January 18, 2015

Top 15 ‘Old’ Classical of 2014: Stephen J Nereffid

prohaskaFollowing on from my list of music by still-living composers, here’s one of older music. The usual caveats apply regarding how representative of the year’s releases this is, with the added proviso that I tend to avoid new recordings of repertoire that’s already in my collection, which brings the selection somewhat away from the mainstream. That said, I’ve covered a lot of ground and the 15 albums collectively serve to demonstrate just how broad the term “classical music” is—and how new centuries-old music can sound.


Anna Prohaska. Behind the Lines [DG]

The Austrian soprano marks the centenary of the First World War, with a selection of songs spanning several centuries and countries. From the opening folk song segueing into a piece from Beethoven’s “Egmont” music, through such varied composers as Roger Quilter and Wolfgang Rihm, to the final pair of Whitman settings by Kurt Weill, Prohaska is always at home. A superb, moving recital.


Brodsky Quartet. New World Quartets [Chandos]

A joyful account of Dvořák’s “American” quartet (composed in Iowa) kicks off a collection of otherwise “genuine” American works, including a fine pair from Copland that I’d never heard before. The Brodskys give a superb rendition of Barber’s quartet, including a blazing Adagio (yes, the Adagio). Gershwin, Brubeck, and Copland’s Hoe-Down round off the show.


Linus Roth. Britten & Weinberg: Violin concertos [Challenge]

The first movement of Weinberg’s 1959 concerto turned out to be my most-played track of the year. I continue to resist the temptation to go on a massive binge of discovering Weinberg’s music; my restraint is rewarded by discoveries such as this. I agree with Roth: this concerto fully deserves a place in the repertoire. Oh yes, and the Britten is splendid too!


Daniel Hope. Escape to Paradise [DG]

Subtitled “The Hollywood Album”, this is another cleverly put-together themed album from Hope (see last year’s “Spheres”). The basic concept is that this is music from composers who fled Europe in the thirties and ended up in Hollywood, though even the booklet notes admit the notion must be hugely stretched to accommodate some of the selections. No matter: beauty and charm abound.


Teodor Currentzis. Rameau: The Sound of Light [Sony]

2014 marked the 250th anniversary of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s death, though I didn’t see much increased activity in the recording world. A pity. This selection of (mostly) instrumental music performed by Currentzis and MusicAeterna is full of life (and light) and should win new fans for Rameau and French baroque music generally.



Roman Mints. Dance of Shadows [Quartz]

A solo album from this Russian violinist who can always be relied on to produce an intriguing program. Studio trickery plays with perspective in Ysaÿe’s second sonata, and Mints accompanies himself on hurdy-gurdy in Dobrinka Tabakova’s “Spinning a Yarn”. His pleasingly raw tone is ideal for the pieces by Piazzolla (unexpectedly desolate), Schnittke (thrilling), and Silvestrov (haunting).


Simone Dinnerstein. Bach: Inventions and Sinfonias [Sony]

Being honest, I have to say that pretty much any performance of Bach piano music stands a reasonable chance of making it onto a best-of-the-year list; there’s something so “just right” about it. Angela Hewitt’s “Art of Fugue” on Hyperion was a contender too, but the charm of these smaller pieces won it for Dinnerstein.



George Petrou/Armonia Atenea. Beethoven: Prometheus [Decca]

Aside from the overture, the rest of Beethoven’s 1801 ballet “The Creatures of Prometheus” was unknown territory for me; what a delight to hear a “new” work from an old friend. It’s vibrantly played on period instruments by this Greek orchestra. Highlights include an oh-so-Beethoven Pastorale and the finale, where the glorious “Eroica” theme makes its appearance.


Stefan Temmingh & Dorothee Mields. Inspired by Song [DHM]

Temmingh’s recorder alternates with Mields’s soprano in a collection of popular (then and/or now) “baroque tunes and English songs”. It’s really Temmingh’s project, and his full-bodied playing sounds wonderful (as do the other musicians), but Mields steals the show for me, with a voice and singing personality that reminds me of Emma Kirkby.


Martinů Voices. Novak: Testamentum [Supraphon]

Four works for small vocal ensemble by Czech composer Jan Novák, written between 1966 and 1974; for some reason I’d got him mixed up with his late-Romantic compatriot Vítězslav, so it was a pleasant surprise to be set right. All four pieces are in Latin, which usually means church music, but in fact only one is religious in nature—the delightful Christmas work “Invitatio pastorum”.


Frans Brüggen. Mozart: Symphonies nos.39-41 [Glossa]

Brüggen, one of the greats of the early-music movement, died in August, and this recording with the Orchestra of the 18th Century (which he co-founded over thirty years ago) makes a fine memorial. This is big, grand Mozart, performed live in vivid sound. The slow movement of the “Jupiter” symphony is a thing of extraordinary beauty.


Arianna Savall & Petter Udland Johansen. Hildegard: Vox Cosmica [Carpe Diem]

Of course it doesn’t need saying that she’s an artist in her own right, but my goodness Arianna Savall can sound very like her mother, Montserrat Figueras. This can only be high praise, obviously, and that marvelous combination of earthy and ethereal is perfect for Hildegard’s music. Variety is provided by Johansen’s tenor in a lament by Peter Abelard, along with some very apt, newly created, instrumental “meditations”.


Calmus Ensemble. Madrigals of Madness [Carus]

This is the first in an intriguing-sounding series of madrigals devoted to specific emotions. Here we get vividly theatrical performances of pieces addressing the madness of love (not surprisingly, Monteverdi and Gesualdo), war (some highly animated spectaculars by Josquin, Janequin, and Flecha), and loneliness (the melancholic Englishmen Gibbons and Tomkins).

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Danish String Quartet. Wood Works [Dacapo]

There was plenty of folk-inspired music on my new-music list, so here’s some more. The Danish String Quartet offer their take on some of their favourite tunes from Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and the Faroe Islands; there’s even a few new compositions. Successfully combining two musical worlds, this is honest, affectionate music-making.


Cinquecento. Amorosi Pensieri [Hyperion]

The six-man group Cinquecento has been performing a great service by resurrecting unknown music from the 1500s as the ensemble’s name implies). Here they present secular songs in Italian, French and German by four composers at the Hapsburg court: de Monte, Guyot, Vaet and Regnart. Aside from the historical interest, though, these performances are wonderfully pure and fresh.

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