The best orchestral recordings of 2020

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10


Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Mariss Jansons
BR Klassik 900185 53:48 mins

‘If you want a testimony to what it was we lost when Mariss Jansons died, listen to this disc’, writes Stephen Johnson. ‘It’s a stunningly shaped interpretation. At every level this performance feels lived-in. If you want a suitable monument to a great conductor then look no further.’

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A New Century

Beethoven: String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132 (Arr. Orchestra); R Strauss: Aus Italien, Op. 16; Varèse: Amériques; Johannes Maria Staud: Stromab; Bernd Richard Deutsch: Okeanos*; Prokofiev: Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 44
*Paul Jacobs (organ); Cleveland Orchestra/Franz Welser-Möst
Cleveland Orchestra TCO0001 188:00 mins (3 discs)

'Cleveland has always been a by-word for the forensic exactitude of its players, and you can still hear that in the many recordings they made with the famously disciplinarian Georg Szell, and later with Lorin Maazel and Christoph von Dohnányi. But the empathy and expressive latitude Welser-Möst has added make you wonder if the orchestra has ever sounded better.'

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Symphony No.80 in D minor, Hob. I:80; Piano Concerto in D, Hob. XVIII:11; Symphony No. 81 in G, Hob. I:81
Lucas Blondeel (fortepiano); Le Concert d’Anvers/Bart Van Reyn
Fuga Libera FUG 755 62:06 mins

‘Performance of all three works are lively and compelling, and the recording is first-rate’

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R Strauss

Don Quixote; Don Juan; Till Eulensiegels Iustige Streiche
Louisa Tuck (cello); Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra/ Vasily Petrenko
Lawo Classics LWC1184 76:27 mins

'Don Quixote emerges as one of the richest orchestral scores ever composed, the ultimate opera for orchestra'

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The best recordings of Richard Strauss's Don Quixote

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Vaughan Williams

Symphony No. 3 ‘Pastoral’; Symphony No. 4; Saraband ‘Helen’
Elizabeth Watts (soprano), David Philip Butt (tenor), BBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus/Martyn Brabbins
Hyperion CDA68280 80:57 mins

‘Martyn Brabbins is superbly alert to the intricacies of the musical texture,’ writes Stephen Johnson. ‘I’ve rarely, if ever, been so aware of this symphony as a subtle but sustained emotional narrative.’

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Chabrier: España; Debussy: Prélude à l’après midi d’un faune; Duruflé: Trois Danses; Ibert: Escales; Massenet: Thaïs – Meditation; Ravel: Rapsodie espagnole; Saint-Saëns: Le Rouet d’Omphale
Sinfonia of London/John Wilson
Chandos CHSA 5252 (hybrid CD/SACD) 79:05 mins

‘I’ve heard on the grapevine that orchestral players will travel long distances to make music with [Wilson] and this recording shows why’ (Roger Nichols)

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Lutosławski: Symphonies Nos 2 & 3

Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Hannu Lintu
Ondine ODE 1332-5 (hybrid CD/SACD) 61:40 mins

‘This magnificent new recording completes a strong symphonic portrait of the Polish modernist master. This is a potent and logical pairing of works both written on a two-movement scheme. Hannu Lintu conducts with lucidity and rigour in a work exploring Beethovenian notions of tension and release. His musicians respond with brilliant, punchy playing but are also capable of dazzling refinement, something vital in a work of such intricate translucence.’

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Bizet • Gounod

Bizet: Carmen Suite No. 1; Symphony No. 1 in C major; Gounod: Petite Symphonie
Scottish Chamber Orchestra/François Leleux
Linn Records CKD 624 63:30 mins

Conductor and oboist Francois Leleux is a frequent figure on the concert platform with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and here makes his first recording with the orchestra in this fizzing programme of Bizet and Gounod.

More like this

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Jonathan Leshnoff • Tchaikovsky

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36; Jonathan Leshnoff: Double Concerto for Clarinet & Bassoon*
*Michael Rusinek (clarinet), *Nancy Goeres (bassoon); Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Manfred Honeck
Reference recordings FR-738 61:05 mins

'Tchaikovsky’s Fourth is a work of inspired structural ingenuity, as is clear both from Manfred Honeck’s insightful and extensive notes and this fine recording by the Pittsburgh Symphony on the kind of commanding form older collectors may recall from the orchestra’s 1950s-70s heyday under William Steinberg.'

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Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 ‘Choral’; Fantasia for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra in C minor, Op. 80*
*Kristian Bezuidenhout (fortepiano), Christiane Karg (soprano), Marianne Beate Kielland (mezzo-soprano), Werner Güra (tenor), Florian Boesch (baritone); Zurich Singakademie; Freiburg Baroque Orchestra/Pablo Heras-Casado
Harmonia Mundi HMM902431.32 79:54 mins

Read our guide to Beethoven's Symphony no. 9

'This disc will provoke fiercely opposed reactions. For anybody – and it used to be all serious music-lovers – who regards Beethoven 9 as not only a monumental masterpiece, but an affirmation of the values inherent in European civilisation, to be performed on such occasions as the demolishing of the Berlin Wall, this account is likely to seem a negation, even when we’ve endured Hogwood, Norrington and their ilk.'

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Fountains of Rome; Pines of Rome; Roman Festivals
Sinfonia of London/John Wilson
Chandos CHSA5261 (SACD) 60:06 mins

There are dozens of versions of Respighi’s ‘Roman Trilogy’ available, but I’ve heard none better than this. The orchestral playing is magnificent, and its joy and exuberance are a tonic at this anxious, isolated period.

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R Schumann

Symphony No. 1 in B flat major, Op. 38 ‘Spring’; Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op. 120
Gürzenich-Orchester Köln/François-Xavier Roth
Myrios MYR028 55:16 mins

'Do we really need more reminders that Schumann wasn’t the clumsy, imaginatively hampered orchestrator of legend? If you still do, then listen to this. No orchestral composer of Schumann’s time benefits more from a low-fat, finely featured post-period approach, especially when it’s brought off as beautifully as by François-Xavier Roth and the Gürzenich Orchestra.'

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Vaughan Williams

Job**; Songs of Travel*;
*Neal Davies (bass-baritone), **David Adams (violin), **Darius Battiwalla (organ); Hallé Orchestra/Mark Elder
Hallé CDHLL7556 70:16 mins

'First one high-quality Job comes along – Andrew Davis’s with the Bergen Philharmonic (on Chandos) – and now here’s another. The differences between them are quite significant. With Davis, the score sounds firmly central-European in idiom and stylistically quite progressive. Mark Elder’s Hallé, by contrast, are particularly good at catching the strongly English flavour of the work, and its umbilical connections to folk dance.'

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Delibes: Ballet Suites

Suites from Coppélia, Sylvia and La Source
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
Chandos CHSA5257 (CD/SACD) 82:55 mins

'This generously packed disc of extended suites from Delibes’s ballets sparkles from the opening exuberant horn fanfare of Sylviato the final spirited ‘Galop’ of Coppélia. Just as with their outstanding exploration of Saint-Saëns’s orchestral music, Neeme Järvi and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra bring wit, vigour and colour to this effervescent music.'

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The best concerto recordings

Brahms • Schoenberg

Brahms: Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77; Schoenberg: Violin Concerto, Op. 36
Jack Liebeck (violin); BBC Symphony Orchestra/ Andrew Gourlay
Orchid Classics ORC100129 77.15 mins

‘Jack Liebeck responds with astonishing command, allowing the music’s expression to speak with a real degree of freedom, even fantasy, so that the solo part can interact with similarly deft accompaniment by the orchestra’

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Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 99; Violin Concerto No. 2 in C sharp minor, Op. 129
Alina Ibragimova (violin); State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia ‘Evgeny Svetlanov’/Vladimir Jurowski
Hyperion CDA68313 71:26 mins

'The demands on the listener are unrelenting; put a distance between each work so you can come to the sequel fresh for another battering'

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Busoni: Divertimento, Op. 52; Penderecki: Flute Concerto; Reinecke: Flute Concerto in D; Ballade, Op.288; Takemitsu: I Hear the Water Dreaming
Emmanual Pahud (Flute); Munich Radio Orchestra/Ivan Repušić
Warner 9029539244 78:38 mins

'Emmanuel Pahud consistently delivers high-quality recordings with a twist. Dreamtime is similarly creative, programming a wide selection of concertos and concertante pieces themed around different experiences of that state.'

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Locatelli: Concerto No. 1 in D major, Pisendel: Concerto in G minor; Leclair: Concerto in D major
Il Pomo d’Oro/Dmitry Sinovsky (violin)
Naïve OP 30576 77.00 mins

'Dmitri Sinkosky is a latter-day Paganini who brings to this programme of Baroque pyrotechnics the perfect balance of fire and art’

Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos 2 & 5

Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat, Op. 19; Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat, Op. 73 ‘Emperor’
Kristian Bezuidenhout (piano); Freiburg Baroque Orchestra/Pablo Heras-Casado
Harmonia Mundi HMM 902411 60:03 mins

‘Producing a glittering account that gives us an idea of the impression Beethoven’s own virtuosity must have made on his audience.’


Barber: Violin Concerto; Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto
Johan Dalene (violin), Norrköping Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Blendulf
BIS BIS-2440 (hybrid CD/SACD) 58:47 mins

‘Dalene plays throughout with an engaging flair, command and emotional range remarkable from such a young player’, writes Julian Haylock. ‘Along Vilde Frang’s outstanding coupling of Sibelius and Prokofiev, this is one of the finest violin debuts of the last decade.’


I colori dell’ombra: Cello Concertos RV405, RV416, RV424, RV788, etc; Double Cello Concerto in G minor, RV531; Concerto for Cello & Bassoon, RV409; arias, etc
Ophélie Gaillard, Atsushi Sakai (cello); Lucile Richardot (mezzo-soprano) Delphine Galou (contralto), Javier Zafra (bassoon); Pulcinella Orchestra
Aparté AP226 89:28mins (2 discs)

‘Ophèlie Gaillard brings a joyous and incisively idiomatic grace to these performances. What she may lack in the absolute fluency and charisma of Christophe Coin is more than made up for in this exciting programme and the dynamism of her Pulcinella Orchestra.’

Vivaldi: Violin Concertos

RV 187, 217, 235, 321, 366 & 387
Julien Chauvin (violin); Le Concert de la Loge
Naïve OP 30585 62:11 mins

'Hard on the heels of the seventh volume of Naïve’s survey of Vivaldi’s violin concertos comes Il teatro, the eighth in a so far exhilarating series. As Naïve has demonstrated over the past two decades with its exploration of Vivaldi’s operas, the composer was very much a man of the theatre. The subtitle of this release seeks to remind us of the close relationship that exists between his instrumental music, above all perhaps his violin concertos, and his music for the stage.'

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JS Bach • Goldberg • Vivaldi

Vivaldi: Sinfonia in D major, RV125; Concerto in D major, RV508; Concerto in E flat major, RV515; JS Bach: Concerto in D minor, BWV 1043; Concerto in D minor, BWV 1060; Goldberg: Sonata in C minor, DürG 14
Giuliano Carmignola (violin), Mario Brunello (cello); Accademia dell’Annunciata/Riccardo Doni
Arcana A472 66:28 mins

'Harpsichordist-director Riccardo Doni and the Milanese Accademia dell’Annunciata underscore the drama of Vivaldi’s instrumental works and keep textures clear as glass. The recording, in a sonorous church acoustic, has fine detail.'

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Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 83*; Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24
Lars Vogt (piano); Northern Sinfonia*
Ondine ODE 1346-2 74:38 mins

'This is Brahms playing of the highest quality. Lars Vogt secures an ideal balance between the intellectual and emotional components of these two epic works.'

John Adams

Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?*; China Gates
Yuja Wang (piano); *Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra/Gustavo Dudamel
DG 483 8289 (Digital Only/Vinyl) 30:58 mins

'Satan has proved an unlikely muse throughout musical history: from Liszt’s Totentanz and ‘demonic’ recitals to accusations that saxophones were the devil’s mouthpiece, composers have often toyed with the beast. John Adams’s 2018 Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? – a nod towards the 18th-century charge that non-secular music was irreligious – melds these ideas, combining devilish solos with toe-tapping melodies. The piece was commissioned and premiered in LA by Gustavo Dudamel, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Yuja Wang in early 2019; this recording is taken from a second performance given later that year.'

Elgar • Stenhammar

Elgar: Violin Concerto in B minor, Op. 61; Stenhammar: Two Sentimental Romances, Op. 28
Triin Ruubel (violin); Estonian National Symphony Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
Sorel Classics SCCD016 58:54 mins

'The playing from all concerned has the electricity of a live performance, and if some of the dashes in the finale may seem startling, they’re justified within the whole, and by the last sprint to glorious self-assertion.'

Dvořák: Cello Concerto

Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104; Waldesruhe, Op. 68 No. 5; Songs My Mother Taught Me, Op. 55 No. 4; Four Songs, Op. 82 – ‘Leave Me Alone’; Goin’ Home
Kian Soltani (cello); Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim
DG 483 6090 61:05 mins

'Soltani is an exceptionally free, agile and fluent player, and youthful impetuosity powers the first and third movements, only occasionally marred by a rather hectic vibrato. There’s a sense of real partnership with the orchestra, a lovely chamber-like dialogue, the rounded woodwind and brass timbres of the Berliners providing an ideal foil for his brightly-lit line.'

Hindemith: Kammermusik Nos 4-7

Stephen Waarts (violin), Timothy Ridout (viola), Ziyu Shen (viola), Christian Schmitt (organ); Kronberg Academy Soloists; Schleswig-Holstein Festival Orchestra/Christoph Eschenbach
Ondine ODE 1357-2 73:64 mins

'This vivid work opens with a pungent fanfare, its colours stemming from jazz-band instrumentation and the absence of orchestral violins. Stephen Waarts plays the solo part with brilliant attack. A long, central ‘Nachtstück’ conveys the uneasiness of the times.'

Chopin: Piano Concertos (chamber arr.)

Kevin Kenner (piano); Apollon Musagete Quartett
NIFC NIFCCD0220 76:34 mins

'Intimacy is the key to this music, yet too many performances with orchestra sound overblown: once you’ve heard this, you may well prefer to think of these masterpieces as chamber music.'

The best opera recordings

Lully: Armide 1778

Katherine Watson, Véronique Gens, Chantal Santon Jeffrey (soprano), Philippe-Nicolas Martin, Reinoud van Mechelen, Zachary Wilder (tenor), Tassis Christoyannis (bass); Le Concert Spirituel/Hervé Niquet
Alpha Classics ALPHA973 136:36 mins (2 discs)

'For the calibre of its performances as much as for its originality and careful reconstruction, this Armide is among the most brilliant opera projects of recent years.'

Donizetti: Tudor Queens

Scenes from Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Robert Devereux
Diana Damrau (soprano), Irida Dradoti, Sara Rocchi (mezzo-soprano), Domenico Pellicola, Saverio Fiore (tenor), Andrii Ganchuk (baritone), Fabrizio Beggi (bass); Santa Cecilia Choir & Orchestra/Antonio Pappano
Erato 9029528093 69:28 mins

'There was an eccentric fashion at the turn of the 20th century for staging the best bits of several operas in a single evening. You might get half of La traviata plus Cavalleria rusticana, or La bohème with the mad scene from Lucia di Lammermoor thrown in. It was often dramatically nonsensical, but on this disc, three thematically-connected Donizettian dénouements (Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux) make for a compelling combination.'

Facce d'amore

Countertenor arias by Cavalli, Boretti, Bononcini, A Scarlatti, Handel et al
Jakub Józef Orliński (Countertenor); Il Pomo d’oro/ Maxim Emelyanychev
Erato 9029542338 73:55 mins

‘Facce d’amore paints the volatile face of love in Italian Baroque opera, threading together one pearl after another'

Lully: Isis

Ève-Maud Hubeaux, Bénédicte Tauran, Abroisine Bré, Cyril Auvity, Edwin Crossley-Mercer, Philippe Estèphe, Fabien Hyon, Aimery Lefèvre, Julie Calèete, Julie Vercauteren; Choeur de Chambre de Namur; Les Talens Lyriques/Christophe Rousset
Aparté AP216 154:51 (2 discs)

'Rousset pushes performers to their dramatic limits which highlights their flawless execution'

Charpentier: La Descent d’Orphée aux enfers

Déborah Cachet, Zsuzsi Tóth, Stefanie True, Clara Coutouly, Victoria Cassano, Reinoud van Mechelen, Raphael Höhn, Philippe Froeliger, Lionel Meunier, Geoffrey Buffière, Vox Luminis, A Nocte Temporis/Lionel Meunier, Reinoud van Mechelen
Alpha Classics ALPHA 566

‘In both works, Charpentier’s yearning melodies and wistful harmonies are always tempered by French Baroque etiquette’, writes Kate Bolton-Porciatti. ‘Alpha Classics’s recording is luminous and detailed.’

Handel: Agrippina

Joyce DiDonato, Franco Fagioli, Elsa Benoit, Luca Pisaroni, Jakub Józef Orliński, Andrea Mastroni, Carlo Vistoli, Biagio Pizzuti, Marie-Nicole Lemieux; Il P’omo d’Oro/Maxim Emelyanychev
Erato 9029533658 229:41 mins (3 discs)

‘DiDonato commands the vocal pyrotechnics, dramatic depth, personal charisma and absolute diction that her role demands'

Offenbach: Maître Péronilla

Véronique Gens, Antoinette Dennefeld, Chantal Santon-Jeffery, Anaïs Constans, Diana Axentii, Éric Huchet, Tassis Christoyannis; Radio France Choir; Orchestre National de France/Markus Poschner
BruZane BZ1039 100:09mins (2discs)

‘Offenbach had a genius for stitching his diverse sources together without you ever hearing the joins. The admirable Bru Zane Foundation, which promotes French Romantic music from a Venetian Palazzo, fields a strong cast. Markus Poschner conducting the Orchestre National de France and the French Radio Choir encourages the bubbles to rise to the surface in a never-ending stream.’

Wagner: Die Walküre

Nina Stemme, John Lundgren, Stuart Skelton, Emily Magee, Sarah Connolly, Ain Ainger, Lise Davidsen; Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden/Antonio Pappano; Dir. Keith Warner (London, 2018)
Opus Arte DVD: OA1308D Blu-ray: OABD7270D 240 mins

'The cast in this 2018 staging would have been the envy of every world class opera company. The result is just short of perfection, as Pappano does rather push the tempos, relentlessly sometimes in the opening storm, or as Wotan pursues the disobedient Brünnhilde and the ride of the warrior maidens. Still, it is exciting.'

Purcell: The Fairy Queen

Carolyn Sampson, Anna Dennis, Mhairi Lawson (soprano), Ashley Riches (bass-baritone), Roderick Williams (baritone); Gabrieli/Paul McCreesh
Signum Classics SIGCD615 139:03 mins (2 discs)

'McCreesh’s production rises to the occasion: original voicing, unorthodox continuo, project-specific trumpet design and rediscovered string techniques bring out qualities missing from earlier recordings. Purcell’s hornpipes were never livelier, nor his chaconnes statelier, than in this performance.'

Massenet: Thaïs

Erin Wall, Joshua Hopkins, Andrew Staples (voices); Toronto Mendelssohn Choir; Toronto Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Davis
Chandos CHSA 5258 132:08 mins (2 discs)

'Andrew Davis presents a perceptive account of one of Massenet’s best creations, the Canadian orchestra offering fine-textured playing as they respond with assurance to the composer’s unerring gift for scene painting.'

Dallapiccola: Il prigioniero

Prima Serie Dei Cori di Michelangelo Buonarroti il Giovane
Anna Maria Chiuri, Michael Nagy, Stephan Rügamer, Adam Riis, Steffen Bruun (voices); Danish National Concert Choir; Danish National Symphony Orchestra/Gianandrea Noseda
Chandos CHSA 5276 55:46 mins

'Gianandrea Noseda and his Danish forces offer a thrilling account of Dallapiccola’s masterpiece, and Noseda’s attention to the all-important orchestral detail is meticulous. As the prisoner, Michael Nagy is alive to every nuance of the role.'

Adam: Le Postillon de Lonjumeau

Michael Spyres, Florie Valiquette, Franck Leguerinel, Laurent Kubla, Michel Fau, Yannis Ezziadi, Julien Clement, Rouen Opera Orchestra/Sebastien Rouland; dir. Michel Fau (Rouen, 2019)
Naxos 2.110662 (DVD) 137 mins

'Adam’s neat, charming writing is impeccable and one recognises the sinuous melodic lines of the composer of Giselle. This witty and visually-ingenious 2019 production by Michel Fau (costumes by Christian Lacroix, no less) was the first at its point of origin in 115 years. Dialogue is vital and convincing.'

Anima Rara

Arias by Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Massenet, Puccini, Verdi, et al
Ermonela Jaho (soprano); Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana/Andrea Battistoni
Opera Rara 9293802532 68:04 mins

'Jaho chose her title because ‘anima’ means ‘soul’, and ‘rara’ indicates the fact that although the repertoire includes key arias by Puccini, Verdi, Massenet and Mascagni, many of the other arias are virtually unknown. And the way she sings them, they all radiate soul.'

Puccini: Suor Angelica

María José Siri, Anna Maria Chiuri (voices); Orchestra e Coro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino/Valerio Galli; dir. Denis Krief (Florence, 2019)
Dynamic DVD: 37873; Blu-ray: 57873 60 mins

'Like its rival for that title, Madama Butterfly, this opera is about a woman’s psychological journey from anticipation, via elation, to devastation. María José Siri, with her rich-hued voice and impeccable sense of line, is outstanding in the role. A superbly naturalistic actor, she is utterly endearing as this naïve innocent whose optimism is constantly crushed.'

Handel: Semele, HWV 58

Louise Alder, Hugo Hyma, Lucile Richardot, Carlo Vistoli, Gianluca Buratto, Emily Owen, Angela Hicks, Peter Davoren (voices); Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists/John Eliot Gardiner
Soli Deo Gloria SDG733 155:09 mins (3 discs)

'Directing this 2019 live performance of Semele, John Eliot Gardiner radically altered his approach to music he’d recorded 40 years earlier. Now Handel’s score is all about sex: Semele, the sultry kitten who dares love Jupiter, sets the mood, which choir and band run with, while jealous wife Juno lashes out. Gardiner correctly reads Semele as a story about women, whose passions dwarf Jupiter’s inconstant desire.'

The best choral and song recordings

Handel: Samson

Joshua Ellicott and Hugo Hymas (Tenors); Jess Dandy (Alto); Matthew Brook and Vitali Rozynko (Basses); Mary Bevan, Sophie Bevan and Fflur Wyn (Soprano); Tiffin Boys Choir/ James Day; Dunedin Consort/ John Butt
Linn CKD 599 203 mins

‘John Butt’s deep grasp of Handel’s rhetoric and of large scale structure turns the work’s patchwork quality into a virtue'

Grieg: Songs and piano works

Haugtussa (The Mountain Maid), Op.67; Lyric Pieces – Op.12 Nos 1(Arietta), 5 (Folktune) & 6 (Norwegian); Op. 43/1 (Butterfly); Op.47/3 (Melody); Op.54 No.6 (Bell Ringing); Op.62 Nos 1 (Sylph), 5 (Phantom) & 6 (Homeward) etc
Claire Booth (Soprano); Christopher Glynn (Piano)
Avie AV2403 71:59 mins

Claire Booth and Christopher Glynn build a three-parter that makes this a very special Grieg recital’

Haydn: Missa Cellensis

Johanna Winkel (soprano), Sophie Harmsen (mezzo-soprano), Benjamin Bruns (tenor), Wolf Matthias Friedrich (bass); RIAS Kammerchor; Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin/ Justin Doyle
Harmonia Mundi HMM 902300 65:43 mins

'Justin Doyle with his team of talented soloists do this work proud'


Berg: Altenberg Lieder; Mahler: Rückert-Lieder; Rhian Samuel: Clytemnestra
Ruby Hughes (soprano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Jac van Steen
BIS BIS-2408 (hybrid CD/SACD) 54:46 Mins

‘Ruby Hughes rises to the challenge with bombproof technical strength and control, plenty of firepower where needed, and a thrilling instinct for capturing the persona of this fearsome anti-heroine.'


Handel: Ah! Crudel, nel pianto mio, HWV 78; Haydn: Arianna a Naxos, HOB. XXVIB:2; A Scarlatti: L’Arianna
Kate Lindsey (mezzo-soprano); Arcangelo/Jonathan Cohen
Alpha Classics ALPHA 576 72:13 mins

‘Cohen takes risks with his tempos and dynamics, and by allowing the instrumentalists to sometimes push Lindsey aside; these pay off in many striking moments’

JS Bach: St John Passion

Dorothee Mields (soprano), Damien Guillon (countertenor), Maximilian Schmitt, Robin Tritschler (tenor), Krešimir Stražanac (bass-baritone), Peter Kooij (bass); Collegium Vocale Gent/Philippe Herreweghe
Phi LPH031 107:08mins (2discs)

‘An ensemble triumph, a symbiotic entwining of voice and instruments that brings about repeated moments of wonder. This is a recording that leaves most competitors floundering.’

Leo • Pergolesi • Porpora

Pergolesi: Stabat Mater; Porpora: Salve Regina in G major; Leo: Beatus Vir Qui Timet
Sandrine Piau (soprano), Christopher Lowrey (countertenor); Les Talens Lyriques/Christophe Rousset
Alpha Classics ALPHA 449 66:11 mins

'Soprano Sandrine Piau finds just the right balance between beauty of sound and fervent expressivity; stylistically, she’s more at ease with the Neapolitan Baroque idiom, with its filigree lines, than Barbara Bonney was in the earlier recording. She’s partnered by the young countertenor Christopher Lowrey, who combines lucid diction with an aptly plangent sound – always beautifully controlled. Though they’re rather different musical personalities, the two singers respond to each other with particular sensitivity and their voices plait together exquisitely.'


The Suspended Harp of Babel – The sun shall not smite thee; Whilst Great Is Our Poverty; Jacob’s Dream/Orthodox Vespers – Proemial Psalm; From Heaven Above to Earth I Come; Bless the Lord, my soul; Awake, My Heart; Orthodox Vespers – Praise the Name of the Lord; Do the Birds Worry?; Lord, I Cry unto Thee; He, Who Lets God Prevail; By the Rivers of Babylon; plus works by Machaut, Marco Ambrosini and Anna-Liisa Eller
Vox Clamantis/Jaan-Eile Tulve ECM4819041 67:01mins

'Gregorian chant affords a common meeting place for the musicians of Vox Clamantis, but their reach has spanned medieval polyphony to contemporary music – including that of compatriots such as Arvo Pärt, Helena Tulve and Erkki-Sven Tüür. This latest disc honours a major figure of Estonian choral music from an earlier generation: Cyrillus Kreek (1889-1962), pioneering folksong collector and composer of folk- inflected sacred music.'


All-Night Vigil, Op. 52; Hymn to Cyril and Methodius; Legend, Op. 54, No. 5; Jurists’ Song; The angel cried 1887
Latvian Radio Choir/Sigvards Klava
Ondine ODE 1352-2 52:10 mins

'Early recordings of this repertoire were often plagued with what (to Western ears) sounded like painfully wide vibrato, dodgy intonation, a tendency for individual voices to emerge and distorted sound at climaxes. Here, in contrast, is choral singing of beguiling sophistication, beautifully recorded, that captures the score’s full range of expression, from hushed moments of introspective awe to rolling climaxes of intense celebration.'

Portraits de la Folie

Works by Campra, Destouches, Eccles, Handel, Heinichen, Keiser, Marais, Purcell and Rebel
Stéphanie d’Oustrac (mezzo-soprano); Ensemble Amarillis/Heloise Gaillard
Harmonia Mundi HMM902646 63:03 mins

'This project is mainly about the diverse ways in which ‘Folly’ was dramatised musically in late French Baroque vocal works. Seductive, impish and pining, ‘Folly’ was a woman addled by love, or one who made a man lose himself in love; the mythic Semele, famous for both, was a favourite role. Mezzo-soprano Stéphanie d’Oustrac is dazzling across these various personae, to which she brings not only luscious vocalism but also a blistering intensity.'

Michael Finnissy

Dum tranisset Sabbatum; Videte miraculum; Commentary on ‘Wie schon leuchtet der Morgenstern’; Herr Christ der einge Gottesohm; Commentary on BWV 562; Plebs angelica
The Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge/Andrew Nethsingha
Signum Classics SIGCD624 83:56 mins (2 discs)

'Completed over the course of a three-year residency and designed to celebrate the 150th anniversary of St John’s College Chapel, Pious Anthems and Voluntaries aspires, in Finnissy’s words, to be a work ‘with guts and brains’. It embodies both in spades. And however ‘brainy’, the sequence maintains a powerfully visceral communicative grip.'

Chanson d’Amour

Songs by Ravel, Debussy, Poulenc and Fauré
Sabine Devieilhe (soprano), Alexandre Tharaud (piano)
Erato 9029522427 64:08 mins

'Soprano Sabine Devieilhe has the ideal voice for the Ariettes oubliées, with a creamily dreamy opening to ‘C’est l’extase’. Her iridescent clarity is to the fore throughout, vivacious in ‘Chevaux de bois’ and soaring gloriously in the middle of Fauré’s ‘Les berceaux’.'

Jake Heggie

Unexpected Shadows – The Breaking Waves; The Work at Hand; If I Were You; Of Gods and Cats, etc
Jamie Barton (mezzo-soprano), Jake Heggie (piano), Matt Haimowitz (cello)
Pentatone PTC 5186 836 65:09 mins

'Unexpected Shadows is a greatest hits collection of songs and arias by Jake Heggie. The connection? Each work represents accomplished, intelligent and iconic women – as character, creator and muse.'

El Nour

Songs by Falla, Serrano, Berlioz, Gaubert, Lorca, Abdel-Rahīm, Hankash, Darwish, Elias Rahbani and Hosni
Fatma Said (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano), Rafael Aguirre (guitar), Burcu Karadag (ney), Tim Allhoff (piano), Itamar Doari (percussion), Henning Sieverts (double bass), Tamer Pmarbasi (kanun); Vision String Quartet
Warner Classics 9029523360 64:57 mins

'Just as the Egyptian songs are mostly presented with typically Western instrumentations, the Western songs are performed with added Middle Eastern instruments, in what Said describes as a ‘very fine balance between authenticity and innovation’. There’s no tacky Orientalism here.'

The best chamber music recordings


Piano Trio; Cello Sonata No.1; Two Songs Without Words for violin and piano; Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes
Trio Khnopff; Stéphanie Salmin (piano)
Pavane ADW7590 71:32 mins

'Trio Khnopff are enterprising, placing the Piano Trio next to other compositions Weinberg wrote following the end of the Second World War, rather than the obvious coupling with Shostakovich’s Second Piano Trio- completed a year before his'

In Nomine II

Works by J Baldwin, Bull, Gavin Bryars, Ferrabosco, Nico Muhly, R Parsons, Purcell, Tye and J Ward
Signum SIGCD 576 59:50 mins

‘The expanded ensemble negotiates the sonorous seven-part delights of Parsons and Purcell with an expansively ear-filling plenitude’


Souvenirs: String Quartet No. 1; Album for the Young – extracts; Souvenir de Florence*
Rolston String Quartet, *Miguel da Silva (viola), *Gary Hoffman (cello)
Fuga Libera FUG 757 69:40 mins

‘This beautifully recorded debut release confirms not only the Rolston String Quartet’s superb technical accomplishment and their impeccably blended sound, but also a maturity of interpretative approach that can only be achieved after long and patient engagement with the music.'

JS Bach

The Well-Tempered Consort I – Preludes and Fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Books I & II; Musical Offering, BWV 1079, etc
Linn CKD 618 66:55 mins

‘At the fore is a playful sense of exploration into the chromatic corners and remote tonal areas originally intended to promote an otherworldly effect'

The Early Horn

Anon: Concertos – in E; in E flat; CH Graun: Trio in D; Concerto for Concertant Horn and Oboe d’amore in D; Haydn: Divertimento, Hob. IV:5; L Mozart: Sinfonia di camera in D; WA Mozart: Horn Quintet; Telemann: Trio in F, TWV 42:F3
Ursula Paludan Monberg (horn); Arcangelo/Jonathan Cohen
Hyperion CDA68289 78:32mins

‘This is a celebration of the 18th-century natural (valveless) horn, played with varying positions of the hand inside the bell to produce notes other than the restricted selection available as natural harmonics. Ursula Paludan Monberg, thoroughly in command of her instrument, produces a miraculously smooth and agile line with secure tuning’

R Strauss

Cello Sonata in F major, Op. 6; Zueignung, Op. 10 No. 1; Die Nacht, Op. 10 No. 3; Du meines Herzens Kronelein, Op. 21 No. 2; Morgen, Op. 27 No. 4; Der Rosenkavalier – Concert Waltz etc
Raphaela Gromes (cello); Julien Riem (piano)
Sony Classical 19439718832 71:00 mins

'Strauss’s revision (in 1883) may be masterly, but his first try is impressive. In this persuasive performance by Raphaela Gromes and Julian Riem, the early work bursts into irrepressible life.'

Beach • Elgar

Beach: Piano Quintet in F sharp minor, Op. 67; Elgar: Piano Quintet in A minor, Op. 84
Garrick Ohlsson (piano); Takács Quartet
Hyperion CDA68295 63:36 mins

'This is a performance every bit as imaginative and expressive as Elgar’s remarkable score, rich in contrast and daring but never overblown and always precise. With excellent recording quality throughout, this is in every respect an outstanding disc.'

Dejours • Schubert

Schubert: Piano Quintet in A major, D667 ‘The Trout’*; Landler** – D366 Nos 12 & 15; D790 Nos 5, 7, 8, 10 & 12; Olivier Dejours: Schubertiade
Yann Dubost, *Christoph Eschenbach, **Jean-Frederic Neuberger (piano); Thymos Quartet, Yann Dubost (double bass)
Avie AV2416 54:31 mins

'In this delightful recording, the limelight is shared between Eschenbach’s crystalline piano playing and the creamy string sound, underpinned by the rumbling, bouncing bass. The tempo is elastic, yielding. And there’s no rigid ensemble, either; the mood is convivial, like conversing friends who occasionally interrupt each other. Eschenbach’s solo moments have memorable rhetorical swagger.'

Fauré • Franck

Franck: Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 14; Fauré: Piano Quintet No. 1 in D minor, Op. 89
Mami Shikimori (piano); Wihan Quartet
Nimbus NI6397 68:20 mins

'In 1905, as Fauré’s First Piano Quintet was nearing completion, he wondered whether three movements would be enough, ‘as in the beautiful Quintet by Franck,’ finally deciding that they were. Instrumentation aside, this is almost the only similarity between the two works.'


Violin Sonata No. 1 in D major, Op. 12 No. 1; Violin Sonata No. 5 in F major, Op. 24 ‘Spring’; Violin Sonata No. 8 in G major, Op. 30 No. 3
Tamsin Waley-Cohen (violin), Huw Watkins (piano)
Signum Classics SIGCD618 63:34 mins

'The inspired duo of Tamsin Waley-Cohen and Huw Watkins also take absolutely nothing for granted as they launch into the first of Beethoven’s ten violin sonatas with a joyous sense of fresh discovery.'

Il genio inglese

Matteis: Ground in D ‘per far la mano’; Suite in B flat major; Suite for Guitar; Suite in A minor; Suite in D minor; Locke: Suite in E minor; Finger: Suite in D minor, etc
Alice Julien-Laferrière (violin); Ground Floor
Harmonia Mundi HMN916117 59:17 mins

'This delightful disc paints a portrait of the ‘Baroque Paganini’, Nicola Matteis, the ‘spiritato’d’ Neapolitan violinist who left his native Italy for England during the culturally fertile years of the Restoration.'


Piano Quintet in G minor, Op. 57*; Seven Romances on Poems of Alexander Blok, Op. 127**
**Ekaterina Semenchuk (mezzo-soprano); *Catherine Montier (violin), *Christophe Gaugue (viola); Trio Wanderer
Harmonia Mundi HMM902289 56:35 mins

'Trio Wanderer have already established outstanding credentials in Shostakovich with their superb recording of the two Piano Trios. This warmly-engineered release, featuring the ensemble enlarged by violinist Catherine Montier and violist Christophe Gaugué in the Piano Quintet of 1940, consolidates this reputation with a performance that is comprehensively responsive to the various different strands in the work.'


Piano Trios Nos 3, 5 ‘Ghost’, 6 & 7 ‘Archduke’
Smetana Trio
Supraphon SU42882 132:05 mins (2 discs)

'Even in 2020’s crowded field of Beethoven recordings, this one by the Smetana Trio stands out. Their double album frames the familiar Archduke and Ghost Trios with the Op. 1 No. 3 and Op. 70 No. 2, and all four works come across with vibrant, persuasive energy in the warm but clean acoustic of the studio.'

The best instrumental music recordings

JS Bach: The Six Partitas

Partita No.1 in B flat major, BWV 825; Partita No. 2 in C minor, BWV 826; Partita No. 3 in A minor, BWV 827; Partita No.4 in D major, BWV 828; Partita No.5 in G major, BWV 829; Partita No. 6 in E minor, BWV 830.
Angela Hewitt (piano)
Hyperion CDA682871/2
149.56 mins (2 discs)

‘Hewitt sounds completely immersed in the music’s expressive soundworld, as well as its peerless structural logic’

D Scarlatti: Keyboard Sonatas, Vol. 2

Sonatas in G major, KK 63, 144, 427 & 431; F sharp minor, KK 25; F sharp major, KK 318; C minor, KK 40; G minor, KK 30 & 35; F minor, KK 466; E major, KK 531; D minor, KK 64; A major, KK 279; D major, KK 118; B minor; KK 87 & C major, KK 95
Federico Colli (piano)
Chandos CHAN 20134 62:42 mins

‘Federico Colli’s springy touch throughout is a marvellously responsive to the passing weather in this beautifully contrived landscape'

Debussy • Rameau

Debussy: La damoiselle élue – Prélude; Estampes – Jardins sous la pluie; Children’s Corner – extracts; Préludes I – Des pas sur la neige; La fille aux cheveux de lin; Preludes II – Ondine; Images I – Hommage à Rameau; Rameau: Pièces de clavecin; The Arts and the Hours
Víkingur Ólafsson (piano)
DG 483 7701 79:08 mins

'There is never any doubt that this is Ólafsson’s vision of Rameau and Debussy, but it is also clearly rooted in love for each and their intertwining opens the eyes and the ears, highlighting especially that, like Bach, Rameau’s music is fertile ground for pianists.'

The Beethoven Connection

Wolfl: Piano Sonata, Op. 33 No. 3 in E major; Clementi: Sonata in A major, Op. 50 No. 1; Hummel: Piano Sonata in F minor, Op. 20; Dussek: Piano Sonata No. 24 Op. 61 in F sharp minor ‘Elegie Harmonique’; Jean-Efflam Bavouzet: Musical Illustrations
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano)
Chandos CHAN 20128 82.34 mins

'Bavouzet lays selected tracks side by side to show how closely some of the techniques and procedures in these works mirrored those employed by Beethoven – the only difference being the absence of genius in these four supremely gifted craftsmen.'


Preludes; Etudes-Tableaux; Moments Musicaux
Sergei Babayan (piano)
DG 483 9181 58:26 mins

'There’s some extraordinary playing on this beautifully recorded disc. The Armenian-born American pianist Sergei Babayan exhibits a profound empathy for Rachmaninov’s music, revelling in its richness of sonority, its contrasting moods of elation and melancholy and its structural fluidity.'


Grand Sonata, Op. 37; Two Pieces, Op 1; Capriccio in G flat; Six Pieces, Op. 21, etc
Peter Donohoe (piano)
Signum SIGCD594 84:56 mins (2 discs)

'Peter Donohoe, while never underplaying the Sonata’s moments of explosive rhetoric, finds a poetic, Chopinesque poise’


Piano Sonata No. 6 in A, Op. 82; Piano Sonata No. 7 in B flat, Op. 83; Piano Sonata No. 8 in B flat, Op. 84
Steven Osborne (piano)
Hyperion CDA68298 74:28 mins

‘From first electrifying note-punch to last, with so much poetry and poignancy in between, this is a tour de force of pianism highlighting what seems more than ever like the great sonata sequence of the 20th century’, writes David Nice. ‘There are so many towering performances of these harrowing works, but Steven Osborne caps them all.’

Brahms • Chopin • R Schumann

Brahms: Intermezzo in E flat, Op. 117/1; Chopin: 24 Preludes; R Schumann: Theme and Variations in E flat, WoO 24 ‘Ghost Variations’
Eric Lu (piano)
Warner 9029529234 63:28 mins

‘Eric Lu is a young pianist blessed with what sounds like an ‘old soul'. His playing is in a rare class – one that has a vacancy since Radu Lupu’s retirement. This type of sensitivity and emotional intuition does not grow on trees, especially not when served by such a technique, with richly singing tone and delicate fleetness of finger’

The Long 17th Century

Keyboard Works by Byrd, Locke, Buxtehude, Sweelinck etc
Daniel-Ben Pienaar (piano)
Avie AV 2415 150:08 mins (2 discs)

‘It’s thanks to Pienaar’s fleet, supple technique and lucid part playing that these piano translations work so well’


In paradisum – Requiem, Op. 48 – Pie Jesu and In Paradisum; Barcarolles Nos 1, 10 & 12; Nocturnes Nos 7, 10, 11 & 13; Ballade, Op. 19; Theme et Variations, Op. 73;
Louis Lortie (piano)
Chandos CHAN 20149 75:54 mins

'Louis Lortie’s previous Fauré recital Après un rêve interleaved original piano works with arrangements of his well-known pieces. This new collection is framed by Lortie’s tasteful transcriptions of the ‘Pie Jesu’ and ‘In Paradisum’ from the Requiem. The focus though, is more firmly on Fauré’s solo piano writing, with three Barcarolles, four Nocturnes and the uncharacteristically forthright Theme and Variations.'

Kaleidoscope – Beethoven Transcriptions

Beethoven : Chamber works – transcribed for piano by Saint-Saëns, Balakirev, Musorgsky; Mozart (Arr. Beethoven): Clarinet Quintet in A major, KV 581 – Excerpts
Mari Kodama (piano)
Pentatone PTC 5186 841 56:02 mins

'Liszt’s piano arrangements once brought Beethoven’s symphonies into homes when orchestral performances were rare. Now Mari Kodama presents equivalents for the string quartets. These transcriptions by Saint-Saëns, Balakirev and Musorgsky have, she says, given her a new understanding of these works. She justifies this selection of individual movements – no opening movements or finales – as being ‘an effective dramaturgy’ culminating in on a theme from Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet. The real justification, though, lies in her beautifully-judged pianism.'

Beethoven * Brahms * Mozart et al

Beethoven: Bagatelles, Op. 119; Piano Sonata No. 3 in C major, Op. 2 No. 3; Brahms: Intermezzos, Op. 118 Nos 1, 2 & 6; Ballade in G minor, Op. 118 No. 3; Romance in F major, Op. 118 No. 5; Klavierstücke, Op. 119; Mozart: Piano Sonatas Nos. 14 & 16; Fantasia in C minor, K475; Schubert: Impromptu in A flat major, D935 No. 2; Allegretto in C minor; Rameau: Les Sauvages; Le rappel des oiseaux; Rachmaniov: Prelude Op. 32 No. 12 in G sharp minor; Debussy: Préludes, Book I – Des pas sur le neige, etc
Grigory Sokolov (piano)
DG 483 6570 120.55 mins (2 discs)

'The recordings on this release come from three recitals in 2019. If the programme sounds familiar, the reality is anything but.'

Thomas Adès

Powder Her Face – Concert Paraphrase; The Exterminating Angel – Berceuse; Mazurkas for Piano, Op. 27; In Seven Days*
Kirill Gerstein (piano); *Tanglewood Music Centre Orchestra/Thomas Adès
Myrios MYR027 58:02 mins

'Composer and pianist may talk in terms of ideas and technicalities, but when I listen to this recording the words I jot down are all impressionistic: it makes an exhilarating hour of beauty and strangeness. Adès has given In Seven Days a clear literary programme – Gerstein describes it as being about the birth of the universe – but for me it’s simply a triumphant cavalcade of delicately glittering and gloriously sensuous effects.'


Bagatelles, Opp 33, 119 & 126; Bagatelle in A minor, WoO 59 ‘Für Elise’; Klavierstück in B flat major, WoO 60; in B minor, WoO 61; in G minor, WoO61a; Fantasia in G minor, Op. 77
Paul Lewis (piano)
Harmonia Mundi HMM902416 69:41 mins

'Throughout, Paul Lewis plays with the most natural, relaxed but concentrated enjoyment, instantly communicated to the happy listener. A delightful disc altogether, warmly recommended.'

JS Bach: Goldberg Variations

Lang Lang (piano)
DG 481 8971 00:00 mins (2 discs)

'Lang Lang has studied the Goldbergs for 20 years, and recording this work has been his dream. He played it from memory for Christoph Eschenbach when he was 17, and did so again for Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who told him he needed to communicate a greater sense of solitude; he consulted the harpsichordist Andreas Staier about pedal use, ornamentation, dynamics and the overall structure. In search for the right sound, he recorded the work for a live audience in Bach’s own church in Leipzig, then decided to complement that version with one recorded in the studio.'

James MacMillan: Organ Works

Kenga e Krushqve; Gaudeamus in loci pace; St Andrews’ Suite; Offertorium; White Note Paraphrase; Meditation; Wedding Introit; Toccata
Stephen Farr (organ)
Resonus RES10266 55:25 mins

'Stephen Farr is making quite a speciality of single-composer albums devoted to contemporary UK organ music. It all shows off the superb Rieger organ of St Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh to thrilling effect, and together with an excellent recording and illuminating liner notes, Resonus has done MacMillan proud.'

Solo II

JS Bach: Cello Suites Nos 3 & 4 (arr. violin); Kurtág: Games, Signs & Messages
Tabea Zimmermann (violin)
Myrios MYR026 52:47 mins

'The viola player Tabea Zimmermann speculates that Bach’s Cello Suites, the third and fourth of which are recorded here, might have been performed on the contemporary violoncello piccolo or the viola da spalla, attached by a strap to the front of the body. Bach himself was not excessively purist when it came to adapting his works and, when all is said and done, it is the quality of the performing that counts.'