I have five unique choices as gift recommendations for Christmas, comprising two cellos, two violins, and one piano.
1. I became aware of my first choice in late spring thanks to reader Frida Peeple. After reading my essay on Vivaldi’s cello concertos, she mentioned Croatian-Slovenian Luka Šulić’s Vivaldi project. I have since waited impatiently for the release of The Four Seasons that was two years in the making. Šulić of Two Cellos fame released his first solo album this fall, Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Recorded in Rome, it’s a dramatic interpretation that marries a fiery passion with elegance and beauty.
It’s hard to convey the experience of listening to a cello fulfill the lead voice but there is no doubt that it took his decades-long experience as a musician to reach this incredible height of expression. The Italian chamber ensemble, Archi dell’Accademia di Santa Cecilia, accompanies Šulić with impeccable precision and passion. In “The Making of ‘Vivaldi: The Four Seasons’,” Mr. Šulić explains the patient process of re-imagining and arranging Vivaldi and then recording it in a historical studio with Italian conductor and fellow cellist Luigi Piovano.
2. Baroque autumn must be the cellist’s flavor this year because Ofra Harnoy also released a new classics album to add to her forty recordings. She joined the RCA Victor Red Seal Label more than 30 years ago and has received the Order of Canada, multiple Juno awards, and the honor of playing Carnegie Hall.
Back to Bach features favorites by Bach, Corelli, and Allegri. Usually accompanied by organ, chamber orchestra, or harpsichord, her creative arrangements as soloist use either brass or overdubbing by Harnoy herself. For the works by Telemann and Allegri, Harnoy plays a cello ensemble through multi-tracking techniques. Not only is she the featured soloist, but Harnoy also plays all nine choral voices in Allegri’s Miserere. The use of modern technology gives Ms. Harnoy a unique way to explore this centuries-old music.
3. Earlier this year, Grammy-winning violinist Augustin Hadelich released a peculiar combination album in April simply titled Brahms, Ligeti: Violin Concertos. This intentional juxtaposition features the tuneful, romantic classic of Brahms Violin Concerto in D Major paired against the modernist complexity of György Ligeti.
Born in Italy as the son of German parents, Augustin Hadelich is now an American citizen. He holds an Artist Diploma from The Juilliard School and his career is already full of awards beginning with his debut at the 2006 Indianapolis Violin Competition followed by his first album in 2007.
In the Brahms Concerto, the Norwegian Radio Orchestra competently accompanies Mr. Hadelich, but the best part of the Concerto in D is Mr. Hadelich’s interpretation of the Adagio. It is lyrical, deep, and moving. The 1992 Ligeti, on the other hand, is a raucous ride that stretches the skill of violinist and listener alike. NPR reviewer Tom Huizenga calls it “one of the craziest and most confounding in the repertoire…. Chaos is around every corner, but also moments of serene beauty.” All of it leads to one incredible cadenza composed exclusively for Mr. Hadelich by Thomas Adès. Mr. Hadelich himself called it ‘unplayable’ when he first read it, but he more than mastered its show-stopping flair.
4. A lost violin concerto is a compelling story in itself. Composer Florence Price wrote two violin concertos, the first of which was thought permanently missing until a house renovation south of Chicago revealed a quantity of her music and personal papers. Price was best known as the first African American woman to write a symphony performed by a major U.S. Orchestra, but she led an amazing, gifted life.
There are no known performances of Price’s first violin concerto in her lifetime, but the Violin Concerto No. 2, (1952) was performed posthumously by its dedicatee, Minnie Cedargreen Jemberg in 1964. Now the two concertos are joined on the 2018 Albany recording as a tribute to Florence Price’s home state of Arkansas with violinist Er-Gene Kahng performing both works. They might seem short for concertos, but Kahng fills the stage with a delicious traditional sound.
5. And finally I promise the word ‘epic’ will not be misused. The next album was recorded live with the Boston Symphony in 2017 but not released until February this year by Myrios Classics. Russian Kirill Gerstein performs the lengthy five-movement Busoni: Piano Concerto. But this is not a piece to listen to in pieces.
I think the vast range of Busoni’s music is best experienced as a whole. Each movement holds new awe-inspiring styles like collections in each room of a museum. The first movement is essentially solemn, almost religious in its long-range Wagnerian unfolding. But the second movement is markedly playful before the dramatic and massive third movement. They are followed by a tarantella then a canticle, literally a Danish poem sung in German by a men’s chorus. Here it’s the Men of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. It’s a true sweeping grand finale, though the men’s chorus does not seem as strong as it could be. Overall, it’s a captivating concoction of the serious and the marvelous.
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The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.