The generous approach to gift giving may be to give what your recipient wants. But I like to give everyone the same CD for Christmas--one of the ones I like best--and then hope for converts. Happily, it usually works.
*** BACH, Complete Cantatas, Vol. 3, Erato ($47.97, three CDs). This is the third in a series of cantatas--all of them spilling over with life--led by the Dutch harpsichordist and organist Ton Koopman. Few of us know many of the more than 200 Bach cantatas well, and these bright and dramatic period performances include the well known among the obscure, including one cantata for Christmas morning.
*** BRAHMS, A German Requiem, Harmonia Mundi ($16.99). The German Requiem is much-maligned music, but if in doubt, try it in this wonderful performance by Philippe Herreweghe. His Chapelle Royale sings light as air, and he gets from the Orchestra of the Champs Elysees the transparent tissue of sound that French orchestras strive for but so often miss by a mile.
**** GLASS, "Music in Twelve Parts," Nonesuch ($44.97, three CDs). Written between 1971 and 1974, "Music in Twelve Parts" is one of Minimalism's first masterpieces. A compendium of all that Glass had done up to that time with repetitive music, this work, nearly three hours long, reveals the full range of structural and rhythmic possibilities in the form. The Glass Ensemble performances have found a new luxuriance never before suspected in this repetitious music.
**** GREAT VIOLIN CONCERTOS, Sony ($25.98, two CDs). Never have so many famous violin concertos (the Mendelssohn, the Tchaikovsky, the second Prokofiev, the first Bruch and the third Saint-Saens) been so available in such fabulous performances for so little money as on this album by Zino Francescatti. The French violinist's tone is massive, he spills passion, and he has a thrilling sense of drama. These performances, mostly from the early '50s, remind us not only of a major soloist but also of the days when records were truly exciting. The accompaniments, mainly by Dimitri Mitropoulos and the New York Philharmonic, are breathtaking.
**** JUILLIARD STRING QUARTET, Vol. 5, Sony ($23.98, two CDs). This reissue celebrating the Juilliard's 50th anniversary is composed of collaborations. Leonard Bernstein joins on piano for the Schumann Piano Quintet; baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sings in Barber's "Dover Beach"; Aaron Copland plays piano in his Sextet, among others. Sparks fly.
*** KIEVMAN, Symphony No. 2(42), New Albion ($16.99). Remember Carson Kievman? He was a promising composition student at CalArts in the early '70s known mostly for his quirky avant-garde theatrical style. Now he has resurfaced as a neo-Romantic with an endearing tendency to go off the deep end. This big, hourlong symphony, meant to take up where Mozart's 41st left off, is undisciplined but original in its outrageous flights of fancy. A good performance by young conductor Delta David Gier and the Polish Radio National Symphony Orchestra of Katowice adds to the fun.
*** 1/2 MacMILLAN, "The Berserking," BMG ($15.99). This concerto by Scottish composer James MacMillan is as fervent as today's new music gets. It is rhythmically exhilarating, spiritually soaring and melodically arresting. MacMillan's fans are increasing every day, and if you heard his "Veni, Veni, Emmanuel," played by the Los Angeles Philharmonic last season, you'll know why.
*** MOZART, "Idomeneo," Deutsche Grammophon ($47.97, three CDs). It has been a year of impressive Mozart opera releases--an outstanding "Marriage of Figaro" conducted by Claudio Abbado (on DG), a luminous "Magic Flute" conducted by William Christie (on Teldec), a fine "Don Giovanni" conducted by Charles Mackerras (on Telarc). But why not turn to the much less familiar early opera seria, in which Mozart first indicated his genius for the form? The cast is headed by Placido Domingo and includes Cecilia Bartoli, Carol Vaness, Thomas Hampson and, in a cameo, Bryn Terfel. James Levine urges heroic ardor from all involved, including the standout Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus.
*** 1/2 PART, Litany, ECM New Series ($15.99). Here is a good candidate for the most seductively beautiful release of the year. Arvo Part, the Estonian mystical Minimalist with medieval leanings, is in top form with music that's both ethereal and substantial.
*** TCHAIKOVSKY, Piano Concerto No. 1, Deutsche Grammophon ($15.99). Tchaikovsky's concerto is one of the most beloved--and tired--of all pieces of classical music. But in this performance by Martha Argerich and the Berlin Philharmonic under Claudio Abbado, the warhorse can still sound wild. Argerich may be the only cult pianist left, and she lives up to her super-exciting reputation. The disc also contains a reissue of a two-piano version of "The Nutcracker" Suite sounding utterly fresh as performed by Argerich and Nicolas Economou.
*** 1/2 TEARS OF LISBON, Sony ($15.99). Here's a crossover gimmick that works. Paul Van Nevel, who leads the fine early music Huelgas Ensemble, has developed a passion for fado, the alluring, sorrowful songs heard in small clubs in Lisbon and nowhere else. He also finds a spiritual connection between them and 16th century Portuguese music. So he juxtaposes authentic performances of the old music with authentic recordings of great fadoists now working. Both centuries haunt and illuminate the other. This disc is surely the sleeper of the year.
Albums and other items in the Gift Guide are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).