The ten best classical releases of 2012

Entertainment Music and Art

Lewis Coenen-Rowe lists his favourite classical relases of the year.

10) J S Bach: Das Wohltemperierte Klavier –Andras Schiff (ECM New Series)

Whether or not we truly need yet another recording of Bach’s The Well Tempered Clavier, Schiff’s contribution is certainly a welcome addition to the pantheon. He brings to the collection an immaculate refinement and precision; every voice of every fugue is individually shaped for enormous clarity. Schiff’s approach to performance has always been analytical and scholarly and this release is no exception, as demonstrated by the extensive liner notes that accompany the CD justifying his aesthetic decisions.

9) Birtwistle: Complete String Quartets – Arditti Quartet (Aeon)

Here the Arditti Quartet perform Harrison Birtwistle’s Nine Movements and one of his more recent works The Tree of Strings, both of which were commissioned by this group that has tirelessly supported contemporary classical composition. The second piece is particularly affective, constituting a historical evocation of the island of Raasay where musical performance was once forbidden on religious grounds. The music is intricate, combining elements of utter stillness with frenetic energy all borne along in a tide of ceaseless change and transformation.

8) Beethoven: Diabelli Variations –Andreas Staier (Harmonia Mundi)

The market for Diabelli Variations is admittedly already rather crowded but this recording really is unlike any other. Staier performs the work on a replica of a piano from Beethoven’s time which includes such novelty features as a bassoon stop and percussion. The potential for unwanted comedy is evaded through Staier’s subtle approach to these features as well as his clear technical proficiency and understanding of the music. The release also includes his own improvised introduction to the variations executed with finesse and style.

7) Mozart Piano Concertos Nos. 9 and 21 – Mitsuko Uchida, Cleveland Symphony Orchestra (Decca)

I must confess to not being the greatest fan of Mozart on a normal basis, which is what makes this recording all the more special as even I couldn’t help but be drawn in by its charms. Whether this is because of Uchida’s longstanding relationship with the orchestra, her preference for conducting from the keyboard or due to her intimate knowledge of Mozart’s concertos, her cycle of which commenced in 1985, the result is a joyous slice of escapism well worth a listen.

6) Ligeti/Beethoven – Jeremy Denk (Nonesuch)

Pianist Jeremy Denk’s début plays off Ligeti’s sparkling and varied études against Beethoven’s expansive and tumultuous piano sonata no. 32. At first the combination seems like an act of surrealism worthy of Ligeti’s Dada tendencies when the études are abruptly cut off by the appearance of a 25 minute piano sonata before they return unperturbed, but actually the relationship runs deeper than that with unexpected parallels emerging between the disparate compositions allowing you to hear them (especially the Beethoven) in a new light. Denk’s reading of both composers is crisp and subtle and he clearly loves every note he plays.

5) Black Prince Fury –Anna Meredith (Moshi Moshi)

This release actually belongs to that odd middle ground that exists between electro-acoustic classical music and the avant-garde end of electro-pop, so the jury’s probably out as to how we should label it. Of course this is exactly what Anna Meredith wants. Like her barnstorming National Youth Orchestra commission ‘Hands Free’, the four pieces enclosed on this brief EP bring the unexpected into environments we think we know already most potently in the moment halfway through the densely polyrhythmic ‘Never wonder’, where a haunting sample of ‘The Power of Love’ emerges from the haze. The juxtaposition is both witty and spine-tingling.

4) Brasileiro: Villa-Lobos and Friends – Nelson Freire (Decca)

Freire’s release of a diverse selection of Brazilian miniatures is a delight from end to end. Much of the music here is a pleasant surprise, existing as it does beyond the standard canon of classical piano music. With a total of 30 pieces squeezed onto one CD-length release, the brevity of the individual offerings and the rapidity with which we are plunged between diverse styles can be dizzying (especially in the second half when the ‘friends’ arrive) but this is part of Brasileiro’s special charm, building up a dream-like succession of images. Astonishingly there is never a dull moment across its entire length.

3) Shostakovich Piano Concertos 1 and 2, Sonata for Violin and Piano – Alexander Melnikov, Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Teodor Currentzis (Harmonia Mundi)

Melnikov’s previous work on the Shostakovich preludes and fugues made this release hotly anticipated but there has certainly been no disappointment. Here the expected two piano concertos are joined by the violin sonata where Melnikov pairs up with violinist Isabelle Faust (see below). His playing is as likely to be filled with spice and fire as it is to turn towards the languid and lyrical but more intriguing is the approach he outlines in the liner notes. He seeks to portray the concertos in a more troubling and dark manner than is perhaps standard while reversing this for the violin sonata which is frequently regarded as one of Shostakovich’s bleakest works. The performance fits this programme perfectly, emphasising the biting dissonances and instabilities that lie beneath the surface in both the concertos. Special mention should also go to Jeroen Berwaerts for his wonderfully raucous trumpet featured in the first piece.

2) Bruckner 9 (4 Movement Version) – Simon Rattle, Berliner Philharmoniker (EMI)

There is more than a little controversy around modern day completions of unfinished works by the composers of the past, and this release has had a few opponents, but I feel that this is really to miss the point for, regardless of its origin, the content of this release is some genuinely great music performed with spectacular drama and vigour despite the challenges of technique and stamina raised by the score. Besides, the completion was not carried out lightly but was the result of 30 years of work by a team of Bruckner scholars who reconstructed the only incomplete movement (the finale) from Bruckner’s sketches so that only 28 out of its 653 bars had to be newly written. Ultimately I find this version more convincing than the three movement form in which the symphony is frequently performed, culminating in affirmatory joy rather than an elegiac lament.

1) Berg/Beethoven Violin Concertos – Isabelle Faust, Orchestra Mozart, Claudio Abbado (Harmonia Mundi)

The stellar cast of this recording alone should be enough to entice listeners but it is the content that makes it a truly unmissable release. The pairing of violin concertos by Beethoven and Berg found on this disk is a very unusual combination, rare almost to the point of being totally unique, but after listening through even once the relationship between the works feels so natural and complementary as to raise the question of why this is not done more often. Faust’s performance of Berg’s last completed work is crushingly sorrowful but with moments of agonisingly brief optimism breaking through the surface like rays of sunlight through cloud. The sense of release that the transition between the two exudes is incredible: Beethoven’s enchantingly light-footed violin concerto proves the perfect foil to this atmosphere, healing all wounds as it dances its joyful way onwards. The two performances are individually wonderful, but together they are truly exceptional.

PHOTO/kubotake