Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

The year's best classical recordings


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The best recording of 2017, a year of living dangerously, was of Messiaen's "Quatuor pour le Fin du Temps" ("The Quartet for the End of Time"). Composed and first performed when Messiaen was a prisoner in the German Stalag-VIII during WWII, the Quartet remains one of his most visionary works. Sony's new CD, with exemplary soloists headed by the astonishing clarinetist Martin Frost, takes it to places it has never been before. It's one of those literally "of moment" performances to put alongside Bernstein's Beethoven Ninth when the Berlin Wall fell and the young Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's singing Schubert for the troops. This "Quatuor" is somewhat occasional, but better.

In a year when everything seemed to become political, Jordi Savall's penetrating view of the music of "The Routes of Slavery" (Alia Vox), an offshoot of UNESCO's 2015 Year of the Slave, drew determined attention to one of the lasting plagues of mankind. It's an early-music "Graceland," and every bit as solemn, involving and uplifting.

I generally give aria albums wide berth, but this year several genuinely moved me. A CD of Russian music from rising soprano Aida Garifullina (Decca), German soprano Christiane Karg's French feast "Parfum" (BR-Klassik), Veronique Gens' disc of Falcon-soprano arias "Visions" (Alpha), and French soprano Sabine Devieilhe's bewitching "Mirages" (Erato) all stood up to the repeat test, promising more spins.

But soprano Barbara Hannigan's "Crazy Girl Crazy" (Alpha) predictably broke the mold. Making her recording debut as both singer and conductor, the supersmart, multi-talented enchantress with a sweet tooth for contemporary music produced the concept album to end all concept albums.

Hannigan can turn anything into music you feel you've been waiting your whole life for, and here she sings a daring program of Luciano Berio (the wicked Sequenza III for solo voice), Berg's "Lulu Suite" and a Gershwin "Girl Crazy" set that turns "But Not for Me" into fractured but soon recombinant medley. It all revolves around Lulu, the operatic character Hannigan says changed her, and this first performance of the "Suite" by a conductor who's also sung the opera yields a startlingly new view of the piece, lithe and primordial.

The complete "Lulu," with Marlis Petersen in the title role in a live 2015 performance from the Bavarian State Opera under Kirill Petrenko (BelAir) in a literally revealing staging by Dmitri Tcherniakov, topped the year's opera recordings. Otherwise, the opera year tilted toward the French.

Gershwin "Girl Crazy"

The year's "big" releases were Berlioz's "Les Troyens" under John Nelson (Erato) and Debussy's "Pelleas et Melisande" under Simon Rattle, with what is now "his" London Symphony Orchestra (on the house label). While both were drawn from live concert performances and are bracingly good, two cherished mezzos troubled the "night of ecstasy" for me.

Joyce DiDonato brought her keen musicianship and dramatic acuity to Berlioz's Didon without, somehow, filling out the central role. Her voice was dwarfed by those of the cast's other terrific singers (especially Marie-Nicole Lemieux's truly oracular Cassandre), and the persistent flutter now invading her tone ultimately yielded a "Trojans" short on Carthaginians. Magdalena Kozena's Melisande was almost eerily, similarly afflicted. Still, both sets make essential listening.

Two French rarities – Saint-Saens' "Proserpine" and Etienne-Nicolas Mehul's "Uthal," both on the indispensible Ediciones Singulares label – went down more lip-smackingly. Gens' portrayal of Saint-Saens' title character (a Violetta-like courtesan, not her mythological namesake) was rightly ravishing, and the long-forgotten "Uthal," led by Christophe Rousset, seemed briefly important. Rousset's Rameau "Pygmalion" (Aparte) was stomping good. He remains one of the most reliably vital musicians working today.

Another is violinist Isabelle Faust, who brings authority and originality to everything she does, then and goes and makes you cry (in that good way). Her Harmonia Mundi recordings this year alone were of all the Mozart concertos, the Mendelssohn as it has never sounded before (again, revelatory, not heretical), paired with the "Reformation" Symphony conducted by Pablo Heras-Casado – and, for us the piece de resistance, the Franck Sonata and other French chamber works with pianist Alexander Melnikov. It was to have heard what Proust might have.

A tsunami of good Tchaikovsky produced one alarming (Teodor Currentzis, for Sony) and one alarmingly good "Pathetique" Symphony (Semyon Bychkov, for Decca). But nothing else stuck to the ribs like the Heath Quartet's String Quartets 1 & 3 (Harmonia Mundi), which did push the (heavy) competition off the shelf.

I won't be taking many sets of the Beethoven late quartets off the shelf, but the Quatuor Mosaiques gave me the recording (Naive) I've waited a life for. Florian Boesch's icy, desperate, hair-raising Schubert "Winterreise" (Hyperion) gave us the cycle Ian Bostridge wrote about so insightfully.

In this biz we avoid saying "words can't describe," but Ivan Fischer's primordial Mahler Third with his Budapest Festival Orchestra (Channel Classics) was just shockingly good. But the recording that never went far from the player this year was, in a great Bruckner year, Furtwangler's 1951 recording of the Fourth with the Vienna Philharmonic (Praga), Bruckner at its most alchemical.

What could also be called the year of re-issued, re-mastered box sets peaked with Warner's "Maria Callas – The Live Recordings," which re-animated another woman who changed things.

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