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These releases were given the highest rating, ten points for artistic quality and ten points for sound by

HALVORSEN, J.: Orchestral Works, Vol. 1 (Bergen Philharmonic, N. Jarvi)
It's good to see Neeme Järvi back on Chandos, working in top form, and it's even better to see the label starting a new project that promises to be delightfully worthy of collectors' attention and true to its roots in interesting Romantic repertoire. As a composer, Johan Halvorsen (1864-1935) is seriously underestimated, largely because most of his orchestral music falls into the category of theater or "incidental" music. A good bit of it, and much else besides, has been recorded by Simax, but those discs may be difficult to find (and costly too). It is, in any case, often music of very high quality, as the suite from Mascarade (same story as Nielsen's opera) clearly reveals.

SCARLATTI, D.: Keyboard Sonatas (Complete), Vol. 7
Konstantin Scherbakov approaches Scarlatti from a pianistic perspective in that he draws upon the instrument's infinite capacity for tone color and dynamic shading for maximum musical effect. His extraordinary sense of timing and wide variety of articulations hold attention in slow, texturally spare works like the F major K. 542 and F minor K. 238 sonatas (the gorgeously calibrated diminuendos in the latter will take your breath away). His scales and ornaments are unfailingly alive, pinpointed, and peppered with rhythmic sparkle, as in the C major K. 422 (whose melodic surprises foreshadow Haydn), the heel-clicking F major K. 17, and D major K. 313 sonatas.

SHOSTAKOVICH, D.: Symphonies, Vol. 3 - Symphony No. 8 (Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Petrenko)
This may not be the most harrowing version of the Eighth, but of its type it's unquestionably a great performance. Often this symphony consists of hair-raising climaxes interspersed between acres of nothingness. Not here. This symphony also is one of Shostakovich's most formally masterly and imaginative, and this performance reminds us in the most compelling way. Petrenko's flowing tempos in the first movement and passacaglia keep the music moving, not lurching, forward at all times. The 25 minutes of the first movement seem to pass by in half that time. Its opening threnody in particular has even more expressive power than usual for being phrased in long melodic arcs that never turn static.

BACH, J.S.: Mass in B minor, BWV 232 (Bruggen)
For some performers these days, rendering of Bach's choral works comes down to a numbers game: from the most basic cantata to the most elaborate passion setting--or the B minor Mass--they claim Bach intended his choral works to be sung by only one voice to a part. Period. And because with modern performers of the highest professional caliber and recording techniques that easily present performances by singers and orchestra in ideal balance and optimal acoustic perspective they are able to demonstrate the feasibility of their theory, they hopefully declare their case closed. And while this theory--most diligently researched and avidly advocated by Joshua Rifkin--is certainly worthy and deserving of respectful attention, all you have to do is listen to a performance such as this superb one from Frans Brüggen and his Cappella Amsterdam and Orchestra of the 18th Century and you must conclude that, no, Bach may have had to accept minimal forces for his big choral works, but his conception clearly was on a grander scale--and anyone who understands the mentality of composers in the face of often unfair and unreasonable real-world constraints, both economic and artistic, knows that they never let the purely practical or necessary get in the way of the ideal (think Beethoven's piano sonatas, for example).

SCHOENFIELD, P.: Refractions / 6 British Folk Songs / Peccadilloes (Tocco, Hanani, Fiterstein, Schoenfield)
Paul Schoenfield's music blends accessible modernism with sophisticated wit built on a solid foundation of popular, jazz, and Jewish sources, all of which are in evidence in this splendid recording of his chamber music. The title piece, Refractions, is a trio for piano, clarinet, and cello, its four movements based on music from Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. But the work doesn't follow the familiar pattern of paraphrase and variation; rather, as the title suggests, it's a convoluted take on the opera's arias and recitatives, the source references often barely discernible even to knowledgeable opera buffs.

TAMBERG, E.: Joanna Tentata Suite / Symphonic Dances / Concerto grosso (Hague Residentie Orchestra, N. Jarvi)
Estonian composer Eino Tamberg (b. 1930) is the real deal--a composer with a fresh take on traditional tonal music who knows how to write tunes and score them with unfailing color and point. His Concerto Grosso--for flute, trumpet, clarinet, alto saxophone, bassoon, piano, harp, strings, and percussion--is a masterpiece of 20th century neo-classicism and it deserves to be a repertory item. It dates from 1956 and at only Op. 5 it announces a major talent. The Symphonic Dances arrived a year later and fall within similar stylistic parameters, from the opening tune that has a Poulenc-like wit, to the three saxophones that give Tamberg's scoring a truly modern feel.

WHITACRE, E.: Choral Music (Elora Festival Singers, Edison)
Eric Whitacre's choral works have been generously surveyed on disc, but only a handful of choirs have yet devoted an entire recording to his music. He couldn't have more luminous or illuminating interpreters than the Elora Festival Singers, a choir that I've heartily praised in the past and that deserves the same recognition here. Although there is much duplication, this program makes a fine companion to the 2005 recording by Polyphony (Hyperion) that I previously recommended (type Q9718 in Search Reviews).

LINDBERG, M.: Graffiti / Seht die Sonne (Helsinki Chamber Choir, Finnish Radio Symphony, Oramo)
Graffiti (2009) is Magnus Lindberg's first major choral work, indeed one of his few ventures in vocal writing, and it's wonderful. Lasting about half an hour, the text consists of advertisements, scribbling, and the usual scatological commentary found on your typical city walls, only here the language is Latin, and the walls belonged to Pompeii before its annihilation in an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. The best way to enjoy the piece is to read the text first (helpfully printed with English translations in the booklet), then simply listen as the music evokes the variegated moods and activities of an ancient city literally dancing on the edge of destruction.

RACHMANINOV, S.: Symphonic Dances / The Isle of the Dead / The Rock (Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Petrenko)
This is a perfectly planned Rachmaninov orchestral music CD, offering works that span his entire career, from his first major orchestral piece, the Tchaikovskian tone poem The Rock, to his fully characteristic maturity in The Isle of the Dead, and culminating in the instrumental sophistication and hard-edged glitter of his last big project, the Symphonic Dances. Happily, the performances are just as wonderful as the programming concept.

PAGANINI, N.: 24 Caprices, Op. 1 (Ehnes)
This eminently popular and extremely challenging set of works for virtuoso solo violin naturally has attracted the interest of every major artist worthy of the name, resulting in a significant recorded legacy that's as much a tribute to the artists--Accardo, Perlman, Rabin, Ricci, Midori, etc.--as to Paganini's genius. However, if you're in the market for a first-rank--indeed superlative--recording of Paganini's masterpiece, look no further than this release from Canadian violinist James Ehnes.


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