2012 has been a good year for recordings, of which more in a moment. However before I get onto that, I find I must rectify two omissions from last year's list. The first is Mark Elder and the Hallé's majestic account of Vaughan Williams' London Symphony. I'm not sure how this escaped my notice on release since I'm a fan of the Hallé's label. The disc is for me the more impressive as I'm not the world's greatest Vaughan Williams fan, yet my first impulse on listening to it was to put it on again immediately.
The second omission is this BIS disc of Anders Hilborg works. This is actually a fortuitous omission since it ties in nicely to one of the themes of my music buying this year, which has shifted heavily towards digital downloads, which the independent labels do far better. I came across this via the eClassical store (which I've written about extensively here), and after staring at the intriguing cover image for a while, decided to give it a go. The four works on the disc are all performed by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, but with different conductors (Esa Pekka Salonen, Alan Gilbert and Sakari Oramo). King Tide, for which Oramo is on duty, is probably my favourite, fascinating because it feels both organic in the way the climaxes grow but also industrial at the same time. Hillborg creates generally energetic and intriguing sound worlds. He writes well for all sections of the orchestra and often yields a sound somewhat akin to a synthesiser, perhaps unsurprising given the liner notes mention a background in electronic music. (I mean that as a compliment, incidentally.) At times frantic, tranquil or muscular, and moving effortlessly between, it is an impressive disc and Hillborg is definitely a composer to watch.
Last year's playlist has been amended accordingly.
But enough of that; onto this year's choices. And to begin, another discovery via eClassical and BIS. Though, to be frank, it's rather shameful for me to be describing it as a discovery since Masaaki Suzuki and his Bach Collegium Japan team have been turning out exemplary Bach cantata recordings for so long that this year they reached volume 51 (having started way back in 1995).
What prompted me to finally take the leap was, as with the Hillborg mentioned above, the eClassical site, which offers new release HD downloads at a discount each week. I'm not hugely familiar with Bach's cantatas, so don't have much to compare them to, however what I have heard has impressed me greatly. For starters, there is the high calibre of the playing and singing. Suzuki also has an interpretive approach which I find highly convincing. Tempi often feel comparatively broad but always to the service of Bach's beauty. The second thing, which has become clear as I've begun to collect the series, is that this excellence is consistent throughout the many volumes (not to mention other works such as the B minor Mass) - to turn out that many recordings to that high a standard is a extraordinary achievement. The sort of thing for which the musical equivalent of a Nobel prize or a Fields medal is due.
It is a slight shame that given Resonus is a digital label, they cannot be found on Spotify.
A few years ago the SCO released a disc of Mozart wind concertos which is now a firm favourite of mine, not least for the superb solo performances by the orchestra's principals. The orchestra is fortunate to have a number of exceptional players on hand. Indeed, last year when a newspaper waxed lyrical that the Berlin Philharmonic was hands down the best in the world and cited fine solos as evidence, my response (having attended the same series of concerts that prompted the piece) was that if offered the choice I wouldn't swap the SCO principals for theirs. Because of this talent, it's nice to see them given the chance to do a little bit more. This disc is in many ways the sequel, though only one of the soloists, clarinetist Maximiliano Martin, appears on both. For these Weber concertos he is joined by bassoonist Peter Whelan and horn player Alec Frank-Gemmil. All three are superb. For Whelan and Martin I have little to add to my concert review and Alec Frank-Gemmill is hardly less impressive.
All in all, 2012 was a good year for recordings, especially with smaller labels. We look forward to 2012, and there are already some discs I'm keenly awaiting. Hopefully Salonen's Kullervo and Oramo's Elgar symphonies will finally appear and I learnt just yesterday that Erioca Quartet and SCO cellist David Watkin is recording the Bach cellos suites for Resonus.