Owen Underhill’s music is a sea of fluid contrasts: the busy clockwork time of action and dance and the suspended time of contemplation; bold gestures that cut across static, glassy textures; counterpoint one can see through, like a forest of bare trees, yet folded into consonances. The Bozzini Quartet provides haunting interpretations of Underhill’s third and fourth string quartets, which sneak up on the heart via the head. Superb soloists grace the two wind quintets: Jeremy Berkman, who turns phrases into characters with eloquent tone and smooth line in Underhill’s stunning Trombone Quintet, and clarinetist François Houle, whose cultivation of unorthodox techniques — liquid quartertones and multiphonics like fine sandpaper — heightens the sense of a music in which the detail is almost tactile, and none of it is expendable.
It’s almost 2012 — so naturally, it’s time for a roundup of the best music that 2011 had to offer. Here are the Top 10 albums of the year (and the best in the classical category) according to The Globe’s music critics.
Elissa Poole’s Picks
- Ann Southam: Returnings — Eve Egoyan, piano — So different from the joyful minimalism of her earlier music, the late Ann Southam’s final works for piano, written for Eve Egoyan, are spare and haunting, inhabiting a circumscribed world where the expressive resonance of even the simplest musical element is questioned, and where resolution is always possible but rarely permanent.
- Hector Berlioz: Nuits d’été; Handel: Arias — Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, mezzo-soprano; Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Nicholas McGegan, conductor — The now-legendary Lorraine Hunt Lieberson sang Berlioz’s Nuits d’été in public only once, in 1995, but fortunately the microphones were there to capture that luminous performance, and it has finally been released. The orchestra may not be as suave as we’d like, but the singing is in a class all its own.
- Martin Arnold: Aberrare — Quatuor Bozzini — When is a string quartet not a string quartet? When it’s a string quartet by Martin Arnold, which is as likely to conjure a primitive consort of stone flutes or the musical ruminations of a medieval monk. Live inside this music for a while and consciousness alters.
- Poesie: Orchestral Songs by Richard Strauss — Diana Damrau, soprano; Munich Philharmonic, Christian Thielemann, conductor — Silvery sound, beautiful diction and an extraordinary range of expressive nuance give soprano Diana Damrau’s captivating performances of Richard Strauss’s orchestral songs — many of them written for his wife, with piano accompaniment only — the kind of intimacy we rarely get outside of chamber music.
- Max Reger: Piano Concerto in F Minor; Richard Strauss: Burleske in D Minor — Marc-André Hamelin, piano; Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Ilan Volkov, conductor — How often do we listen to a late romantic concerto we haven’t heard a hundred times? Gone are the memory cues; gone the baggage of the canon. And who better than Marc-André Hamelin to make a formidable case for Max Reger’s virtuosic, semi-modernist tribute to Brahms and let listeners decide for themselves where it fits?
- Béla Bartôk, Richard Strauss, Edvard Grieg: Violin Sonatas — Vilde Frang, violin; Michail Lifits, piano — Vilde Frang plays Bartok with astounding precision, but her performance is as potent as it is clear. Her instincts are also astute in late romantic repertoire, evident in her supple phrasing and tonal nuance. No wonder the music industry has its eyes on this young Norwegian violinist.
When Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe in the 16th century, he took a consort of viols along with him, and natives sometimes followed his ship in canoes, mesmerized by the alien music coming from the deck. Martin Arnold can make a string quartet seem almost as strange as Drake’s viols must have seemed to those natives. Hollow flute and percussion sounds remind us more of an elaborate wind chime than a string quartet, and in those magical places where we actually recognize stringed instruments or harmonies as such, they seem the result of some accidental alchemy. We are more interested, always, in the infinite detail of the present moment in Arnold’s music than in where his errant melodies might be going — a state of mind that is enhanced by the delicacy and conviction of the Bozzini Quartet’s interpretations. 4 stars