Recordings of the Year 2021
Click on the cover image to read the full review.
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.
Beethoven Diabelli Variations - Mitsuko Uchida (piano) rec. 2021
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
One of the greatest masterpieces of our century gets the recording it
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
(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”.
(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.
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.
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.
Grande messe des morts - Coro Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia,
Concertgebouw Orkest/Sir Antonio Pappano rec. 2019 RCO LIVE
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
Cassanéa de Mondonville Titon et L’Aurore - Reinoud
van Mechelen (tenor), Gwendoline Blondeel (soprano), Les Arts
Florissants/William Christie Stage rec. 2021 NAXOS
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.
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.
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.
Grande messe des morts - Coro Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia,
Concertgebouw Orkest/Sir Antonio Pappano rec. 2019 RCO LIVE
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.
Pelléas et Mélisande - Vannina Santoni (soprano), Julien Behr
(tenor), Chorus Opéra de Lille, Les Siècles/François-Xavier Roth rec.
2021 HARMONIA MUNDI
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
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.
Williams Earth’s Wide Bounds - Chapel Choir of the
Royal Hospital Chelsea/William Vann rec. 2020/21 ALBION RECORDS
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.
Requiem Herbert Howells Anthems - Choir of Merton College,
Oxford Oxford Contemporary Sinfonia/Benjamin Nicholas (organ) rec. 2021
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
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
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.
Música Temprana/Adrián Rodriguez van der Spoel rec. 2020
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.
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
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.
(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.
Piano Works - John Lenehan (piano) rec. DUTTON EPOCH CDLX7401
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.
Quartet Complete Columbia Recordings rec. 1927-28
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.
(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
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
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.
Katharina Konradi (soprano) Trio Gaspard rec. 2021 CHANDOS
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
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.
Early and Late Piano Pieces - Steven Osborne (piano) rec. 2021
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.