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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Year in Reviews: Recordings and DVDs in 2011

"These go to eleven."
By Paul Pelkonen.
Weird scenes inside the gold mine: Scene I of the Valencia production of Das Rheingold.
Pictures © the Palau de les Arts, Valencia © 2011 Unitel. 
Despite rumors to the contrary, the market for recorded music isn't dead--and neither are the record companies. There were some really good issues and reissues this year, including an exciting Ring Cycle on DVD and more Beethoven and Liszt than you can shake an ear trumpet at. Here's the 11 best recordings (audio and video) of the year that went to 11.


Best Complete Opera Recording
Frankfurt Opera cond. Sebastian Wiegl: Die Tote Stadt (2 CDs) (Oehm)
"The effect is one of Wagnerian longing in this famous tune, drawing out the characters' nostalgia and inner anguish, expressed through this inspired melody. Elsewhere, the giant orchestra is adeptly led in the dance music for Marietta and the phantasmagoric carnival scene in Act II. "

Best Orchestral Disc
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra cond. Robert Spano, Garrick Ohlsson, Piano: Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3, Symphonic Dances (ASO Media)
"This exciting disc of Rachmaninoff's most challenging concerto features Garrick Ohlsson meeting the work head-on. Mr. Ohlsson interlocks smoothly with Atlanta Music Director Robert Spano. They craft a thrilling ride through the work's three movements. An energetic set of Symphonic Dances demonstrates the quality of this Southern orchestra."


Best Recital Disc
Henri Sigriddsson, Piano Sibelius Symphony No. 2, 5 (Piano Transcriptions) (Ondine)
"Hearing a symphonic score rebuilt for the piano often allows the listener to experience fresh details of tone and color that may be obscured by the wash of strings or the stentorian force of brass. For Sibelius, whose compositional style is focused on simplicity and clarity, the transcription process sharpens each musical idea to a diamond edge."

Best Boxed Set 
Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich cond. David Zinman: Mahler Symphonies Nos. 1-10 (RCA Red Seal 15 discs, 1 DVD)
The opening "bloc" ofWunderhorn symphonies (Nos. 1-4) are solidly performed, with rich brass playing and energetic strings and winds. Mr. Zinman has a firm grasp of Mahler's treacherous rhythms, making the sudden celebratory dance in the middle of the Symphony No. 1 Marcia funebre lurch to playful life.

Best Compilation
Lang Lang: My Piano Hero (Sony Classical)
In this year of Liszt-o-mania (the man turned 200) Lang Lang unleashed this disc pairing solo piano excursions with an exciting recording of the First Piano Concerto with the Vienna Philharmonic under Valery Gergiev.


Best Reissue
Chicago Symphony Orchestra cond. Daniel Barenboim Bruckner: Symphonies 0-9 (10 discs, DG)
"This set has been out of print for almost two decades, mostly because Daniel Barenboim decided to record a second Bruckner cycle in the 1990s with the Berlin Philharmonic. This older, analog set made in the 1970s offers the conductor's fiery first take on these classic works. It allows the listener to hear the early relationship between the young Barenboim and this great American orchestra."

Best Opera DVD
Vienna State Opera cond. Bertrand de Billy: Don Carlos 
"The Princess imagines a happy domestic life as a '50s sitcom housewife. Carlo is her hard-working white-collar hubby, King Philip and Queen Elisabeth are their dinner guests, and Posa as the pizza delivery guy who shows up after Eboli burns the roast."

Best Orchestral DVD
Vienna Philharmonic cond. Christian Thielemann:
The Beethoven Symphonies
"The whole endeavor is a bit of a throwback, to an age before tonmeisters and record company suits crammed the record shelves with mediocre Beethoven cycles led by egotistical conductors at the height of an unsustainable boom. By making honest music without the aid of modern machinery, the Viennese have done the impossible: they have come up with a fresh take on this well-known, well-loved music."


Best DVD Boxed Set
Valencia Opera Orchestra and Chorus cond. Zubin Mehta:
Der Ring des Nibelungen.
"Behind all the flash (and java) is a solid retelling of the myths, steered by Mr. Mehta's steady hand in the pit and Carlos Padrissa's innovative (but not intrusive) directorial ideas."

Best Bargain (Download):
Lahti Symphony Orchestra cond. Osmo Vanska
Sibelius Symphonies 1-7, Orchestral favorites (Amazon download, originally on BIS)
A near-complete Sibelius box set led by one of the finest Finnish conductors of our modern age. Originally issued by the Finnish label BIS, these sparkling, authentic recordings rise to starry heights and sink to dark, Arctic lows. Did we mention it costs five bucks?

Best Complete Edition
Leslie Howard: The Complete Liszt Piano Works (Hyperion, 99 Discs)
This heavyweight box features all the Liszt piano music. The sonatas, poems, concertos. The Années de la Pelerinage. The Hungarian Rhapsodies. Even the opera transcriptions and piano versions of orchestral works by Beethoven, Berlioz and Wagner. Alternate versions are included. Everything is played by the brilliant, scholarly Mr. Howard, who has dedicated his life and his piano careers to making this massive aural document.


Visit the rest of the 2011 Year in Reviews, our account of the year that went to "'11".


Contact the author: E-mail Superconductor editor Paul Pelkonen.


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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.