Classical Notes

Best classical CDs of the year from local performers

The season is upon us. I refer, of course, to list season, wherein critics of various persuasions reckon the most noteworthy products of the year about to end. Because Classical Notes focuses on the richness of Boston’s music life, today’s column is devoted to the year’s best local classical releases. With a reasonably loose definition of what constitutes a “local’’ release, you can sweep in many of the year’s overall best recordings - proof, if it were needed, of what a great place for music this city is.

There were, of course, CDs from the groups, musicians, and composers that form the backbone of Boston’s music scene. Cambridge-based composer Michael Gandolfi was represented by two pieces: a grandly scaled choral work, “Q.E.D.: Engaging Richard Feynman,’’ recorded along with music by Jennifer Higdon by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra on its own label (ASO Media), and a rhythmically supple chamber work, “Line Drawings,’’ recorded by the Concord Chamber Music Society along with music by Chris Brubeck and Lukas Foss (Reference Recordings). Both are accessible, energetic, and skillfully crafted, very much in the style that has marked Gandolfi’s music for many years.

Almost completely different is the music of fellow Cantabrigian Keeril Makan, whom I discovered this year thanks to “Target’’ (Starkland), a collection of chamber and vocal works. Makan’s works are full of hammering rhythms, unusual playing techniques, and a visceral feel for instruments. They are discomfiting, sometimes terrifying, but also impossible to turn one’s attention away from. Especially noteworthy are “Zones d’accord,’’ for solo cello, and the title piece, “Target,’’ a vocal work that uses texts taken from leaflets dropped over Afghanistan after 9/11.


The Chiara String Quartet, in residence at Harvard, has been a major proponent of the works of Swampscott-born composer Jefferson Friedman. Friedman’s String Quartets Nos. 2 & 3 (New Amsterdam) balance light and darkness, harmonic stasis and driving rhythms. But what makes them so rewarding is his grasp of musical narrative. Shifts in sound or texture have the force of events in a novel, each turn leaving you wanting to know how the story comes out. Moments from each quartet have stayed with me since I first heard them.

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Riccardo Chailly is not a Bostonian, although he was supposed to be, sort of. The Italian conductor was scheduled to make his long-overdue Boston Symphony Orchestra debut in January, before illness forced him to cancel both of his programs. His cycle of Beethoven symphonies and overtures with the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig, of which he is music director (Decca), will give you an idea of what we missed. Beethoven is impossibly well-trodden ground, but the musicians make these works fresh and vital. Fast tempos are now the norm in Beethoven, but no one has managed to balance speed and sonic richness as successfully as Chailly and the brilliant Leipzig players. The “Eroica’’ and Seventh Symphonies pack an especially vivid punch. A few movements sound too hectic, and you occasionally want them to ease up on the gas. But that’s a small price for the scores of fresh insights.

Ives may not have been a Bostonian, but he was a lifelong Connecticut resident - close enough - and several of his best works are steeped in New England lore and atmosphere. Violinist Hilary Hahn, who has finally left behind prodigy status and is being recognized for the audacious musician that she is, has recorded all four of Ives’s violin sonatas with the excellent pianist Valentina Lisitsa (Deutsche Grammophon). The duo makes this complex, iconoclastic music sound luminously beautiful, even in its most unhinged moments (many of which are in the Third Sonata). This could be a perfect introduction to Ives for your favorite skeptic of 20th-century music.

Another Connecticut-born artist rounds out my list: Tenor Nicholas Phan, whom I first encountered last summer at the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont, where he gave a gripping performance of Schumann’s “Dichterliebe’’ with pianist Mitsuko Uchida. He has made a specialty of Benjamin Britten, and on a recent CD he sings the British composer’s “Winter Words’’ cycle on poems of Thomas Hardy and the “Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo’’ along with some folk song arrangements, all with the sensitive pianist Myra Huang (Avie). Phan has a lithe, beautiful voice, but it’s his masterful characterization of these songs - by turns desolate, humorous, and turbulent - that makes such a deep impression. That’s something to be treasured, wherever it pops up.

David Weininger can be reached at