1. La Quinta essentia
Paul Van Nevel, Huelgas Ensemble
This is the Renaissance period in a nutshell, as exemplified by three different mass settings by three radically different composers -â€“ Orlandus Lassus, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and giga-obscure Englishman Thomas Ashewell, whose never before recorded setting of the mass accounts for one half of his extant output. The Ashewell work is quite amazing â€“- you will not believe that a choir is capable of executing such complex rhythms. The other two works -- the stern and worldly Lassus and the weightless and serene Palestrina -- perfectly bookend the realm of the Renaissance in a way never before achieved on disc. La Quinta essentia is the best way in the door to the least-known and well-understood historical period in Western music.
Huelgas Ensemble - Thomas Ashewell: Missa Ave Maria, "Sanctus"
2. Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer: Le Journal du Printemps
Michi Gaigg, L'Orfeo Barockorchester
Just when you thought we had run out of orchestral masterworks from the Baroque Era, Michi Gaigg and L'Orfeo Barockorchester locate a key set of orchestral suites from among the earliest phase of the history of Western orchestras; Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer's Le Journal du Printemps. Published in 1695, this work contains many of the hallmarks of what makes Handel's orchestral music so appealing, but first appeared when Handel himself was only ten years old. This recording is likewise the result of an exceptionally fine bit of musical detective work, as the score does not provide a proper "recipe" â€“- i.e. an orchestration â€“- as much as mere serving suggestions. You would never know that from the performance, which is as natural and characteristically Baroque as Vivaldi's The Four Seasons.
Michi Gaigg, L'Orfeo Barockorchester - Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer: Le Journal du Printemps, Suite No. 7 in G minor, "Passacaille"
3. Joseph-Marie-ClÃ©ment dall' Abaco: 11 Capricen fÃ¼r Violoncello
Kristin von der Goltz
This comes from literally "nowheresville" in the pantheon of Western music; a group of 11 pieces â€“- called "Caprices" but actually are improvisations -â€“ by the son of once-famed Viennese composer and cellist Evaristo Felice Dall'Abaco. Whereas the father's music is scrupulously organized, inherently graceful and clearly composed with the court in mind, the son's music is loose, visionary, and seems responsive to external stimuli. Each little Caprice -- and some are not so little, running seven minutes or more -â€“ seems to tell a story from a wry and emotionally involved point of view. Part of that is due to cellist Kristen von der Goltz' searching consideration and intuitive understanding of Dall'Abaco's manuscript and place in historic time, not to mention her superlative skill as a cello player. This is a case where a musician went into the library, turned up some music no one was looking for, and blew everyone out of the water with it. Also strongly worthy of mention in this category, Susanne Heinrich's Hyperion disc Mr. Abel's Fine Airs.
Kristen von der Goltz - Joseph-Marie-ClÃ©ment dall' Abaco: Caprice No. 2 in G minor
4. The Virginalists
JungHae Kim (via Magnatune)
Harpsichordist JungHae Kim has been working steadily away in the Bay Area early music scene for years. As opportunities to record had managed steadily to elude her year after year, Kim decided to put in for a grant and take care of it herself. The Virginalists, however, is no vanity project; Kim, a former record store employee and longtime consumer of classical recordings, understands how to add value to her project within extremely limited means: a friendly environment in which to record her instrument, a good engineer, an instrument that is in good repair and working order, an attractive cover image. Beyond such considerations, there's something simply magical in the way Kim plays these English virginal pieces. Some of that magic derives from her spontaneous and fresh manner of varying repeats. This was standard operating procedure for keyboardists of the Renaissance and Baroque that has not always found enthusiastic adherents in modern times. Fans of harpsichord music will want to listen to The Virginalists again and again; in its way, it is rather addictive.
JungHae Kim - John Dowland: Can She Excuse
5. John Luther Adams: for Lou Harrison
Stephen Drury, The Callithumpian Consort
Speaking of magic, John Luther Adams' For Lou Harrison applies a little Northern alchemy -â€“ Adams is based in Alaska â€“- to the musical tradition exemplified by one of the greatest composers of Northern California -â€“ a company that includes Henry Cowell and Terry Riley â€“- Lou Harrison. Intended as part of a trilogy of tributes to Adams' parents â€“- his mother, father and "musical parent" Lou Harrison -â€“ Adams weaves a mysterious web of sound out of a combination of string quartet, string orchestra, and piano duo that constantly shifts through a skillful blend of modalities one associates with the work of Meister of Aptos. Not everyone is crazy about Harrison's music; particularly in New York, there is a strong contingent of opponents to the warmth and sunny optimism of his familiar, Pacifically-oriented manner. Adams, onetime president of the American Music Center in New York, realizes that in siding with Harrison one is taking a stand both political and musical, but the result here is mainly emotional, and very powerfully so. Harrison's sun is sinking slowly in the West, and the darkening of the timbre is not the coming of night but Adams' own sorrow at having to bid him farewell; it is as moving and serious a statement as can be found in the music of the early 21st century.
Stephen Drury, The Callithumpian Consort - John Luther Adams: for Lou Harrison
6. Leo Ornstein: Complete Works for Cello and Piano
Joshua Gordon & Randall Hodgkinson
2007 was both a good year for the cello (see the Kristen von der Goltz entry above, plus 2007 albums by Wilhelmina Smith, Joey Redhage and others) and a good one for New World as well. Joshua Gordon's Leo Ornstein: Complete Works for Cello and Piano appeared early in 2007 and under normal circumstances one might lose track of such a disc in a year's end survey â€“- but not this one. Usually full surveys of a composer's output in particular medium contains a mixture of "the good, the bad, and the ugly" -â€“ successes, failures and the ragged shreds of unfinished projects. When it came to writing for the cello, Leo Ornstein had access to a friend who was an extremely talented player, Hans Kindler, who at age 19 played the important cello part in the uproarious world premiere of Arnold Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire in Vienna. Ornstein did not save his most "futuristic" music for Kindler, however -â€“ what he explored was the part of his personality that was rooted in the music of his childhood in Russia, tempered with the questing spirit of the modern era. It is an impressive, highly personal output, and Ornstein's skill in handling formal development and other echt-Romantic devices within in a modern context is something that still informs us today, even though these pieces had to wait more than 70 years to find a home on recordings.
Joshua Gordon & Randall Hodgkinson - Leo Ornstein: Prelude No. 6
7. Nostalghia: Piano Works by Valentin Silvestrov
Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov has been getting a lot of attention of late, and belated it is -â€“ he turned 70 in September of 2007. So far there is nothing but confusion and discord among musicologists as to just who was responsible for turning back the tide away from serialism and towards tonality late in the 20th century; clearly it was not a single person so much as it was a kind of zeitgeist among composers in distantly related societies and situations. Silvestrov, for his part, was at it very early, by about 1970, however his reclamation of traditional harmony and melody was affected by his experience in the "Kiev avant-garde," even though he was not in the least afraid of being accused of indulging in "nostalgia." It's nostalgia tinged by regret, sorrow, loss, and sometimes a sense of hopelessness, and pianist Jenny Lin captures precisely these qualities in her carefully nuanced exploration of his keyboard output. Wisely, Lin programs a couple of Silvestrov's earlier, avant-garde works to illustrate what he took from his earlier styles into the new, which in itself still seems fairly avant-garde, even though it is stated in the language of traditional tonality.
Jenny Lin - Valentin Silvestrov: Melodie
8. George Crumb: The River of Life; Unto the Hills
Ann Crumb, James Freeman & Orchestra 2001
Just because avant-garde composers have reclaimed some elements deriving from tonal music doesn't mean the avant-garde itself is dead. Take for example George Crumb, now among the most senior of senior American composers of the front rank. Ancient Voices of Children in 1970 established Crumb as one of the enfants terribles of the day, even though he was over 40 in a time when you weren't supposed to trust anyone over 30, except maybe Norman Mailer or Timothy Leary. Crumb has not suffered a fall from grace such as with those characters, and if anything, his reputation has grown since the time when counterculture was in control of youth culture. His recent song settings The River of Life and Unto the Hills return Crumb to the scene of the crime, his roots in West Virginia and its Appalachian heritage of folk and religious songs. Joining him in this journey is his daughter Ann Crumb, whose other primary connection is to the Broadway stage and the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber; it is a tribute to Ann Crumb's virtuosity that she is just as at home with her father's challenging music as she is with that of the Great White Way. While The River of Life/Unto the Hills may not be able to answer Crumb's rhetorical question as to whether "there will be any stars in [his] crown," it makes clear that, even nearing the age of 80, George Crumb still has plenty of wind in his sails.
Ann Crumb, James Freeman & Orchestra 2001 - George Crumb: The River of Life, "Amazing Grace"
9. Polytopia: Music for Violin & Electronics
Like JungHae Kim mentioned above, Mari Kimura labored for years as a virtuoso in the concert scene, both in New York and internationally, building a strong following through her challenging and unique pursuit of combining the violin with electronic gadgets, computers and through her advocacy of new instruments such as the GuitarBot and Zeta violin. Nevertheless, the prospects of recording remained elusive until Bridge Records decided to take a chance on Kimura with Polytopia, and what a compelling result it is. Combining age old techniques, such as sub-harmonics possible on the violin through special techniques in bowing, with such newer resources as signal processing units and interactive computer programs, Kimura successfully redefines and expands the stringed instrument that in itself tends to define what "classical music" is. The compositions on Polytopia are not experiments to be taken as examples to illustrate a given technical operation much as Max Mathews' pieces with the IBM computers of the early 1960s were intended â€“- but fully finished works that provide distinct musical experiences and give ample evidence of Kimura's dazzling virtuosity on the violin.
Mari Kimura: GuitarBotana
10. Classical A-Go-Go
While the instrumental make up of rock bands tends to vary, the basic components remain essentially the same -â€“ an electric guitar or two, singer, drummer, bass player, and maybe a sax if you're lucky. Although chamber music is to a large extent defined by it's established combinations â€“- string quartet, woodwind quintet, violin and piano, and others -â€“ the possible varieties within a chamber context are potentially endless. Frankenstein Consort leader Erik Lindgren represents a previously overlooked generation of classical musicians: those who got their start playing in punk and New Wave bands. Surprisingly many of these musicians had some degree of formal music training, and Lindgren is best known through his involvement with the 1980s group Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, a group so "classical" that in 1994 they were named artists in residence at Dartmouth College. Classical A-Go-Go combines Lindgren's electronic keyboard playing with the Sonare Wind Trio, some additional winds, and a rank of string players, and covers musical territory ranging from Raymond Scott to Edgar Winter's 1972 heavy rock hit Frankenstein. Classical A-Go-Go is fun, fresh and defenestrates the notion that nothing that "rocks" ever so slightly can ever be "classical."
Frankenstein Consort - Erik Lindgren: Baroque-A-Go-Go