Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

2015's best in classical recordings


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A perennial problem with "Best of" pieces is that pesky business of gap CDs, issued too late to make the issuing year's "Best of" list. Example: Nicholas Harnoncourt's Mozart's Instrumental Oratorium: The Last Symphonies (Sony), which hauled itself out of my side of the Pacific as the kilobytes were still drying on my 2014 piece. Harnoncourt's point with the disc was that Mozart conceived his last three symphonies as a set, and, performed that way, they sounded different. You could miss his point and still find the splendid performances with his half-century old Concentus Musicus Wien among the finest ever. Once again setting an example, Harnoncourt has just announced his retirement, at 86, because he says his body can no longer keep up with his mind. Few musicians have left such a rich recorded legacy.

Easily the best recording of 2015 was Igor Levit's traversal of variation sets by Bach, Beethoven and Frederic Rzewski (Sony). I've written enough about it already, but Levit has since turned New York on its collective ear with "staged" performances of Bach's Goldberg Variations , urging yet more members of the music press to call him "the pianist of the future." The future is now.

As he does every year, or so it seems, J.S. Bach – the only composer who can put you out of mind of any other composer, music or reality – outpaced the competition in volume of new recordings in 2015. Most speculative was John Butt's recording of the Magnificat, (just in time for Christmas), performed in a liturgical context, and at a lower pitch, that together make it sound not just fresh as ever but somehow new.

But continuing a pattern set by Christophe Rousset in another gap-year recording, of Book II of The Well-Tempered Clavier (Aparte), other projects charting the music for solo instruments have proved searching. Pianist Piotr Anderszewski's of the English Suites 1, 3 & 5 (Warner) is in Levit's league, and Gil Shaham's of the solo-violin works (Canary Classics) also stood out.

Above all, there were David Watkin's penetrating performances of the Cello Suites (Resonus), which would have been a recording for the books without the back-story. But in fact, this long-valued member of the early-music community knew he was making his final recording due to the autoimmune disease scleroderma, which made cello playing no longer a possibility. His readings are urgent, immediate and sage.

I hear MTT is kicking up a storm with the Schumann symphonies at Davies. After reading the entrails of complete sets by Nezet-Seguin and Rattle late last year, I was delighted by Robin Ticciati's, for Linn, last January. Ticciati is the best today at getting period-sensitive sonorities and playing out of a "regular" band, his Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and he followed up this noble yet buoyant Schumann set, simply the best I've heard, with a delectable set of Haydn D Major symphonies (31, 70 & 101) with SCO at year's end.

Isabelle Faust, Alexander Melnikov and Jean-Guihen Queryas, three musicians you can count on to be good as it gets, soloing or in ensemble, do both in Harmonia Mundi's new series dedicated to historically informed performances of the Schumann concertos for violin, piano and cello, respectively. The revelatory first two appeared this year, coupled with, of course, Schumann piano trios.

Yuja Wang easily won the concerto prize with her recording of both Ravels (DG), the G Major as good as any in the catalogue and the Left-Hand nothing short of a revelation. Grigory Sokolov's 2008 Salzburg recital, the beginning of a promising new contract with DG, came as a reminder of how powerful piano-playing at its most individual can be, crushing a number of the younger whippersnappers with new recordings of the Chopin Preludes. Simply bad luck, bad timing, kids.

Heading into formidable competition, Ivan Fisher's Mahler Ninth (Channel Classics) both cleansed the palate and, without stooping, wrung a few tears, too. Andris Nelsons' live recording of the fathomless Shostakovich Tenth Symphony with his Boston Symphony (DG), coupled with a scorching Passacaglia from the composer's opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk , demonstrated why Nelsons is another "future" guy whose future is now.

Elsewhere in opera news, Egypt (North Africa, really) got pulled back from the brink by the year's two best opera recordings: Aida (Warner) and Niobe, Regina di Tebe , a 17th-century opera by Agostino Steffani that appeared in two live recordings, far and away the best of them Erato's. The Aida marks the second time Pappano has proved that the studio opera recording is not a thing of the past. I know no one who was pining for another Aida, but Pappano's returns the intimacy to this opera whose very grandness has spoiled its reputation, and with an exemplary cast.

The Radames is Jonas Kaufmann, who continued to prove that his supremacy among tenors is complete and earned. Nessun Dorma (Sony), his survey of Puccini arias from across the composer's career, was as enlightening and satisfying as it was thrilling, and in two live Puccini operas on Sony DVDs, a Covent Garden Manon Lescaut, also with Pappano, and a late-year La Fanciulla del West from Salzburg (with SF favorite Nina Stemme as a Minnie as terrific as it was unlikely), proved that what he can do in the studio he can do with the same incandescence in the house – and made me eat crow about two operas I had previously held nearly in contempt.

Maria Callas and Leonie Rysanek (the latter as Donna Elvira in a live 1952 Don Giovanni) were in contention for best live historical release, but that award goes to the late Jon Vickers, who died this year and whose memory cannot be erased even by the likes of Kaufmann, his rightful heir, for Vickers' overwhelming Gerontius in Elgar's Dream, with Barbirolli in Rome in 1947. Callas and Rysanek, both of whom sang with Vickers, would have protested, but also understood.

Finally, Decca's box set of Scriabin: The Complete Works (it was Scriabin's "year") could have been a Vladimir Ashkenazy roundup, but isn't. Much of it is newly recorded or issued, and all of it is terrific.

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