And the bands played on: the best classical releases of 2020 | Classical music


Opera and concert life has been forced into suspended animation for much of this year, but the classical recording industry has pressed on regardless, with little obvious slowing in the rate of new releases. By and large, the trends of the previous few years continued: the proliferation of smaller niche labels continued to come up with the more interesting repertoire while the output of leading brands became steadily less adventurous.

There were some oddities, though. The expected deluge of Beethoven releases to mark his 250th birthday never quite happened, and though there were certainly notable new titles – the Brodsky Quartet playing the late string quartets; Ian Bostridge and Antonio Pappano’s collection of songs; the set of the symphonies under nine differentconductors issued by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra; Daniel Barenboim’s cycle of the piano sonatas (the fifth he has recorded) and his second of the piano trios – perhaps the most significant anniversary project was René Jacobs’ recording of Leonore, the original 1805 version of the opera we know today as Fidelio, which actually appeared at the end of last year.

Stuart Skelton as Grimes in a semi-staging of Britten’s Peter Grimes at the Royal Festival Hall with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Edward Gardner. Photograph: Mark Allan

Studio recordings now tend to be much rarer than those taken from live performances for opera. The re-emergence of Naive’s survey of Vivaldi’s operas will have pleased baroque enthusiasts, but the year’s most notable mainstream releases were Britten’s Peter Grimes conducted by Edward Gardner (studio-made), and Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten under Christian Thielemann (from the Vienna State Opera). The most hyped new opera set of the year, Verdi’s Otello, conducted by Pappano with Jonas Kaufmann in the title role, was a little disappointing, though Kaufmann’s ventures into the song repertoire – crooned lockdown Lieder and kitsch Christmas songs – were for me a far greater let down.

Among orchestral releases, François-Xavier Roth and the period instruments of Les Siècles continued their exploration of the French repertoire, there was more of Edward Gardner’s Schoenberg from Bergen and Osmo Vänskä’s Mahler from Minnesota, and Gustavo Dudamel in Los Angeles surveyed the Ives symphonies. Both Vladimir Jurowski and Iván Fischer conducted Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, while the collection of Mariss Jansons’s Bruckner performances with the Bavarian Radio Symphony was a fine memorial to the much missed conductor. And one of the unexpected bonuses of lockdown was the opportunity for Masaaki Suzuki to record Bach’s St John Passion with the Bach Collegium Japan, complementing their St Matthew Passion released earlier in the year.

It wasn’t an outstanding year for new music, though the specialist labels – including Another Timbre and NMC in Britain, Neos, Wergo and Col Legno in Germany, and Canteloupe in the US – continued to release a wide range of works by living composers. There were still some highlights, though – Clara Ianotta’s string quartets, Detlev Glanert’s latest opera, Oceane, Harrison Birtwistle’s recent piano music, and works by the founders of Bang on a Can. And among the flood of mainstream reissues, the set that I’ve most enjoyed returns to Beethoven – period-instrument performances of the piano trios, violin sonatas and cello sonatas by Isabelle Faust, Jean-Guihen Queyras and Alexander Melnikov.

Andrew Clements’ Top 10 classical releases of 2020

1. Les Siècles: Ravel & Mussorgsky
We said: “Lighter than some readings, wonderfully athletic and full of brilliantly lit detail, though still mustering a real punch in the cataclysm of the final pages.” Read full review.

2. Isabelle Faust/Swedish RSO/Harding: Schoenberg Violin Concerto
We said: “Faust brings a fabulous range of colour and expressive nuance to this music, and Daniel Harding matches her understanding in the way he teases out the wiry orchestral textures around her violin lines.” Read full review.

3. Deutsche Oper/Runnicles: Glanert’s Oceane
We said: “Dramatically and musically, it’s all wonderfully assured and convincing.” Read full review.

4. Skelton/Wall/Williams/Bergen Philharmonic/Gardner: Peter Grimes
We said: “Britten’s opera sounds huge and thrilling in a nuanced recording with sparkling interplay between singers and orchestra – it’s rarely sounded better.” Read full review

5 Clara Ianotta: Earthing
We said: “The effects never seem wilful or contrived. They become integral parts of a process that is natural and organic, in music that relies heavily on the commitment and flexibility of the performers, qualities the Jack Quartet have in abundance.” Read full review

Pavel Kolesnikov: his Goldbergs are softly spoken, but they are also extraordinarily eloquent.
Pavel Kolesnikov: his Goldbergs are softly spoken, but they are also extraordinarily eloquent.
Photograph: Eva Vermandel

6. Pavel Kolesnikov: Bach Goldberg Variations
We said: “Makes the music sound fresh off the page.” Read full review.

7. Bavarian Radio Orchestra/Mariss Jansons: Bruckner Symphonies
We said “These are glorious Bruckner performances, and a worthy tribute to a very fine conductor.” Read full review.

8. Los Angeles Philharmonic/Dudamel: Ives Symphonies
We said: “These performances demonstrate that Dudamel is a very fine Ives interpreter.” Read full review.

9. Eighth Blackbird: Singing in the Dead of Night
We said: “Played with fabulous precision and exuberance.” Read full review.

10. Véronique Gens: Nuits
We said: “It’s hard to think of another singer today who is more compelling in this repertory, with every word crystal clear and every nuance of the text perfectly inflected.” Read full review.


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