Europadisc Top 10 of 2021Europadisc Top 10 of 2021 (available until 23rd Feb 2022) 1 to 9 of 9 results

Our Top 10 Recordings of 2021! All discs are available at reduced prices and can be found beneath our write-up below.

It’s fair to say that, in view of the ongoing global health crisis, most people’s expectations for the classical recording industry over the past year would have been tempered to say the least. Yet 2021 has turned out to be a cracking one for new releases, more than making up for slight cutbacks in sheer numbers with performances (many recorded since the pandemic broke out) of outstanding quality. And, as always, it’s been a difficult task whittling them down to our Top Ten discs of the year.

For many of our customers, orchestral releases still form the bedrock of their collections. This year’s offerings have ranged widely, from the latest instalment of Giovanni Antonini’s ambitious Haydn2032 project, via symphonies by Tchaikovsky from Paavo Järvi and Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s Rachmaninov, through British music from the CBSO and outgoing music director Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, Vaughan Williams and Richard Strauss under Antonio Pappano (the LSO and Rome’s St Cecilia Orchestra respectively), revelatory accounts of Mahler’s Seventh from Kirill Petrenko and Bruckner’s Fourth from Jakub Hrůša, to Zemlinsky and Schreker, Prokofiev and Myaskovsky, all from Vasily Petrenko.

StraussHowever, two releases in particular blew us away: Richard Strauss’s vast Alpine Symphony is normally treated as a sonic spectacular, but a new account on the Pentatone label from the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin under Vladimir Jurowski delves way further than the opulent surface to reveal a work whose taut symphonic structure, musical and philosophical threads are at least as significant as its overt pictorialism. It’s the sort of performance that’s likely to convert even the most sceptical listeners to its cause, in a recording that revels in the work’s detail while also capturing its overarching musical spans. While giving due space to the music’s stunning vistas, Jurowski’s overall pacing is urgent and involving, making this the most memorable account this ‘showpiece’ has received in many years.

KalevalaIn less familiar but no less absorbing territory, the Lahti Symphony Orchestra and conductor Dima Slobodeniouk recently issued a fascinating disc on BIS entitled Scenes from the Kalevala, featuring music inspired by the eponymous Finnish national epic. A previously unrecorded version of Sibelius’s Lemminkäinen in Tuonela (from his Lemminkäinen Suite) is coupled with lesser-known works by four of his younger compatriots. Leevi Madetoja’s Kullervo (1913) and Tauno Pylkkänen’s Kullervo Goes to War (1947) deal with one of the Kalevala’s main tragic heroes, and they inhabit an essentially late-Romantic soundworld; in contrast, Uuno Klami’s Kalevala Suite (1943) is both more ambitious, covering broad themes from throughout the epic, and more up-to-date stylistically, with distinct nods to early-20th-century modernism while remaining in a broadly tonal idiom.

BrahmsAmong the concerto releases to have come our way this year, Bach’s Brandenburgs from the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, a fine Elgar Violin Concerto from Renaud Capuçon and Simon Rattle, and period-style Weber from Ronald Brautigam have all impressed us. It is another period-instrument recording, however, that claims a spot in our Top Ten. Unlike the symphonies, historically-informed performances of Brahms’s concertos are still rare. András Schiff’s account of the two piano concertos with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment on the ECM New Series label is the sort of recording that, in the best possible way, blows away the cobwebs of spurious tradition to reveal the music in all its astonishing vividness. Schiff uses an expertly restored 1859 Blüthner piano, while the orchestra of just 50 players corresponds in size to that favoured by Brahms himself. There’s no lack of symphonic heft in the D minor First Concerto, but the added transparency and tonal differentiation afforded by period instruments pays rich dividends, not just in the more chamber-like passages of the Second Concerto but throughout.

LisztAt the other end of the scale, solo instrumental recordings have come into their own at a time when larger-scale music-making presents particular logistical challenges. Last year’s winner of Europadisc’s ‘Disc of the Year’, guitarist Season Shibe, returned with an exceptionally thoughtful recital disc entitled Camino. Both Mahan Esfahani and Andreas Staier beguiled us with Bach at the harpsichord, and there were solo piano discs aplenty, all of remarkable quality: Anton Reicha from Ivan Ilić, Behzod Abduraimov in Debussy, Chopin and Mussorgsky, Busoni from Peter Donohoe, Schumann from Stephen Hough, and Beatrice Rana in Chopin. It was another piano disc, however, that made it to top place among such strong competition: Benjamin Grosvenor adding to his steadily-growing discography on Decca with a Liszt recital remarkable for its maturity and insight. The programme centres around the three Petrarch Sonnets from the second volume of Années de pèlerinage and the great Sonata in B minor, an expansive but thrilling account that we felt stands comparison with Richter’s legendary live 1965 performance, but with all the benefits of superb modern sound. With a splendid trio of ‘fillers’ including the Berceuse and the Reminiscences on Bellini’s Norma, it’s a mouth-watering disc.

Le concert retrouveeDiscs of chamber music were plentiful this year, too. They ranged from folk-rooted works by Kodály and Dvořák from the Kelemen-Altstaedt-Lonquich trio to violin recitals from Janine Jansen (on an astonishing 12 Stradivari violins!) and an equally stunning debut recital from Itzhak Perlman protégé Randall Goosby on an album entitled simply Roots, plus marvellous late Schubert from the Fitzwilliam String Quartet. Our Top Ten pick, however, alights on two other discs: the first is a violin and piano recital from Théotime Langlois de Swarte and Tanguy de Williencourt on Harmonia Mundi that presents a sumptuous hypothetical reconstruction of the concert so memorably organised by Marcel Proust on 1 July 1907 at Paris’s Ritz Hotel. Alongside music by Gabriel Fauré and Reynaldo Hahn, Le Concert retrouvé encompasses works by François Couperin, Chopin, Schumann and Wagner (arr. Liszt), all performed with matchless style and poise on instruments from the Musée de la Musique in Paris. It’s a heady mixture that rivals the evocative power of Proust’s own petite madeleine in recalling the atmosphere of the Belle Époque.

BeethovenOur other Top Ten chamber choice presents a more conventional programme of the first three of Beethoven’s Op.18 String Quartets, but no excuses are needed for revisiting last year’s anniversary composer in performances of such class as those presented on this BIS disc by the Chiaroscuro Quartet. Having already brought their period-instrument insights to bear on a series of recordings devoted to Haydn and Schubert, they relish the biting intensity and youthful energy of these early Beethoven works in performances that reveal layers of nuance and colour of the sort that characterise only the very best in historically-informed playing. From the dusky plangency of and yearning outbursts of the Adagio in op.18 no.1 to the boisterous concluding tarantella of no.3, this is a disc of stellar quality that easily stands up to competition from the most accomplished of ‘modern instrument’ accounts.

Clair-obscurAt a time when the activity of singing in its various forms has assumed even greater expressive power because of the many challenges facing the performing arts, 2021 has thankfully been another impressive year for vocal, choral and operatic recordings. Songs by Stanford from Roderick Williams and James Way, Williams’s recital album Birdsong (what a prolific recording artist he is!) featuring Brahms, Schumann and Beamish, Canteloube from Carolyn Sampson, Patricia Kopatchinskaja’s iconoclastic Pierrot lunaire and Iestyn Davies’s Lamento with Fretwork have all provided opportunities for reflection and stimulation. Sandrine Piau’s album Clair-obscur on the Alpha label stands out from the crowd for its beguiling combination of the familiar (including Berg’s Seven Early Songs and Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs) with a relative rarity in the shape of Zemlinsky’s 1895 scena for soprano and orchestra, Waldgespräch. Piau’s exquisite singing, brilliantly partnered by the Orchestre Victor Hugo under Jean-François Verdier, perfectly captures that unique, twilit half-world, poised between darkness and light, that characterises fin-de-siècle and early-20th-century Viennese music, and that also seeps into Strauss’s late masterpiece. With Berg’s ‘Sommertage’ segueing magically into Strauss’s ‘Frühling’, the disc is capped with a pure-toned performance of the Four Last Songs ‘that rediscovers the surprising freshness’ of these glorious late works.

HaydnAlthough we have reviewed fewer choral discs this year, they have been of the highest quality: anniversary composer Josquin Desprez from Stile Antico on Decca, and a splendid performance of Biber’s F minor Requiem from Vox Luminis on Alpha. But the palm goes to Jordi Savall’s marvellous new account of Haydn’s Die Schöpfung (‘The Creation’), recorded in May this year in the Collegiate Church of Sant Vicenç at the Castle of Cardona. With the combined forces of the 20 voices of La Capella Reial de Catalunya plus the 36 period instrumentalists of Le Concert des Nations and three outstanding soloists (Yeree Suh, Tilman Lichdi and Matthias Winckhler), this relatively small-scale performance on the Alia Vox label is one that punches well above its weight. Free from the exaggerated point-making of some rival accounts, this is a ‘fundamentally honest, open and grounded, good-humoured and generous’ performance of Haydn’s choral masterpiece, one that ‘scales the heights of the heavens and the deep mysteries of Creation’. For those who value the rich insights of period-style performance without fussy interventionism, it’s an absolute must.

AmazoneFinally, to opera: a complex, multi-faceted genre that has suffered more than most as a result of the restrictions imposed by concerns over Covid. Several operatic recital discs have provided welcome sustenance over the past year, among them Beethoven, Verdi and Wagner from soprano Lise Davidsen, and the French-Spanish themed Seguedilles from mezzo Marianne Crebassa. We were most taken, however, with a fascinating collection of Baroque rarities on themes including empowered women, gender-switching and the complex relationship between nature and humanity. Young mezzo-soprano Lea Desandre’s Amazone is a model of how engaging operatic concept albums can be, devised in collaboration with researcher Yannis François and lutenist Thomas Dunford’s vibrant Jupiter ensemble. Featuring music by such rarely encountered names as Francesco Provenzale, Giovanni Buonaventura Viviani, Giuseppe de Bottis and Carlo Pallavicino, alongside better-known names like Destouches and Vivaldi, the performances are wonderfully spirited, with imaginative percussion and other period-style sound effects adding to the ‘Amazonian’ atmosphere, and cameo appearances from Cecilia Bartoli and Véronique Gens. It’s Desandre’s voice, however, that steals the show: fantastically rich and nuanced, with dazzling coloratura, imperious in its anger but meltingly beautiful and vulnerable in the more reflective numbers like ‘Lasciatemi morir, stelle crudeli’ from Provenzale’s Lo schiavo di sua moglie.

KorngoldHappily, complete opera recordings have also featured strongly this year, including a French-language production of Mozart’s Magic Flute (La Flûte enchantée) from the Opéra Royal de Versailles on CD, DVD and Blu-ray, all in one nicely-packaged set from Chateau de Versailles Spectacles, infused with the spirit of French pantomime; and a welcome, starry new recording of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide from LSO Live, expertly conducted at London’s Barbican Hall in 2018 by Bernstein protégée Marin Alsop (CD and Blu-ray Audio). The runaway operatic winner, however – and also our 2021 Recording of the Year – is a fabulously classy and committed staging of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s first major operatic success, Die tote Stadt. This is just the second release on the Bavarian State Opera’s new own label, after the Mahler 7 mentioned above, and is likewise conducted by Kirill Petrenko. Korngold’s lushly scored and gloriously inventive late-Romantic music is the sort of repertoire Petrenko excels in and champions tirelessly. With the Bavarian State Orchestra supremely responsive and full-toned, a top-notch cast headed by Jonas Kaufmann as Paul, Marlis Petersen as Marietta/Maria and Andrzej Filończyk as Frank/Fritz, and a cleverly yet sensitively updated staging by director Simon Stone, brilliantly captured on video by Myriam Hoyer, this is a searingly intense production that grips the viewer from start to finish – even through what in some productions can feel like its philosophical longueurs. On a purely musical level, this is surely the finest and most persuasive account of Korngold’s precociously brilliant score ever committed to disc; but it also demonstrates the hotly-debated production style known as ‘director’s opera’ at its very best: entirely attuned to bringing the work’s musical drama into the world of contemporary audiences while remaining true to the deep philosophical and cultural complexities of the original. Above all, it proves that there’s so much more to Die tote Stadt than the ever-popular ‘Marietta’s Lied’, and with both Kaufmann and Petersen on stunning form (the latter proving that she’s a singing actor of the very highest calibre), this is a recording that sweeps all before it. Available in DVD or high-definition Blu-ray formats, it is a worthy winner in an outstanding year.

Klami, Sibelius, Madetoja, Pylkkanen - Scenes from the Kalevala

BIS BIS2371
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Klami, Sibelius, Madetoja, Pylkkanen - Scenes from the Kalevala

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Artist: Lahti Symphony Orchestra

Conductor: Dima Slobodeniouk

Europadisc Top 10 of 2021
Haydn - Die Schopfung (The Creation)

Alia Vox AVSA9945
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Haydn - Die Schopfung (The Creation)

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Artists: Yeree Suh (soprano), Tilman Lichdi (tenor), Matthias Winckhler (baritone), La Capella Reial de Catalunya, Le Concert des Nations

Conductor: Jordi Savall

Europadisc Top 10 of 2021
Beethoven - String Quartets, op.18 nos 1-3

BIS BIS2488
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Beethoven - String Quartets, op.18 nos 1-3

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Artist: Chiaroscuro Quartet

Europadisc Top 10 of 2021
Lea Desandre: Amazone

Erato 9029506584
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Lea Desandre: Amazone

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Artists: Lea Desandre (mezzo-soprano), Cecilia Bartoli (mezzo-soprano), Veronique Gens (soprano), William Christie (harpsichord), Jupiter

Conductor: Thomas Dunford

Gramophone Editor's Choice Europadisc Top 10 of 2021
Strauss - Eine Alpensinfonie

Pentatone PTC5186802
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Strauss - Eine Alpensinfonie

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Artist: Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin

Conductor: Vladimir Jurowski

Gramophone Editor's Choice Europadisc Top 10 of 2021
Brahms - Piano Concertos

ECM New Series 4855770
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Brahms - Piano Concertos

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Artists: Andras Schiff (piano), Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

Conductor: Andras Schiff

Gramophone Editor's Choice Europadisc Top 10 of 2021
Proust: Le Concert retrouve

Harmonia Mundi HMM902508
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Proust: Le Concert retrouve

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Artists: Theotime Langlois de Swarte (violin), Tanguy de Williencourt (piano)

Gramophone Editor's Choice Europadisc Top 10 of 2021
Clair-obscur: R Strauss, Berg, Zemlinsky - Songs

Alpha ALPHA727
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Clair-obscur: R Strauss, Berg, Zemlinsky - Songs

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Artists: Sandrine Piau (soprano), Orchestre Victor Hugo

Conductor: Jean-Francois Verdier

Gramophone Editor's Choice Europadisc Top 10 of 2021
Benjamin Grosvenor plays Liszt

Decca 4851450
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Benjamin Grosvenor plays Liszt

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Artist: Benjamin Grosvenor (piano)

Gramophone Editor's Choice Europadisc Top 10 of 2021