2022’s Fab Four

What a year 2022 has been for classical music. I’ve gone AWOL over the past half year to relocate and focus on my burgeoning research career, but as the year wraps up I thought it would be fruitful to take a look at four recordings released or reissued this year that have given me particular joy.

2022 has had its share of ups and downs in the recording circuit. There have been more than a few major disappointments this year, particularly with new orchestral recordings with the major labels, orchestras, and conductors: I’m thinking of the disastrous Nelsons Strauss series (reviewed here), the boring Heras-Casado Schumann cycle (reviewed here), Blomstedt’s remake of Schubert’s 8th and 9th (nowhere near as good as his Dresden first versions), Mäkelä’s Sibelius (nowhere near as good as the hype suggests) — the list goes on and on. Where it has gone much smoother is in the piano world, where true artistic greatness seems to be in much greater abundance; indeed, I had a very hard time choosing between the myriad of truly excellent piano recordings released this year. Nevertheless, here are my Fab Four picks for 2022:

Bolcom: The Complete Rags

  • Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
  • Recorded 2022
  • Hyperion CDA68391-2 (2CD)

If one of the objectives of music is to spark joy in the listener, this collection of William Bolcom’s rags delivers that in spades. Having only been familiar with the rags of Scott Joplin, I approached this album not quite knowing what to expect. Suffice it to say that Bolcom elevates this musical style from its humble origins to a rarefied realm; I had not conceived that ragtime could contain such a wealth of inventiveness, expression and beauty. While the quicker rags are quite the crowd pleasers (e.g., The Garden of Eden; Knockout), the real gems are in the sensual, nostalgia-tinged slower numbers (e.g., Graceful Ghost; Rag-Tango). The E-major trio section in the latter is positively hypnotic.

No further ink needs to be spilled on Hamelin’s artistry; he continues his advocacy of unjustly neglected repertoire with playing of utmost assurance and stylishness. Hyperion offers its usual world-class sound. An utterly rewarding experience.

Rating: A+

Debussy Orchestrated

  • Pascal Rophé (conductor); Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire
  • Recorded 2021
  • BIS-2622 (1SACD)

Another joy-inducing disc, reviewed previously in detail here. After almost a whole year since this album was released, I constantly return to it with renewed pleasure; the music’s charm and the sensitive, elegant playing never wears thin. Certainly a prime candidate for orchestral disc of the year.

Rating: A+

Zoltán Kocsis: The Complete Philips Recordings

  • Zoltán Kocsis (piano)
  • Released 2022
  • Decca 485 1589 (26CD)

This was one of the most hotly anticipated reissues of the piano world since Kocsis’ untimely death in 2016 which robbed the world of a pianist whose technique, sensitivity and musical intelligence was second-to-none. All of these qualities are amply evident in any of these 26 discs you care to put on.

Where to begin? Probably with his Rachmaninov concerto cycle with Edo de Waart and the San Francisco Symphony, which to this day remains one of the handful greatest cycles ever recorded in a very crowded field. Or his stunningly authoritative survey of Bartók’s concertos and piano music. Or his Debussy and Ravel, abounding with color and imagination. Or his ingenious Wagner transcriptions. Wherever you care to look, there’s no doubt that a true master is at work here.

Beautifully recorded and presented, this box is an essential acquisition not only for piano mavens, but for anyone who cares about what artistic greatness can sound like. Now if only Hungaroton could put together a box of his conducting…

Rating: S

Eine kleine Biermusik

  • Wind Ensemble of the Berlin Philharmonic
  • Recorded 1983, reissued 2022
  • Warner 5419729380 (download)

And now for something completely different. Here’s a fun album originally released in 1983 that has basically vanished from the surface of the Earth until its (digital) reissue by Warner a few months ago. It features the wind (and percussion) section of the august Karajan-era Berlin Philharmonic transforming into an oompah band with some classic beer hall ditties (think Oktoberfest).

The music is utterly infectious, of course, and thankfully the Berliners let their hair down, fully embracing these popular tunes in all its banal glory; it’s particularly fun to hear the clarinets in Pusteblumen (track 4) shrieking away unashamedly (and then hearing presumably the same players in Karajan’s Brahms). But of course, being the Berlin Philharmonic, they approach the music, however crude, with impeccable musicality and ensemble. After all, res severa verum gaudium — true joy is a serious thing.

Here’s to more great music in 2023!

Rating: A+

Leave a Reply