On Silfra, violinist Hilary Hahn improvises with prepared pianist Hauschka.
From mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli's ambitious revival of the early Baroque composer Agostino Stefani (and yes, she's got another outrageous album cover) to three very different roles for the violin, here's a clutch of classical albums I returned to again and again this year for sheer delight and aural inspiration. Bartoli lavishes extravagant attention on the music of a fascinating but forgotten link in the history of opera. Daniel Hope shines in an amusing overhaul of Vivaldi's Four Seasons. Hilary Hahn thwarts classical music convention to improvise with an avant-garde pianist. And MacArthur "genius" Leila Josefowicz brings to life a shimmering violin concerto — and musical farewell — from conductor-composer Esa-Pekka Salonen. Click on the listen link to hear Weekends onAll Things Considered host Guy Raz and I spin the albums, and check out the list below for longer excerpts of the music.
(Click here for NPR Classical's Top 10 Albums of the year)
Cecilia Bartoli is up to her tricks again — more than merely appearing as a bald priest on the cover of her latest album, Mission. She has a habit of rummaging through music history and digging up forgotten composers. This time she offers rare music by the mysterious 17th-century musician Agostino Stefani, whose life reads like a spy novel. When he wasn't composing, he was an effective political operative, priest and all-around mover and shaker. In highly detailed performances, Bartoli explores Stefani's wide range of styles, from explosively virtuosic to coy, elegant and lyrical. It's a treat to discover a composer who, although neglected today, was an influence on the succeeding generation of Baroque bigwigs like Handel.
This is Vivaldi's biggest hit, the Four Seasons, in disguise, so to speak. Like many of us, Max Richter, a London-based composer who straddles the classical and electronic worlds, used to love the Four Seasons, but grew tired of it over the years. Now Richter has given the warhorse a makeover. In places, he veers far away from the original four concertos; in other spots he simply adds some low-end electronics and messes with the rhythm. I like how he throws a syncopated back-beat underneath this movement from "Summer." It gives the music an extra kick, especially in this fiery performance by violinist Daniel Hope.
This unlikely pairing of two very different musicians is a delightful surprise: the American Hilary Hahn, one of the top classical violinists today, and avant-garde German pianist Hauschka, a master of the prepared piano. They travelled to serene Icelandic landscape near Reykjavik and hadn't prepared a note before entering the studio. The music is almost completely improvised. This is not what an A-list classical violinist is supposed to do. She's supposed to play her Bach and Beethoven as written, thank you. Instead, she runs off to Iceland to improvise with a guy who inserts bolts and screws between his piano strings. Silfra is continually fascinating — otherworldly music inspired by an otherworldly landscape.
In 2009, conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen called it quits after 17 years leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic, saying he needed more time to compose music. This Violin Concerto (played to perfection by its dedicatee Leila Josefowicz), was one of the last pieces he conducted as music director in LA and it is yet another very strong addition to his growing catalogue. This music is personal yet flamboyant, shimmering with colors and shifting rhythms. Salonen said he wanted to push both the violin and the orchestra to their limits. The piece is so good one might ask if Salonen has any limits himself.