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Best Recordings of 2018 (New Releases)

Time for a review of classical CDs that were outstanding in 2018 again! This lists the new releases, the list with re-issues (on which I am still working) will be up before long.


It’s fair to say to say that such "Best-Of" lists are inherently daft if one clings too literally to the idea of "Best." Still, I have been making "Best of the Year" lists for classical music since 2004 (when working at Tower Records gave me a splendid oversight—occasionally insight—of the new releases and of the re-releases that hit the classical music market. Since then, I’ve kept tabs on the market as much as possible. Here are the links to the past iterations on ionarts and

2004 | 2005 | 2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2008—"Almost" | 2009 | 2009—"Almost" | 2010 | 2010—"Almost" | 2011 | 2011—"Almost" | 2012 | 2013 | 2014 | 2015 | 2016 | 2017

Making these lists is a subjective affair, aided only by massive exposure and hopefully good ears and discriminating, if personal taste. But then "10 CDs that, all caveats duly noted, I consider to have been outstanding this year" does not make for a sexy headline. You get the point. The built-in hyperbole of the phrase is a tool to understand what this is about, not symbolic of illusions of grandeur on my part. As has been my tradition, there are two lists: One for new releases and one for re-issues.  And because there is a natural delay between the issuing date of a recording and my getting to listen to it, the cut-off date for inclusion in this list is roughly around September 2017. (In a way that’s good, because going back a little further softens the recency-bias that these lists can otherwise suffer from.) And here, without further ado, are "The 10 Best Classical Recordings Of 2018".

# 10 - New Release

L.v.Beethoven, Symphony No.3 (+ R.Strauss, Horn Concerto), Manfred Honeck, Pittsburgh Symphony, Reference Recordings FR-728SACD

available at Amazon
L.v.Beethoven, Symphony No.3
(+ R.Strauss, Horn Concerto),
Manfred Honeck, Pittsburgh Symphony,
Reference Recordings

Manfred Honeck just about has a subscription to these lists: After Shostakovich in 2017, Richard Strauss in 2016, Johann Strauss in 2014 and his Bruckner Fourth getting an honorable mention in 2015, it’s no surprised that he shows up again this year. This time with Beethoven, continuing his series of riveting, superbly played, and grandly recorded symphonies. We have had many great Beethoven cycles turn up over the last years (Järvi, Vänskä, Dausgaard), always showing that new things can be said just when we thought that there couldn’t possibly be anything new left to squeeze out of old Ludwig Van. But the combination of modern pluck and luscious brawn that makes the Honeck-Pittsburgh combo unique successfully pushes on all our sensualities’ buttons at once. Point-in-case this Eroica, which knocks you over and lifts you back up. Honeck is no literalist and he knows where effect merits a gentle adjustment to the score, yet the aesthetic is one that still fully appeals in a time dominated by historically informed performances.

# 9 - New Release

R.Schumann, "Frage" – select Lieder, Christian Gerhaher & Gerold Huber, Sony 19075889192

available at Amazon
R.Schumann, "Frage" – select Lieder, Christian Gerhaher & Gerold Huber,

Like Honeck, the Christian Gerhaher/Gerold Huber combination, too, is a regular in these lists. That’s not – or so I’d like to think – because I am unduly partial towards them, but simply because they are the best Lied-Duo there is and very likely (pointless though such an argument would be) also ever was. After last year’s Die Schöne Müllerin, GerhaherHuber-one word™ have undertaken a recording of the complete songs of Schumann. I didn’t have Gerhaher down for an intégrale of any composer’s, given his highly discriminating pick-and-choose approach to anything he will perform, but yes: if there’s any composer he should want to sing all the output of, it would have to be Robert Schumann. "Frage" – "Question" is the apt title of the first volume, since Gerhaher would be the type to question, probe everything. The recital, full of lesser known, miniature song cycles – Six Songs op.107, 12 Kerner Poems op.35 (highlight among highlights), Four Late Songs op.142 et al. – is—as expected and hoped—all that one could wish from GerhaherHuber. Supremely touching, chilling, text-hugging Lied of unparalleled quality. (A more detailed review will follow.)

# 8 - New Release

J.S.Bach, Cantatas BWV 56, 95, 161, Rudolf Lutz, soloists, Bach Stiftung Orchestra & Chorus, Bach Stiftung B667

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J.S.Bach, Cantatas BWV 56, 95, 161, Rudolf Lutz, soloists, Bach Stiftung Orchestra & Chorus,
Bach Stiftung

When the Bach Cantata cycle of the St. Gallen Bach Stiftung got underway, I experienced patronizing thoughts: What can this outfit, of whom no one outside northern Switzerland had ever heard, could possibly bring to the table that the greats of Bach performance of the last decades haven’t already done and much better? I’ve since repented and recanted. Rudolf Lutz and his Bach Stiftung chorus and orchestra not only offer extraordinary execution that, on average, begins to surpass the Gardiner cycle, but his cantatas also have a communal feel to them, something engaging, something that makes you feel as though you are almost a part of it, not just an outside observer. Volume 22 in this survey – with the three masterpiece cantatas BWV 56 "Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen", BWV 95 "Christus, der ist mein leben" and BWV 161 "Komm, du süße Todesstunde" – is a supreme example of all these qualities. (Forbes CD of the Week review here)

# 7 - New Release

Kenneth Fuchs, Piano Concerto, Saxophone Concerto, E-Guitar Concerto, Poems of Life, JoAnn Faletta, London Symphony Orchestra, Jeffrey Biegel (piano), T.McAllister (sax), D.J.Spar (guitar) et al., Naxos 8.559824

available at Amazon
Kenneth Fuchs, Concertos & Songs, JoAnn Faletta, London Symphony Orchestra, Jeffrey Biegel (piano), T.McAllister (sax), D.J.Spar (guitar) et al.,

The chapter on Kenneth Fuchs is one of the additions to the Second Edition of Surprised by Beauty that didn’t stick in my memory at first. I want to listen to every CD recommendation that Robert Reilly makes in that book, and I’ve been reasonably successful at it, too, but sometimes life gets in the way. A disc, a thought, a composer gets put on the back burner and simmers along at the mind’s edge, sometimes for years. Fortunately I’ve been awoken from my bubbling slumber by the most recent disc with the music of Kenneth Fuchs’. Surprised by beauty, indeed!

The lede is the Piano Concerto (Jeffrey Biegel on the ivories), which covers several pleasant universes of sound in its three movements: From Ravel via "Lady Macbeth trombone" glissandi to Coplandesque moments and well beyond, it never quite lets you drift and always makes your ears perk. Glacier, the serenata-like Concerto for Electric guitar (D.J.Sparr) and Orchestra, is every bit as interesting as the Piano concerto – with moments that remind, successively, of John Scofield and Terje Rypdal. This is in turn followed by the easy listening (in the best sense) Concerto for Alto saxophone (Timothy McAllister) and Orchestra with a hint, almost inevitably, of Gershwin. The orchestral songs Poems of Life for countertenor (Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen) and orchestra take a little longer to get used to in the surrounding context of the concertos, but eventually they, too, fit into the mold of harmonious tanginess that Fuchs casts for his works.

The performances easily do enough to reveal the music’s beauty and clever fun. Conductor JoAnn Faletta navigates the hired London Symphony Orchestra through the music without accidents. We don’t have Manfred Honeck, Teodor Currentzis and Kyrill Petrenko standing in line to make Kenneth Fuchs recordings any time soon (not that we should want to rule it out), so we’ll take what we get and am grateful it’s as good as it is. 

# 6 - New Release

R.Schumann & J.Widmann, "Es war einmal…" – Märchenerzählungen op.132, Fantasy Pieces for Clarinet and Piano op.73, Märchenbilder for piano and viola op.113 & "Once Upon A Time… Five Pieces in Fairy Tale Mood for clarinet, viola and piano, Dénes Várjon (piano), Tabea Zimmermann (viola), Jörg Widmann (clarinet), Myros Classics MYR020

available at Amazon
R.Schumann & J.Widmann, "Es war einmal…", Dénes Várjon (piano), Tabea Zimmermann (viola), Jörg Widmann (clarinet),

This disc, its concept-album title and cover, makes you think it is something other than it is. Or at least something other than it also is. If you are a Jörg Widmann fan (not inconceivable, granted), you will find the composer’s recording of his mouthfully-titled Once Upon a Time… Five Pieces in Fairy Tale Fashion for Clarinet, Viola and Piano on there. Apart from the famously clarinet playing composer, Dénes Varjon is on piano, Tabea Zimmermann on viola. The Widmann riffs heavily off the Schumann, takes musical phrases, folds them over, starts anew… he’s making a croissant of the music, with hard edges and glassy flakes. It can be jarring, it can be strangely beautiful, and it’s without question to be categorized as "good Widmann", which still means you have to be into it, but at least then it’s very good indeed. (Whereas bad Widmann – especially large format works like Arche and Babylon – is totally unredeemable.)

If you are an inveterate Schumann lover, however, (or well on your way thereto), this is actually the continuation of the thrilling Schumann Violin Sonata recording of Varjon’s with Carolin Widmann that appeared on ECM and should have been high in my Best of 2009. The deliciously near-late Schumann, a dream of hazy, woven textures, was written between 1849 and 1851 and is here performed with sensitivity, intimacy (especially thanks to Várjon and Zimmermann), and expressive richness that gives the lightly forlorn music a haptic, certainly sensual quality: A winner of a disc, either – depending on your musical leanings – with a caveat or a bonus. 

# 5 - New Release

P.I.Tchaikovsky, Symphony No.6 ("Pathétique"), MusicAeterna, Teodor Currentzis, Sony 88985404352

available at Amazon
P.I.Tchaikovsky, Symphony No.6 ("Pathétique"), MusicAeterna, Teodor Currentzis,

My first exposure to current faux-goth / conductor-hotshot Teodor Currentzis came at the hands of the Vienna Symphony’s performance of Mieczysław Weinberg’s opera The Passenger where I was involuntarily impressed by that young, hitherto unknown, unkempt young man on the podium. (Best of 2011) Then came a couple of concerts with the Munich Philharmonic in 2012 and 2013.

The impression he left was certainly visceral: "All smiles, with long bobbed hair, and India-rubber limbs, Currentzis looks like a master of ceremonies at MIT’s Harry Potter convention. An enthusiastic image, and a slightly ridiculous one." But it was also musically positive: "Under his hands, the side-by-side of Prokofiev’s children-like naïveté [in the Seventh Symphony], his veteran assuredness and deft rhythmic handling sounded perfectly organic. And the orchestra went along well enough, especially considering this was the first night of the run. As a little treat, Currentzis played the symphony with both alternate endings: the quiet original first, and then, after a little pause, the few bars of upbeat compromise that Prokofiev grudgingly added." (ionarts: The Currentzis Dances) Since then, I’ve seen and heard him blow the roof off the Vienna Konzerthaus… a conductor that has fully grown into the hype around him – and capable of achieving novel, intriguing, insightful results with guest orchestras just the same, not just his own band where he has unrivaled, dictatorial-in-the-service-of-music conditions that no other place could offer him. He’s controversial – but the real deal.

Point in case his Tchaikovsky Sixth Symphony released late last year. (You could almost equally insert his new Mahler Sixth in this spot; it might well hop onto next year’s list.) This is a recording at once stunningly superficial and stunningly absorbing. The attention to detail, the obsession, the fine-tuning – even the overproducing – are all audible… but unlike many a micro-managing conductor, the whole does not descend into technically impressive boredom. It remains visceral, exciting. Currentzis’ Pathetique is the exact opposite of the liquid, golden honey that flows from the baton of Semyon Bychkov and his Czech Philharmonic in the same work (released around the same time – and superb in its own way!) This is a self-propelling nano-technology-beast, shimmering—ever-moving—in the sun in ever-changing colors. A thrill not to be missed, unless one is positively cemented into a purist/traditionalist position.

# 4 - New Release

I.Stravinsky, Chant funèbre, Le Faune et al Bergère, The Rite of Spring, Scherzo fantastique, Feu d’artifice, Riccardo Chailly, Lucerne Festival Orchestra, Decca 483 2563

available at Amazon
I.Stravinsky, Chant funèbre, Le Sacre et al., Riccardo Chailly, Lucerne Festival Orchestra,

Happily, Riccardo Chailly is interested in repertoire just off the beaten path in a way that many mainstream conductors can’t be bothered with… and instead of tacking a Firebird or some such warhorse onto his lusciously magnificent recording of the Rite of the Spring, he added the orchestral works Scherzo fantastique op.3, Feu d’artifice op.4, the Chant funebre op.5 (a world premiere recording), and the orchestral song Le Faune et al Bergère op.2 to the mix. That novel Chant funebre – composed to memorialize Rimsky-Korsakov – starts out of a hovering, dark mist… much like something that Wagner might have composed. A flame licks through the brooding brass. Probably some Niebelungs just died. The ten-minute work eventually turns to a more lyrical, even Tchaikovsky-esque vein. Despite (or not?) more Wagner quotations to greet us in the subsequent works, this is really Stravinsky at his most French phase; much of the music resembles – vaguely in a literal sense; more strongly in mood – that of Paul Dukas or even Albert Roussel. The gorgeous, pastoral central section of the Scherzo fantastique, op.3, is of poetic and elegiac grace that any composer interested in sheer beauty would be proud to have penned. (Complete CD of the Week review on

# 3 - New Release

J.S.Bach, Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, Gottfried von der Goltz, Aparté AP176

available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, Gottfried von der Goltz,

Gottfried von der Goltz is best known as one of the leaders of the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra. That’s all well and good, but here he is, sans orchestra, in the Bach Sonatas and Partitas. Do we really need concertmasters entertaining notions of soloist careers? Yikes. That’s an old attitude, actually, from when those two jobs really were very different and the skillset not overlapping all that much. Even good concert masters, harnessed into a solo rôle for reasons of morale or economy, could sound like floundering amateurs. But there's a new generation, with all the skills for soloist positions but opting for the orchestral rôle anyway, and they certainly have what it takes. The Berlin Philharmonic’s Daishin Kashimoto comes to mind… and it turns out to be no different with von der Goltz, either. His recording, far from being a superfluous stuffer of the catalogue, is full of elegance and lightness, effortless perfection and joy.  My review on ClassicsToday will be up eventually, but until then take my word for it: Amid the glut of Sonata and Partita recordings, this one is special!

# 2 - New Release

B.Martinů, Bouquet of Flowers (+ Jan Novák, Philharmonic Dances), Tomáš Netopil, Prague RSO, Supraphon SU 4220

available at Amazon
B.Martinů, Bouquet of Flowers (+ Jan Novák, Philharmonic Dances), Tomáš Netopil, Prague RSO,

Bohuslav Martinů’s relatively obscure Bouquet of Flowers with its full-on Bohemian neo-classicism evokes hints of Orff’s Carmina Burana or might make one perceive touches of Janáček (perhaps from the Glagolitic Mass) or even Dvořák’s The Spectre’s Bride. But none of those hints come through with any strength; Martinů retains his own voice, even as he was able to change musico-linguistic tack even more often than he had to switch languages, what with having lived for extended periods of his life in Czecheslovakia, France, the US, and Switzerland.

A collection of seven vignettes and an overture, Bouquet of Flowers is a highly effective drama (or series of mini-dramas) written for orchestra, soloists, and choruses and intended for radio broadcast. It is constantly enchanting and entrancing music, even if the words of Karel Jaromír Erben’s poems – the famous collection "A Bouquet of Folk Legends" – remain foreign to your ear. The singers and the orchestra – the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra under the youngish Tomáš Netopil – indulge in this music with something that sounds like total conviction. This is the ‘lesser’ among the established orchestras in Prague – and you’d never guess it.
(Full review on

# 1 - New Release

F.Martin, Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke, Fabio Luisi, Philharmonia Zurich, Okka von der Damerau, Philharmonia PHR 0108

available at Amazon
F.Martin, Die Weise von Liebe und Tod, Fabio Luisi, Philharmonia Zurich, Okka von der Damerau,

Rainer Maria Rilke’s youthful poem-cum-epic "Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke" about a soldier who, reminiscing heavily, is moved to the front in Hungary in 1663, being promoted to flag bearer and then misses the battle after a love-filled night with a countess (so far it’s pure Flashman!) only to find heroic death wildly storming into the enemy (decidedly not Flashman), was a favorite read of German soldiers in the World Wars. There’s also something to the subject that brings out the best in early 20th century composers: it was set to music (among yet others) by Danish Paul von Klenau, Austrian-Czech Viktor Ullmann, and Swiss Frank Martin… and each came up with one of their masterpieces.

Frank Martin’s entrancing tone poem for contralto and orchestra was written while the war raged outside Switzerland – and perhaps therefore has a decidedly unheroic, melancholy touch to it. There’s a bittersweet beauty to the music, a bit like the sour and bitter but satisfying lingering of pure chocolate. Fabio Luisi, who seems never to have been more at home in a post than at the Zurich Opera and with its Philharmonia Zurich, provides the keenly felt, sensitive musical painting for the backdrop upon which Okka von der Damerau gives one of the most striking vocal performances I have heard on disc in a long time. With calm radiance she makes you take every step with the protagonist. The result is, in a word, ravishing.


Unknown said...

Thank you, Jens! This gives me much to think about. The double fugue in that new Eroica better be good. I can't believe I will buy another new Eroica after P. Jaarvi and Vanska. But I will because of you. PS I really do wish I spoke German - I know you get more out of the Cantatas and art songs when you know what they are saying. Really curious about the Bach solo CD, too.

jfl said...

You're welcome, Unknown! Do let me know how you liked 'yet another Eroica'! :-)