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Best of the Arts

Highlights from a year of local listening

What’s a local list without Yo-Yo Ma? In 2022, the cellist explored new musical horizons, as did A Far Cry, Lorelei Ensemble, Marti Epstein, and other artists

"Missing Words," from New Focus RecordingsNew Focus Recordings

Reflecting back on the past year, the final Classical Notes column of 2022 brings together eight notable recordings by local artists, composers, and ensembles.

The origins of Eric Nathan’s “Missing Words” (New Focus Recordings) lie in Ben Schott’s book “Schottenfreude,” in which Schott coined new German words for otherwise inexpressible human conditions. (Example: “Leertretung” — “Stepping down heavily on a stair that isn’t there.”) Nathan, a composer on the Brown University faculty, took the act of translation one step further by writing instrumental pieces for a large selection of these new portmanteaus. The resulting large-scale composition, by turns witty and deadly earnest, demonstrates a more angular and expansive musical language than many of Nathan’s earlier works have shown, and makes for deeply compelling listening.


"The Blue Hour" (New Amsterdam/Nonesuch) New Amsterdam/Nonesuch

The string orchestra A Far Cry has always been a cooperatively inclined ensemble, and “The Blue Hour” (New Amsterdam/Nonesuch) is one of its most collaborative undertakings yet. It’s a vast song cycle composed by five female composers — Rachel Grimes, Angélica Negrón, Shara Nova, Caroline Shaw, and Sarah Kirkland Snider — to selections from Carolyn Forché's poem “On Earth,” a woman’s journey through life to death. Collectively written works are rarely memorable, but the balance of similarity and otherness among the five composers is so sure as to make “The Blue Hour” seem like the work of a unified compositional voice. Nova, known for her work in My Brightest Diamond, sings the entire captivating work to AFC’s deft accompaniment.

"Nebraska Impromptu" (New Focus Recordings) New Focus Recordings

“You can take the girl out of Nebraska, but you can’t take the Nebraska out of the girl,” Berklee College of Music’s Marti Epstein once said, describing the expansive, deliberate pacing of many of her compositions. That sense — open, uncertain, alive to possibility — suffuses “Nebraska Impromptu” (New Focus Recordings), a collection of chamber music for clarinet composed during the first two decades of the 21st century. The longest piece here is “See, Even Night” for clarinet, viola, and piano, which has the drawn-out aura of a Morton Feldman work but with a lullaby-like sense of wonder all its own. Rane Moore plays everything with a keen appreciation of Epstein’s idiom.


Haydn: Symphony No. 103; Theresienmesse (CORO Records) Coro Records

With the end of the Harry Christophers era earlier this year, the Handel and Haydn Society experienced its first change of directorship since 2009. Among Christophers’s achievements was the refocusing of H&H’s mission on its two composer namesakes. Here is a prime case in point: Christophers-led recordings of Haydn’s Symphony No. 103 in E-flat and the “Theresienmesse” (CORO), part of its ongoing series of the composer’s masses. The playing is nimble throughout, and both the solo and choral singing in the mass are robust and joyous, very much in Haydn’s spirit.

"Antigone" (New Focus Recordings) New Focus Recordings

The latest project from Beth Willer’s intrepid Lorelei Ensemble is a fascinating piece by composer and choral conductor James Kallembach. “Antigone” (New Focus Recordings) melds writings by Sophie Scholl — a member of the White Rose, a nonviolent anti-Nazi movement in World War II Germany — with texts from Sophocles’s “Antigone” to create a meditation on individual duty and civil disobedience. For this hybrid libretto, Kallembach creates an arresting musical texture of women’s voices and cello quartet; the result is music of poignancy and deep power. “Erit in pace memoria eius,” the chorus sings at its serene conclusion: “Their memory shall be in peace.”


"Henry VIII" (Odyssey Opera) Odyssey Opera

“Not a single scene was left untouched,” Saint-Saëns complained about the cuts and revisions to his opera “Henry VIII” as it was being rehearsed for its 1883 premiere at the Paris Opera. Indeed, the premiere cut sizable portions of the score, which was never heard complete until Odyssey Opera’s 2019 concert performance in Jordan Hall, the basis for this recording (on its own label). Restored to fullness, there is a sweep and grandeur to the music that occasionally flags but is largely irresistible. The cast is strong as well.

Boston Symphony Chamber Players box set (Sony Classical) Sony Classical

In 1964, the Boston Symphony Orchestra became the first full-time orchestra to sponsor a chamber music group drawn from its own ranks. It began recording almost immediately, and many of those early efforts are captured in a box set of the Boston Symphony Chamber Players’ complete recordings for the RCA label (reissued on Sony Classical). The first-chair BSO instrumentalists heard here — violinist Joseph Silverstein, cellist Jules Eskin, flutist Doriot Anthony Dwyer, and oboist Ralph Gomberg among them — are pillars of the orchestra’s history. Hearing the surprisingly diverse repertoire choices is one pleasure of this 10-CD set; another is the chance to hear pianist Richard Goode, a contemporary giant in chamber music, in some of his earliest efforts.

"Beethoven for Three" (Sony Classical) Sony Classical

Sixty-seven years young, Yo-Yo Ma keeps on discovering new musical horizons. Two volumes called “Beethoven for Three” (Sony Classical) find the celebrated cellist in the familiar company of pianist Emanuel Ax and violinist Leonidas Kavakos for trio arrangements of the composer’s symphonies, which they play with an unabashed brio that makes them sound not at all far removed from their orchestral origins. Unsurprisingly, all three seem to be having the time of their lives.


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