Friday, January 25, 2013

Nereffid's Guide Awards 2012: Classical Albums of the Year

I'm delighted and to no small extent relieved to present the very sixth annual Nereffid's Guide Awards, a celebration of the best-reviewed classical releases of the year.

The awards are not one person's opinion, or the result of collective votes or discussions. Instead, I determine the winners by reading reviews from five print publications - Gramophone, BBC Music Magazine, International Record Review, American Record Guide, and Fanfare - and several online sources, notably MusicWeb International, and assigning scores to each album based on those reviews. In each category, the album with the highest (weighted) average score wins; to complicate matters, bonus points are earned for accolades from various foreign-language sources. The finished product is an attempt to create some sort of objective summary of a wide range of subjective opinions.

Scroll down the page to see each award in turn, or click on the following links:

Note: Because of the lag between release date and the appearance of reviews, the awards cover albums released between August 2011 and July 2012 inclusive.

Considering the number of times the classical music recording industry has been declared dead over the years, it's a continued delight to see such excellence on display. My congratulations and thanks, as ever, to all the artists and labels who have entertained and moved us this past year. And thanks, too, to the critics, who may contradict each other a lot but, collectively, are a most valuable group of people.

Awards 2012 - Medieval & Renaissance

Richafort: Requiem and other sacred music

"Musically inspired by Josquin, this is a majestic, expansive requiem. Its dark sonorities, measured tread and long-breathed lines, interlacing a web of references to music from the ancient and recent pasts, invoke melancholy reflections of the transience of things. Yet the shades of mourning are illuminated by moments of light and serenity—glimpses of a sublime hereafter." - Kate Bolton, BBC Music Magazine.
"Not only do the performances here range from genuine tenderness (Josquin's Nymphes, nappés literally stops you in your tracks, so sublimely moving is it) to majestic splendour (try the 'Sanctus' of the Requiem), but the balance is perfect and the melodic lines are absolutely clear, so that every detail of Richafort's remarkable contrapuntal writing can be heard... If I could nominate this recording as 'Outstanding' twice over, I would do so, for I have run out of superlatives. It is, quite simply, sublime." - Ivan Moody, International Record Review. 

Victoria: Officium Defunctorum. Collegium Vocale Gent/Philippe Herreweghe [Phi]
Josquin: Missa De beata virgine; Missa Ave maris stella. Tallis Scholars/Peter Phillips [Gimell]
Parsons: Sacred music. The Cardinall's Musick/Andrew Carwood [Hyperion]
Ciconia: Opera omnia. La Morra; Diabolus in Musica [Ricercar]

This seemed quite a strong field this year. As usual Renaissance triumphs over Medieval, so it's nice to see Ciconia appearing among the runners-up. Our winners Cinquecento appeared in the 2009 shortlist with a recording of music by Vaet; this is the third time Hyperion has won this category. This year we also welcome the first appearance of Philippe Herreweghe's label Phi.

Awards 2012 - Baroque Instrumental

Vivaldi: La Cetra, op.9
Rachel Podger; Holland Baroque Society

"La cetra ('The Lyre') was published in Amsterdam in 1727, dedicated to the Austrian emperor, Charles VI... the set as a whole demonstrates Vivaldi's remarkable ability to find continually renewed inspiration in writing for solo violin with string orchestra... Podger plays with her customary beauty of tone, purity of tuning and lively variety of articulation. Her melodic decorations in the slow central movements give a delightfully unforced, spontaneous impression." - Duncan Druce, Gramophone.
"The musicians are truly engaged with the music... They clearly found a great deal of joy in recording thse concertos, and it's easy to hear. The fast passages are crisp and fiery—and really fast!—while slow passages come off with an easy, languid grace. Rachel Podger's playing is so good that it's transparent—you don't even notice it, and then when you do, you think it isn't possible. The music just is, and it's beautiful, and there aren't any bad notes to spoil it. Kind of like heaven." - Ardella Crawford, American Record Guide.
Purcell: Twelve Sonatas of Three Parts. Retrospect Trio [Linn]
Milton and Peerson: "Sublime Discourses". Fretwork [Regent]
Vivaldi: Bassoon concertos, volume 2. Sergio Azzolini; L’Aura Soave Cremona/Diego Cantalupi [Naive]
Bach: Solo violin music. Amandine Beyer [Zig Zag Territoires]

More first appearances by labels: Regent and Zig Zag. The winners of this category over the years have—with the exception of last year's "Venezia" disc from the Rare Fruits Council—all been recordings of the three Baroque giants, Vivaldi, Handel, and JS Bach.

Awards 2012 - Baroque Vocal

Bach: Motets
Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists/John Eliot Gardiner
Soli Deo Gloria

"John Eliot Gardiner writes (and he always writes eloquently), “Bach’s motets constitute the most perfect, and in some ways the most hypnotic, set amongst his works.” The motets are not, strictly speaking, a set. They are independent pieces, each unique in its own way, grouped by the accident of their survival. But they are also united by their seriousness, and by the accidental fact that the six canonical motets fit on a single CD... As always, the choir sings with remarkable precision. And much is demanded of them. Gardiner, it seems, has molded every phrase to bring out the meaning of the words, much like a Lieder singer shaping a song to enhance its story. He does so without diminishing the coherence of the overall work. This would be a challenge for a soloist. For a chorus it is really quite an astonishing accomplishment." - George Chien, Fanfare.
"Some might find Gardiner's approach theatrical; he could persuasively counter that the motets engage unflinchingly with matters of life and death. And if his Erato recording of this repertoire 30 years ago wears its age well at a purely musical level, it's clear that his understanding of their multi-faceted richness has deepened immeasurably." - Paul Riley, BBC Music Magazine.

Vivaldi: Farnace. Max Emanuel Cencic et al; I Baroccchisti/Diego Fasolis [Virgin]
Briceño: "El fenix de Paris". Le Poème Harmonique/Vincent Dumestre [Alpha] 
"Le triomphe de l'amour". Sandrine Piau; Les Paladins/Jérôme Corréas [Naive]
Falvetti: Il diluvio universale. soloists; Cappella Mediterranea; Namur Chamber Choir/Leonardo Garciá Alarcón [Ambronay]

This is John Eliot Gardiner's second Nereffid's Guide Award (the first was for "Pilgrimage to Santiago" in 2007. And we welcome another new label among the runners-up: Alpha's "El fenix de Paris" got here by a slight bending of the rules; only two of my six major sources reviewed it, which ruled it out of contention, but it got so much support from foreign-language reviewers that I felt bound to include it.

Awards 2012 - Solo Instrumental

Beethoven: Diabelli Variations
Andreas Staier
Harmonia Mundi

This album got the highest average score of all and is therefore the Recording of the Year.
"I have several recordings of Beethoven's Diabelli Variations. It is a work that I have long appreciated but this latest disc from Andreas Staier stands out. First, it's the most infectiously joyous recording I have of the Diabellis. At times, Staier's performance makes me almost want to get up and dance... Second, this recording is made on a fortepiano, with delicious, rich sound, which brings back the music as Beethoven heard it - or would have, if his hearing were better. Finally, this disc includes not only Beethoven's variations, but also a selection of variations from other composers." - Kirk McElhearn, MusicWeb International.
"Staier's perfectly judged tempi, angular demeanour, characterful contrasts, biting accents and cumulative sweep add up to a performance that abounds with probing details yet never loses sight of the music's grand design... This is far and away the most stimulating and best-played fortepiano Diabelli Variations on compact disc." - Jed Distler, Gramophone.

Schubert: Piano sonatas D840, D850, D894, etc. Paul Lewis [Harmonia Mundi]
Liszt: Années de Pèlerinage. Bertrand Chamayou [Naive]
Mozart: Keyboard music, volume 3. Kristian Bezuidenhout [Harmonia Mundi]
"Fantasia". Yuja Wang [DG]

Given the traditional dominance of the piano in the Solo Instrumental category, it's nice to see some little progress, in the shape of two recordings on fortepiano (Bezuidenhout's is the other). Also noteworthy is the fact that Harmonia Mundi has three of the five albums here.

Awards 2012 - Chamber

Beethoven: String trios, op.9
Frank Peter Zimmermann; Antoine Tamestit; Christian Poltéra

"The five String Trios Beethoven completed in the 1790s were stepping-stones on his path to becoming one of the great composers of string quartets. But they're much more than just apprentice pieces: they are fully accomplished and strikingly beautiful works in their own right... Heard in full surround-sound, this CD gives the impression that the players are actually in the room with you. The playing itself is dazzling, combining expressive warmth and admirable clarity" - Misha Donat, BBC Music Magazine.
Displaying impeccable teamwork the players give these splendid Beethoven scores with a spring in the step and a sparkle in the eye yet they also draw deep to achieve a remarkable gravitas to set alongside an abundance of spirit in these assured and tasteful performances. This marvellous BIS disc was a delight from start to finish and ranks alongside the renowned recording from the Grumiaux Trio." - Michael Cookson, MusicWeb International. 

Sarasate: Music for violin and piano, volume 3. Tianwa Yang; Markus Hadulla [Naxos]
Bartók: Violin sonatas; Rhapsodies. James Ehnes; Andrew Armstrong [Chandos]
Shostakovich: String quartets nos.5-8; Miaskovsky: String quartet no.13. Pacifica Quartet [Cedille]
Ravel: Music for violin and piano; Lekeu: Violin sonata. Alina Ibragmiova; Cédric Tiberghien [Hyperion]

Awards 2012 - Concerto

Delius: Double concerto; Violin concerto; Cello concerto
Tasmin Little; Paul Watkins; BBC Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Davis

"To those Delius skeptics—and I must admit I was one of them—I say this: If any recording of the composer’s music can make you into a believer, this is it. Perhaps it took SACD technology to finally reveal all of the delicate tints, shadings, and exquisite combinations of colors embedded in Delius’s orchestral textures. Tasmin Little and Paul Watkins seem to rise from their immersion in these pellucid waters as holy messengers delivering the good news. This is one fantastic recording, graced by gorgeous playing, and not just by Little and Watkins, but also by the BBC Orchestra under the keen stewardship of Sir Andrew Davis. All, including Chandos’s engineering and production team, are to be congratulated." - Jerry Dubins, Fanfare.
"A most interesting further point is that these three concertos were recorded over just two days: the concentration and application of consistent musicianship towards this composer's major concerted works is surely unique in recording history and has contributed to the realization of the greatness of this music in a way that makes the acquisition of this disc an urgent necessity." - Robert Matthew-Walker, International Record Review. 

Shostakovich: Piano concertos; Violin sonata. Alexander Melnikov; Isabelle Faust; Mahler Chamber Orchestra/Teodor Currentzis [Harmonia Mundi]
Berg, Beethoven: Violin concertos. Isabelle Faust; Orchestra Mozart/Claudio Abbado [Harmonia Mundi]
Nielsen, Tchaikovsky: Violin concertos. Vilde Frang; Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Eivind Gullberg Jensen [EMI] 
Beethoven: Complete works for piano and orchestra. Howard Shelley; Opera North Orchestra [Chandos]

2012 was Delius's 150th birthday, so this winning disc makes a fine celebration. This category proved to be something of a titanic struggle, which I thought Isabelle Faust might win; American Record Guide's review of her Berg concerto will appear in a future installment of "Did you even listen to the same CD?"

Awards 2012 - Symphony

Brian: Symphony no.1, 'Gothic'
soloists; choirs; BBC Concert Orchestra; BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Martyn Brabbins

"Havergal Brian's Gothic is his most "popular" symphony, with a total of six and a half performances... Roger Wright of the BBC and the people assembling the resources for his Leviathan must have felt a bit like Ike getting his D-Day logistics in hand. Following Brian's demands more closely than any other, this performance used more than 750 singers and an orchestra of 210... This performance is one of transcendent skill. From the soloists all the way across to the children's choirs, there's conviction in the work's musical value and confidence in its execution... To snitch HP Lovecraft's favorite adjective, the orchestral playing from beginning to end can only be described as Cyclopean." - Don O'Connor, American Record Guide.
"In a sense, Hyperion's release is a perfect one, of a great event, a magisterial work and an encapsulation of the enormous difficulties of the project as a whole." - Guy Rickards, Gramophone. 

Bruckner: Symphony no.9 (four-movement version). Berlin Philharmonic/Simon Rattle [EMI]
Pettersson: Symphonies nos.1 and 2. Norrköping Symphony Orchestra/Christian Lindberg [BIS]
Prokofiev: Symphony no.5; The Year 1941. São Paulo Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop [Naxos] 
Messiaen: Turangalîla Symphony. Steven Osborne; Cynthia Millar; Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Juanjo Mena [Hyperion]

A year for symphonic improbabilities, in some ways: aside from the very fact of this Gothic's existence, we also meet a completion of Bruckner's unfinished 9th symphony, as well as one of Pettersson's incomplete 1st.

Awards 2012 - Orchestral

Debussy: Orchestral works
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Stéphane Denève

"The Royal Scottish Orchestra, recorded in ravishingly subtle surround sound, makes the most beautiful Debussyan noises I have ever heard. No string instrument scrapes too close to the bridge, no trumpet penetrates unpleasantly. Each delicate wind sounds softer and more ravishing than the next. The progress of this orchestra into the front ranks in recent years has been steady, but I never expected anything this good. Denève’s ability to synthesize total clarity, velvet, and the fire of Charles Munch into a dazzlingly live tour of Debussy’s world marks him, for me, as today’s preeminent French conductor. It all sounds disarmingly eager and spontaneous." - Steven Kruger, Fanfare. 
"Denève is a master of the big picture as well as of the detailed components of this music. In fact, the image that kept coming to my mind when listening to these discs was of the conductor as an artist working on a canvas, crafting something organic which is taking shape before the listener rather than setting down something concrete and complete... What fantastic colours Denève has at his disposal! Under his directorship the RSNO have gone from strength to strength and it is no exaggeration to say that they can now hold their own in the company of the great orchestras of Europe." - Simon Thompson, MusicWeb International.

Falla: Nights in the Gardens of Spain; The Three-Cornered Hat; Homenajes. BBC Philharmonic/Juanjo Mena [Chandos]
Lutosławski: Orchestral works, volume 2. BBC Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner [Chandos]
Roussel: Le festin de l'araignée; Padmâvatî. Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Stéphane Denève [Naxos]
Shostakovich: New Babylon. Basel Sinfonietta/Mark Fitz-Gerald [Naxos]

Denève and the RSNO won the first Orchestral award in 2007 for Roussel's Bacchus et Ariane, they were runners-up in 2008 with Roussel's 2nd symphony, and another of their Roussel discs is a runner-up here, which makes them the most acclaimed orchestra/conductor combination over the six years of the Awards' history. Let's also note that Chandos earned the top three places in this category, just as it did last year.

Awards 2012 - Solo Vocal

"Ferne Geliebte" - Beethoven, Berg, Haydn, Schoenberg
Christian Gerhaher; Gerold Huber

"Each disc by Christian Gerhaher and his accompanist, Gerold Huber, is a keenly awaited event. In this latest recital he spans the history of the German Lied from the earliest song-cycle, Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte, to what David Murray, in Alan Blyth's Song on Record, describes as 'the last great voice-and-piano cycle in the Lied tradition', Schoenberg's Das Buch der hängenden Gärten. It is a selection of works in which Gerhaher seeks to widen our perception of him, not only as an interpreter but also as a singer technically" - Richard Fairman, Gramophone.
"You can take the beauty of his tone for granted: it’s silky, gentle, warm and very beautiful, a worthy successor to the likes of Fischer-Dieskau. What sets him out as special, however, is the supreme intelligence with which he combines his vocal tone with interpretation of the words. He has the ability to render vivid even a cycle as well known as An die Ferne Geliebte through the way he, for example, holds on to a consonant for just that tiny moment longer, or the way he elides one phrase into another so as to shine a new light on a phrase the listener thinks he knows inside out. He sounds as if he is creating this music not just afresh but almost for the very first time. In fact there is an exploratory, almost tentative nature to his singing that is incredibly compelling, at times nigh heartbreaking." - Simon Thompson, MusicWeb International.

Lutosławski: Vocal works. Lucy Crowe; Christopher Purves; Toby Spence; BBC Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner [Chandos]
Britten: Serenade; Nocturne; Finzi: Dies Natalis. Mark Padmore; Britten Sinfonia/Jacqueline Shave [Harmonia Mundi]
Berlioz: Les nuits d'été; Herminie; Ravel: Shéhérazade. Véronique Gens; Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire/John Axelrod [Ondine]
Liszt: Lieder. Diana Damrau; Helmut Deutsch [Virgin]

Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber won this award in 2010 too, for their Mahler recital, and they were key contributors to "Terezin/Theresianstadt", 2007's winner. Edward Gardner's Lutosławski series makes a second appearance this year (see Orchestral).

Awards 2012 - Choral

"A Song of Farewell: Music of Mourning and Consolation"
Gabrieli Consort/Paul McCreesh

"A daringly slow tempo—far slower than most choirs could manage technically—with no sense of strain whatever in supporting the voices; the little dynamic swell on 'vengeance' in  verse two; a perfectly poised pianissimo to start verse three. Already in Gibbons's Drop, Drop, Slow Tears there are numerous indications of the elevated artistry Paul McCreesh and the 22 singers of his Gabrieli Consort bring to this beautifully planned and executed programme." - Terry Blain, BBC Music Magazine. 
"This is a disc of staggering beauty and effortless sophistication. Every element of it oozes care in conception and execution right down to the austere simplicity of the pure white booklet design and tastefully discreet aquamarine print... Not all the works are specifically settings of the liturgy for the dead but the abiding emotion is one of reflection and ultimate redemption. In the hands of lesser groups this might make for a rather high quality even saccharine background music CD. The Gabrieli’s enormous skill is their super-sensitive response to the texts and an extraordinarily fine control of dynamic, balance and line." - Nick Barnard, MusicWeb International.

Poulenc: "Half Monk, Half Rascal". Danish National Vocal Ensemble/Stephen Layton [OUR Recordings]
Howells: Requiem, etc. Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge/Stephen Layton [Hyperion]
Berlioz: Requiem. Gabrieli Consort; Wroclaw Philharmonic/Paul McCreesh [Signum]
Brahms: Works for chorus and orchestra. Collegium Vocale Gent; Orchestre des Champs-Elysées/Philippe Herreweghe [Phi]

Two appearances for McCreesh and the Gabrielis here—and two appearances for Howells' Requiem, which is on "A Song of Farewell" as well as the Trinity disc.

Awards 2012 - Opera

Joplin: Treemonisha
Paragon Ragtime Orchestra and Singers/Rick Benjamin
New World

"Imagine a parallel universe where the greatest democracy on earth had thought better than to legislate against a fifth of its own people because of their skin colour. Living in Utopia might have allowed Scott Joplin to transcend his typecasting as 'The Ragtime King'; and just perhaps his 1911 opera Treemonisha might have been cut the understanding and respect it clearly deserves; and perhaps a new recording would have been unnecessary... This is the most important document about the history of American composed music to have appeared in a long, long time." - Philip Clark, Gramophone.
"Benjamin aims to replicate the smaller theater pit-band aesthetic with which Joplin was familiar, aided by surviving Joplin orchestrations, plus instrumentation guide books relevant to the era and milieu. The music takes on a completely different complexion with a 12-piece ensemble that features one instrument to a part, including cornets instead of trumpets, and percussion instruments of the period. Moreover, the swifter, lighter instrumental textures liberate Joplin’s gorgeous vocal lines, imparting a conversational rather than histrionic quality that befits both the musical style and the still-relevant moral of Joplin's self-penned libretto of how education, rather than superstition, provides a pathway out of poverty." - Jed Distler, Classics Today.

Shostakovich: Orango - Prologue; Symphony no.4. Los Angeles Philharmonic/Esa-Pekka Salonen [DG]
Donizetti: Maria di Rohan. Krassimira Stoyanova et al; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Mark Elder [Opera Rara]
Mozart: Apollo et Hyacinthus. Lawrence Zazzo et al; Classical Opera/Ian Page [Linn]
Wagner: Der fliegende Holländer. Albert Dohmen et al; Berlin RSO/Marek Janowski [Pentatone]

An unusual winner, perhaps, but that's part of the fun of the Nereffid's Guide Awards. 2010 and 2011 winning conductor Mark Elder is a runner-up this year (and his Hallé "Die Walküre" just missed the cut too). Marek Janowski's Dutchman proved to be the best-reviewed of his four Wagner releases under consideration ("Lohengrin", "Meistersinger", and "Parsifal" were the others).

Awards 2012 - Opera Recital

Chen Reiss; L'Arte del Mondo/Werner Ehrhardt

"Chen Reiss has been turning ears for a while now as Gilda in Verdi's Rigoletto. Her new CD reveals a singer as much at ease in Mozart's Vienna as in Verdi's Mantua as she performs an inspiring programme of arias and overtures by composers working in Austria at the end of the 18th century... All told, this is a beguiling combination of top-drawer musicianship and fresh ideas about opera in Enlightenment Vienna." - Christopher Cook, BBC Music Magazine. 
"The singing would in itself have been wholly recommendable even if the programme had consisted of only old war-horses... Though I was eager to listen to the rarities here, I still started with Susanna's Deh vieni. 'What a voice!' I wrote on my pad. It’s beautiful and beauty of tone can provide satisfying listening, also when the interpretation is bland. Chen Reiss’s interpretation is anything but bland. It is a true reading of Susanna’s emotions in this exquisite aria. The young woman stands out as a warm, unsentimental, three-dimensional character. This is a singer with both voice and soul." - Göran Forsling, MusicWeb International.

"Tragédiennes 3". Véronique Gens; Les Talens Lyriques/Christoph Rousset [Virgin]
"Live at the Metropolitan Opera". Anna Netrebko; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra/various [DG]
"Arias for Anna de Amicis". Teodora Gheorghiu; Les Talens Lyriques/Christoph Rousset [Aparté]
"Helden". Klaus Florian Vogt; Orchestra of Deutsche Oper Berlin/Peter Schneider [Sony]

No disrespect to the worthy five here, but this was (as it usually is) the weakest category, which is to say the one with the fewest entries: 13 made the long-list, compared with 75 for Solo Vocal. Chen Reiss's win gives Onyx its first Award, and this year is the first in which this category wasn't won by one of the major labels.

Awards 2012 - Living Composer - Instrumental

Saariaho: D'om le vrai sens; Laterna magica; Leino songs
Kari Kriikku; Anu Komsi; Finnish RSO/Sakari Oramo

"Over the years my admiration for Kaija Saariaho (b. 1952) has only grown. From early in her career she’s had an identifiable voice, one that comes from the intersection of a certain Nordic directness with a very French taste for refinement of timbre and texture (she’s Finnish, but worked at IRCAM and has lived for decades in Paris). The result is music that pleases on multiple levels: It’s highly lyrical, explores new sonorities with experimental rigor, and is never afraid of sensuality... All these are exceptional performances, but by now would we expect less from anything coming out of Finland, perhaps the world’s most advanced musical culture (at least for what we call “classical”)? If you’ve not heard Saariaho before, this is an excellent introduction." - Robert Carl, Fanfare.
"Kaija Saariaho is a magician in sound. The technical effects she utilises in her Clarinet Concerto D'om le vrai sens—stretched and elongated notes, microtones etc—may not be new in themselves, but the way she blends and transforms them is utterly personal, a gift for the brilliant Kari Kriikku. This and the orchestral Laterna Magica remind me of Sibelius's lines about his own Tapiola: 'brooding, savage dreams'." - Stephen Johnson, BBC Music Magazine.

Music of Rihm, Penderecki, Currier. Anne-Sophie Mutter; New York Philharmonic/Michael Francis, Alan Gilbert [DG]
Ruders: Symphony no.4; Trio Transcendentale; Songs and Rhapsodies. Various artists [Bridge]
Adams: Harmonielehre. San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas [SFS Media]
Rautavaara: Modificata; Incantations; Towards the Horizon. Helsinki Philharmonic/John Storgårds [Ondine]

Awards 2012 - Living Composer - Vocal

Jackson: "Beyond the Stars"
Choir of St Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh/Duncan Ferguson

"Gabriel Jackson's music is firmly rooted in tonality, earning him a place among those composers whose choral music is at once accessible yet recognizably of its time. The dramatic nature of much of his work and his vivd response to his chosen texts are, however, only two aspects of his style that set him apart. His music is easy to take in on a single hearing, but there is also something uncompromising about it. The listener is captivated, yet does not feel manipulated by a composer seeking commercial success... You will have to go a long way to hear finer choral singing than this." - William Hedley, International Record Review. 
"In fact, the choir’s singing throughout the programme is marvellous. I’m sure all this music is very rewarding to sing but I’m equally certain that it is very demanding. Yet so far as I can tell - most of the music was unfamiliar to me - the choir rises to and surmounts every challenge. More than that, their performances have tremendous conviction and assurance. Duncan Ferguson has clearly trained his choir superbly... this splendid Edinburgh disc will further enhance the reputation not only of the cathedral musicians but also of Gabriel Jackson. This disc confirms that he is one of the finest and most interesting composers of choral music currently before the public. I’ve enjoyed this disc immensely and hope for a Volume III in due course." - John Quinn, MusicWeb International.

Tuur: Awakening. Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir; Sinfonietta Riga/Daniel Reuss [Ondine]
MacMillan: "Who are these angels?". Cappella Nova/Alan Tavener [Linn]
Vasks: Plainscapes. Latvian Radio Choir/Sigvards Kļava [Ondine]
Gubaidulina: Canticle of the Sun; The Lyre of Orpheus. Gidon Kremer; Kremerata Baltica; Chamber Choir Kamer/Maris Sirmais [ECM New Series]

This is Scottish label Delphian's first appearance in the Nereffid's Guide Awards.

Awards 2012 - Archive

Chopin: Études
Maurizio Pollini

"This is a very special release that should attract significant interest. These recordings were made by EMI in 1960, then held back by Pollini without "any specific reason" according to the program notes... The contents of the sessions were forgotten for decades. And then, of course, everyone was fully satisfied by the brilliant set of Chopin etudes he made for Deutsche Grammophon in 1972... There are a number of places where this is distinctly superior to the DG... In the end it is of course pointless to dissect these details. The larger truth is that the release on hand is brilliant, both in its own right and in the context of Pollini's later work." - Brent Auerbach, American Record Guide. 
"What superb articulacy in, say, Op 10 Nos 2, 4 and 5, and what awe-inspiring assurance and uncanny technical perfection in the treacherous double notes of No 7 (Chopin's Toccata if you like). His pedalling is light, his sonority 'white' and crystalline, and if there is little of Cortot's careless rapture or Cherkassky's elfin propensity for mischief-making there is, overall, a near flawless balance of sense and sensibility. All lovers of great piano-playing will need to add this to their collection" - Bryce Morrison, Gramophone.

"The Unpublished Recordings". Michael Rabin [Testament]
Rachmaninov: The Bells; Prokofiev: Alexander Nevsky. BBC Symphony Orchestra, Philharmonia Orchestra/Evgeny Svetlanov [ICA Classics]
Beethoven, Berg: Violin concertos. Christian Ferras; Berlin Philharmonic/Karl Böhm; Berlin RSO/Massimo Freccia [Audite]
Chopin: Recital. Vera Gornostaeva [LP Classics]

It's the second year in which we've had this category in the Awards, and the second time Testament has won it. But I hope within a few months to have a retrospective look at 2007-10 to see if we can determine Archive and Reissue winners for those years too. Meanwhile, we can welcome the appearance of LP Classics and also ponder the fact that this year we have two releases pairing the Beethoven and Berg violin concertos - Christian Ferras and Isabelle Faust.

Awards 2012 - Reissue

"The Complete Recordings"
Moriz Rosenthal

"There are 97 titles on these five CDs lasting just over six hours... Of these 97 titles, Rosenthal recorded two or more versions of 18 of them... Non-specialists to whom such variations of detail are of no interest might be deterred from investigating. I would urge them to think again because they will be missing out on hearing one of the indisputably great pianists in history, albeit captured when he was judged to be past his prime (he was 65 when he made his first disc recording)—though few living pianists at the height of their powers can equal the sexagenarian Rosenthal in his own dizzying Fantasy on Themes from Johann Strauss... With Ward Marston's superb restoration and remastering, APR's exemplary annotation and a first-rate booklet from Jonathtan Summers, this is, quite simply, pianophile heaven." - Jeremy Nicholas, Gramophone.
"In the palmy days of the 19th Century piano virtuoso there was less separation between highbrow and popular music than would be the case after classical music became "classical". Rosenthal's virtuosity was of that older, less innocent school; he does things with waltzes and mazurkas that might bring blushes to a sailor. Jaw-dropping improvisational things... As heard on records the by-then-elderly pianist's inventiveness and displays of shameless virtuosity are of a kind to send erotic shivers down an antiquary's spine... Uncork this unassuming bottle and its concealed genie will sweep you away on golden wings of imagination." - David Radcliffe, American Record Guide.  

"The Celebrated Early Recordings". Juilliard Quartet [West Hill Radio Archives]
"The Studio Recordings 1954-60". Michael Rabin [Testament]
Liszt: Opera paraphrases. Jerome Lewenthal [LP Classics]
"A Treasury of Studio Recordings, 1931-55". Zino Francescatti [Music and Arts]

This category has turned out to be quite a wide-ranging one: last year's winner was Hyperion's complete Liszt piano music, which is quite a different sort of "reissue" to this collection of much older recordings. And while two of last year's runners-up were instances of a major label making good use of its back catalogue, there are no such entries this time round.

Awards 2012 - Postlude

This year, 1,141 albums met the eligibility criteria: released between August 2011 and July 2012 inclusive and reviewed by at least 4 of my sources, including at least 3 reviews from the six main sources (Gramophone, BBC Music, IRR, American Record Guide, Fanfare, and MusicWeb). Classics Today has been downgraded from main source to lesser source since they introduced subscriptions—not all reviews are available to those of us who already spend too much money on magazines.

What kind of consensus do we see across the reviews? I allocate scores from 1 to 5, so let's define "consensus" as a difference of no more than 1 point between the best and worst review. In that case we can say there's a consensus more often than not: 56% of the time (635 albums). If "consensus" is a 0.5 difference (which is the difference between "good" and "good but with some reservations" or between "good" and "very good", or between "very good" and "outstanding"), then it occurs 22% of the time (252 albums).
Some 479 albums (42%) were regarded by all their reviewers as "good or better". 
34 albums (3%) were regarded by all their reviewers as at least "very good".
3 of the Award winners won despite getting a review lower than "good".
Incredibly, only 4—four!—of the longlisted albums were not regarded as "good" by any reviewer, which is to say that any given release that gets a reasonable amount of attention has a 99.6% chance of being liked by someone.
How many albums were regarded as "very good" by at least one reviewer? 990 of them, or 87%. 
But of those 990, a whopping 184 (19% of them) were regarded by at least one other reviewer as "bad".
How many albums received the highest praise from one reviewer and the lowest praise from another? 18 (1.6%).

And that is why I read lots of reviews. And why we have the Nereffid's Guide Awards as a result.

Monday, January 14, 2013

A Delius contradiction

Here's what Adrian Corleonis said of Naxos's recent release of Delius's A Mass of Life (conducted by David Hill) in the Nov/Dec Fanfare:
In sum, a superb production and the grandest addition to the Delius discography in many years.
And here's what Richard A. Kaplan said about it in the same issue:
This recording of A Mass of Life is unfortunately no great addition to the Delius discography.

What can you do?
Well, let's see. Corleonis remarks that in 1997 he said that Richard Hickox's new recording of this work was the best since Beecham's 1952 version but "That honor goes now to the present offering". Kaplan, meanwhile, says you should "Stick with Beecham, Groves, and Hickox".
OK, so they agree on Beecham and Hickox at any rate. But wait! Kaplan admits to not actually having heard Hickox's recording. So why does he think it would be better than Hill's new one? On the basis of the review in Fanfare at the time, where his colleague "waxed enthusiastic about it". Which colleague? Adrian Corleonis, of course.
Now I'm not sure which of them to trust least.