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Classical 101

Eight Great Recordings of 2011

Well, it seems another year has come and (almost) gone. Time to roll out the "Best Of" lists. So, with little fanfare and only a nod to nostalgia, here's my list of eight great recordings of 2011. (All are perfect last-minute holiday gifts for the music lovers in your life .) Diva, Divo - Joyce DiDonato, mezzo-soprano; Lyon National Opera Orchestra; Kazushi Ono. This collection of famous opera arias for female and "pants" operatic roles captures beautifully both the gender-bending function of the mezzo-soprano in opera and Joyce DiDonato's phenomenal voice and interpretive powers. Just delightful. Verismo Arias - Jonas Kaufmann, tenor; Santa Cecilia National Academy Orchestra; Antonio Pappano. I've written elsewhere that Kaufmann is a force of nature, and this recording justifies this claim. Featuring 17 arias from some of the late nineteenth century's most important operas, Verismo Arias showcases Kaufmann's glorious instrument in all its flexibility and dramatic power. Many operatic tenors are excellent, some are even great. Kaufmann towers above them all. Come to the River: An Early American Gathering - Apollo's Fire; Jeannette Sorrell. For years, Cleveland-based Apollo's Fire has served up brilliant performances of European Baroque music. Come to the River is a wild departure from previous recordings of the period-instrument ensemble, focusing as it does on the "kaleidoscope of styles" (as Sorrell herself describes it in her CD notes) that rubbed shoulders in early 19th-century America. If you like to experience a wide spectrum of music of the past, check out this recording. An especially good toe-tapper to have in the car for long road trips. Tabarinades: Musiques pour le théâtre de Tabarin Les Boréades; Francis Colpron.  If you're a fan of period-instrument performances, this recording of Renaissance-Baroque dance music performed by the Montreal-based Baroque orchestra Les Boréades combines sheer beauty of sound (in all its aspects) with fresh, airy interpretations. A delight to the ears. Handel: Streams of Pleasure - Karina Gauvin, soprano; Marie-Nicole Lemieux, contralto; Il Complesso Barocco; Alan Curtis. Two glorious voices join up with a splendid orchestra in performances of some of Handel's most riveting opera and oratorio arias. Simply beautiful. Cleopatra - Handel: Arias from Giulio Cesare - Natalie Dessay, soprano; Le Concert d'Astrée; Emmanuelle Haïm. Years after surgeries for career-threatening vocal troubles, soprano Natalie Dessay remains at the top of the heap. This recording of Cleopatra's arias from Handel's Giulio Cesare in Egitto showcases Dessay's vocal flexibility and dramatic flair in one of the widest-ranging soprano roles of the Baroque era. Conductor Emmanuelle Haïm, rapidly emerging as one of the women to watch on the international conducting scene, leads her Concert d'Astrée in a gorgeous and sensitive supporting performance. A dyed-in-the-wool opera lover's recording. The American Album - Cypress String Quartet. This recording of Dvorak's "American" Quartet, Barber's String Quartet (from which came the famous Adagio for Strings) and Charles Tomlinson Griffes' Two Sketches Based on Indian Themes is as beautifully engineered as it is crisply, cleanly and elegantly performed. The Cypress Quartet has found a signature sound of equal measures crystal clarity and warmth. This quartet is an ensemble of soloists who bow to the higher cause of chamber music. A gorgeous recording of three American chamber music masterpieces. 13 Ways of Looking at Goldberg - Lara Downes, piano. The classical music equivalent (roughly) to the concept album, 13 Ways of Looking at Goldberg are 13 riffs on the famous Aria of J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations by a Who's Who of contemporary composers, including William Bolcom, Fred Hirsch, Dave Brubeck, David Del Tredici, Jennifer Higdon, Fred Lerdahl and Lukas Foss. The recording's value is less in Downes' straitlaced performances of Bach's Aria and its more recent spawn, than in the niftiness of the concept and the inventiveness (to use a good Bachian term) of our present-day composers' responses to Bach's creation. This recording offers the musical omnivore something at every turn.