Classical music gift guide

Someday the naysayers will be right, of course. Nothing lasts forever. But classical CDs and DVDs remain plentiful, and it was a great year. Buy, wrap and give the real thing while you still can. Downloads make lousy gifts.

“Dinastia Borja” (Alia Vox), a sumptuously illustrated book with three sumptuously recorded CDs of some of the most enthralling Renaissance music you’ve ever heard, may be the one you want for yourself. The latest lavish set from the Catalan viol player and conductor Jordi Savall — and my choice for recording of the year — provides a revelatory survey of the Borgia Dynasty in music from its multicultural origins in medieval Muslim Valencia through 16th century Italy. No, we didn’t invent world music a few years ago.

Another beautiful book/CD set is a special edition of the classic ECM recording that introduced the world to Arvo Pärt a quarter-century ago. The “Tabula Rasa” CD now comes attached to an elegant reproduction of the Estonian composer’s manuscript, along with essays and artful photographs of violinist Gidon Kremer, who spearheaded the Pärt phenomenon. Also included is the incandescent 1983 performance of “Fratres” with Kremer and pianist Keith Jarrett.

Pierre Boulez has had a busy year. In March he spent his 85th birthday with the Vienna Symphony conducting the Third Symphony by Karol Szymanowski, an early 20th century Polish composer with a mystical bent. A Deutsche Grammophon recording of that illuminating performance as well as of Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto have been colorfully packaged along with a bonus disc of Boulez discussing the works (this is runner-up to recording of the year).


The Boulez bonanza hardly stops there. He has two wonderful new recordings (also DG) with the Cleveland Orchestra — Ravel’s Piano Concertos (featuring Pierre-Laurent Aimard) and a Mahler disc of the “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” song cycle (Magdalena Kozená and Christian Gerhaher, the singers) along with a visionary performance of the Adagio from the Tenth Symphony. Why not make it a brainy Boulez Christmas, capped off by the enlightening Boulez documentary “Inheriting the Future of Music” now out on DVD (EuroArts)?

DG has given another legendary conductor his due by releasing all the recordings and videos that the late Carlos Kleiber made for the label in the ‘70s and ‘80s in a 12-CD set and a 10-DVD set, both budget-priced. Kleiber was said to have been a little off his rocker and limited his conducting and recording. But every performance was special. On the podium, every pore of skin seemed consumed by the music.

His Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart and Schubert symphonies are urgent statements, and the operas (whether Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” or Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus”) contain life-giving powers. For further seasonal enticement, a pair of incomparable Vienna Philharmonic New Year’s concerts are on video, and different performances of “Fledermaus” are documented on CD and DVD.

The dramatically compelling soprano Shirley Verrett died this month at 79, and there is no better way to remember her than with her first Met “Tosca,” now out on DVD (Decca). Turn the calendar back to 1978. A zestful, puppy-like Luciano Pavarotti is Cavaradossi at the top of his game. Bass Tito Gobbi, who sang “Tosca” often with Maria Callas, directs the gripping production. James Conlon, 28 and not looking a day older, conducts as though he is having the time of his life.

The bonus features are a treat, especially the 10 minutes of Pavarotti, Verrett and Conlon rehearsing at the piano. But in the rehearsal studio, Pavarotti is clearly white and Verrett black. On the video, originally broadcast on television, he has been given dark makeup and she has her skin lightened.

The first of this year’s two most magical CD opera sets is Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” (Harmonia Mundi) from the idiosyncratic conductor René Jacobs. His Mozart sparkles a little different than any other, thanks to his love for tangy period instrument sound, his ability to find the freshest possible voices and his oddly arresting way with a phrase.

Valery Gergiev, that most soulful of Russians, has finally recorded Wagner’s “Parsifal” in a live performance at his Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg on the company’s own label. Another René adds much to this burningly spiritual and deeply expressive performance — that is bass René Pape, who sings Gurnemanz.

Chopin and Schumann, born 200 years ago, have gotten plenty of anniversary attention this year, but it has taken Claudio Abbado to come to Giovanni Pergolesi’s rescue. The Italian Baroque composer, born in 1710, was a sweet sensualist, and that is just what comes through in Abbado’s three-disc “Pergolesi Collection” (Archiv) with the Orchestra Mozart.


In fact, there is nothing quite like the happy-days-are-here-again of the Italian Baroque to dispel holiday blues. The young British trumpeter Alison Balsom knocks off high notes like they were going out of style in “Italian Concertos” (EMI Classics).

Next year, we turn to Liszt (born 1811), and a whiz-bang performance of the Piano Concerto No. 2 with soloist Yefim Bronfman should get you in the mood. That is found on a Vienna Philharmonic CD (DG). Although recorded at an outdoor summer concert in Vienna last summer, the program might just as easily have been a New Year’s special, given that Franz Welser-Möst conducts Viennese waltzes and gives the Sacher Tort treatment to the main title from “Star Wars.”

Speaking of the Austrian capital, Lang Lang’s recital at the Musikverein, Vienna’s famed concert hall, will undoubtedly be asked for by the Chinese pianist’s fans. Sony Classical has put it out in various flavors, plain and deluxe CD sets and plain and deluxe DVD sets (including a Blu-ray DVD with 3-D). Go with the basic vanilla CD. Lang Lang’s better to listen to than watch (believe me, you’ll tire of the video). His Beethoven is lively, Prokofiev brilliant and Chopin a bit over the top.

Two 20th century American composers, Lou Harrison and Virgil Thomson, don’t get their due these days, so two major new recordings of their works matter, and both should have wide appeal. Harrison’s “Scenes From Cavafy” (New World Records) contains three bell-besotted pieces written for an Indonesian gamelan orchestra but given a West Coast lyrical twist. “Three Pictures” (BMOP Sound) features the Boston Modern Orchestra Project in a variety of Thomson scores from the ‘50s and ‘60s that sound simple, in his Franco-American way, but are not.


The Minimalists don’t think small. Steve Reich’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Double Sextet for the ensemble eighth blackbird joins his “2X5" for Bang on a Can on a pulsating new Nonesuch CD. The European premiere in April of Philip Glass’ latest violin concerto, “The American Four Seasons,” can be heard on a gorgeous live recording with violinist Robert McDuffie backed by the London Philharmonic under Marin Alsop.

The British Minimalist Michael Nyman is the subject of an illuminating documentary that is part of a two-DVD Arthaus-Musik set. The second disc contains a terrific live concert by the Michael Nyman band recorded in Halle, Germany, Handel’s hometown. Come December, the month of “The Messiah,” you may be in need of a strong Handel antidote. If so, Professor Nyman’s got the cure. His concert includes the German premiere of his raucous Handel tribute, “The Musicologist Scores.”