Last year I listened to Radio 3's annual Critics' Choice roundup edition of CD Review and thought two things - firstly that there was very little, with the exception of a superb double disc of Schubert from the Belceas, that really grabbed me, and secondly that I couldn't think of very much that I would have put into my own such roundup. 2009 was not, to these ears, a vintage year for CDs (actually, thinking about it, there was Audite's superb box of Furtwangler's RIAS recordings and the Beatles remasters too, but still).
How much difference a year makes - in 2010 there was a flood of superb recordings in the first few months alone and things didn't let up much thereafter. And yet, listening to CD Review again this morning, I find that none of my favourite discs have made the cut. This, then, provides the perfect excuse for a selection of Where's Runnicles' favourite discs of the year. Where possible, I've put them on this Spotify playlist so you can try before you buy (though not in the same order).
We begin with the late great Sir Charles Mackerras who sadly died in July. And yet, as one more testament to his greatness, in the first few months of the year he managed to notch up not one, not two, but three releases, all of which would stand as great in any year. First up is this disc of Dvořák's tone poems with the Czech Philharmonic. I've long enjoyed his recordings of the symphonies and I adore the poems, so I'm very glad he's finally set these down. The Golden Spinning Wheel will be familiar to many as it comes coupled with their recording of 6th symphony; The Water Goblin and the The Noon Witch were recorded live in December 2008 at his final concert with the orchestra; a studio recording of The Wood Dove in September last year rounded off the set. So, what do you get? Well, some stunning orchestral playing, coupled with Mackerras's innate sense of Dvorak's rhythms and textures. Then there is his ability to mix tranquil beauty and thrilling excitement, seamlessly changing between the two. The result is simply captivating and also highly evocative. I'm not sure it replaces my go to set from Kubelik, but it sits alongside it - I wouldn't want to be without either.
I've written about Peter Gregson's album Terminal twice already this year, and I'm not going to do so in any detail again here. Suffice to say that what he does with his cello (well, cellos really, both acoustic and electric, and technically more since he's overdubbed himself) is well worth hearing.
Aside from Mackerras, the London Symphony Orchestra also get multiple entries into my list, both from their in house label. Valery Gergiev is a conductor with whom I don't always get on musically (for example, I'm pretty allergic to his Mahler). Their recording of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet is rather special, though. True, I'm not the best judge of this one, since I don't own another recording; indeed, I was going to say I didn't know the work before buying it, but it's one of those ones that you know lots of even if you think you don't. This points to one of its strengths - he makes, say, the famous Dance of the Knights feel fresh. Another pleasant surprise, from a conductor who I often feel can be rather hard driven, is how much lyric beauty is on display here. Like most in this survey, this is one of those discs that, after being played once all the way through, went straight back in the CD player for a second go round.
Similar things could be said about Stephen Hough's survey of the Tchaikovsky piano concerti with Osmo Vanska and the Minnesota Orchestra (don't be put off by the impressively unattractive cover art). The first concerto in particular is so over-familiar that I'm really not a fan of it. Hough and co have me wondering why not, so thrilling and fresh is their treatment of the work. That energy and drama pervades the two disc set - such you can eat it up in one go without tiring of the music. The concerti themselves more than justify the price of admission but, Hyperion being Hyperion, the set is also packed up with smaller Tchaikovsky piano and orchestra fillers (though while they're fine and nice to have, they don't add all that much).
Which doesn't especially lead back to Charles Mackerras, but never mind. The second of his three discs is actually two for the price of one (and a scarily low price - just £7 on Amazon just now) - a second volume of Mozart symphonies with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, following from the acclaimed release containing 38 to 41. In some ways this is even better - playing and recording quality are as fine, but these symphonies and not quite so familiar. I have an extra attachment to the set, since I saw them perform several of the symphonies in concert two years ago. Mackerras had a way with Mozart, bringing the music to life, filling it with sparkle and a boundless energy that belied his years. But it isn't just excitement and drama - listen, for example, to the andante of 29 and experience some sublime beauty. And, in Mozart, the SCO were perhaps his finest partners so it's a fitting end their relationship. Best of all, this being Linn, you can download it at studio master quality.
Of course, had I been looking through a list of forthcoming issues I would have expected many of these discs to impress greatly (and was keenly waiting for many of them). Not so Sakari Oramo's Schumann cycle with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic. Of course, I find Oramo a great conductor generally and he normally convinces me in any repertoire he choses to play, but I'm less of a fan of Schumann's symphonies and wouldn't normally place them on a par with the best romantic symphonies. Thus what makes these recordings so great is that they leave me wondering why on earth not. Generally he takes brisk tempi, yet never feels rushed. Aided by excellent playing, he delivers readings that are both dramatic and amongst the most moreish here. True, the acoustic of the hall is a little on the dry side, but it isn't enough to detract from the quality of the music making going on. If push came to shove, these might be my overall choice of the year, as they've given me a fresh appreciation for these pieces and made me see them in a whole new light. (Pedants may note I'm cheating somewhat, since in some places the first disc was released last year but both my copies claim to have been released in 2010.)
My next choice is slightly a cheat too, given that this recording of Thomas Adès's violin concerto has been available for several years now (albeit only as a download). This new disc contains several others recordings but it is for the concerto that it primarily wins a recommendation. I fell in love with it at the 2007 Edinburgh festival when Anthony Marwood, Adès and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe performed it (the same forces as on the recording) - intricate and intense, it ranks as one of my favourite compositions of the last few years. For me the other highlight of the disc is not Tevot (written for and performed by Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic) or the Studies After Couperin, fine thought both are, but the exerts from his opera Powder Her Face. I actually don't find the full piece terribly satisfying dramatically - mainly down to the plot and characters, but I did like the score very much. Here the suite is very well performed by Paul Daniel and the National Youth Orchestra for whom no apology need be made when standing next to the professionals they share the disc with.
Adès and Marwood crop up again on their disc of Stravinsky's music for piano and violin - not repertoire I'm at all familiar with, but they make a most persuasive case for it. Actually, I tell a slight lie: the main reason I bought the set is that I love the main theme from Pulcinella, which crops up at the start for the first disc. Buying a two CDs for two minutes of music is a little risky, but the rest is similarly enchanting and well played. This is the second Hyperion disc in this survey and so I'll pause to sing their praises in getting some aspects of downloading right - lossless CD quality downloads are priced significantly below the physical CD and (with the right extensions installed to Firefox) downloading is fairly straightforward.
I've been a fan of Paul Lewis and in particular his Beethoven for many years. However, I did wonder when it was announced if Bělohlávek and the BBC Symphony Orchestra were the best partners. Their survey of the concerti proves that indeed they were. I won't say too more about it here, since I reviewed the similar Proms performances and intend to do a full write up of the set in the future, but one of the nicest things about it is the extent to which soloist, conductor and orchestra all seem to be on the same page and giving the same interpretation - not always the case. Then there is Lewis's pianism - his mix of intricacy and clarity, his ability bring incredible power without resorting to harshly pounding the keyboard. This may be a crowded marketplace, but these performances still stand out.
One of the highlights of the 2009 Edinburgh Festival was the visit of Mark Elder and the Hallé. Together with soloists and festival chorus they gave a fabulous performance of the The Dream of Gerontius (an excellent recording by similar forces also exists). They have been working their way through Elgar's complete works, with Elder showing himself among the composer's finest interpreters. As a result, I've been keenly waiting for them to get to The Kingdom, which I am probably in a minority in preferring to Gerontius. It does not disappoint. There is the Hallé's rich playing coupled with Elder's authoritative interpretation, the result a million miles from the leaden feeling that can arise in poor performances of Elgar. Add to this some fine solo performances, including Iain Paterson, Clair Rutter and Susan Bickley. It's a fine recording from a technical standpoint too - witness the atmosphere created by the first soft choral entry with "Seek first the Kingdom of God." Perhaps owing to all the time he has spent in the opera pit, Elder both finely balances his forces and also shows a superb understanding of the structure of what can, in the wrong hands, be a sprawling and even lifeless piece.
The LSO's second entry comes in the form of Bernard Haitink's Alpensinfonie. The recording had an advantage going in, in that it is my favourite piece of Strauss and indeed one of my favourite pieces generally (though that list is pretty long). True, there has been tough competition here of late and it isn't quite as stunningly visual as Mariss Jansons' recent effort with the Concertgebouw, nor does it have the out and out intensity and drama of Semyon Bychkov's expedition with the WDR Sinfonieorchester Koln. What it does have, in addition to some very fine playing, is a superb sense of narrative line as Haitink leads us on a clear and compelling journey. And he gives us some pretty stunning vistas along the way. Also, I find this a more summery view of the Alps than most. Last and not least, the recording is fairly free of the Barbican's problematic dryness.
The penultimate recording is a reissue, but what a reissue. It is also one that really deserves a whole post to itself (and one day I may get round to writing it). I already own a set of Clemens Krauss's 1953 Bayreuth Ring Cycle but unfortunately a stunning performance is hobbled by poor sound quality. This new issue from Orfeo is important because it is, for the first time, based on the original radio tapes rather than some bootleg. As such, the sound is the cleanest, clearest and, most crucially, the least tinny of any I've heard. Of course, as with any Ring, it is still a compromise - the sound is less good than, say, Solti or Bohm (and certainly modern Rings such as Haitink, but there you have to put up with Eva Marton). With Krauss you get a consistent cast of the highest order - the likes of Varnay, Hotter and Windgassen (just listen to how he imitates the Woodbird in Act III of Götterdämmerung). You also get a superb conductor, something that, in my view, cannot really be said of the patchy and much overrated Testament set with Keilberth. Take, for example, the heartbreaking sensitivity Krauss brings to Act I of Walküre, often my least favourite part of the cycle, or the searing drama of the closing scene which he then transforms into a sublime ending. Yes, most of the time Keilberth has better sound (though not in scene three of Rheingold which is ruined by an annoying hiss), but it isn't that much better. Suffice to say this is now my go to Ring. Yes, if you want pristine modern sound, you will not find it here, but to me this is now the best compromise between cast, conductor and sound that there is.
Ending this survey close to where it began is the third and final Mackerras disc - Dvořák's 7th and 8th symphonies with the Philharmonia. This is at least the third time he has recorded them and one could argue he has saved the best until last (certainly this is true in the case of the 7th, there probably isn't a huge amount to chose between this 8th and his previous effort with the Prague Symphony Orchestra). The interpretations have drama and energy by the bucket load, superb playing, but also, as with the tone poems, a wonderful sense of Dvořák's rhythms - the music dances along much of time. The 7th in particular will always occupy a special place in my heart - had Mackerras not been reading it in a cafe in London more than 60 years ago, his life might have been very different. The orchestra recently played it again at his memorial concert - it is as moving on disc as it was then.
As I said at the outset, I think it's been a fine year. I look forward to what 2011 may bring. I hope Mackerras will still be there - I know the Philharmonia have some fine unreleased material (Tchaikovsky 6, in particular).