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
The best orchestral recordings
Symphony No. 1; Pan*; Pastorale variée**
*Claudia Barainsky (soprano), **John Bradbury (clarinet); BBC Philharmonic/Omer Meir Wellber
Chandos CHAN 20169 60:45 mins
- 4 Jewish composers suppressed by Nazism and the Third Reich
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'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.'
'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.'
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.'
Symphony No. 15 in D; Symphony No. 35 in B flat; Symphony No. 45 in F sharp minor ‘Farewell’; Scena di Berenice, Hob.XXIVA:10*
*Sandrine Piau (soprano); Il Giardino Armonico/Giovanni Antonini
Alpha Classics ALPHA684 77:34 mins
'This is the latest release in Giovanni Antonini’s project to record all of Haydn’s symphonies by the tercentenary of his birth in 2032. It centres on two great ‘farewell’ works: the fiercely concentrated Symphony No. 45, from which the players gradually depart at the end, and the emotionally charged Scena di Berenice, premiered together with the Symphony No. 104 towards the end of Haydn’s last London visit in 1795.'
Symphony No. 1; Symphonic Dances
Philadelphia Orchestra/Yannick Nézet-Séguin
DG 483 9839 79:32 mins
'You need not only a sensitivity to the special string warmth but also an ideal flexibility for the tempo rubato implied when not explicitly requested in so much of Rachmaninov’s music. Charles Dutoit, who recorded the major orchestral works with the Philadelphia in the early 1990s, didn’t have it; Nézet-Séguin does, in spades, and he’s allowed an occasional largesse which slightly holds up the pell-mell progress of the First Symphony’s fateful finale cavalcade.'
Symphony No. 9 ‘Choral’
Christina Landshamer (soprano), Jennifer Johnson Cano (mezzo-soprano), Werner Güra (tenor), Shenyang (bass); Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh; Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Manfred Honeck
Reference FR-741 (CD/SACD) 62:44 mins
'Everything about this performance has heft, from the orchestra to the soloists, with precision sculpting from Honeck verging on the maniacal, the Finale a joyous argy-bargy of conflicting forces, beset with moments of transcendent, expressive beauty.'
Symphony No. 2 in E minor
London Symphony Orchestra/Simon Rattle
LSO Live LSO 0851 58:50 mins
'Not only does it feature superior orchestral playing, but Rattle’s wonderfully fluid approach, his magisterial control of rubato and keen sensitivity to all the different colours in this opulently scored work all combine to produce an interpretation that keeps you engaged from the first bar to last.'
Symphony No. 7 in A major
Sony Classical 19439743772 39:07 mins
'Most crucially, by rejoicing freely in the music’s expressive profiling – the second movement Allegretto is revelatory in its multifaceted soundscaping and enhanced dynamic flexibility – the Symphony’s generic imaging appears to dissolve in front of our ears, to reveal pristine musical surfaces.'
'Commissioned by the ensemble and scored for 12 string players, the piece has an ageless, ancient-yet-modern quality: like a shimmering ghost of Lawes’s viol consorts, a fine latticework of line and colour is viewed through a kaleidoscope of grainy harmonies and whistling white noise'
Cello Concerto No. 2 ‘Presence’; Musica Serena; Musica Dolorosa; Musica Appassionata
Uladzimir Sinkevich (cello), Anna-Maria Palii (soprano); Munich Radio Orchestra/Ivan Repušić
BR Klassik 900336 76:53 mins
'The works here date from 1983 to 2015 and show no let-up in intensity or purpose into today’s newly challenging times. Three of Vasks’s cycle of four ‘musicae’ for string orchestra are given radiant performances by the Munich Radio Orchestra under conductor Ivan Repušić.'
Read more reviews of the latest Vasks recordings
Dune of Footprints; Nature*; What Did We See? (Suite from the opera Between Worlds); Re-greening†
*Huw Watkins (piano); Norwegian Radio Orchestra/Karen Kamensek; *Birmingham Contemporary Music Group/Oliver Knussen; †National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain
NMC NMCD 260 68:26 mins
'Shamanism and the human fascination with divine energy is a recurring theme in Tansy Davies’s work. The piano loosely represents a spiritual intermediary in Nature (2012), the single-movement concerto that gives its name to this latest NMC release. Davies characterises the solo part – performed here by Huw Watkins – as a maenad, a frenzied female follower of Dionysus’s. The composer’s considered use of colour is beautifully drawn out by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, led by Oliver Knussen.'
CPE Bach – Beyond the Limits
Complete String Symphonies
Gli Incogniti/Amandine Beyer (violin)
Harmonia Mundi HMM 905321 67:02 mins
'Gli Incogniti, under the stylistically assured direction of its violinist director Amandine Beyer, captures this music’s mercurial temperament with panache. Crisp articulation, eloquently shaped phrasing and a shared enthusiasm for Emanuel Bach’s elusive idiom enlivens the music at every turn. Among the highlights are the jauntily clad opening Allegretto of the B minor Symphony and the Largo ed innocentemente of the A major Symphony, whose pervasive melancholy is gently realised.'
Symphony No. 2; Academic Festival Overture
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Herbert Blomstedt
Pentatone PTC 5186 851 55:00 mins
'No doubt, there are conductors who inject a stronger personality into this great symphony, and convey its ebb and flow a bit more compellingly (Wilhelm Furtwängler or George Szell, for instance), but with glowing playing throughout from the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra it’s hard not to enjoy this affectionate and superbly recorded new version.'
Symphony No. 4 in F minor; Symphony No. 6 in E minor
London Symphony Orchestra/Antonio Pappano
LSO Live LSO0867 68:06 mins
'This is a terrible beauty, energetic, Satanic, utterly spellbinding, keeping enough in reserve to make the biggest climaxes truly shattering. And there’s a very special quality to the muted, divided strings as they head to the 14-part chord that ends the first movement. Special, too, are the wind solos – an unearthly oboe (performed by Juliana Koch) and a calm flute (performed by Gareth Davies) on the cusp of silence.'
Schreker • Zemlinsky
Schreker: Der Geburtstag der Infantin; Zemlinsky: Die Seejungfrau
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
Onyx ONYX 4197 78:20 mins
'This warmly recorded version not only goes to the top of the tree as the most satisfying account of Zemlinsky’s score in the current catalogue, but also trumps its closest rivals in offering the most apposite and brilliantly performed coupling of Franz Schreker’s colourful ballet score Der Geburtstag der Infantin, an Oscar Wilde fairytale which coincidentally Zemlinsky fashioned into an opera in the early 1920s.'
Festmusik – A Legacy
Music for brass ensemble by Brahms, R Franz, A Rubinstein, R Schumann and R Strauss
Septura; Onyx Brass/John Wilson
Chandos CHSA 5284 (CD/SACD) 67:25 mins
'And the playing in the arrangements of the Two Songs is extraordinary. How do human lungs sustain the vast phrases and endless pedal-points of Der Abend (Evening) – a golden, ten-minute drift of Straussian serenity? And, in Chandos’s typically full recorded acoustic, the sheer glory of sonority in the climaxes of the more eventful Hymne is quite overwhelming.'
The best concerto recordings
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 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
Read more reviews of the latest concerto recordings here
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.'
Martinů: 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.'
F Coll: Les plaisirs illuminés; Ginastera: Concerto for Strings; Veress: Musica concertante; plus works by Bartók, Kurtág and Ligeti
Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin), Sol Gabetta (cello); Camerata Bern/Francisco Coll
Alpha Classics ALPHA580 75:26 mins
'Two threads run through this adventurous disc – the spirit of Béla Bartók and the Camerata Bern’s prowess – but the force of personality at the centre of it all comes from the violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, who since 2018 has been ‘artistic partner’ of the ensemble.'
Liverpool Lullabies; Waves of Wollongong; 2017
Evelyn Glennie (percussion); New Trombone Collective; Antwerp Symphony Orchestra/Christian Lindberg (trombone)
BIS BIS-2418 (CD/SACD) 72:00 mins
'In 1997, long fêted for his prodigious artistry as a trombonist, Christian Lindberg discovered an equal flair for composing. More recently, he has won accolades as a conductor. This ebullient album reveals him a force of nature in all three roles alongside superb collaborators including an ever-agile Antwerp Symphony Orchestra.'
Concertos for Mallet Instruments
Alexis Alrich: Marimba Concerto; Karl Jenkins: La Folia; Ned Rorem: Mallet Concerto
Evelyn Glennie (percussion); City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong/Jean Thorel
Naxos 8.574218 71:01 mins
'Another engaging disc from the ever-compelling Evelyn Glennie with three attractive concertos that should win many friends. From its shimmering opening, Alexis Alrich’s substantial three-movement Marimba Concerto creates a distinctive lyrical world. The insistent rhythmic patterns of minimalism sit naturally alongside calmer, more impressionistic textures allied to hints of Glennie’s fascination with Asian music.'
More like this
Violin Concerto, Op. 67; Sonata for Two Violins, Op. 69
Gidon Kremer, Madara Pētersone (violin); Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Daniele Gatti
Accentus ACC 30518 51:04 mins
'This performance, recorded live in Leipzig during February 2020, undoubtedly benefits from Kremer’s passionate commitment, but also offers a distinct advantage over rival recordings through its vivid recorded sound and the superbly compelling contribution from the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester under Daniele Gatti.'
'Hahn is not afraid to play a true pianissimo when called for, with no loss of tone, nor is she fazed by Chausson’s stratospherics – the part spends much of its time way up above the treble stave.'
Triple Concerto, Op. 56; Piano Trio, Op. 36 (after Symphony No. 2)
Isabelle Faust (violin), Jean-Guihen Queyras (cello), Alexander Melnikov (piano); Freiburger Barockorchester/Pablo Heras-Casado
Harmonia Mundi HMM902419 64:52 mins
'In the opening orchestral tutti, after the quiet start, the forward, vibrant sound and rhythmic unanimity give the impression of a far larger number of players than those named. There’s no question of a timid approach, and the clean timbre of the period instruments is echoed by the soloists, entering one by one.'
This Departing Landscape**; Release; The White Road*; Piano Concerto
*Katherine Bryan (flute), Tamara Stefanovich (piano); **BBC Philharmonic; BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Ilan Volkov
NMC D262 76:57 mins
'Fast-moving, fragmentary melodies and shifting ideas signify the slipperiness of sound. Pattern plays a more prominent role in Release, where semi-regular instrumental outbursts represent the often-experienced urge to make a loud noise in a reverberant space.'
Piano Concertos Nos 1 & 2; Konzertstück
Ronald Brautigam (piano); Kölner Akademie/Michael Alexander Willens
BIS BIS-2384 (CD/SACD) 56:18 mins
'It’s the prototype of the Romantic concerto as practised by Liszt (who played the piece frequently) and others, and like Weber’s two full-blown piano concertos it was tailor-made for his own formidable keyboard prowess, not to mention his exceptionally large hands.'
Read more reviews of the latest Weber recordings
Bassoon Concertos, Vol. 5: RV 467, 476, 479, 481, 486, 489 & 497
L’Onda Armonica/Sergio Azzolini (bassoon)
Naïve OP30573 73:32 mins
'It’s hard to imagine a more passionate advocate for these works than Sergio Azzolini who brings fiendish agility to the fast movements and makes his instrument sigh and sing in the pathos-laden, operatic slow movements. He draws pert ensemble playing, too, from L’Onda Armonica who capture both the visceral and the delicate sides of Vivaldi’s musical personae.'
Lutosławski • R Schumann • Tchaikovsky
Lutosławski: Cello Concerto; R Schumann: Cello Concerto in A minor, Op. 129; Tchaikovsky: Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op. 33
Andrzej Bauer (cello); Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra/Jacek Kaspszyk
Frederick Chopin Institute NIFCCD 072 66:34 mins
'Three contrasting cello concertos cast fresh light on each other in performances by Polish cellist Andrzej Bauer, whose cultivated, singing tone is a constant virtue.'
Piano Concerto No. 11 in F, K413; Piano Concerto No. 12 in A, K414; Piano Concerto No. 13 in C, K415 (arr. piano and string quartet)
Matyáš Novák (piano); Wihan Quartet
Nimbus NI6419 77:37 mins
'The Wihan Quartet’s collective sound has a rounded fullness and mellow, tawny-brown colouring which, besides being handsome in itself, also means that they never have to force any kind of would-be orchestral effect. And on this form, Matyáš Novák is yet another of today’s wonderful vintage of young pianists; playing on a modern concert grand, he nonetheless judges the music’s interplay between keyboard and solo strings with poised precision.'
The best opera recordings
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.'
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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.'
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I Am Hera
Bellini: Arias from I Capuleti e i Montecchi; Gluck: Arias from Orfeo ed Euridice; Handel: Aria from Giulio Cesare; Mozart: Arias from Idomeneo, The Marriage of Figaro and The Magic Flute; Puccini: Arias from La bohème and Gianni Schicchi; Rossini: Arias from The Barber of Seville and Il Turco in Italia; plus works by Joowon Kim, Pergolesi and Un-Yung La
Hera Hyesang Park (soprano), Johannes Maria Bogner (harpsichord); Vienna Symphony Orchestra/Bertrand de Billy
DG 483 9456 66:35 mins
'Hera today, but hopefully not gone tomorrow. The young Korean soprano Hera Hyesang Park has recorded one of the most satisfying debuts for many a day.'
Margaret Catchpole: Two Worlds Apart
Kate Howden, William Wallace, Nicholas Morris, Richard Edgar-Wilson; Perpetuo/Julian Perkins
Naxos 8.660459-61 165:36 mins (3 discs)
'Stephen Dodgson (1924-2013) – a distant relative of Charles, aka Lewis Carroll – left a notable body of work that, under the auspices of The Stephen Dodgson Charitable Trust, is edging towards the recognition it deserves. Margaret Catchpole: Two Worlds Apart (1979) is one of Dodgson’s three operas – this is its first recording.'
Anna Dennis (soprano), Richard Burkhard (baritone), Helen Charlston (mezzo-soprano), Héloïse Bernard (soprano), Graeme Broadbent (bass) et al; Cambridge Early Opera; Academy of Ancient Music/Julian Perkins
AAM AAM012 121:27 mins
'John Eccles’s sexy, sparkling opera bursts to life – finally! Shelved in 1706, Semele has never been professionally recorded, so this production was worth waiting for. Cast, band, director and sound are all top-notch, restoring Eccles’s score to its full glory.'
Handel: Arias from Flavio, Re De’ Longobardi; Admeto, Re Di Tessaglia; Siroe, Re Di Persia, etc; plus works by Arisoti and Bononcini
Eva Zaïcik (mezzo-soprano); Le Consort
Alpha Classics ALPHA 662 64:59 mins
'In 2017, Eva Zaïcik dazzled BBC Proms audiences in Monteverdi’s Vespers. This project shows why. From her gut-punch climactic notes to the buttery evenness of her register, Zaïcik’s command is exhilarating.'
Baritone Arias from La traviata, Il Trovotore, Rigoletto, Otello, Nabucco, Ernani, etc
Ludovic Tézier (baritone); Orchestra del Teatro Comunale di Bologna/Frédéric Chaslin
Sony Classical 19439753632 79:50 mins
'With his richly burnished voice, Tézier gives a compelling account of all these diverse characters but is at his best in the arias that call for psychological nuance and contrasts in vocal shading. Particular highlights include the disc’s curtain-raiser, an authoritative ‘Morir! Tremenda cosa!’ from La forza del destino, and the dying Rodrigue/Rodrigo’s bittersweet aria from Don Carlos/Carlo – presented here in both its French and Italian versions and sufficiently attractive to merit including twice.'
Cyrille Dubois, Judith van Wanroij, Chantal Santon Jeffery; Purcell Choir; Orfeo Orchestra/György Vashegyi
Glossa GCD 924010 168:37 mins (3 discs)
'This exciting and full-blooded account has more historic coherence than any so far of this great opera. György Vashegyi, who already has three Rameau opera recordings to his name, has mustered a uniformly strong cast with lively characterisation from Antenor and Teucer, alpha males pumped to the hilt with testosterone.'
Beethoven • Verdi • Wagner
Beethoven: Ah! Perfido, Op. 65; Fidelio – Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin?; Cherubini: Medee – Dei tuoi figli la madre tu vedi; Mascagni: Cavalleria rusticana – Voi lo sapete o mamma; Verdi: La forza del destino – Pace, pace mio Dio!; Otello – Ave Maria; Wagner: Wesendonck-Lieder
Lise Davidsen (soprano); London Philharmonic Orchestra/Mark Elder
Decca 485 1507 63:28 mins
'Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen is the most exciting new operatic presence for at least a decade and already, at 33, has a large repertoire of demanding roles. Her first solo recital album was greeted with universal praise, and I would be amazed if this one – much more demanding – isn’t given an even more ecstatic reception.'
Lucy Crowe, Iestyn Davies, Joshua Ellicott, Brandon Cedel, Jess Dandy, Tim Mead; The English Concert/Harry Bicket
Linn Records CKD 658 188:32 mins (3 discs)
'Against the odds, director Harry Bicket has gifted us the best-ever recording of Rodelinda. The Covid pandemic having forced Carnegie Hall to cancel a planned concert production, Bicket arranged to record in London instead, with the same musicians, each two metres apart. Many would find it impossible to do justice to Handel’s score while keeping socially distanced: blend, ensemble, precision and spontaneous reactions all require proximity. But in extremis this company discovered superpowers within.'
Erwin Schrott, Michael Fabiano, Irina Lungu, Stéphane Degout, Marta Fontanals-Simmons; Royal Opera House Orchestra/Dan Ettinger; dir. David McVicar (London, 2019)
Opus Arte DVD: OA1330D; Blu-ray: OABD7285D 196 mins
'This is a top-flight cast. In a sensitive, intelligent and finely articulated interpretation, Michael Fabiano humanises the doddering old philosopher tired of dusty old books and all too willing to sell his soul for a return to youth and love.'
Tenor Arias by Bellini, Buzzi-Peccia, Cardillo, Di Capua, Falvo, Gastaldon, Innocenzi, Leoncavallo, Mazzucchi, Puccini, Respighi, Tagliaferri, Tosti, Trapani/Lange and Valente
Freddie De Tommaso (tenor); London Philharmonic Orchestra/Renato Balsadonna
Decca 485 1509 53:18 mins
'Listen to Freddie De Tommaso at full throttle and you’ll need to lie down in a darkened room. Passione is singing in the tradition of De Tommaso’s hero Franco Corelli: stylish and heartfelt, spinning gold out of the simplest of popular Italian songs.'
The best choral and song recordings
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.'
... 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.'
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.'
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.'
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.'
Narrow Sea; Taxidermy
Dawn Upshaw (soprano), Gilbert Kalish (piano); Sō Percussion
Nonesuch 7559791789 28:22 mins
'Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw continues to make waves with her imaginative and expressive works that glide effortlessly between genres. This short but exquisite disc showcases Shaw’s 2017 Narrow Sea, recorded by its outstanding original performers: Sō Percussion, soprano Dawn Upshaw and pianist Gilbert Kalish.'
Motets and Mass Movements: O bone et dulcissime Jesu a 6; Domine, ne in furore tuo, etc.
The Brabant Ensemble/Stephen Rice
Hyperion CDA68321 77:08 mins
'The Brabant Ensemble’s recordings have tended to focus on less familiar Franco-Flemish composers associated with the duchy of Brabant, but here they turn to the celebrated ‘fons et origo’ of Renaissance polyphony, Josquin des Prez. The selection of works chosen to mark the 500th anniversary of the composer’s death does, however, unveil some rarities'
Dreams of a New Day – Songs by Black Composers
Burleigh: Five Songs of Laurence Hope; Bonds: Three Dream Portraits; Kerr: Riding to Town; Leslie Adams: Amazing Grace; Damien Sneed: I Dream a World; Shawn E Okpebholo: Two Black Churches; Owens: Mortal Storm; Fariña: Birmingham Sunday (arr. Liverman)
Will Liverman (baritone), Paul Sánchez (piano)
Cedille 90000200 58:57 mins
'A true passion project, Dreams of a New Day gives voice to the remarkable creative contributions of African-American composers from the 20th century to the present day, while also celebrating the generations of poets and lyricists ‘who have encapsulated seminal events from the African-American community’. Performed with beauty, poise and conviction, the resulting disc is a powerful tribute to a sea of talent too often neglected and sounds a call for social justice.'
Hidden Treasure – Unpublished Lieder
Christian Immler (bass-baritone), Helmut Deutsch (piano)
BIS BIS-2543 (CD/SACD) 72:25 mins
'This is a treasure-trove of songs in the tradition of Richard Strauss, melodically radiant and full of sensitivity to atmosphere. Only five, Op. 33, were published in Gál’s lifetime.'
Madrigali, Books 3 & 4
Les Arts Florissants/Paul Agnew
Harmonia Mundi HAF8905309-10 90:05 mins (2 discs)
'This series of discs to record the complete madrigals here reaches Books Three and Four. The texts – mostly by Ferrarese poets – revel in morbid themes of love unrequited and an obsessional longing for death. The singers pay studious attention to the poetry and its nuances, painting the words with a rich palette and contrasting light and shade to reflect Gesualdo’s chiaroscuro.'
Biber: Requiem; plus works by Bernhard, Fux and JM Nicolai
Vox Luminis; Freiburger Barockconsort/Lionel Meunier
Alpha Classics ALPHA665 72:08 mins
'Though there are versions that have a weightier choral sound, the advantage of this one is that the Requiem’s words (which so fuelled the composer’s creative imagination) and all the details of Biber’s complex musical tapestry cut through with glassy clarity. Intense but never histrionic, the performance captures the work’s power and its intimacy.'
A Musical Zoo
Ravel: Histoires naturelles; plus songs by Barber, Britten, Duke, Fauré, Howells, Ireland, Musorgsky, Schubert, R Schumann, Shostakovich, R Strauss and Wolf
Ashley Riches (bass-baritone), Joseph Middleton (piano)
Chandos CHAN 20184 75:13 mins
'Embracing German, French, Russian and English, not to mention moods ranging from lambent lullaby to directions including ‘acute suffering’ and ‘kind of groovy’, Riches has the versatility to sound at home in any language or musical idiom. He possesses a natural authority that never has to strive for effect, and his warm, supple bass-baritone is eminently ‘grounded’ – whether revelling in the jocular heaviness of Musorgsky’s oft-scratched flea, or creating a sense of enrapt contentment as Ravel’s angler contemplates the kingfisher that has alighted on his rod.'
Songs by Kaprálová, A Mahler, C Schumann and Viardot-García
Olena Tokar (soprano), Igor Gryshyn (piano)
Orchid Classics ORC 100154 50:14 mins
'Mahler-Werfel’s rambling songs benefit from these impressively shaped performances. The luxuriant bloom of Tokar’s voice is perfectly matched by Gryshyn’s old-fashioned, elastic piano accompaniments. Tempo choices are generous and unhurried; Schumann’s ‘Er ist gekommen’, often a hysterical scramble, retains poise. ‘O Lust, o Lust’ is playfully exuberant, and ‘Geheimes Flüstern’, one of the finest songs ever penned, is swoonily beautiful.'
Consort Songs (1588)
Grace Davidson (soprano); Alamire; Fretwork/David Skinner
Inventa INV 1006 157:14 mins (2 discs)
'The real beauty of these readings, though, is the singers’ poetic nuancing of the texts, which they articulate with glassy clarity. The members of the viol consort Fretwork play with their characteristic grace, weaving gossamer textures around the voices. In sum, the performances, masterminded by scholar and director David Skinner, are a delight from start to finish.'
Read more reviews of the latest Byrd recordings
Jesu meine Freude
Cantata and motet settings by JS Bach, Doles, JL Krebs and Telemann
MDG MDG9232207 (CD/SACD) 65:35 mins
'Bach’s well known motet Jesu, meine Freude crowns the programme. Luminous vocal textures are sustained here and throughout by an eight-voice ensemble from which the two sopranos and the first bass make outstanding solo contributions. The instrumental group of strings, woodwind and continuo provides lively partnership, setting the seal on a praiseworthy endeavour, stylishly directed by Gordon Safari.'
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.'
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.'
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.'
String Quartets Nos 2, 5 & 8
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.'
String Quartets Vol. 3: K155, 168, 172, 387, 575 & 590
CAvi-music AVI8553032 116:19 mins (2 discs)
'Encapsulating the best of all worlds, the Armida play with the exquisite nuancing of the finest old-school outfits, yet with a take-nothing-for-granted interpretative inquisitiveness that takes historically informed practice to a whole new level.'
Sonata No. 8 in G, Op. 30/3 (arr. Pahud)*; Serenade in D, Op. 25†; Allegro and Minuet in G, WoO 26††; Trio Concertante in G, WoO 37*^
Emmanuel Pahud, ††Silvia Careddu (flute), ^Sophie Dervaux (bassoon), †Daishin Kashimoto (violin), †Amihai Grosz (viola), *Daniel Barenboim (piano)
Warner Classics 9029513974 77:34 mins
'Beethoven didn’t write much chamber music for flute, but Emmanuel Pahud and an impressive team of colleagues here make lovely, lively work of what the great composer did produce for the instrument, not to mention something he didn’t: the G major Sonata Op. 30 No. 3, originally for violin but periodically co-opted by flautists almost ever since.'
Violin Sonatas Nos 7 & 10
James Ehnes (violin), Andrew Armstrong (piano)
Onyx ONYX 4209 51:37 mins
'Such music seems especially apt to the contained luminosity of James Ehnes’s violin playing, the pristine pianism of Andrew Armstrong and their remarkable rapport, playing as if one.'
String Quartets, Op. 74 Nos 1-3; Folk Music from Scotland
Linn Records CKD 641 81:52 mins
'Haydn quartets interspersed with Scottish folk song arrangements – the idea sounds wildly incongruous, and yet how well it works in these fine performances.'
Violin Sonata No. 1; Cello Sonata No. 1; Piano Trio No. 2
Renaud Capuçon (violin), Edgar Moreau (cello), Bertrand Chamayou (piano)
Erato 9029516710 75:51 mins
'There is always room for more Saint-Saëns, especially in this centenary year of his death, and more especially when it’s played with such technical skill and intelligence.'
Metamorphosen (arr. Leopold); Capriccio Prelude; Quartettsatz in E flat; String Quartet in A, Op. 2; Ständchen; Festmarsch for Piano Quartet; Two Pieces for Piano Quartet, Op. 13
Champs Hill CHRCD 155 85:14 mins
'Singing tonal nuance and dynamic variety distinguish the two 1940s masterpieces, and it’s amazing how many more than seven strings seem to be playing in the Metamorphosen climaxes. The final retreat into introspection is properly moving.'
Read our reviews of the latest Richard Strauss recordings here
Find out more about Richard Strauss and his works here
Mason Bates: Mainframe Tropics; Bissill: Song of the New World; D Riniker: Velvet Valves; Wallendorf: Willisabethan Sarahnade
Sarah Willis, Klaus Wallendorf (horn), Kotowa Machida (violin), Philip Mayers (piano)
Alpha Classics ALPHA732 51:09 mins
'Most importantly, [Willis] is a true virtuoso of one of the most unforgiving of instruments, equally at home in the long legato lines of Richard Strauss as she is in the acrobatics-without-a-safety-net of the Schumann Konzertstück.'
Beethoven • Pleyel
Beethoven: Cello Sonatas, Op. 5; Variations on ‘Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen’; Pleyel: Nocturne ‘Souvenir de la Flûte enchantée’
Raphaël Pidoux (cello), Tanguy de Williencourt (piano)
Harmonia Mundi HMM902410 64:44 mins
'Cellist Raphaël Pidoux handles his tawny-voiced Pietro Guarneri with fiery grace, drawing luminous lyricism and gruff delicacy. The 1855 Gebauhr fortepiano, played by Tanguy de Williencourt, is an ideal partner, with a silky, light articulation but sufficient heft for Beethoven’s orchestral-like textures.'
Uncovered, Vol. 1 – Fantasiestücke; Clarinet Quintet*; Piano Quintet**
*Anthony McGill (clarinet); Catalyst Quartet; **Stewart Goodyear (piano)
Azica Records ACD-71336 76:11 mins
'Through four colourful movements, the Catalyst Quartet and pianist Stewart Goodyear capture the combination of freshness and subtle structural command that would become a hallmark of Coleridge-Taylor’s mature work.'
Find out more about Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and his works
Belle Époque – French Music for Wind
Caplet: Quintet; Debussy: Petite Pièce pour Clarinette et Piano; Rhapsody; Syrinx; plus works by Chaminade, Koechlin, Roussel and Saint-Saëns
Orsino Ensemble; Pavel Kolesnikov (piano)
Chandos CHSA 5282 (CD/SACD) 71:01 mins
'A delightful and thoughtful debut disc from the Orsino Ensemble. Unlike most releases titled Belle Époque (of which there are plenty), this packed programme actually conveys something of the variety of invention in French music-making during the decades before the First World War.'
Bartók • Beethoven • Dvořák
Bartók: String Quartet No. 3; Beethoven: String Quartet No. 8, Op. 59 No. 2 ‘Rasumovsky’; Dvořák: String Quartet No. 12 ‘American’
Juilliard String Quartet
Sony Classical 19439858752 70:35 mins
'There’s a sense that the players project ideas as if to the back of Carnegie Hall, which does mean that the expressive twists and turns become occasionally larger than life in the context of a recording – but what perfectly wrought ideas they are, with crisp rhythms ideally coordinated to perfection, airy textures, gorgeously vocal phrasing and a splendid pizzazz.'
The Well-Tempered Consort, Vol. 2: arrangements from Well-Tempered Clavier Books 1 & 2
Linn Records CKD 657 70:05 mins
'With continuo absent, the result sounds simultaneously ‘ancient and modern’. Moreover, the abiding intimacy of execution is beautifully matched by that of Linn’s recording in the generous sounding box of Magdalen College Chapel, Oxford. A rarefied pleasure perhaps, but an infinitely illuminating one too.'
Read more reviews of the latest JS Bach recordings
Violin Sonatas Nos 4, 5 & 7
Viktoria Mullova (violin), Alasdair Beatson (piano)
Onyx ONYX 4221 66:37 mins
'Recorded in July last year, Mullova, playing a 1750 Guadagnini with gut strings and a Ralph Ashmead classical bow, and Alasdair Beatson on a replica of an 1805 Walter fortepiano by Paul McNulty, immediately arrest attention with their account of the Op. 23 Sonata that captures its outer movements’ restless A minor hectoring and dynamic explosiveness.'
The best solo instrumental music recordings
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.'
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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.'
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.'
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.'
Rapa Nui Odyssey
JS Bach: Chromatic Fantasia & Fugue in D minor, BWV 903; Chopin: Nocturnes Nos 1 & 19, etc; Handel: Keyboard Suite, HWV 430 in E; Liszt: Ballade No. 2 in B minor; Vallée d’Obermann; plus works by Rachmaninov and Scriabin
Mahani Teave (piano)
Rubicon RCD1066 102:32 mins (2 discs)
'Mahani Teave is in her late 30s, but sounds more like an artist of the 1950s/’60s, following in the footsteps of an Arrau or Nikolayeva: someone with an entirely natural feel for what the piano is all about and a personality that can meld ideally with the composers’ worlds. She has a rich, luminous tone – and just try the deep, growling opening of the Liszt Ballade No. 2 – which complements a splendid instinct for rubato, expert voicing and colouring.'
Ning Feng (violin)
Channel Classics CCS 43221 75:29 mins
'There have been many and varied bravura recordings of Paganini’s Caprices these last years – they are, after all, the go-to for virtuosic display, written by the legendary 19th-century violinist as a way of showcasing his phenomenal technique. Here Ning Feng adds his own deeply expressive yet understated interpretation.'
Bach & Beyond, Part 3
JS Bach: Solo Violin Sonatas Nos 2 & 3, BWV 1003 & 1005; Berio: Sequenza VIII for Solo Violin;
John Harbison: For Violin Alone
Jennifer Koh (violin)
Cédille CDR 90000 199 86:23 mins (2 discs)
'Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas are the prime progenitors of later works for solo violin, and there’s a growing tradition for performers to programme them with contemporary pieces.'
Find out more about JS Bach and his works here Read more reviews of the latest JS Bach recordings hereVida breve
Chopin: Piano Sonata No. 2; plus works by Bach, Busoni, Gounod, Hough and Liszt
Stephen Hough (piano)
Hyperion CDA68260 74:19 mins
'‘Vida breve’ (life is short), the subtitle of Stephen Hough’s Piano Sonata No. 4, is the theme explored throughout this album. The sequence works well as a recital-like experience, and also as a vehicle for Hough’s comprehensive mastery of his art.'
Debussy: Six épigraphes antiques; Petite suite; Fauré: Dolly Suite; Poulenc: Sonata for Four Hands; Ravel: Ma mère l’Oye; Stravinsky: Three Easy Pieces for Piano Duet
Steven Osborne, Paul Lewis (piano)
Hyperion CDA68329 67:45 mins
'Lest it be thought the album is all cosy nostalgia, the headbanging spirit of Poulenc’s early Sonata gatecrashes the party with its alternative brand of youthful vigour, pushed forward with joyous abandon. In short, this is pure enjoyment from start to finish.'
Piano Sonata in B minor; Années de pèlerinage II – Sonnettos Nos 47, 104 & 123; Berceuse; Réminiscences de Norma; Zwölf Lieder von Franz Schubert – Ave Maria
Benjamin Grosvenor (piano)
Decca 485 1450 84:29 mins
'Even on a modern concert grand, with its built-in capacity for maximum brilliance, Benjamin Grosvenor conjures a brand of full and rounded keyboard sonority different from that of many of his contemporaries, and recalls the giants of an earlier generation (Busoni, for instance, or Josef Lhévinne).'
Études for Piano, Books 1-3
Danny Driver (piano)
Hyperion CDA68286 54:24 mins
'It is easy to understand why, with their exhilarating brilliance and mesmerising beauty, these pieces have captured the imagination of players and audiences alike, and they surely count as the summit of the Hungarian-Transylvanian composer’s achievement.'
Read more reviews of the latest Ligeti recordings
Piano Sonata; Passacaglia for Solo Piano ‘Distant Figure’; Piano Etude No. 20
Maki Namekawa (piano)
Orange Mountain Music OMM 0149 49:13 mins
'Maki Namekawa, the first pianist to record the composer’s complete Etudes, worked closely with him to understand the thrust of the work – and it shows.'
The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II – excerpts
Piotr Anderszewski (piano)
Warner Classics 9029511875 75:08 mins
'For this listener at least, Anderszewski’s interpretations and juxtapositions have a compelling inevitability; but the other reason for the recording’s success lies in his pianism. Anderszewski’s flexible, responsive touch and his often slowish tempos allow a subtle suggestiveness.'
Works by JS Bach – trans. Busoni, M Hess, Liszt, Saint-Saëns, Siloti and Szántó
Emmanuel Despax (piano)
Signum Classics SIGCD665 80:30 mins
'Despax channels the cleansing complexity of Bach in a programme that predictably includes Busoni’s version of the Chaconne from Violin Partita No. 2 and ‘Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme’, as well as Myra Hess’s ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’. But there are also lesser-known versions of Fantasia and Fugue in G minor and the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor by Hungarian pianist Theodor Szántó (1877–1934), which are first recordings and critical additions to recorded piano literature.'
'Sound, space and silence are inexplicably linked both in the unique impressions of 1905 and in Medtner’s Second Improvisation composed in the mid-1920s, more in the mainstream of virtuoso piano writing but equally responsive to the supernatural (it would perhaps be more often performed if it were called ‘Variations on a Water Nymph’s Song’).'
Ivan Bessonov plays...
Bessonov: Funf Kinderstücke; Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 7; Rachmaninov: Études-tableaux, Op. 39 – Nos 1-5; Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker – Suite (arr. Pletnev)
Ivan Bessonov (piano)
Ars Produktion ARS38321 (CD/SACD) 64:43 mins
'Prepare to be astonished. Even allowing for the huge technical standards taken for granted today, Ivan Bessonov’s verges on phenomenal. He draws a beautifully rounded sound from the Steinway used in this recording, and the maturity of his searching is remarkable for a pianist still in his late teens.'
'This disc is of sublime music, gloriously played, and it is one of those occasions when it seems superfluous to say much more.'
Klavierwerke – Preludes and Fugues, Fantasias, etc
Rinaldo Alessandrini (harpsichord)
Naïve OP 30581 73:02 mins
'Alessandrini performs on a copy of an instrument by Dulcken, one of the greatest harpsichord makers of the 18th century, affording numerous sound combinations matched by a sympathetically resonant recording. The playing is elegantly poised with remarkable expressive range.'
Read more reviews of the latest JS Bach recordings
Piano Sonatas, Vols 8 & 9: Nos 27-32
Boris Giltburg (piano)
Naxos 9.70314 80:42 mins / Naxos 9.70315 66:56 mins
'Always clean and never showy, Giltburg’s pianism is ideally suited to late Beethoven, and his touch throughout is light and flexible. One of his revelations comes with the Mit Lebhaftigkeit of Op. 90, which Giltburg gently probes to reveal unexpected moments of mystery.'
Alina Ibragimova (violin)
Hyperion CDA68366 104:19 mins (2 discs)
'Right from the off, Ibragimova captures the playful insanity that lies at the heart of No. 1, with its crazed ricochet arpeggiations. Rather than articulating the notes with machine-gun precision, she flutters over the strings like a supercharged butterfly.'
Coles • Holst
Coles: Variations on an Original Theme; Sketches; Valse in D etc; Holst: Toccata; Two Pieces for Piano; Egdon Heath etc
James Willshire (piano)
Delphian DCD34209 68:46 mins
'How wonderful it is to hear this music given a real performance rather than the usual dutiful playthrough. Holst’s Toccata, often despatched with hard efficiency, is here transformed into a sparkling showpiece, and even the dated modernism of his 1920s folksong arrangements is given a delicate charm.'