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Best Recordings of 2018

Time for a review of classical CDs that were outstanding in 2018 again! This lists the new releases with the best re-issues following below.


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

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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

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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.

Best Recordings of 2018 (Re-Issues)

# 10 - Re-Release

Joseph Marx, Orchestral Works v.1, Steven Sloane, Bochum Symphony, Naxos 8.573831

available at Amazon
Joseph Marx, Orchestral Works v.1
(Nature Trilogy, Symphonic Night Music, Idyll, Spring Music)
S.Sloane / Bochum Symphony

“To each instrument according to his ability, from each according to its timbre”, you might recall, was – famously – Joseph Marx’ mantra, when sitting in his Vienna office of the university, composing the colorful panoplies that are his orchestral works. There are those who say that his music, untimely then, outdated soon thereafter, lacking modernity or forward-drive, landed on the ash heap of history. But not so, thanks to a band of steady Joseph-Marxists, such as the American-in-Bochum Steven Sloane, who continued the fight and made valuable recordings of this lush whipped double-cream romanticism. These were made for ASV with his Bochum Orchestra – which brought the little band in the coal-mining West a bit of fame. But ASV is no more and the 1994 recordings out of print and scattered to the winds. But here cometh Naxos to the rescue, re-issuing these still very fine (albeit not perfect; just imagine the Vienna Philharmonic in engagement-mode or the Dresden Staatskapelle play these) recordings. For all these reasons, this first of three is most welcome, indeed!

# 9 - Re-Release

Antonio Rosetti, Symphonies & Concertos, Johannes Moesus, Hamburg Symphony, MDG 601 2056-2

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Antonio Rosetti, Symphonies & Concertos
J.Moesus / Hamburg SO

MDG, that quintessentially Mittelstand-CD label from Germany, has been slapping single disc releases together as Twofers as re-releases for a while – all roughly twenty years after that practice was common with Philips DUOs and EMI double-fortes et al. That’s not to say that good things don’t come of that, especially as the original liner notes are fused and retained which is especially welcome when it comes to the lesser known composers MDG is known to highlight. In this case it was Antonio Rosetti who got that treatment, with MDG joining their symphony and concerto recordings of the Mozart contemporary. Such supremely charming music – to which this set is as fine (or better) an introduction as any. “It isn’t, strictly speaking, absolutely necessary to compare Antonio Rosetti (1750-1792) to Haydn or Mozart. But as soon as you hear a few bars of his D major symphony those two superstars of the classical-classical era will pop to mind. Not that the comparison is new; it was common enough even in the composer’s lifetime.” Full ClassicsToday review here.

# 8 - Re-Release

Sergei Prokofiev, Piano Sonatas, Vladimir Ovchinnikov, Warner Classics 09190295739850

available at Amazon
S.Prokofiev, Piano Sonatas,
Warner Classics

I shall review this set for ClassicsToday – if the more qualified Jed Distler doesn’t get there first: Vladimir Ovchinnikov plays the nine Prokofiev Piano Sonatas. Although it must have been among the first major label sets of these sonatas (these recordings were made between 1991 and 1993), it never quite got traction. Upon re-release it was a complete novelty to me. But then, there are surprisingly few complete major label sets of these fantastic works in a major genre by such a major composer – and fewer still really got that intangible traction. (My hunch is that there were some great and famous if incomplete recordings of these sonatas by great and famous pianists – Sviatoslav Richter, mainly – that took some of the wind out of these projects. Perhaps none until, within limits, the Ondine set with Matti Raekallio (oop).

Anyway, these are totally persuasive recordings, a touch on the subtle side, but able to build power and fascination over long arches – very vaguely like Backhaus’ Beethoven and less like what a stereotypical “Russian” take might be thought to sound like. More in said review, until then perhaps take my word that these performances will give you a lot of Prokofian joy.

# 7 - Re-Release

Jean Sibelius, Symphonies 5-7, Herbert von Karajan, Philharmonia, Praga 250 355

available at Amazon
J.Sibelius, Symphonies 5-7,
H.v.Karajan / Philharmonia

Herbert von Karajan was selective in the Sibelius he performed and recorded, but at a time when central European conductors and orchestras had turned their back entirely to the composer (thanks, Adorno!), at least he did something for the Finish composer. If Sibelius hadn’t already been on Karajan’s radar before or during the war, he was certainly confronted with it in London, during his time with the Philharmonia. That’s where his first recordings – still classics after well more than half a century – were made. The (now defunct?) Praga label gives us the Symphonies Five, Six and Seven here.

These are of course the EMI recordings that Walter Legge instigated, although the release – not the booklet or back cover – never mentions EMI, which is quite an achievement. They do suggest that the recordings were “remastered from studio mono (!) and stereo recordings (1953-1960)”, in contrast to the more prominently displayed title of the series “genuine stereo lab”. That’s misleading (nothing unusual for the label), so let’s sort this out:

The Sixth and Seventh Symphonies included, from 1955, were already made in stereo. Of the two Fifth Symphonies Karajan recorded with the Philharmonia for EMI, the first from 1951/52 was mono, indeed. But the one included in this set is the second one from 1960. The confusion has method; Praga also re-issued Karajan’s mono 1953 Fourth in their “Genuine Stereo Lab” edition on Praga 250354 together with the 1960 stereo Second. (Unfortunately, Pierre-Emile Barbier, the man behind what was essentially a one-man operation, died earlier this April and cannot be asked to shed light on the issue.)

But oddities in the fine print aside, what we have, between the two releases, is Karajan’s Philharmonia Sibelius (sans the mono Fifth), conveniently back in print on CD since, surprisingly, it was never subject of one of those Warner Karajan boxes (Ed.Erratum: it is part of this catch-all "Orchestral Spectaculars 1949-1960" box), where you can find his EMI/Berlin cycle from 1976-1981. And that’s extremely welcome because the recordings’ merit is – as mentioned – still considerable. It’s generally brisk and liquid, cool and unflappable Sibelius – with a sense of purpose and beautiful playing.

Granted, the ending of the Fifth lacks the suspense that it attains, when the stabbed chords are staggered. Karajan sets them down, as unsentimentally as can be imagined: One… … Two… Three… Four… Five… Six, equidistantly spaced out and rapidly. (His EMI Berlin re-make is less brisk.) It’s an interpretative choice that strikes a listener, used to a more theatrical approach, as strange, but it’s only that: a choice. It can’t nix the rich and tense half-hour preceding it; it’s exciting, exultant in finale of the first movement and glorious in the run-up to the finale. Throughout, the Philharmonia plays like the first-class ensemble it had become in so short a time, with silvery tenderness in the Sixth, and offering a powerful Seventh (which Karajan only ever performed twice in concert!) of iron, more than fleeting magic.

(Note: Karajan’s Philharmonia Sibelius is sort-of part a Philharmonia Sibelius Cycle which becomes complete if you add Paul Kletzki’s First and Third – currently ‘least unavailable’ from Testament – with the same orchestra and also recorded for and by Legge at the time. Excellent recordings, too!)

# 6 - Re-Release

Richard Strauss, Der Rosenkavalier, Herbert von Karajan, Philharmonia Orchestra, E. Schwarzkopf, T. Stich-Randall, C. Ludwig, O. Edelmann, E. Waechter, N. Gedda et al., Warner Classics 0190295817459

available at Amazon
R.Strauss, Der Rosenkavalier,
H.v.Karajan / Philharmonia
Warner Classics

Karajan’s Rosenkavalier has stood the test of time; a reference for decades; the measure by which all subsequent Rosenkavaliers have been measured. Granted, references do age… and eventually they are overtaken. This one holds up quite well, even if “Schwarzkopf’s painstakingly controlled perma-vibrato… gives her overwrought rendition the patina of age and a slightly calculated air. That said, she can still move you to tears–and what a small caveat that is, in light of the overall excellent singing, the very decent (remastered) early stereo sound, and the marvelously controlled orchestra.” That’s quoting from my ClassicsToday review, which can be found here. What makes the re-issue attractive beyond the musical merits is the great care with which it has been produced; a real treasure to behold in an age where CDs better also score on haptic value if they want to impart value over the immaterial sounds of streaming.

# 5 - Re-Release

Olivier Messiaen, Organ Works, Louis Thiry, La Dolce Volta LDV 49.1

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Olivier Messiaen, Organ Works,
La Dolce Volta

Once you look into it, there’s a surprising amount of recordings of Messiaen’s (complete) organ works. There’s the composer himself (EMI/Warner) and, in no particular order, Gillian Weir (Collins), Jennifer Bate (Unicorn/Regis), Oliver Latry (DG), Kevin Bowery (Continuum), Colin Andrews (Loft), Hans-Ola Ericson (BIS), Willem Tanke (Brilliant), Rudolf Innig (MDG), a shared one by  Timothy Byram-Wigfield and Michael Bonaventure (Delphian), Tom Winpenny (Naxos), John Gillock (Jade/Raven?), Erik Boström (Proprius)… and possibly a few others. You get the idea: For music that’s not exactly classical mainstream, that’s a lot! Especially at six to seven CDs a pop.

And here comes a set of the “complete” Messiaen Organ Works on three CDs. The implied asterisk will solve the mystery: “Complete at the time these were recorded.” The then young French organist Louis Thiry was picked by André Isoir to record or the Calliope label all that Messiaen had published for the organ at the time. This was in 1972, and the set is therefore missing the later cycles Méditations sur le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité, and Livre du Saint Sacrament (as well as Diptyque, Verset pour la fête de la Dédicace and posthumous works).

That still leaves Apparition de l’Eglise éternelle, Les Corps Glorieux, Messe de la Pentecôte, La Nativité, Le Banquet céleste, Livre d’orgue, and L’Ascencion: The main fare of Messiaen-on-organ. Apparently, the original release on Calliope was deemed the bee’s knees when it came out. The fame must have fizzled a little; I’d never heard of the blind Thiry and his set, even though it was out on CD in the 90s. But now on encountering it in its new life on the lavishly packaged, gorgeous-to-the-touch and pleasing-to-the-eye set on La Dolce Volta, I understand why and how. For their 40-plus years, these are still riveting-to-the-ear performances, full of mystery and speaker-tickling power. I find the sensitive interpretations even more immediately enchanting than the very fine sets of Weir, Latry, and Ericson to which I otherwise pled my Messiaen-allegiance. In fact, Thiry’s set – not the least for its focus – is just the thing to get if you wish to get into Messiaen’s organ works without going the full Monty. Or adding to your substantial Messiaen collection if you are really into the composer, of course.

# 4 - Re-Release

Gustav Mahler, The Symphonies et al., Michael Gielen, SWR Symphony Orchestra Baden-Baden/Freiburg, Hänssler SWR19042CD

available at Amazon
Gustav Mahler, The Symphonies et al.,
M.Gielen, SWR SO

Back in the days (2009), during “Mahler Month” at WETA, I got to suggest and put together three complete cycles of Mahler Symphonies. The first one was made up of at least one American ingredient (orchestra or conductor). The second one was a cherry-picked international cycle. The third one was an integral. For that, I opted for Michael Gielen’s traversal with the Baden-Baden/Freiburg SWRSO on Hänssler. Although only one single performance – the Tenth – is a top recommendation for each symphony on my Mahler Survey,  the consistency of performances across the board is so high that that choice was easily merited. Like every Mahler cycle, or so it seems, it has a complete dud (the Fourth, in this case), but that’s par for the course. All the rest is very good or better… most of them ended up in the recommended batch – like the Second (@ #3), the Sixth (@ #5), the Ninth (@ #2), the Eighth (@ #7) or are a strong point all the same (like the Seventh).

Now you might have been of the persuasion that Gielen’s modernistic inclinations by adding to each Mahler symphony a modern orchestral work he thought went well with it were edifying, intriguing, titillating… and you got the individual releases with these sometimes unusual couplings. Or they were not to your liking. If you skipped on his Mahler then, because of that or some other bad reason, here’s your chance. Boxed without the non-Mahler addenda but all the Mahler from Gielen that’s come between 1988 and 2014 (Lied von der Erde, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, Kindertotenlieder, Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the Blumine movement – none mind-altering great, all pretty darn good), it’s one of the obvious great modern Mahler sets to have.

# 3 - Re-Release

Henry Purcell, Dido & Aeneas, Teodor Currentzis, MusicAeterna, S.Kermes, D.York et al., Alpha 376

available at Amazon
Henry Purcell, Dido & Aeneas,
Teodor Currentzis, MusicAeterna, S.Kermes, D.York et al.

The Alpha label knew something was cooking with this Currentzis character well before most of the classical music scene did. They recorded several very fine discs with him, which might then have flown under the radar as a bit of a curiosity. Now that we know he is the real deal, despite the antics and superficial distractions, it’s worth revisiting them. Like his terrific-terrifying Shostakovich’s 14th Symphony, his outré Mozart Requiem, and especially his Purcell Dido & Aeneas. Purcell takes off like a rocket, here, and the drama will shake you up like Purcell probably has not managed to do before. The total commitment of the singers – a cast of regulars that have been buying into his style early on – makes it all so palpable, Dido & Aeneas becomes a nail-biter.

# 2 - Re-Release

Wolfgang Amadé Mozart, Da Ponte Operas, René Jacobs, Harmonia Mundi HMX 2908801.09

available at Amazon
W.A.Mozart, Da Ponte Operas,
R.Jacobs, Conceto Köln & Freiburg BO & superb soloists
Harmonia Mundi

All three of the opera recordings contained in the box of René Jacobs’ traversal of the three Da Ponte Operas are among the best in show. Jacobs’ Le Nozze was Number 1 in 2004, his Così fan tutte a fervent favorite since before that, and his and the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra’s Don Giovanni, while perhaps less obviously setting a totally new standard, would still be my first choice and first recommendation. (See also my Mozart Discography to go with Paul Johnson’s travesty of a Mozart biography.) It goes to reason that the packaging of these three in one box makes this list, and high up. It is an unmissable bargain if you’ve somehow missed out on these releases before. There was no skimping on the re-issue, either, except that the librettos are included as a pdf file on an extra disc… but that’s fair enough. Go directly and get this re-release. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200…

# 1 - Re-Release

Johann Sebastia Bach, The Cantatas (One Complete Liturgical Year), Sigiswald Kuijken, La Petite Bande, soloists, Accent

available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, Cantatas
S.Kuijken, La Petite Bande et al.

Wow. Just wow. I love this ‘one liturgical year cycle’ of the Bach cantatas. Sigiswald Kuijken and his La Petite Bande and his none-too-gorgeous band of soloists (it’s one-voice-per-part) may be musicologically misguided by following the fine but ultimately unconvincing arguments of Joshua Rifkin’s “Bach’s Choral Ideal”. But who the Saxonian heck cares when the results rock and sock that hard? This is uncomfortably edgy Bach; with neither the genial warmth of Herreweghe, the feel-good factor of Koopman, the elegance of Suzuki. But it has bite and zing and convinces me totally. So good to have it out in a box now, even if that meant forgoing the SACD format of the individual releases. Volume 9 was in the “Best of 2010” list and volume 8 in the “Almost Best of 2009” list. Here’s my review on ClassicsToday: Sigiswald Kuijken’s Zany Bach of Wonders Boxed


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'! :-)