First published in The Herald on 16 December, 2015
Right: here are some of the classical (and classical-ish) recordings I have loved in 2015. This isn’t meant to be a definitive list, because 20 choices can’t cover all the good stuff, because I haven’t heard every album released this year, because my particular bent for raw-spirited Bach, soul-searing Brahms or time-halting Jürg Frey won’t match every critic’s top picks. The order is flexible, too; who can really argue the toss between Rachel Podger’s sparky Vivaldi and Nicholas Isherwood’s joyous Cage? What’s for sure is that every one of these recordings contains dedication, invention, wit, beauty — these are all performances that say something personal and illuminating. Happy listening.
20. Wagner: Das Rheingold
Simon Rattle/Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (BR Klassik)
So it turns out Simon Rattle can do revelatory Wagner; no surprises there. His take on the first Ring opera is fresh and un-ponderous, dealing in exquisite quiet sounds as well as thundering big ones. I’ve never heard the opera’s transformation music done so lucidly.
19. John Cage: Arias
Nicholas Isherwood (BIS)
Affectionate and forthright, meticulous when it matters and generally great fun, American bass-baritone Nicholas Isherwood admits it took him time to appreciate John Cage’s music but you’d never guess it from this collection spanning 43 years of Cage vocal works. His voice is rich, clear, lyrical; his delivery would equally suit a disc of American folk ballads.
18. Vivaldi: L’Estro Armonico
Rachel Podger/Brecon Baroque (Channel Classics)
L’Estro Armonico is a set of 12 violin concertos composed by Vivaldi in 1711. The blithe twists and technical pizzazz are feisty and spontaneous in the hands of Rachel Podger and her crack Brecon Baroque ensemble. There’s no sense of hierarchy here, but a real feeling of everyone mucking in and genuinely enjoying themselves.
17. Henri Dutilleux: Tout un monde lointain
Emmanuelle Bertrand/James Gaffigan/Lucerne Symphony Orchestra (Harmonia Mundi)
A rapturous cello concerto inspired by Baudelaire and written for Rostropovich in the late 1960s. James Gaffigan and the Lucerne orchestra tread that fine Dutilleux line between sensuality and refinement, and Emmanuelle Bertrand makes stunning sounds on her cello — now breathy, now deep and spicy. Also on the disc is a gleaming performance of Debussy’s Cello Sonata.
16. Joseph Kudirka: Beauty and Industry
Apartment House (Another Timbre)
Michigan-born Kudirka says significant things in simple terms. His music is considered and spacious; he doesn’t shout or clutter the edges or overfill the gaps. The piece in this collection that first caught my ear and wouldn’t let go is 21st Century Music, just a slow cycle of shifting intervals played by Apartment House with unfussy, unhurried grace.
15. Steve Martland: Anthology
Steve Martland Band (NMC)
Steve Martland was one of the good guys of British contemporary music, fizzing with wit, always his own person, able to summon chunky, chugging amplified minimalism that really dances. He died too young in 2013 and this double CD is a proper tribute, including an unbeatable performance of the mighty Patrol by the Smith Quartet.
14. Ysaÿe: Solo Violin Sonatas
Alina Ibragimova (Hyperion)
This was the summer the Proms audience held its collective breath to hear Alina Ibragimova play revelatory solo Bach at the Royal Albert Hall. In the recording studio, the Russian violinist delved into the strange world of Eugène Ysaÿe with similar fearlessness, honesty and deep-felt expression.
13. In C Mali
Andre de Ridder & other artists (Transgressive)
A brave and beautiful take on Terry Riley’s In C, recorded by conductor André De Ridder and a group of Malian musicians in Bamako. The line-up includes flutes, koras, imzads, djembes, kalimbas, calabashes and more, plus spoken word and a huge amount of defiant hope in the midst of a war zone. Apparently Riley himself loves the recording.
12. Harrison Birtwistle: Antiphonies, Slow Frieze, Panic, Crowd
Nicolas Hodges & other artists (Metronome)
Nicolas Hodges plays Harrison Birtwistle’s 1992 piano concerto Antiphonies like an almighty storm, while in the small ensemble piece Slow Frieze he’s all delicacy and shimmer. This is a terrific Birtwistle survey that also includes Panic (a piece the Daily Mail once described as a “horrible cacophony”) unleashed by saxophonist Marcus Weiss and drummer Christian Dierstein with exactly the right raging energy.
11. Mozart/Mendelssohn: String Quartets
Chiaroscuro Quartet (ARTE)
An unflinching, passionate and stylish take on Mozart’s String Quartet No 15 in D minor and Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No 2 in A minor. The Chiaroscuro Quartet — led by Alina Ibragimova; see above — plays core classical repertoire on period instruments with all the sumptuous high-contrast colours implicit in the name.
10. Brahms: Symphony No 2
Ivan Fischer/ Budapest Festival Orchestra (Channel Classics)
Ivan Fischer’s Brahms is intense, alive, inquisitive and rooted in tradition. His great Budapest orchestra sounds lithe and full of character, and I love that it’s still possible to hear exactly where this band comes from.
9. Schubert: Impromptus etc.
Steven Osborne (Hyperion)
Always worth sitting up and listening to a new Steven Osborne recording. This is the first time he has explored solo Schubert in the studio, pairing the early Hüttenbrenner Variations D576 with the second set of Four Impromptus and the Three Pieces D946. Not the most monumental repertoire, but Osborne’s playing is intelligent, profound and generous as ever.
8. Jürg Frey: Third String Quartet
Bozzini Quartet (Edition Wandelweiser Records)
Swiss composer Jurg Frey is master of calm and egoless sounds, and Montreal’s Bozzini Quartet gives a virtuosically still performance of his most recent string quartet. The music unfolds at breathing pace, accepting the natural fade of each chord with a peaceful momentum. Music to recalibrate the senses and clean out the ears.
7. Bach: Magnificat
John Butt/ Dunedin Consort (Linn)
Hard to imagine a classier Christmas album. John Butt has reconstructed Bach’s original Christmas Vespers, written for Leipzig in December 1723 to include organ music, congregational hymns, the Christmas Cantata 63 and the towering Magnificat. The Dunedins play and sing with the same style, exuberance and authority they’ve brought to live performances over the past year (which is to say: a lot).
6. William Lawes: The Royal Consort
Weird phrase lengths, irreverent accents, rogue harmonies… The viol writing of William Lawes is like nothing else, and Phantasm goes at it with a proper swing in its step. Sometimes the music repeats a snatch of melody just because it’s too good not to, which must have caused havoc for anyone trying to actually dance to these tunes.
5. Ravel: L’Enfant et les Sortilèges; Shéhérazade
Seiji Ozawa/Saito Kinen Orchestra (Decca)
Released to mark the 80th birthday of conductor Seiji Ozawa, this performance of Ravel’s fantasy opera glitters and sways. The hand-picked orchestra is supremely responsive and the cast spins a daft, wistful, poignant fairytale. As a bonus we get Susan Graham singing Ravel’s song cycle Shéhérazade, which is some bonus.
4. Bach: Harpsichord Concertos
Andreas Staier/Freiburg Baroque (Harmonia Mundi)
Grit, flair and expressive freedom from Andreas Staier in Bach’s seven solo harpsichord concertos, with Freiburg Baroque giving athletic ensemble backing. The attack is irresistibly thick and meaty: try the last movement of BWV 1058 to see what I mean.
3. Brahms: Piano Trios
Christian Tetzlaff/Tanja Tetzlaff/ Lars Vogt (Ondine)
Christian and Tanja Tetzlaff are brother and sister, him a violin and her a cellist, both musicians of rare sensitivity and intellectual brawn. Lars Vogt is a powerful and thoughtful pianist. Combining the three in Brahms’s noble piano trios was always going to be good, but I was knocked sideways by the insights of this recording.
2. Lutosławski: Piano Concerto; Symphony No 2
Simon Rattle/ Krystian Zimerman/ Berlin Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon)
Krystian Zimerman inhabits Lutoslawski’s wonderful Piano Concerto better than anyone: the piece was written for him in 1998 and his musicality is etched into its clean lines, its warmth, its noble chaconne of a finale. Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic respond in kind.
1. Bach: Cello Suites
David Watkin (Resonus)
A majestic account of Bach’s six cellos suites from David Watkin, formerly principal cello of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, now head of strings at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (lucky students!). Poised and searching, informed, vigorous, eloquent, honest, joyous… I could go on. Watkin has so much to say about line, harmony, sound, pace. The sound he makes is glorious — soft-grained gut strings on a 1670 Cremona instrument and an earthy five-string cello in the Sixth Suite. The recording was finished last December in the weeks before he was forced to give up playing due to an autoimmune condition, and there’s grit and resolve underpinning every note. A tremendously moving performance.