Saturday, January 28, 2012

Nereffid's Guide Awards 2011: Classical Albums of the Year

Somehow I have managed to bring you The 5th annual Nereffid's Guide Awards, celebrating the best-reviewed classical albums of the year.

The Nereffid's Guide Awards are created by reading an awful lot of reviews, in print and online, and turning the reviewers' opinions into numbers that can be crunched to reflect some sort of critical consensus and reveal which albums found most favour. This year things are bigger than ever: not only do we have our old favourites - the magazines Gramophone, BBC Music Magazine, International Record Review, American Record Guide and Fanfare and the online sources MusicWeb International and Classics Today, plus Klassik Heute, Audiophile Audition, and Classics Today France - but I've also made use of several more online sources that at least provide information about which albums they rated highly: the foreign-language magazines Diapason (France), Luister (Netherlands), Scherzo (Spain), and Pizzicato (Luxembourg), plus the online Resmusica and Muse Baroque, and the Preis der Deutsche Schallplatten Kritik (the German Critics' Prize to you). Not only that, but this year there are two new categories: Archive and Reissue cover all those not-new albums that nevertheless have an impact.

Such attempts to turn a bunch of people's opinions into some sort of statistical fact must of course be taken with a grain of salt, and yet... these may very well be the best-reviewed albums of 2011.
Scroll down the page to see each award in turn, or click on the following links:
Medieval & Renaissance
Baroque - Instrumental
Baroque - Vocal
Solo instrumental
Solo vocal
Opera recital
Living composer - Instrumental
Living composer - Vocal

As always, my gratitude goes out to the musicians, record labels, and composers whose endeavours have added value to the universe, and of course I urge you to buy and enjoy their albums. If you keep scrolling down you'll find a post in which I attempt to regale you with fascinating facts about the process through which I created these Awards. And tune in later for some 8tracks mixes that reveal how good these albums are.

Awards 2011 - Medieval & Renaissance

"Puer natus est: Tudor music for Advent and Christmas"
Stile Antico
Harmonia Mundi

If you haven't heard of Stile Antico by now, then you really haven't been paying attention to the Nereffid's Guide Awards, because this is their third appearance in a row, and their second time winning this category. They must be pretty good, huh? Here's John Quinn on MusicWeb: "The group produces a lovely, even sound and throughout this disc tuning, ensemble and blend seemed impeccable to me. They also sing with great clarity – every line is crystal clear – and the balance between the voices and parts is superb – and this is all the more remarkable when you consider that they don’t have a conductor to regulate the performances as they proceed." Praise, too, for the music itself: in IRR, Christopher Price comments on Tallis's "sublime masterpiece" Videte miraculum and his "astonishingly complex and beautiful" Missa "Puer natus est", not to mention Byrd's "masterpieces of subtle polyphonic writing", White's "glorious" Magnificat and Sheppard's "typically exuberant, wide-ranging, harmonically daring and structurally complex Verbum caro".

Striggio: Mass in 40 Parts, etc
I Fagiolini/Robert Hollingworth

Byrd: Complete consort music

"Dinastia Borgia"
La Capella Reial de Catalunya; Hesperion XXI/Jordi Savall
Alia Vox

Victoria: Requiem 1605; Lobo: Lamentationes
Tenebrae/Nigel Short

I suppose I should note my disappointment, though not my surprise, that this category is far more Renaissance than Medieval. That's just the nature of things - medieval music is very much a niche. Perhaps another "Feather on the Breath of God" is just around the corner. At least we have Jordi Savall to span the centuries. What else to note? Well, it's somewhat unusual to see Decca in the early music field. In fact this is the only one of 32 entries on this category's long list to be from a major label. Yes, it received a lot of hype, but clearly it was also very good. There were a handful of Victoria discs pottering about the list, as you might hope seeing as he was an "anniversary composer", but Tenebrae's album was definitely the one that stood out.

Awards 2011 - Baroque - Instrumental

"Venezia" - music of Rosenmüller, Legrenzi, Stradella
The Rare Fruits Council/Manfredo Kraemer

Here's some string sonatas from three composers who found themselves in Venice in the 1670s. As Catherine Moore explains in American Record Guide, "Their writing for strings drew on different traditions, advanced the evolution of string chamber music, and further cemented the violin's ascendant position as a solo and ensemble instrument". Of the disc itself she says "This is excellent in all ways", and you can rest assured that "Venezia" is not simply a history lesson. As Gary Higginson says on MusicWeb, "By its exemplary musicianship with often breath-taking virtuosity (listen especially to Stradella's Sinfonia XI), superb presentation, beautifully balanced sound-picture and sheer musical pleasure this is a disc for any lover of the baroque or of chamber music."

Telemann: Tafelmusik
Freiburger Barockorchester/Petra Müllejans, Gottfried von der Goltz
Harmonia Mundi

Rameau: Orchestral suites
Le Concert des Nations/Jordi Savall
Alia Vox

Jones: Sets of Lessons for the Harpsichord
Mitzi Meyerson

Biber: Rosary sonatas
Daniel Sepec; Hille Perl; Lee Santana; Michael Behringer

The Rare Fruits Council won this one on a technical decision over the Freiburgers. Their scores were the same - to three decimal places! I decided to go with the album that had the most 5s, which turned out to be "Venezia". So if you're gutted that Telemann didn't make the big time, well, tough luck. Take it up with the US Supreme Court. Meanwhile let us note a second appearance in this year's awards for Jordi Savall, as well as first appearances (ever!) for the labels Ambronay and Coviello.

Awards 2011 - Baroque - Vocal

Bach: Easter Oratorio; Ascension Oratorio
Retrospect Ensemble/Matthew Halls

David Vernier on Classics Today calls these performances "as fine as - or better than - any in the catalog", while on MusicWeb John Quinn describes the album as "one of the most effervescent discs of Bach's vocal music to have come my way in a long time". Both writers note the joyfulness in the music, so I suppose we shall add a Huzzah! for the Retrospect Ensemble, founded only a couple of years ago and managing to triumph over some very well-established groups. Incidentally, more than one reviewer draws attention to Nia Lewis's extensive booklet note, which spends some time discussing the artistic complications raised by the fact that these are "parody" works based on secular originals. Can you really convert profane music to proper religious music just by changing the words? Steven Ritter on Audiophile Audition gets as profound as perhaps the topic needs: "ultimately I wonder if it matters a hoot... I think that first and foremost Bach was a man trying to put dinner on the table".

Melani: Motets
Concerto Italiano/Rinaldo Alessandrini

Caldara in Vienna: Forgotten castrato arias
Philippe Jaroussky; Concerto Köln/Emmanuelle Haïm

Vivaldi: Ottone in Villa
Sonia Prina, etc; Il Giardino Armonico/Giovanni Antonini

Johann Ludwig Bach: Trauermusik
soloists; RIAS Kammerchor; Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin/Hans-Christoph Rademann
Harmonia Mundi

As I said, some big names here in terms of ensembles, if not necessarily of composers. Melani is Rome-based composer Alessandro Melani (1639-1703), while Johann Ludwig Bach (1677-1731) was Sebastian's cousin - Wikipedia says second cousin, but I think it was more distant than that. As for Antonio Caldara (c1671-1736) and what he did in Vienna, all Wikipedia can tell us is that he obtained a post there with the Imperial court in 1716 "and there he remained until his death". Philippe Jaroussky gives us rather more insight than that. Finally, Vivaldi. You may have heard of him.

Awards 2011 - Solo instrumental

Ravel: Complete solo piano music
Steven Osborne

Christopher Dingle in BBC Music Magazine points out that "A complete survey of Ravel's piano music is an especially challenging prospect for any pianist", but fortunately "Osborne is more than up to the task... Throughout, Osborne repeatedly demonstrates not merely that these performances stand with the best, but also that comparisons are superfluous in the face of such a compelling vision". Nicholas Salwey in IRR confirms: "there is phenomenal competition in this repertoire... but Osborne's accounts can hold their own with any of these". In fact, "Osborne may have set a new benchmark". Meanwhile, Alan Becker in ARG draws attention to various other performers too, but advises "purchase this one first".

Schumann: Humoreske; 6 Studies in Canon Form; Gesänge der Frühe
Piotr Anderszewski

Brahms: Handel variations; Rhapsodies op.79; Piano pieces opp.118 & 119
Murray Perahia

Liszt: "Harmonies du soir"
Nelson Freire

Scarlatti: Piano sonatas
Alexandre Tharaud

The winner didn't seem to be in much doubt here, though as I compiled the results from foreign-language sources I wondered if Nelson Freire (who won the chamber award last year with Martha Argerich) might sneak it, but in the end he was sunk by a disappointed ARG reviewer. I must point out here one long-standing rule for the Awards: baroque music played on a modern piano isn't counted as baroque. And of course it's worth reflecting on whether we should have a separate award for solo instrumentalists who play something other than a piano - but then again, this year any potential candidates were quite some distance from the top of the list.

Awards 2011 - Chamber

Mozart: String quartets nos.4, 17, 22
Jerusalem Quartet
Harmonia Mundi

"Acquire this CD at once", Jerry Dubins demands in his Fanfare review, and who are we to resist? "the Jerusalem's players believe strongly enough in Mozart to know instinctively that his music needs no help in expressing itself, and that the highest respect one can pay it is to play the written notes as perfectly as possible. The result is not, as you might expect, performances that are bland and characterless, but sound instead as if they are coming straight from the mind of the creator to our ears". On Classics Today, Victor Carr Jr opines "Even if you don't think you like Mozart string quartets, this exceptional disc will make you think again", while in ARG David Jacobsen says "This one is a necessity... These pieces are so popular that I often hear them played very unimaginatively and standardized. The Jerusalem Quartet does not do that, but they do not try to reinvent the wheel either. Rather, they reintroduce us to the profound simplicity and even plainness of Mozart's genius".

Beethoven: String quartets nos.12-16
Tokyo Quartet
Harmonia Mundi

Schubert: Piano duets
Paul Lewis; Steven Osborne

Patricia Kopatchinskaja and others

Bacewicz: Piano quintets nos.1 & 2; Piano sonata no.2
Krystian Zimerman; Kaja Danczowska; Agata Szymczewska; Ryszard Groblewski; Rafal Kwiatkowski
The Jerusalm Quartet won this one by quite a big margin. Perhaps that was a little surprising, though I think it was because a few likely competitors didn't quite catch fire the way I thought they might. But a good field of runners-up none the less, and I'm glad to see the not-so-well-known Grazyna Bacewicz rubbing shoulders with Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, and also to see attention paid to Patricia Kopatchinskaja's quirky collection.

Awards 2011 - Concerto

Bruch: Violin concerto no.1; Piano quintet; Romance
Vadim Gluzman with chamber musicians; Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Litton

Whoa - sounds like Christopher Fifield of MusicWeb is pulling rank on us here: "An understandable reaction to yet another performance of Bruch's first violin concerto would surely have elicited much eye-rolling and a lot of invective from the composer, who always exhorted violinists to play one of the other eight concerted works for the instrument. As his biographer I can guarantee that". Yikes! Is there any hope for Vadim Gluzman? Yes there is: "Yet I would be surprised if he did not like what he hears here. Vadim Gluzman, with a finely attentive accompanist in Andrew Litton and his responsive Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, plays it superbly - it's quite the finest performance I have ever heard, including Kreisler's famous 1925 recording". And if you're wondering whether a disc that is 40% chamber music is entitled to be considered as a Concerto disc, rest assured that in the quintet, as Fifield puts it, "the first violin is the virtuoso while its four colleagues (including a second viola) take on a comparatively subsidiary role".

Runners up:
Hindemith: Works for viola and orchestra
Lawrence Power; BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/David Atherton

CPE Bach: Harpsichord concertos
Andreas Staier; Freiburger Barockorchester/Petra Müllejans
Harmonia Mundi

Martinů, Hindemith, Honegger: Cello concertos
Johannes Moser;
Deutsche Radio Philharmonie/Christoph Poppen

Sarasate: Music for violin and orchestra, volume 3
Tianwa Yang; Orquesta Sinfónica de Navarra/Ernest Martínez Izquierdo

Why is an album of harpsichord concertos not in the Baroque section, you may well ask. The answer is simply that they were written in the early 1770s, which I don't think we can reasonably call the Baroque period. An interesting fact about this category is that the scores from the foreign-language sources made a big impact - enthusiasm from France and Spain helped Gluzman's album overcome ARG's negative review. Actually it's the only one of the 16 award winners that a reviewer truly disliked. But it triumphed: someone should make a movie about it.

Awards 2011 - Symphony

Suk: Asrael
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Charles Mackerras

Was there an element of sentiment involved in Charles Mackerras's win here? He had died a little less than a year before reviewers got to listen to this album, so perhaps they allowed their judgement to be clouded a tiny bit. But it's clear the disc won on its own merits: Fanfare's Jonathan Woolf calls it "a performance of grip, precision, structural acuity, and expressive power". In Gramophone, Rob Cowan notes that "It's always problematical when a new recording has to confront rivalry from an almost impossibly great benchmark... in this particular context, Václav Talich's 1952 Czech Philharmonic recording". But, he points out, "Mackerras actually learnt Asrael from Talich and this performance... betrays an almost symbiotic identification with the music". Jan Smaczny in BBC Music Magazine calls this recording "the closest to the definitive version we have".

Korngold: Symphony; Much Ado about Nothing
Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg/Marc Albrecht

Walton: Symphonies nos.1 & 2
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins

Borodin: Symphonies nos.1-3
Seattle Symphony/Gerard Schwarz

Shostakovich: Symphony no.10
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko

I completely failed to predict this one. I was pretty sure Petrenko had it: his Shostakovich won the Symphony Award in 2009 and was runner-up in 2010 - and in fact under 2011's rules he would have won it then because he was pipped by what I would now classify as an Archive recording, Mahler from Klaus Tennstedt. But ARG wasn't so keen. Is it always ARG that's the downer? Not always. This year was clearly a good one for a particular kind of symphony - ones a classical enthusiast probably knows already but that are not necessarily counted among the elite.

Awards 2011 - Orchestral

Britten: Cello Symphony; Gloriana - Symphonic Suite; Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes
BBC Philharmonic/Edward Gardner; Paul Watkins

Two Britten discs from Edward Gardner in this category, and he wins with what David Hurwitz on Classics Today calls "outstanding performances, as good or better than the composer's own... In short, this release is a major entry in the Britten discography". For Helen Wallace in BBC Music Magazine, "Three elements stand out: firstly, the dramatic intensity of purpose he finds in all pieces; secondly, the sizzling soloistic detail he draws from the BBC Philharmonic and, thirdly, the depth and scope of the recorded sound". There's little to add, as other reviewers say pretty much the same things.

Halvorsen: Orchestral works, volume 2
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Neeme Järvi; Marianne Thorsen

Britten: Phaedra; A Charm of Lullabies; Lachrymae; Sinfonietta; Two Portraits
BBC Philharmonic/Edward Gardner; Sarah Connolly; Maxim Rysanov

Respighi: Pines of Rome; Fountains of Rome; Roman Festivals
São Paulo Symphony Orchestra/John Neschling

Fuchs: Serenades nos.1 & 2; Andante grazioso and Capriccio
Cologne Chamber Orchestra/Christian Ludwig

So, a good year for Chandos, then. Occasionally I question the wisdom of splitting off Symphony from Orchestral (especially when a disc is half-filled with a symphony and half-filled with other orchestral music) but it seems to work well. If we put the two together, then this year there'd be 3 symphony albums and 2 others, and Suk's Asrael would be the narrow winner. But you're not really comparing like with like.

Awards 2011 - Solo vocal

Strauss: Lieder
Diana Damrau; Münchner Philharmoniker/Christian Thielemann

Why did this album get top marks from David Nice in BBC Music Magazine? "What wins this disc the five stars are the facts that Damrau, singing in her native German, is poised ideally between dreamy haze and Schwarzkopfian fussiness... and that her hallowed pianissimos allow the exquisite detail Thielemann draws from his Muncih players to shine". In IRR, Christopher Cook, too, is enthusiastic: "Here are 22 of Strauss's songs in their orchestral settings - the best-known and the less familiar - that ought to be on the shelves of anyone who cannot imagine a day without listening to this great German composer, admires musicians who have his music in their bones and yearns for committed singing that is as expressive as it is beautiful. Damrau possesses these virtues in abundance". As Bill White puts it in Fanfare, "Diana Damrau is one of the leading lyric coloratura sopranos in the opera world, so what is she doing recording Strauss Lieder? She's doing very well, thank you".

Pfitzner: Orchestral songs
Hans Christoph Begemann; Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie/Otto Tausk

"Fête Galante"
Karina Gauvin; Marc-André Hamelin

Loewe: Songs & Ballads
Florian Boesch; Roger Vignoles

Schubert: "Nacht und Träume"
Matthias Goerne; Alexander Schmalcz
Harmonia Mundi

Quite a few German Romantics here this year, and it's interesting that the top two are orchestral lieder rather than piano-accompanied. As it happens, Karina Gauvin's French recital is actually a reissue, which prompted a lot of soul-searching round here. There are a handful of albums that are reissues but not in the same sense as a box set or a budget-priced repackaging - if anything, they're an upgrade, bringing to attention something that might not have been properly noticed the first time round. So I made an exception for those few albums, and here's one of them.

Awards 2011 - Choral

Rossini: Stabat Mater
soloists; Orchestra e Coro dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia/Antonio Pappano

A lament from Richard Osborne in Gramophone: "We have down the years been rather clutching at straws where recordings of Rossini's two great choral works are concerned. The Petite Messe solennelle has had just one memorable recording; the Stabat mater has had none... [dramatic pause] Until now". (ellipsis and dramatic pause added for gratuitous effect). Yes, Richard Osborne is impressed all right: "This is one of the great choral recordings". Let's turn to Ian Julier in IRR, who begins: "Given its patchy and complicated composition history, extending over a decade and outlined with the clarity and precision of a detective novel's denourment in Richard Osborne's excellent note, the cohesive and unified achievement of this much-loved choral work is" - wait, what? Did he just say Richard Osborne wrote the booklet note? The same Richard Osborne who reviewed the album in Gramophone? Oh dear oh dear. Fortunately, other reviewers liked it too, such as Simon Thompson on MusicWeb: "If you want the Stabat Mater as a prayer then look somewhere else, but I found this disc absolutely enthralling: after the final bars had stormed out of my speakers I even found myself letting out an involuntary "bravo"!"

Delius: Appalachia; The Song of the High Hills
soloists; BBC Symphony Chorus & Orchestra/Andrew Davis

"Ikon II"
Holst Singers/Stephen Layton

Cherubini: Requiem in C minor
Kammerchor Stuttgart; Hofkapelle Stuttgart/Frieder Bernius

Howells: The Winchester Service and other works
Winchester Cathedral Choir/Andrew Lumsden

Despite Richard Osborne's ethical lapse, the Rossini earned its place, though Andrew Davis's Delius wasn't far behind. I think this is the first appearance in the Nereffid's Guide Awards for the Carus label. This seemed to be a stronger year for choral albums than usual - at least, there seemed to be more discs that reviewers were consistently enthusiastic about. Maybe that's just a vague perception on my part. I don't know. Leave me alone.