By Zev Kane *
This year has been especially bountiful as far as new classical music recordings are concerned – but where to start? From brilliant reinterpretations of old favorites to bold ventures into new musical frontiers, we went through all the records released this year so that you don't have to. Here are our favorite recordings from 2018.
Anima Sacra happens to alphabetically top this list, but its prominence is fitting: you will challenged to find a sound more beautiful than the voice of Polish countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński on any record released this year. In addition to his sui generis tone, at once smoky and sweet, Orlinski distinguishes himself with his bold choice of repertoire – obscure Baroque arias (eight of which were previously unrecorded) by composers of the Neapolitan school, including Francesco Nicola Fago, Francesco Feo and Domenico Sarro.
Cuarteto Casals imbues the first volume of its Beethoven cycle – which includes seven of the composer's 16 quartets and an arrangement of his Piano Sonata No.9 – with the tenderness and musicality of its namesake, the beloved Catalan cellist Pablo Casals.
Ann-Helen Moen, soprano
Roxana Constantinescu, mezzo-soprano
James Gilchrist, tenor
Benjamin Bevan, bass
Beethoven's Missa solemnis is like a Stealth Bomber: immense, yet elusive to those who don't know exactly what to look for in it. Masaaki Suzuki joins a rarefied group of conductors who have unequivocally gotten to the heart of this complex, volatile masterpiece, aided by the intuitive playing of the Bach Collegium Japan and four sterling soloists.
Bernstein – On the Waterfront – Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Christian Lindberg
The centennial of Bernstein's birth was acknowledged with great fanfare in August (just as the flamboyant composer would have wanted it), accompanied by a slew of vital reassessments of his work. The Liverpudlians' tribute is among the best: brash, bracing and unmistakably Bernstein.
Dazzling as this criminally-neglected repertoire may be (the Matteis Alia fantasia that opens the album is a must-listen), the true gem here is the bold, yet nuanced technique of Augusta McKay Lodge. Hers is a name to watch.
Chopin – Ballades & Nocturnes – Leif Ove Andsnes, piano
Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes described Chopin as "one of the first composers as a child I felt really close to". He performs the composer's inimitable Ballades with the control and self-assuredness of a well-established artist, but still leaves plenty of space for the innocence and inventiveness of his childhood dreams.
Claude Debussy – La Mer | Images – National Orchestra of France, Emmanuel Krivine
The centennial of Debussy's death passed rather quietly in March (just as the taciturn composer would have wanted it), but was amply acknowledged on record throughout the year. Krivine's electrifying performance of La Mer and Images with the National Orchestra of France leads the pack, demonstrating the extent to which this music still marvels a century on.
The sumptuously textured symphonic music of the unsung 20th-century English composer Ruth Gipps is finally given its due on this collection by Rumon Gamba and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. The premiere recording of her quiescent, yet vibrant Symphony No.4 is a particular highlight.
Percy Grainger – Complete Music for Wind Band, Vols. 1-3 – Royal Norwegian Navy Band
Hans Knut Sveen, organ
Joachim Carr, piano
Bjarte Engeset, conductor
Percy Grainger may be best known for his piano arrangements of "Danny Boy" and "Country Gardens", but the Australian composer also wrote abundantly for winds. Bjarte Engeset and the Royal Norwegian Navy Band blend effortlessly on this comprehensive, three-volume survey of Grainger's music for wind band, lending credence to the composer's belief that they are "unrivalled" as a "vehicle for deeply emotional expression".
With 104 symphonies and 68 string quartets to savor, Haydn's 45 piano trios are all too easily overshadowed. Trio Wanderer, perhaps the best ensemble of its kind working today, does its part to redress this unfortunate oversight, delivering perky readings of five of Haydn's finest.
Hush – Nora Fischer, vocals | Marnix Dorrestein, electric guitar
Amsterdam-based vocalist Nora Fischer is the daughter of the acclaimed Hungarian conductor Iván Fischer (see below). On her debut album, a collaboration with Dutch electric guitarist Marnix Dorrestein, she emphatically strays from her pedigree, crafting radically unorthodox yet utterly gorgeous arrangements of songs by Purcell, Monteverdi and Vivaldi.
Impermanence – Lorelei Ensemble
Speaking of "utterly gorgeous"... Impermanence, the third album by the Boston-based, all-female Lorelei Ensemble, has consistently rendered me verklempt since it was released in September. The group's angelic singing and probing interpretations of works both ancient and modern makes for instantly affecting listening.
Johann Sebastian Bach – Víkingur Ólafsson, piano
Bach famously remarked of his prodigious technique: "There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself". We will never quite know how the Great Master's playing sounded, but Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson delivers (what I suspect to be) a spot-on approximation: effortless, even, elegant and intelligent.
Currentzis and his Russian ensemble, MusicAeterna, made waves with their thrilling and incisive account of Tchaikovsky's Pathétique Symphony last year. Their recording of Mahler's Sixth Symphony – one of the few mainstream pieces that matches the Pathétique's overwhelming sense of psychological disarray – is a sequel of sorts, and just as gripping.
Mendelssohn – Overture and Incidental Music to "A Midsummer Night's Dream" – Budapest Festival Orchestra, Iván Fischer, conductor
Pro Musica Girls' Choir
Anna Lucia Richter, soprano
Barbara Kozelj, alto
Iván Fischer again demonstrates why his Budapest Festival Orchestra is one of the world's best, performing Mendelssohn's will-o'-the-wisp masterpiece with shimmering delicacy, agility and precision.
Orchestre Philharmonique de Marseille
Lawrence Foster, conductor
Bass-baritone Kevin Short unleashes opera's most nefarious antagonists (Faust's Mephistopheles chief among them) on this cleverly-conceived album, sowing menace with his gruff, full-throated tone.
Performances of Mozart's last three symphonies – Nos. 39, 40 and 41 – are ubiquitous. Performances of Mozart's last three symphonies that have the bite and brio of French conductor Mathieu Herzog and Ensemble Appassionato's are much harder to find, a fact that makes this brilliant recording all the more precious.
Nightfall – Alice Sara Ott, piano
German-Japanese pianist Alice Sara Ott shades the most photosensitive pieces of French Impressionism – Debussy's dreamy Suite bergamasque and Ravel's ghoulish Gaspard de la nuit – with a seemingly limitless capacity to lend warmth, depth and color.
Paddle to the Sea – Third Coast Percussion
With seamless and perceptive playing, the Chicago-based collective Third Coast Percussion meditates on the nature of water – depicting faint burbles, roaring cascades and mighty oceans with equal aplomb.
Clocking in at nearly two-and-a-half hours, Prokofiev's epic ballet can be difficult to swallow in one sitting. Not so with this eminently accessible rendition by Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which suffuses the music's hyperactive rhythms and brazen posturing with effervescence and levity.
Latvian conductor Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra expertly corral the meandering themes and gargantuan climaxes of Schubert’s longest and final symphonic work in this refreshingly cogent and intimate live recording.
Robert Schumann – The String Quartets – Engegård Quartet
Robert Schumann gifted his three Op.41 quartets to his wife Clara for her 23rd birthday. Clara's glowing assessment of the quartets as "new, clear... and always idiomatic", is substantiated by the Norway-based Engegård Quartet, which keys into the works with feverish passion with sharply-hewn phrasing and a resplendent blend.
Six Evolutions: Bach Cello Suites – Yo-Yo Ma, cello
Ma's third recording of Bach's monumental Cello Suites is defined by the grace, simplicity and wisdom associated with the best of the autumn years. His tone retains every bit of its patented richness, but his playing, especially in its sense of rhythm and rubato, is freer, shaded with new subtleties, subtexts and revelations.
Sounds of Transformation – Geneva Camerata
Yaron Herman, pianist
David Greilsammer, pianist and conductor
Even though it was released in early January, I have yet to find a project this year more ingeniously forward-looking than this concept album by Israeli pianist / conductor David Greilsammer – which collides the sounds of the Baroque and jazz-eras into a first-rate kerfuffle. This is a rare work that is as flawless in its execution as it is ambitious in its vision.
There's A Place for Us – Nadine Sierra, soprano
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Robert Spano, conductor
American soprano Nadine Sierra, the 2017 Richard Tucker Award winner, has taken the opera world by storm with her exquisite voice and magnificent showmanship. Her debut album is decidedly political in tone – carefully examining hot button questions about immigration through works by composers ranging from Bernstein to Golijov – but tactful.
Vivaldi x2 – La Serenissima
Adrian Chandler, director / violin
Vladimir Waltham, cello
Anneke Scott, horn
Jocelyn Lightfoot, horn
Rachel Chaplin, oboe
Mark Baigent, oboe
Peter Whelan, bassoon
Adrian Chandler and his ensemble La Serenissima make a compelling case for Vivaldi's lesser-known concertos for two instruments, animating their lively interplay and expressive individuality with acrobatic solo performances.
* Zev Kane
A product of suburban St Louis, MO, Zev's musical upbringing was equally shaped by Scott Joplin's ragtime and Nelly's Country Grammar. After graduating with a degree in music from Dartmouth College, he moved to New York City to become a music programmer and producer at WQXR. In his spare time, he enjoys tinkering in Ableton, solving crossword puzzles, running in Prospect Park, and evangelizing the criminally underappreciated music of Franz Joseph Haydn.
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