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Best Classical CDs: Music Crossing Boundaries

Just as the 2008 presidential election exposed and ultimately crossed gender, racial and generational barriers, many of the year's notable recordings explored and wrestled with different kinds of boundaries — some musical, some cultural, and some almost unimaginable if not for the power of music.

Click here for more entries in the Best CDs of 2008 series.

Brandenburg Concerto No. 5

The present-day ubiquity of these six pieces by J.S. Bach in no way diminishes their revolutionary impact in redefining the hierarchy of instruments. The emergence, literally, of the harpsichord -- from its workmanlike basso continuo role into the spotlight of virtuosity in the Concerto No. 5 -- is demonstrated with supreme warmth and clarity in Trevor Pinnock's collaboration with a handpicked ensemble, one of many such moments in this new recording.

Concertino for Jazz Quartet & Orchestra

Gunther Schuller breached a different kind of musical barrier in the late 1950s, bringing together the aesthetics of jazz and classical traditions. Third Stream music was the result, and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project has teamed up with a jazz quartet that includes Schuller's sons (Edwin and George) for an electrifying new recording of three landmark pieces.

O'Connor: Piano Trio No. 1 - I

The Eroica Trio's newest recording, its first with violinist Susie Park, crosses yet another musical boundary with the premiere recording of Mark O'Connor's homage to singer/songwriter/cultural icon Johnny Cash: the Piano Trio No. 1, "Poets and Prophets," featuring O'Connor's trademark deft weaving together of classical textures and the earthy drive of roots music.

Sonate en etat de jazz: IV - Provocation de samba

Alexis Weissenberg, one of the great concert pianists of the last century, had his own way of exploring the cross-fertilization of jazz and classical forms, perhaps shown most clearly in his Sonate en état de jazz (Sonata in a State of Jazz). Marc-André Hamelin, whose playing always exhibits dynamism, grace, humor and, not least, technique to burn, borrowed that title for a recording that rips stylishly through jazz-influenced music by Weissenberg, Gulda, Kapustin and Antheil.

Francisco Javier: O Gloriosa

Catalonian gambist and scholar Jordi Savall has made a habit of venturing into the nether regions of early music. Inspired by the 16th-century missionary Francisco Javier, Savall combines two of his ensembles -- the instrumental Hespèrion XXI and the vocal La Capella Reial de Catalunya -- with guest soloists on Asian instruments to imagine the sounds that would have occurred along the route from Spain, through Africa and India, and on to Japan and China, supported by exhaustive and beautifully presented text.

The Cusp of Magic: IV

Terry Riley begins with something like a contemporary take on similar East-West combinations, writing that "the pipa and the Western string quartet highlight the boundary regions of cultural reference," and that his "plan was to make these regions seamless so that the listener is carried between worlds without an awareness of how he/she ends up there."

A Flowering Tree

John Adams also finds inspiration by looking east, but the result is quite different. For A Flowering Tree, based on an Indian folk story, the composer tells a story of love and transformation. Rather than attempting a musical hybridization, Adams relies entirely on his own imaginative musical language. That the result is so convincing demonstrates how powerful that language is.

Vigilate, motet for 5 voices

Very real political and religious divisions and boundaries were central to the music written by Thomas Tallis and William Byrd at the time of the English Reformation. Stile Antico shows how the seemingly simple programming idea of alternating Psalm-tunes by Tallis and motets by Byrd can vibrantly illuminate the cultural arena that birthed two vastly different approaches to the expression of devotion. (In this example, Byrd's "Vigilate" is preceded by Tallis's Third Tune.)

Symphony No. 4: III, excerpt

Nineteen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it becomes increasingly difficult to imagine the boundaries, both explicitly stated and psychologically imposed, created by the Soviet state. This performance of Shostakovich's wrenching Fourth Symphony not only brings out the best in a great orchestra, but also supports a fascinating video presentation (included on a bonus DVD) that hauntingly communicates the insidious nature of Soviet power and its effect on art.

Beryozkele, from Three Yiddish Songs, Op. 53

Equally unfathomable are the boundaries placed on the prisoners confined to Theresienstadt, and Anne Sofie von Otter's personal connection to the story -- her father was a Swedish diplomat who attempted unsuccessfully to alert the world to the horrors of Nazi concentration camps -- adds compelling weight to her traversal of music written by those prisoners. Heartbreaking music, yes, but also consolingly transcendent.

Copyright 2008 GBH

Brian McCreath