Looking back at all the new CDs I’ve listened to this past year, I couldn’t help but be overjoyed seeing so many new Classical releases. I had been pretty discouraged for a couple years after the pandemic, when numbers had dwindled alarmingly. But Classical music is not only back, it’s flourishing!
With so many notable new releases this past year, I began contemplating those which moved/inspired me most. And considered what characteristics elicited strong emotional reactions - positive and negative. Inspired performances, orchestral engagement and recorded sound are all important factors which contribute to the most favorable responses. And deficiencies in any (or all) of those areas usually leave me with a bad impression.
Just for fun, I compiled a list of the best and worst releases of 2023. And as I began taking a closer look, it soon occurred to me that a couple of my favorite labels (Chandos and Pentatone) produced recordings in both categories, which I found intriguing. And one conductor in particular (John Wilson) also managed to make both lists. (Even a popular conductor has good days and bad days, I suppose.)
So for something a little different to end the year, I decided to revisit these recordings and offer a little overview. I've assembled them into 4 categories: Best, Worst, and runners-up in each. Then at the very end, I discuss some notable releases I haven’t yet reviewed.
Rachmaninoff Symphony # 3 - John Wilson/Sinfonia of London/Chandos (late 2022)
Fuchs Orchestral works - John Wilson et al
Ligeti String Quartets - Quatuor Diotima/Pentatone
Sierra Orchestral Works - Domingo Hindoyan/Royal Liverpool Philharmonic/Onyx
Penderecki complete string chamber music - Meccore Quartet/Capriccio
John Wilson’s Rachmaninoff 3rd with the Sinfonia of London came near the end of 2022, so it’s not technically new this year. But I didn’t get around to listening to it until March, when his companion recording of the 2nd Symphony was announced. And as it turns out, the former is much more successful than the latter, so the earlier recording definitely deserves to be included on this list (just as his Second does not).
I was pleasantly surprised by Wilson's recording of the Third Symphony (and its coupling, The Isle of the Dead). I wasn’t expecting such involving readings from him. I usually hear Wilson as being distinctly matter-of-fact and nuts-n-bolts on the podium, perfectly content letting his orchestra do the rest. And that tends to suit some music more than others. But in Rachmaninoff, his straightforward approach works extraordinarily well; and in the Third Symphony, he displays a deeper emotion not often associated with him. And that in turn extends out to his orchestra, inspiring truly committed and passionate playing from them. Chandos delivers gorgeous, yet transparent sound, making this a Rach 3 to match Ormandy’s 1967 reading with the Philadelphia Orchestra, with the benefit of modern, state-of-the-art sound.
While Wilson's reading of Rachmaninoff’s Second is more typical of him - rather more detached and not delving much below the surface, his next recording is truly remarkable. And it’s easily my favorite of the year: a collection of newly composed orchestral works by American composer, Kenneth Fuchs. John Wilson finds a special affinity with this composer (just as he has in the past with Erich Korngold) which brings out the very best from him. He is at his most inspired in this music and his orchestra responds with enthusiasm and spectacular playing. Best of all, Chandos produces some of its very best sonics for the occasion. And what an occasion it is! The music is imaginative and appealing in an instantly gratifying way, and the entire program dazzles with color and exuberance from start to finish.
Another surprise this year comes from a group previously unfamiliar to me – the Quatuor Diotima. Their recording of Ligeti’s 2 String Quartets is electrifying. And Pentatone’s recorded sound is excellent, despite it being a standard CD only release. (The label has sadly chosen to abandon the SACD format almost entirely these days). Anyone who thinks they don’t like Ligeti should hear this CD. It’s absolutely sensational.
The runners-up are very nearly as rewarding.
The Sierra orchestral collection contains some terrific music, if not as outstanding as that on the Fuchs collection. But this recording is notable for the committed, enthusiastic orchestral playing Domingo Hindoyan elicits from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. They play their hearts out for him in this high energy, picturesque program, which tends to knock your socks off. But there is also refinement and finesse, providing endless variety and musical involvement. Onyx affords them excellent recorded sound, among their very best yet.
The Penderecki collection on Capriccio is notable for including so much music on one CD (all his chamber music for strings, including the Trio and the Clarinet Quartet in addition to the 4 string quartets). It is all expertly played by the Polish Meccore Quartet in excellent recorded sound. This group has this composer's music in their very souls. As a matter of fact, one member advised me they played most of this music for the master himself before his death in 2020. (This recording was made in 2021.) This is an invaluable CD for any admirer of this composer.
Yuja Wang “The American Project”
Mozart Piano Quartets - assorted instrumentalists/Chandos
Brahms Serenades - Julien-Laferriere/Mirare
Bartok Piano Concertos - Aimard/Salonen/Pentatone
Saint-Saens Orchestral Works - Bolton/Prospero
Verona Quartet “Shatter” - Bright Shiny Things
Ravel Daphnis and Chloe - John Wilson et al
Why Yuja Wang would participate in this charade in Kentucky is incomprehensible. The booklet tells us she was friends with the composer/conductor in college; but surely when she glanced at his “score” she should have had second thoughts. It is utter nonsense. (And the title of the album is disingenuous at best.) Topping it off, DG captures the cacophony with some of the most inept engineering I’ve heard from this label in decades. Normally a pianist I admire, Wang easily merits the worst of the worst honor for this one.
In a close second comes one of the most musically irresponsible releases I’ve heard in years. A group of young Chandos regulars assembles for a recording session and turns in a tawdry reading of Mozart’s beloved Piano Quartets. The pianist, Federico Colli, in particular, manages to single-handedly ruin whatever good might have come out of this misguided venture. His playing is flippant and outrageously pretentious. I’m appalled Chandos would produce this.
I like the Mirare label, so I took a chance on Victor Julien-Laferriere’s debut recording as conductor where I encountered what is undoubtedly the most pedestrian, plodding, joyless and uninspired Brahms I can ever remember hearing. Laferriere is the cellist of the Trio Les Esprits (who coincidentally have recorded some Brahms) and has recently recorded the solo part in Dutilleux’s Tout un Monde Lointain (which is lovely). Why that musicianship hasn’t transferred to the podium is baffling. I suspect the community chamber orchestra he leads in these Brahms Serenades isn’t quite ready for prime time. And I can’t imagine why Mirare would be interested in recording this.
As to the Runners-up, they aren’t nearly as bad. But in a marketplace full of outstanding recordings (and with so many excellent musicians eager to get their chance at making a record), these releases are largely irrelevant and completely unnecessary.
Aimard’s Bartok in San Francisco for Pentatone is so pedestrian and lacking in spontaneity, I am shocked it comes from live concerts. Similarly, the Saint-Saens orchestral collection on the Prospero label is insipid and entirely pointless. (Moreover, it's extremely poor value, playing for just 49 minutes). Both come in mediocre recorded sound. And I just shake my head and wonder WHY?
The Verona Quartet’s latest album, “Shatter”, makes the list for its ill-conceived programming. Committed playing and excellent recorded sound can’t salvage the abysmal music they chose - with the exception of the terrific String Quartet by Michael Gilbertson (which comes last on the CD, occupying a mere 15 minutes of the program). Furthermore, the Bright Shiny Things production is slipshod, with spelling errors on the folded cardboard enclosure and no liner notes included. Why this fine quartet would choose this particular program of music is bewildering.
(I hate to single out the Verona Quartet on this topic, as many other quartets are guilty of it as well. A plea to all of you: Stop recording bad music. Please. And, while I’m at it, stop featuring the clarinet in so much of what you record. Just stop it.)
And finally, Wilson is exasperating in Daphnis & Chloe, rushing through it without much consideration. He's so preoccupied with the notes on the page he misses the essence of the music. It’s so disappointing compared to some of his other achievements, it falls squarely into the “unacceptable” category. Even Chandos fails to provide great sound for this one. This is not the first time I’ve pondered how much of this team’s success is the terrific recorded sound or actual musical aptitude. (Or an intrinsic, integral combination of the two.) As evidenced on this newest release, the music falls flat without the aid of Chandos’ spectacular recorded sound; so one can come to one’s own conclusion.
To end the year on a positive note, I want to mention a few recordings I liked a lot but haven’t reviewed yet.
Honorable mention (not yet reviewed)
Bartok Viola Concerto - Grosz/Bloch/Alpha Classics
Korngold String Quartets - Alma Quartet/Channel Classics
"Atmospheriques" Vol. 1 - Daniel Bjarnason/Iceland Symphony Orchestra/Sono Luminus
Mazzoli Orchestral Works - various artists/BIS
A new Bartok offering from Alpha Classics is outstanding. The soloist in the Viola Concerto is Amihai Grosz, principal violist of the Berlin Philharmonic and former member (and founder) of the Jerusalem String Quartet. He, along with conductor Alexandre Bloch, bring real vision and direction to this piece, affording it new life as never before realized. Bartok didn’t complete the work before he died, leaving behind only 14 pages of notes and sketches. It was left to Tibor Serly to create a viable performing edition and construct its orchestration. I’ve never been a fan of it before hearing it played with such confidence and musical purpose on this superb new recording. Grosz’s playing of the solo part is, quite simply, awesome. Endearingly musical and excitingly virtuosic, this reading is revelatory. Grosz’s viola tone is positively gorgeous and the orchestra is thoroughly engaged.
The coupling is a terrific Concerto for Orchestra - one of the best in recent memory - easily surpassing the two I reviewed this year, from Malkki on BIS and Canellakis on Pentatone. Bloch brings vivid characterization and crisp orchestral precision to each of the 5 movements, illuminating intriguing inner details which captivate the listener at every turn. He concludes with an absolutely thrilling finale - which, for once isn’t fast just to be fast. It’s purposeful. And, as a result, absolutely exhilarating. The Orchestre National De Lille plays brilliantly in both works and the recorded sound is excellent.
The Korngold String Quartets become true masterpieces as played by the Alma Quartet on Challenge Classics. They recorded #2 & 3 in 2021 and completed the survey this year with #1 and the Piano Quintet. I’ve heard these string quartets before and thought the Doric Quartet turned in an equally wonderful reading of them on their 2010 recordings for Chandos (which incidentally also includes the marvelous String Sextet, which the Alma Quartet omits). I was slightly disappointed, however, with the Tippett Quartet’s reading for Naxos (also this year), although theirs has the distinct advantage of including all 3 string quartets on one CD (over 77 minutes of music). The Alma Quartet are emotionally immersive and endlessly colorful in tone and expression, and these are truly remarkable performances. Further, they have the benefit of some of the most alluring recorded sound of all - especially in the Quintet, where the piano tone is positively sumptuous.
I’ll conclude with a pair of interesting new discs featuring the music of Missy Mazzoli. I first encountered her Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) on a Sono Luminus CD entitled “Atmospheriques Vol 1”, played by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. I liked it a lot (and much of the other music by various composers on that program too). And much to my surprise, here it appears again on a comprehensive collection of Mazzoli's orchestral music for BIS. All of this music is difficult to describe in words, but suffice to say Mazzoli's Sinfonia fits perfectly with the Atmospheriques album, because, frankly, that’s what it is - pure atmosphere and abstract sound rather than structured symphonic creation. I found both discs (comprised of music very similar in style) interesting and compelling.
The Sono Luminus recording has been processed with so-called "Auro 3-D" and "Dolby Atmos" enhancement (and also includes a multi-channel Blu-ray Audio disc) and sounds appropriately other-worldly and rather larger than life in a boundless, atmospheric acoustic. It's actually very impressive - until one hears the BIS SACD, which is instantly much more natural and realistic (and thus more satisfactory). BIS also presents Mazzoli's marvelous Violin Concerto (Dark With Excessive Bright), which is more structured, somewhat tonal and often melodious. It features a large orchestral contribution, utilizing various effects in the strings which reminded me at times of Dutilleux and John Adams. The overall scope of the piece is reminiscent of a big sci-fi movie soundtrack. It is gloriously played here by violinist Peter Herresthal with the Bergen Philharmonic conducted by James Gaffigan. Curiously, the piece is also played in an arrangement for violin and string quartet at the end, which I found much less engaging and completely unnecessary. But there are other innovative works on this disc which are worth exploring, including an orchestral extravaganza, Orpheus Undone, which begins brazenly with a lone woodblock marking time, instantly recalling John Adams again. However, this isn't a mere ride on a fast machine; it's a voyage into the cosmos. Mazzoli takes the minimalism of John Adams resolutely into the 21st-Century, exploring vast new dimensions. Fantastic music, fantastic recorded sound and fantastic orchestral playing by the Arctic Philharmonic conducted by Tim Weiss.