It was the year of the Attic Sale. Having glutted the bins with overrecorded masterpieces, having run out of marginal figures to “rediscover” ( another Syzmanowski Violin Concerto?), the classical CD makers went to their archives and emerged with a slew of special editions of repackaged goodies that originated as 78′s and LPs. There were more “centenary” editions than ever: Deutsche Grammophon ransacked the attic to produce a 20-volume, 87-disk set devoted to the “complete” works of Beethoven, in celebration of the company’s 100th anniversary. Ditto EMI, which issued a 10-disk compilation of the company’s unrivaled backlist of artists. Even performers still in their prime were given retrospectives-most stunningly, the great Argentine pianist Martha Argerich, whom Deutsche Grammophon honored with a 10-CD box of her recordings over the past 30 years, including 40 minutes of the juiciest Bach I have ever heard (DG 453 566-2).
Besides singling out first-time recordings that present familiar repertoire with distinction, the following list of “best” classical releases in 1997 contains more than the usual number of reissues, simply because they were, for sheer historical value, impossible to overlook:
Opera: Has James Levine, with his brilliant Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, become the finest Wagnerian of our day? On the basis of his new Der Fliegende Holländer (Sony Classical 663420) and his conducting of last spring’s Ring cycle, it’s hard to think of another conductor who is better at bringing out the crafty theatricality at the heart of Richard Wagner’s genius. Appropriately for the most surreal of the composer’s operas, Mr. Levine’s reading of “Dutchman” is urgent, bold-stroked, strobe-lit. James Morris, in fine gnarly form in the title role, leads a cast that is close to ideal: Deborah Voigt soars luminously as Senta; Ben Heppner is a ringing, ardent Erik; Jan-Hendrik Roostering a wonderfully apprehensive Daland; Paul Groves an unusually strong Steersman. But the real star of the recording is the Met orchestra, which, under Maestro Levine, is unfailingly alive to the amazing scenic complexities of this score, in which Wagner, as it were, discovered Wagner.
Runner-up: Another breakthrough work for its composer, Hippolyte et Aricie , by Jean-Philippe Rameau, has been splendidly revived by William Christie and his troupe of specialists in the French Baroque, Les Arts Florissants (Erato 0630-15517-2). Performed in 1733 when he was 50, Rameau’s first great opera, was-for all its adherence to Baroque formalities-a revolutionary work. In setting the story of Phèdre’s monstrous passion for her stepson, Rameau gave his orchestra an unprecedented dramatic presence in music that arrestingly combines, as Mr. Christie writes in the album notes, a “latent brutality … with a tendency toward pathos.” Mr. Christie’s enthusiasm for this material-his highly charged scrupulousness-is infectious. In a cast that brings pointed, often witty expressiveness to each of the characters, the Phèdre of Lorraine Hunt stands out; her darkly shaded, cleanly sculpted mezzo-soprano elevates brutal pathos to the level of tragedy.
Orchestral: In trying to pinpoint the craggy power of Anton Bruckner, the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler famously described the 19th-century Austrian visionary as “one of those geniuses … whose destiny it was to render the transcendent real and to attract, even compel, the element of the divine into our human world.” Navigating the arching Brucknerian spans between the homely and the sublime requires a conductor who can give a sense of destination to what can seem an endless trek. Simon Rattle, with his City of Birmingham Orchestra, does this about as well as can be imagined in a riveting performance of the composer’s most ultimately triumphant masterpiece, the Symphony No. 7 in E major (EMI 56425). Mr. Rattle’s delight in the leisurely swings between darkness and light, contemplation and swagger, and is gorgeously detailed. For once with Bruckner, the journey is the destination.
Runner-up: In the two dozen years that George Szell built the Cleveland Orchestra into what many still regard as the world’s most civilized symphonic ensemble, the collaboration produced many of the LP era’s finest recordings. To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the late maestro’s birth, the orchestra has produced a valuable seven-disk set of live performances between 1956 and 1970 (available from the Musical Arts Association, Severance Hall, Cleveland, Ohio 44106). From the majesty of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis to the raptness of Wagner’s “Liebestod” (with soprano Margaret Harshaw) and the neo-pointillist wit of Henri Dutilleux (the Cinq Metaboles ), among much else, all the orchestra’s celebrated virtues are on authoritative display: transparency of sound, exquisite instrumental balance and grace-girded by passion-under the most extreme pressure.
Chamber Music: As I have noted before, the Emerson String Quartet’s traversal of the complete Beethoven string quartets will surely be seen as one of the monuments of the CD era (Deutsche Grammophon 447 075-2). This dynamic American quartet addresses Beethoven’s journey from neo-Mozartian panache to Olympian assurance to experimental freedom, pierced by horror at impending death, with meticulous scholarship, fierce teamwork and, above all, the sense that they are looking the great man squarely in the eye. The results are revelatory-Beethoven with a bear hug.
Runner-up: Harry Partch, the great hobo of 20th-century music who rode the rails and filled the emptiness of the American landscape with eerie, ritualistic works for percussive instruments of his own invention, receives an overdue tribute in The Harry Partch Collection (CRT 751-754). This four-CD set of playful, ring-around-the-moon compositions, recorded in the 50′s, 60′s and 70′s, features various chamber ensembles led, in some cases, by the teasing voice of the composer himself before his death in 1974. Partch’s description of his 1955 dance-satire The Bewitched as “an essay toward a miraculous abeyance of civilized rigidity, in the feeling that the modern spirit might thereby find some ancient and magical sense of rebirth” is not overstated; the music of this American aboriginal will shake you, gently, back to your roots.
Instrumental: The year’s great discovery is Violet Gordon Woodhouse, the first recorded harpsichordist, whose astonishing ability on the most delicately intractable of instruments has been recaptured on a disk consisting of Baroque miniatures that were originally recorded in the 1920′s. Woodhouse, who died in 1948, is also the subject of a marvelous new biography, Violet , by her great-niece Jessica Douglas-Home (Harvill Press), which presents her as an enchantress of the sort that only the English can produce. She lived-openly and harmoniously-in a ménage à cinq with four men, among them her husband, who paid the bills. She ran a distinguished London salon, dressed extravagantly and seems to have bewitched everyone from Sergei Diaghilev and George Bernard Shaw to Ezra Pound, Wilfred Owen, T.S. Eliot, Pablo Picasso, Robert Graves, Pablo Casals, the Sitwells, Lawrence of Arabia and Isaiah Berlin. Fortunately, her greatest adventures were musical, and judging from this beautifully remastered disk, she addressed everything from Bach to English folk songs with a disciplined but flexible zestfulness that makes her great rival, Wanda Landowska, sound stiff by comparison. The most shivery moment comes with her magisterial reading of the Prelude and Fugue No. 1 from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Book One, playing an instrument on which she had no peer: the heartbreakingly extinct clavichord.
Runner-up: The year was rich in Brahms recordings, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the composer’s death. Two of his most radical late works, the Sonatas for Viola and Piano, Op. 120, receive glowing performances by the violist Kim Kashkashian and the pianist Robert Levin on a disk that shows the composer to have been every bit as much a “modernist” as his great rival, Wagner (ECM New Series 1630; 78118-21630-2). Johannes Brahms had great misgivings about these pieces, which he had originally written for clarinet in 1894, but they are among the most harmonically ingenious and lyrically supple of his works-qualities that are beautifully revealed in the unforced intensity of Ms. Kashkashian’s and Mr. Levin’s playing.
Vocal: The year’s prize is EMI’s rerelease of the dozen or so complete operas recorded with Maria Callas in the 1950′s. Just as indispensable for Callas junkies is Callas: The Voice, the Story, based on a public radio documentary from 1988 and expanded into an enthralling four-CD, four-and-a-half-hour tribute to the diva of divas (High Bridge Audio 56007). Mellifluously narrated by Michael Wager, this “audio portrait” recounts the singer’s amazing career, tempestuous life and sad decline through interviews with friends and colleagues and the singer herself, who is as unsparing of her feelings as she was in her portrayals of opera’s doomed heroines. Best of all is the trove of previously unreleased samplings of Callas’ artistry, most of them live performances. They include a precocious “Un bel dì,” sung on the Major Bowes Amateur Hour radio show in 1935 when Callas was 12, a thrilling “Liebestod” from 1957 in Athens and a concluding “Mad Scene” from Lucia di Lammermoor , performed in Berlin in 1955, when the century’s greatest singing actress was at the height of her mesmerizing power.
Runner-up: This year’s celebrations of Franz Schubert’s 200th birthday accelerated the boom in disks devoted to the composer’s songs, which has been one of the happiest benefits of the CD era. Among much to choose from, I have taken greatest delight in a program of songs set to the poetry of Goethe by Matthias Goerne, accompanied by the pianist Andreas Haefliger (London 452 917-2). Mr. Goerne’s high, warm baritone is ideal for Schubert’s far-ranging “wanderer”-as eloquent in contemplative solitude as it is in joyous impetuosity. The disk’s highlight is his “An den Mond” (“To the Moon”), in which Mr. Goerne makes the pain of lost love seem almost delicious.
Choral: Franz Joseph Haydn is reported to have wept during the singing of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus at Westminster Abbey in 1791, an experience that inspired him, in the last years of his life, to turn his hand to choral writing. Although the subject of his greatest oratorio isn’t the story of Jesus Christ, I can think of no better Christmas recording than John Eliot Gardiner’s magnificent performance of The Creation with the Monteverdi Choir, the English Baroque Soloists, sopranos Sylvia McNair and Donna Brown, tenor Michael Schade, and baritones Rodney Gilfry and Gerald Finley (Archiv 449217-2). From the “boundless loneliness” of the introduction and the swirling darkness of the “Representation of Chaos” (listen to those nasty woodwinds) to the ethereal beauty of the introduction to Part III when the morning sun touches the “rosy clouds,” Mr. Gardiner and his forces are alive to every moment in this awesome pre-Darwinian depiction of the world’s beginning.