A Classical `Top 12' From '88. MUSIC RECORDINGS
NEW YORK — TO me, ``Top 10'' has always been the province of rock radio, so once again I have settled on a dozen recordings to honor on my list of this year's best, presented alphabetically. In some cases, they were released in 1987 but crossed my desk too late to be considered for last year's wrapup. This list is in no way a comprehensive overview of the year's major releases.
John Adams: Nixon in China. Craney; Page; Duykers; Sylvan. Orchestra of St. Luke's, Edo de Waart, conductor. (Nonesuch 9 79177-2, digital, 3 CDs.) - I was deeply disappointed by this recording, with its cramped acoustic, its stiff conducting, and erratic singing, but it is the only one the opera is likely to get, and I think ``Nixon in China'' is the most impressive new opera to be written in the past two decades. And, fortunately, enough of the work peers through the limitations to give a good sense of the expressive brilliance of Adams's epic opera and Alice Goodman's superb libretto.
Bach: Sonatas and Partitas. Jascha Heifetz, violin. (RCA Gold Seal 7708-2 RG, analog mono, 2 CDs.) - In a word, stupefying. As any violinist will tell you, Heifetz was in a class all his own, and his playing of these musical Everests was caught at peak form. The CD transfers of the 1952 recordings are excellent.
Brahms: Ein Deutsches Requiem. Bonney; Schmidt. Vienna Opera Chorus & Vienna Philharmonic, Carlo Maria Giulini, conductor. (Deutsche Grammophon 423 574-2, digital, 1 CD.) - I have heard performances of Brahms's ``A German Requiem'' that have been more Teutonic in their weight, but none as ethereal, translucent, and utterly radiant as Giulini's. Even though the soloists are only good, the performance instantly became my favorite reading, because of Giulini's unique visionary way with the score.
Brahms: Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73; Haydn Variations Op. 56a. Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan, conductor. (DG 423 142-2, digital, 1 CD.) - Karajan has recorded this symphony at least four times, but this reading is so mellow, so responsive to the lyrical undercurrent of Brahms's gentlest symphony, that it is his finest account of a Brahms symphony, and one of the truly great Brahms recordings of the past decade. The Haydn Variations are a generous filler, handsomely performed.
Barbara Cook: The Disney Album. Arranged and conducted by Wally Harper. (MCA Classics MCAD-6244, digital, 1 CD.) - True, we all remember the important songs from those Disney full-length cartoons, but what a great album they make when the singer is Barbara Cook, and the arrangements are as inventive as Wally Harper's. Miss Cook is surely our finest song sculptress; she imbues each song with special warmth and insight.
Kern & Hammerstein: Showboat. Von Stade; Hadley; Stratas; Burns; Hubbard. London Sinfonietta, John McGlinn. (EMI/Angel 49108, digital, 3 CDs.) - All the music ever written for Jerome Kern's landmark show is included here, almost all in their original orchestrations. It is a marvelous experience hearing all 3 hours and 40 minutes of ``Showboat,'' cast wisely and performed with great flair and dedication.
Alb'eric Magnard: Guercoeur. Behrens; Lakes; van Dam. Orchestre du Capitole du Toulouse, Michel Plasson, conductor. (EMI/Angel 49193, digital, 3 CDs.) - Magnard is somewhat of a curiosity, and his ``Guercoeur'' an acquired taste - very much in the manner of Elgar's ``Dream of Gerontius,'' though philosophically and musically the works are in no way parallel. Billed as a lyric tragedy, it is a lofty, humanistic treatise on goodness and moral righteousness. This flawed recording proves that the work deserves its special niche in music history.
Rodgers & Hammerstein: The Sound of Music. von Stade; Farrell; Hagegard. Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, Erich Kunzel, conductor. (TELARC CD-80162, digital, 1 CD.) - If you must have Broadway shows cast from the opera house, this is the way to do it. It's the first such album I have ever really enjoyed (save the above-cited ``Showboat''). All perform well, but to have Eileen Farrell singing ``Climb Every Mountain'' makes it especially worthwhile.
Strauss: Josephslegende, Op. 63. Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, Hiroshi Wakasugi, conductor. (Denon 33CO-2050, digital, 1 CD.) - Strauss's ballet, written for the Diaghilev troupe in 1914, has never received a complete recording. It is not top-drawer stuff, but it is unmistakably Strauss nevertheless, and to have this in-all-respects surprisingly good recording fills an important gap in the Strauss canon.
Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos. Norman; Gruberova; Varady; Frey. Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Kurt Masur, conductor. (Philips 422 084-2, digital, 2 CDs.) - For Jessye Norman's Ariadne alone this set would be a must-have - one of her finest recordings ever. But Gruberova's dazzling Zerbinetta and Julia Varady's richly sung Composer are also tremendous assets. Masur conducts solidly, no more, and the supporting cast is variable, but put it all together and you have the best overall ``Ariadne'' of the stereo age.
Wagner: Lohengrin. Domingo; Norman; Randova; Nimsgern; Sotin. Vienna Philharmonic, Sir Georg Solti, conductor. (London 421 053-2, digital, 3 CD.) - This may not be the best ``Lohengrin'' on records, but it is a stimulating, interesting performance from Solti. Domingo is the Lohengrin of our day. A miscast Jessye Norman nevertheless manages to make much of Elsa's role insightful. Randova and Nimsgern are vivid, and the Vienna Philharmonic plays sumptuously.
Walton. Symphony No. 1 in B-flat minor; Portsmouth Point Overture. London Philharmonic Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin, conductor. (Virgin Classics VC 790715-2, digital, 1 CD.) - Walton's massive First Symphony has been crying for a great recording for well over 15 years, and Virgin Classic, a new label, has given it to us. Slatkin's grasp of this sprawling, complex score is remarkable, and no recording has ever captured the craggy, tortured drama and the jazzy thrust so vividly. Sonically it just misses being superb, but that is no reason to pass this stunner by.