Though I spend much of my week working with great orchestras, my picks for 2007 CDs are a grab-bag affair. In particular, you can see a weakness for great choirs here. Any one of these 10, though, could be a desert-island disc.
This is the final commercial release by the Minnesota-based Dale Warland Singers (who recorded it just before disbanding in 2004) and, simply put, it represents where the bar is set for choirs today. The repertoire is 19th- and 20th-century sacred motets, sung with a deep spirituality. Warm-hearted, touching stuff. Mixed-voice choral work does not get any better than this. (The Dale Warland Singers. Gothic G49252)
Three Nordic women can sound like a choir of a dozen angels when they want to — or a single voice. Here, they're singing their own arrangements of Norwegian folk songs, and they capture something ancient in a modern way. (Trio Mediaeval. ECM 9888)
The Minnesota Orchestra has never sounded better, and Beethoven has never had a better advocate than this conductor. Vänksä understands the whole Beethoven, not just the scowling genius who shook his fist at the gods. Vänksä plays up the composer's underrated sense of humor with crystalline textures. This CD was just nominated for a 2007 Grammy Award. (Osmo Vanska conducts the Minnesota Orchestra. BIS 1616)
A brilliant musical pairing: something bristlingly difficult to play, such as this Prokofiev concerto, gets matched up with one of the most serenely peaceful moments in 20th-century classical music, the "Adagio assai" in Ravel's Piano Concerto. It takes enormous chops and a poet's soul — which is another great pairing found in pianist Yundi Li. (Seiji Ozawa conducts the Berlin Philharmonic with Yundi Li, piano. DG 477 6593)
Yes, there are more idiomatic performances of this piece available, but where will you hear more passion brought to this score? A huge orchestra of Venezuelan street kids — some with awful stories to tell about where they came from — playing far beyond their years and as if their lives depended on it. (Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. DG 477 7323)
At the heart of any good opera is the intertwining of two high-flying voices. What we anticipate are those tearful, wrenching duets between soprano and tenor. Enter Russian soprano Anna Netrebko and Mexican tenor Rolando Villazon. The on-stage relationship between these two opera darlings is already legendary. The Los Angeles Times said it best: "They're not only beautiful young lovers, but believable — something rare." Duets is a new collection of some of the operatic love duets these two have performed together on stage, as well as a few duets that are rarely heard. (Nicola Luisotti conducts the Staatskapelle Dresden with Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon. DG 477 6663)
JoAnn Falletta started playing guitar on her 7th birthday and was hooked. That's one reason she formed a trio with her husband, clarinetist Robert Alemany, and Debra Wendells Cross, the principal flutist of the Virginia Symphony. In all of her musical research, Falletta has discovered only one piece in the repertoire actually written for this combination (a grand trio of Joseph Kreuzter). To increase the repertoire options and to highlight the unique sound palette of these three instruments, she's crafted several of her own arrangements of familiar orchestral works. Falletta calls them "Borrowed Treasures," and they're featured on her latest release of the same name. (JoAnn Falletta and Debra Wendells Cross play Faure's "Pavane." Virginia Arts 901)
On this recording, violinist Maxim Vengerov went in search of the soul of Mozart. He found it with the help of the UBS Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra, an ensemble made up of young musicians aged 17-29, from some 30 countries. Vengerov wanted to be sure they could all work on equal footing, so he and the members of the chamber orchestra first worked together on an Israeli kibbutz where there would be no distractions. To be inspired, they needed to gain knowledge, so Vengerov led the study sessions — but, he adds, the real teacher was Mozart. (Maxim Vengerov, violin, leads the UBS Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra. EMI 78374)
The violinist whom Barton Pine most admires was a musical ambassador. Barton Pine avidly researches violin music and history, yet she had never heard of Maud Powell until 1995, when she received a biography from the founder of Powell's Society for Music and Education. Now, not a day goes by that Barton Pine doesn't think about the impact Powell has had on American music. Her 12th recording, American Virtuosa, is a tribute to this great American violinist of the late 19th century. (Rachel Barton Pine, violin, and Matthew Hagle, piano: "American Virtuosa." Cedille 90000097)
Fabio Biondi founded the period instrument ensemble Europa Galante in 1990. Their latest, purely instrumental, recording takes its title from Vivaldi's short sinfonia, "Improvisata." Here Biondi and his band explore a few purely instrumental "descriptive" works (think: the seasonal scenes Vivaldi paints with music in his Four Seasons). From there, Biondi builds an entire program of works from lesser-known composers, such as Carlo Monza, and Giuseppe Demachi. (Fabio Biondi leads Europa Galante. Virgin 63430)
Brian Newhouse is the host of SymphonyCast® from American Public Media.