sat 13/07/2024

Best of 2023: Classical CDs | reviews, news & interviews

Best of 2023: Classical CDs

Best of 2023: Classical CDs

A hand-picked selection of the year's finest releases

Martin Owen and friends, plus conductor John WilsonBrian Pigeon


Klemperer boxThere’s still a market for classical music, whether you stream, download or get your fix from your local classical CD shop. Universal’s acquisition of the independent Hyperion label worried many listeners early in 2023, but the fact that Hyperion’s entire catalogue will be made available for streaming has to be a good thing. We’re also seeing more and more big boxes of reissued material, and I’ve chosen three of them as particular favourites. Two celebrate conductors: Warner Classics’ breezeblock-sized compendium of Otto Klemperer’s orchestral recordings contains some of the best Beethoven, Brahms and Mahler you’ll hear. Klemperer’s technically and temporally fallible last recordings are best approached with caution, but this is still a fabulous set.

Then there’s Decca Eloquence’s colourful repackaging of Antal Doráti’s mono Mercury legacy with the Minneapolis Symphony. The earliest discs date from 1952 and still sound marvellous, Dorati’s players tackling music from Haydn to Bartok with impressive results. Sample their lean, propulsive take on Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, still one of the fastest and most exciting on record. Another nifty reissue was Sony’s handsome repackaging of the Philadelphia Woodwind Quintet’s discography, taped between the early 50s and the late 60s. The set includes peerless performances of works by Nielsen and Poulenc (with the composer as pianist) and enticing rarities. Where else will you find Mozart and Ornette Coleman sharing box space?

Jakub Hrůša’s Bamberg recording of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 was a treat, proving that there’s still plenty of mileage in recording standard repertoire. Intriguingly, this is an all-analogue production, only released on vinyl, the performance recorded in single takes and cut straight to disc. Listening to it is like being at a live performance, and Accentus have pressed just 1893 copies (the year of the work’s New York premiere).

Martin Owen hornBut, if pushed to choose just one CD, I’d opt for Martin Owen’s Chandos disc of Strauss’s two horn concertos. They’re coupled with Weber’s Concertino (listen out for the multiphonics!) and a joyous account of Schumann’s Konzertstück for four horns and orchestra. John Wilson’s BBC Philharmonic offer stylish, idiomatic support, and Owen has a starry supporting cast in the Schumann. ‘Life-enhancing’ is an overused term, but if your life really does need enhancement, try this. - Graham Rickson

Bernard Hughes adds: There's lots I really liked this year. Leipzig 1723 re-created the audition process which ended with JS Bach being appointed Thomaskantor. Unbelievably, he was the third choice of the committee – and this album puts his trial cantata alongside those of Telemann and Graupner. Who’s Graupner? Exactly. John Wilson continued his brilliant run of albums of British string music with the Sinfonia of London, his latest album embracing the familiar – a refreshingly-brisk Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and Introduction and Allegro – but also championing something a bit more recherché. Herbert Howells’ Concerto for String Orchestra of 1938 was quite a revelation, and the playing on the album impeccable.

Ades DanteI must find space to mention EXAUDI’s Flames and Shadows and Mary Bevan’s wonderful recital disc Visions Illuminées, centred around a fabulous take on Britten’s Les Illuminations. But at either end of the year were two brilliant discs of Thomas Adès: the maximalist Dante and the small-scale Alchymia. I don’t know which is better: it probably just depends what mood you’re in. Dante is exuberant, colourful and extrovert, Alchymia a haunting and beautifully-crafted chamber work for basset clarinet (Mark Simpson) and string quartet. Maybe they can be tied for my records of the year? - Bernard Hughes

Sandrine PiauAnd, from Sebastian Scotney: Sandrine Piau and David Kadouch’s song recital Voyage Intime (Alpha), including music by Liszt, Wolf, Schubert and a host of other composers, is my record of the year – enthralling and cleverly thought through from beginning to end, and magnificently sung and played. I cannot play it or recommend it enough. I also gave a thumbs up to a new recording of Hugo Distler’s Die Weihnachtsgeschichte (OUR Recordings). I didn’t know this a capella work from 1933 by choirmaster and organist Hugo Distler who committed suicide nine years later at the age of just 34. It is hardly known outside the Germanic world. Distler is a fascinating figure: he saw Schütz through a 20th century harmonic prism. The work has been frequently performed in Germany, having gone through 21 reprints since Bärenreiter first published it in 1975, but is scarcely known over here. The Danish recording lets the harmony ring out in proper balance, whereas German recordings have used the beautifully wrought chorale variations on the hymn “Es ist ein’ Ros’ entsprungen” as something of a comfort blanket. I’d love to hear what a top UK choir would make of it. - Sebastian Scotney

Where else will you find Mozart and Ornette Coleman sharing box space?

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