Begonias & Dead Horses: The Best Folk & Classical Music of 2014

It was a good year for chamber music, orchestras, fusion and harmonies. That's according to two of IPR's music hosts who shared their favorite recordings of 2014.

Host Charity Nebbe talks with Karen Impola, host of The Folk Tree Sundays at 1:00 p.m. on IPR's Studio One stream about her favorite folk releases of the year, and Barney Sherman, one of IPR's Classical hosts about some of his 2014 choices for holiday shoppers.

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Karen Impola's Favorite Folk Releases of 2014

The New Line - “Fall on my Knees” (Can’t Hold the Wheel)

Cover art for The New Line's album Can't Hold the Wheel

A mixture of African and old-time American music. The idea isn’t as strange as it sounds, since American folk music grew out of a fusion of African and European influences.  Bandleader Brendan Taaffe studied the African mbira (thumb piano) in Zimbabwe, and combines it with Adam Hurt’s banjo.  This track also has some sweet trumpet and electric guitar lines.

Runa - “False Knight on the Road”  (Current Affairs)

Runa is a top-notch, mostly Celtic band, with members from Ireland, Canada, and the U.S.  They do everything from achingly pure Gaelic singing and straight-ahead fiddle tunes to this track, where they take a centuries-old British ballad and give it a Caribbean lilt.

Willie Watson - “Midnight Special” (Folk Singer, Vol. 1)

Cover art for Willie Watson's album Folk Singer, Vol. 1

After playing in bands since high school, and spending more than ten years with the Old Crow Medicine Show, the 30-something Watson decided to go solo.  This is a true solo album, nothing but Watson’s voice and a single guitar or banjo on each track. He delves into the roots music that first inspired him as a child. A Leadbelly album was what first got him hooked, so here is his cover of Leadbelly’s “Midnight Special”.

Cahalen Morrison and Eli West - “Off the Chama” (I’ll Swing My Hammer with Both My Hands)

One of those songs I just can’t get out of my head, by this country-inspired duo from the Pacific Northwest.  Cahalen Morrison wrote this story-song of lost and found love.

Sam Amidon - “Walkin’ Boss” (Lily-O)

Sam’s parents, Peter and Mary Alice Amidon, are professional folk music educators, leading singing and dance workshops across the country.  So Sam grew up with a healthy respect for traditional music.  But he’s not afraid to innovate, as he does on this album, where he’s joined by avant-jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, Pakistani-American bassist Shahzad Ismaily, and percussionist Chris Vatalaro.

T Sisters - “Woo Woo” (album: Kindred Lines)

Cover art for the T Sisters album Kindred Lines

Erika, Rachel, and Chloe Tietjen probably got tired of having their last name misspelled or mispronounced, so they simply call themselves the T Sisters.  They’ve been harmonizing all their lives, and it sounds like it.  Their songs blend bluegrass, pop, swing-jazz and R & B influences. Bluegrass great Laurie Lewis produced this album, their debut.

Hot Rize - “Sky Rider” (When I’m Free)

Hot Rize was one of the top bluegrass bands of the 1980’s. They disbanded in 1990, and have only done occasional reunion gigs, until this year. “When I’m Free”, their first studio album in almost 25 years, features original members Tim O’Brien on mandolin and fiddle, bassist Nick Forster (who you may know of as host of the radio show e-Town), and banjo player Pete Wernick. They’re joined by guitarist Brian Sutton, replacing the late Charles Sawtelle.  “Sky Rider” is an instrumental, written by Wernick.

Johnsmith - “Please Remember This” (The Longing Road)

An Iowa boy, born and brought up in the town of Dewitt, and now based in Trempealeau, Wisconsin. Sing Out magazine says that his music is “open-hearted, unpretentious, grounded in the personal, yet always accessible and universal,” and that sums it up.”Please Remember This” is a song full of sweet metaphors for what lovers are to each other.

Dead Horses - “Glitterbug” (Space and Time)

This is the second CD, but the first that I’m aware of, by this young Oshkosh, Wisconsin band.  It’s bluegrass-inspired but definitely not traditional, and features the outstanding vocals of Sarah Vos.

Hanneke Cassel - “Natasha McCoy’s / Lianne MacLean’s Revenge” (Dot the Dragon’s Eyes)

She has a degree in Violin Performance from Berklee College of Music, but, as the joke goes, it hasn’t spoiled her fiddle-playing. This album is mostly her own compositions.

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Barney Sherman's 2014 picks for holiday shoppers 

Instead of trying to pick the year's best albums,  I listed ten that 1) I managed to hear, 2) represent trends I noticed this year, and 3) would make nice gifts. One other criterion: when I needed a tie-breaker, I favored albums that have an Iowa connection. In alphabetical order, here they are:

Johann Sebastian Bach: The Six Partitas for Keyboard   Igor Levit, piano (on Sony 07630) 

One trend of 2014 was more like a flood: one great Bach album after another rolled along. (I'm seriously hoping to write a post called "The Year in Bach.") Consider the piano. For my example, I could just as easily have chosen Angela Hewitt’s Art of Fugue, which Uri Golomb reviewed at iowapublicradio.org, or Simone Dinnerstein’s Inventions, a favorite of Suzanne Bona of Sunday Baroque; but I went with a third option, the Partitas. They are, after all, the Everest of Baroque dance suites for keyboard, or, to keep my metaphors straight, the Mighty Mississippi. And Igor Levit brings new insight and deep feeling to them. He doesn't displace previous favorites  - Murray Perahia, Richard Goode, Sir Andras Schiff, and Masaaki Suzuki, not that you asked! - but he joins them on the peak. Also, Sony's recorded sound is the most "you-are-there" I've ever heard.

IOWA Choice: Antonio Bertali: Sonatas, “Paradise” –performed by ACRONYM (on Olde Focus 901) 

This CD represents another trend of 2014: it was the best year for 17th-century instrumental chamber music since... wait for it...  1699. I could have picked any of ten exceptional CDs, but went with this one because one group member, Loren Ludwig, teaches at Grinnell, and he and another member, Kivie Cahn-Lipman came to Iowa Public Radio to perform as part of the group Fathom. (You can hear their live set at this link.) This is music you can use for uplift or for close listening - or for both.

 

Johannes Brahms: The String Quintets – the Takacs Quartet joined by violist Lawrence Power (on Hyperion 67900) 

Another trend: it was a VERY good year for the chamber music of Brahms. I could easily have gone with the Chiara String Quartet's unsurpassed set of the quartets "played by heart" (with no music in front of them), or the Clarinet Quintet and Trio by Martin Frost (on BIS) or the Clarinet Sonatas  by Jean Johnson and Steven Osborne (Avie), or the Violin Sonatas by Arnaud Sussmann and Orion Weiss (Telos). A coin toss, but I love the String Quintets. I think Brahms was onto something when he told his publisher "You will never receive anything more beautiful from me" -  and this is my new favorite recording of them. The clear, warm recorded sound doesn't hurt: it's easy to hear both of the viola parts distinctly, and they sound wonderfully resonant and alive.

Brooklyn Rider, Almanac (on Mercury 002159302)

This CD represents another trend of 2014: "crossover" that is not cheesy but instead is vibrantly creative. The boundaries between alt-indie rock/folk/jazz and new-classical are increasingly porous, and nobody has done more to dissolve them than the string quartet known as Brooklyn Rider. If you missed their gig in Des Moines with Bela Fleck (who played a concerto written by one of Rider's members), check out this CD. For it, Brooklyn Rider commissioned short quartets from leading jazz, folk, and indie musicians, each inspired by a "muse" from the culture of the last century. Jazz great Bill Frisell wrote a piece inspired by John Steinbeck; Vijay Iyer took James Brown as his muse; and Aoife O'Donovan chose William Faulkner as the inspiration for a beautiful musical meditation. O'Donovan knows her craft: she's a leading progressive bluegrass and folk-noir artist, but she once graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music.

IOWA Choice: Michael Ching: A Midsummer Night’s Dreamperformed by Voicestra (Albany 1507/08)

Michael Ching, who lives in Ames, may be the first composer to write an opera for voices without any instruments at all. And you don't miss them! By combining classical voices with Broadway ones and pop and bop styles, he brings out an element of Shakespeare's play that previous settings (some of our greatest music) has not explored as fully: the youthfulness of the lovers and sprites. Great fun for the Shakespeare lover on your list.

IOWA Choice: Michael Daugherty: American Gothic- Orchestra Iowa conducted by Timothy Hankewich 

To celebrate its return to the Paramount Theatre (which was badly damaged in the floods of 2008),  Orchestra Iowa commissioned a work about Cedar Rapids by someone from Cedar Rapids. That would be Michael Daugherty, an Iowa kid who grew up to be one of America's most-performed composers. He decided to focus this work on the most celebrated artistic son of Cedar Rapids, Grant Wood. The infectious result, American Gothic, draws astonishing playing from the orchestra. A bonus track features an interview of Daugherty and Hankewich by IPR's Jacqueline Halbloom; like the performance, it aired first on IPR Classical's Symphonies of Iowa series.

Antonin Dvorak: Symphony no. 8; Leos Janacek: Jenufa (instrumental suite) - performed by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra led by Manfred Honeck (Reference 710 SACD)

Orchestra Iowa illustrates another trend: American orchestras producing stupendous recordings. I'm thinking of the Seattle Symphony on their house brand (notably a Dutilleux recording, but also a wonderful French CD and American CD), the Atlanta Symphony on theirs (Sibelius's last two symphonies and Tapiola), the Philadelphia Orchestra in Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky, the Minnesota Orchestra in Sibelius, the Chicago Symphony in music new and old, and the Boston Symphony on its private label. But my shout-out is to Pittsburgh. Their Janacek is a significant contribution to that composer's discography, and their Dvorak Eighth made me fall in love with the piece all over again. It has fire and freedom, as the artists respond imaginatively to Dvorak's Czech musical heritage. The orchestra sounds world class. And again, the recorded sound is the opposite of unbelievable:  you feel that you are there.

Mamoru Fujieda: Patterns of Plants - performed by Sarah Cahill, piano (Pinna 3)

2014 was a great year for compositions based on new sources of inspiration. I wrote earlier this year about Erin Gee's mind-blowing Mouthpieces, in which the voice sings phonemes that are not actually in words; I recommend it strongly. NPR gave deservedly enthusiastic coverage to Richard Reed Parry's Music for Heart and Breath, which builds music from the pulses of the musicians performing. (Parry is a member of Arcade Fire, so he's another example of "high-level crossover.") But for holiday gifts - especially for the gardener on your list - consider the Japanese composer Mamoru Fujieda's Patterns of Plants. I was skeptical of its premise, which is to use voltage patterns measured on plants as the basis for compositions. But I was entranced, because his imagination is rich, refined and delicate. The same can be said of the playing of Sarah Cahill, who commissioned these for the piano after Iowa-trained, Pulitzer-trained composer David Lang told her, "You should be playing Mamoru's music." Good advice, David! (For Charity, I played The Begonia in My Life - the title, by the way, is a play on Morton Feldman's The Viola in My Life. That explains the overall title of this post!)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Requiem - Dunedin Consort conducted by John Butt (Linn CKD 449)

Whether you can't get enough of the Requiem or have heard it once too often, this recording may do for you what it did for me: make the familiar Sussmayr completion sound utterly new. The premise was to come as close as possible to the notes and performing forces used at the work's premieres in Vienna; but what makes the outcome special is the performers' feeling for what those notes meant. While Mozart broke new "Masonic" musical ground in parts of the Requiem, much of it responds to traditions going back to the Renaissance, Handel, Bach, and the French and Italian baroque - and these performers (who are great Baroque interpreters) "get" what all this meant to Mozart. Mozart writes specifically for the string, wind and brass playing of his day, and for its singing. His singers had younger voices than is common in professional singing today, and used less "operatic" vocal placement than we're used to. Besides, there were far fewer of them than is typical now: a full chorus had 16 singers, and four of them were the soloists. Interesting though these details may be, what makes this release so vivid is that the artists integrate their historical knowledge into a committed performance that has both depth and drama. Once again, the recorded sound is reference-quality, clear but also warm: this is what gold would sound like.

Live Duo-Piano Recital by Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim, recorded in April in Berlin (Deutsche Grammophon 479 3922)

The Jewish community of Buenos Aires in the 1940s produced two almost inconceivably gifted piano prodigies - Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim. As children, they would perform duets at chamber music evenings and then play hide and seek under the furniture. By the 1960s, both were ranked among the greatest pianists in the world. Since then, Argerich has been especially noted for her chamber-music work, and Barenboim for his conducting. The two hadn't played together publicly since the 1980s (he conducted, she played), and haven't performed duets in public since 1949. This April, at Barenboim's suggestion, they played a duo-recital in Berlin, and luckily, it was recorded. You can tell it's the real thing because there are a few rough spots - if it had been a studio job they would have done more takes. But the thrill comes from its being not a studio job but an inspired evening of real-world musical synergy. The Mozart and Schubert selections are among my favorite piano-duo works, but to my surprise, the most thrilling part is the Rite of Spring in the the piano-duet version. Stravinsky played this duo privately with Claude Debussy shortly before the riotous ballet premiere; when the two composers reached the end, Debussy was so overwhelmed that he simply got up and walked away without a word. A century later. many of us have heard so many orchestral recordings that it's almost routine; for me, this live piano performance made the Rite as shocking as it must have sounded in 1913. Also, I'm delighted that in their early 70s, these two artists still play so magnificently, turning the piano into an orchestra of its own.

 

 

 

 

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