thu 24/04/2014

Best of 2012: Top 12 Classical CDs | Classical music reviews, news & interviews

Best of 2012: Top 12 Classical CDs

Debussy or didgeridu? We recommend the year's finest releases

Bruckner's 9th from Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic

Listening to a recording can never replace the joys of live performance. But if you don’t live in London, opportunities to explore quirky new repertoire can be thin on the ground. CDs most often excel as introductions to composers and works that you’ve never heard before. We’ve all experienced those small moments of rapture when a previously unknown piece bowls you over. You immediately skip back to replay it, usually at higher volume, before you hassle your friends and family to listen too. Major label releases of standard repertoire can still delight; Beethoven and Tchaikovsky have had a good year. Too many of us take music for granted, streaming it through smartphones and consuming it passively through crap headphones. Whereas a good CD heard through a nice set of old-fashioned speakers can provide hours of erudite, sensual pleasure for the price of a round of drinks. Everything in the following list is worth a punt – each one worthy of a five star rating.

Beethoven: Sonata no 32, Ligeti Études Books 1 and 2 Jeremy Denk (Nonesuch)

The charismatic, effervescent Jeremy Denk couples a stern, imposing reading of Beethovien’s thorniest sonata with a generous selection of Études by the brilliant Hungarian maverick György Ligeti. Attempting to get one’s head round the various technical devices used by Ligeti is difficult enough, and a few seconds of listening to Denk’s astounding playing is enough to persuade anyone with pianistic ambitions to seek out a more sensible career. You can imagine that the endless practice required to perform these works would be enough to tip a player into madness, but Denk allows us to appreciate Ligeti’s fierce intellect, the wisdom underlying the surface craziness. Music which dazzles, frightens and always entertains.

 

Beethoven: The Nine Symphonies Vienna Philharmonic/Christian Thielemann (Sony)

This cycle emerged a few months after Riccardo Chailly’s celebrated Leipzig set, and was overlooked and patronized by many critics. The naysayers were wrong. These are supremely enjoyable performances, imperious and refulgent in a highly anachronistic way. It’s perfectly possible to love period instrument performances and also appreciate Thielemann’s readings. They’re big boned, sumptuously upholstered and always highly musical, played by an orchestra whose old-world sound suits the music perfectly. Beethoven’s rough edges and seismic shocks can be smoothed over, and Thielemann’s flexible approach to tempo might irritate purists. It didn’t annoy me. Beethoven emerges as friendlier, cuddlier and better dressed than he usually seems. And in an age of soulless downloads, Sony’s luxuriant presentation, each disc stored in a highly desirable cloth-covered box, makes the package even more desirable.

Bruckner: Symphony No 9 (with Finale completed by Samale-Phillips-Cohrs-Mazzuca) Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle (EMI)

This latest incarnation of an ongoing project by a team of four musicologists to restore the last movement of Bruckner’s valedictory Symphony no 9 is a life-enhancing experience. Bruckner’s sketches were far more complete than is commonly realized, and only 28 bars had to be newly composed. Sir Simon Rattle compared the restoration to surgically reconstructing a face after injury. If you were hearing the symphony for the first time, the Finale would seem an entirely fitting, uplifting apotheosis. If you’re used to the familiar three-movement incarnation, be prepared to be shocked by the new material’s craggy magnificence. Brilliantly performed, too.

Tom Cunningham: The Okavango Macbeth Edinburgh Studio Opera/Bawtree (Delphian)

Tom Cunningham’s unpretentious, accessible opera was written to a libretto by Alexander McCall Smith and first performed in a converted garage in Botswana, christened The No 1 Ladies’ Opera House. Shakespeare retold with baboons – McCall Smith was intrigued by the notion of baboon society’s matriarchal nature. The action is observed dispassionately by a group of primatologists who stubbornly refuse to intervene. Cunningham’s background as a choral composer mean that he writes effortlessly singable music, and this feels far more than a string of catchy arias and choruses. Lucidly orchestrated and beautifully sung.

A good CD can provide hours of erudite, sensual pleasure for the price of a round of drinks

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