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Hitting The Sweet Spot: Best Classical Of 2009

The art of performing is one of constant exploration and breaking new ground. But as any explorer knows, those forays into uncharted waters bring not only the unexpected and exotic, but also a new perspective on the idea of home turf. Amazing things can happen when musicians revisit the foundations of their art — their sweet spots.

Consider the Boston Symphony Orchestra. French music and French conductors have played a huge role in the group's history, and when it revisited Ravel's luxurious ballet Daphnis and Chloe earlier this year, that old magic sparked. Along with the BSO, here are nine other recordings of the past year in which musicians returned to that sweet spot with terrific results.

Click here for more entries in our Best Music of 2009 series.

Daphnis and Chloe (excerpts from Scene 3)

Music from Maurice Ravel's sweeping, dramatic ballet Daphnis and Chloewas first recorded by the Boston Symphony back in 1928, at a time when French influence on the orchestra's sound had reached full flower. That special sound has never left the orchestra, as subsequent recordings of the complete ballet were made in each decade from the 1950s through the 1980s. Now, conductor James Levine brings today's BSO back to this core French repertoire with all the flair, nuance and sensitivity of the past, including Elizabeth Rowe's gorgeous flute solo in the final explosive climax, recorded here with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, in concert.

The recording is available via the BSO Web site and

String Quartet in F major (Allegro moderato)

The young members of the Ebene Quartet have a serious talent for exploration -- just check out the convincing jazz projects at their Web site. But when they returned to their French cultural roots for these cornerstone pieces of the string-quartet literature, something truly wonderful happened. Just as the Boston Symphony inhabits the shapes and colors of Ravel on a large scale, so the Ebene players approach the smaller-scale Ravel (as well as the Debussy and Faure) with an astounding naturalness of timing, unity and clarity.

Symphony No. 3 (Allegro con brio)

The music of Johannes Brahms has been at the center of the Berlin Philharmonic's repertoire from the 1880s, a time when the composer was still writing his 3rd and 4th Symphonies. As the Philharmonic developed, the Brahms symphonies were as much a part of shaping its silken, dark, full sound as any other music. Today's Philharmonic enjoys the benefit of many key principal musicians who play with character and panache and execute anything a conductor wishes, making it all sound convincing while upholding that legendary sound. The result here is an uncommon unity that allows conductor Simon Rattle to build intensity and momentum, then pivot instantly to create a beautiful stillness. The result is an extraordinary coming together of music, ensemble and conductor.

Overture in D

Arguing that German repertoire is the sweet spot for an Italian ensemble (one known for Vivaldi's music, at that) may seem counterintuitive. But what Zefiro and its leader, Alfredo Bernardini, manage on this vibrant disc is to achieve a bit of cultural reclamation.
Although we know historically that baroque suites and concertos (even those by J.S. Bach) were hugely influenced by earlier Italian models (by Corelli), it doesn't keep many performances of that music from sounding stiff and vertical. By contrast, Zefiro applies its Italian sense of swagger to bring out the contrasts, the forward propulsion and the lively spirit that Johann and Carl Fasch might have ideally envisioned.

This recording is available at

Songs for chorus, Op. 59 - "Im Grunen"

Don't let the infectious performance by Zefiro (see above) lead you to believe that Italy has the sole lock on style and grace. The Berlin-based RIAS Chamber Choir probes its cultural roots to give searching, exuberant and moving performances of pure, unfiltered German Romanticism. These secular works might seem lightweight compared to Mendelssohn's grand oratorios and other sacred works, but the benefit is a personal perspective that more than magnifies the texts by Goethe, Eichendorff and others.

Prelude and Fugues: No. 1 in C, No. 6 in D minor, No. 11 in F

You'd think that after completing her 11-year Bach project -- recording all of the master's major keyboard music -- Angela Hewitt would want to set Johann Sebastian's music aside for a while. Yet this year, she returned to Bach, recording (for a second time) both books of the monumental Well-Tempered Clavier. Hewitt has a way of allowing Bach and her personal interpretations to co-exist. Her performances have always emphasized linear qualities, sometimes highlighting upper voices a bit too strongly for some tastes. But this time, she offers more clarity in the inner and lower lines, resulting in a subtle theatrical quality as various "characters" enter in the course of the fugues.

Yangko, for violin & percussion

Characters and theatricality are abundant in this collection of chamber works by one of today's most exciting composers. The sweet spot for Chen Yi resides in a place most listeners will never directly relate to, but will experience through her music. Consigned to labor during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Chen Yi continues to draw on her experiences in her rural homeland, her subsequent training as one of the first students at China's Central Conservatory of Music and her life as a composer based in the U.S. Third Angle, an ensemble based in Portland, Ore., infuses the works with passion and commitment.

This album is available from the label.

Symphony No. 4 in G major (Sehr behaglich)

This relatively young orchestra (founded in 1983) probably has several sweet spots, not the least of which is the music of its countryman, Bela Bartok. But when the group began recording symphonies by Gustav Mahler earlier this decade, special qualities emerged and sparked the imagination of listeners, especially in this performance of the Symphony No. 4. Here is an orchestra and conductor for whom the sculpting of the melodic lines, inherent in great Mahler performances, is so precisely calibrated and uniformly executed that the variations in tempo and pitch become organic and inevitable. With an equivalent balance of lyricism and sharply delineated phrasing, Miah Persson personifies the innocence and wonder of Mahler's final movement as well as any soprano on record.

Piano Concerto, "Chiavi in Mano" (excerpt)

Yehudi Wyner, like many of today's composers, has not embraced a singular path in his creative pursuits, and that eclectic quality crackles through the 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning piano concerto called "Chiavi in Mano," ("Keys in Hand"), recorded in concert in Boston. Wyner is an exuberant, positively charged musical force, qualities channeled by his friend and colleague, pianist Robert Levin. Levin is well-known as a scholar of music from the Classical era, a fact that helped prepare him to be the ideal soloist for "Chiavi," a piece embodying transparency and lightness with sudden bursts of drama, and, ultimately, refreshing exhilaration.

I Capuleti e i Montecchi ("O! quante volte")

In 2006, Anna Netrebko canceled a Carnegie Hall recital, saying that she preferred to devote her time and energy to opera performances. Her recording of Bellini's I Capuleti e I Montecchi offers firm evidence that the stage is indeed her true home.
Along with mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca (just named vocalist of the year by Musical America), Netrebko applies her silk and strength, creating an intoxicating performance of a neglected work by the quintessential bel canto composer. The voices of the two stars at times blend so well as to be almost indistinguishable, but then transform through only the slightest change of inflection to give crystal definition to the pair of star-crossed lovers at the center of the story.

Copyright 2009 GBH

Brian McCreath