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Last-minute holiday gifts for the classical music lover (Part Two)

As I mentioned in my first post of gift suggestions (for those on your shopping list, or for yourself when all those gift cards come in), I ended up limiting myself to opera, orchestral and piano. Here are my picks from the last two categories:

PIANO

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Two of the most enjoyable keyboard CDs I heard this year both feature pianist Jeffrey Biegel, and both are ever so slightly (and delectably) out of the mainstream.

Even if you've got a zillion recordings of the Mozart piano sonatas, you're not likely to have any that include embellishments of the repeats. In the three-disc Volume 1 of his survey of the sonatas for the E1 Music label, Biegel argues that, given Mozart's famed improvisational skills, there's room for improv today when sections of a sonata movement get repeated. Doesn't seem at all far-fetched to me. Then again, I'm in favor of embellishing repeated sections in Mozart arias, a practice that relatively few singers dare to try. And I think even the repeats in symphonies -- not just by Mozart -- could stand a little variety, Maybe not  actual changes or additions to the notes, but at least variances in dynamics and emphasis. Ah, but I digress.

The modest amount of ornamentation and variation Biegel applies in the sonatas seems just right, adding a welcome dimension of spontaneity and intensified character. That's not the only distinction. The pianist also demonstrates admirable technical fluency, considerable tonal shading and a great deal of stylish sensitivity to make this a first-rate exploration of Mozart's ever-rewarding sonatas.

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For even more of a left-field excursion, how about

a piano transcription of Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons"? I'm so over-dosed on this music that I didn't think any version of it would awaken my senses, but Biegel won me over with the first notes of his own keyboard version, contained on a Naxos release. Although Vivaldi's seasonal-themed collection of descriptive violin concertos would not seem, at first glance, to translate easily to the piano, Biegel provides the color, nuance and virtuosity to make it work. He fills out the disc with Andrew Gentile's classy arrangements of Vivaldi's C major Mandolin Concerto and D major Lute Concerto. Again, the experience proves thoroughly winning.

ORCHESTRAL

Sure, you can find the usual symphonies and such among current recordings, but how about  something a little different? I was very impressed with three releases, all on Naxos, devoted to orchestral suites from stage works by Strauss and Janacek.

The Strauss collection, with the Buffalo Philharmonic conducted by JoAnn Falletta (yes, Virginia, there is another very talented American female conductor besides Marin Alsop), contains one truly familiar item, the Suite from "Der Rosenkavalier," which gets a sturdy workout. What makes the disc more appealing is the inclusion of a less-often encountered suite from another opera, "Die Frau ohne Schatten," and a suite from the relatively obscure ballet "Josephs-Legende." Falletta secures vibrant responses from the orchestra in both of these richly layered scores.

Even farther afield are the premiere recordings of orchestral suites fashioned by Peter Breiner out of the potent operas of Janacek. Breiner captures the flavor of the composer's sound and dramatic instincts so well that it's easy to imagine Janacek penned the suites himself. At more than a half-hour each, there is a lot of action in these pieces, and the New Zealand Symphony digs deeply into to the material with the guidance of Breiner on the podium. The first release pairs "Jenufa" with "The Excursion of Mr. Broucek." The second contains suites from "Katya Kabanova" and "The Makropulos Affair."

These three discs would be perfect for the opera-shy person on your shopping list. Not a note of vocal music, but a strong sense of each opera's melodic and emotional power.

BONUS RECOMMENDATION

If you're having a tough time deciding on a classical music gift, you can't go wrong with a hefty collection -- six CDs, 111 tracks, 111 artists -- released by Deutsche Grammophon to celebrate its 111th anniversary. The selections are arranged alphabetically by performer, so it means that the repertoire is constantly varying -- orchestral, vocal, solo instrumental, chamber. The one constant is quality, since the musicians include the likes of Argerich, Caruso, Furtwangler, Heifetz, Maazel, Michelangeli, Segovia, Rostropovich and Wunderlich. The set wouldn't necessarily be for the classical music purist, who may well frown on miscellaneous excerpts, but it's a handsome compendium of (and a possible introduction to) the art form and those who have served it nobly for more than a century.

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