Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato’s aria collection “Diva Divo” is the best-reviewed classical album of the year. How can anyone make such an apparently definitive claim? Well, one way – which is the way I did it and therefore for the purposes of this article is the way – is to gather together all the reviews of all the past year’s albums that have been published in the major classical CD review magazines, combine them with reviews posted online, assign a score to each review, perform some calculations, and produce an average review score for each album. It’s the sort of thing Metacritic does, only applied to classical recordings. 2011 marks the fifth year I have been doing this and, because when I first started it I was running a site called Nereffid’s Guide, the results go under the moniker of the Nereffid’s Guide Awards. The year’s releases (because the world of classical reviews is sometimes slow-moving, “the year” covers August 2010 through July 2011) are divided into 16 categories. And here are the winners, the best-reviewed albums in each category:
Medieval and Renaissance
“Puer natus est: Tudor music for Advent and Christmas”
Stile Antico [Harmonia Mundi]
This young British choir has become something of a fixture in the Nereffid’s Guide Awards, having released several acclaimed recordings of Tudor music and other Renaissance repertoire. On this album we hear Thomas Tallis’s mass based on the Christmas chant Puer natus est nobis (Unto us a child is born) along with several other examples of 16th-century English polyphony from William Byrd, John Taverner, Robert White, and John Sheppard.
Baroque – Instrumental
“Venezia” – music of Rosenmüller, Legrenzi, Stradella
The Rare Fruits Council/Manfredo Kraemer [Ambronay]
Mention Venice in the context of Baroque music and one may think first of Vivaldi or Monteverdi, who worked there in the first halves of the 18th and 17th centuries, respectively. The three composers on this album – Johann Rosenmüller, Giovanni Legrenzi, and Alessandro Stradella – all found themselves in the city in the 1670s. Whether they ever met is debatable, but here they are now, in an intriguing juxtaposition of sonatas and sinfonias.
Baroque – Vocal
Bach: Easter Oratorio; Ascension Oratorio
Retrospect Ensemble/Matthew Halls [Linn]
Here are two of Bach’s most joyful works, as befits the occasions they celebrate – although they both have their musical origins in secular compositions. Retrospect Ensemble is just a few years old, though it might be considered a veteran group as it includes some former members of the acclaimed King’s Consort.
Ravel: Complete solo piano music
Steven Osborne [Hyperion]
Ravel was considerate enough to write enough piano music to fit neatly onto two well-filled CDs, with music ranging from the charming Baroque-inspired Le tombeau de Couperin to the notoriously difficult Gaspard de la nuit. For some critics, Steven Osborne sets a new benchmark in this repertoire.
Mozart: String quartets nos.4, 17, 22
Jerusalem Quartet [Harmonia Mundi]
Mozart’s 4th quartet is one of six he wrote while in Milan as a teenager, while the 17th is one of six that were dedicated to Haydn – indeed, it was after hearing these so-called “Haydn quartets”, that Haydn famously declared Mozart to be the greatest composer he knew of. The quartet no.22 is one of three commissioned from Mozart by the King of Prussia.
Bruch: Violin concerto no.1; Piano quintet; Romance
Vadim Gluzman with chamber musicians; Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Litton [BIS]
Bruch’s concerto of 1866 is a real “warhorse” of the repertoire, always featuring very highly in UK radio station Classic FM’s annual “Hall of Fame”. In fact it’s so popular that it’s known to many as “the Bruch violin concerto”, although he wrote two others. Here Israeli violinist Vadim Gluzman combines it with a Romance originally written for viola, and a piano quintet in which the first violin has a prominent role.
Josef Suk’s symphony, completed in 1906, is a dark work, as you might expect from a composition named after the angel of death. It was originally planned as a memorial to Suk’s father-in-law Dvořák, who died in 1905, but during its composition Suk’s wife Otilie also died. This recording itself serves as a memorial to Charles Mackerras, who died in 2010; made three years earlier, it was one of his last performances with the Czech Philharmonic.
Britten: Cello Symphony; Gloriana – Symphonic Suite; Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes
BBC Philharmonic/Edward Gardner; Paul Watkins [Chandos]
This category covers those orchestral works that are neither concerto nor symphony – although here we have a composition called “symphony” that also features a soloist! Edward Gardner is one of several young conductors about whom there is much enthusiasm lately; this album is one of two Britten releases from him that drew praise this year.
Diana Damrau; Münchner Philharmoniker/Christian Thielemann [Virgin]
The great majority of Richard Strauss’s songs were conceived with piano accompaniment, but German soprano Diana Damrau here gives us 22 that were subsequently orchestrated, mostly by the composer himself towards the end of his life.
Rossini: Stabat Mater
Anna Netrebko; Joyce DiDonato; Lawrence Brownlee; Ildebrando d’Arcangelo; Orchestra e Coro dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia/Antonio Pappano [EMI]
Stabat Mater is a medieval hymn depicting the suffering of Jesus’s mother as she stands at the foot of the cross. By the time Rossini composed his setting, he had retired from writing operas, although he certainly approaches the text with a keen sense of the dramatic, much as Verdi was later to do with his Requiem.
Donizetti: Linda di Chamounix
Eglise Gutiérrez et al; Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Mark Elder [Opera Rara]
Linda di Chamounix is one of Donizetti’s last operas, being first performed in 1842 (he died in 1848 after several years of mental illness due to syphilis). It’s a mix of the comic and the serious, in which the heroine falls in love with the son of the Marquis who owns her family’s farm and who himself has designs on her; complications, of course, ensue. This release comes from recordings of the opera’s first performances at Covent Garden in over 120 years.
Joyce DiDonato; Orchestre De L’Opéra National De Lyon/Kazuko Ono [Virgin]
This recital is built around two ideas: comparing and contrasting different composers’ approaches to the same stories or characters, and showcasing how the mezzo-soprano has been used in both female and male roles. Thus, for example, Joyce DiDonato sings an aria from the eponymous heroine of Rossini’s La Cenerentola and one from Prince Charming in Massenet’s Cendrillon. As noted above, this album proved to have the highest average score of all this year.
Living Composer – Instrumental
“Chinese Recorder Concertos: East Meets West”
Michala Petri; Copenhagen Philharmonic/Lan Shui [OUR Recordings]
Contemporary Chinese music is probably an area that few of us are familiar with, but the music here should have wide appeal. We hear Tang Jianping’s Fei Ge (Flying Song), written in 2002 for Asian instruments but here in the composer’s own “westernisation”; Bright Sheng’s Flute Moon of 1999; Ma Shuilong’s 1984 concerto for bang di (a bamboo flute); and Chen Yi’s The Ancient Chinese Beauty, written for Michala Petri to perform in 2008. OUR Recordings is a label recently established by Petri and performing partner Lars Hannibal.
A selection of technically demanding choral works from Swedish composer Sven-David Sandström, written between 1980 and 2009. Among the pieces are two that use the same texts and performing forces as two of Bach’s motets, which might not surprise you if you already know that Sandström has also written a work called Messiah that uses the same libretto as Handel.
Mahler: Symphony no.10 – two performances
Deryck Cooke; Philharmonia Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra/Bertholdt Goldschmidt [Testament]
When preparing the booklet that was to accompany the BBC’s Mahler celebrations of 1960 (the composer’s centenary), musicologist Deryck Cooke examined what existed of Mahler’s unfinished 10th symphony and thought, hey, I might as well finish it while I’m here (or words to that effect). This 3-disc set presents the very first performance of Cooke’s reconstruction, along with Cooke’s accompanying illustrated lecture, and also the 1964 Proms performance of a further revision.
Liszt: Complete piano music
Leslie Howard [Hyperion]
In 1985, Hyperion released the first album in Leslie Howard’s hugely ambitious project to record all of Liszt’s piano music. 2011 – Liszt’s bicentenary – saw the final release, a double disc of recently discovered album leaves and other miscellanea, bringing the project to a grand total of 99 CDs. The project required great feats not only of musicianship but also of scholarship, and it’s not unreasonable to think that Leslie Howard knows more about Liszt’s piano music than even the composer himself.