Top ten classical CDs of 2013

First published in The Herald on 18 December, 2013

This year the full might of the classical music industry fell behind an unlikely trio of composers (Wagner, Verdi and Britten) and triggered an avalanche of tribute recordings and reissues. But the most rewarding discs often come from the sidelines. Quietly revelatory takes on familiar ground, new outings for unsung repertoire… Whittling down 12 months’ worth of classical releases is a heart-wrenching business, and I’ve cheated by adding five extra titles at the end. It’s also worth noting that while The Herald takes a special interest in music being made in Scotland, every one of the following selection made the cut on blind merit. It’s a list that speaks not of geographical bias but of the extraordinary calibre of Scotland’s classical ensembles.

1 Berlioz: Les nuit d’ete and La mort de Cleopatre. Cargill/SCO/Ticciati. LINN 421
Robin Ticciati has by now embedded the unique soundworld of Hector Berlioz into the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s DNA – the impact is audible in the way they play core repertoire like Beethoven and Schumann. Meanwhile the orchestra brings fresh style and insight into the French composer’s orchestral writing. Last year’s period-ish account of the Symphonie fantastique was a real ear-opener; this year’s follow-up – a gorgeous collection of Les nuits d’été, the Love Scene from Roméo et Juliette and La mort de Cléopâtre – is even more seductive thanks to the poetic, tender, captivating voice of Arbroath-born soprano Karen Cargill. The sound engineers at Linn capture every shimmering hue.

2 Bach: Brandenburg Concertos. Dunedin Consort/Butt. LINN 430
The world hardly suffers from a dearth of Brandenburg recordings, but as usual John Butt and the period-instrument Dunedin Consort bring something totally new to these well-trod concertos. This is lean, spry, spirited playing. Solos are taken from within the group and there’s a real sense of shared ownership from every gutsy, exuberant player. Butt’s academic authority reveals some fascinating relationships and instrumental colours, and there’s the added bonus of his edifying sleeve notes, but the performance never sounds fastidious: its learnedness never gets in the way of a good tune or a swinging dance rhythm.

3 Brahms: The Symphonies. Ricardo Chailly/Leipzig Gewandhausorchester. Decca 478 5344
An irresistible heavyweight set from conductor Ricardo Chailly and one of the world’s classiest orchestras. The sound is plush, authoritative and glossily Germanic, yet also lucid, light on its feet, even daring at times. Chailly draws grandiosity and poise through each symphony, but it’s his revelation of the rawer stuff – urgency, angst, bitter-sweet melancholy, tender humanity – that makes this set so powerful. The interpretations are stately because they’re honest, never pompous.

4 Stravinsky: Complete music for piano and orchestra. Osborne/BBCSSO/Ilan Volkov. Hyperion 67870
A fascinating survey of some of Stravinsky’s lesser-known (and not always particularly approachable) ensemble music from the sparky neoclassical Concerto for Piano and Winds (1924) to the wilfully modernist Movements for Piano and Orchestra (1959). Steven Osborne is yet again at the absolute top of his game, with playing of agile, muscular, witty intelligence. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Ilan Volkov match his feisty precision and add reams of colour.

5 Rautavaara: Missa a cappella. Latvian Radio Choir/Klava. Ondine 1223-2
The 85-year-old Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara has worn his share of stylistic guises, but has always been something of a romantic at heart with a penchant for aching harmonies and sparse, haunting melodies. His so-called ‘mystic romanticism’ has produced a body of extraordinary choral repertoire including the hypnotic Missa a cappella: deeply meditative with a resounding purity, evocation of open spaces, unhurried calm and folk-rooted ebb and flow. This is the first recording and it’s hard to imagine a finer account. The Latvian Radio Choir sing with glassy precision and a deep warmth that prevents the music from every sounding austere.

6 Bach: Well-Tempered Keyboard (Book One). Peter Hill. Delphian 34126
The quiet mastery of pianist and musicologist Peter Hill shines through every note of this recording. Hill is best known as a Messiaen scholar and interpreter (the composer himself called him “a true poet”) and he brings all the finesse and supple, gradated touch of French piano music to his Bach, too. But above all this account is persuasive because it’s so brilliantly unfussy. Hill weaves elegant lines through the gnarliest counterpoint and articulates melodies with humble simplicity.

7 Britten: String Quartets. Tackas Quartet. Hyperion CDA68004
Of all the reams of new Britten recordings released in his centenary year, this is the one that stands out. The unflappable Takacs Quartet delve to the heart of these haunting pieces, with taught, plain-speaking playing that cuts from bracing ferocity to heartbreaking intimacy and wanders the restless, troubled, beautiful terrain in between. The third quartet’s Passacaglia is noble and direct; the first’s sensual opening is treated with an ardency that’s dignified rather than salacious.

8 Christian Wallumrod Ensemble: Outstairs. ECM 2289
Strictly classical it is not, but this sublime album from Norwegian pianist Christian Wallumrod is too good not to mention. The cool, poetic sound of Wallumrod’s six-piece ensemble (sax, violin, cello, hardanger fiddle, percussion) is flecked with folk, jazz, contemporary classical and early sacred music, but they never force the eclectic thing and essentially revolve around an axis of their own. The meeting point is organic, free-floating, sensitive and shot through with dark Nordic humour. There’s a lot of space but the music never feels too sparse; there’s a lot of spark but it never feels manic. The seventh track, Folkskiss, is among the most beautiful melodies I’ve encountered.

9 Bartok: Violin Concerto. Faust/Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Harding. Harmonia Mundi 90214
The German violinist Isabelle Faust brings grit, thoughtful nuance and crippling tenderness to Bartok’s two violin concertos. She runs the full gamut of the vastly varied scores, from fervid attacks to plaintiveness, from cool wit to incisive precision, and her instrument’s tone always wields an unpushy, unwavering command over the orchestra. There’s heartbreak in the early First Concerto and foot-stomping drive in the folksy Second. Harding and the Swedes make for nimble conspirators.

10 Beethoven and Mozart: Quartets. Chiaroscuro Quartet. Aparte 051
The period-instrument Chiaroscuro Quartet were a highlight of the 2013 Edinburgh International Festival, and their lithe, gracious playing is captured on this fine disc of quartets by Beethoven (the Quartet in F minor Op 95) and Mozart (the Quartet in E-flat K428). The youthful group is led by star Russian violinist Alina Ibragimova and flashes of her virtuosity are shot through the faster movements. But it’s a committed ensemble mentality that makes the Chiaroscuro sound so deeply engaging.

Five more…
1 Bach: St John Passion. Dunedin Consort/Butt. Linn 419
2 Lutoslawski: The Symphonies. LA Philharmonic/Salonen. Sony 88765440832
3 Feldman: Violin and Orchestra. Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra/Pomarico. ECM New Series 2283
4 Bridge: Phantasy Piano Quartet, etc. Nash Ensemble. Hyperion 68003
5 Couperin: Trois leçons de ténèbres. The King’s Consort. Vivat 102