The following highly subjective selections, which were released over the past year, reflect the preferences of a pianist who loves orchestras, welcomes new ideas about classics and always hunts for something offbeat. If you've never listened to classical music, any of these titles might draw you in -- there's no secret handshake. Go nuts.
(ProPiano Records PPR224506)
Armenian-born pianist Babayan has been one of Cleveland's regular soloists since he won the Casadesus International competition in 1989. Beginning with the unexpectedly stirring K8 in G Minor, this set puts him in the first rank of those few players who understand Scarlatti's range of feeling -- from sublime to silly, with plenty of consolation and aching happiness in between. He doesn't dazzle like, say, Horowitz (who does?), but his cool polish gives these jewels a shine all his own. Instead of trying to sound like a harpsichord, Babayan coaxes a similar delicate rakishness from a steel-cased modern piano designed for altogether different purposes (machine-age heft). A few minor quibbles: the recording is so closely miked you can hear the pedal's damper pressing and lifting on the strings (but it becomes less distracting as the disc goes on). Also, Babayan has a way of sounding "pokey" in some louder passages. But then, it's nice to hear a rising star who impresses more through nuance than bombast.
Roussel: Symphonies 1-4 (Complete)
Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France (RCA 09026-62511-2)
Janowski is that rare conductor who can make any orchestra sound great, and his efficiency is matched by his interpretive prowess. He has things to say, and knows how to get what he wants from his musicians. Janowski gives Roussel the masterly touch, and it pays off handsomely in these enormously rewarding sojourns into post-impressionism, modernism and (some) fanfares. The Third Symphony in G minor is cited as his masterpiece, but don't let the others fall away -- for orchestration alone, especially his wind writing, Roussel is perpetually fascinating.
Rachmaninov: The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, Opus 31
Chamber Choir "Lege Artis,"
Boris Abalyan (St. Petersburg Classics/Sony SMK-64-092)
This recording, made in 1988 but only recently released in the West, is imbued with a bottomless melancholy that sounds distinctly Russian in its vastness, its largesse of spirit. Even though the text is from the ancient Russian liturgy, the religious (read: political) sounds profoundly personal here, as though it takes many souls to reveal the spirit of solitude. Rachmaninov's reputation as a pianist precedes and overshadows his talent as a composer, and given RCA's 10-CD box collection of his playing, that's understandable. But his choral writing is steeped in a richness and complexity -- several distinct bass lines, for instance -- that makes you wonder what kind of organist he might have made.
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 in D Minor, Opus 47
Symphony Orchestra (Melodiya/RCA 74321-32041-2)
Shostakovich mapped the psychological terrain of Stalinism. This sternly optimistic piece, written in 1937 as atonement for his "vulgar" "Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk," gains in irony after the fall of communism. It's long been thought that Maxim held the goods on this music, that he alone knew how his father wanted it performed. Pedigree rarely guarantees anything, especially in music, but darned if he doesn't pull it off. Recorded in 1977, and remastered for digital, this Fifth will displace your current favorite, even late 1950's Bernstein (and even though the Party's harps go out of tune.) Whether it's the flute-horn duet in the first movement, the gloomy consternation of the third, or the heady faux triumph of the last, these Soviets play with true Russian abandon -- as if they always knew this warhorse's secret, subversive meanings.
Chopin: Four Ballades (including Valses, Nocturnes, Etudes,
You want warhorses? Pianist Perahia serves up four, played in his inimitable poetic style, with flourishes of heroism, sober defeat, unflinching realism and calm, modernist cynicism. On the big numbers, he pulls out all the stops without going over the edge -- some of this music is thrilling because of its restraint. On the smaller numbers, he gets away with murder: thick rubatos, luscious ritards, deeply felt pauses, and playful witticisms. His bold yet curvaceous tone makes even the softest passages luminescent. You may never have heard these staples sound so glorious, so passionate or so keenly controlled.
Music of Barrios
Barrios is Agustin Barrios Mangore, the great composer-virtuoso born in Paraguay in 1885, whose music was recently resurrected. In Russell, a Scottish guitarist raised in Spanish Menorca, he finds his contemporary voice: keen harmonics, exacting balance between lines, and a tonal palette that would make Steve Vai blush. Barrios spins tunes of the utmost rusticity into technically demanding tightropes and Russell has the fingers and the mind for the job. He thinks like a dancer, plays like a singer, and makes six strings sound like at least 50.
Beethoven: Piano Sonatas: Moonlight, Waldstein, Opus 110 in A-flat
(Reference Recordings RR-69CD)
Finally a title that doesn't pair the "Moonlight" with the "Appassionata!" For a working musical definition of "forward momentum," there's no better example than Istomin's relentless attack on the Waldstein sonata's first movement. The trick, of course, is holding back, of giving the illusion of cumulative force, and Istomin is not as delicately shaded in the legato sections as some others, but the overall effect is thrilling. This is an autumnal release from the hands that supported Isaac Stern and Leonard Rose in the great trio recordings from the 1960's, and its might is a little baffling; it makes you wonder why Istomin hasn't been a bigger presence on the concert scene given his interpretive strengths. The tempo of the coda to the third movement is beautifully resigned in a way that shakes up a few assumptions about aging. The Opus 110, that sprawling meditation on music, piano playing and the nature of sound itself, is revelatory, and about as good as late Beethoven gets.
Schubert: Complete Piano Sonatas Impromptus and Moment Musiceaux
(London 440 305-2 through 440 310-2) and (London D 173681)
His technically polished and often fussy excursions into Bach behind him (check out the French Suites, London 433 313-2), the intrepid Hungarian moved on to the classical. His piano writing bridges the tension between late classical and romantic in an entirely different way than Beethoven's; instead of breaking all the rules, he sounds like a romantic who's gone back to sonata-form school. Schubert treats his structures affectionately; his coy transitions, supernatural developments, modest recapitulations are virtually nostalgic. With so many precious moments in these pieces, the best approach is to give the surface the sheen it deserves and let the poetic understatement spring forth where it will. Schiff, the most tonally imaginative pianist around, gives technically forboding exercises like the third Impromptu in G-flat major a discreet balance of voices with just the right wistfulness. Technically, this guy's a poet.
Richard Einhorn: Voices of Light
(Sony SK 62006)
Inspired by Carl Dreyer's silent film "The Passion of Joan of Arc" (1928), composer/record producer Einhorn has come up with an unlikely fusion, a kind of contemporary Medievalism. The texts combine ancient writings of female medieval mystics with those of Joan herself, "the transvestite witch who became a saint" (to quote the liner notes). As the female Christ figure, Joan has always made for great material. But this is one setting for period instruments and voices (supplied by the women of vocal group Anonymous 4) that you don't have to be a historian to find intriguing. Conductor Steven Mercurio displays a reverence for calm and quiet here, urging strong, linear tones sung without vibrato. But there's also a huge range of dynamics, from solo murmurs to chorus-wide tuttis, and the feelings range from naivete to metaphysical dread. Just what you'd expect from a saint who still seduces filmmakers, feminists, gays, poets and composers alike.
Schubert: Quintet, Opus 114 (The Trout),
with the Arpeggione sonata and Die Forelle
Emmanuel Ax, Pamela Frank, Rebecca Young, Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer
This superstar ensemble pits vets against youth: old hands Emmanuel Ax and Yo-Yo Ma pair up with Pamela Frank, a violinist whose tone is a scintillating match for Ma's, violist Rebecca Young, whose descant harmonies are fluid and gracious, and bassist Edgar Meyer, who knows whereof he bows. Tempos are appropriately fleet, and smart attention is paid to the pert dotted rhythms, ensemble attacks and cut-offs, and the pleasures of trading off ornaments. These kids ought to stick together. (Also included is Barbara Bonney's lithe take on "Die Forelle," the song around which the fourth movement builds its variations -- listen, and appreciate, how deftly Schubert stole from himself.)