My Favorite Classical Music Recordings of 2017

Review

Nobody listens to classical music. As I sat down to reflect on what I listened to this year, that thought gnawed at me. Despite its wide availability on streaming platforms like Spotify and the marketing that goes into high-profile releases (e.g., Deutsch Grammophon, one of the leading classical music record labels, now make trailers for most of its upcoming albums), classical music cannot seem to shake off its reputation as stuffy and high-brow. You don’t see classical musicians jiving with talk show hosts on TV. You don’t see red carpets at this year’s Gramophone Awards (the real Grammy for classical music). You don’t hear people casually professing their love for Chopin or Shostakovich in conversations. You apparently can’t “get girls” if you listen to classical music. It seems that classical music is, to most people, irrelevant and outdated.

Yet I happen to believe the opposite: that in these tumultuous times, classical music is not only relevant, but more timely than ever. After all, classical music as we define it has seen everything—the rise and fall of empires, the light and darkness of history, the blossoming of ideas, the winds of change, the birth of a nation, the death of an era, the blood and sweat and tears and everything in between and beyond. Whatever you feel, you can find it distilled in some form in classical music. But listening to classical music gives you so much more than recognizing your own experiences in artistry—it cultivates, elevates, and transforms, not necessarily for better or worse, but for you to carry within.

One verbalized example of that inner process has been haunting me of late. In his essay Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth SymphonyLewis Thomas, author of The Lives of a Cell and classical music enthusiast, wrote of the prospect of nuclear annihilation (1983) and how it changed what Mahler’s Ninth Symphony evoked for him:

There is a short passage near the very end of the Mahler in which the almost vanishing violins, all engaged in a sustained backward glance, are edged aside for a few bars by the cellos. Those lower notes pick up fragments from the first movement, as though prepared to begin everything all over again, and then the cellos subside and disappear, like an exhalation. I used to hear this as a wonderful few seconds of encouragement: we’ll be back, we’re still here, keep going, keep going.

Now…I cannot hear the same Mahler. Now, those cellos sound in my mind like the opening of all the hatches and the instant before ignition.

The symphony did not change; everything else did. As Thomas witnessed, government officials on TV talked about civilian defense in case of a nuclear attack, of mutually assured destruction, of radioactive fallout, of minimizing prospective death toll to “only forty million people instead of eighty.” “How can they keep their sanity?” Overwhelmed by a sense of impending doom, Thomas wondered about the young people. “How do the young stand it?” He reflected on his own youth, when things made sense the way Brahms’ symphonies did (for their structure) and Beethoven’s late quartets presumably would (for their sublimation). He reflected on how he had evolved since then, and how it had been mirrored by his relationship with music over time, particularly Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in that moment. What haunted me was his realization that listening to Mahler’s Ninth—and indeed, classical music broadly—was not only about understanding what was going on in the outside world, but also about understanding what was going on within himself.

Listening to classical music in this day and age, therefore, is simultaneously sense-making and self-knowing. These ends are not tchotchkes of a fancy habit; they lie at the heart of a journey inward and outward in equal measures.

On that personal journey this year, the following ten recordings were my dearest guides.

10. Shostakovich: 24 Preludes Op. 34 & Piano Quintet Op. 57

Michail Lifits (piano)

Work by: Dmitri Shostakovich

Performed by: Lifits, Szymanowski Quartet

Released on Decca, April 21, 2017

An excellent reading of Shostakovich’s 24 preludes. My go-to recording for this work has been Olli Mustonen’s precocious, awarding-winning disc, which came out when Mustonen was 24. Almost three decades later, Lifits recorded this work at the same age and continued the worldly sophistication that made Mustonen’s interpretation such a crowd-pleaser—but on his own terms. Prelude No. 10 (linked above) is a standout: Lifits sounds gentle, charming, and his trills almost Chopinesque. Beyond that, Lifits gave each prelude its own character, creating a smorgasbord of moods and colorings. The piano quintet is an additional delight.

9. New Era

Andreas Ottensamer (clarinet)

Work by: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Johann Stamitz, Carl Stamitz, Franz Danzi

Performed by: Ottensamer, Kammerakademie Potsdam (orchestra), Emmanuel Pahud (flute), Albrecht Mayer (oboe)

Released on Decca, February 3, 2017

I have mixed feelings about Andreas Ottensamer. On one hand, he sits at the pinnacle of privilege: born into the famed Ottensamer family (his father Ernst and older brother Daniel were both principal clarinetists at Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; his grandfather was formerly mayor of Wallern), educated at Harvard, and…let’s just say he is the Armie Hammer of clarinetists. On the other hand, he made good use of the resources afforded to him: Ottensamer was the first clarinetist ever to sign an exclusive recording deal with Deutsche Grammophon, which he later left for Decca, and he is currently principle clarinetist at Berlin Philharmonic, arguably one of the best orchestras today. More than in his previous recordings, Ottensamer plays confidently and masterfully in New Era, infusing plenty of energy and finesse. The Stamitz concertos are predictable but fun (especially the final movement of Clarinet Concerto No. 7, linked above), the Mozart effortlessly enjoyable—there is little to fault. Sometimes, you just need something conventional, sunny, and velvety smooth for yours ears; Andreas Ottensamer is your guy.

8. For Seasons

Daniel Hope (violin)

Work by: Antonio Vivaldi, Nils Frahm, Jean-Philippe Rameau, Max Richter, Aphex Twin, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Robert Schumann, Chilly Gonzales, Kurt Weill, Johann Melchior Molter, Johann Sebastian Bach, Johannes Brahms

Performed by: Hope (violin), Zürcher Kammerorchester (orchestra)

Released on Deutsche Grammophon, March 3, 2017

Ah, Daniel Hope and his Vivaldis. This is Hope’s third recording centered around Vivaldi in 10 years (I am counting Max Richter’s recomposed version, which is my most played classical music recording this year), and surprisingly his first recording of Four Seasons. This is what a big-budget “concept album” look like in the classical music world (Hope explains that in addition to the seasons, each month is represented by old and new works recorded for the album). Whereas I am not sure it works that well—the whole album feels bloated and barely coherent despite of its theme (just look at that list of composers!)—but when Hope hits, there is no stopping him. That demonic trill at the beginning of the first movement of Winter (linked above)! That transcendent buoyancy in Richter’s recomposed “Spring 1”! Hope also scores brownie points for supporting contemporary composers and bringing attention to obscure old works (e.g., Molter’s concerto pastorale). This may not be Hope at his best, but this surely is lovely.

7. Elgar & Tchaikovsky: Cello Works

Johannes Moser (cello)

Works by: Edward Elgar, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Performed by: Moser, L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (Orchestra), Andrew Manze (conductor)

Released on Pentatone, February 3, 2017

This is one of the darkest, most gripping accounts of the legendary Elgar cello concerto I have come across in recent memory. Moser plays on a 1694 Guarneri cello, whose incredibly rich tone is used to electrifying effect, particularly in the opening passages (first movement linked above) and the coda. Compared to his contemporaries’ Elgar, Moser seems to sink his teeth further into the dramatics (vs. the pensive Sol Gabetta’s account, or the vibrant Alisa Weilerstein’s), coming close on that front to Jacqueline du Pre’s landmark recording. Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations are also excellently played here: Fifteen years after winning the Tchaikovsky Competition with a Special Prize for those very variations, Moser has committed an exquisite addition to the catalog. A knockout.

6. Schubert: Die Schöne Müllerin, D. 795

Christian Gerhaher (baritone), Gerold Huber (piano)

Work by: Franz Schubert

Performed by: Gerhaher, Huber

Released on Sony Classical, October 6, 2017

The universal acclaim of this recording came in an avalanche. It is on multiple year-end “best-of” classical music lists, including those from The New York Times and Forbes (which calls it the embarrassingly easy first choice” of the year). Gerhaher, “the most moving singer in the world,” sings with perfect sincerity and maturity (e.g., “Die liebe Farbe,” linked above), leaving no stones unturned in exploring the brutal drama of the song cycle that often goes amiss in other renditions. Huber, in turn, is with him every step of the way. I have always considered Winterreise the richer of the two major song cycles by Schubert; this recording of Die Schöne Müllerin seriously challenged that notion. At its heart, Die Schöne Müllerin is a tragedy of love unrequited, its emotional force piercing with crushed dreams; Gerhaher and Huber made sure you feel the pain. Well then, consider me a masochist.

5. Four Cities

Fazıl Say (piano, composer), Nicholas Altstaedt (cello)

Works by: Fazıl Say, Claude Debussy, Leoš Janáček, Dmitri Shostakovich

Performed by: Say, Altstaedt

Released on Warner Classics, February 24, 2017

The highlight of this disc is Say’s charging bull of a sonata, originally commissioned by BBC and premiered in 2012. Its ferocious drive is most palpable in the incessantly pulsating third movement, Ankara (linked above), which reminds me a lot of a similar soundscape achieved in Krzysztof Penderecki’s Symphony No. 3—specifically, the ominous passacaglia – allegro moderato movement (included in the soundtrack of the thriller film Shutter Island). So many things are working here: Altstaedt’s nuanced shadings in Janáček, Say’s fingerwork in Shostakovich, their high-octane energy in the Say sonata…altogether, awe-inspiring.

4. L’Opera

Jonas Kaufmann (tenor)

Work by: Charles Gounod, Jules Massenet, Ambroise Thomas, Georges Bizet, Édouard Lalo, Jacques Offenbach, Giacomo Meyerbeer, Jacques Fromental Halévy, Hector Berlioz

Performed by: Kaufmann, Bayerisches Staatsorchester (orchestra), Bertrand de Billy (conductor)

Released on Sony Classical, September 15, 2017

Jonas Kaufmann is at the top of his game, which—if calls of “the greatest tenor alive” are any indication—also happens to be the entire world. Kaufmann has long impressed in dark, muscular repertoire (e.g., Wagner, Verdi); with this tribute to French opera, he garners much success in these lighter, brighter (but by no means less dramatic) roles too. I find myself returning to L’amour… Ah! Lève-toi, soleil! (linked above), the impassioned aria in Act II of Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette. When Kaufmann’s Romeo calls for the sun to rise in the famous balcony scene (“Ah! lève-toi, soleil! Fait pâlir les étoiles”), how can anyone not pain for him? His voice, burnished and burning, softens and warms even the most hard-bitten listeners. Merveilleux.

3. Messiaen: Quatuor pour la fin du temps

Martin Fröst (clarinet), Lucas Debargue (piano), Janine Jansen (violin), Torleif Thedéen (cello)

Work by: Olivier Messiaen

Performed by: Fröst, Debargue, Jansen, Thedéen

Released on Warner Classics, November 3, 2017

“Quartet for the End of Time” was composed by Olivier Messiaen in 1940 while he was locked away in a prison-of-war camp. Listening to it in 2017 brings a particular kind of pathos, one that the current sociopolitical turmoil puts into relief and one that makes this work all the more relevant today. In his Pulitzer-nominated The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, music critic Alex Ross called the quartet “the most ethereally beautiful music of the twentieth century.” That ethereal beauty glistens on this disc: Jansen’s unbroken melodic line on the violin (particularly notable in the final movement linked above), Debargue’s soft touch on the piano, Fröst’s mellow tone on the clarinet, and Thedéen’s sustained drive on the cello all crystallize into unity. Simply breathtaking.

2. Beethoven Violin Concerto

James Ehnes (violin)

Works by: Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert

Performed by: Ehnes, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (Orchestra), Andrew Manze (conductor)

Released on PM Classics/Onyx, September 29, 2017

I used to think that Beethoven’s violin concerto is overrated. Like, way overrated. Beethoven wrote only one violin concerto, which has since been beaten to death by practically every violinist who can play it (regardless of whether they should). My attitude had softened of late, largely following Patricia Kopatchinskaja’s wildly out-of-the-box interpretation (as she does to most things she sets her bow to). But it is James Ehnes who set me straight: I came to, dare I say, love Beethoven’s violin concerto.

How did this happen? Unlike Kopatchinskaja, Ehnes plays by the rules: One of the purest living interpreters of the romantic violin repertoire, he has prioritized integrity over invention throughout his entire career. With each recording, he quietly underscores that musical artistry is, at its core, music done well. That message is conveyed with conviction here: In the opening allegro ma non troppo movement (linked above), it is clear that he has thought through and consequently accounted for every note. His playing is sweet and songlike, but beyond the lovely texture it also patiently and precisely builds up structural tension, whose eventual release toward the Kreisler cadenza feels exhilarating. Perfectly coupled with Andrew Manze at the helm, Ehnes carries the entire concerto (and indeed the rest of the disc as well) with lyrical virtuosity and stately grace. Everything fits just right.

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Simply put: James Ehnes is royalty on strings. Take a seat, people—this is how it’s done.

1. Mendelssohn: Symphonies 1–5 (Live)

Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor)

Works by: Felix Mendelssohn

Performed by: Chamber Orchestra of Europe (Orchestra), RIAS Kammerchor (Choir), Nézet-Séguin

Released on Deutsche Grammophon, June 16, 2017

No other rendition of Mendelssohn’s 5th Symphony has brought me to tears. Multiple times. This is a brilliant package from Nézet-Séguin, who meteoric rise as a young conductor has been nothing short of staggering: He currently conducts three major orchestras (Orchestre Métropolitain, Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, and the venerable Philadelphia Orchestra, which has booked him until 2026); in addition, he is set to take over the Met Opera in New York in 2020. And somehow he still finds time to record. Everything comes together gorgeously in this disc: Under his baton, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe sounds fluid, vital, and free of the grandiloquence that tends to bruise many existing performances of some passages in this cycle. Just listen to the finale of the fourth movement in the 5th Symphony (linked above; or listen to, you know, the whole thing)—jubilance abounds. For further evidence, look at Nézet-Séguin’s face when the music reaches its climax:

In The Cambridge Companion to Mendelssohn, conductor Leon Botstein reminds us that Mendelssohn’s orchestral and choral works need to be performed “…in a manner that confronts the old clichés, defeats the Wagnerian orthodoxy, represents the composer’s ambitions and aesthetic justly, and reveals the dramatic, spiritual, and emotional power of the music” (p. 260). Check, check, check, and check, I say.

This is my favorite classical music recording in 2017, and one of the best out there. Bravo.

My Favorite Classical Music Recordings of 2016

Review

2016 has been a good year (can you imagine many other sentences that begin with those words?) for classical music. Below is a personal list that I came up with as I look back, of 10 albums that I thoroughly enjoyed. I know this list misses lots of surely outstanding recordings, so see it as a “sample” rather than the “population,” if you will!

10. Homages

Benjamin Grosvenor (piano)

Works by: Bach, Mendelssohn, Franck, Chopin, Liszt, Ravel

Performed by: Grosvenor

Released on Decca, September 1, 2016

This young British pianist continues to astound me with a purity and maturity in his playing that seems incongruent with his scrappy demeanor (that he hides well under different suits). I found myself returning to his delicious Ravel (Le Tombeau de Couperin), his energetic Liszt (Venezia e Napoli; listen above for the cascading Tarantella movement), and my instant favorite rendition of Franck’s Prélude, Choral et Fugue.

 

9 .Pocket Symphonies (Electronica)

Sven Helbig (composer)

Works by: Helbig

Performed by: Fauré Quartet, MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony (conducted by Kristjan Järvi)

Released on Neue Meister, June 17, 2016

Pocket symphonies are no symphonies (and barely symphonic poems), but they did create a kaleidoscopic palette of scenes and emotions in my head. Consider this disc the soundtrack to an eclectic, imaginary film. Following its original release, this electronica version delivered quite a few surprising arrangements, and listening to Helbig’s variations has been a joy (try the electronic version of Bell Sound Falling Like Snow above). Compositionally, this work is not exactly groundbreaking. But who cares?

 

8. Vertigo

Jean Rondeau (harpsichord)

Works by: Rameau, Royer

Performed by: Rondeau

Released on Erato, February 19, 2016

This is the year that Jean Rondeau made me finally appreciate harpsichord. I had found the instrument monotonous in every sense of the word, but his thunderous attack in Royer’s Le Vertigo (listen above) is half Baroque, half rock-n-roll, and fully awe-inspiring. Unlike his more gimicky but less talented peer Cameron Carpenter (organ), Rondeau’s innovation on an ancient instrument comes from inside the score, and shows that sometimes the most effective way to rediscover 300-year-old music is embracing it.

 

7. Tchaikovsky, Sibelius: Violin Concertos

Lisa Batiashvili (violin)

Works by: Tchaikovsky, Sibelius

Performed by: Batiashvili, Staatskapelle Berlin (conducted by Daniel Barenboim)

Released on Deutsche Grammophon, November 4, 2016

I have reviewed this disc in my previous blog post. Batiashvili has delivered two impressive renditions of the insanely popular (by classical music standards) Tchaikovsky and Sibelius violin concertos (listen above for the fiery final movement of Sibelius), boasted by an energetic Barenboim at the helm. Well done.

 

6. Shostakovich: Cello Concertos Nos. 1 & 2

Alisa Weilerstein (cello)

Works by: Shostakovich

Performed by: Weilerstein, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (conducted by Pablo Heras-Casado)

Released on Decca, September 23, 2016

Alisa Weilerstein has been hailed as the next Jacqueline du Pré, and this album is infused with the kind of boldness and immersion that I imagine du Pré would have played Shostakovich with (check out the first movement of Cello Concerto No. 1 above). But Weilerstein has always been her own artist: This excellent interpretation again shows her impeccable technique and rich emotional tone, both giving Shostakovich a stately grace. With this album, she joins an expanding list of young cellists who have shone in Shostakovich’s repertoire in the past decade. Shosty would be proud!

 

5. Verismo

Anna Netrebko (soprano)

Works by: Cilea, Giordano, Puccini, Leoncavallo, Catalani, Boito, Ponchielli

Performed by: Netrebko, Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia (conducted by Antonio Pappano)

Released on Deutsche Grammophon, September 2, 2016

Excellent throughout this collage of arias, Netrebko continues to sit comfortably atop the opera world as one of the most celebrated sopranos of her generation. I particularly enjoyed her renditions of La mamma morta, Ebben? Ne andrò lontana (link above), and the Puccini arias. Callas and Tebaldi are still my personal go-tos for the first two arias, but Netrebko’s performances deserve high praise—as a Grammy nomination and glowing reviews have given.

 

4. Chopin: Ballades, Berceuse, Mazurkas

Yundi Li (piano)

Works by: Chopin

Performed by: Li

Released on Deutsche Grammophon, February 26, 2016

Yundi returned to his element in this all-Chopin disc. His Ballade No. 1 (link above) and No. 2 are impeccable, his Berceuse is sweet, and his Mazurkas are lively. More than previous recordings, he seems to have let go a bit of his studied approach and acquired more charm. But what reign supreme here is still his technical accuracy. Listening to Chopin is an intimate act, and Yundi might not have the warm glow of Rubinstein or Lipatti, but intimacy accommodates multitudes too. For me, Yundi’s form hits a comfortable, if not rapturous spot.

 

3. Korngold & Britten: Violin Concertos

Vilde Frang (violin)

Works by: Korngold, Britten

Performed by: Frang, Frankfurt Radio Symphony (conducted by James Gaffigan)

Released on Warner Classics, February 5, 2016

With this recording, Vilde Frang justifiably became a breakout star in 2016. Although always an intellectual player, she seemed to have finally found a way to synthesize insights and passion into memorable playing (which in my mind began with her Mozart recording last year). Her Korngold and Britten can hold their own against some of the best recordings of those concertos ever committed, and I found myself returning time and time again to this one. Listen to her first movement of the Korngold and you might see why she is setting a new standard for the two under-appreciated works.

 

2. Transcendental – Daniil Trifonov Plays Franz Liszt

Daniil Trifonov (piano)

Works by: Liszt

Performed by: Trifonov

Released on Deutsche Grammophon, October 6, 2016

I have a bit of an obsession with Trifonov. He delivers some of the most ferocious attacks on the keyboard, his technique is breathless and sublime, and he infuses his playing with a triumphant charm, bringing me to such a high that when he softens, it gives me goosebumps. (Case in point: the first four trascendental etudes, or the infamous La Campanella linked above.) I have been hoping for Trifonov to record more Liszt, and these etudes—especially the transcendental etudes—are exactly the right repertoire for him. What better way to play genius than by a genius? Let Trifonov command you attention. It is so worth it.

 

1. Moonlight (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

Nicholas Britell (composer)

Works by: Nicholas Britell

Perfomed by: Tim Fain (violin)

Released on Lakeshore Records, October 21, 2016

How often do you get a live symphonic concert just for a movie soundtrack? This one will, and it is an instant classic, if its award hull has yet to convince you. Lush and hauntingly beautiful, Britell’s composition is a deserving treatment that accompanies Moonlight, the fourth best reviewed films of all time (following, yes, The Godfather) and my personal favorite this year. Violinist Tim Fain mesmerizes throughout, but his tug on my heartstrings is strongest in The Middle of the World (listen above), played in part in the film’s trailer. I was beyond moved by Moonlight‘s inward look at Black masculinity and sexuality, and I cannot imagine a more outstanding companion in Britell’s score.

Classical Music While Washing Dishes: Tchaikovsky/Sibelius

Review

While washing dishes today, I realized that I listen to classical music a lot. Especially while I wash dishes.

Dishwashing is no rollercoaster ride, but classical music can be. At the very least, the latter is more fun. Here is an internal monologue that I often find myself having:

  1. Time to wash dishes.
  2. Ah, boring! Let’s listen to some music.
  3. Oh snap, I can’t skip tracks while my hands are deep in the sink.
  4. **Put on a classical album I have wanted to listen to, and head for the kitchen.**

I mean, I can listen to contemporary music, but I don’t usually find a pop album that I have the patience to listen to from Track 1. And there is something to be said about classical music that feels right with dishwashing. Perhaps it is the rhythm, or the way themes and motifs construct a musical narrative, or the length and complexity (sometimes the lack thereof), or some sort of zen / attentional compatibility. I don’t know. The point is, listening to classical music while washing dishes is fun, and you should try it.

Today I listened to an album that just came out this past Friday (11/04/2016), Tchaikovsky, Sibelius: Violin Concertos, with Lisa Batiashvili on the violin, Daniel Barenboim conducting Staatskapelle Berlin, released on Deutsche Grammophon.

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Batiashvili is one of those violinists whose names keep showing up but whose playing has not left much of a dent in my impression (others include Julia Fischer and Leonidas Kavakos). They play well, even brilliantly, but they never compelled me to return for repeated listens. I think I have heard her play Brahms and Schumann before. I recall no reactions, positive or negative, and I did not find her playing all that remarkable. But that changed today.

It is difficult to play Tchaikovsky and Sibelius on the same disc, not only because each is so wildly celebrated and cherished by critics and fans—these two happen to be my favorite two violin concertos—but also because every new disc has to justify its existence after an illustrious history of recordings on the same repertoire. A casual Spotify search told me that this coupling has been a perennial favorite, recorded by legends (Issac Stern, Jascha Heifetz, Kyung Wha Chung, Itzhak Perlman), veterans (Gil Shaham, Nigel Kennedy, Leila Josefowicz, Viktoria Mullova), and young stars (Soyoung Yoon, and now Batiashvili) alike. It helps to have Daniel Barenboim at the helm, who surprisingly has never conducted the Tchaikovsky concerto in a studio before. You would think that someone who recently celebrated his 50th year as a conductor would have touched this cornerstone. Maybe having these firsts keeps his life exciting? The Romantic repertoire is a bottomless pit even for Barenboim.

The album begins with Tchaikovsky. Of its three movements, the first for me is the trickiest. I grew up listening to Joshua Bell’s rendition, which still serves as my benchmark reference (laugh as you will!). Bell, more than anyone else I have listened to, strikes a fine balance between lyricism and dynamism in this movement, nurturing and private in solo passages yet pyrotechnic and authoritative with the orchestra. Batiashvili came close, but not quite there. Her allegro is assured and confident, and her rubato in the finale is particularly thrilling (save for two glaring mistakes). But her hesitation in the adagio passages detracts from the integrity of the movement. Instead of fully embracing the inwardness of the solo variations, she simply retreats and slows everything down. I would have preferred less timidity. It might have been a deliberate choice, but it disrupts the flow. And when you are playing a 20-minute movement, flow is key.

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Joshua Bell’s Tchaikovsky indelibly shaped my view of this work. Call it primacy effect if you will. 

To my content, Batiashvili rallied in the second and third movements. Her second movement is warm and nostalgic, and her final movement crisp and celebratory, with lovely orchestral accompaniment. Overall, I enjoyed her Tchaikovsky, and listening to her album today will make me pay more attention to her in the future, even if in my mind it still does not match up to Bell (though her second movement might actually be a bit more memorable than Bell’s).

Then comes Sibelius. Barenboim is no stranger to this concerto, having recorded it at least three times with different soloists (Batiashvili, Maxim Vengerov, Pinchas Zukerman). His recording with Vengerov remains my absolute favorite rendition of the concerto (and I have listened to perhaps 10 to 20 different versions). It is my most played classical album this year so far (thanks to last.fm for tracking), and I admit to having cried more than once while listening to it (I am by no means alone; Sibelius concerto does that to both those who listen and those who play).

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Maxim Vengerov’s electric Sibelius gives me goosebumps every time.

Batiashvili’s Sibelius is wonderfully full-bodied and carries a warm tone throughout. She handled the storied first movement with finesse and a steadfast pace, and her third movement is eager and stormy as it should be. The only peeve I have for her third movement is that it lacks definition—her fingering is not as precise as I would have liked, and she uses glissando a bit too much for my taste. (I am very picky about this movement, if you can’t tell already: Joshua Bell’s tone was hollow, Sarah Chang simply bulldozed, and even Oistrakh’s last bar is not as orgasmic as I would have loved.) Other than that peeve, however, Batiashvili’s Sibelius was well worth my time, and I would recommend it to most people. Barenboim’s conducting is superb as usual. (I am starting to think that perhaps Barenboim is the key to my enjoyment of this work. I will need to check out his recording with Zuckerman’s Sibelius to confirm that.)

This review turned out to be way longer than I thought…oh well, I could go on for days on these two concertos! Overall, I enjoyed this recording more than I thought I would, and it made dishwashing quite interesting 🙂

Rating: 4/5.

2015 Year in Review: Dance, Live Performance

Dance, Review

My Top 5 Live Dance Performances

This is the first year in recent memory that I have not danced professionally, and my attendance to live performances similarly took a hit. Gone are the years of $10 or even complimentary tickets and free master classes, sadly. These performances however reminded me of the thrill of marveling at dance, a most visceral form of artistry that demands humans’ body and mind in synergy.

5. Biophony, Alonzo King LINES Ballet | Choreography by Alonzo King (Trailer)

Laura O'Malley and Babatunji, Biophony

Gorgeously lit and beautifully danced, Biophony is an inspired collage of our biosphere. The LINES aesthetics remained distinct and oh-so-lovely to the eye. I loved the erudition of movement King has invested in this work—it felt like a smorgasbord of shapes and sounds. Like a smorgasbord, however, it had little organization, and the progression from one piece to the next felt alogical. Despite its visual splendor, Biophony lacked a punchline that I was looking for. (Unlike Resin, which went above and beyond punchlines—it delivered a revelation. I saw it last year and thinking of it now still gives me goosebumps. No trailers can do Resin justice.) Of the dancers / creatures, new company members Shuaib Elhassan and Laura O’Malley were true standouts. The former’s spindly strength and the latter’s sinewy grace underpinned some of the show’s finest moments. Oh, I saw the freshly minted ballet master Meredith Webster (aka The Muse of LINES; see her in this excerpt of Meyer, starting at 1:59) in the hallway, but dared not approach. I miss her on stage, and I hope the entire company continues to reflect her brilliance. Their revival of Concerto for Two Violins on the same program won the Dance Magazine Best Revival award—a lovely work worth checking out too.

4. Kaash, Akram Khan Dance Company | Choreography by Akram Khan (Trailer)

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One of Akram Khan’s earliest works still speaks volumes after more than a decade. Kaash did not give me nearly the feeling of transcendence that iTOMi evoked last year—unfortunately, it still looks like a composition-in-progress even after Khan’s own restaging. But its liveliness and innovation (more movement than composition) were undeniable. Its soundscape is quite eclectic: Nitin Sawhney’s Kathak score provided an excellent background to the physical syncopation; John Oswald’s “Spectre” is probably the most overwhelming music I have heard in a theater all year (go check it out on Spotify and see if you can refrain from changing the volume throughout); the strange silence in the middle baffled me—the intention was there but the impact was lost. The Alleyne twins danced beautifully as usual; Sung Hoon Kim’s thrashing limbs however took the spotlight (sometimes literally).

3. Consagración, Ballet BC | Choreography by Gustavo Ramirez Sansano

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Ballet BC was a breakout troupe at Jacob’s Pillow this year and deserved all the hype. I was lucky to witness Consagración, part of their triple bill on the tour, in its raw form: the title was chosen not long before the performance I attended, the choreography seemed to trace last-minute changes, and wow, what a thrill to see an ambitious work with none of its edges yet eroded by overperformance. Uncertainty and sensuality were not only palpable: they were alive and throbbing. Though this is the third rendition of The Rite of Spring I have seen (after Nijinsky’s and Bausch’s versions), I did not find a single dull moment in Consagración. Deliciously dark and sexy, yet pregnant with gravitas. Outstanding.

2. Yowzie, Twyla Tharp Dance Company | Choreography by Twyla Tharp (Excerpt)

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Yowzie? More like Yooowwwwwwwzzieeeeee. Say it with me: Yooowwwwwwwzzieeeeee. Make sure you pronounce the vowels in a brassy, devil-may-care tone, and you will start to get the feeling of watching Tharp’s infectious new work in the audience. That we could not stand on our feet and groove out with the dancers (the indelible Rika Okamoto or the hilarious John Selya or the innocent Reed Tankersley or anybody else on stage, really) is a crime. It is concert dance meets broadway entertainment, and Tharp had her comedy on full throttle, maybe even to overdrive (just look at the costumes). I could not shirk the veneer of self-conscious artificiality that adorns some of the choreography: they were having a good time, and they desperately wanted you to know about their messy, colorful escapades. That might have undercut the lightheartedness for some, but for others that might be the point: these characters knew they are caricatures, and they labored to convince you of their excess. However you interpret that quality, the jazzy fun cannot be ignored.

1. Twenty Eight Thousand Waves, Ballet BC | Choreography by Cayetano Soto (Trailer)

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Who needs rock music when you have Bryce Dessner’s Aheym played by a furious Kronos Quartet (who also recorded the aforementioned “Spectre”)? Adding David Lang’s score and you have the background to Twenty Eight Thousand Waves, an ominous, almost blood-thirsty piece that brilliantly showcased Ballet BC’s athleticism and vivacity (Peter Smida, seriously). The setup reminded me of Jorma Elo’s Sharper Side of Dark for the Boston Ballet, only without the joltiness and the subtlety. As the music crescendoed and the blinding light lowered, Soto’s choreography went full-on steroidal, and the dancers attacked it with bleeding sharpness and speed. This work should have come with a DANGER sign; it is not for the faint of heart. For its fiery kinetics and superb physicality, Ballet BC’s performance of Twenty Eight Thousand Waves tops my year of live dance.