Notable Classical Recordings of 2023

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If I were making my usual yearly list of memorable live performances, I would include Michael Tilson Thomas’s buoyant concerts at the L.A. Philharmonic, in January; the première of Salvatore Sciarrino’s enigmatically radiant opera “Venere e Adone,” in Hamburg, in May; Andrew McIntosh’s heady traversal of Heinrich Biber’s Rosary Sonatas, in Pasadena, in July; and the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra’s feisty farewell at Geffen Hall, in August, with Louis Langrée all but giving the finger to the oblivious leaders of Lincoln Center. This time around, though, I’ve decided to forgo a live list in favor of a roundup of recordings, partly because they surface infrequently in my column. The classical-recording business, such as it is, is in a perennial state of confusion and collapse: major labels like Deutsche Grammophon and Decca are offering up genre-unspecific mood music and overexposed junior maestros, while proud independents like Hyperion and BIS have lost ground in the ruthless economy of the streaming era. Still, I can’t remember a year in which so many pleasure-inducing, addiction-triggering albums crowded my desk. Paeans to a few of the best follow, with twenty others appended.

Pygmalion’s Monteverdi Vespers

There is no grander curtain-raising gesture in music than the brightly billowing D-major fanfares that open Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610. A version of this prelude had already appeared at the outset of Monteverdi’s epochal opera “Orfeo,” from 1607, but the sonority is even more integral to the sacred splendor of the Vespers, which celebrate the Virgin Mary. The countertenor turned conductor Raphaël Pichon, in a magnificent new recording of Monteverdi’s work with the Pygmalion ensemble, on the Harmonia Mundi label, elicits an organically pulsing, sumptuously colored sound, emblematic of his vital approach to early-music repertory. The Vespers are a monumental compendium of styles: Gregorian chant, Renaissance polyphony, operatic laments, courtly dance, intimate vocal games in a madrigal vein. Pichon and his musicians encompass this multiplicity of voices and add their own personal inflections. A few highlights: the syncopated bounce of “Laudate pueri” and “Lauda Jerusalem,” the lush instrumental fantasy of the Sonata à 8 sopra Sancta Maria, the feathery textures of “Nisi Dominus,” and the virtuosic tangle of male voices in “Duo seraphim”—three tenors without bloat. Pichon, in an interview in the program booklet, comments that he sought a pan-Mediterranean sensibility for these Vespers, comparing the high-lying tenor lines to the call of the muezzin. That conceit finds fulfillment in the “Gloria patri,” with Emiliano Gonzalez Toro and Zachary Wilder seeming to throw their voices from minarets. Soon after, the opening fanfare returns, its majesty magnified.

New Works by Cassandra Miller

To the Canadian-born, London-based composer Cassandra Miller I owe three of the year’s most quietly shattering musical experiences. In the spring, I heard an online stream of her viola concerto “I cannot love without trembling,” a fantasia on early-twentieth-century recordings by the Greek American fiddler Alexis Zoumbas. Lawrence Power, Ilan Volkov, and the Brussels Philharmonic delivered a performance of enormous lamenting power. Over the summer, I became hypnotized by Miller’s “Traveller Song” and “Thanksong,” on a Black Truffle release—works with a rough finish and an open heart. Come autumn, I succumbed to “The City, Full of People,” as recorded by Paul Hillier and Chamber Choir Ireland for the Louth Contemporary Music Society. The last piece, like so many Miller scores, entails a radical transformation of an extant source—in this case, Thomas Tallis’s setting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, which begin with the verse “How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people!” Six small groups of singers take up fragments of “Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” the final section of Tallis’s work, and sing them at their own pace, with no precise coördination intended or desired. If, as Miller writes in a program note, the result is a “cacophony of private secrets,” it is the sweetest of cacophonies, with myriad overlapping descents from tonic to dominant. Music this uncalculatedly beautiful leaves you almost desperate with gratitude.

Yunchan Lim’s Transcendental Études

Photograph by Ayesha Malik / NYT / Redux

The nineteen-year-old South Korean pianist Yunchan Lim, who won the gold medal at the 2022 Van Cliburn Competition, has received some garishly hyperbolic praise. Online enthusiasts describe his performance of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto as the “greatest ever,” implying that they have somehow travelled back in time, heard the composer’s own 1910 account with Mahler conducting, and found it wanting. Lim is, indeed, extraordinarily good in the Rachmaninoff concerto, but he is not necessarily world-shaking. In Liszt’s Transcendental Études, however, he makes the pianistic planet tremble underfoot. His traversal of the complete set, also recorded at the Cliburn, has now appeared on the Steinway & Sons label. Lim’s titanic technical command is unsurprising; his unflagging communicative passion is less common; and his instinctive understanding of Liszt’s hyper-Romantic language, his native grasp of phrase and texture and tempo, is something entirely out of the ordinary. Listen to how he ends “Paysage” in a state of unhurried repose, with stately figures unfurling in the bass of the piano. Then hear how he throws himself into “Mazeppa” at a demonically galloping pace. I can think of no greater compliment than to say that Lim plays as if he is making it all up on the spot. He has the potential to become a once-in-generation pianist, one who combines astounding virtuosity with interpretive depth. Let’s hope that he is given the space to develop at his own pace. So far, despite having signed to Decca, he seems happily indifferent to the classical hype machine.

Cyrille Dubois’s “So Romantique!” Album

The French tenor Cyrille Dubois possesses a light, crisp, immaculately dulcet voice, of a kind that thrived in French opera of the nineteenth century and has since gone into partial eclipse. The style is known as ténor de grâce, and it avoids the from-the-chest belting that many people associate with the tenor species. In this seductive anthology of arias on the Alpha Classics label, with Pierre Dumoussaud conducting the Orchestre National de Lille, Dubois gives us a few famous French-tenor showpieces—most familiarly, “Ah! mes amis,” from Donizetti’s “La Fille du Régiment,” with its battery of high C’s. But the revelations here are far more obscure items from the Romantic sphere. Researchers at the Palazzetto Bru Zane, an institution devoted to preserving rare French music, helped Dubois retrieve and edit scores. The effort has yielded some winning discoveries. One is “Rêvons qu’un plus beau jour,” from Louis Clapisson’s “Gibby la Cornemuse” (“Gibby the Bagpiper”), from 1846. The plot concerns an unsuccessful conspiracy against James I—not the one organized by Guy Fawkes, as it happens. As the hero dreams of better days, a liquid melody unfolds over nocturnal instrumentation, including slithery strings and rustlings of percussion. Another find is “De ses illusions . . . Viens, ô mélodie,” from Charles Luce-Varlet’s “L’Élève de Presbourg”—a 1840 opera about, improbably, the young Joseph Haydn. The text is silly— “Come, O pure-breathed melody, / Come, azure-winged enchantress, / My heart yields to your sweet command”—but the music is suitably elegant and spry. Théodore Dubois and Benjamin Godard hold their own against Gounod, Auber, and Halévy. A repertory that limits itself to celebrity names shuts out innumerable treasures.

The Pittsburgh Symphony Plays the Tchaikovsky Fifth

The record catalogue holds several hundred renditions of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. Why should yet another be added to the pile? In one sense, no reason is needed. Orchestras now routinely produce their own albums, as souvenirs for their audiences, and whether they surpass classic readings by Mravinsky or Bernstein is of little account. But an upper-echelon orchestra should have something urgent to say when it takes up familiar music; it shouldn’t simply issue an annual report on its long-standing technical excellence. The Pittsburgh Symphony meets this criterion in its latest release, part of a long-running series for Reference Recordings. Manfred Honeck, who has led the group since 2008, combines an obsessive attention to detail with a sure grasp of large-scale structures; most important, he coaxes interpretations of unflagging energy and passion. Consider the second movement, one of Tchaikovsky’s finest creations. William Caballero, who has been Pittsburgh’s principal horn for more than three decades, delivers his opening solo with time-stopping lyric finesse. A cannily graded accumulation of tension ensues, leading to genuine shock at the mid-movement climax. After that comes an arresting effect of pizzicato strings—Honeck, in his program note, likens the sound to bells—and a free, ardent oboe solo, by Cynthia Koledo DeAlmeida. Here and elsewhere, the conductor’s overarching vision blends with the players’ moment-to-moment inspirations. Tacked on is a fascinating novelty in the form of Ervín Schulhoff’s Five Pieces for String Quartet, as arranged for orchestra by Honeck and Tomáš Ille.

The Ébène Quartet Plays Mozart

When the Ébène Quartet first emerged on the international scene, in the two-thousands, its members adopted a hip façade, mixing classical repertory with jazz standards, Beatles hits, and “Misirlou.” From the beginning, though, they performed Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven with uncanny naturalness, as if they had somehow arranged to spend part of their childhoods in late-eighteenth-century Vienna. A couple of decades on, with a few changes of personnel, they have taken on maturity and depth without having lost their signature freshness. Their latest recording, for Erato, might be their finest to date. It features Mozart’s String Quintets in C Major and G Minor, with the violist Antoine Tamestit joining in. What gives the opening section of the C-major quintet its peculiar vibrancy? It partly has to do with minute variations within the general musical flow. Notice how Raphaël Merlin, the cellist, executes the dotted half notes that begin each of his rising phrases. Each one is a little different: sometimes he makes a strong attack and then fades, sometimes he bows all the way through the note. When Pierre Colombet, the first violinist, takes over the pattern in the key of C minor, he gives a more aggressive edge to those held notes, with Merlin ruminating down below. Such subtle touches give emotional complexity to an outwardly sunny work. When the players arrive at the melancholy abysses of the G-minor quintet, they introduce complexities of a different kind, suffusing shadows with light.

Twenty More

  • “Fantasia”: works of Bach, Liszt, Schubert, Berg, and Busoni; Igor Levit (Sony Classical)

  • Kaija Saariaho, “Nuits, adieux,” “Horloge, tais-toi!,” “Écho!,” “Tag des Jahrs,” “Überzeugung,” “Reconnaissance”; Nils Schweckendiek conducting the Helsinki Chamber Choir (BIS)

  • Byrd, Mass for Five Voices and other works; Owain Park leading the Gesualdo Six (Hyperion)

  • “Density 2036,” Parts VI, VII, VIII: works of Olga Neuwirth, Pamela Z, Phyllis Chen, Sarah Hennies, Liza Lim, Matana Roberts, Wang Lu, Ann Cleare; Claire Chase and various collaborators (New Focus)

  • Machaut, “The Fount of Grace”: “Le lay de la fonteinne” and other works; Orlando Consort (Hyperion)

  • Ligeti, Études, Capriccios; Han Chen (Naxos)

  • Haydn, “Emperor” and “Sunrise” Quartets; St. Lawrence Quartet (Phenotypic)

  • Weinberg, “Dawn,” Symphony No. 12; John Storgårds conducting the BBC Philharmonic (Chandos)

  • George Lewis, “Afterword”; Joelle Lamarre, Gwendolyn Brown, Julian Terrell Otis, David Fulmer conducting the International Contemporary Ensemble (New Focus)

  • John Luther Adams, “Three High Places,” “Darkness and Scattered Light,” Three Nocturnes; Robert Black (Cold Blue)

  • Missy Mazzoli, “Dark with Excessive Bright,” “Orpheus Undone,” “Vespers for Violin,” “Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres),” “These Worlds in Us”; James Gaffigan conducting the Bergen Philharmonic and Tim Weiss conducting the Arctic Philharmonic, with Peter Herresthal (BIS)

  • George Walker, Five Sinfonias; Gianandrea Noseda conducting the National Symphony, with Shana Oshiro, DeMarcus Bolds, Daniel J. Smith, V Savoy McIlwain, and Kevin Thompson (National Symphony)

  • Liza Lim, “Annunciation Triptych”; Cristian Măcelaru conducting the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln, with Emily Hindrichs (Kairos)

  • Thomas Adès, “Dante”; Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the L.A. Master Chorale (Nonesuch)

  • Adès, “Alchymia”; Mark Simpson, Quatuor Diotima (Orchid Classics)

  • Rachmaninoff, Symphonic Dances (arr. Inon Barnatan), Moments Musicaux, Prelude in G-Sharp Minor, Vocalise; Barnatan (Pentatone)

  • “Infinite Voyage”: works of Schoenberg, Hindemith, Chausson, and Berg; Barbara Hannigan, Bertrand Chamayou, Emerson Quartet (Alpha)

  • Michelle Lou, “HoneyDripper”; Mattie Barbier and Weston Olencki (via Bandcamp)

  • “Weather Systems II—Soundlines: On Language and the Land”: works of Iannis Xenakis, Vivian Fung, George Lewis, Lei Liang, Frederic Rzewski, Vinko Globokar, Roger Reynolds, Sarah Hennies; Steven Schick (Islandia)

  • Lucia Dlugoszewski, “Abyss and Caress,” “Fire Fragile Flight,” “Each Time You Carry Me This Way,” “Openings of the (Eye): Ritual of the Descent,” “Angels of the Inmost Heaven,” “Disparate Stairway Radical Other,” “Avanti”; Ilan Volkov, Johannes Kalitzke, and Tim Anderson conducting Klangforum Wien (col legno) ♦


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