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2018: Best classical recordings

by Tim Pfaff

2018: Best classical recordings

What recording company would allow one of its major stars to release his first CD in three years devoted largely to transcriptions of music the most famous of which was Isolde's Liebestod and the most tangential a Busoni transcription of a Liszt work for organ based on a faux chorale Meyerbeer wrote for his opera "Le Prophete?" Sony let Igor Levit record "Igor Levit, Life" and had a hit on its hands.

Few recordings of 2018 drew such immediate and lasting attention. A reflection on the accidental death of one of Levit's closest friends, the artist Hannes Malte Mahler, the music is rendered at a level of concentration and focus rarely encountered. It's unlikely fare to nail you to your chair, but it's Record of the Year to be sure.

Christophe Rousset, by contrast as prodigious a recording artist as there is, characteristically released recordings of out-of-the-way operas such as Salieri's "Les Horaces" and (a comparative mainstay) Lully's "Alceste," but returned to his roots as a harpsichordist for a two-CD set of Louis Couperin's "Nouvelles Suites de Clavecin" (Harmonia Mundi). Performing on a vintage, priceless 17th-century harpsichord, Rousset showed the kind of profound rapport with an instrument with sensitivities and moods of its own that only the greatest players have. The sense of presence in the playing defied any notions of this being "old" music.

Perhaps it's because Yo-Yo Ma has played and recorded the Bach Solo Cello Suites so often (and, recently, in surprising venues) that his latest, for Sony, is rightly called "Six Evolutions." It's as knowing, free and transporting as music-making gets.

The Debussy Year ended with 10 carefully crafted sets from Harmonia Mundi, calling on the services of their greatest artists, that opened up new worlds of sound in the music of the composer who dedicated his life to doing just that. While they're all essential, I would be less than truthful if I didn't say that the Jerusalem Quartet's performance of Debussy's only string quartet turned a piece I once admired to one I couldn't stop listening to, urgent, strong and dismissive of notions of the composer as a mere impressionist or colorist.

In our time we've come to see that, like Debussy's, Schubert's "pretty" music as often as not takes us to the limits of what can be endured emotionally. His "Death and the Maiden" Quartet plumbs the depths. Performed with nuance and bite on historically appropriate music by the Chiaroscuro Quartet (BIS), it speaks as it arguably never has before — and you listen, rapt.

Unsurprisingly, recordings celebrating the Leonard Bernstein Year appeared in dizzying profusion, with all the kinds of music he composed represented. Most important was Antonio Pappano's "Bernstein: The Three Symphonies" (Warner). It was one of the composer's deepest desires to be remembered as a "serious" composer (too, of course), and Pappano came forth with readings that will keep these pieces in the repertoire, including a "Kaddish" that finally proved its unqualified greatness.

Daniel Harding and his Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra came out with a Mahler Fifth (Harmonia Mundi) as bracing, steady and endlessly satisfying as his Ninth last year. Teodor Currentzis, the bad boy-wannabe of conductors whose individuality has resulted in as many accidents as revelations, unleashed a blistering Mahler Sixth (Sony) that leaves the score intact if listeners a wreck, the way most Mahler Sixth lovers want it.

Two baritones, Gerald Finley and Christian Gerhaher, are duking it out in as gentlemanly way as possible for the title of greatest baritone (if not vocalist) singing-actor today, both winning in their individual ways. On recording, Gerhaher took a giant step forward with "Frage" (Sony), the first installment of a complete recording of Schumann songs that promises to be finished before we're all huddling on the coasts of South Dakota. The main item is the Kerner Lieder, but, as has become the wont of this most penetrating of interpreters, these performances are the last word in refinement, if in a way that is rightly deemed devastating.

In a duet recording with Lea Desandre, French soprano Sabine Devieilhe brought the year to a thrilling close with "Handel: Italian Cantatas" (Erato), led by Emmanuel Haim and Le Concert D'Astree. This is music from the young Handel's growth spurt into full maturity in Italy, and its vitality is unflagging. Devieilhe's performance of "Lucrezia" supplants all others.

A bit of a duff year for opera recordings did include the premiere recording of "Edward II" (Oehms), Andrea Lorenzo Scartizzini's Christopher Marlowe-based, gay-themed opera. It did what recordings should: show the mettle of music whose stage-worthiness has been proved definitively. Are you listening, Mr. Shilvock?

Still, opera recording of the year was the scorching Madrid performance of Britten's "Death in Venice" (Naxos) in its finest recording to date. More soon.

In a year when remixes and remasters continued apace, DG's of Rafael Kubelik's legendary complete Mahler symphony cycle worked its technological magic on ageless interpretations that most warranted remastering. Ditto "The Beatles" ("The White Album"), which allowed technology to catch up to where the Fab Four were decades ago, and has rarely left my player for long.

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