Matthew B. Tepper's Picks -- Best of 2007

I've considered doing this type of list before, and better late than never. The purpose here will be to highlight several purchases (chiefly classical music recordings) which particularly impressed me, and which I would like to recommend to others.

My criteria are simple, if a little strange:

The item in question has to have been issued during calendar year 2007 CE. There are a few items which have been previously issued, but which have now been made available after an interval of several years.

It has to be something that I bought and auditioned (and/or viewed) during calendar year 2007.

It doesn't matter in which country it was issued, so long as it was somewhere on Planet Earth.

It has to be something that is generally available via the Internet. In each case, you'll be able to click on the cover photograph in order to buy the item from somewhere; and many of those will be a link "in association with Amazon," as the permitted language runs. If you use these links, you will not have to pay more, and I may get some meager monetary consideration for the referral. Hey, at least I'm being honest and upfront about it!

I am beholden to nobody, repeat, nobody; these are my choices, and they have not been dictated or even suggested to me by any editor, vendor, or distributor! Consequently, they reflect my peculiar likes, dislikes, and interests.

OK, now, here is the breezy introduction of the sort that you usually see in newspaper columns:

Well, 2007 was a year of this and that and the other. And, gosh, kidlets, your Unca Matthew has a selection of really neat recommendations for you this time around! There are historicals; there are brand-new recordings. There are some oddities; there are some classics; there are even some odd classics. American orchestras have pride of place this time, yay! You will even find recommendations for Yo-Yo Ma and for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. But not together -- take that, Borders and Sony!

Without any further ado, here are my Best of 2007, listed in the same order in which they appear in my purchase list:

Hector Berlioz, Grande Messe des morts. Keith Ikaia-Purdy, Sir Colin Davis, Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden, Dresden State Opera Chorus. Recorded 1994. Profil PH07014.
Yes, this is Sir Colin's third go-around for this mightiest of Berlioz' non-operatic works; the familiar 1969 London Symphony Orchestra recording for Philips was followed 20 years on by a video version (currently available on DVD) with forces of the Bavarian Radio. The current issue shows the conductor's less impetuous and more matured interpretation, in excellent sound and in live performance. Highly recommended to all those who love this work (and I certainly count myself among that number). Note, however, that the Mozart K. 550 indicated on the cover was not included in the copy I ordered from In addition, this release was delayed by a few months, without explanation. My educated guess was that Philips, which already had a recording of Sir Colin conducting that work with this same orchestra, invoked a non-compete clause. Oh well; the cheese-brained moguls of the record industry will either seek out honest jobs or die of starvation soon enough.

Anton Bruckner, Symphony #7. Bernard Haitink, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Resound CSOR 901 704.
Anton Bruckner, Symphony #7. Arturo Toscanini, Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York, "Ansfelden ANS-0127" (nearly impossible-to-buy CDR from Japan), or Pristine Classical PASC082 (download, also available as custom CDR).

All right, I've cheated by including two recordings of the same work in a single recommendation. So what are you going to do about it?
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the latest major ensemble to set out on its own after losing patience with the idiot managers rampant in the music industry, continues its successful Resound series with this fine performance (from May of this year!) of the most accessible Bruckner symphony under its own Principal Conductor (while the search for a Music Director to replace Daniel Barenboim continues).
Meanwhile, some clever person managed to spirit a copy of this astonishing January 1935 reading by Toscanini and his original New York ensemble, a unique surviving example of his few performances of this composer's music. Andrew Rose of Pristine Classical, a UK-based sound-restoration firm, has performed some judicious noise reduction and re-equalizing to reduce listener fatigue. Note that there are some brief passages of music which are missing due to the original recordist having only one disc-cutter to preserve the broadcast. They are regrettable, but scarcely diminish the impact of this important document.

David Del Tredici, Final Alice. Barbara Hendricks, Sir Georg Solti, Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Decca PROA-183 (Japan).
Del Tredici's work, for a remarkable combination of vocalists, "folk ensemble" and a very large and noisy symphony orchestra, was the result of a 1976 Bicentennial commission, celebrating our nation's freedom from Mother England by setting texts of one of the strangest Englishmen who ever set pen to paper. This recording was made almost right away, in 1980, and issued shortly thereafter on LP, after which it softly and suddenly vanished away. Given the hate-affair that the US divisions of classical record companies have with our orchestras, that is unfortunately not so surprising. The present issue is the second such on CD in Japan, the first having come and gone merely like the Cheshire Cat about a decade ago.
If you are already familiar with the composer's cycle of Alice works, you know what to expect; if not, here is as good a place as any to begin. (It will pretty much have to be; the equally large-scaled "In Memory of a Summer Day," recorded in 1982 by Phyllis Bryn-Julson and Leonard Slatkin with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, was issued by Nonesuch first on LP and then CD, and allowed to go out of print, apparently for good, when it ceased to be hip enough to fit the revised artistic direction of that label. Just try to find a copy on eBay at a reasonable price.)
Another oddity -- as originally announced on the Japanese Tower Records website, there was one further filler, a Chicago Bears fight song. Again the issue was mysteriously delayed for a while, and again the filler went missing. I'd simply remark that there are people in the record industry who haven't the slightest idea of what they are doing, but that would be like reminding any sentient person that the Sun rises in the east and sets in the west.

Antonin Dvorak, Piano Quintet in A Major, Op. 81; Robert Schumann, Piano Quintet in E-Flat Major, Op. 44. Music and Arts CD-1196.
These majestic performances by the great Beethovenian-in-spite-of-himself, with the foremost Belgian string quartet of its era, were both made in 1934, and haven't been available in years. (There was supposedly an Arabesque CD issued in the late 1980s, but I never saw it and frankly, I was looking for it awfully hard.) As with the Toscanini Bruckner issue noted above, allowances will have to be made for the sound, but it's really quite listenable; and today's young piano lions (with the possible exceptions of Martha Argerich and Manny Ax) must yield to Schnabel in sheer musicianship, if not technique.

Gerald Finzi, Clarinet Concerto Op.31; Cello Concerto, Op. 40. John Denman (clarinet), Yo-Yo Ma (cello), Sir Vernon Handley, New Philharmonia Orchestra (in Op. 31) or Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (in Op. 40). Lyrita SRCD 236.
There once was a cellist named Yo-Yo Ma. He could play absolutely anything ever written for his instrument, and he did. In addition he was known far and wide to be very personable, and possibly one of the best ambassadors of classical music to young people in an era of undeclared war. Mr. Ma played classical music wherever he went, and recorded it too.
But then a strange thing happened. At first, Mr. Ma still played classical music, but his record label decided that having him record it was less interesting than starting up a series of World Music issues called the Silk Road Project. Composers continued to write new works for Mr. Ma, but he or his label seemed bent on that Silk Road Project to the exclusion of nearly all else (oh yeah, and some movie soundtracks, too).
But then one day, an obscure British record label called Lyrita was revived to issue on CD all of its catalogue of recordings from the 1960s and 1970s. Mr. Ma's recording (his very first) of the fiery cello concerto by Finzi was coupled with the gentle clarinet concerto, played by John Denman. And there was much rejoicing. It is not without a certain level of sarcasm that I can admit, with a straight face, that I consider this the most significant Yo-Yo Ma release in years.
Perhaps someday Mr. Ma will record the concerto written for him by Elliott Carter, or maybe even the one written by Sir Donald Tovey for an earlier legend of the cello, Pablo Casals. It would be nice if the former, at least, could happen before Mr. Carter reaches his one hundredth birthday, but I wouldn't hold my breath. After all, there are so many more crossover albums silk roads yet to be recorded.

Franz Josef Haydn, Piano Sonatas (various). Marc-André Hamelin. Hyperion CDA67554.
This is one of only two recordings that you'll see on my "Best of 2007" list that has been selected by other, less idiosyncratic critics. These deceptively simple works do not require the greatest physical technique (even I had a couple of them among my daily practice material after I had already blown out a tendon on my right hand, daring to play those big pesante chords in the Liszt Sonata), but they do need fluency and wit, qualities Mr. Hamelin has in abundance. Recommended with a smile.

"Hatikvah on Mt. Scopus." Samuel Cohen, "Hatikvah." Felix Mendelssohn, Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64. Mahler, Symphony #2 'Resurrection' (final movement only). Isaac Stern (Mendelssohn); Netania Devrath, Jennie Tourel (Mahler), Tel Aviv Philharmonic Choir (Cohen & Mahler); Leonard Bernstein, Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (all). From live concerts, Israel, July 1967.
Once upon a time, there was a record label called Columbia Masterworks. Oh, all right, I'll skip the obvious sarcasm and cut to the chase. As Sony "Classical," the successor-in-interest to this once-great label has totally lost its way. They began a themed series of recordings by one of their best-selling artists, Leonard Bernstein, each issue combined with a print of a watercolor by -- you're not going to believe this -- Charles, Prince of Wales. Gosh, what a brilliant idea!
When that didn't do so well (surprise!), Sony tried a different tack, a comprehensive reissue series called "Bernstein Century." Well sir, like Zeno's Paradox, they never did quite reach their destination, 'cause they kept slowing down before they could get to the finish line. The series stumbled to its end in the United States, heartbreakingly close to having made all of Lenny's Columbia recordings available on CD. His Boston Symphony Orchestra recording of Stravinsky's "Oedipus Rex" was issued in France and then in the UK, but never here. The sound recording based on his great old "Omnibus" show "Humor in Music" still languishes behind the Vinyl Curtain. But this set of thrilling live performances, celebrating the repatriation of stolen portions of Jerusalem to rightful Israeli sovereignty, has remained out of reach, only now been made available in, get this, Japan.
All right, so maybe hearing a portion of a Mahler symphony sung in Hebrew isn't necessarily the most musical experience, but the combination of Stern and Bernstein in the Mendelssohn is a knockout. As with the Del Tredici item cited above, you'll have to jump through some unfamiliar hoops to get this one, but it's worth it.

Allan Pettersson, Violin Concerto #2. Isabelle van Keulen, Thomas Dausgaard, Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. cpo 777 199-2.
Yes, a nearly-and-hour-long violin concerto. And it's by the Strindberg of the symphony, Sweden's own Pettersson, so you know it's intense and it never ever lets up. It's not a work for everyday listening; none of this master's works are. Ms. van Keulen (a former prodigy once promoted and then given the Donna Elvira treatment by Philips) challenges even Ida Haendel's supremacy in this music. Put aside your frivolity for a little while; you must hear this work.

Richard Strauss, Vier letzte Lieder. Richard Wagner, orchestral excerpts from "Tristan und Isolde" and "Götterdämmerung." Kirsten Flagstad (Strauss), Wilhelm Furtwängler, Philharmonia Orchestra, London. From a live concert, 1950. Testament SBT 1410.
I've seen this issue show up on other "Best" lists, suggesting that there are some critics out there with excellent taste. I made up my mind in advance that I wasn't going to recommend this to anyone unless the transfer turned out to be significantly more listenable than all of the earlier ones I've heard, including LPs going back to the 1970s. Not to worry, it is, though it's still not going to pick up any audiophile awards. The world premiere (not, as some have had it, the dress rehearsal) of Strauss' valediction to the female voice and to life is as devoutly musical as it is poignant.
Flagstad wasn't really happy with the way one of the songs lay on her voice, and never sang it (or obviously the cycle) again, so this is a unique occasion. More than merely a bonus, the Wagner "bleeding chunks" from the same concert, here issued for what is claimed to be the first time, are splendidly done, and the sources (obviously not worn by constant play, as the songs so obviously had been) yield very listenable sound. A treasure.

"P.D.Q. Bach," "The Jekyll & Hyde Tour." Professor Peter Schickele, Michèle Eaton, David Düsing, Armadillo Quartet. Telarc CD-80666.
It's been some years since the last P.D.Q. Bach CD, even counting the very difficult-to-find audiobook of the "Definitive Biography" (into which the good Professor inserts some PDQvian whimsy appropriate for the shift of medium). Here the emphasis is on showing the duality (get it?) of P.D.Q.'s insane humor and Mr. Schickele's charming occasional works. Here the mini-Meister of Wein-am-Rhein is shown for the first time in styles we haven't heard him in before, German (kinda) Lieder, and string quartet. Schubert and Haydn are the obvious models here, though the quartet, nicknamed "The Moose," also sends up Mozart, Beethoven, Bartok, Shostakovich (I think), and a few mystery guests. It's been a while since a P.D.Q. Bach work had me laughing out loud, and on repeated hearings yet, but this was it. Recommended to anybody with a funny bone and even a rudimentary interest in chamber music.

Extra! Extra! A DVD!

Alfred Hitchcock (dir.), "Waltzes from Vienna"; "Downhill." Jessie Matthews, Edmund Gwenn, Fay Compton, Esmond Knight and others ("Vienna"); Ivor Novello and others ("Downhill"). Universal DVD 824 771-5, PAL, Region 2 coding.
I admit it, I'm a Hitchcock nut. I'm a sucker for the bizarre camera angles, the recurring theme of transference of guilt, the McGuffins, birds as harbingers of chaos, the theater as an extension of reality, victims falling downstairs, that sort of stuff. And I long since had seen every available Hitchcock film, every teleplay he directed, even those two French-language shorts done on behalf of the Resistance.
But a few of the silents, and this one talkie from 1934, had eluded me for the last twenty years. Now it's been issued, and only in France, but that country's division of Amazon was able to supply it and I have been able to play it on my Apex AD-600A with the secret modification that makes it region-free.
So how is "Waltzes from Vienna"? Not terrific, and of course it's not a suspense film at all, but a filming of a piece of Schlag about Johann Strauss II trying to make his way in a world dominated by a much better-known musician, namely Johann Strauss I. Most of the Hitchcock hallmarks aren't here, but there are amusing touches, the music is delightful (even when sung to truly awful English verses), and best of all, Papa is played by one of the director's favorite actors, Edmund Gwenn.
The makeweight is the 1927 "Downhill," which does have the very typical Hitchcock "wrong man accused of a crime" type of plot. Here it's not clear what crime our hero is supposed to have committed, although it seems to have been statutory rape, or maybe having too much money, or only mopery with intent to gawk. The ending, which must have been required by the Lord Chancellor's office, is unsatisfying (think "Suspicion"), but at least you can get an idea of how Hitchcock developed on the way to his later masterpieces.
An oddity: Even though I have been able to find no suggestion of an upcoming U.S. release, the package is done up in exactly the same design scheme and fonts as Universal's Hitchcock DVDs here, except that the title on the spine reads upward, in the fashion of French books, rather than down. Oh yes, there are French subtitles, but they can easily be turned off. "Vienna" even has an alternate French dubbed track if you're into that sort of thing.

So there you have it -- my choices for 2007. Make of them what and as you will.

Copyright © 2007 by Matthew B. Tepper. All Rights Reserved.

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