This week I look back at my favourite classical music recordings issued between 2000-2009. Though I have listened to hundreds of recordings, it goes without saying that there is a lot of music, much of it no doubt excellent, that I have not heard.
I have decided to structure this post according to genre. For each genre I have selected two outstanding recordings, with a third “runner-up” sometimes slipped in. The exception to this rule is the choral music category; my initial short list had about twenty-five recordings on it, and it was too cruel to cut that down to just two, or even three. I compensate for this surplus by omitting an opera category altogether.
I have also included links to more thorough reviews and to streaming samples of the music when it was possible to do so.
Without further ado:
I have chosen six discs of choral music, plus a few runners-up. They are arranged in rough chronological order.
Paolo da Firenze: Narcisso Speculando (Mala Punica, Pedro Memelsdorff) [2002; Harmonia Mundi]: This is music of the medieval avant-garde. Paolo da Firenze, who died in 1425, belonged to the ars subtilior school of late medieval composition. The music is incredibly intricate, and must be exceptionally difficult to sing, but it is also marvelous to hear — in that respect, the medieval avant-garde consistently bested the modern. The ensemble Mala Punica specializes in this music, and their awe-inspiring performances must be heard to be believed. This is one of the most ear-opening recordings I’ve ever heard. (Reviews: ClassicsToday)
I don’t know why this video is nine minutes long; the piece ends at 3:43.
Richafort: Requiem (Huelgas Ensemble, Paul van Nevel) [2000; Harmonia Mundi]: For sheer ravishing beauty, this is my choral music pick of the decade. Richafort (c.1480-c.1550) is a mostly forgotten composer, but on the evidence here that forgetfulness is unjust. His Requiem, which may have been written to commemorate the death of Josquin Desprez, is a thing of glories, with wave after wave of beautiful music spilling over the listener. Just when you think it can’t possibly get any lovelier, it does. The disc is filled out by a selection of motets, including a gorgeous Salve regina for five voices, and even a drinking song (rendered, it must be said, a little stiffly). The singing of the Huelgas Ensemble, which is always excellent, is here focused and luminous to an uncommon degree. (Reviews: ClassicsToday)
Here is the Introit of the Requiem:
In Paradisum (Hilliard Ensemble) [2000; ECM New Series]: The Hilliard Ensemble sing the Gregorian setting of the Requiem Mass and interpose motets by two of the grand masters of Renaissance polyphony: Victoria and Palestrina. As is fitting, the music is dark-toned and somber. The singing is as good as singing gets in this vale of tears: concentrated, responsive, inward-looking, and incredibly beautiful. The richness of the sound is astonishing. Part of the credit obviously goes to the four voices of the Hilliard Ensemble, and part to ECM’s superb engineers, but thanks must also be rendered to the walls and vaults of St. Gerold monastery in Austria, where the recording was made. (Reviews: ClassicsToday)
Bach: Missae Breves (Pygmalion) [2008; Alpha]: Before hearing this recording I had not known of the group Pygmalion, and I expect they are new to most listeners too. I still don’t know anything about them — except that they sing Bach to perfection. This disc includes two of Bach’s short Masses, BWV 234 and 235. (A Missa Brevis includes only the Kyrie and Gloria.) This music has never sounded better. The voices are confident, clear, and precise, with none of the raggedness or wooliness that sometimes plagues choirs who try to sing Bach. The instrumental accompaniment is lively and vivid. This is simply terrific music-making. (Reviews: AllMusic) (Listen to samples)
Bach: St. John Passion (Philippe Herreweghe, Collegium Vocale Gent, soloists) [2001; Harmonia Mundi]: Bach’s St. John Passion is not as well-known as his St. Matthew Passion, and with some justification, for it is not as ambitious as its more famous companion. Its comparative modesty in scale makes it a tighter and more dramatic account of the Passion story, and I find that attractive. This performance from Bach-specialist Herreweghe, with a starry cast of soloists and his usual crack choir Collegium Vocale Gent, is uniformly excellent. This music was a great discovery for me this decade. (Reviews: ClassicsToday) (Listen to samples)
Here is the final section of the work, Christe, du Lamm Gottes (an adaptation of the Agnus Dei):
Grechaninov: Passion Week (Charles Bruffy, Phoenix Bach Choir, Kansas City Chorale) [2007; Chandos]: The prospect of hearing Russian sacred music sung by a choir from the American Midwest does not immediately inspire confidence, but this disc upset my expectations. The music, written in 1911, is inspired by the Holy Week services of the Orthodox Church. The texts are in Old Slavonic, and the music communes with the long history of Russian Orthodox music. It bears an obvious similarity to Rachmaninov’s Vespers, and, to my surprise, it does not suffer greatly in the comparison. It is extremely well sung — all praise to the basses! — and the recording, though perhaps a bit boxy, still allows us to hear the music clearly. I was very pleasantly surprised by this recording. (Reviews: AllMusic) (Listen to samples)
Here is the section of the work titled “The Wise Thief”. (Sorry about the flowers.)
- La Bele Marie (Anonymous 4) [2002; Harmonia Mundi]: This is a collection of Marian songs from thirteenth-century France. Some are in Latin, some in French. As befits their subject, they are bright, lovely, and mostly joyful. The four women of Anonymous 4 sing with their customary blend and luminosity. A very heart-warming record. (Reviews: ClassicsToday ) (Listen to samples)
- A Scottish Lady Mass (Red Byrd) [2005; Hyperion]: This disc contains thirteenth-century music from St. Andrews, Scotland. It includes polyphonic music (for two parts) that is not known elsewhere, and there are some real curiosities, including troped versions of the Kyrie and Gloria, as well as some unique sequences. The record’s cover, which shows an old church at night across a foggy moor, perfectly captures the feel of this music. The voices of Red Byrd are manly and resonant, creating a warm sonic blanket to wrap oneself in. This is my kind of singing. (Reviews: ClassicsToday) (Listen to samples) (Listen to a troped Kyrie: Rex, virginum amator)
- Dufay: Quadrivium (Cantica Symphonia) [2005; Glossa]: Guillaume Dufay is my favourite medieval composer, and this collection of sacred motets serves his music very well. Cantica Symphonia make the interesting decision to bring instruments, as well as voices, into the music, and although this necessarily involves some improvisation and guess-work, it sounds great. The singing — just one voice to a part — is confident and idiomatic, and the music is dazzling. (Reviews: AllMusic) (Listen to samples) (Listen to Anima mea liquefacta est)
- Heavenly Harmonies (Stile Antico) [2008; Harmonia Mundi]: This disc is a superb collection of Elizabethan sacred music by William Byrd and Thomas Tallis, illustrating the parting of the ways between Catholic music (intricate polyphony, in Latin) and Protestant music (simple and strophic, in English). As I have said before, the singing of Stile Antico is amazingly good. (my Music Note) (Reviews: ClassicsToday, AllMusic) (Listen to samples)
- Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius (Sir Mark Elder, Hallé Orchestra and Chorus, soloists) [2008; Hallé]: Elgar’s setting of John Henry Cardinal Newman’s poem about death and the afterlife has not really attracted me in the past. I had heard a few recordings, but I found them stodgy and sluggish. When this disc from the Hallé Orchestra began earning accolades in the British press, I thought it might be another case of patriotic fervour overwhelming sound judgment, but I decided to give it a try anyway. I am glad that I did. The sound is much clearer, with far better articulation from the choir than on previous recordings, and the soloists are tremendous. There’s a real sense of occasion too. (Reviews: AllMusic) Here is the section “Praise to the Holiest”:
Victoria: Et Iesum (Carlos Mena, Juan Carlos Rivera) [2004; Harmonia Mundi]: We naturally associate Victoria with the high Renaissance style of polyphony, of which he was a master. Himself a priest, his music was intended to serve the sacred liturgy. Yet, as this intriguing recording informs us, some of his music was adapted for performance on a more modest and intimate scale. In such cases, one of the polyphonic vocal lines was given to a solo voice, and the other musical lines were put into the instrumental accompaniment. The result is something like a madrigal or song, but with a sacred text. The comparative simplicity of the music allows us to relish the beauty of the exposed vocal melody without interference. Carlos Mena, my favourite counter-tenor (and yours?), has marvelous breath-control in the sometimes very long vocal lines, and his voice has a creamy richness that is very satisfying. Counter-tenor singing has come a long way in the last few generations of singers, and Mena has it all. He is tastefully accompanied by Juan Carlos Rivera on the lute and vihuela. This is a very special recording. (Reviews: ClassicsToday, AllMusic)
Here is Carlos Mena singing Victoria’s adaptation of Salve regina. If you enjoy this, consider clicking through to YouTube; the same person who posted this song has also posted several other tracks from this disc.
Strauss: Lieder (Soile Isokoski, Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Marek Janowski) [2002; Ondine]: Finnish soprano Soile Isokoski turns in an unforgettable performance of Strauss’ great Vier Letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs). She has a full-bodied, very expressive voice, and it suits these opulent late flowerings of Strauss’ muse perfectly. Competition in this repertoire is stiff, but Isokoski has displaced Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as my favourite. The disc is filled out by a selection of Strauss’ other songs. They are not among Strauss’ greatest inspirations, but they are still beautifully sung. (Reviews: ClassicsToday) (Listen to samples)
In this live performance (not taken from the recording), Isokoski sings “Fruhling”, the first of the Four Last Songs:
Messiaen: Complete Organ Works (Olivier Latry) [2002; DG]: As I think I have said before, to a first approximation there has been only one composer for the organ, and that was J.S. Bach. But if we broaden our vision just a little, Olivier Messiaen comes into view. His music is nothing like Bach’s, of course, but in its own way it is perfect music for the instrument: immense, deep, ecstatic, glorious, and overwhelming. It is a major body of work. Olivier Latry plays the mighty organ of Notre Dame de Paris, where he is house organist, and the DG engineers have caught the sonics in spectacular fashion. This set is a cornerstone for my collection of twentieth-century music. (Reviews: ClassicsToday)
Bach: Goldberg Variations (Murray Perahia) [2000; Sony]: Starting in the 1990s Murray Perahia began at last to record the music of Bach. He started with the English Suites, and has since moved through the keyboard concertos, the Partitas, and, in 2000, he made this excellent recording of the Goldberg Variations. It is a superb, finely calibrated performance that positively dances, and it has become my favourite recording of this inexhaustible music. (Reviews: ClassicsToday)
Here is Perahia playing the opening Aria and the first three variations:
Shostakovich: Complete String Quartets (Emerson String Quartet) [2000; DG]: One of the two or three greatest concert-going experiences of my life was hearing the Emerson String Quartet play Shostakovich’s devastating final quartet, No.15. It left me reeling and exhausted, but deeply grateful. Afterward I bought this complete cycle of Shostakovich’s quartets, on five well-filled CDs. It is an incredibly rich collection. Some consider his string quartets to be his greatest music, and I am among them. I have since heard a few other cycles of these quartets, including the famous recordings by the Borodin Quartet. I love them too, but they do not include the last two quartets, and the Emersons have the edge on precision and sound quality. This is another cornerstone of my music collection. (Reviews: AllMusic)
Here is a short video I have posted before of the Emersons playing the third movement of String Quartet No.3. Not one of my very favourite movements, but the only one I can find on YouTube:
Weinberg: Cello Sonatas (Alexander Chaushian, Yevgeny Sudbin) [2007; BIS]: Mieczysław Weinberg is not a well-known composer. I had never heard of him until I heard this recording, and, now that I have heard this recording, I cannot understand why he is unknown. His music is fantastic. Weinberg (also sometimes called Vainberg, or Vaynberg) was born in Poland in 1919 and lived most of his life under the Soviets. He was a close friend of Shostakovich — the two would play their new compositions to one another. His music is in many ways quite similar to Shostakovich’s, and that is a very, very good thing! It is tough and lyrical, full of interesting ideas and genuine feeling, and it sounds urgent and important. These cello sonatas — two for cello and piano and one for solo cello — are almost unbelievably beautiful. When I first heard this record I was struck speechless by it, and I hung on every note until it was over. I have since heard several other recordings of Weinberg’s music, and I have not been disappointed. He is a major discovery for me. (Reviews: AllMusic) (Listen to samples)
Here is the first movement of his Cello Sonata No.2, Op.63. I hope somebody likes this as much as I do.
Runner-up: Pärt: Alina [2000; ECM New Series]: ECM Records are known for their innovative and unusual programming, but, even so, it took a certain audacity to put this disc out. It includes just two compositions: Für Alina for piano and Spiegel im Spiegel for piano and violin (or cello), together amounting to about 20 minutes of music. Both pieces are devotedly minimalist, with very sparsely notated scores and absence of dramatic effects. An uncharitable listener might say that “nothing happens” in either of them. ECM, in their wisdom, interleaved on the disc two versions of the first piece with three versions of the second! And, strangely enough, it works. The record, by the very simplicity of the music, asks the listener to really pay attention to each note. Close listening becomes a kind of meditative experience. It’s a rather special disc. (Reviews: ClassicsToday)
Gus van Sant’s 2002 film Gerry used Speigel im Spiegel during the opening scene. This five-minute clip includes roughly half of the piece. The visual is perfect for this music. (Incidentally, in the early days of our courtship I took my wife to see Gerry. I am lucky that she was willing to see me again.)
Concerto and Orchestral
Schoenberg & Sibelius: Violin Concertos (Hilary Hahn, Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen) [2008; DG]: I confess with some shame that I had ignored Hilary Hahn’s recordings in the past. I assumed that her success had more to do with her youthful attractiveness than the quality of her playing. (Yes, sex sells even in the beleaguered marketing departments of classical music labels.) After hearing this recording I am happy to say that this assumption was totally false: her playing stands firmly on its own merits. She has chosen to couple the violin concerti of Sibelius and Schoenberg, which is a bit like having a meal of truffles and tacks. To her great credit, she actually manages to find music in Schoenberg’s concerto. She gives shape to the almost unremittingly angular musical line, and her tone is steely and firm, as though she’s taken this anarchic music in hand and shown it who is master. She makes as good a case for it as is likely to be made. But it is in the Sibelius concerto that she really shines. I’ve heard three or four other recordings of this wonderful concerto, but none has gripped me as hers has. Her playing is precise, with no wavering or wooliness in her violin’s tone, and she really gets inside the music, allowing it to speak for itself. (Reviews: ClassicsToday, AllMusic)
Here she is playing the final movement of the Sibelius concerto:
Messiaen: Des Canyons aux Étoiles… (Myung-Whun Chung, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio-France, soloists) [2003; DG]: This massive orchestral composition was written to celebrate the bicentenary of the United States, and it was inspired by Messiaen’s visit to Utah’s Bryce Canyon. It celebrates in sound the canyon’s rocks, cliffs, and — of course, since this is Messiaen — its birds. Scored for a large orchestra with piano, horn, xylorimba, and glockenspiel soloists, it is a colourful and essentially joyful composition, both weird and wonderful, and animated by Messiaen’s Catholic nature-mysticism. The recording is sonically spectacular. (Reviews: ClassicsToday)
The length of these symphonies prevents my linking to whole movements. I hope the samples will give some idea of what is in store.
Bruckner: Symphony No.9 (Günter Wand, Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR) [2006; Profil]: This is a live recording made in 1979, but this 2006 disc was (I believe) its first commercial appearance, so it qualifies for inclusion on this list. Günter Wand apparently said of this performance that it was “one of the most memorable of [his] life”, and I believe it. It is tremendously beautiful music that seeks, as Bruckner said, to make the transcendent perceptible, and Wand leads his orchestra about as far in that direction as it is possible to go. When called for, they play with thunderous power, and at other times with the most delicate sensitivity. The sound is excellent. (Reviews: AllMusic) (Listen to samples)
Vaughan Williams: Symphony No.2 “London” (Richard Hickox, London Symphony Orchestra) [2001; Chandos]: This splendid recording of the “London” symphony was named Record of the Year by Gramophone Magazine in 2001, and it was a richly deserved accolade. It is a wonderful symphony, and it has never sounded better. The music glows on this recording. It is a great interpretation too, with drama and presence. (Listen to samples)
I have not seen any “Best of Decade” lists from major critics, but a number of “Best of 2009″ lists have appeared: