The UK’s prestigious classical recording awards honour Joseph Calleja as Artist of the Year.
Once again, the classical record industry has delivered! A constant stream of recordings continues unabated that bears witness to the creativity, imagination, flair, tenacity, style and prodigious talent of musicians, A&R directors and labels’ creative and editorial teams the world over. From a shortlist of 45 discs (three per category), the 15 winners have now emerged, including Recording of the Year (an unexpected win for little-known early music), Artist of the Year (indefatigable Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja) and Label of the Year (chic French recording house Naïve).
Recording of the Year / Baroque Vocal
Vox Luminis / Lionel Meunier
“What strikes me principally about this wonderful disc is how Vox Luminis delight as much in the abstract brilliance of Schütz’s melodic and harmonic invention as in the mere projection of words – which is why these performances deserve to reach audiences beyond early-music boffins and receive a broad mainstream listenership, like Brahms, for whom Schütz was a guiding star for his own Deutsches Requiem.” – Jonathan Freeman-Attwood
Artist of the Year
Joseph Calleja, tenor
Although still only 34, Joseph Calleja has most definitely arrived – a tenor of uncommon distinction, whose elegance and sense of style are second to none on the operatic stage today. It seems fitting that he should win the Artist of the Year Award now, following a high-profile 2011‑12 season, which started with the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize concert in Stockholm and has been crowned by the once-in-a-lifetime invitation to sing ‘Rule, Britannia!’ at the Last Night of the Proms.
With 28 roles under his belt, he has expanded his repertoire to include Gounod’s Faust and Roméo, Puccini’s Rodolfo and Pinkerton, and more Verdi operas, with Un ballo in maschera the next to come. There have been complete opera recordings of Bellini and Donizetti and further recital discs, including this year’s Be My Love, a tribute to Mario Lanza. He has also been appointed Malta’s first Cultural Ambassador.
If there is one image that stays in the mind from Calleja’s career to date, it is probably seeing him opposite Plácido Domingo in Simon Boccanegra at the Royal Opera House in 2010. In vocal terms the two tenors are very different – Calleja’s voice the finely tuned clarinet alongside Domingo’s bronzed trombone – but, with Calleja in Domingo’s old role of Gabriele Adorno, there was a palpable sense of occasion as the senior artist passed on the baton to his young successor. Calleja is surely a singer here to stay.
Freiburg Baroque Orchestra / Gottfried von der Goltz
Harmonia Mundi HMC90 2113/14
Over the years, we’ve come to expect outstanding performances from the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra and this issue certainly does not disappoint. The four Orchestral Suites are supremely life-affirming music, fully realised here with playing that emphasises rhythmic vitality and poise, as well as giving inspiring expression to Bach’s wonderful melodic lines. There are some exceptional individual contributions: brilliant violin-playing in the Overture of the Third Suite, a beautifully matched trio of oboes and bassoon enlivening many moments in the First Suite and, in the Second Suite, Karl Kaiser’s immaculate flute-playing, with spectacular, stylish embellishments to the repeated sections.
The tempi are often quite brisk but never excessively fast, and the orchestra’s internal balance is especially good; in the two D major Suites, the trumpets uninhibitedly promote a festive atmosphere but are sensitive enough to allow other instruments to take the lead when their parts are more important. You may not agree with the Freiburgers’ refusal to over-dot in the overtures but you’ll have to agree that, through persuasive phrasing, they perform these sections entirely convincingly. Indeed, conviction shows on every track of the set. This is music-making to lift the spirits. –Duncan Druce
Complete Works for Piano Trio
Christian Tetzlaff v, Tanja Tetzlaff vc, Leif Ove Andsnes p
“This was obviously a special disc when I first encountered it in 2011. It does for the piano trios what the Zehetmair Quartet had so triumphantly done for the Quartets Nos 1 and 3, their recording of which won a Gramophone Award in 2003.
“For anyone whose notion of Schumann is still one of a downwards slope from youthful élan to tragic mental impairment, this is the gentlest of kicks in the teeth. Andsnes has already proved himself to be an artist sympathetic to Schumann’s chamber music and in the Tetzlaff siblings he has the perfect partners. They imbue the more lyrical writing with tremendous affection and beauty of tone, and they also understand that Schumann’s music is fragile: in insensitive hands his urgent rhythms can become incessant, his arching, wide-slung melodic lines merely ungainly. Here, instead, we find a springy buoyancy to the faster music that gives it a wonderful energy. They’re true to the notes on the page but never dogmatic in the slightest. Add to this a bonus in the Op 88 Fantasiestücke and the Six Etudes in Canonic Form in a sympathetic arrangement by Theodor Kirchner, all captured in a beautifully balanced recording, and it’s a deserving winner.” –Harriet Smith
Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge / Stephen Layton
“Even by the exalted standards of previous offerings from Stephen Layton and his gifted Trinity College undergraduates, this is an exceptionally fine release. Its rewarding contents span nearly five decades, from the exquisite anthem Salve regina that the 23-year-old Howells wrote in 1916 for Richard Terry’s Westminster Cathedral Choir, via the double pillars of those resplendent settings of the Evening Canticles fashioned for Gloucester and St Paul’s in 1946 and 1950 respectively, all the way up to 1964 and the motet Take him, earth, for cherishing, a sublime treatment of Prudentius’s medieval Latin poem Hymnus circa exsequias defuncti, commissioned for a special service in memory of President Kennedy.
“Even more affecting is the Requiem of 1932: completed three years before the death of the composer’s son, Michael (who succumbed to polio aged just nine), it contains material to which Howells was to return for his consolatory magnum opus, Hymnus Paradisi. Performances throughout are beyond criticism in their unruffled composure, keen sense of poetry and abundant communicative spirit. What’s more, the sound – whether emanating from Lincoln Cathedral or the magical surroundings of Ely Cathedral’s Lady Chapel – is gloriously true. A worthy winner indeed.” –Andrew Achenbach
Isabelle Faust v, Orchestra Mozart / Claudio Abbado
Harmonia Mundi HMC90 2105
“Working with Claudio Abbado, Isabelle Faust says, is like being given a key to the magic of music. It was he who wanted to record the Berg with her. It came first, as it does in the order here, and when the Beethoven Concerto suggested itself as partner to it, placing these two masterpieces in such close proximity ‘was something quite new to me’.
“Wise of her to defer to the great man’s guidance, acknowledged as an inspiration throughout. Yet Isabelle Faust’s contribution is as personable as one could wish, alive with her own intelligence and musical personality. She projects her role as soloist on an equal footing with the orchestra and excels particularly in the Berg Concerto, a protagonist who carries to perfection its narrative dimension and knows when to merge into the orchestral texture.
“The Orchestra Mozart play beautifully and I would say these versions are models of artistic and human discipline, meticulously probing Berg’s and Beethoven’s intentions but conveying also a sense that such peaks of human achievement are something you assume from within, not take by force from without.” –Stephen Plaistow
Songs of War
Simon Keenlyside bar, Malcolm Martineau p
Sony Classical 88697 94424-2
“Reactions to this disc’s concept and program – as well as the sepia soldier on the cover – can be predicted: it’s an important disc, no doubt, but a bitter pill. Great singing, however, is never a bitter experience, especially in a recital selected and sequenced with such care, and with Simon Keenlyside drawing on all he knows from singing opera (the heartier side of his baritone conveying patriotic determination) and from Lieder (with intimate utterances projecting the personal cost of war).
“The booklet-notes introduce the 29 songs by Butterworth, Finzi, Ireland, Vaughan Williams, Kurt Weill and others by pointing out that war celebrates life as well as confronting death. But in the very first song – ‘An Incident’ from Ned Rorem’s cycle War Scenes – Keenlyside isn’t afraid to be confrontational, with the piano’s atonal turbulence and semi-spoken vocal lines describing a soldier with brain matter oozing from his head. It sets a tone that dramatically reinvigorates the disc’s more simple, understated ballads, including familiar verses such ‘When I was one and twenty’ from A Shopshire Lad – all underscored by the disarmingly empathetic Keenlyside and pianist Malcolm Martineau. A peak achievement for both.” –David Patrick Stearns
Percussion Concerto, Cello Concerto No 2
Colin Currie per, Truls Mørk vc, Helsinki PO / John Storgårds
“Rautavaara’s dozen-plus concertos have hitherto been the Cinderellas of his orchestral output, often appearing as fillers to recordings of the symphonies and choral works or in multi-composer collections where their impact has been diluted. The only one to have achieved wide international currency is Cantus arcticus, the evocative ‘concerto for birds and orchestra’, so Ondine’s headlining of what are billed as the last of Rautavaara’s concertos has finally placed them centre stage. And what a magnificent, highly contrasted double they make. The vibrant Percussion Concerto, Incantations (2008), delivered with coruscating virtuosity by Colin Currie, is a strongly drawn triptych, rhythmically exciting and superbly orchestrated. Truls Mørk’s beautifully controlled performance of the valedictory Second Cello Concerto,Towards the Horizon (2008-09), is as remarkable, caressing out the subtleties of the variation-form structure in which the soloist rarely seems not to be playing! The support from the excellent Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra under John Storgårds (who seems to go from strength to strength on the podium) and Ondine’s sensational, vivid sound set the seal on a superb Contemporary Award-winner.” —Guy Rickards
Music Makes a City
A film by Owsley Brown III and Jerome Hiler
Owsley Brown 811063011090
“At a time when the Louisville Orchestra is one among many embattled American arts institutions, this extended documentary strikes an elegiac rather than a polemical note and proves all the more resonant for it. The story begins during a previous economic downturn, exacerbated by the 1937 floods that crippled the Kentucky community. Its transformation into a centre for new music was the brainchild of Mayor Charles Farnsley, visionary Democrat and music maven who espoused the Confucian notion of the performing arts as a magnet for wealth and power. Rejecting the importation of star soloists, he advocated a radical policy of commissioning original scores. Funding was secured for LP recordings under the ensemble’s regular chief Robert Whitney and an international reputation followed.
“The film proceeds by way of archival footage, static talking heads and substantial chunks of commissioned works set against sensitively composed images of the Ohio River. Bonus interviews catch the senior generation of American musicians in fine fettle, from the centenarian Elliott Carter to his near-nonagenarian antipode Ned Rorem. No dramatic reconstructions, no fashionable graphics; the only vaguely contemporary note is the voice-over of Louisville’s Will Oldham (the singer known as Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy).” —David Gutman
Symphony No 5
Lucerne Festival Orchestra / Claudio Abbado
Directed by Michael Beyer
“Personal touches, uncovered by familiarity and affection, bestow light and warmth on what some hear as a forbidding, even impersonal monument – the Verdian swells of the Adagio, the richly bucolic swing of the Scherzo’s countersubject – but this is not fireside Bruckner, rather a communally nurtured exploration through Bruckner’s secret songs and public hymns. A rarely encountered and special characteristic of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra is the way communal mastery and shared endeavour never overwhelm personal poetry, as much in the second violins’ sweetly tensile launch of the finale’s fugue as in countless oboe and clarinet solos.
“In the Fifth, Bruckner found such a balance that his music had striven towards and which he perhaps never fully rediscovered. To find, sustain and never surrender a lyrical voice through the block-like construction of the Allegro, and even the contrapuntal stratagems of the finale as it works out how to arrive at a conclusion of now forever challenging, overwhelmingly positive force: this takes a special, even unique band of musicians and friends who (we can see) love what they do, making chamber music on the grandest scale.” —Peter Quantrill
Symphonies Nos 1-6
BBC Symphony Orchestra / Jiři Bĕlohlávek
“Some other reviews of this set have paralleled the grace and elegance of Jiři Bělohlávek’s conducting with Martinů’s music in these works. I could not agree less. The six symphonies of Martinů, like the contemporary late works of Béla Bartók, are the war pieces of an artist in a state of pain and exile that is both personal and political. Their lyrical moments, perhaps, can be graceful and elegant although one suspects, as in the tricky (and, in some aspects, most modern) No 6, that this relative repose is either deliberately cynical or a mocking quotation of other composers who can afford to be at rest at such a time in the world’s affairs. That pain and stress are clearly, and superbly, realised here.
“Czech music, Martinů especially (remember also the performances of Julietta and The Epic of Gilgamesh), has naturally been a speciality of Bělohlávek’s BBC Symphony Orchestra tenure. The orchestra’s playing in the six 2009-10 London Barbican concerts excerpted here shows a special and alert assimilation of an idiom that is just as tricky as the more ‘contemporary’ repertoire the players have to master. It’s also apt that it is with this ensemble that Bělohlávek finally completes a cycle (after starts on Chandos and Supraphon with the Czech Philharmonic) of works so obviously dear to him.” —Mike Ashman
Ensemble Plus Ultra / Michael Noone
Archiv 477 9747AB10
“This 10-disc set of the sacred music of Victoria was released to coincide with the 400th anniversary of his death in 1611 and, although not a complete survey of his work, is nevertheless the most considerable proportion of his output yet released together on disc.
“One of the most enjoyable characteristics of Iberian choral music of this period is the askance perspective Victoria and his contemporaries had on the rules of polyphony that, by Palestrina’s benchmark, were sacred and absolute: it is that variety and unpredictability that keeps this music engaging enough to support 10 discs and 90 pieces by the same composer in one place. But unless a choir embraces the music in that same spirit of insubordination, many of its rhythms, harmonies and audacious dissonances will pass by unnoticed. This is one of the great strengths of the Ensemble Plus Ultra, who embrace the performances of all these pieces with an enthusiastic sense of anything being possible. Ultimately, though, it is just deeply human and emotional music that they perform not only with great tenderness but so simply that one is struck every time – as if for the first time – by its crystalline, uncomplicated beauty.” —Caroline Gill
Stemme; Kaufmann; Lucerne Festival Orchestra / Claudio Abbado
Decca 478 2551DH2
“Abbado’s second Berlin Philharmonic symphony cycle, recorded live in Rome in 2001, thrust him more or less unexpectedly into the ranks of the immortals where Beethoven is concerned. Seven years after that, in Reggio Emilia in 2008, he conducted his first Fidelio, followed two years later by a pair of semi-staged Lucerne Festival performances from which this recording thrillingly derives.
“The revised dialogue provided by stage director Tatjana Gürbaca is not without controversy. In Act 1, her cuts and rewrites remove all hint of domesticity and private affection; in Act 2, she omits just about everything. The result is Beethoven’s lofty Singspiel recast as musical meta-theatre. Happily, the cast is as fine as any that might be assembled today and Abbado himself conducts a performance the like of which we have not heard since the time of Furtwängler. It is a no-frills yet at the same time deeply expressive reading which goes like a bolted arrow directly to the heart of the matter. If Fidelio speaks as no other opera does of the miraculous resilience of the human spirit, Claudio Abbado’s late re-creation of it serves only to compound that miracle.” —Richard Osborne
Etudes, Opp 10 & 25 (r1960)
Maurizio Pollini p
This is the recording of Chopin’s two sets of Etudes that the young Maurizio Pollini made in 1960, shortly after his success at the sixth International Chopin Competition in Warsaw that year. For some reason Pollini never sanctioned its release, a decision that was to be just the first in a series of (for his indulgent record label) exasperating and (in retrospect) almost comical behaviours that eventually led to his departure from EMI. That company eventually relinquished him before his contract was up, deeming that his career was going nowhere; of course, with DG, he went on to make a string of classics over the past four decades, including a remake of this repertoire.
It’s hard to surmise what led to Pollini’s dislike of these sessions. Some may prefer the grander DG recording but these performances flow seemingly effortlessly, with his famous technical acumen a given and an uncanny insight into the many moods Chopin explores. Bryce Morrison invoked Pollini’s ‘early superfine brilliance, his aristocratic musicianship, his patrician ideal’ in this music, making it all the more puzzling why the highly strung teenage pianist should have set his face against the disc’s release. It’s appropriate in the great man’s 70th birthday year that these early thoughts on this wondrous music are at last revealed to the pianophile world. —David Threasher
Chopin, Liszt, Ravel
Benjamin Grosvenor p
Decca 478 3206DH
Benjamin Grosvenor also won the award for Young Artist of the Year
“The virtuosity is easy to write about, and there’s plenty of it. And yet, in the context of what makes this CD really exceptional, mere digital dexterity is hardly the main issue. Benjamin Grosvenor’s art is in what might flippantly be called the small print, those intimate moments that only a genuine artist understands. True, he has the measure of Chopin’s most mercurial Scherzo, the Fourth, which he performs with a subtle brand of bravura, and his coltish exuberance in the other three Scherzos is much to be admired. His Ravel is gripping, even though lurking demons are kept safely at bay. But perhaps the most telling track is the shortest, an ethereal canvas by Liszt called En rêve where every phrase is tellingly placed, every colour skilfully applied, whether with the subtle smudge of a thumb or the bolder stroke of a brush. While listening I thought to myself, this is the artistry of an era I thought was long gone, the era of Cortot, Horowitz, Friedman, Cherkassky. You see, their sort of playing isn’t just the province of ‘wrinklies’ like me. There’s a hugely gifted 20-year-old out there who can actually make that world come alive, who lives it as authentically as they did. We should rejoice that a voice such as his is thriving among us.” —Rob Cowan
Label of the Year
The name may imply a certain amateur, let’s-make-it-up-as-we-go-along approach but there’s nothing at all naive about Naïve: this is a label with real personality and a palpable sense of knowing where it’s going.
It’s hard to say what’s the most striking feature of our new Label of the Year but immediate impact is provided by the stunning packaging, where superb, artistic photography and an often wry sense of humour ensure that, even before you’ve heard a note of music, your imagination is engaged. And the artist roster – what a line-up of musicians, each of whom has something to say and invariably in a way that is just a little bit different! Take the Moldovan violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja; here is a player who doesn’t seem to understand the concept of ‘playing it safe’. Her philosophy seems to be ‘this music speaks to me in a particular way and I’m going to react to it how I feel, not how tradition dictates. And if you don’t like it, sorry!’ And of course it works.
Naïve’s singer stable, too, is magnificent, embracing Sandrine Piau, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Sara Mingardo and, the most recent signing, Anne Sofie von Otter – each one a unique talent. Naïve’s matching of repertoire with artist, too, is as sure as it is imaginative.The Naïve roster is a rich one, with Marc Minkowski and his Musiciens du Louvre offering a new slant on many ‘core’ works, such as Bach’s B minor Mass or the complete Schubert symphonies. The pianist Bertrand Chamayou celebrated Liszt Year in 2011 with a magnificent traversal of Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage that drew adulation from all quarters, Gramophone very much included. Another sure-fire success is that magnificent choral group Accentus, honed into an ensemble of considerable virtuosity by Laurence Equilbey – and Accentus’s ambition when it comes to exploring repertoire is to be applauded.
At the heart of the Naïve catalogue is the Vivaldi Edition, a project that is fast becoming one of the wonders of recorded music, and this year’s addition of the opera Teuzzone found Jordi Savall presiding with his characteristic flair. (And not to forget the wonderful disc of bassoon concertos that vied for an Award.)
And so we take our hats off to Didier Martin and his superb team for a great year of magnificent discs. Long may Naïve continue to add lustre, not only to the French record scene but to the world of classical music in general. —James Jolly
The Piano Award
A new prize, introduced this year, celebrates the career one of today’s most respected musicians