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17.12.20

Best Recordings of 2020


After a hiatus last year, it is time for a list of classical CDs that were outstanding this year. This is the ionarts list of the Best Classical Recordings of the Year:

Preamble


I’ve been doing some form of “Best of the Year” list since 2004. 2019 was the first time I slipped. Here’s my attempt at redemption. Granted, my overview of new releases is no longer quite what it was in the days I worked at Tower Records. But the idea of a “Best of the Year” list, if one clings too literally to the idea of “Best” is daft even under the most ideal of situations. It’s of course just short for: “These are a few of the things that I liked” and used, as I’ve been fond of writing in past iterations of this list, because “10 CDs that, all caveats duly noted, I consider to have been outstanding this year” just doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily. Because I skipped 2019, I will include some releases from that year on this list. If you are looking for past lists, here they are:

2004 | 2005 | 2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2008—"Almost" | 2009 | 2009—"Almost" | 2010 | 2010—"Almost" | 2011 | 2011—"Almost" | 2012 | 2013 | 2014 | 2015 | 2016 | 2017 | 2018

Pick # 10


L.v.Beethoven, Symphonies 1-9, Adam Fischer, Danish Chamber Orchestra, Naxos 8.505251


available at Amazon
L.v.Beethoven, The Symphonies
Adam Fischer, Danish Chamber Orchestra,
Naxos

I wanted these to be on the aborted 2019 list and they definitively belong on it. Yes, we have way too much Beethoven – and 2020 was one of the worst offenders, with it being the 'Beethoven Year' and every artist with ten fingers or access to a baton bringing out a cycle of the sonatas or the symphonies. In the concert halls, at least, Corona saved us from a Beethoven overkill that would have ruined our appreciation of the composers for decades. But just before all that happened, Adam Fischer and his now privately funded Danish Chamber Orchestra come out with something that stands out from the 178+ other cycles we can choose from. These are unpretentious, lively, quick-witted yet totally sober readings that manage to be free of any exaggeration and superbly exciting at the same time. Fischer situates his Beethoven in the near-ideal middle between the stale routine of playing these damn things over and over again on one side and the interventionist re-inventors of the wheel on the other. This is roughly the space Jukka-Pekke Saraste and his West German Radio Symphony Orchestra occupy (review: Precious Vanilla), or the fairly recent and excellent second Blomstedt cycle with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Except that Fischer’s band is smaller, more nimble, and a touch more alert which – as might be expected – shifts the focus of strengths towards the earlier symphonies. Like Blomstedt and most other conductors these days, Fischer chooses swift tempi. More to the point: Fischer opts for mediating tempi: quicker slow movements and moderately paced fast movements. The result is Beethoven unassuming and disheveled, and very lovable. A more detailed review will follow on ClassicsToday eventually. But it’s definitely the Beethoven Cycle of the Beethoven year!

Pick # 9


R.Schumann, Rare Choral Works, Aapo Hakkinen, Helsinki Baroque Orchestra, Carolyn Sampson et al., Ondine 1312


available at Amazon
R.Schumann, Rare Choral Works, Aapo Hakkinen, Helsinki Baroque Orchestra, Carolyn Sampson et al.,
Ondine

Here’s an all ‘round terrific disc of off-the-beaten-path Schumann from Ondine, coupling his Ballade op.140 for soloists and chorus with the Adventlied and – an intriguing filler in the middle – Schumann’s reworking of the Bach Cantata BWV 105. The Adventlied is, inexplicably, a world premiere recording. Where has it been hiding? It is Schumann at his most Mendelssohnesque. Meanwhile it’s good to know that even Schumann agreed that Bach’s stupendous Cantata BWV 105 is a masterpiece among masterpieces. Creating this performing version he certainly suggested as much. And he didn’t super-juice it: he held back and limited himself to modernizing the instrumentation to suit his players. It’s not adding to Bach but as the imaginative buffer between the two marvelously Schumann pieces is very welcome. With Carolyn Sampson participating, deftly accompanied by the Helsinki Baroque Orchestra and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir under Aapo Hakkinen, this disc is a winner that I’ve been wanting to write about for over a year. Consider this the teaser.

Pick # 8


J.S.Bach, Christmas Oratorio , Rudolf Lutz, soloists, Bach Stiftung Orchestra & Chorus, Bach Stiftung B664


available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, Christmas Oratorio, Rudolf Lutz, soloists, Bach Stiftung Orchestra & Chorus,
Bach Stiftung

Befitting the season, a Christmas Oratorio makes this list. The new release from the St. Gallen Bach Stiftung is perfect in just about every way. Perfection – in a technical sense – isn’t everything, of course, especially when it’s closer to anodyne than riveting. But in this case, the live recording (you’d never know!) has all the spirit of most of this outfit’s releases and absolutely terrific singers starting with alto Elvira Bill (who has appeared on the last three Christmas Oratorios I have reviewed) and tenor Daniel Johannsen who has established himself to the point where neither “young” nor “up and coming”. (I’ve just checked: He’s older now than Werner Güra was when he recorded “Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden”.) A review will follow on ClassicsToday soon and be linked then. By the way: if you haven’t sampled their Cantata-cycle het, but want to, you would do well to start here, with volume 30!

Pick # 7


Hans Zender, Winterreise Re-Composed, Ensemble Modern, Blochwitz, Ensemble Modern 043/44


available at Amazon
H.Zender, Winterreise Re-Composed, Ensemble Modern, Blochwitz
Ensemble Modern

This year I am not splitting the list up into new and re-releases. But as a nod to the tradition, I must include this re-release of a classic recording which I am so glad to have back in the catalogue: The premiere (and still best) recording of Hans Zender’s Winterreise with Ensemble Modern. My review for ClassicsToday here: Best Remembrance Of Hans Zender

Pick # 6


Richard Strauss, Enoch Arden, Bruno Ganz, Kirill Gerstein, Myrios MYR025


available at Amazon
Richard Strauss, Enoch Arden, Bruno Ganz, Kirill Gerstein
Myros

When Swiss actor Bruno Ganz and Kirill Gerstein performed Enoch Arden at Vienna’s Konzerthaus in late 2014, it was a quiet high-point of the season. The disc is about as good. Granted, the text of Strauss’ monodrama is quite important, so English-speakers not inclined to read along in the booklet will probably want to look to Glenn Gould and Claude Rains version for Sony. But for the rest: they’ve got a new reference version. The declamation of Ganz is worth hearing even just for how its musical and dramatic qualities, senza parole so to say. A fitting musical memorial for Ganz, who passed away in early 2019. My ClassicsToday review here: Granitic Enoch Arden From Bruno Ganz And Kirill Gerstein.

Pick # 5


Ossesso, Ratas del Viejo Mundo, Floris De Rycker, Ramée RAM1808


available at Amazon
Ossesso, Ratas del Viejo Mundo, Floris De Rycker,
Ramée

Here’s another album that scores on memorability over perfection. It’s over the top, in some ways, and fabulous for it. Ancient music keeps it grounded; the wild acoustic makes it ring in your head like you’re in a grand gothic cathedral. Or a well. Depending on your mindset. What the Old-World Rats (what a name!) deliver here, singing a variety of Italian Madrigals belaboring the subjects of Love and Affliction, is glorious and just the right touch of weird. “The inflection of notes, the tuning, the character of old instruments like psaltery and kanklės… it all contributes to a sense of gentle alienation. Is this Orlando di Lasso, Vincenczo Galilei, Friulian traditional music (sung in the old language) or are we already on to Arab or even African shores? You could let yourself be distracted by any numbers of unorthodoxies on the album “Ossesso” but it’s much easier and more gratifying to sit back and indulge.” To quote my review at ClassicsToday: Obsessed Rats—Wondrous Voices from Olden Times.

Pick # 4


J.S.Bach, Keyboard Works and Transcriptions, Víkingur Ólafsson, DG 4835022


available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, A Recital, Víkingur Ólafsson,
DG

Like the Beethoven Symphonies , this is a release that would have been on last year’s list, also… and it’s too good and memorable to miss out on. It’s really just a supremely tasteful Bach recital by a wonderfully talented pianist who is just as satisfying in recital as he is on disc. But that’s enough. As I’ve said in my ClassicsToday review (Icelandic Bach With Heart and Panache): “It’s taken 13 years for a Bach-on-piano recital disc to have come along to match Alexandre Tharaud’s.” That is the hightest praise I can give. As a bonus, not that this need matter for your purely musical enjoyment: Víkingur Ólafsson won’t annoy you on Twitter, if you follow him, which you should at @VikingurMusic.

Pick # 3


L.v.Beethoven et al., Works for Mandolin, Julien Martinean, Vanessa Benelli Mosell et al., Naïve 7083


available at Amazon
L.v.Beethoven et al., Works for Mandolin, Julien Martinean, Vanessa Benelli Mosell et al.,
Naïve

This is a recording I don’t think I’ll ever forget – and if it’s for the mandolin variant of that 1970s Hot 100 smash hit of Walter Murphey’s: A Fifth of Beethoven (also known for its notable appearance in Saturday Night Fever). But no, actually, this is good and memorable all around, elevating some of Beethoven’s B-Music to A-levels. And a recording that memorable deserves a high entry on this list, even if it isn’t perfect. My review at ClassicsToday here: Beethoven for the Mandolin.

Pick # 2


H.G.Stölzel, Ein Lämmlein geht und trägt die Schuld (Passion oratorio 1731), Purcell Choir, Orfeo Orchestra, Glossa 924006


available at Amazon
H.G.Stölzel, Passion oratorio, Purcell Choir, Orfeo Orchestra,
Glossa

This is such terrific music and so sympathetically performed and well recorded that it is bound to be the first of many Heinrich Gottfried Stölzel works you will want to hear. If, in fact, this is your first one. There is no (baroque) composer other than Bach that wrote no weak pieces. But at their best the Telemanns and Hasses and Zelenkas can be as good and, for being different, offer some extra enjoyment. And the same goes for Stölzel and this Passion oratorio in particular. Listen to “Ein Lämmlein geht und trägt die Schuld”. Treat yourself! My review at ClassicsToday here: Good Enough for Bach, Good Enough for Us.

Pick # 1


Antonio Vivaldi, Il Tamerlano, Accademia Bizantina, Ottavio Dantone, naïve 7080


available at Amazon
Antonio Vivaldi, Il Tamerlano, Accademia Bizantina, Ottavio Dantone,
naïve

Vivaldi operas have lagged behind those of Handel’s in appreciation and Il Tamerlano a.k.a. Bajazet (RV 703) perhaps even more, because its pasticcio composition style did not fit in with the Urtext and unity-of-the-artwork type of musicological purity that reigned in the last few decades. This perception might have begun to change, slowly, after Fabio Biondi’s fabulous 2005 recording came out. It turns out that it’s a masterpiece and the custom of stitching an opera together from previous hits of his own, newly written music, and arias from other composers – mainly Hasse and Giacomelli – doesn’t hold it back, it aids this work! Vivaldi giving his music, in the Venetian style, to the good guys but his colleagues’ more flashy Neapolitan-style music to the baddies adds welcome variety. Vivaldi’s intended point about the superiority of the former is, alas, undermined by the Red Priest having been too fair and using the finest that his rivals’ had on offer: two of the absolute show-stealing arias aren’t his. But we don’t care, the music is great and this new recording of the Accademia Bizantina under Ottavio Dantone is just what the opera deserves; rivalling (or complementing) Biondi’s, easily. A must-listen for 2021, if you haven’t yet. Review forthcoming.


OK, let’s cheat. Or make up for the lost year of 2019. I simply have to mention a few more recordings, now that I’ve started. Here they are: