Serafim Smigelskiy, the cellist in the Tesla Quartet, playing alone in Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Photo by Benjamin Norman for The New York Times

Friday, March 22, 2019

The best new classical albums: March 2019

Recording of the Month

Johann Sebastian Bach: Violin Concertos, Sinfonias, Overture and Sonatas

Isabelle Faust, violin Jacobus Stainer (1658)
Bernhard Forck, anonymous violin, South Germany (1725)
Xenia Löffler, oboe and recorder
Jan Freiheit, cello
Raphael Alpermann, harpsichord

Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin

Bernhard Forck, concert-master

Recorded December 2017 and September 2018, Berlin, Teldex Studio Berlin
Released on March 15, 2019 by Harmonia mundi

Having already set down her accounts of the solo violin Sonatas and Partitas, as well as the accompanied Violin Sonatas with Krystian Bezuidenhout, Harmonia Mundi's star violinist Isabelle Faust now turns her attention to the concertos. This is repertoire she recorded some years ago for Hänssler Classics with the more "mainstream" accompaniment of Helmut Rilling and his Bach Collegium Stuttgart. This time, however, working with the superb period instrumentalists of the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, it's with bells on: not just the sheer quality of the playing, but the music itself. For, in addition to the usual fare of the two Violin Concertos in A minor and E major plus the D minor Concerto for two violins and the Concerto for oboe and violin, there's a veritable plethora of reconstructed concertos, cantata sinfonias and trio sonatas, even an orchestral suite in an unusual guise, all featuring notable concertante parts for solo violin. Two discs' worth of sparkling music, and generously priced to boot!

Proceedings kick off with the mighty D minor Concerto, BWV 1052, which survives as  a keyboard concerto and has long been a favourite with pianists and harpsichordists from Lipatti and Gould to Rousset and Staier. But, as Bach specialist Peter Wollny explains in his booklet notes, it has for some years been thought that the work originated in a lost violin concerto. Faust is far from being the first violinist to tackle this reconstruction (Szigeti and Ricci were among the earliest), but she is surely the most convincing, dashing off the virtuoso – and persuasively violinistic – figuration with tremendous flair and naturalness. Given the faultless intonation elsewhere on the album, the perceptible note of sourness introduced by soloist and orchestra in the slow movement seems a deliberate interpretative strategy, emphasising the mournful, lament-like Affekt of the music, and it certainly works a treat.

The other two concertos on CD 1 are a beautifully poised account of the E major Violin Concerto – outer movements pert, central Adagio wonderfully dreamy – and the well-known C minor Concerto for oboe and violin, itself a reconstruction from a concerto for three harpsichords. Here Faust is partnered by oboist Xenia Löffler, and they make an excellent team, not least in the glorious interweaving lines of the Largo ovvero Adagio second movement, while they rise magnificently to the demands of the closing Allegro, which is taken here at quite a lick. Peppered in between these three concertos are two cantata sinfonias: the heart-stopping opening movement of Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis, BWV 21, and the dazzlingly expanded version of the first movement of Brandenburg Concerto No.3 (with added horns and oboes!) that opens Cantata BWV 174. For a complete change of scale there's also some chamber music: the Organ Trio Sonata in C major, BWV 529, rescored for two violins (Faust and Bernhard Forck, the AAM Berlin's concertmaster) and continuo, captivating in its intimacy.

On disc two, Löffler and Forck exchange roles, with Löffler now the trio sonata partner in a chamber transcription of the D minor Organ Trio, BWV 527 (with a slow movement that was later incorporated into the A minor "Triple" Concerto for flute, violin and harpsichord), and Forck playing second fiddle to Faust in the much-loved Concerto for two violins in D minor, BWV 1043, including a beautifully inflected account of the central Largo. The disc opens with the famous Orchestral Suite No.2, BWV 1067, transposed down from its normal B minor to A minor and with solo violin replacing the familiar flute. As a reconstruction, it's less plausible than the others included in this collection, for one misses the distinctive timbre that a wind instrument brings to the top line; but in the virtuoso passages (and above all in the concluding, racy Badinerie) Faust gives it her all, so that there's always plenty to enjoy. More convincing as a piece of reconstruction is a G minor version of the F minor Keyboard Concerto, BWV 1056, a brooding work that gains much from Faust's bright-toned playing and the ever-alert accompaniments of her colleagues. And it's the sweetness of tone that Faust coaxes from her 1658 Jacobus Steiner instrument that is the chief glory of the A minor Violin Concerto, BWV 1041. Too often turned into a dramatic, hard-edged showpiece, this masterpiece is here treated to a gentler touch that enhances its expressiveness and forms one of the undoubted highlights of the album. As throughout, Faust's ornamentation is tasteful and unintrusive, so that it well withstands the repeated listening her playing so readily invites.

Two more cantata sinfonias, the gentle opening movement from BWV 182 featuring recorder and violin, and the jaw-droppingly spectacular D major Sinfonia, BWV 1045, from an unknown lost work, scored for solo violin trumpets, oboes, timpani, strings and continuo, round off this splendid collection of "Violin Concertos Plus". Recorded at Berlin's Teldex Studio in a slightly boxy-sounding acoustic that favours the soloist(s) without undue prominence, and with unfailingly stylish playing from the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, this spellbinding album deserves to be on every Bach lovers shelf. Enthusiastically recommended to all and sundry!


Johann Sebastian Bach: St Matthew Passion, BWV 244

Georg Poplutz, tenor (Evangelist)
Matthias Winckhler, bass (Jesus)
Julia Kleiter, Jasmin Maria Hörner, sopranos
Gerhild Romberger, Nohad Becker, altos
Daniel Sans, Christian Rathgeber, tenors
Christian Wagner, Daniel Ochoa, basses

Mainz Bach Choir
Mainz Bach Orchestra
Conductor: Ralf Otto

Recorded 26 March to 4 April 2018 at the Christuskirche, Mainz, Germany
Released on March 8, 2019 by Naxos

Johann Sebastian Bach's St Matthew Passion is widely recognised as one of the greatest masterpieces in Western sacred music. With its double orchestra and chorus this is a work of enormous proportions in every sense, and Bach was extremely resourceful in treading a fine line between creating the almost operatic spectacle valued by the secular authorities in Leipzig, and the elevated religious atmosphere sought by the clergy. This inspired mix of moving drama and theological discourse led Leonard Bernstein to declare that "there is nothing like it in all of music".

Ralf Otto's recordings of J.S. Bach for Naxos have been widely acclaimed. The St John Passion released in March 2018 was admired by MusicWeb International: "The Bachchor Mainz is a fine ensemble: it shows great flexibility in those turbae which are performed at a high speed, and produces a surprisingly transparent sound, also thanks to the good acoustic of the Christuskirche in Mainz". The Christmas Oratorio released in October 2018 was admired by Pizzicato: "There is a lot of gorgeous playing and singing in this new recording... the soloists... are outstanding".

Tenor Georg Poplutz (Evangelist) is renowned for his more than 40 recordings and expressive performances of lied and oratorio, performing at festivals and leading venues all over Germany and Europe with conductors including Hermann Max, Sir Roger Norrington, Ralf Otto, Hans-Christoph Rademann, Ludger Rémy, Michael Schneider, Masaaki Suzuki, Winfried Toll, and Roland Wilson.

Baritone Matthias Winckhler (Jesus) was awarded the First Prize as well as the Special Prize of the Mozarteum Foundation Salzburg at the International Mozart Competition Salzburg 2014. He has taken numerous acclaimed operatic roles and has also recorded for OehmsClassics.


Ombra mai fu – Francesco Cavalli: Opera Arias

Philippe Jaroussky, countertenor

Emőke Baráth, soprano
Marie-Nicole Lemieux, contralto

Ensemble Artaserse

Recorded Église Notre-Dame-du-Liban, Paris, 26 June - 3 July 2017
Released on March 8, 2019 by Erato

"Beyond the great musical interest that Cavalli offers, his operas are notable for their richness and modernity, and for the diversity and complexity of their characters", says countertenor Philippe Jaroussky. "Stage directors and opera houses are increasingly keen to stage his works. His operas are full of fantasy, craziness, humour and emotion. They offer a variety we don't find in the opera seria of the 18th century."

Francesco Cavalli (1602-1676) is an important figure in the history of opera and his works, which first experienced a revival in the 1960s, have been growing in currency in recent years. The most prominent successor to Monteverdi, Cavalli was active in Venice at a time when opera was moving out of aristocratic palaces and into public theatres. Musically, his operas are notable for the fluid expression of their recitar cantando ("acting in song"), and dramatically for their variety of tone, combining noble, mythical or tragic drama with teasing or bawdy comedy.

As Philippe Jaroussky explains: "Cavalli played a major role in establishing opera – the new genre created by Monteverdi and others – as popular entertainment. He composed many operas for the Teatro San Cassiano, which was the first theatre in Venice to stage opera".

Cavalli was also active in the field of religious music. As a boy, he had sung under Monteverdi's direction in the choir of St Mark's Basilica. He went on to become the cathedral's organist and eventually, in 1668, to follow in Monteverdi's footsteps and become its maestro di cappella, the equivalent of a modern-day music director.

When preparing this album, Ombra mai fù, Jaroussky was able to study the manuscripts of most of Cavalli's 37 surviving operas. "I really wanted to use the album's playing time to show all the variety and all the qualities of Cavalli's music. It can sometimes appear disarmingly simple, but it has a very special and distinctive melodic and harmonic flavour. The album is designed to illustrate the contrasts in his operas as they move from one scene to the next, where a lamento might be directly followed by something very humorous."

Jaroussky has included vocal and instrumental numbers from more than a dozen of Cavalli's operas, ranging from comparatively well-known works such as Calisto, Ercole amante, Ormindo and Giasone through Eliogabalo, which was recently staged in both Paris and Amsterdam, to such rarities as Statira, principessa di Persia and La virtù dei strali d'Amore. He is joined for the love duets by soprano Emőke Baráth (whose recent Erato recital, Voglio cantar, highlighted the music of Barbara Strozzi, a student of Cavalli) and contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux, who spars with him in the comical duet "Ninfa bella" from Calisto.

The title track is taken from the opera Xerse, which dates from 1654 and is set to the same libretto that Handel used for his Serse more than 80 years later. Outside the world of opera, Handel's version of Emperor Xerxes' ode to a plane tree is known simply as "Handel's Largo". Cavalli's version, while less famous and less dignified, is more graceful and lilting.

"Curiously there are similarities between Cavalli's and Handel's settings of Ombra mai fù", explains Philippe Jaroussky. "Both are quite short and in triple time. Did Handel knew Cavalli's Xerse? It's a possibility. An interesting difference between the two arias is that in Handel's version the first violin plays along with the voice. In Cavalli's version the violin parts are higher and fill in the harmonies, changing constantly and creating a very beautiful effect of iridescence and colour." On this recording those violins belong to Ensemble Artaserse, which Jaroussky launched in 2002 in collaboration with other leading musicians in the field of Baroque music.


Camille Pépin: Chamber Music

Ensemble Polygones, L. Margue, L. Hennino, T. Lepri, F. McGown, R. Moreau, C. Oneto Bensaïd, A. Tourret

Recorded April 2018 at the Studio de l'Orchestre national d'Île-de-France, Alfortville
Released on February 22, 2019 by NoMadMusic

Rising star from the young composer's generation, Camille Pépin chose to record her first album with the artists who have been accompanying her since her debut. She is taken by numerous extra-musical influences: from English literature to Japanese etchings, mythology to astronomy. These disparate elements all converge on travel as their common theme, wanderlust and dreams of elsewhere. A fusion of all these ingredients, Camille Pépin's music sets itself apart above all through its rhythmic aspect, at once dancing and almost incantatory, presided over by lyricism.


William Alwyn and Doreen Carwithen: Music for String Quartet

Tippett Quartet

Recorded May 10-11, 2018, at Parish Church of St Nicholas, Thames Ditton, Surrey, England
Released on March 15, 2019 by SOMM Recordings

SOMM Recordings' coupling of string quartets by teacher and pupil William Alwyn and Doreen Carwithen offers a revealing glimpse – in illuminating performances by the Tippett Quartet – into the relationship between a master composer and his promising student who became one of the great "what might have beens" of British 20th-century music.

Alwyn's position as a leading British composer was cemented by his prolific output (totalling more than 500 scores) while Carwithen abandoned composing altogether to act as Alwyn's amanuensis and secretary, eventually becoming his wife in 1975. Composed in 1948, Alwyn's atmospherically charged Three Winter Poems are charming works that benefit from the evocative, emotional immediacy that characterised his cinema scores.

His last major work, 1984's String Quartet No.3, was a valedictory celebration of what the composer called "this most perfect of mediums". Unexpectedly animated (Alwyn was 79 at the time), it ends, says the William Alwyn Foundation's Andrew Knowles in his authoritative booklet notes, "in peaceful serenity, providing a moving and fitting swansong to Alwyn's composing career".

While the prolific Alwyn composed 16 string quartets, Carwithen produced just two, both early in her career, both displaying, says Knowles, "a remarkably sound technique and a natural sense of warm emotion and drama", and both heard here in only their second recording.

Composed in 1945 while she was still a student at the Royal Academy of Music, the String Quartet No.1 is a work of striking contrasts, the restless key signatures, variegated rhythms and stretched dynamics of the first movement complemented by its chiaroscuro-like companion conveying, by turns, moods of gentle tranquillity, passion and austerity. From 1950, Carwithen's Second String Quartet is also an exercise in contrast, although more vividly realised and acutely articulated.

The Tippett Quartet's earlier recording for SOMM of Alwyn's String Quartets Nos. 10-13 was praised by Gramophone for its "really excellent playing" and hailed as a disc that "constitutes essential listening".


Johann Sebastian Bach: Forgotten Arias

Maarten Engeltjes, countertenor & director

PRJCT Amsterdam baroque orchestra

Recorded December 5-7, 2018, at Grote Kerk, Elburg, The Netherlands
Released on February 22, 2019 by Sony Classical

"...They are not really forgotten, but after all ‘the old wig’ composed so much that not everything could become a ‘hit’. Out of context, in the voice of Engeltjes they now sound like gems on a bed beautifully made by the young orchestra..." — Hans Visser, Leids Dagblad, March 13, 2019

"...Engeltjes sings them with an incredible sense of text, a fireproof timing and a sound as clear as the stars in a cold winter sky..." — De Standaard, March 6, 2019

"...In the fine selection of arias from Bach cantatas, the musicians give all the space to Engeltjess, to whose voice – round and with a beautiful harmonic saucer in the height – you want to keep listening. Highlight: the last aria Schläfert aller Sorgenkummer from Cantata BWV 197..." — Merlijn Kerkhof, February 28, 2019

"...The delicious ‘Kommt, ihr angefochtnen Sünder’ from Cantata BWV 30, which nestles in your ear like a worm with a beautiful lucid and airy accompaniment of the orchestra. But Bach is Bach and in fact all these ‘forgotten’ arias are highlights. With his sovereign and supple voice, Engeltjes himself remains imposingly above the material..." — Peter van der Lint, Trouw, De Verdieping, February 22, 2019

"...How beautifully do the oboes meander around each other to unite eventually with the voice in a unified cadence. Or take the sunny aria Kommt ihr angefocht'nen Sünder. The alto soars lightly above the enchanting accompaniment of flute and strings..." — Winand van de Kamp, Haarlems Dagblad, November 13, 2018

"...The same attention to detail characterized ‘Kommt, ihr angefocht'nen Sünder’, from Bach's gallant later years. With subtle changes in dynamics and tempo, the musicians added a little extra to the almost swinging rhythm. But without breaking the feathery charm of flute and pizzicato playing strings, Engeltjes gave the words ‘ruft und schreit!’ their full, voluminous weight..." — Martin Toet, Place de l’Opéra, November 11, 2018

Claudio Monteverdi: Madrigals Book 9 & Scherzi Musicali

Delitiæ Musicæ
Marco Longhini, director

Recorded May 14-18, 2006, at the Chiesa di San Pietro in Vincoli, Azzago, Verona, Italy
Released on March 18, 2019 by Naxos

Monteverdi's Ninth Book of Madrigals, published posthumously, and the 1632 Scherzi musicali ("Musical Jokes") are thematically linked by the recurring theme of war for the sake of love. Prefaced with a Sinfonia by Biagio Marini and featuring one of Monteverdi's towering masterpieces, Zefiro torna, the Ninth Book comprises the few remaining late madrigals, a number of canzonette, as well as works with the same titles and verses from the earlier Eighth Book, here performed in completely different musical settings. Recorded complete, and in historically informed fashion, this is the final volume in this series.

This release sees the conclusion of Delitiæ Musicæ's monumental project of recording Monteverdi's complete Madrigals in nine volumes, with the first volume goes back to 2002.

Many of the releases in this series were highly acclaimed by critics. Vol. 2 received a 10/10 score from "These unusual all-male Monteverdi madrigal performances are turning out to be the versions of choice – definitely worth serious attention".

The sixth and seventh volumes were both American Record Guide Critic's Choice awardees. Commenting on Book 6, critic Catherine Moore said the "performances are compelling, simultaneously controlled and imaginative. Delitiæ Musicæ goes beyond a ‘fine rendering’ of Monteverdi's intentions".

The group has also recorded Carlo Gesualdo's complete Madrigals for Naxos (available as a seven-album set). Of the first volume wrote: "Delitiæ Musicæ's unity of expression and steady control help keep the music coherent and within the bounds of communicable feeling". Of the boxed set, Lynn René Bayley of Fanfare asked: "Do you really need to have this complete set? Based on both the high quality of the music as well as the performances, I would say yes..."


Johann Sebastian Bach: Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, BWV 1001-1006

Jaakko Kuusisto, violin

Recorded January 2015, May 2016 and May 2017 at Österåker Church, Sweden
Released on March 1, 2019 by BIS

There are many questions surrounding Johann Sebastian Bach's "Six Solos for violin", or the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, as they are usually called today. When did he compose them, and why, and for whom? In what circumstances were they performed? And why would a master of polyphony choose to write for a melody instrument with limited scope for polyphony or chords? We can only guess at the answers – which makes the works all the more fascinating. The legendary violinist George Enescu famously described the set as "the Himalayas of violinists", but for more than 200 years they were primarily regarded as pedagogical exercises rather than compositions worthy of the concert hall. Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann tried to popularize them by making versions with piano accompaniment, while Busoni did away with the violin altogether in his transcription of the famous Chaconne from Partita No.2. But since Yehudi Menuhin made the first complete recording of the Sonatas and Partitas, between 1929 and 1936, they have become a staple during violin recitals, on disc and in concert. Fascinating performers and audiences alike with their architectural perfection as well as their emotional range, these are works that lend themselves to very different interpretations, and on this recording it is the Bach of Finnish violinist Jaakko Kuusisto we hear. Himself a composer – as well as violinist and conductor – Kuusisto remembers beginning to study individual movements from the set at the age of ten. The music has been with him ever since, and to him "no other works for the violin provide a higher challenge or greater beauty".


Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 6 & 7 – Incidental Music to "King Lear"

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Andris Nelsons

Recorded February 2017
Released on February 22, 2019 by Deutsche Grammophon

You don't have to speculate as to whether Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons' interpretations of Shostakovich have been shaped by his having grown up in the Soviet Union; he has said himself that they are. And you can get a start on understanding how with this excellent release, part of a complete Shostakovich cycle by Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. If you're not going for the whole cycle immediately, you might well pick this album to start. It contains one offbeat symphony and one of the big epoch-makers, together with some lesser-known orchestral works, and each piece comes alive. The title "Under Stalin's Shadow" applies to Nelsons' entire series, and it's more applicable to some works than to others. It might work for the Symphony No.6 in B minor, Op.54, a light, quirky, rather sardonic work from 1939. It was written after Shostakovich had been condemned by Joseph Stalin in 1936 and had rehabilitated himself with the Symphony No.5 in D minor, Op.47. The Symphony No.6, the composer said, was intended to convey moods of "spring, joy, youth", but it is anything but neoclassic with its odd shape and its mood of jibe, beautifully brought out by Nelsons and the BSO. In the Symphony No.7 in C major, Op.60 ("Leningrad"), Shostakovich was not under Stalin's shadow but, for once, on his side: the symphony is the 20th century's great response to war, with its ominous first-movement march of advancing Germans. Sample this to hear how the great sweep of Shostakovich's more epic works ought to be done. The slow movement of this work is profound, and existential in this performance. There are plenty of chances for the BSO to show off their high level of playing under Nelsons in the Festive Overture, Op.96, a fine barn burner of a work. If you hadn't seen the title or heard the work before, you'd be hard pressed to identify the subject matter of the often jaunty King Lear suite, Op.58a, but it somehow adds balance to the program. The recordings, from Boston's Symphony Hall, are designated as live, but no live audience is present; the use of the hall's distinctive acoustic is beautifully in sync with the program. A major Shostakovich release.

Source: James Manheim (

Innovators – Bartók, Beethoven, Debussy

Benyounes Quartet

Recorded January 2018 at the Music Room, Champs Hill, West Sussex, UK
Released on March 1, 2019 by Champs Hill Records

The Benyounes Quartet, formed 10 years ago at the Royal Northern College of Music, are: Zara Benyounes (violin), Emily Holland (violin), Sara Roberts (viola), and Kim Vaughan (cello). Recipients of the Royal Philharmonic Society's Julius Isserlis Scholarship, the quartet's international accolades also include prizes at both the 2014 Orlando International String Quartet Competition and the International Sándor Végh String Quartet Competition in Budapest.

The quartet studied with Professor Gábor Takács-Nagy at the Haute École de Musique in Geneva. They have also worked closely with Peter Cropper, Quatuor Ébène, Eberhard Feltz, Andràs Keller and David Waterman, at centres such as Pro Quartet, Aldeburgh and IMS Prussia Cove. The quartet held the Richard Carne Junior Fellowship at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance (2011-13) and is currently resident at Bangor University.

This is their first full recording for Champs Hill Records, having contributed to the critically-acclaimed complete Mendelssohn cycle.


The Nutcracker, Petrushka, Cinderella, The Firebird

Alexander Ullman, piano

Recorded July 4-6, 2018, Wyastone Concert Hall, Wyastone Leys, Monmouthshire, UK
Released on March 15, 2019 by Rubicon Classics

The winner of the 2017 Franz Liszt Competition, British pianist Alexander Ullman has appeared at many of the world's great venues and with some of the world's major orchestras – The Philadelphia Orchestra, Norwegian Radio Orchestra, St Petersburg Philharmonic, Montreal Symphony, Netherlands Radio Philharmonic and the Royal Philharmonic. He has worked with Vladimir Ashkenazy and Markus Stenz to name just two conductors, and performed at the Wigmore Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Concertgebouw and Gewandhaus, Kimmel Center and Kennedy Center. For his debut album Alexander has chosen Russian ballet repertoire arranged either by the composers, or in the case of The Firebird by Busoni pupil Guido Agosti, and Mikhail Pletnev for Tchaikovksy's Nutcracker Suite. This is a highly virtuosic programme that showcases Alexander's extraordinary technique. His is a name to watch!


The albums were chosen by the owner and blog editor of "Faces of Classical Music", Alexandros Arvanitakis.

More photos

See also

The best new classical albums: January 2020

The best new classical albums: December 2019

The best new classical albums: November 2019

The best new classical albums: October 2019

The best new classical albums: September 2019

The best new classical albums: August 2019

The best new classical albums: July 2019

The best new classical albums: June 2019

The best new classical albums: May 2019

The best new classical albums: April 2019

The best new classical albums: February 2019

The best new classical albums: January 2019

The Faces of Classical Music Choose the 20 Best Albums of 2019

The Faces of Classical Music Choose the 20 Best Albums of 2018

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