» PART 1 The Top CD Picks for 2017


The days grow shorter, the air (at least at night) turns crisp, and the stacks of CDs in my listening room grow taller. Winter is nearly here, its augurings pulling down the curtain on the year that is about to be closed definitively. What the next year will bring can only be guessed at by those with a penchant for prognostication, as well as those few misguided souls who believe themselves to be imbued with supernatural powers who can divine what is to come. But one thing that can be readily and accurately predicted is that the next year will be another awash in quality releases and reissues of classical music.

Certainly the latter have become more remarkable with each passing month. Material that I had long believed was destined to remain locked and collecting dust in a vault has increasingly been reissued, often in lavish packaging with informative liner notes – not always a given when record labels, especially larger ones, often skimp on such details for the sake of saving a dollar or two.

Yet the wave of reissues that started in 2014 seems not only set to continue into 2018, but even broaden beyond what has already been seen.

But we’re still in December and it’s 2017 that draws our attention now. So without further ado, here are my top 5 favorite classical recordings of the year, listed in no particular order.

Walter Gieseking: The Complete Bach Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon (DG) – The liquid singing lines and seemingly limitless palette of colors that German pianist Walter Gieseking had at his fingertips have long made him synonymous with the music of Debussy and Ravel. But the man’s repertoire was vast, certainly far more so than his fame as a specialist in French Impressionism intimates. A talented composer himself, he included an array of modern works in his programs. He also was a superb executant of Classical and Baroque music, as this handsome box set from DG testifies. Encompassing mostly his postwar recordings, Gieseking here demonstrates that his art works to superb effect in Bach, too. Modern listeners who are more accustomed to hearing Bach in the dry and sharply etched performances of Glenn Gould and any number of historically-informed keyboardists may be in for a deep shock when hearing Gieseking for the first time. His smoothly modulated sense of dynamic shadings and nuance are worlds away from the modern day conception of a composer who is often praised for being “cerebral.” In Gieseking’s hands, Bach emerges as a titan of the heart as well as of the mind. Try his take on the composer’s “Prelude in F-sharp” from the second book of “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” with the pearlescent filigree in his right hand sparkling like a play of sunlight against rippling water, while the left tenderly intertwines and caresses it like an undulating subcurrent; the whole sounding like a foreshadowing of Liszt and Ravel. Gieseking was without a doubt one of the greatest of all pianists. In this collection, he also leaves no doubt that Bach was, in the words of friend and colleague Wilhelm Furtwängler, “the greatest Romantic composer.”

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 (Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Manfred Honeck) [Reference Recordings] – The partnership between the Pittsburgh Symphony and its music director Manfred Honeck may be one of the most exciting – and underappreciated – in the American orchestral world today. Starting with the Japanese Exton label, the partnership delivered some of the most satisfying recordings of Mahler and Richard Strauss in years. Now they’ve moved onto the American Reference Recordings label. Their most recent release follows last year’s recording of the Tchaikovsky “Symphony No. 6,” a performance of admirable virtuosity, but of far too restrained emotionally.

No such reservations in this recording of Shostakovich’s “Symphony No. 5,” which deftly balances architectural control with expressive impact. Compared to the composer’s symphonies that would precede and succeed this one, the “Fifth” can sound a touch dry.

\quality not helped by its current status as a warhorse of the repertoire. Yet the Pittsburghers under Honeck grip the listener immediately right from the opening vaulting string motif, blowing the dust of routine off the score, and revealing the nervy intensity that is just as much at the heart of this music as in the Shostakovich’s more unbuttoned work. The march emerges at the climax of the first movement almost imperceptibly, with a sense of swagger and danger too often missing. The scherzo has bite and acid, while the “Largo” aches with boundless heartbreak, and the finale crashes forth, wrenching bitter victory from the skin of its teeth. Bringing it to life is the Pittsburgh Symphony, with its rich and hefty sound (abetted in the latter part by their superb brass section). The sound is warm and full, with plenty of impact and depth. One hopes it turns its attention to more of Shostakovich’s music in the future. In the meantime, here is a “Fifth” that is every bit the equal of readings by Mravinsky, Kondrashin, Sanderling, and Maxim Shostakovich, yet wonderfully individual.

Read the remainder of Nestor’s top five in the Dec. 21 issue of CV Weekly.