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Great Boston-area classical albums of 2018

Yo-Yo Ma approaches Bach with simple phrasing, a lean tone, and supreme directness on “Six Evolutions — Bach: Cello Suites.”
Yo-Yo Ma approaches Bach with simple phrasing, a lean tone, and supreme directness on “Six Evolutions — Bach: Cello Suites.”(Sony Classical)

The year’s end is a reflective time, so the final Classical Notes of 2018 offers brief thoughts on some praiseworthy local recordings that appeared during the year.

BLUE HERON: THE LOST MUSIC OF CANTERBURY (Blue Heron Records): The five CDs in this set represent the crowning achievement of the vocal ensemble’s immersion in the Peterhouse partbooks, manuscripts containing pre-Reformation English polyphony, which were restored to performing editions by musicologist Nick Sandon. Beyond the obvious historical value of this set, Blue Heron’s pellucid singing and director Scott Metcalfe’s assured direction create an otherworldly sense of beauty. A comprehensive triumph.

MARIA FINKELMEIER: A LINE THAT TERMINATES AT THE PRESENT (no label/Bandcamp): Improvisation and collaboration are central for Finkelmeier, a percussionist and one of Boston’s most versatile musicians. Her debut release as a composer mines both these facets: The pieces — recorded in a variety of partnerships — thrive on spontaneity and flow. Of special note: the restless “Insomnia Suite,” composed amid sleepless nights during Finkelmeier’s first pregnancy.

YO-YO MA: SIX EVOLUTIONS — BACH: CELLO SUITES (Sony): Ma’s third recording of the suites turns out to be his most straightforward and most profound statement about the enduring power of this music. Gone are the outward virtuosity and quest for new angles heard in earlier versions; here, Ma approaches Bach with simple phrasing, a lean tone, and supreme directness, as if willing himself to get out of the music’s way and let us encounter its breathing essence.

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KIM KASHKASHIAN: J.S. BACH: SIX SUITES FOR VIOLA SOLO (ECM): Where Ma’s playing has evolved to become more plainspoken, Kashkashian, the most remarkable violist of our time, offers an intensely personal reading of the same suites in viola transcriptions. Every accent, every voicing, every pause seems to have been rethought, and the cumulative effect is both jarring and revelatory. The Sarabandes of each suite float in a universe all their own, and linger in memory.

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LORELEI ENSEMBLE: IMPERMANENCE and SKYLARK: SEVEN WORDS FROM THE CROSS (Sono Luminus): For Lorelei, the inventive women’s chorus, director Beth Willer created a program based around ideas of migration, transience, and the passing nature of existence, in which pieces old (the Turin Codex), recent (Takemitsu), and new (American composer Peter Gilbert) throw fresh light on one another. Matthew Guard, Skylark’s director, evokes the somber mystery of Good Friday in a sequence shaped around Christ’s final words on the cross, with repertoire stretching from shape-note hymns to Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s drone-based “Pann heilaga kross.” Each of these excellent groups brings a sound that’s both powerful and transparent, with pinpoint intonation.

BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA: SHOSTAKOVICH SYMPHONIES NOS. 4 AND 11 (Deutsche Grammophon): The BSO’s newfound excellence in Shostakovich is perhaps Andris Nelsons’s greatest achievement as music director to date. These performances meet the high standards already set in this series, especially the Fourth Symphony, a high-water mark of the composer’s defiant modernism. Memories of the concert performances of these works remain fresh, and the recordings bring them back in all their electricity.

TRANSIENT CANVAS: WIRED (New Focus Recordings): Proudly flying the flag for the bass clarinet-marimba duet, Amy Advocat and Matt Sharrock are committed to expanding the repertoire for this slightly off-kilter instrumental combo. They commissioned all the music on this album, and the result is a fantastic series of mood shifts, from the jumpy Aphex-Twin-meets-serialism of Peter Van Zandt Lane’s “Exergy Bubblebath” to the noisy, unsettling soundscape of Dan VanHassel’s “Epidermis.”

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BOSTON MODERN ORCHESTRA PROJECT: LEON KIRCHNER: MUSIC FOR ORCHESTRA (BMOP/sound): BMOP’s in-house label is the enduring result of conductor Gil Rose’s unshakable commitment to documenting the breadth of American symphonic music of the 20th and 21st centuries. Its 60th release assembles vital readings of the complete orchestra music of a composer whose voice evaded easy classification. These works bristle with ideas, dissonance, and brilliantly etched timbres. Compare the 1951 Sinfonia in Two Parts to Kirchner’s final work, “The Forbidden” (premiered by the BSO in 2008, a year before his death), and you will hear no lessening of inspiration.

CHRISTINA DAY MARTINSON/BOSTON BAROQUE: BIBER: THE MYSTERY SONATAS (Linn Records): Ably supported by three Boston Baroque colleagues, the orchestra’s concertmaster bypasses mere virtuosity and gives earthy and dramatic performances of these treacherously difficult pieces. The unorthodox tunings cause the violin to resonate in unusual ways, allowing Martinson to achieve a wide palette of instrumental color.

A FAR CRY: VISIONS AND VARIATIONS (Crier Records): Once an upstart, now a local veteran, the intrepid string orchestra continues to move the ball forward. This loosely themed release is bookended by elegantly powerful renditions of two kaleidoscopic sets of miniatures: Britten’s Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge and Prokofiev’s “Visions Fugitives.”


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