voix Humaine," Library of Congress. The worst performance of the year in Washington was certainly Farley's alarmingly ill-sung and ill-conceived caricature of French vocal music.

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