MUSICWEB INTERNATIONAL Recordings of the Year 2021

Click on the cover image to read the full review.

Front Page Reviewers M-Z Reviewers A-L
David McDade

Nikolai Medtner Complete Piano Music Vol. 1 Forgotten Melodies - Thomas Ang (piano) rec. 2022 Private release

Some recordings have no need of detailed explanations - they just give pleasure. In its quiet, murmurous way, this is what this first volume of a projected Medtner series does most amply.

Ludwig van Beethoven Diabelli Variations - Mitsuko Uchida (piano) rec. 2021 DECCA 4852731

This recording exudes the kind of authority that broaches no alternative. While listening to the fruits of Uchida’s experience, it is as if comparisons to other recordings become irrelevant. Magisterial.

John Luther Adams Sila: the Breath of the World The Crossing, JACK Quartet, University of Michigan Percussion Ensemble rec. 2021 CANTALOUPE CA21177

One of the greatest masterpieces of our century gets the recording it deserves. Essential.

Maya Fridman & Maarten van Veen Nuït - Maya Fridman (cello), Maarten van Veen (piano) rec. 2021 TRPTK TTK0081 SACD

More than a curiosity, this rare example of improvisation in classical music blazes with a visionary spontaneity that is quite exhilarating.

Johann Sebastian Bach The Well-Tempered Clavier Book One - Schaghajegh Nosrati (piano) rec. 2021 AVI-MUSIC 8553509

One of the most consistently stimulating and satisfying traversals of an entire book of the Old Testament of keyboard music in many years. This puts Nosrati amongst the best of Bach pianists.

I, A.M. Olivia de Prato (violin) Pamelia Stickney (theremin) Zosha Di Castri (piano) rec. 2020-22 NEW WORLD RECORDS NW80838

In a strong year for contemporary classical, this one (the A.M. stands for Artist Mother) stood out – fierce, brilliant, magnetic.

Rob Maynard

Whether on Blu-ray/DVD or CD, this has been a relatively poor year for new releases - or even re-releases - of classical ballet, which is the genre in which I tend to specialise. I was, therefore, struggling to come up with a respectable tally of Recordings of the Year until the welcome arrival in the autumn of a couple of big box sets of conductor-centred orchestral repertoire. Both were actually reviewed by my colleague Jonathan Woolf, but their outstanding quality means that I have had no hesitation whatsoever in adding them to my own list.

Léo Delibes/Ludwig Minkus La source - Ludmila Pagliero, Karl Paquette, Corps de ballet & Opéra Orchestra of the Paris Opéra/Koen Kessels rec. 2011 NAXOS Blu-ray NBD0145V

The ballet La source, jointly composed by Minkus and Delibes, is hardly ever staged, so this well filmed Paris Opera Ballet performance is a very welcome release on both Blu-ray and DVD. The production itself has one or two odd features that may disconcert a few arch-traditionalists, but the choreography is winning and its execution by the Paris dancers is first-rate. It’s unlikely that we will see the piece staged elsewhere any time soon, so this will be a necessary purchase for fans of classical ballet.

César Franck Complete Orchestral Works - Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège rec. 2009-21 FUGA LIBERA FUG791

The year 2022 marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of César Franck. His orchestral music is not so often heard these days, so this comprehensive collection of performances from his home-town orchestra is quite timely. It would, however, have proved very welcome at any date for the Liège players not only play very well but also deliver the scores idiomatically and with real conviction. This box set usefully and enjoyably reminds us that there is plenty of pleasurable listening to be explored beyond the D minor symphony.

Tilman Sillescu Symphony no. 1 - Staatskapelle Weimar/Christian K. Frank rec. 2019/21 GENUIN GEN22788

I am not usually a fan of contemporary scores but responded to my colleague Christopher Little’s appeal to readers to give this release a chance. I am so pleased that I did. Sillescu’s listener-friendly first symphony dates from as recently as 2020 and, while Christopher rightly detects occasional hints of Mahler and Shostakovich, it exhibits a great deal of originality too. If some admirers of modern music may prefer something a little more acerbically challenging, plenty of others will, I suspect, find that Nachtlichter offers an intriguing and, perhaps, surprisingly attractive listening experience.

Paul Paray (conductor) The Mercury Masters, Volume 1: 1953-1957 Detroit Symphony Orchestra ELOQUENCE 4842318

Paul Paray was something of a house conductor for the nascent Mercury Records in the 1950s and 1960s. His contributions to the big Mercury boxes (in reality, pretty hefty cubes!) that appeared a few years back were memorable for a degree of energy and drive that frequently brings Toscanini to mind. This new box, the first of two devoted solely to Paray’s recordings, focusses mainly on his mono legacy and uncovers a hugely impressive body of work. My colleague Jonathan Woolf rightly urged readers to “grab it while it’s still around”.

Paul Paray (conductor) The Mercury Masters, Volume 2: 1958-1962 Detroit Symphony Orchestra ELOQUENCE 48432318

Jonathan’s verdict on the second Paul Paray Mercury Masters box was that it was “a splendid treasury of recordings… [and] a fitting companion to volume 1”. Focussing on the conductor’s later stereo recordings, it further demonstrates the vitality and drive characteristic of Paray’s interpretations. It showcases, moreover, his talent as an orchestra-builder. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra may never have reached “Big Five” status but repeatedly rises to the occasion and meets the exacting challenges that Paray sets. This box and its companion release offer further confirmation that the 1950s and 1960s were a real golden age for American orchestras.

Ralph Moore

Once again, as far as my own specialist area of vocal and operatic music goes, apart from some welcome XR remastering of vintage classic recordings by Pristine into Ambient Stereo, there have been lean pickings as the dearth of big voices continues. I thoroughly enjoyed two Schubert recitals of the same song cycle but in different languages: Gerald Finley’s Die schöne Müllerin on Hyperion and Nicky Spence’s singing of Jeremy Sams’ excellent English translation as The Fair Maid of the Mill on Signum Classics – but there are already so many good versions of that music that they had to give way, leaving me with only one choral recording: Pappano’s new account of Berlioz’ Requiem.

The other area - not of expertise but at least enthusiasm - which I seem to have acquired by default or accident is the music of Bruckner and with his bicentenary approaching the flood of first-class recordings, especially from Austria, Germany and – interestingly – Japan continues unabated, with conductors such as Gerd Schaller and Markus Poschner both recording complete editions of the symphonies with impressive results. Having been unprecedentedly uncomplimentary about Poschner’s Third Symphony, I am pleased to make amends by including his Fourth here. Japanese conductors, too, such as Tatsuo Shimono have been consistently producing first-rate accounts of the symphonies but I have omitted those issues as often being awkward or impossible to obtain outside of Japan.

I have included two recordings from John Wilson and his Sinfonia of London; they seem incapable of producing anything other than superlative music-making and everything I hear from them is an immediate first choice.

Finally, my personal, overall first choice for ‘Record of the Year’ must be Manfred Honeck’s recording of Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 coupled with James Macmillan’s Larghetto. It deservedly garnered a host of laudatory reviews, linked below.

Johannes Brahms Symphony 4 Sir James MacMillan Larghetto - Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Manfred Honeck rec. 2017/18 REFERENCE RECORDINGS FR-744 SACD

No fewer than four MusicWeb reviewers – including me - concurred that this is something special and I refer you to the four reviews for a collective encomium of its manifold merits. Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh rarely produce anything less.

Hector Berlioz Grande messe des morts - Coro Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Concertgebouw Orkest/Sir Antonio Pappano rec. 2019 RCO LIVE RCO19006 SACD

Both our reviewers waxed lyrical about this blockbuster and I agreed with them sufficient to make it my top recommendation in the survey I made of twenty-one stereo recordings. In terms of sound, scale and delivery it is close to perfect.

Anton Bruckner Symphony 4 - Philharmonie Festiva/Gerd Schaller rec. 2021 PROFIL PH22010

Two recordings of the “same” symphony which aren’t, as one is of the original version and the other the version most often played today accompanied by the discarded earlier ‘Volksfest’ finale.Any Bruckner devotee will find these essential to their collection as they are played to the highest standard of performance and benefit from the latest scholarship.

Anton Bruckner Symphony 4, Volksfest- Bruckner Orchestra Linz, ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra/Markus Poschner rec. 2021 CAPRICCIO C8083

I am confirmed in my advocacy of Poschner’s recording by the hatchet job done on it by the “Executive Editor” of Classics Today, as in my experience, his taste is the perfect inverse barometer of excellence, often diametrically opposed to my own.

Richard Strauss Metamorphosen Franz Schreker Intermezzo Erich Wolfgang Korngold Symphonische Serenade - Sinfonia of London/John Wilson rec. 2021 CHANDOS CHSA5292 SACD

As per my introduction above, my final two recordings are both from John Wilson and the Sinfonia of London on the Chandos label and in unimpeachable sound. I find that I am not alone in my admiration for the sumptuousness and homogeneity of the orchestral playing here in consort with Wilson’s perfect judgement of pace, phrasing and shaping; both of their recordings of two of my favourite symphonic poems go straight to the top of my list of “most recommended”. Both Simon Thomson and I reached for superlatives to extol the Metamorphosen disc, enjoying its pairings almost as much as the main work.

Sergei Rachmaninov The Isle of the Dead, Vocalise, Symphony 3 - Sinfonia of London/John Wilson rec. 2021 CHANDOS CHSA5297 SACD

The Isle of the Dead on the second disc is ideally paired with the almost over-recorded Vocalise and by contrast, Rachmaninov’s Third Symphony, a work sometimes considered problematic and which has not received that many first-rate recordings – which it does here.

Mike Parr

This past year produced several releases that struck me as worthy of accolades. All of these are well worth investing the time and money to acquire for one’s collection. Three of my four suggestions were chosen as Recordings of the Month over this past year.

Giuseppe Verdi Falstaff - Nicola Alaimo (bass-baritone), Simone Piazzola (baritone), Orchestra and Chorus of Maggio Musicale Fiorentino/Sir John Eliot Gardiner rec. 2021 DYNAMIC 57951 Blu-ray

This is a highly engaging account of Verdi’s final opera which becomes the top recommendation on home video for the almost perfect cast and a joyous production.

Jean-Philippe Rameau Achante et Céphise - Sabine Devieilhe (soprano), Cyrille Dubois (tenor), Les Chantres du Centre de musique baroque de Versailles, Les Ambassadeurs ~ La Grande Écurie/Alexis Kossenko rec. 2020 ERATO 9029669394

Rameau’s pastoral opera received its very first recording with a very strong cast and excellent production standards. What more could one ask?

Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de Mondonville Titon et L’Aurore - Reinoud van Mechelen (tenor), Gwendoline Blondeel (soprano), Les Arts Florissants/William Christie Stage rec. 2021 NAXOS NBD0131V Blu-ray

The Naxos Blu-ray release of this charming bucolic enterprise is superb in every way. The production is enchanting and inventive and the magnificent solo performances under conductor William Christie lead one to wonder why it took so long for this wonderful work to be staged.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Mitridate, Re di Ponto - Michael Spyres (tenor), Julie Fuchs (soprano), Sabine Devielhe (soprano), Les Musiciens du Louvre/Marc Minkowski rec. 2020 ERATO 9029661757

When I first reviewed this awe inspiring set I stated “this is probably the most successful recording of Mozart’s opera we will ever see on disc; there is no doubt in my mind that it is the most exciting by a long stretch.” My admiration for the achievement of Minkowski and his resplendent cast has only deepened with time. This is my top choice for a recording of the year.

John Quinn

The pressure of commitments outside MusicWeb has seriously impacted my reviewing time this year and I’ve not been able to review anywhere near as many discs as usual. However, a number of very fine releases have come my way and it’s been as difficult as usual to whittle the short list down to a mere six nominations.  Reluctantly, I discounted two outstanding sets because they are reissues: Mark Wigglesworth’s distinguished Shostakovich symphony cycle on BIS, and DG’s reissue of Herbert von Karajan’s Sibelius recordings, which includes a BD-A option. Other releases which missed the cut by the narrowest of margins were Iestyn Davies’ Bach Cantatas disc (Hyperion); Gerald Finley’s searching Die schöne Müllerin (also Hyperion); and Roderick Williams singing English songs in his own orchestrations (on the Hallé’s own label). Here, in alphabetical order, are my selections; if you hear them, I hope you’ll find them as rewarding and exciting as I did.

Hector Berlioz Grande messe des morts - Coro Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Concertgebouw Orkest/Sir Antonio Pappano rec. 2019 RCO LIVE RCO19006 SACD

A live recording of this gaunt, grand masterpiece which is superb in every way. Pappano’s conception of the work is masterly and the engineers have captured the choir and orchestra thrillingly. This is the best version of this towering work that I have heard in years.

Claude Debussy Pelléas et Mélisande - Vannina Santoni (soprano), Julien Behr (tenor), Chorus Opéra de Lille, Les Siècles/François-Xavier Roth rec. 2021 HARMONIA MUNDI HMM905352.54

An utterly absorbing account of Debussy’s masterpiece. The singing is very fine, while the playing of Les Siècles is magnificent, revealing afresh the fascinating colours and innumerable nuances of Debussy’s score. This performance is a compelling experience, captured in exemplary sound.

Franz Schubert Symphonies 8 & 9 - Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Herbert Blomstedt rec. 2021 DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 4863045

Herbert Blomstedt takes two familiar, much-loved symphonies and gives both of them fresh, wise readings. His conducting is full of vitality and engagement with the music. The sheer beauty of sound of the orchestra is a pleasure in itself, and in addition the players are marvellously responsive to all the nuances of the scores. The performances have been captured in first-rate sound.

Ralph Vaughan Williams Earth’s Wide Bounds - Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea/William Vann rec. 2020/21 ALBION RECORDS ALBCD051

How could I not include a VW disc in this, his 150th anniversary year? The record industry has celebrated this great composer in style, and Albion Records have been to the fore. Here, William Vann leads his excellent choir of professional singers in a marvellous programme that blends the familiar and the unfamiliar.

Ian Venables Requiem Herbert Howells Anthems - Choir of Merton College, Oxford Oxford Contemporary Sinfonia/Benjamin Nicholas (organ) rec. 2021 DELPHIAN DCD34252

Venables’ Requiem is a wonderful work. This is the first recording of it in its new orchestral version. The music is very eloquent and Benjamin Nicholas leads a compelling performance of it. The other works on the disc are equally well served. This is an outstanding disc in every respect.

The Mysterious Motet Book of 1539 Siglo De Oro/Patrick Allies rec. 2022 DELPHIAN DCD34284

A revelatory disc of long-neglected music and with a fascinating back story. As I said in my original review, this is an outstanding release which seamlessly combines top-class musicianship with the results of dedicated scholarship. Allies and his first-class choir make the music leap off the page. Plaudits too for Delphian’s excellent documentation and recorded sound.

Johan van Veen

Psalmen & Lobgesänge David Erler (alto) L'arpa festante/Rien Voskuilen 2020 CHRISTOPHORUS CHR77453

A nice collection of little-known sacred works from 17th-century Germany, which have found their ideal interpreter in David Erler and l'arpa festante. Erler's singing and the way he treats the text do full justice to what this music is about, both musically and spiritually.

The Myth of Venice Gawain Glenton (cornett) Silas Wollston (virginal, organ) rec. 2021 DELPHIAN DCD34261

The programme performed by Gawain Glenton and Silas Wollston is a fine demonstration of the brilliance of Venetian music. The playing is also nothing less than brilliant. One won't often hear such excellent cornett playing as here from Glenton. He produces a beautiful tone, without any hint of stress, and the intonation is immaculate.

Melancolía Música Temprana/Adrián Rodriguez van der Spoel rec. 2020 PENTATONE PTC5186294

This disc has it all: a concept that makes much sense and that is convincingly worked out, a programme of beautiful songs that is different from what is usually performed, and interpretations that are technically and musically of the highest quality.

Barbara Strozzi Vago Desio - Elissa Edwards (soprano) Richard Kolb (theorbo, archlute) rec. 2018 ACIS APL90277

One of the best recordings of Strozzi's music that I have heard in a long time. Elissa Edwards is an early music specialist, who has studied the importance of gestures in Italian music of the 17th and 18th centuries. This undoubtedly will have given her a good idea of how vocal music of a dramatic nature, as is Strozzi's oeuvre, has to be performed in such a manner that the text and the affetti are communicated to an audience.

Andreas Pevernage The Musical Universe of Andreas Pevernage - Utopia rec. 2020 RAMÉE RAM2006

Pevernage is not an unknown quantity, but is generally considered what scholars use to call a Kleinmeister. He does not deserve such a derogatory description. What we get here is very fine music, and that goes for all three genres that are represented. Utopia delivers superb performances.

Mirabilia Musica La Morra rec. 2020, St. Leodegar, Möhlin, Switzerland RAMÉE RAM2008

This disc offers a most fascinating survey of what was written and performed in late medieval Cracow and the Polish music scene at large. It is very interesting to note the different composition techniques and styles which were in vogue. I can't imagine better performances than we get here from La Morra. Four outstanding singers are the pillar of this recording, and produce exciting performances of the vocal music.

Jonathan Woolf

Frederick Stock (conductor) Chicago Symphony Vol. 1 rec. 1916-26 PRISTINE AUDIO PASC657 

Though I didn’t review this disc, I have heard it and admired it. It reveals two things graphically; firstly, that Frederick Stock adapted to the contingencies of acoustic recording as well as any of his contemporaries – and better than most – and second that the Chicago Symphony was already a formidable recording group by 1917. The repertoire may be very light but the performances are outstanding.

Alec Rowley Piano Works - John Lenehan (piano) rec. DUTTON EPOCH CDLX7401 SACD

Alec Rowley’s piano music has lain largely undocumented on disc. No longer. John Lenehan has unearthed a sheaf of valuable, revealing works – revealing of Francophile affiliations, for one thing – that expand our knowledge of a composer known principally for his didactic works, and for his organ pieces. Take a chance – the performances are sparklingly fine and the works full of Pastoral and Impressionistic hues.

Musical Art Quartet Complete Columbia Recordings rec. 1927-28 BIDDULPH 85017-2

The Musical Art Quartet’s 1927-28 recordings contain some of the most refined and elegant quartet playing of the time, or any time; musicianship of generous eloquence controlled by a consistency of purpose. Its first violinist was Sascha Jacobsen, admired by no less a figure than Heifetz, and the quartet mirrored his own particular qualities to create a timeless and beautiful legacy.

Paul Paray (conductor) The Mercury Masters Vol. 1: 1953-1957 Detroit Symphony Orchestra ELOQUENCE 4842318

The first volume of this series documents Paul Paray’s time in Detroit from 1953-58 and therefore covers both mono and stereo recordings on 23 CDs. They were recorded by Mercury, full-on and impactful, and that certainly comes across in these transfers. The French repertoire is tremendous, there are three of the Schumann symphonies, from one of the best-ever cycles (the escapee is in the next volume) and much more besides. Be warned: once you start listening, you won’t stop.

Leslie Wright

While I did not review as many discs this year as sometimes in the past, there were four which for me are outstanding.  In addition to those, I also I found much to like in several others, including Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 2 with the Cleveland Orchestra under Welser-Möst on their own label, Florence Price’s Piano Concerto with Michelle Cann and the New York Youth Symphony (Avie), and Schulhoff’s early Piano Concerto and Concert Suite from Der Bürger als Edelmann (Hänssler).

Sofia Gubaidulina Dialog: Ich und Du, The Wrath of God, The Light of the End - Vadim Repin (violin, Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Andris Nelsons rec. 2019/21 DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 486 1457

Andris Nelsons’ recent discs with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra have often been disappointing. However, he struck gold with the release of premiere recordings of three of Gubaidulina’s later masterpieces on the occasion of her 90th birthday. Vadim Repin does the honours in the composer’s third violin concerto, Dialog: Ich und Du that shares the CD with two orchestral works. All of this music leaves a powerful impression in these terrific performances.

Russian Roots Katharina Konradi (soprano) Trio Gaspard rec. 2021 CHANDOS CHAN20245

This intelligently programmed disc with music from Beethoven to Lera Auerbach features soprano Katharina Konradi primarily in songs, some original and others arranged, for voice and piano trio. They are all superbly performed by Konradi and members of the Trio Gaspard. The CD also includes Shostakovich’s delightful First Piano Trio in an exceptional account.

Hans Abrahamsen Schnee - Lapland Chamber Orchestra/John Storgårds rec. 2020 DACAPO 6.220585 SACD

Hans Abrahamsen’s wintry Schnee, consisting of ten canons with three interludes, receives its second recording here. This performance is if anything superior to its predecessor, especially in its state-of-the-art SACD sound. A seminal work of the composer may take the listener several hearings to appreciate all its intricacies, but is definitely worth the effort.

Claude Debussy Early and Late Piano Pieces - Steven Osborne (piano) rec. 2021 HYPERION CDA68390

Of all the discs I reviewed this year, none has given me greater pleasure than this recital of early to late piano music by Claude Debussy. Steven Osborne has demonstrated his expertise in this composer’s music on previous recordings and does so again here. Some of the familiar works, such as the Suite bergamasque, sound newly minted and all are played with Osborne’s exquisite touch and adherence to the composer’s scores.

Front Page Reviewers M-Z Reviewers A-L