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Best of 2021: Classical CDs | reviews, news & interviews

Best of 2021: Classical CDs

Best of 2021: Classical CDs

Ten of the year's best releases, plus a bonus Christmas disc

André Previn in his analogue prime

There’s still so much good music being recorded and released; classical CD shops may be thin on the ground but the CDs themselves are still very much available. I’ll stream or download if forced to, but the appearance and feel of the physical product is part of the pleasure of listening, and listening through a pair of decent speakers will always trump a FLAC or an mp3. So these are all physical artefacts, things you can handle, read and pass on.

My initial shortlist was voluminous but I’ve managed to whittle it down.

liedrkreis IIAn offbeat contemporary highlight was Liederkreis II by Judith Berkson, released by Notice Recordings. Berkson’s unsettling deconstructed versions of songs by Schubert and Schumann are ear-tickling, and they’re issued, as usual, on a beautifully designed cassette. As with all this label’s output, a download code is provided, but I’d recommend digging out the Walkman and listening to the music retro-style. Do investigate the Notice back catalogue,  packed with intriguing things.

Previn boxWarner Classics released two huge box sets collecting recordings made (mostly) for EMI by a pair of conductors famous for productive spells based in London in the 1970s and 80s. André Previn’s discography has already been celebrated in a now-deleted Sony box set, so get this budget priced Warner one now. There’s so much to enjoy here, including demonstration discs of British and Russian music and a brilliant account of Messiaen’s Turangalila. The playing of the 1970s London Symphony Orchestra has its rough edges, but so many of these performances crackle with energy. Equally compendious is the big Riccardo Muti box, tracing the conductor’s work with the Philharmonia in the early 1970s and his EMI Philadelphia Orchestra years. Muti’s Carmina Burana is a blast, as is a famous LP of Respighi’s Roman Trilogy. Plus some glorious Rossini, Schubert, Scriabin and Stravinsky. Neither box set is cheap, but they’re incredibly good value. Decca Eloquence’s celebration of the French conductor Roger Désormière is another set to treasure, and a chance to admire the very individual timbres of the post-war Paris Conservatoire Orchestra in incredibly clear sound. Désormière’s accounts of Poulenc’s Les Biches and Ibert’s Divertissiment are gloriously witty.

vaughan williams pappanoTwo discs of British music stood out. Antonio Pappano’s LSO Live CD of Vaughan Williams’ Foutth and Sixth Symphonies is a keeper, the blend of violence and lyricism in both works wonderfully caught, both performances recorded in the Barbican on historically significant evenings. No. 6’s big tune is fabulous here, and the close of No. 4 is like a slap in the face. Terrific, and the dry Barbican acoustic works to the music’s advantage. Also terrific is John Wilson’s album of English String Music with the revived Sinfonia of London. His version of Britten’s Frank Bridge Variations is tauter and more exciting than the composer’s own Decca account, heard alongside rarities by Bridge, Berkeley and Bliss, whose four-movement Music for Strings is a revelation. Vivid engineering, good notes and appealing cover art too - a desert island disc.

shostakovich levitGerman pianist Igor Levit paired a lucid account of Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues with Ronald Stevenson’s rarely-heard Passacaglia on DSCH (Sony Classical). You’d expect the Shostakovich to be good, coming from a pianist who excels in Bach and Beethoven. There’s no want of heft in the thunderous final fugue, and I love the lightness and warmth Levit brings to the A major fugue. The Stevenson is an extraordinary, intense work, Levit bringing out the humour and the drama. It’s appealingly packaged too.

Anna Thorvaldsdottir EnigmaAnna Thorvalsdottir’s Enigma was a standout chamber disc, a half hour string quartet recorded by Chicago’s Spektral Quartet on the audiophile label Sono Luminus. It’s compelling both musically and texturally, a stunning showcase of how the very sound of a quartet can be renewed and reinvented. Hopefully it will prompt listeners to investigate Thorvaldsdottir’s other work – try her orchestral piece Metacosmos and be amazed. Another favourite contemporary release came from Latvia’s SKANI, a handsome, colourful box set containing the seven symphonies and a sequence of concertos by the veteran composer Imants Kalniņš, whose career has involved spells in a prog-rock band and playing a part in the campaign for Latvian independence. These quirky, colourful pieces are instantly appealing, and won’t disappoint anyone looking for a fresh symphonist to get stuck into.

Schumann Alle LiederAnd my colleague Sebastian Scotney was wowed by Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber’s 11 disc Schumann lieder collection on Sony, Gerhaher and the other younger singers involved putting their trust in Schumann's genius and finding new revelations in every song. The 216-page booklet is endlessly thought-provoking too. One joy is quite how hushed, intimate, and intense they can get - far more than would be possible in a concert hall: just try “Zum Schluss” from Myrthen.

And, finally, an extra Christmas disc to add to last week's selection:

Love came down at Christmas – Treble duets by Myron and Archie (Dormieveglia)Love came down at Chrstmas

Trebles Archie White and Myron Buist met as boy choristers in Magdalen College Choir and released their first album earlier this year to raise money for childhood cancer research. Here’s the follow up. You’d want to buy this for the backstory alone, but musically it’s a treat too, the arrangements from Michael Haslam unfailingly effective, without a hint of schmaltz. Carols like ‘O Holy Night’ are exquisite – just a pair of boys’ voices and a piano, the interplay between Archie and Myron as effective as that from any seasoned double-act. Haslam’s own setting of Christina Rosetti’s ‘Love Came Down at Christmas’, with string quartet backing, could become a classic. I’ve heard several takes on Berlioz’s ‘L’Adieu des Bergers’ in recent weeks, and the boys’ version is my favourite. We get ‘Away in a Manger’ with the alternative melody from James Ramsay Murray, and Harold Darke’s ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ instead of the familiar Holst setting. A low-key treat.



Listening through a pair of decent speakers will always trump a FLAC or an mp3

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