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The Boston area’s best classical recordings for 2019

With the season of reflection upon us, the final Classical Notes column of the year offers brief thoughts on some praiseworthy local recordings that appeared during 2019.


SARAH BOB: …nobody move…: Commissions and Premieres for the New Gallery Concert Series (Avie) Bob is an excellent pianist, but it’s her role as a catalyst and inspiration that makes her so important to Boston’s new music scene. This collection is a generous sampling of works brought into being for her invaluable New Gallery Concert Series, now in its 20th year. The title work, by Randall Woolf, marries a noir toughness with acidic harmony, and Curtis K. Hughes’s“Avoidance Tactics #1” generates a playful storm of acoustic and electronic timbres.



BOSTON EARLY MUSIC FESTIVAL: CHARPENTIER: “LES PLAISIRS DE VERSAILLES” AND “LES ARTS FLORISSANTS” (cpo) On the heels (relatively speaking) of BEMF’s previous Charpentier recording (which won a Grammy) comes this offering of two of the composer’s mini-operas, which are packed with humor and charm. Every character is sung with, well, character, and the lissome, slender voice of soprano Teresa Wakim is a highlight in each, as is the irresistible swing of the orchestra’s playing.


BOSTON MODERN ORCHESTRA PROJECT: KEERIL MAKAN: DREAM LIGHTLY (BMOP/sound) BMOP’s diligent efforts to document American music of the present and recent past reaches Makan, a composer on the MIT faculty. Shimmering textures, slowly unfolding processes, and lingering tones dominate in these four pieces, which form a bridge between Makan’s abrasive earlier work and the more open, tonally rooted music of his recent scores. Traces of darkness are never far from the surface, though, especially in the 25-minute title work, which unfolds like a eerie, half-remembered dream.

Harmonia Mundi

BOSTON CAMERATA: FREE AMERICA! (Harmonia Mundi) Unlike many early music groups, the Boston Camerata has always approached its work with a complete lack of affectation or mannerism. That’s crucial to the success of this wonderful album of early American hymns, marches, and songs. Under Anne Azéma’s direction, the ensemble sounds as though it’s been transformed into a group of crusading Revolutionaries. Though centuries old, the themes of this music — political liberty, religious freedom, social union — echo strongly in today’s political climate.



TAKÁCS QUARTET/MARC-ANDRÉ HAMELIN: DOHNÁNYI: PIANO QUINTETS, STRING QUARTET NO. 2 (Hyperion) The Boston-based Hamelin, one of the world’s most inquisitive and talented pianists, and the Colorado-based Takács team up once again, this time for authoritative readings of the two piano quintets of Hungarian composer Ernö von Dohnányi (grandfather of conductor Christoph). Dohnányi was a conservative, tradition-oriented composer, and the echoes of his mentor Brahms are easy to spot, but so is his craftsmanship. These performances, expansive and passionate, make an unusually strong case for his work.


IAN BOSTRIDGE/THOMAS ADÈS: SCHUBERT: WINTERREISE (Pentatone) This duo gave a shattering performance of the greatest of all song cycles at Jordan Hall in 2016, one of many highlights of Adès’s ongoing tenure as the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s artistic partner. This live recording echoes the power of that encounter. Bostridge bends his voice in almost expressionistic ways, and Adès finds a wealth of hidden details in the score. The fresh light they throw on this well-loved piece ward off a listener’s complacency, and make it newly dark and unsettling.


BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA/ANDRIS NELSONS: BOSTON SYMPHONY COMISSIONS (Naxos) New music hasn’t been a central aspect of Andris Nelsons’s music directorship of the BSO; New York Times critic David Allen described his approach as “supporting new music without really championing it.” Still, the recent commissions on this disc are all eminently worth making available. Each of the four composers — Eric Nathan, George Tsontakis, Timo Andres, and Sean Shepherd — shows a gift for arraying a stream of ideas in vivid orchestral colors. Robert Sheena, the BSO’s longtime English hornist, is the superb soloist in Tsontakis’s “Sonnets.”


Blue Heron Records

BLUE HERON: OCKEGHEM SONGS, VOL. 1 (Blue Heron Records) Continuing to go from strength to strength, the early-music vocal ensemble presents the first release from its “Ockeghem@600” project. The Franco-Flemish composer’s chansons are both courtly and sensual, and Blue Heron sings them with a purity of tone that makes clear their intricate contrapuntal foundations. Blue Heron director Scott Metcalfe has ranked Ockeghem’s gifts in this area to Bach’s; listening to these performances, you strongly suspect he’s onto something.

Prism II

DANISH STRING QUARTET: PRISM II (ECM) How, you might wonder, can a critic get away with calling this outstanding Scandinavian foursome a local group? At a Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival concert in Dennis a few years ago, one player joked that they perhaps should have called themselves “the Dennis String Quartet.” Okay, it’s a stretch (and not a great joke), but at that concert they gave a scintillating performance of Schnittke’s dense, allusion-heavy Third String Quartet, much like the one on this superb album. Their reading of Beethoven’s Quartet in B-flat, Op.130 is, if anything, even better, so complete is their command of the ethereal Cavatina and the still-unruly Grosse Fuge. Hear them do both works at Jordan Hall in May.


David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.