Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Top Ten Discs for 2019

Welcome to my fifth Top Ten Discs post for Music for Several Instruments.
Here are the lists from last year, 2017, 2016, and the one from 2015.

Grief and consolation and branding

The Alinde Quartett perform Mendelssohn's final quartet, a dark portrait of raw grief over the death of his sister Fanny. To change things up, they looked for "a light-hearted contrast", and came up with some lovely, clear and bright Fantasies that Purcell wrote originally for a consort of viols. Hence the title of the album: "Lichtwechsel" = "Change of Light". This is by no means light as in cheerful or happy-go-lucky, but more the civilized Enlightenment that is best expressed in music from Purcell to Haydn.

Into the abyss

The Allan Pettersson Dream Team, Christian Lindberg and the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra, with violinist Ulf Wallin in a completely convincing performance of the controversial 2nd Violin Concerto. The unfinished 17th Symphony, the last music Pettersson wrote before his death, is as moving here as the Lacrimosa from Mozart's Requiem or the unfinished final music of Bach's Art of the Fugue.

Woke Rameau

"I like people," said Voltaire, speaking about Jean-Philippe Rameau, "who know when to drop the sublime in order to banter." Gyorgy Vashegyi's Budapest-based Purcell Choir and Orfeo Orchestra continue their superb string of recordings for Glossa with this superb release, with its tone perfectly calibrated. Great choral and solo singing, led by soprano Chantal Santon-Jeffery, contributes to a boisterous experience.

The International Style in 18th Century Music

Simon Murphy's latest theme album with the New Dutch Academy tells the story of 18th century musicians as if they were from the mid-20th century Golden Age of Travel: "classical glitterati" going to the musical capitals of Europe to show off their wares. This is such clever presentation, but it's about more than glitz and glamour; these are very fine performances of music by Abel, Reichardt, Zelter, Mozart, Storace and Paisiello.

Another winner from the Emerald City

Richard Strauss's Alpine Symphony and the Prelude to Rued Langgaard's Antichrist are both full of completely, ravishingly, beautiful music, and both are ravishingly played by the Seattle Symphony under Thomas Dausgaard. This is music that plays to the strengths of the Seattle Symphony: rich and powerful brass, sumptuous strings, lithe and subtle woodwinds, everything ready for Dausgaard to put together into a rich orchestral tapestry.

Handel's Transcendent Realism

Handel's oratorio is one of a number written in the 18th century based on Barthold Heinrich Brockes's controversial, even lurid, libretto. This performance by the Academy of Ancient Music, under Richard Egarr, is intensely emotional and darkly coloured by pain and suffering. Watch for this release to show up in lots of Best Of 2019 lists and awards. It's my top album this year.

Beethoven for the Big Year

Igor Levit's complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas are full-blown masterpieces of the art of performance and recording. This is a stunning set from Sony, setting us up in the best way possible for the big celebrations - for Beethoven's 250th Birthday - next year.

A spiritual performance without sentimentality

Following an outstanding recording of the Missa Solemnis, Masaaki Suzuki gives us a transcendent Beethoven Ninth Symphony, with spirited playing and singing from the Bach Collegium Japan and a quartet of very fine singers.

São Paulo's Villa-Lobos recording revolution

A very welcome disc in Naxos's new series The Music of Brazil takes on the first of Villa-Lobos's commissioned concertos from the last decade of his life, along with some important chamber works. Manuel Barrueco is superb in the Guitar Concerto, and José Staneck is very fine in the Harmonica Concerto. I was especially impressed, though, with two chamber works: the Sexteto Mistico from Villa's modernist period, and the late Quinteto Instrumental, a lovely exercise in nostalgie for the Paris of Villa's earlier years.

Fresh chansons from another world

The chansons of Johannes Ockeghem, written in the second half of the 15th century, sound so fresh and new in this marvellous release from Scott Metcalfe and Blue Heron that the intervening centuries feel like some sort of illusion. This recording is part of Blue Heron's project Ockeghem@600, a multi-year project to perform the complete works of this great composer. It will be complete in 2021, around the time of the 600th anniversary of Ockeghem's birth.

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