The Critics' Choice 2018: our favourite recordings of the year

Gramophone Tue 18th December 2018

Our critics each choose a favourite recording from the past 12 months. If you’re after the perfect gift guide for Christmas, look no further!

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Vaughan Williams A Sea Symphony

Soloists; BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins

(Hyperion)

Martyn Brabbins presides over a glorious account of A Sea Symphony, consistently nourishing in its strength of purpose and selfless musicality. Magnificent work from the BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, fresh-sounding vocal soloists and superlative production-values boost the strong claims of a release that is sure to give lasting pleasure. Andrew Achenbach

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‘Destination Rachmaninov – Departure’ 

Daniil Trifonov pf The Philadelphia Orchestra / Yannick Nézet-Séguin

(DG)

Rachmaninov in Philadelphia. It could have been Pristine’s ideal remastering of the ‘originals’ of the composer playing his Second Piano Concerto there but Daniil Trifonov and Yannick Nézet-Séguin in the Second and Fourth Concertos newly evoke memories of those iconic recordings under Stokowski. Mike Ashman

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‘Siface’ ‘L’amor castrato’

Filippo Mineccia counterten Nereydas / Javier Ulises Illán

(Glossa)

No disc has given me more pleasure this year than Filippo Mineccia’s exceptional recital of music associated with the 17th-century castrato Siface, a carefully crafted programme that embraces both the sacred and the profane, sung with often breathtaking poise and sensuality. It’s an astonishingly beautiful recording and quite wonderfully done. Tim Ashley

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‘Norma Fisher at the BBC, Vol 1’

Norma Fisher pf 

(Sonetto Classics)

Easily the highlight of my first year as a Gramophone reviewer was Norma Fisher’s BBC recordings of Brahms and Scriabin, not only for their historic performance but also for their dignity, integrity and clarity which shine through the transfers (some from private reel-to-reel recordings), auguring very well for promised future instalments. Michelle Assay

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Heuberger Der Opernball

Soloists; Chorus of Opera Graz; Graz Philharmonic Orchestra / Marius Burkert

(CPO)

I had to double-check, but yes, this really is the first complete modern recording of Richard Heuberger’s delicious (and influential) 1898 operetta: the ‘missing link’ between Johann Strauss and Lehár. With an engaging ensemble cast and lightly-worn Viennese style from Marius Burkert, it’s three acts of quite irresistible charm. Richard Bratby

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George Szell – The Complete Columbia Album Collection

(Sony Classical)

Beyond question, George Szell was the greatest 20th-century conductor, and nearly all of his Cleveland recordings are reference versions that represent a masterclass in orchestral transparency, utter clarity, stylish intelligence, chamber-like interaction between sections, unerring taste, and, yes, heart. Sony’s long-awaited complete Szell edition belongs in every serious collection. Jed Distler

 

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‘Venezia Millenaria’

Hespèrion XXI; Le Concert des Nations / Jordi Savall

(Alia Vox)

For sheer opulence, generosity and breadth of repertoire, Jordi Savall’s ‘Venezia Millenaria’ blows the competition away this year. This journey through 1000 years of Venetian history takes in everything from popular songs and ancient chants to dances and sacred polyphony – a world in magnificent musical microcosm. Alexandra Coghlan

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Josquin Missa Gaudeamus. Missa L’ami Baudichon 

The Tallis Scholars / Peter Phillips

(Gimell)

I am a long-time admirer of The Tallis Scholars, and their clean, purposeful sound is often my touchstone for Renaissance polyphony. With this latest release in their grand survey of Josquin’s masses they sing with elegant poise while responding to the extraordinary intricacy and expressivity of Josquin’s textures. Edward Breen

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H Goodall Invictus: A Passion

Kirsty Hopkins sop Mark Dobell ten Christ Church Cathedral Choir; Lanyer Ensemble / Stephen Darlington

(Coro)

Howard Goodall brings an interesting contemporary slant in his choice of texts, old and new, to illuminate the familiar story of Christ’s Passion. Kirsty Hopkins and Mark Dobell are his star soloists. Adrian Edwards

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Rachmaninov Symphonic Dances

Sergey Rachmaninov pf

(Marston mono)

Old recordings rarely make the headlines but, by allowing us to eavesdrop on Rachmaninov demonstrating his Symphonic Dances to Eugene Ormandy, Ward Marston has done just that. This three-CD Rachmaninov set also includes magnificent first-release orchestral performances under Mitropoulos and Ormandy. No historical release in the last 20 years can compare with it. Rob Cowan

 

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Brahms Four Symphonies

Scottish Chamber Orchestra / Robin Ticciati 

(Linn)

Some recordings intoxicate the senses, simply because they have so much to offer. The way in which every detail of this music has been honed and perfected by Ticciati’s trusted players in the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and then absorbed into a lyrical, affectionate whole, is endlessly fascinating. This has to be, as far as I’m concerned, the most beguiling small-orchestra Brahms yet. Richard Fairman

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Dufay ‘The Dufay Spectacle’ 

Gothic Voices 

(Linn)

My treat of the year was definitely the return of Gothic Voices with a new recording of songs and motets by Dufay. Not just beautifully presented and assembled with originality and intelligence, this recording features performances that throw new light on this music. David Fallows

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Bach Cantatas 

Sols; Ricercar Consort / Philippe Pierlot

(Mirare)

The Ricercars deliver a special trio of cantatas of remarkable thematic beauty and cohesion, each offering a rich autobiographical strain – known and unknown. These irresistible performances remind us how a top-drawer and intensely communicative ensemble can delve as deeply as ever into Bach’s most exquisite conceits of death and consolation. Jonathan Freeman-Attwood

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Prokofiev Violin Sonatas Nos 1 and 2

Alexandra Conunova vn Michail Lifits pf

(Aparté)

It’s an especial pleasure when a superb recording seems to come out of nowhere. I’d never heard of Alexandra Conunova, but her and pianist Michail Lifits’s boldly evocative and intensely felt interpretations of the Prokofiev violin sonatas made me fall in love with this marvellous music all over again. Andrew Farach-Colton

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Debussy Préludes, Book 2. La mer

Alexander Melnikov pf

(Harmonia Mundi)

The revelation of my year has been Debussy from Alexander Melnikov: Préludes, Book 2, and La mer with Olga Pashchenko – on an 1855 Érard. I’m not a fully paid-up early-instrument fan, but I found the range of attacks and colours conjured here idiomatic and breathtaking. David Fanning

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Debussy ‘Les trois sonates – The Late Works’

Various soloists

(Harmonia Mundi)

Of all the new treasures Debussy Year brought to the recordings world, this programme from an international complement of some of HM’s most thoughtful stars was, to my ears, ‘the one’. Each of the three late sonatas feels like a benchmark reading, and the piano solos between pull it all seamlessly together. Profound, intelligent, moving – I wouldn’t be without it. Charlotte Gardner

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Dufay ‘The Dufay Spectacle’ 

Gothic Voices 

(Linn)

Dufay and the Gothic Voices? Thirty years ago this would have been a dream ticket, so it’s a pleasure to hear them roll back the years with this – particularly since new opportunities to hear 15th-century songs are so thin on the ground these days. A welcome renaissance indeed. Fabrice Fitch

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Myaskovsky. Nechaev. Shebalin Violin Sonatas 

Sasha Rozhdestvensky vn Viktoria Postnikova pf

(First Hand)

The death of Rozhdestvensky last June turned this sympathetic collection of Soviet violin sonatas into an unintended memorial to the great conductor and the era of cultural contradiction he negotiated with such skill and insight. The protagonists are his wife and son and the music quietly eloquent, without magniloquence. David Gutman

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‘Copland Conducts Copland’

Benny Goodman cl Los Angeles Master Chorale; Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra / Aaron Copland

Video director Kirk Browning

(Naxos)

Watching the 75-year-old Copland conducting his own music with such obvious enjoyment is a pleasure in itself, but what makes this video special is the performance of the unjustly neglected Suite from The Tender Land, music of entrancing radiance, warmth and humanity. Christian Hoskins

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Buxtehude ‘Abendmusiken’

Vox Luminis / Lionel Meunier

(Alpha)

This year I was once again beguiled by Vox Luminis, now bringing their deep and focused expressiveness to motets by Buxtehude, an apogee of all the beauty, dignity and ingenuity of German 17th-century church music. With eloquent string sonatas added by Ensemble Masques, it does Bach’s great predecessor proud. Lindsay Kemp

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‘Romantic Organ Music’

Simon Preston org

(Decca Eloquence)

At last! CD reissues of these classic LP recordings have finally appeared. Former Gramophone reviewer Stanley Webb described Simon Preston as a ‘fastidious perfectionist’, and it was this approach that resulted in such virtuoso performances. A personal highlight is his account of Reubke’s Sonata on the 94th Psalm; released in 1964, it still sounds magnificent! Christopher Nickol

 

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Alfred Janson The Wind Blows – Choral Works

Norwegian Soloist’s Choir / Grete Pedersen

(BIS)

I was taken aback by the skill, imagination and power of this music by an elder Norwegian composer who has never really had his due. Alfred Janson has worked closely with Grete Pedersen’s Norwegian Soloist’s Choir, the superlative quality of whose singing here is a fitting redress to his music’s neglect. Andrew Mellor

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Halévy La reine de Chypre

Sols; Flemish Radio Choir; Paris Chamber Orchestra / Hervé Niquet

(Ediciones Singulares)

It’s been a good year for unfamiliar French opera: terrific recordings of Godard’s Dante (1/18), Lully’s Alceste (2/18), Rameau’s Naïs (8/18). But I’m plumping for this grand opéra from 1841, superbly performed by Niquet and his forces, with magnificent singing from Véronique Gens and Cyrille Dubois. Richard Lawrence

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Beethoven Piano Sonatas – No 14, ‘Moonlight’, Op 27 No 2 and No 29, ‘Hammerklavier’, Op 106

Murray Perahia pf

(DG)

It is rare nowadays to find a record of Beethoven piano sonatas to set alongside classic recordings by pianists such as Solomon, Serkin, Kempff, and Arrau, but Murray Perahia’s spiritually luminous and technically superb accounts of the Moonlight and Hammerklavier sonatas could be judged exceptional in any era. Richard Osborne

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Górecki String Quartet No 3

Dafô Quartet

(Dux)

In a year full of outstanding releases, the Dafô Quartet’s reading of Górecki’s Third String Quartet shines brightly. They understand the way this challenging work relates not only to the composer’s famous ‘simplified’ style, but also to his much earlier music. Their performance is both vibrant and subtle, and beautifully recorded. Ivan Moody

 

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Rachmaninov Symphonic Dances

Sergey Rachmaninov pf

(Marston mono)

In any other year, ‘The Complete Studio Recordings of Eileen Joyce’ (Decca) would have been my first choice, but the discovery of previously unknown recordings of Rachmaninov demonstrating on the piano how he wished his newly composed Symphonic Dances to be played was, in the end, by far the most exciting and intriguing release of 2018. Jeremy Nicholas

 

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Watkins Symphony

Hallé / R Wigglesworth

(NMC)

Here is that rare creature – a new symphony that’s worthy of the name. Quickly establishing the ‘large-scale integration of contrasts’ demanded of the genre’s examples by Hans Keller, and by means of an orchestra that Nielsen would recognise, Huw Watkins fills a two-movement structure with urgent channels of argument and even more necessary pools of reflection. The first movement reaches a crisis as seemingly inevitable as its climactic recapitulation, promising resolution, but that would spoil the surprise. Piece, performance, recording: all equally satisfying. Peter Quantrill

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Ruehr String Quartets Nos 1-6

Stephen Salters bar Borromeo Quartet; Cypress Quartet

(Avie)

Rarely nowadays does one encounter a new, living master of the quartet medium, but Elena Ruehr is just that. Her six, fluently written quartets are exquisitely performed on this, Avie’s third release of Ruehr’s music, by the Cypress and (in No 2) Borromeo Quartets, and the sound is beautifully clear. The recording just edges ahead of Kenneth Hesketh’s marvellous orchestral disc, ‘In ictu oculi’ (12/18). Guy Rickards

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Rachmaninov Complete Études-tableaux 

Steven Osborne pf 

(Hyperion)

Some of the most beautiful piano-playing I’ve heard this year, live or recorded, has been Steven Osborne’s stunning traversal of Rachmaninov’s Études-tableaux. Osborne’s refreshingly original take on the music, emotional breadth and sheer pianistic finesse keep me coming back for more. Surely Rachmaninov would have been proud. Patrick Rucker

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Tchaikovsky Symphony No 6

MusicAeterna / Teodor Currentzis

(Sony)

Two controversial Tchaikovsky recordings compete for my vote. Stefan Herheim’s enthralling Pique Dame (3/18) comes to London soon, the composer central to the action. But Teodor Currentzis’s devastating Pathétique with MusicAeterna wins – as bleak, as nihilistic and as embittered as I’ve ever heard. And I adore it. Mark Pullinger

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R Williams ‘Sacred Choral Works’

Old Royal Naval College Trinity Laban Chapel Choir / Ralph Allwood with Jonathan Eyre pf/cond

(Signum)

As a ‘singer who also composes’, Roderick Williams has always been well placed to bring those special, extra dimensions to his own music, ie what works best from both a technical as well as an interpretative standpoint. This vivid choral anthology has given continued pleasure throughout the year, filled as it is with an astonishing versatility of moods and styles. Malcolm Riley

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Bernstein Symphonies Nos 1-3; Prelude, Fugue and Riffs

Sols; Orchestra & Chorus of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia / Sir Antonio Pappano

(Warner Classics)

It had to be Bernstein in his centenary year and it had to be Pappano’s rendition of the three symphonies with the orchestra which once boasted Lenny as President. Casting young Italian pianist Beatrice Rana as the protagonist of the masterful Second, The Age of Anxiety, was a deft touch, but the really inspired piece of casting was that of Josephine Barstow as Speaker in the Kaddish. For once, the spoken text really ignites. Edward Seckerson

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Messiaen La Nativité du Seigneur

Richard Gowers org

(King’s College, Cambridge)

By a most fortuitous happenchance, my recording of the year is Christmas music from King’s College Chapel, Cambridge. But there’s not a carol in sight. No feel-good Rutter. No spine-tingling Willcocks descant. Instead the muscular, perceptive, authoritative playing of Richard Gowers, who has devoted his debut solo disc on the College’s own label to Messiaen’s visionary La Nativité du SeigneurMarc Rochester

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Mahler Kindertotenlieder R Strauss Tod und Verklärung

Brigitte Fassbaender mez Munich Philharmonic / Sergiu Celibidache

(Münchner Philharmoniker)

No Christmas cheer here, I’m afraid, rather a magnificent live recording from 1983, released in a new remastering, which captures the remarkable Brigitte Fassbaender at her most intensely moving in some of the most powerful songs in the repertoire. Sergiu Celibidache and the Munich Philharmonic accompany her in the Mahler superbly, and offer a fascinating Strauss coupling too. Hugo Shirley

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'Standard Time'

Trio HLK

(Ubuntu Music)

There’s nothing standard about the shaping of musical time on Trio HLK’s excellent debut release. Also featuring Evelyn Glennie on several tracks, Nancarrow-style polymetres collide and fuse with complex harmonies in radical reinterpretations of jazz standards. Their live performances are also scintillating, as witnessed at this year’s Machynlleth Festival. Pwyll ap Siôn

 

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Tchaikovsky Symphony No 6

MusicAeterna / Teodor Currentzis

(Sony)

A good year for Haydn, whether solo (Paul Lewis), chamber (Trio Wanderer, Doric Quartet) or symphonic (many). But Teodor Currentzis’s Tchaikovsky became the true ear-opener of the year – not merely a recording of a symphony but a recording event in itself, mining this miraculous work’s details as rarely before. David Threasher

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Handel ‘Finest Arias for Base Voice, Vol 2’

Christopher Purves bar Arcangelo / Jonathan Cohen

(Hyperion)

Another winner of a programme showcasing the dramatic variety of Handel’s music for bass, from the swaggering Saracen King Argante in Rinaldo to the grieving father Gobrias in Belshazzar. Ranging from baleful basso profundo to mellifluous high baritone, Christopher Purves – two voices for the price of one – brings each of these disparate characters thrillingly alive. Arcangelo match him all the way in drama and colour. Richard Wigmore

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Chopin Cello Sonata Franchomme Nocturne Schubert Arpeggione Sonata

Steven Isserlis vc Dénes Várjon pf

(Hyperion)

The perfect partnership, in which the 1851 Érard deserves equal billing with the players. Isserlis and Várjon illuminate Chopin’s Introduction and Polonaise brillante and Franchomme’s C minor Nocturne with as much care as the musical jewels on the disc: the sonatas by Schubert and Chopin. The result is pure gold. Harriet Smith

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Buxtehude ‘Abendmusiken’

Vox Luminis / Lionel Meunier

(Alpha)

Little is known about what Buxtehude presented in his annual series of Sunday concerts during Advent. Vox Luminis and Ensemble Masques collaborate intelligently on this free-flowing mixture of chamber sonatas and sacred pieces in performances of sensitivity and harmonic finesse. David Vickers

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Nocturnal Lute music from Dowland to Britten

Jakob Lindberg lute

(BIS)

Let’s call it the lutenist’s revenge, this remarkable recording of Britten’s classical guitar masterpiece, Nocturnal, after John Dowland, performed on the lute. After all, how often do we hear lute music on guitar? That pieces by Dowland, Holborne, Bacheler et al swarm about the Britten like astonished ghosts is a bonus. William Yeoman

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Wagner Tristan und Isolde

Sols; Bavarian Radio Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / Leonard Bernstein

Video director Karlheinz Hundorf

(C Major Entertainment)

Bernstein liked to stop time. Whether he succeeded in key moments of his 1981 Tristan is debated anew in this first US release of the video made during the live Philips recording. Staging elements are minimal, but Peter Hofmann and Hildegard Behrens are more entrancing when seen as well as heard. David Patrick Stearns

 

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Ferneyhough La terre est un homme 

BBC Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins

(NMC)

Brian Ferneyhough’s 75th birthday couldn’t have been more impressively marked than with NMC’s release featuring two major orchestral works, the intricate Plötzlichkeit and intense La terre est un homme, both being accorded virtuoso renderings by the BBC Symphony with Martyn Brabbins. A standout release in any year. Richard Whitehouse

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