Last year, when I rounded up my favourite discs, I felt pretty spoilt for choice. I don't feel quite the same this year, yet there are still a good few things worth highlighting. As with last year, I accompany this post with a Spotify playlist (on which all but one of the discs are available). For multidisc sets, I have only included a few highlights. We'll begin with the disc I hoped for at the end of last year's post.
Charles Mackerras may have died in 2010, but there continues to be a steady stream of recordings, mostly live concert tapings, bearing his name. The finest of these is, for me, his recording of Tchaikovsky's 6th symphony with the Philharmonia. I've written about this already and have little to add. The performance made for a memorable concert and the CD is equally fine, whether it be the energy the eighty-three year old brings to the third movement, or the emotional weight they find in the finale.
From old to new, and an impressive and interesting disc that comes from young pianist Benjamin Grosvenor. He has enjoyed a great deal of prominence this year, after rather special proms performances of concertos by Liszt and Britten, though I have been a fan ever since I watched him in the final of BBC Young Musician of the Year at the age of just eleven (a competition he would have won if it had been down to me). The disc primarily caught my eye for the presence of Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit, which closes it. Ravel's piano music is beautiful and I'm always happy to hear a new performance.
However, what is arguably more interesting is Grosvenor's programming of the remained of the disc, the first half of which is given over to Chopin. He choses to alternate scherzos and nocturnes, something on paper that did not appeal to me greatly, but which in practice works wonders. He brings both clarity and a substantial dose of the sublime. His fingerwork is up to the trickier passages that are found in the scherzos. Yet nowhere is there an overblown showiness, rather always a measure of poetry. He then transitions to Liszt, via Liszt's arrangements of Chopin, before finally arriving at the Ravel, which, from the shimmering textures at the start to the darkness of Le Gibet, does not disappoint.
This has been a good year for reissues. Indeed, from the quantity of Brendel recordings that Decca boxed up at the start of the year, you wouldn't know he'd retired. His surveys of the Mozart concerti with Marriner and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, as well as his 80s recordings of Schubert sonatas are well worth hearing (I haven't yet got round to his 70s Beethoven box). However, the outstanding gem for me is the Anniversary Edition of his Artist's Choice series. There is much to appreciate in the three discs contained herein, not least a sublime version of Schubert's Wanderer and one of the highlights of his series of Mozart recordings with Charles Mackerras and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, namely their beautiful performance of the K453 concerto. But the greatest discovery for me was his reading of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. As I wrote at the time of release:
I know the piece best from Ravel's wonderfully coloured orchestration and I think one mark of a good piano version is that it doesn't leave you feeling that there's a huge amount of stuff (namely a vast orchestra) missing. Here Brendel succeeds, rich and powerful where needed, but at other times finding quieter and more introspective beauty. Another key in this work is that it should be vivid and evocative - this is music describing pictures, after all. Here again, Brendel succeeds: Bydlo, for example, is fearsomely dramatic; then there is the frantic depiction of The Market at Limoges or the eeriness of The Catacombs. The Great Gate of Kiev is as grand and colourful as you could wish for. Suffice to say that after only a few listens, this performance has become a firm favourite.
One surprise favourite was Jiří Bělohlávek's cycle of Martinů symphonies with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. I first heard some of these works when Radio 3 broadcast the performances last year and have been meaning to explore them properly ever since. The release has been something of a revelation and I'd say that Bělohlávek has the measure of the pieces, though I'm not sure I know the works well enough do that. Earlier in the year, before they arrived on Spotify, when I wanted to share the 3rd symphony's largo, I couldn't find another recording that came close to capturing the intensity on display here. Other highlights include the wonderfully textured sixth symphony and Martinů's use of the piano in the first. What I can unquestionably say is that the discs leave me wondering why on earth the symphonies are not more common on concert programmes. The performance of the BBC Symphony Orchestra is excellant and the BBC's engineers together with Oynx have done a sufficiently fine job of taming the notoriously difficult Barbican acoustic that if you hadn't been told it was taped there, you wouldn't think to ask.
Something similar could be said of Louis Lortie's recording of Liszt's Années De Pèlerinage. Not being a fan of Liszt, this anniversary year has yielded some very pleasant surprises, including his Faust Symphony. But this disc is probably the greatest of them. It was purchased on the strength of my brother's rave review of Lortie's concert performance at Aldeburgh, coupled with my admiration of his recordings of Ravel. This epic set, running close to three hours (something that makes the live performance in Aldeburgh the more impressive) is replete with justifications to pick it up. Indeed, the six minutes of the opening Chappelle de Guillaume Tell, with its magnificent grandeur, alone justifies the purchase price for me. But this is far from the set's only glory: there is the playful sparkle of the Canzonetta del Salvator Rosa or the glittering textures of Les Jeux deaux à la Villa d'Este. I tend to associate Liszt with a keyboard thumping school of pianism, but with Lortie, while there is no shortage of power when needed, such a characterisation is a world away. Throughout, there is a compelling poetry to his performance. I spent Liszt's birthday listening to the complete set, and what a fine celebration it made. Of all the discs featured in this post, if you tried to pry them from my clutches, this is the one I would probably grip onto most tightly.
Add to this the sound quality. Chandos have the disc available in 24/96 studio master quality, which captures Lortie's rich Fazioli piano in all its glory. Sadly as Chandos are allergic to Spotify, it isn't on my playlist.
So, from the unexpected to probably the disc I anticipated most this year: Thomas Dolby's A Map of the Floating City (as ever, Dolby's work must carry a shameless plugs tag, since he is our uncle). Despite a wait of nearly two decades, it did not disappoint, mixing flavours from earlier in his career with new ideas. As I wrote earlier this year, it takes the listener on a long journey and, ultimately, a most satisfying one.
One final reissue is another set I have talked about in detail already: Sergui Celibidache's Munich Bruckner cycle. Leaving aside that EMI had some technical issues in getting the right discs in the box, which thankfully now appear to be resolved, these are some of the most extraordinary performances I've heard and a must listen for any Brucknerian. They are remarkable both for Celibidache's broad tempi, but also the way he maintains a sense of the music's structure. The climaxes are often devastating. In some works, such as the 4th, he leaves you feeling like you've heard the piece for the first time (no mean feat). I have chosen the 6th for my playlist, but it is far from the only highlight.
On looking back, I find I framed last year's list with Charles Mackerras starting and finishing it. And since he has his name on two fine recordings again this year, there's no reason not to repeat that. We hardly need another recording of Beethoven's 9th symphony from Mackerras, there being three already (with the RLPO on Classics for Pleasure, with the Philharmonia on Hyperion, part of the exceptional 2006 Edinburgh festival cycle, and eight months earlier with the same orchestra in Symphony Hall, Birmingham, the latter as a download only). I must confess that in the 9th my preference is for an approach more along the lines of that Furtwangler takes in Vienna in 1954 and the sort of HIP view that Mackerras brings, while working wonders for me in the earlier symphonies, doesn't always satisfy here. Perhaps it is because the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is simply better suited to realising his vision than either of the big symphony orchestras that I find this 1994 Edinburgh performance the most satisfying of the four. The word that springs most readily to mind when trying to describe the recording is punchy: it is full of a rather raw and visceral energy, and the more satisfying for it. (I must confess, though, that I haven't actually bought it yet, having listened only on Spotify, as I'm still waiting for it to be made available as a lossless download.)
That concludes my main list, and you can listen to the full playlist here. However, I also have a couple of honourable mentions. The first goes to Stephen Hough, Andrew Litton and the Bergen Philharmonic. Their commandingly fresh reading of the Grieg piano concerto, no mean feat, brought back pleasant memories of Hough's performance with the RSNO earlier this year. My only qualification on the disc is that the Liszt concerti, while very fine, do not sweep me away (though this probably has more to do with my feelings on the pieces than the performances). On a side note, it is nice to see that Hyperion now offer downloads in Apple Lossless as well as FLAC.
Paul Lewis has had a busy year, but none of his releases have quite done it for me. After his successful surveys of Beethoven's sonatas and piano concerti, I had very high expectations for his Diabelli Variations, and though they are well played and commanding and have many of the hallmarks that have made his earlier recordings so fine, they lack the overarching sense of structure that my benchmark Brendel set has. Similarly, his recent double disc of Schubert, which at its finest is absolutely magical, such as in the D894 sonata or the Klavierstucke D946, remains earthbound elsewhere, particularly the D899 impromptus.
The Kronos Quartet's recording of Steve Reich's WTC 9/11 is intense, evocative and powerful and I'm tempted to include it as there is a lack of new music on this year's list, but it is not quite up there with their finest collaborations. Perhaps inevitably, the disc feels something of a pale shadow of the live performance.
Next year's potential highlights include a set of Elgar's symphonies from Oramo and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic and the issue of Salonen and the Philharmonia's excellent Kullervo. Given I got this year what I asked for last year, perhaps I should be more ambitious: hopefully we'll see a release of the man himself's concert performance of Götterdämmerung from the 2007 Proms and a recoding by Jurowski and the OAE of Liszt's Faust symphony. It is possibly too much to hope for that the Kronos Quartet and Tanya Tagaq will record Derek Charke's Tundra Songs, but after their stunning performance of it in Glasgow in May, I would dearly love to get my hands on such a disc.