For holidays and after, CDs to savor

Classical Music

December 19, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Still shopping for that classical music fancier on your holiday list?

The recording industry, battered as it is by declining sales worldwide, has still put out a considerable amount of valuable product to consider. Here are some recommendations well worth wrapping:

Instrumental sounds

Elgar's Violin Concerto finds a worthy advocate in Hilary Hahn, whose impeccable technique and unfailingly sweet tone suit the eloquent music beautifully. The disc, with the first-rate London Symphony conducted authoritatively by Colin Davis, is filled out with an enchanting account of Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending (Deutsche Grammophon).

Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony continue their multi-Grammy-winning cycle of the Mahler symphonies with a striking recording of No. 2 (Resurrection).

The conductor masterfully traces the music's progression from darkness to glory. Superb orchestral playing is matched by contributions from the chorus and guest artists. (The CD is released on the orchestra's own label through www.sfsymphony. org and some retailers.)

Stephen Hough tackles all four of Rachmaninoff's piano concertos, as well as the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, with excellent support from conductor Andrew Litton and the Dallas Symphony.

The pianist has taken a cue from the composer's old recordings, which means brisker tempos and no gooey exaggerations in the second and third concertos. But Hough hardly shortchanges the lyricism in these refreshing, persuasive, often dazzling performances (Hyperion).

An eventful all-Beethoven disc centered on the incisive pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard includes two lesser works that sound thoroughly top-drawer here - the Choral Fantasy and Triple Concerto (with excellent violinist Thomas Zehetmair and cellist Clemens Hagen). Nikolaus Harnoncourt, leading the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, conducts with his usual flair (Warner Classics).

Harnoncourt also leads invigorating, enlightening performances of 11 early, but hardly immature, Mozart symphonies with the superb Concentus Musicus Wien (BMG Classics/Deutsche Harmonia Mundi).

For those with adventuresome tastes, don't miss Messiaen's last orchestral work, Eclairs sur l'Au-dela ... The hourlong score sums up much of the composer's unique style, with its exuberant birdsong, blazing brass chorales and rapt glimpses of heavenly peace. Simon Rattle leads the Berlin Philharmonic in a performance of virtuosity and richness (EMI Classics).

A dazzling souvenir from 1965, Perlman Rediscovered, captures a 20-year-old violinist Itzhak Perlman at the peak of his fiddling game in a wide-ranging recital (BMG Classics).

And Yo-Yo Ma works his cello magic on tuneful, atmospheric movie music from Cinema Paradiso, Once Upon a Time in America and others, composed and conducted by Ennio Morricone (Sony Classical).

Solo and choral voices

A pair of rewarding discs devoted to Handel arias belong in any vocal music lover's collection. Harry Bicket entices prismatic sounds from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment to support two of today's finest singers.

Renee Fleming brings a gorgeous tone, assured coloratura, unfailingly communicative instincts to a richly varied program (Decca).

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who makes the most instantly affecting mezzo-soprano sounds since Janet Baker, triumphs in the cantata La Lucrezia and excerpts from Theodora and Serse (Avie).

David Daniels, the first countertenor in contention for superstar status, winningly ventures into territory previously reserved for female voices in an album that includes Berlioz's Les nuits d'ete and songs by Faure and Ravel. John Nelson conducts this gem (Virgin Classics).

Schubert's profound song cycle, Winterreise, seems to bring out the deepest artistry in singers, and that's the case with tenor Ian Bostridge. The immediacy of his voice, the clarity of articulation and wealth of nuance in his phrasing, along with equally refined work by pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, make this a major release (EMI Classics).

The enormous scope of Berlioz's Requiem is compellingly conveyed by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under the penetrating guidance of Robert Spano. He gives the work's drama and deep reverence equal weight to create an arresting experience (Telarc).

Chanticleer, the nonpareil 12-man vocal ensemble, has another winner with How Sweet the Sound, a collection of spirituals and gospel songs with guest artist Bishop Yvette Flunder. (Warner Classics).

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