We had at least two promising debut CDs. Early in the year, soprano Sondra Radvanovsky released her all-Verdi disc, proving that she could soon become a top contender in the lyrico-spinto repertoire, very much in the Renata Tebaldi mold. And in October, the exciting Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo's debut disc gives hope to all who patiently wait for the next Pavarotti. He's got that Pavarotti "ping" in his voice.
It was also a good year for indie-classical, and especially New Amsterdam Records. The enterprising alt-classical label released several pleasing discs by young composer-performers who adroitly straddle the post-rock and classical genres.
But perhaps the most surprising release for me was Alexander Melnikov's two-disc traversal of the Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87 by Dmitri Shostakovich. His recording lifted a veil from these sometimes misunderstood, underplayed works. Melnikov's combination of intelligence, insight and amazing fingers pushes this album straight to the top.
1. Shostakovich, 'The Preludes And Fugues, Op. 87'
Song: Prelude And Fugue In A Major
by Alexander Melnikov
It's funny how the right musician can illuminate a piece and suddenly, like flipping on a light switch, everything becomes visible. For decades, pianist Tatiana Nikolaeva's recordings of Shostakovich's Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87 were considered the benchmark. But Alexander Melnikov has changed all that: His brilliant new recording liberates all of the poetry, ferocity and mysticism in these pieces, many of which sound far from the composer's twitchy, sardonic style. He paints the 7th Prelude and Fugue with open-air simplicity and watercolor freshness. Shostakovich pushed J.S. Bach's sturdy prelude and fugue formula to new heights, and Melnikov has pushed that into the light.
Hearing an incredible new voice for the first time in concert is a particular thrill for me. Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky at the Kennedy Center this spring was a blow-away moment. Just after that, she released an extraordinary all-Verdi CD. Radvanovsky opens her mouth and huge streams of sound soar like giant bolts of multicolored fabric -- shimmering silver, azure blue. These days, very few sopranos have what Radvanovsky has in her voice: generous size and weight, dramatic intensity, dynamic control and coloring. It's a combination essential for singing Verdi's greatest soprano roles. If Radvanovsky continues at this level, we'll have a major new star on our hands.
Thomas Ades is a triple threat. Not yet 40, the London-born musician is a conductor, pianist and, few would deny, one of our greatest living composers. Tevot, scored for an oversized orchestra, is a work of art that pulls you into its vortex, beginning with twinkling filaments of strings and gradually building to hulking, twisted dances, careening winds and crushing percussion. Midway through, we find ourselves floating -- Ades compares it to a journey through the chaos of outer space -- which finally gives way to a gorgeous, Richard Straussian repose. You can't excerpt this 22-minute piece. You need to hop on for the full, astounding ride.
Anticipating the next Pavarotti or Domingo has become something of a tiresome pastime for opera fanatics. Hopes were high for the incredible Rolando Villazon, but he has all but burned himself out. Now, another strong ray of hope has appeared: Vittorio Grigolo. Not only is his new CD, The Italian Tenor, a stunning debut, but I've also seen him on stage twice and, believe me, he's the real deal. With a good amount of the Pavarotti "ping," Grigolo's voice is awash in Italian sunshine, and, if he guards his vocal resources carefully, he may just be our next super-tenor.
Baltic Runes, another rock-solid collaboration (the 11th) between director Paul Hillier and the virtuosic Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, jubilantly underscores the innovation found in choral writing from greater Scandinavia, where singing traditions are much stronger than they are here. For example, take the fascinating style from Lapland called yoik. It's really more of a verb -- you "yoik" someone by creating his or her essence in a mélange of yelping and swooping. Veljo Tormis, Estonia's preeminent living composer, is justly well-represented on this fascinating disc. His luminous Laulusild (Bridge of Song) builds on a foundation of soft male voices until the entire chorus, in full cry, swirls in interlocking parts.
Classical music is thriving these days, thanks in part to young, smart musicians like Missy Mazzoli, who feels equally comfortable playing clubs and concert halls. Mazzoli is the composer, keyboardist and bandleader of the all-female, Brooklyn-based quintet Victoire. Along with violin, clarinet, bass and keyboards, Mazzoli confidently weaves in electronics, vocals and found sound to create a fresh, sometimes quirky sound that you might call alt-chamber music. "I Am Coming for My Things" is a hazy dreamscape composed with dashes of straight-ahead chamber music, minimalism and rock.
Joyce DiDonato calls herself the "Yankee Diva" on her blog. It's a testament to her down-home, girl-next-door nature. But there's nothing ordinary or common about her singing. This mezzo-soprano is one of today's most exciting opera singers; she's at the top of her game right now and in demand around the world. Gramophone magazine just named her Artist of the Year. With her natural-sounding instrument of cream and brushed silver, listen to what she can do with a single word, like "feconde" at 2:18 into this aria from Rossini's Armida. This all-Rossini disc is the second killer arias record from DiDonato, following last year's excellent all-Handel disc.
I suppose it’s possible that Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach wrote a dull piece of music, but I've not encountered it. He was the second of J.S. Bach's four musical sons, and, for me, by far the most interesting. C.P.E.'s music always sounds fresh and propulsive, often with something loopy thrown in. Listen to the odd key changes, jerky stops and starts and wide swings of loud and soft in this sonata, played with elegant wit by British pianist Danny Driver. These so-called quirks would later become standard practice for composers such as Mozart, Haydn and later Beethoven.
Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov occasionally gets bundled, along with Arvo Part, John Tavener and Henryk Gorecki, into the pigeon hole loosely called the "god squad" -- composers who produce quantities of evocative, sacred choral music. Silvestrov has a special bag of hauntingly beautiful vocal tricks. Listen to the glowing halos of sound (produced by the excellent Kiev Chamber Choir) that hover over the music, shimmering like moonlight on black water. Never mind that these are liturgical songs -- the CD provides no texts -- and just bask in their trembling aura.
Steve Reich may be labeled a "minimalist" composer, but the works on this recording are far more "maximal" than simple repeating chords and mutating melodies. This disc presents two recent Reich works featuring groups of musicians playing "against" taped versions of themselves. Double Sextet -- for strings, winds, keyboard and percussion -- won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize. In the more recent work, 2x5, Reich said he wanted to write for rock instruments (electric bass, piano, drums, guitar), and was especially keen on interlocking the electric bass parts. The sparkling result is something like a cross between a 1970s prog-rock band (King Crimson, for example) and Reich's own brand of minimalism.