Unearthing gems: the best classical releases of 2021

In a year short of opera recordings and orchestral music, it was a chance to hear music by Elizabeth Lutyens, Francisco Coll, John Cage, Ronald Stevenson, Mahler, Brahms and Shostakovich

In 2020, the schedules of the classical record industry hardly seemed to miss a beat, despite all the disruptions of Covid-19. Live performances mined from the archives and a backlog of studio-made recordings provided more than enough material to maintain a near-normal stream of releases. And even this year, when such reserves have surely been depleted, there has been no obvious slackening in the pace of new issues. The range and variety has however very clearly changed, with certain areas of the repertory significantly less well represented in comparison with previous years.

Those shortages have been most acutely in the areas of opera and orchestral music. Even before the pandemic, major studio recordings of opera were becoming increasingly rare, with most new issues stemming from live performances; now, with most of the world’s opera houses closed for large parts of the last two years, even that source is starting to dry up, if only temporarily one hopes. Perhaps the most significant operatic release of the year came on DVD from the Bayerisches Staatsoper’s new label, its 2019 production of Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt, with Jonas Kaufmann and Marlis Petersen leading the cast.

Orchestras, too, have had few opportunities to give live concerts or make studio recordings with a full complement of players. Krystian Zimerman’s cycle of the Beethoven piano concertos, with Simon Rattle conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, was squeezed in between lockdowns at the end of last year, as were Gabriel Schwabe’s wonderfully straightforward performances of two of the greatest British cello concertos, Elgar’s concerto and Bridge’s Oration. But two of the most significant new orchestral releases, Osmo Vänskä’s superb reading of Deryck Cooke’s “performing version” of Mahler’s unfinished 10th Symphony, and András Schiff’s typically intelligent accounts of the two Brahms piano concertos, played on an 1859 Blüthner piano with the period instruments of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, were recorded in 2019, while both Antonio Pappano’s much praised version of Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben with the Santa Cecilia orchestra and Kirill Petrenko’s uncompromising Munich performance of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony date back farther, to 2018.

The roots of the year’s most ambitious song release go back to 2018 as well, when the baritone Christian Gerhaher and the pianist Gerold Huber embarked on their project to record all of Schumann’s songs. Other singers were involved as necessary on the 11 discs, but it’s very much Gerhaher’s achievement overall. More modest but just as enjoyable were Claire Booth and Christopher’s Glynn’s Unorthodox Music, a programme of songs and piano pieces by Mussorgsky; mezzo Marianne Crebassa’s Séguedilles, a recital of mostly French songs and arias with a Spanish flavour; and Passion, a collection of arias by Lully, Desmarets and Charpentier from Véronique Gens. As peerless in 19th-century French operetta as she is in the baroque, Gens also featured this year on the Bru Zane label’s recordings of rarely heard stage works by Hahn, Messager and Lecocq.

As usual there was no shortage of high-quality chamber music and solo-piano releases. The Takács Quartet in Mendelssohn, both Fanny and Felix, Les Vents Français surveying the Hindemith wind sonatas and Nicholas Daniel and the Doric Quartet in a selection of early 20th-century British oboe quintets were all in their very different ways outstanding. The exceptional piano releases were headed by Igor Levit’s pairing of Ronald Stevenson’s Passacaglia on DSCH and Shostakovich preludes and fugues, and Piotr Anderszewski’s selection from the second book of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. But there was also elegant Liszt from Kenneth Hamilton, brilliant Ligeti Études from Danny Driver, and the start of a series devoted to the piano works of the disgracefully neglected Elisabeth Lutyens from Martin Jones, as well as a delectable selection of French music for two pianos from Paul Lewis and Steven Osborne.

Once again much of the most interesting contemporary music came from the small niche labels. Apartment House’s meticulous realisations of a selection of John Cage’s late number pieces for Another Timbre were clearly a real labour of love, while the binaural recording of Aldo Clementi’s canons on All That Dust is pure sonic delight; NMC’s latest release by Tansy Davies included her piano concerto Nature, and the wonderfully imaginative piece she wrote for the National Youth Orchestra, Re-Greening. And among the discs this year from the unstoppably prolific violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja was one devoted to the music of Francisco Coll, including the concerto he composed for her in 2019, which seems to take his music into a different expressive world altogether.

Squeezed in between lockdowns ... the LSO conducted by Sir Simon Rattle with Krystian Zimerman on piano rehearse Beethoven: Piano Concertos 1-5.
Squeezed in between lockdowns ... the LSO conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, with Krystian Zimerman on piano, rehearse Beethoven: Piano Concertos 1-5. Photograph: Mark Allan

Andrew Clements’ top 10 classical releases of 2021

1. Igor Levit: On DSCH – Works by Shostakovich and Stevenson
We said: “Levit’s performance reveals what wonderfully pianistic pieces [Shostakovich’s] are, whether considered individually or as a magnificently arcing sequence … while his performance of the Stevenson has never been equalled.” Read full review.

2. Patricia Kopatchinskaja: Coll Violin Concerto
We said: “Kopatchinskaja’s extraordinary, freewheeling virtuosity appears to have unlocked a new vein of immediacy and expressiveness in Coll’s music, which the Violin Concerto seems to me to take on to another plane altogether.” Read full review.

3. Osmo Vänskä: Mahler/Cooke: Symphony No 10
We said: “The Minnesota Orchestra plays magnificently, and Vänskä’s meticulous attention to instrumental detail and to the weighting of every chord, and his unswerving sense of symphonic coherence and continuity, make the total effect overwhelming.” Read full review.

4. Apartment House: Cage Number Pieces
We said: “Apartment House’s performances are wonderfully committed and considered – every note played, you sense, is there for a reason – and reveal the strange beauty in these works.” Read full review.

5. Claire Booth and Christopher Glynn: Mussorgsky Songs
We said: “Booth brings each song to life with operatic vividness … Every one becomes a miniature scena, while the piano pieces that Glynn places between them sometimes offer contrast, sometimes reinforcement. The whole thing is presented with tremendous panache.” Read full review.

6. Piotr Anderszewski: Bach Preludes and Fugues
We said: “While purists may recoil in horror at hearing this music presented in what might seem a disruptively wilful order, they ought to be convinced by the sheer intelligence and lucidity of the playing, its immaculate phrasing and minutely graduated range of tone.” Read full review.

7. Christian Gerhaher: Complete Schumann Songs
We said: “A fine, constantly rewarding set, with every song delivered with the fastidious attention to detail and to the individual colouring of each phrase that has always been a feature of Gerhaher’s lieder singing.” Read full review.

8. Dunedin Consort: Bach Cantatas
We said: “There’s a sense of rightness and lightness in the way John Butt directs the music, and of individually characterful musicians coming together with a single purpose. It’s a seriously uplifting recording.” Read full review.

9. András Schiff: Brahms Piano Concertos
We said: “Schiff makes his interpretative points without exaggeration or over-assertiveness. The performances cast new light on two of the greatest piano concertos in the repertoire.” Read full review.

10. Martin Jones: Elizabeth Lutyens Piano Music
We said: “Lutyens has been scandalously overlooked since her death in 1983 … Jones’s survey of the piano music – in meticulous, clearly affectionate performances – should fill at least one of the yawning gaps.” Read full review.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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