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The best classical albums released in 2021 so far

A list of the greatest classical music recordings released so far in 2021, as chosen by the BBC Music Magazine critics

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The best orchestral recordings

Ben-Haim

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Symphony No. 1; Pan*; Pastorale variée** *Claudia Barainsky (soprano), **John Bradbury (clarinet); BBC Philharmonic/Omer Meir Wellber
Chandos CHAN 20169
60:45 mins

‘The First Symphony is the most substantial work here. Composed during the early years of the Second World War, its fiercely dynamic outer movements – a combative Allegro energico and an obsessively rhythmic finale marked Presto con fuoco, performed with mesmerising urgency by Wellber and the BBC Philharmonic – surely reflect the turbulent political environment the composer faced at the time.’

Read our full review of this recording here.

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Scriabin R Strauss

R Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra; Scriabin: Symphony No. 4  ‘The Poem of Ecstasy’
Seattle Symphony/Thomas Dausgaard
Seattle Symphony SSM 1025   52:23 mins

‘I’d thought of Dausgaard as a febrile kind of conductor, but he knows when to go slow and spacious here, when to drive to thrilling climaxes. His booklet notes are excellent, too.’

Read our full review of this recording here.

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Myaskovsky Prokofiev

Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5; Myaskovsky: Symphony No. 21
Oslo Philharmonic/Vasily Petrenko
Lawo LWC 1207   62:31 mins

‘Admirable it may be of Vasily Petrenko to continue his winning streak in an ever-growing discography by pairing symphonies by Prokofiev and his lifelong friend Myaskovsky, ten years his senior, but there can be no doubt what really matters here – a powerful and revelatory take on a masterpiece, Prokofiev’s Fifth.’

Read our full review of this recording here.

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The best concerto recordings

Silver Age

Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 16; Sarcasms, Op. 17; Piano Sonata No. 8 in B flat major, Op. 84; Gavotta, Op. 95 No. 2; Scriabin: Piano Concerto in F sharp minor, Op. 20; Stravinsky: Serenade in A; The Firebird Suite; Three Movements from Petrushka
Daniil Trifonov (piano); Mariinsky Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
DG 4835331   139:59 mins (2 discs)

‘A golden-age collection from Trifonov, and it’s admirable that these two discs are always more about the music than about him, when as a recording superstar he could have taken an easier option. If I were to choose a compendium of Russian (mostly) 20th-century works for solo piano and piano-with-orchestra, this would be close. I learned new things about every work here, but the way Trifonov makes every moment live is simply astonishing.’

Read our full review of this recording here.

Read more reviews of the latest Scriabin recordings here

Read more reviews of the latest Prokofiev recordings here

Read more reviews of the latest Stravinsky recordings here

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Ammann • Bartók • Ravel

Ammann: The Piano Conceto ‘Gran Toccata’; Ravel: Concerto for the Left Hand; Bartók: Piano Concerto No. 3
Andreas Haefliger (piano); Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/Susanna Mälkki
BIS BIS-2310 (CD/SACD)
75:30 mins

‘With a work of this complexity, it’s easy to become somewhat numbed by the sheer density of ideas. Yet thanks to the totally compelling partnership between Haefliger and Susanna Mälkki, the excitement is sustained from first bar to last, and BIS’s forensically detailed recording brings a welcome clarity to the scoring.’

Read our full review of this recording here.

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Bartók Martinů

Martinu˚: Violin Concertos Nos 1 & 2; Bartók: Sonata for Solo Violin
Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin); Bamberg Symphony Orchestra/Jakub Hrůša
BIS BIS-2457 (CD/SACD)   74:40 mins

‘The Bartók Solo Violin Sonata is a great bonus and beautifully played, but these landmark performances of the Martinů concertos are the headline items and both are unquestionably outstanding.’

Read our full review of this recording here.

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The best opera recordings

Vivaldi’s Argippo

Emőke Baráth, Marie Lys, Delphine Galou, Marianna Pizzolato, Luigi De Donato; Europa Galante/Fabio Biondi
Naïve OP 7079
112:10 mins (2 discs)

‘The bass Luigi De Donato is a youthful Emperor and Emőke Baráth‘s Argippa sounds more satisfying as the plot curdles, with thrilling top notes, callisthenic coloratura and deep dives into the chest register. Of the women characters Delphine Galou’s Zanaida gets the pick of the arias in a recording that is bright and lets the singers lead, which is as it should be.’

Read full review of this recording here.

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Willem Jeths: Ritratto

Verity Wingate, Martin Mkhize, Frederik Bergman, Paride Cataldo, Dominic Kraemer, Lucas van Lierop, Cameron Shahbazi; Dutch National Opera; Amsterdam Sinfonietta/Geoffrey Paterson
Challenge CC 72849   88:24 mins

It’s invidious to single out individuals from the young cast, many of them members of the Dutch National Opera Studio, but Verity Wingate is compelling as Luisa, and Paride Cataldo’s posturing D’Annunzio all but steals the show.’

Read our full review of this recording here.

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The best choral and song recordings

Mahler

Erinnerung: Dan Knaben Wunderhorn – selection; Rückert-Lieder; Lieder und Gesange aus der Jugendzeit
Christiane Karg (soprano), Malcolm Martineau, Gustav Mahler (piano)
Harmonia Mundi HMM 905338
68:37 mins

‘This recital interleaves songs from Das Knaben Wunderhorn, the collection of folk-poem settings which occupied Mahler for years, along with a selection of others, with the five Rückert-Lieder at the core. Given Mahler’s modest song oeuvre, there are no rarities here, but the sequence is thoughtful. And the performance of this recital is magnificent, painting each miniature landscape in generous, vivid detail.’

Read our full review of this recording here.

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… and …

Arvo Pärt: Drei Hirtenkinder; Kleine Litanei; Virgencita; Habitare fratres in unum; Alleluia tropus; And I heard a voice…; Caroline Shaw: and the swallow; Julia Wolfe: Guard my tongue; Anon: Laude di Cortona (arr. Paul Hillier)
Ars Nova Copenhagen/
Paul Hillier
Naxos 8.574281   62:48 mins

‘Consummate choral singing, luminous, multi-coloured and virtuosic, each word lovingly and clearly enunciated, each line beautifully shaped, in a performance of deep, rapt spirituality.’

Read our full review of this recording here.

An Italian Travel Diary

M-A Charpentier: Mass for Four Choirs, etc; plus works by Benevoli, Beretta, Cavalli,  Cazzati, Giamberti and Merula
Ensemble Correspondances/Sébastian Daucé
Harmonia Mundi HMM 902640   74:45 mins

‘This ‘travel diary’ brings together the sort of music Charpentier may have encountered en route and provides a narrative thread for a selection of ravishing, often revelatory, works. This is an inspiring programme which highlights the reasons why Italy had such an overwhelming impact on the impressionable young Parisian.’

Read our full review of this recording here.

Bruckner: Latin Motets

Latvian Radio Choir/Sigvards Klava
Ondine ODE 1362-2   56:38 mins

‘This Latvian choir resounds from the bottom upwards and sounds like an anxious congregation praying.’

Read our full review of this recording here.

Handel’s Tea Time

Handel: Venus & Adonis; 24 English Songs, HWV 228 – excerpts; Mi palpita i cor, HWV 132b; Purcell: The Fairy Queen – O Let Me Weep
Dorothee Mields (soprano); Die Freitagsakademie Bern
Sony Classical 19439792732   76:04 mins

‘Baroque ensemble Die Freitagsakademie and star soprano Dorothee Mields have performed together since 2017, but this is their first recording. The wait has been worth it.’

Read our full review of this recording here.

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The best chamber music recordings

The Mad Lover

Suites, Sonatas and Variations by Thomas Dunford, H Eccles, J Eccles, Matteis the Elder, Matteis the Younger, D Purcell and H Purcell
Théotime Langlois de Swarte (violin), Thomas Dunford (lute)
Harmonia Mundi HMM 902305 74:48mins

‘Taking its name from John Fletcher’s Jacobean tragicomedy, The Mad Lover offers a taste of England’s sensual, passionate, sometimes wild, often eccentric musical soundscape in the years around 1700. Ornate and refined sonatas rub shoulders here with popular, foot-tapping numbers, many of them founded on ground basses that recur, like an obsessional memory, throughout the programme.’

Read our full review of this recording here.

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R Schumann

String Quartets Nos 1-3
Emerson String Quartet
Pentatone PTC 5186 869
76:46 mins

‘It seems that at last people are really starting to get Schumann’s chamber music. The Piano Quintet has always been popular, but the three string quartets he wrote the same year are marvels too. It’s just that they’re subtler, less extrovert, at times more enigmatic. Here’s playing that penetrates this music to a degree that surprised even a fully paid-up fan like me.’

Read our full review of this recording here.

PTC 5186 869

Erkki-Sven Tüür

String Quartet No. 2 ‘Lost Prayers’*; Fata Morgana; Synergie†; Lichttürme
†Florian Donderer, Harry Traksmann (violin), Marrit Gerretz-Traksmann (piano), Leho Karin, †Tanja Tetzlaff (cello); *Signum Quartett
ECM 481 9540
54:40 mins

‘Erkki-Sven Tüür is best known for his robustly elemental orchestral writing, with nine symphonies and a host of concertos and other large-scale pieces composed to date. Yet, as this album of chamber works attests, he is equally at home with far smaller forces where his trademark dramatic extremes and expansive gestures take on a powerful immediacy close-up.’

Read our full review of this recording here.

ECM 481 9540

Weinberg

String Quartets Nos 2, 5 & 8
Arcadia Quartet
Chandos CHAN 20158
68:24 mins

‘The Arcadia’s evident enthusiasm for the music is perfectly conveyed here with playing that maximises the emotional range explored in each work, as well as exploiting to the full the music’s tonal and textural varieties and its underlying sense of unease.’

Read our full review of this recording here.

CHAN 20158

The best instrumental music recordings

Thalberg

L’art du chant appliqué au piano, Op. 70; plus transcriptions of Mendelssohn, Rossini and Schubert
Paul Wee (piano) BIS BIS-2515 (CD/SACD)
139:11 mins (2 discs)

‘Three cheers for Paul Wee who, having previously established his dazzling virtuosity in Alkan, now presents Thalberg’s entire set in delectably appealing performances. Wee effortlessly conveys Thalberg’s periodic illusion, as in Meyerbeer’s ‘Nel silenzio fra l’orror’, that three or four hands are involved. Whether in Bellini, Donizetti, Gretry, Mercadante, Mozart or Weber, Wee’s richly evocative playing perfectly captures the spirit of each role.’

Read our full review of this recording here.

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Bowen

Fragments from Hans Andersen; 12 Studies, Op. 46; Concert Studies Nos 1 & 2
Nicolas Namoradze (piano)
Hyperion CDA68303
66:32 mins

‘Namoradze brings total technical assurance alongside exuberance and an unshowy sense of integrity to these fiendish pieces. An altogether enjoyable disc.’

Read our full review of this recording here.

CDA68303

Beethoven

Symphony No. 6 (arr. piano four hands)*; Piano Sonata No. 17 ‘Tempest’
Theodosia Ntokou, *Martha Argerich (piano)
Warner Classics 9029516403
65:37 mins

‘Argerich is as engagingly spontaneous and pianistically responsive as ever, yet here she plays with exquisite refinement, as though distilling her interpretative essence to its essentials. Ntokou counterbalances Argerich’s inspired pianism with captivating flair, textural acuity and fine-graded tonal matching.’

Read our full review of this recording here.

9029516403

Reicha

L’Art de varier, Op. 57
Ivan Ilić (piano)
Chandos CHAN 20194
86:50 mins

‘Now in its third volume, Ivan Ilić’s exploration of the piano works of Anton Reicha is making those works’ cognate origin with the works of Beethoven yet more abundantly clear.’

Read our full review of this recording here.

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CHAN 20194