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Classical Notes

Classical is alive and well

Boston.com photo composite Clockwise from top left: Stile Antico, "Song of Songs"; Keith Jarrett, "Paris/London - Testament"; Quatuor Ebène, "Debussy, Fauré, Ravel: String Quartets"; Claudio Abbado/ Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, "Beethoven: Symphonies 1-9"; Mark Padmore and Paul Lewis, "Schubert: Winterreise"; Leonard Bernstein, "Mahler: The Complete Symphonies." (Boston.com photo composite)
By David Weininger
Globe Correspondent / January 1, 2010

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For years the death of classical music - that supposed bastion of graying audiences and cultural irrelevance - has been confidently predicted to be right around the corner. So too, more recently, the imminent demise of the compact disc, surely the most reviled format in the history of recorded music. And yet: Judging by the number of releases that reached me in 2009, classical music and the CD are both puffing along just fine. The CD clearly remains the dominant currency of recorded classical music, and while downloads have grown in availability, they seem as yet to pose little substantive competition in a niche that puts a high premium on sound quality. If this is what the end time looks like, maybe it’s not so bad. In that spirit, here are some favorites - CDs and a couple of DVDs - from the past year.

STILE ANTICO “Song of Songs’’ (Harmonia Mundi) This was, hands down, the best recording I heard all year. Stile Antico is a young but highly accomplished early music chorus from the UK. Their third album presents opulent settings of some of the Bible’s most sensuous texts, from composers both familiar and obscure. The ensemble’s blend and balance are wonderful, but it’s the 12 singers’ vivid and expressive way with texts that makes these performances special. I’m impatiently awaiting their next project.

QUATUOR EBÈNE “Debussy, Fauré, Ravel: String Quartets’’ (Virgin Classics) Even among the current crop of talented young string quartets, Quatuor Ebène stands out for its virtuosity and the range of its sound palette. Here the French foursome makes the Debussy and Ravel quartets - two of the most over-recorded pieces in the literature - sound urgent and vital again, thanks to a keen sense of dynamic and textural variation. The slow movements of each piece are rethought so completely that they almost sound like new works. This CD actually came out in 2008 but it became an essential part of my soundtrack over the past year.

MARK PADMORE AND PAUL LEWIS “Schubert: Winterreise’’ (Harmonia Mundi) Schubert’s great and terrifying song cycle is usually the provenance of baritones, but British tenor Mark Padmore turns in a performance of quiet power. The beauty of his light, attractive voice stands in stark contrast to the bitterness of the protagonist’s journey. Padmore and pianist Paul Lewis - a significant soloist in his own right - are sensitive to the dramatic shape of both the music and poetry. The final song, “Der Leiermann’’ (“The Hurdy-Gurdy Man’’) has an almost unbearable chill.

CLAUDIO ABBADO/ BERLIN PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA “Beethoven: Symphonies 1-9’’ (Medici Arts DVD) Abbado’s studio recordings of the Beethoven symphonies, from 2000, were intriguing readings that didn’t quite capture the music’s scope. Later that year Abbado was diagnosed with cancer, and the brush with mortality seemed to deepen his partnership with the Berlin Philharmonic. These 4 DVDs capture live performances from 2001 that unite the Philharmonic’s polished sound with insights from the period instrument movement. Everything here bristles with an intensity that eluded the studio versions, especially in the “Eroica,’’ Fifth, and Seventh symphonies. Some Bostonians will be reminded of a gripping and emotional all-Beethoven concert at Symphony Hall by these same forces just weeks after 9/11.

OLIVIER MESSIAEN/ NETHERLANDS OPERA “St. Francois d’Assise’’ (Opus Arte DVD) Messiaen’s lone opera is an introspective series of scenes from the life of St. Francis. It runs over four hours with virtually no outward action; the drama consists of Francis’s journey toward grace. Yet in this modernist production - with the Hague Philharmonic playing on stage amid a pile of metal crosses - it proves to be a riveting experience. This is due almost entirely to the astonishing portrayal of Francis by baritone Rod Gilfry, who makes him seem both commanding and touchingly vulnerable. He also sings beautifully throughout, as does soprano Camilla Tilling as the Angel.

LEONARD BERNSTEIN “Mahler: The Complete Symphonies’’ (Sony) Few of Bernstein’s first recordings of the Mahler symphonies - most done with the New York Philharmonic - have ever been out of the catalog. For this 12-CD reissue, though, Sony has remastered them from the original tapes. Several - the Third and Seventh symphonies - are classics, while others that formerly sounded scrappy - such as the First and Fifth - now have a warmth that better brings out Bernstein’s conception. Some aficionados prefer Bernstein’s later traversal on Deutsche Grammophon, but these recordings were key to the Mahler revival in the 1960s, and have a thrilling sense of discovery that’s still palpable, even in our Mahler-saturated era.

KEITH JARRETT “Paris/London - Testament’’ (ECM) Jarrett’s solo concerts - entire evenings of piano improvisation - no longer have the epic sweep that they did in earlier decades, when he would play for almost 90 minutes with a single intermission. Now his concerts are more like extended suites - a series of shorter pieces with abrupt shifts in mood. Jarrett’s musical vocabulary has evolved, too: Jittery, atonal passages now sit alongside those with a gospel or swing flavor. His recordings are usually filed under jazz, but the depth of his language, and his endlessly inventive way of handling motifs, make these extraordinary concerts seem appropriate for this list. Here is a great artist at his passionate best.