Classical recordings: 2012
by Tim Pfaff
As with the Oscars, early-year classical-music releases can easily get eclipsed by their bigger, late-year, boxed-set counterparts. Still, Harmonia Mundi's January release of the Berg and Beethoven Violin Concertos, with Isabelle Faust and Claudio Abbado leading his Orchestra Mozart, showed the kind of music-making that burned itself into the memory; it seemed unlikely that the year was likely to bring a better recording. In a good year for the industry, it did not.
Probing interpretations showed how connected these two pillars of the violin concerto repertoire are. The musicians limned the long lines of the soaring works while executing each note in them to perfection, yielding what are now the preferred recordings of both.
If it hadn't been for Faust, Renaud Capucon's remarkable Berg Violin Concerto, coupled with the Brahms, with the Vienna Philharmonic under Daniel Harding (Virgin Classics), might have made the Top 10 cut. But it was Faust's year. Her second and final disc of the Bach solo Sonatas and Partitas, BWV 1001-1003, also for Harmonia Mundi, proved as lofty and penetrating as its predecessor, and her incisive playing in the Shostakovich Sonata, Op.134, with pianist Alexander Melnikov, capped off his brilliant recording of the composer's two piano concertos (HM).
The same combination of keen attention to minute details coupled with a deep feeling for musical architecture made Abbado's live recording of Bruckner's Fifth Symphony with his hand-picked Lucerne Festival Orchestra (Accentus) one of the year's top DVDs. Yet arguably the most important release of the year was of the completed, four-movement version of Bruckner's Ninth Symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle (EMI). A musicologically savvy and cogent completion of the composer's unfinished (but barely so, really) Finale lent the entire work in new focus. The concert recording was as committed and revealing – fierce, titanic, savage, and transcendent – as anything the orchestra has done under Rattle.
There have been annual recordings of highlights of pianist Martha Argerich's Lugano Festival, but fine as they have been, Deutsche Grammophon's new Martha Argerich: The Lugano Concertos puts them in the shade. More about this blazing, four-CD set soon, but suffice it to say that it contains arguably the best of her many recordings of the Schumann Concerto, and the Beethoven First Concerto that begins the set is quite possibly the best ever, brisk, polished, and tirelessly inventive.
Joyce DiDonato, who also had a great year on disc, hit the mark at year's end with Drama Queens (Virgin Classics), a collection of arias sung by (mostly) royals from operas both famous and unknown from the 17th and 18th centuries. It broke the mold of the aria recital disc. With gay early-music maestro Alan Curtis and his snappy Il Complesso Barocco, DiDonato used her winning voice and magnificent technique to express a startling range of emotions, not all of them "operatic" in scale.
Soprano Rosemary Joshua had a similar success with Harmonia Sacra (Aparte), a collection of devotional works by Henry Purcell. Accompanied by another gay early-music genius, Christophe Rousset, and an intimate continuo ensemble, Joshua got to the heart of each piece with haunting depth, Rousset contributing some of his best solo harpsichord playing ever along the way.
Historically informed musicianship combined with the best of what the modern world has to offer elevated the Berlin Philharmonic's Bach St. Matthew Passion, as "ritualized" by gay directorial master Peter Sellars, a two-DVD set that marked the orchestra's first venture on its own house label, to one of the year's most compelling releases. Simultaneously uplifting and emotionally shattering, the live performance revealed more of the music and meaning of the work than any other in my long experience.
Christian Gerhaher, the Jesus in that Passion, also peaked as an artist, abetted by the laying down of one of the great vocal mantles of the last century when Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau died in May. Gerhaher's Ferne Geliebte (Sony Classical) illuminated songs from the Beethoven cycle that gave the CD its title to Berg's Altenberg Lieder, along the way giving the finest interpretation on recording to date of Schoenberg's Das Buch der haengenden Gaerten, settings of gay poet Stefan George's charged verse.
Fortepianist Andreas Staier's bold, insightful interpretation of Beethoven's Diabelli Variations (Harmonia Mundi) changed the way many of us hear what some people consider the greatest of Beethoven's piano works. A previous illuminator of the Diabelli was Charles Rosen, one of music's great minds, who died in December.
The opera recording of the year was conductor Christian Thielemann's of Strauss' Die Frau ohne Schatten in a complete, live Salzburg Festival performance directed by Christof Loy (Opus Arte). Although its concept cloyed, the singing and acting sizzled. A close second was Engelbert Humperdinck's Koenigskinder in a live Zurich Opera production (Decca) featuring Jonas Kaufmann, rightfully opera's biggest draw, in a role he was born to sing.