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In 2015, the Limelight Recording of the Year was a blockbuster recital of mainstream repertoire (Chopin and Mozart) by master pianist Grigory Sokolov on major label Deutsche Grammophon. It was a closely contested fight, but there were to be no giant slayers.
This year it was a battle royal with senior artists slugging it out against newcomers and standard repertoire pitched against the weird and frankly wonderful. In the end, only four votes separated the top four discs, but the winner was a testament to a combination of superb artistry, an underrated composer and an independent label that has performed consistently well over many decades.
In a sign of healthy competition, the 25 finalists represent a genuine spread across 17 labels ranging from the majors, through the independents to the positively boutique. The repertoire too was broad, with music from the 16th century up to the present – indeed, there were three discs of contemporary music in the final 25.
So just what and who did our critical panel consider the most outstanding on disc in 2016, and which recording ended up carrying off the top award?
Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge/Stephen Layton
"These superb performances have the Trinity Choir’s trademark blend of passion and technique, and all placed at the service of the music’s various moods."
Tony Way, Limelight, August 2016
I was a choirboy at Winchester Cathedral for four and a half years and as I sang Tallis and Byrd, I sang Howells. It’s very much part of my existence if you like. When we sang Collegium Regale as choristers and we came to that Gloria, it was the thing you really looked forward to singing at a Saturday Evensong. You just went for it and let it soar. Tallis and Byrd seemed quite tricky and, looking back, not so tuneful and exciting. Whereas Howells just sort of blew you away with these great settings with the organ playing. Your voice just flew, because he loved writing for the top lines of the boys’ voices. It was kind of love at first sight.
Howells is not a composer whose music is going to appeal to everyone, but I think there’s something very peculiarly English about him. It’s something imbued within the stones, the architecture and the buildings of English cathedrals. And it’s quite private, in a way. It’s not music for such public consumption, if you know what I mean. It’s sort of a consenting music for those who enjoy it. That doesn’t mean that it’s completely exclusive, because hopefully by performing it and recording it, more and more people hear it and begin to enjoy it. But there’s a certain difficulty about it, even a certain awkwardness in some of his bigger pieces.
He’s maybe not the greatest composer to have ever walked this planet. But I think for people like myself who have been brought up in the tradition of cathedral music he represents a great, white hope. His musical voice was synonymous with these buildings and this architecture that was conceived 400 years ago, and he gave that architecture a new meaning through his music. So when I listen to Collegium Regale, I see the vaulting in King’s College Chapel and the whole building before me. I feel Howells has conjured that with his music, and that speaks to me.
– Stephen Layton