LONDON (Reuters) - It's probably too late now to order a classical music CD or DVD for Christmas, but why not take the New Year as a cue to freshen up your musical tastes? Here are some recent releases guaranteed to broaden your horizons.
1. So you think nobody needs to hear another recording of Ravel's "Pavane pour une infante defunte" ("Pavane for a Dead Princess")? Think again. Orchestre de Chambre de Paris, with violinist Thomas Zehetmair playing and conducting (Naive V5345), takes you into the music in such microscopic detail that you feel you're almost inside the instruments. The glorious playing and luminous sound extend to Ravel's equally overplayed "Le Tombeau de Couperin" ("Couperin's Tomb") which sounds as fresh as when it was first performed. Another marvel is the harp playing of Emmanuel Ceysson on Debussy's "Danses Sacree et Profane", plus soloist Zehetmair giving his all in Ravel's "Tzigane" - inspired by Romanian and Hungarian gypsy music heard in Paris during the composer's lifetime.
2. Missed/horrified by/ignorant of the recording of the world's last castrato soprano, Alessandro Moreschi, made in 1902 and available for listening on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=slhhg8sI6Ds)? Fear not, the growth in interest for "historically informed performance" not only made it necessary to bring the tuba's precursor, the ophicleide, out of retirement, but also required someone - and, for authenticity's sake, not female sopranos - to tackle the music the castrati left behind. We are in the age of the countertenor, men who have trained their falsetto to sing powerfully and with full control right into the soprano range - as well as below it. New Zealand's David Hansen is at the top of his game on "Rivals" (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 88883744012). The name comes from the practice in the 18th century, the heyday of the castrati, of casting two of them in different roles in the same opera and letting them slug it out in song. Hansen provides world premiere recordings of eight arias in the nine tracks here. Five are by Leonardo Vinci, who did not have a "da" between his first and last name but did have plenty of musical talent. The distinctly male voice probing a range where you expect to hear Renee Fleming may sound odd at first, but the musicality wins the day.
3. The general take on the late Ukrainian-born pianist Vladimir Horowitz was that, if the devil had played the piano, he would have lost the Tchaikovsky competition to the Jewish virtuoso from Kiev. Horowitz appeared for the first time at New York's Carnegie Hall in 1928 at age 24, and played his last recital there about a decade before his death in 1989. Sony has released all of his Carnegie Hall recitals in a sumptuous collection of 41 CDs and DVDs in a box shaped like the building itself. To know what the fuss is about for less, there is a two-CD highlights album, "Great Moments - Horowitz Live at Carnegie Hall" (Sony 88883768602). It includes the prelude from Bach's "Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C major" (BWV 564) that rivals organ versions for sheer physical power, as well as Horowitz's own "Variations on a Theme from Bizet's 'Carmen'".A rousing John Philip Sousa number, "The Stars and Stripes Forever", may make even non-Americans stand to attention.
4. If Horowitz represented the pinnacle of the 19th-century piano virtuoso pioneered by Franz Liszt, then Chinese keyboard wizard Lang Lang is the new model pianist. Lots of ink has been spilled in the debate over whether he is just a pyrotechnician or there is a deep musical sensibility underneath. That debate can be continued after everyone has heard Lang Lang and British conductor Simon Rattle at the helm of the Berlin Philharmonic playing Prokofiev's raucous Concerto No. 3 and Bartok's more introspective and nuanced Concerto No. 2. No one will go away from these madcap renditions without wondering how they pulled it off - though for those who can't believe their ears, there is a DVD of rehearsals (Sony 88883732262).
5. Everyone loves Mozart, his music supposedly makes babies smarter in the womb and no holiday list would be complete without him. But with so much out there, where to begin? A good starting place for collectors and novices alike would be Mozart's six concertos for violin, as recorded by the German-Japanese violinist Mirijam Contzen and the Bavarian Chamber Philharmonic of Augsburg under the baton of Reinhard Goebel (OEHMS Classics OC 862). Mozart first trotted around Europe as a violin prodigy before he had turned 10, and his affinity for the instrument shines through in these youthful works. Contzen gives them her considerable all and the playing of the ensemble is delightfully nuanced. There is enough variety to suit all tastes, but a particular favorite is the last movement of the Concerto in G major (KV 216), which suddenly breaks stride for a playful interlude that sounds like a folk dance injected in the middle of a formal rondeau. Fascinating, and makes you wonder what more Mozart would have done had he not died at age 35.
6. Back to Ravel for a gem of a DVD from Glyndebourne's 2012 season of the composer's two short operas, "L'Heure Espagnole" (The Spanish Hour) and "L'enfant et les sortileges" (The Child and the Spells), both in new productions by the French director Laurent Pelly (FRA Musica FRA008). The Spanish-influenced piece is an early work that compares a wound-up clock mechanism to the erotic compulsions of humans. In the second, Ravel masterfully brings to life the French writer Colette's cracked fairytale in which a boy, sung here by French soprano Khatouna Gadelia, throws a tantrum in his room, breaks the crockery and tears the wallpaper. The distressed objects come alive and taunt him. It gets very weird and dark, like a story by Maurice Sendak or Roald Dahl, which is why it's so good. Not to be missed: the chastened lad singing out "Mama" at the end, and the singing trees bowing for the curtain call.
(Michael Roddy is the arts and lifestyle editor for Reuters in Europe. The views expressed are his own)
(Editing by Kevin Liffey)