Sorry about the longer-than-usual absence. Chalk it up to a general lack of live performances over the last few weeks, the transit strike, my girlfriend's return from Virginia and the year-end crush at the magazine. Speaking of which, the December 29 issue of TONY -- which went to print three weeks ago -- is hitting newsstands even as I type this, which means I can finally go ahead and post my year-end Top Ten lists. (In the classical list, the "more" links take you to ArkivMusic.com, except in cases where a recording was not available there; in the non-classical list, the links take you to barnesandnoble.com, except in one case where the recording couldn't be found.)
Top Ten Recordings, Classical:
1. Richard Wagner - Tristan und Isolde - Plácido Domingo et al., Antonio Pappano conducting the Royal Opera, Covent Garden (EMI Classics) [more]
2. J.S. Bach - The Sonatas and Partitas - Gidon Kremer (ECM New Series) [more]
3. Osvaldo Golijov - Ayre; Luciano Berio - Folk Songs - Dawn Upshaw and the Andalucian Dogs (Deutsche Grammophon) [more]
4. Joseph Haydn - The Paris Symphonies - Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting Concentus Musicus Wien (DHM) [more]
5. Esa-Pekka Salonen - Wing on Wing; Insomnia; Foreign Bodies - Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon) [more]
6. and 7. Alvin Lucier - Wind Shadows - The Barton Workshop (New World) [more], and Alvin Lucier - Charles Curtis and Anthony Burr (Antiopic) [more]
8. Jordi Savall - Du temps & de l'instant (Alia Vox) [more]
9. Matthew Welch - Dream Tigers - Flux Quartet, Andrew Sterman, Matthew Welch with the CSU Percussion Ensemble (Tzadik) [more]
10. Pierre Boulez - Le marteau sans maître; Dérive 2; Dérive 1 - Pierre Boulez conducting the Ensemble InterContemporain [more]
Among 2005 recordings that didn't make the cut, the ones I most regretted omitting from my TONY list were Richard Hickox's otherworldly Death in Venice (Chandos), with Philip Langridge's feverish Aschenbach; Fabio Biondi's starry Bajazet (EMI Classics); Marc Minkowski's stylish Rameau pastiche Une symphonie imaginaire (Archiv); the Pacifica Quartet's poised Mendelssohn cycle (Cedille); and Rolando Villazón's ardent collection of Massenet and Gounod arias (Virgin). I greatly admired Alan Curtis's vivid Rodelinda (Archiv), although much of that admiration can probably be chalked up to my Simone Kermes fetish. Toss in René Jacobs's bewitching Saul (Harmonia Mundi); the always admirable Maggini Quartet's take on Frank Bridge's Quartets Nos. 2 and 4 (Naxos); the Takács Quartet's magisterial view of Beethoven's late quartets (Decca); and the infinite riches of Gérard Grisey's magnum opus, Les Espaces Acoustiques, as performed by Garth Knox, the Asko Ensemble and the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln under the direction of Stefan Asbury (Kairos), and 2005 looks to have been a very good year, indeed.
Top Ten Recordings, Non-Classical:
1. Antony and the Johnsons - I Am a Bird Now (Secretly Canadian) [more]
2. Nickel Creek - Why Should the Fire Die? (Sugar Hill) [more]
3. Fiona Apple - Extraordinary Machine (Epic) [more]
4. Made Out of Babies - Trophy (Neurot) [more]
5. Sufjan Stevens - Illinois (Asthmatic Kitty) [more]
6. Ulver - Blood Inside (The End) [more]
7. Napalm Death - The Code Is Red... Long Live the Code! (Century Media) [more]
8. Dave Douglas - Mountain Passages (Greenleaf) [more]
9. Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane - ...at Carnegie Hall (Blue Note) [more]
10. 4g - Cloud (Erstwhile) [more]
The list above should not be read as a ranked survey by the way. Instead, it should be parsed as my five top pop releases, my top-two metal discs, my top-two jazz sets and my single-favorite electroacoustic improv release -- although Made Out of Babies's caterwauling lurch could easily trade places with Ulver's skyscraping blend of vintage prog and Smile-ing vocal arrangements. It's kind of like compiling a single list of the year's best apples, blood oranges, hand grenades and a door knob, but I wanted to be sure that my favorite discs from all of the main "genres" with which I'm regularly consumed were represented.
Albums that didn't make the cut but could have include Shakira's Fijacion Oral, Vol. 1 (Epic), the Fiery Furnaces' Rehearsing My Choir (Rough Trade), Bell Orchestre's Recording a Tape the Colour of Light (Rough Trade), Kanye West's Late Registration (Roc-a-Fella), the Mars Volta's Frances the Mute (Universal), Arch Enemy's Doomsday Machine (Century Media), Meshuggah's Catch 33 (Nuclear Blast), Marty Ehrlich's News on the Rail (Palmetto), Semi-Formal by John Hollenbeck's Claudia Quintet (Cuneiform); and ErstLive 005 by Keith Rowe, Sachiko M, Toshimaru Nakamura and Otomo Yoshihide (Erstwhile).
Top Ten Live Events (chronological):
1. Radu Lupu, Franz Welser-Möst conducting the Cleveland Orchestra, Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, February 1-5. Beethoven's piano concertos expertly rendered with no muss or fuss, cutting straight to the heart of the music -- which was boldly paired with Birtwistle, Dutilleux, Roy Harris and more.
2. Don Carlo with Sondra Radvanovsky, Luciana d'Intino, Richard Margison, Dwayne Croft, Feruccio Furnlanetto, Paata Burchuladze; Fabio Luisi conducting; Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, March 7. The very model of ensemble work, in one of Verdi's greatest achievements.
3. Der Rosenkavalier with Angela Denoke, Laura Aikin, Susan Graham, Peter Rose, Håkan Hagegård; Donald Runnicles conducting; Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, March 15. Another superlative cast, highlighted by Denoke's heart-rending Marschallin.
4. Joe Maneri Quartet with Matt Moran, Barbès, April 20. In the first of three final shows with his long-lived quartet, microtonal composer and klezmer-revival forerunner Maneri turned this tiny Park Slope boîte into one big, warm bearhug of sound.
5. Gang of Four, Irving Plaza, May 17. Plenty of younger bands have been making hay with the terse, angular punk-funk sound that Gang of Four perfected (but apparently never patented) back in the ’80s; what made this surprising reunion of the band's four original members so satisfying was the realization that no one has done it better than they did.
6. Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, June 3 & 5. Imaginative programming, tellingly played and (in the case of Ives's The Unanswered Question) evocatively staged. Other highlights included the marvelously weird original version of Mussorgsky's St. John's Night on the Bare Mountain, and John Adams's luminous nod to Lou Harrison, The Dharma at Big Sur.
7. Charles Rosen, Rolf Schulte, Stephen Gosling and the IFCP Ensemble led by Marc Ponthus, Mannes College of Music, June 20. The Institute and Festival for Contemporary Performance at Mannes presented a fine series of programs this summer, including this brilliantly realized all-Elliott Carter bill featuring Rosen in the Piano Sonata, Schulte and Gosling in the Duo for Violin and Piano, and a crack teacher-and-pupil band in the Triple Duo.
8. James Finn Quartet, The Stone, September 7. This ecstatic-jazz saxophonist surpassed his normally high levels of incantory abandon in this impassioned set, which he and his bandmates -- bassist Jaribu Shahid, drummers Warren Smith and Newman Taylor Baker -- turned into a holy-rolling fundraiser for victims of Hurricane Katrina. Subtle moments (such as a percussion duet of chest pats, leg slaps and stomped feet) packed as much power as did raucous exhortations.
9. ErstQuake II, Collective: Unconscious, September 23-25. Uneven, unwieldy and sometimes unbearably loud, a three-evening festival of electroacoustic improvisation mounted by Erstwhile's Jon Abbey and Quakebasket's Tim Barnes reminded hardy listeners that this particular musical frontier continues to resist attempts at demarcation and codification.
10. James Levine conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, October 10. A bold bill of American works (Ives, Carter, Foss, Gershwin) lovingly savored by conductor and performers, including standing ovations for Carter and Foss, and a Three Places in New England that I suspect will never be surpassed in my mind's ear.
Most of these events appeared either on my "Best of 2005" list in the classical section of TONY or in the pop staff's aggregate "Top Live Shows" box in that section of the magazine; two, the all-Carter concert and ErstQuake, did not appear on either list. And it should be immediately apparent that the roll is limited to New York-based events only; were that not the case, Doctor Atomic would surely have made this list, as would the Boston Symphony Orchestra's October 29 performance of Mozart's "Posthorn" Serenade and Michael Tippett's A Child of Our Time as conducted by Sir Colin Davis.
Normally, I'd tack on lists of favorite books and films for the hell of it, but I can't really do that this year. To begin with, I only read one new book in 2005: I, Wabenzi (Farrar Strauss Giroux), the first book in a woolly, four-volume memoir by reluctant jazz critic-turned-prizewinning novelist Rafi Zabor. Ideally, I would at least have read the latest offerings by Haruki Murakami and Zadie Smith. Instead, I spent January through September obsessively reading the almost-complete New Yorker essays of Andrew Porter -- that is, everything that was ever collected in hardcover form -- chronologically from start to finish. And after I interviewed Zabor for a piece on Wabenzi, I felt compelled to finally read the book he deems the greatest novel in the history of literature: War and Peace. I'm currently on page 1,011...
...and would no doubt be even further along, were I not constantly interrupting myself with the new DC Showcase Presents anthologies: gloriously inexpensive, 500-page black-and-white anthologies of Silver Age Superman, Green Lantern and Metamorpho comic books (with Jonah Hex and Justice League of America waiting in the wings). Unsurprisingly, the Superman and Green Lantern volumes have been fairly formulaic if tremendously enjoyable -- but good grief, the Metamorpho collection is priceless! True, virtually every single story sticks to a basic template, but the wild energy that animates every panel comes straight out of the golden age of newspaper adventure and humor strips. Of the several artists whose work fills these pages, the two creators with whose styles I was already familiar -- Joe Orlando and Mike Sekowsky -- are equalled and often bettered by co-creator Ramona Fradon, whose work combines a vivid streak of fantasy with a serious aptitude for emotional expression, particularly in the case of this most offbeat hero. As far as comics go, this was my overdue discovery of the year.
As for films, I originally thought that I'd only seen three all year: March of the Penguins and Batman Returns, both of which I enjoyed, and Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, which was a let-down. Scanning the shelves at Blockbuster the other night reminded me of two more that I was apparently desperate to forget: the mostly laughable, gaffe-filled Fantastic Four and the completely disheartening War of the Worlds.
I aim to do better on the literary front in 2006…and who knows, maybe I'll see a few more films as well. (I'm heading out to catch Syriana with girlfriend Lara and our friend Karissa, just as soon as I file this post.) Until next time, then, here's hoping that your holidays are happy, peaceful and fulfilling. And once again, thanks to Alex, Marion, Sieglinde, Marc, Danny, Anastasia, Molly and everyone else who made my splash into the blogosphere this year so eminently worthwhile and enjoyable.