Bay Area Reporter, 12/29/2011
by Tim Pfaff
Best classical discs 2011

The smallest surprise in the classical recordings world was that the end of the double Mahler Years (150th birth anniversary 2010, 100th death anniversary 2011) brought a surge of Mahler recordings. One that bridged the two years – Claudio Abbado's Mahler 9th with his hand-picked Lucerne Festival Orchestra, recorded live in August 2010 and issued on DVD (Accentus) at the beginning of this year – counted as a dream recording, Mahler to the limits, in a searching, soul-penetrating performance.

Remarkably, that same festival produced another of the year's towering recordings, of Beethoven's Fidelio (Decca). Teamed with tenor of the moment Jonas Kaufmann and San Francisco's beloved new Bruennhilde, Nina Stemme, Abbado led his all-around sterling cast, orchestra, and chorus through a live concert performance of Beethoven's only opera – which in its hymn to freedom from political oppression seems timelier by the day – so good it could be deemed game-changing. The controversial newly written spoken dialogue for this semi-staged performance notwithstanding, the music-making blazed new trails into a score we only thought we knew.

Although this wasn't the year his star was born, Kaufmann had a stellar year, peaking with a Mahler Das Lied von der Erde with Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic on the exact Mahler death anniversary (Berlin Philharmonic Digital Concert Hall) and the HD telecasts of his role debut as Siegmund in the Met's new Die Walkuere. He was the only reason – but reason enough – to invest in the Zurich Tosca (Decca DVD), in which you can also experience that magic he whips up when not singing. In his savvy collection of Verismo Arias (Decca), with a deeply sympathetic Antonio Pappano leading his Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, he left no further doubt that he is a singer who can do anything he wants, that what he wants to do is unfailingly right, and that his voice will do whatever he wants it to do. Even before you add in the intelligence and the good instincts, the voice, like its owner, is simply so beautiful it makes you stupid.

Pappano, as versatile as Kaufmann and at this point one of the most important people in opera, crowned a stunning year in the studio with a concert recording of Rossini's Guillaume Tell (EMI Classics). Rossini's last opera, another important work opposing political repression, is, despite the familiarity of a small part of its very long overture, rarely staged (never mind that the enterprising SF Opera performed it twice in the 90s). But with Gerald Finley, as important a singer as Kaufmann, in the title role, Pappano hit the apple at its core.


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