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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:


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,

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.,

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” still apply. (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

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,

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,

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.,

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,

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,

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:

Pick # 11

J.S.Bach, Transcriptions for Organ, Leo van Doeselaar, Erwin Wiersinga, MDG 90621376

available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, Transcriptions for Organ, Leo van Doeselaar, Erwin Wiersinga,

This is a bit niche, I know, but I love Bach on the organ and I have two recordings for you to consider. This MDG release of two Dutch organists is less sexy than the one with Olivier Latry performing on the grand 1868 Cavaillé-Coll organ at Notre Dame; the last recording before that famous instrument suffered in – but astoundingly survived – the great fire. It’s more a protestant Bach dreamboat: Two totally unknown musicians (that’s basically synonymous with “organist”) performing on two old instruments in some church in some dinky Dutch town*. But of course the two organs sound great (the bigger one features in at least five Bach organ cycle recordings), the performers aren’t stuffy or dusty at all, and the great-sounding recording (CD, SACD stereo, and multi-channel) culminates in an impressive transcription for four hands and two feet of the chorus “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” from Cantata BWV 80. My ClassicsToday review here: Marvelous Bach Transcriptions From Groningen’s Martinikerk. (* Groningen is lovely!)

Pick # 12

J.S.Bach, Bach to the Future, Olivier Latry on Notre Dame’s Cavaillé-Coll Organ, La Dolce Volta 69

available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, Bach to the Future, Olivier Latry on Notre Dame’s Cavaillé-Coll Organ
La Dolve Volta

And here comes the aforementioned Bach recording of Latry on that now smoldering Cavaillé-Coll. It’s really the equivalent of a sacred Wurlitzer… but somehow it sounds grand and fun and, importantly, it somehow doesn’t smudge the polyphony that gives Bach’s music its super-added quality. Despite a whopping seven-second reverb at Notre Dame! Still, the organ is an inevitable (and invaluable) part of the interpretation and in a way this album sounds more like one of Bach transcriptions than that of only transcriptions on the aforementioned  fabulous and highly Bach-appropriate Schnitger instrument. These are both two completely different takes on Bach and they are both wildly entertaining. (Presupposing any Bach organ recital can ever achieve such lofty entertainment status with you.) My ClassicsToday review here: Bach Before The Fire.

Pick # 13

Telemann, 3 Overture Suites, L’Orfeo Barockorchester, Carin van Heerden, CPO 555389

available at Amazon
Telemann, 3 Overture Suites, L’Orfeo Barockorchester, Carin van Heerden,

Let’s make this whole addendum a little baroque corner: Telemann’s orchestral overtures are, as a genre, among his best loved works and it’s easy to understand why. Especially in a recording like this: The Austrian L'Orfeo Baroque Orchestra (not led by Michi Gaigg for once, but by co-founder and performing recordista Carin van Heerden) lends a marvelous punch to the proceedings: much more satisfyingly orchestral than the chamber-like Ensemble Stradivaria (Mirare) in TWV 55:G1 (“Die Dirne” or “The hussy”) and much more alive than the Hungaroton recording. The Suite is a veritable early pastoral tone poem, it can take the heft. If the Overture of G1 sounds familiar, it’s because it uses the same folk song as its base as the Quodlibet the Goldberg Variations.

 Telemann wrote so awfully much, a lot of Telemann discs – this one among them – still present us with rarities. There might be two version of T55:G5 floating out there; T55:B13 might actually be a world premiere recording. But then the point of my recommendation is not to say that you should listen to this if you are specifically looking for these works (because frankly, there are dozens of other valuable works you might turn to with equal justification) but because they are so enthusiastically played. The superb, very rich sound is ads a good deal to the grand atmosphere. This recording – a follow-up to a recording of 3 Orchestral Suites from 12 years ago – only crossed my desk a little while ago. I’m aware of the dangers. But if this be recency bias, let there be more recency bias!

Pick # 14

J.S.Bach, Concertos for Multiple Keyboards, Alpha 446

available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, Concertos for Multiple Keyboards, Alpha

Back to Bach: Not only is this two-disc set somehow the only stand-alone release that features all the Bach concertos for multiple keyboards on modern instruments, it’s also superior to all the competition. It’s free of mannerism, soppiness, or the “self-conscious…predictable affectations” of a David Fray. Not terribly surprising, really: Koroliov is one of the most consistently satisfying Bach pianists of our time. The Potsdam Chamber Academy really plays along, too and the sound (in the acoustic of Berlin’s Jesus-Christus Kirche) is reference quality. My ClassicsToday review here: Koroliov’s Multiple-Keyboard Concerto Reference Recording.

Pick # 15

D.Scarlatti, Select Sonatas, Margherita Torretta, Academy 2462

available at Amazon
D.Scarlatti, Select Sonatas, Margherita Torretta,

While we’re at it: Let’s bring on Domenico Scarlatti, in performances of some of his sonatas on the piano by an Italian pianist I had never heard of. These vanity releases can go badly and I wasn’t particularly looking forward to giving it my time. But once I did, I was enchanted. It was perhaps a bit of a mood-of-the-moment thing, but even on re-listening I am still won over by the sense of abandon and unbridled enthusiasm that is content with frolicking through these works, instead of displaying thin-lipped refinement: Just pure, lusty piano playing with freewheeling nonchalance. Is it as absolutely necessary to have as the Pletnev album? Not quite, but give it its well-deserved chance to impress. My ClassicsToday review here: Bang-On Scarlatti From Out Of Nowhere

Pick # 16

G.Tartini, Violin Concertos, Chouchane Siranossian, Venice Baroque Orchestra, Andrea Marcon, Alpha 596

available at Amazon
G.Tartini, Violin Concertos, Chouchane Siranossian, Venice BO, Andrea Marcon,

The Naxos Music Library – to use it as a measuring stick of composer-popularity – features 250 items of Giuseppe Tartini. Not bad, although on most of them he is mere filler. Vivaldi, however: Eleven times as many – and on most he’s got the limelight. If you hear these sunny, joyous concertos, you might hope for Tartini to catch up a little. As I wrote in my ClassicsToday review “Tartini Delights With Chouchane Siranossian”, “Andrea Marcon, leading energetically from the harpsichord, and his Venice Baroque Orchestra provide terrific playing. [Soloist] Chouchan Siranossian’s fine, elegant, and subtly intense tone, with perfect intonation and delicate mobility, suits the singing nature of these pieces well; her ornamentations are delightful.” Wherever there are other recordings available, these forces blow them out of the water.

Pick # 17

G.Fauré, Select Piano Works, Nicolas Stavy, BIS 2389

available at Amazon
G.Fauré, Select Piano Works, Nicolas Stavy,

Finally, not baroque: This is a dose of full-on French romanticism. “If any one recording was needed to convince more – any – listeners of the gorgeousness of Gabriel Fauré’s piano music, then this recital is it!” The recording succeeds on all fronts: First, in the selection of the music, second, in the performances themselves, and finally with the recorded sound. And who knew there was so much of Mendelssohn and Mozart in Fauré?! This disc lets you find out in style and touch your heart-strings in the process. My ClassicsToday review here: A Fabulous Fauré Piano Music Primer.

Picks # 18, 19, 20

Modern Concertos and Old Motets

available at Amazon
T.Adès, Piano Concerto et al.,
K.Gerstein et al.

available at Amazon
D.Ammann et al., PC “Gran Toccata” +,
Andreas Haefliger et al.

available at Amazon
Bach, Motets,
Harmonia Mundi

I still hope to write about Thomas Adès’s and Dieter Ammann’s Piano Concertos, with Kirill Gerstein on Myrios and Andreas Haefliger on BIS, respectively, but need more time. Ditto Pygmalion’s release of the Bach Motets. Consider this a firm nod in these three releases’ direction.


Moshe said...

I'm enjoying your best of the year reviews, so I wanted to repay you in a small way by pointing out a link error. For the Scarlatti recording by Margherita Torretta at #15, your Amazon purchase link goes instead to a recording of “Rosenkavalier” conducted by von Karajan.

Moshe said...

The purchase link for the Tartini goes to a recording of Messiaen organ works!

Moshe said...

The Fauré purchase link goes to a set of Mahler symphonies.

Moshe said...

The review entitled “Gimmick Instrument, Splendid Performances: Mozart’s Violin Concertos” has the wrong text next to the cover photo where it begins on the front page, the start of a review of “Haydn and the Harp.”

However, if one clicks on the review title, you do get to the correct Mozart review.

jfl said...

Better late than never: Links are fixed and thanks very much for pointing them out!

Cheers & best,