Top Musical Gifts for the Holiday

Jason Victor Serinus on December 17, 2014
Holiday Gifts

  Here it is, close to the big holiday twosome of Chanukah (Dec. 16 -24) and Christmas (Dec. 25), and you don’t know what musical gifts to buy. SFCV to the rescue. Although these gifts do come at a price, they certainly top beating yourself over the head because you didn’t treat yourself and others to something really special.

If you’re into visuals, and want to stay close to home, so to speak, you can’t go wrong with either the DVD or Blu-ray of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden’s production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The local angle comes in the form of the conductor, San Francisco Opera’s Music Director on the go, Nicola Luisotti. I haven’t seen the production from the 2011 Sferisterio Opera Festival, conducted by Riccardo Frizza, that was released at the same time, and that has some critics raving. But it’s hard to imagine that, for a combination of alive-to-the-moment singing, acting, and conducting, in which every recitative and musical phrase comes to life; mesmerizing projections; and a new and entirely plausible take on the story, anything can beat the ROH performance. As the Don, the superb Marius Kwiecien holds nothing back. The results are extraordinary.

For the collector whose shelves are buckling under the weight of various recording media, consider a year’s subscription ($240) to Tidal’s music-streaming service. Not only do you get full CD quality when you listen via their dedicated music player, but you also have access to a vast assortment of intelligently chosen repertoire, classical and beyond.

For the classical vocal aficionado, there is a major bonanza out there. Search for some of my favorite singers of old — Lotte Lehmann, Elisabeth Schumann, Richard Tauber, Maggie Teyte, Claudia Muzio, Elly Ameling, Arleen Auger, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf — and you’ll be astounded at what you find. Tauber’s farewell recital from 1946, live recitals with Schwarzkopf from the 1950s ... the catalog keeps growing.

The S.F. Symphony has had another banner year in the recording studio. From Downloads Now, you can get the high-resolution versions of the Symphony's Grammy-nominated West Side Story and the recent Masterpieces in Miniature, which someone on your giving list is certain to love. This pair is also available direct from the S.F. Symphony store.

Among the hottest recordings out there now for classical addicts — many nominated for Grammy awards are these Top 10, all of which are available as high-resolution downloads from HDTracks:

1. Cecilia Bartoli’s St. Petersburg, (arias from operas written for the Russian court in the 18th century)
2. Joyce DiDonato’s Grammy-nominated Stella di Napoli, (reviewed by SFCV here)
3. Berlin Philharmonic/ Simon Rattle’s complete Schumann symphonies
4. Christian Thielemann’s recording of Richard Strauss’ Elektra;
5. Kremerata Baltica’s collection of works by Mieczyslaw Weinberg, Dmitri Shostakovich's contemporary and friend
6. Anna Netrebko’s brand new recording of Strauss’ Four Last Songs with Daniel Barenboim conducting
7. The Los Angeles Philharmonic/ Gustavo Dudamel’s recording of John Adams’ City Noir,
8. Sony’s Portrait compilation of lieder by the wonderful Dorothea Röschmann
9. Tenor Robin Tritschler (a BBC Next Generation Artist) performing Britten and Schubert in Wigmore Hall, London
10. Trio Mediaeval’s Aquilonis, 15th-century English carols, Italian songs and even medieval Icelandic chant. The group is accompanied, by one of its own members, on Hardanger fiddle

On the holiday album front, I’ve been surveying around 20 recent releases and can especially recommend the following for Christmas: The Great British Carol Collection (The Choir of Trinity College Cambridge), The Wonder of Christmas, (Elora Festival Singers), new and quite different Messiahs from Harry Christophers (Handel and Haydn Society) and Emmanuel Haïm (Le Concert d'Astrée), and, to lighten things up a bit, A Michael Feinstein Christmas. I was less impressed with the one Chanukah/Jewish compilation that came my way, Cherished Moments from Essential Voices USA, but it does have some very nice tracks.

For information on how to play high-resolution audio fairly inexpensively, see my series for SFCV: Next Wave Audio is a good place to start. Note that since this was published, new devices from ifi, Meridian, Sony, and other companies have widened the choice of possibilities for good sound at good prices. Note as well that playback software from Pure Music, Sonic Studio (Amarra), and Audirvana for Macs, and JRiver for PC, will produce far better sound than iTunes.

Happy holidays. Stay warm, stay dry, and, if you’re going to drive, stay sober. Here’s to another year of great music!