With the new year rapidly approaching, and by rapidly approaching I mean here already, every publication, news program, radio show, and 16-year-old-girl’s diary are presenting their annual “The Year in ______” lists. I wish I had the kind of job where I could make a credible “The Year in Music” list, but I don’t and I’m not entirely sure I ever will. But I can make a “My Year in Music” list and nobody can really say shit about it because the word “my” is right there in the title. What to put in my list? I will likely include discussions of superlative performances and recordings in a mock-awards format in which no actual prizes will be given away or even considered for that matter, with the exception of the sheer prestige of being acknowledged by this blog. Perhaps I will include some random thoughts about things that don’t have anything to do with this year. Most importantly, I will bring a whiff of nostalgia and a smile to my own face thinking back on what was, even as I realize that I continue to march inexorably toward the brittle and cold embrace of death. Anyway, over the next little while, I’ll be presenting the first and quite possibly last annual Everything But the Music Awards in this space. Here we go!
Best recording that actually came out in 2011
I’d be lying if I said I had a lot of options for this category, mostly because I don’t really end up with that many new recordings. However, there were a few that I did encounter this year that really stand out.
One is the Sibelius cycle with Pietari Inkinen conducting the New Zealand Symphony, which technically started being released in October 2010, but was mostly dished out this year. Inkinen gets Sibelius in a way that someone three months older than me, no matter how Finnish, should absolutely not be able to. Sibelius is all about form, texture, and control and Inkinen and the musicians (who I imagine were in Lord of the Rings or at least Flight of the Conchords) put on a clinic. Listen to the drive of the finale of the Second Symphony or the perfect pacing of the finale of the Fifth; Bernstein and Karajan, God love them, would have killed a man (or perhaps tried to hook up with one) for that kind of sound. I don’t know a single other part of Inkinen’s repertoire, but if his Sibelius is any indication, he is our greatest hope for a cancer-free peaceful world.
Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony are heroes around here, so I won’t rehash the argument about them being the best orchestra on the planet right now. But I will mention that their continuing Mahler cycle had another release, and while I didn’t think it was possible to top their epic performance of the First, this year’s recording of the Third topped it. Mahler is not as over the top as his worst critics from 1949 thought he was, but of all the works he wrote, the Third comes closest to confirming that thought. This, of course, is why it’s such a good stylistic fit for Honeck and Co., what with their explosive brass section, extreme dynamic and expressive ranges, and general balls. I don’t have a Super Audio CD player, but I imagine that if I did the good folks at Exton’s recordings would serve as a good test for the quality of my speakers; they sound like a million bucks, with the great caveat to this recommendation being that they cost the compact disc equivalent of that amount.
2011 also brought the first round of releases from Irritable Hedgehog Records, easily the best label name in recorded human history. Pianist Andy Lee and producer Dave McIntire cornered the market on fascinating minimalist piano repertoire, including a suitably mind-blowing take on Tom Johnson’s An Hour for Piano that is one of the most hypnotic musical experiences I can recall (especially if you couple it with the visualizations on the streaming page on the label’s website).
But I’m going to hand out this year’s utterly meaningless and yet strangely meaningful award to my friend and, dare I say, rising star Ken Woods, who had not one but two critically acclaimed recordings arrive on the pretend shelves of online music retailers, and presumably some physical releases on the four remaining record stores in the United States. First came the initial foray into a cycle of the symphonies of Hans Gal and Robert Schumann, a sparkling pairing of the first recording of Gal’s Symphony no. 3 and Schumann’s Rhenish. There’s no escaping the fact that Woods is the go-to Gal guy, and this recording is a good reason why: it’s a performance that completely convinces you that there’s no good reason we don’t hear it all the time. The commitment to the Gal is no more or less than the commitment to the Schumann, itself one of my very favorite takes on the popular work. I’m excited to hear the rest of the series, both to learn more Gal and to hear what I imagine will be polished and exciting performances of one of my favorite composers.
As if that weren’t enough, the same forces teamed up with contralto Emma Curtis, tenor Brennen Guillory, and baritone David Stout for a release of the Schoenberg arrangements for chamber ensemble of Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and Das Lied von der Erde. Both performances are powerful; quite frankly I don’t find them to be the kind of thing that you pull out for listening while cooking or listening for pleasure. The Das Lied in particular commands 100% attention, but the emotional impact is pretty profound. These arrangements illustrate Mahler’s capability to be truly intimate and personal even more than the normal orchestral settings, and the disc is a welcome addition to the glut of Mahler recordings out there as something truly unique.
As always, award nomines and winners are not informed that they’ve won anything, lest they ask if they’ve won something tangible to signify their victory. I don’t have a plaque or trophy or even a gift card, but I do have admiration and kind words, and that’s more important. At least according to people without shit to present to winners.