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Holiday Gift Guide | Classical

Wagner Love Duets and Other Delights


The classical record business is not without its problems, and there were fewer releases this year than last. But extraordinary recordings still get made, and this year's gift guide includes 10 of the best, in no particular order.

*** 1/2 HAYDN, "The Paris Symphonies," Philips. The Symphonies No. 82 to 87--written for a Masonic orchestra in Paris that sported sky-blue frock coats, lace and swords--reveal Haydn at his merriest and most colorfully inventive. Although well known for their clever sound effects and nicknames, there is far more to these rich, tuneful, gracious and surprising scores than that. And the performances by the Dutch conductor Frans Bruggen and Orchestra of the 18th Century are an utter sonic delight.

*** 1/2 WAGNER, "Love Duets," EMI. It has been some years since a great new Wagner recording has come along, but now one has. It may not be a full opera, but the two half-hour duets from "Siegfried," and "Tristan and Isolde," magnificently sung by Placido Domingo and Deborah Voigt, are practically a pair of psycho-sexual mini-dramas of seduction, ravishment, indecision and finally ecstasy. Antonio Pappano is the superb conductor of London's Royal Opera Orchestra.

**** MESSIAEN, "Vingt Regards," Teldec. Olivier Messiaen's 20 "glances" at the child Jesus, written in 1949, contain some of the most glorious solo piano music of the 20th century. They are works of both studied naivete and remarkable sophistication. On this new two-disc set, the French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard captures Messiaen's glitter and gorgeous sensuality with startling immediacy. What luck that the best piano recording of the year is perfect for Christmas--and perfect for any other day as well.

**** "Complete Webern," Deutsche Grammophon. Webern's taste for miniatures allows not only his entire catalog of published works, but everything from his scrapbook as well, to fit tidily onto six CDs. And this overview, under the general guidance of Pierre Boulez--along with contributions from the Berlin Philharmonic, Emerson String Quartet, violinist Gidon Kremer and others--is a monument in recorded literature. It is also likely to be revelation. Webern may be known for his ultra-condensed, formalistic approach to music, but heard in these sterling performances he can also sound as warm as Schubert, as acidic as Stravinsky and as colorful as Ravel. Essential for anyone wanting to understand why the music of the century unfolded the way it did.

*** 1/2 JOHN CAGE, "The Seasons," EMI. This isn't the first CD for people who think they hate John Cage, but it may be the first that doesn't pander. A variety of Cage scores, performed by the American Composers Orchestra conducted by Dennis Russell Davies, highlights the tranquil, beautiful side of the avant-garde composer's music, especially in the early ballet score, "The Seasons," and the colorful Concerto for Prepared Piano, with Margaret Leng Tan as the luminous soloist. But it doesn't ignore the more anarchic Cage, either. For amusement value, Leng Tan offers a delightful performance of the Suite for Toy Piano, which is followed by Lou Harrison's joyous orchestration of it.

*** 1/2 MAYA BEISER, "Kinship," Koch. This alluring new collection of pieces performed by the new-music cellist Maya Beiser is not easy to categorize. Her idea of kinship is that we are all of one world. The cellist, who grew up on an Israeli kibbutz, plays Arab music with the same hypnotic intensity she brings to the haunting work of Cambodian-born Chinary Ung, or the Java-meets-hip-hop arrangements of Evan Ziporyan. A wonderful soundtrack for a time of year when we contemplate a better tomorrow.

**** PHILIP GLASS, "Symphony No. 5: Requiem, Bardo, Nirmanakaya," Nonesuch. Not everyone has fallen for Glass' epic 100-minute Millennial symphonic exegesis of world "wisdom" traditions, but those of us who have can't get enough of it. As spectacularly expansive as Webern is concentrated, the symphony for large orchestra, five vocal soloists, chorus and children's choir is a life-affirming hymn to a world ancient yet ever renewable. A fine performance with the Vienna Radio Symphony led by Dennis Russell Davies is wrapped in a gorgeous package that will make it seem all the more amazing a gift.

*** 1/2 BACH, "Transcriptions," Sony Classical. In a year that has seen an unprecedented boom in Bach recordings (honoring the 250th anniversary of the composer's death in July), there has been a battle of Bachian novelty items--from sumptuous tango and samba versions of Bach to startling klezmer Bach to kitschy electronic koto renditions of the composer. The contribution by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, led by Esa-Pekka Salonen, is both intriguingly novel and something of lasting interest. It contains powerful, gripping performances (magnificently recorded and played) of fascinatingly personal Bach orchestrations by Leopold Stokowski, Mahler, Schoenberg, Webern and Elgar.

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