It’s now February, so obviously this post comes a bit later than I had originally anticipated. I will not bore you with the usual excuses, but I did discover something interesting after I posted my yearly summary of the best non-classical music : over the holidays, I happened upon a seemingly endless number of other 2012 releases that were equally strong (or even stronger) than the original selection. Apart from illustrating that no matter how much time one invests in this hobby, there are always more great things to discover, this also seems to substantiate my point that there really never has been a time when more great music was being released, often by small, independent labels away from any sort of public awareness. The decreased cost of production seems to be returning us to a time not unlike the 1960s where regional releases on vinyl were nothing unusual, and where it was possible for musicians to build a following using hard work, courage and dedication.
The same principles do seem to apply to the world of classical music, too. Lamenting the demise of classical music retail has become somewhat of a pundit sport, as has sneering at the increasingly poor release choices of the so-called major labels. But I think that the ‘serious’ world of recorded classical music has simply moved on, from big to small, from major label to independent, from bricks-and-mortar to the Internet. We’re currently in a time of transition, so this may not be entirely obvious yet, but it is definitely happening. There are side effects to this, undoubtedly: paying large orchestras and choirs continues to be an expensive undertaking, so some specific categories of classical music (those requiring larger forces) have not necessarily joined the march to independent labels at the same pace. But chamber music and early music have been particularly well-served by the tectonic re-arrangement of the world of recorded classical music. Orchestral music will surely follow, and—once again—the Internet might suggest a way forward: one of my favourite violinists, Rachel Barton Pine, has just raised $10,000 to finance a new concerto recording  (I ‘invested’).
Alexander Melnikov, Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Teodor Currentzis – Shostakovich Piano Concertos, Violin Sonata : Shostakovich remains one of the few composers of musical modernity I am consistently interested in. Here, I enjoy the mysterious power of art music of the early 20th century coupled with refractions of popular music of the day (he cleverly weaves in cabaret, jazz, etc.). Melnikov is turning out to be one of the “Swiss army knife” pianists of the present day—he seems to have an unfailing ability to play anything from the early Romantic era onwards, and play it very well. If you’re feeling a little adventurous, I’d recommend this amazing record.
Alina Ibragimova, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Vladimir Jurowski – Mendelssohn Violin Concertos : Among the cornucopia of young, technically impeccable violinists today, Ibragimova stands out as someone whose artist choices and insights are sure-footed and varied. I have liked her chamber music, loved her Bach and am thrilled with this period-instrument Mendelssohn, which—surprisingly, perhaps—loses none of the work’s smoldering intensity and architectural perfection but gains a certain ‘grain’ that only gut strings can deliver. If you don’t own a credible recent performance of this ‘war horse,’ I would recommend this. If you do, buy this anyway.
The Avison Ensemble, Pavlo Besnoziuk – Corelli Concerti Grossi Op. 6 : This is beautifully recorded, incredibly well-played and strikes a perfect balance between the concertino and ripieno sections of the emsemble. Besnoziuk manages to keep the entire run of this (sometimes mannered) music interesting and engaging while Linn’s recorded sonics are, as always, spectacular.
Benoît Laurent, Lingua Franca – German Baroque Oboe Sonatas : In this list, this is perhaps the best example of my earlier theory that independent labels are recording some of the best performances right now. Laurent is a period oboe specialist from Belgium who recorded these works with his own chamber group, Ligua Franca. Containing pieces by Telemann, Heinichen, Matthes, Kirnberger and CPE Bach, this album features a wealth of wonderful Baroque chamber music played insightfully and at a consistently high level. I have found myself returning to this time and again this year.
Daniel Barenboim, Staatskapelle Berlin – Beethoven Piano Concertos : This is finally the ‘official’ release on CD of a live set of Beethoven’s five concertos recorded in 2007 at the Klavier-Festival Ruhr. It was previously available as a concert DVD which I enjoyed very much (but which had some mixing/mastering problems). Barenboim has, from a musical perspective at least, made an immense ‘comeback’ in the last 5 years or so: where prior to the 2000s he seemed to be phoning in both his pianistic and conducting work for the most part, his pairing with the Berliner Staatskapelle—and, presumably, his activities with the East-Western Divan Orchestra—seem to have revitalized his artistry and challenged him in string of wonderful releases of core repertoire, including these concertos (which sound excellent on these CDs).
Dorothee Mields, Concerto Melante – Sacred Arias : This release literally only seems to be available in Germany, one of at least three CDs with Mields’ name on the cover in 2012. I first encountered Mields as part of Philipppe Herreweghe’s touring ensemble, and I enjoy her soprano tremendously. Hers is a voice that’s ideal for German Baroque music: controlled, fast and un-assuming in its way. Of course, her native German diction helps elucidate the lyrics of German arias (something I often struggle with when listening to non-native singers). This collection of religious arias from the German Baroque is a special pleasure because of its focus and fine musicianship.
Dorothee Mields, Lautten Compagney Berlin, Wolfgang Katschner – Purcell: Love’s Madness : Staying with Mields for a minute, if you haven’t come across her Purcell recordings with the Lautten Compagney Berlin, give this second installment a try (also get the first one  while you’re at it). The music is arranged so as to keep the listener’s interest from beginning to end (Purcell’s early Baroque can become a little ‘heavy’ unless orchestrated carefully and, as here, imaginatively). Mields’ English diction is near-perfect. A smattering of songs here are traditional catches which inches this program ever-so-much into that zone where art and folk music overlap.
Dorothee Oberlinger, Sonatori de la Gioiosa Marca – Flauto Veneziano : There’s an increasing number of outstanding period-performance focused recorder virtuosos in Europe whose ornamentation and Baroque soloist mettle seem comparable only to that of violinists. Dorothee Oberlinger is one of the best. Deutsche Harmonia Mundi (sadly, under-represented and under-distributed as a label in North America) has put out a relatively steady stream of excellent work of hers in the past few years. This disc contains a number of concertos by Vivaldi and Marcello and an interesting smattering of shorter pieces, often works that encourage improvisation over a ground. Beautiful ensemble work.
Isabelle Faust, Orchestra Mozart, Claudio Abbado – Berg/Beethoven Violin Concertos : Isabelle Faust is the violinist to watch, even among all the other violinists to watch. This CD is an unusual combination—it harkens back to typical programming choices from the 60s and 70s when ‘difficult’ works were coupled with ‘crowd-pleasers’ (and most people, presumably, just dropped the needle on the crowd-pleasers). The playing here is impeccable, Abbado again proving that his hand-picked Orchestra Mozart is the perfect vehicle for his astounding ability to shape musical phrases. And: the contrast between Berg’s tragic 1935 work and Beethoven’s only concerto for violin is musically and intellectually rewarding.
Johannes Pramsohler, International Baroque Players – Pisendel : This is a collection of Italianate violin concertos written for the Dresden court played by an English group made up of the ‘next generation’ of period performance players, led by a young Austrian (a student of Rachel Podger’s who remains perhaps my favourite period performance violinist). I would encourage you to discover these performances because of their coherence, excellent period-grain and suspense. There are, of course, quite a lot of these kinds of performances out there today, but I think this group is one to watch. It’s never not excellent.
Monteverdi Choir, John Eliot Gardiner – Bach Motets : Finally, I think this is perhaps the classical recording of the year for me (its position in this list is because that’s where iTunes listed it, using its incomparable alphabetization). Gardiner’s second go at the Motets is special in every way: one sense that his decades of experience in Bach performance are brought to bear on this one moment, recognizing these works as important and pivotal in Bach’s output. Unlike almost everything else in Bach’s oeuvre, there are only six (and a half) of these motets, not hundreds, and the compositional detail here perhaps outstrips anything else he wrote in starkness and immediacy (instrumental accompaniment is kept to an absolute minimum). This is music to showcase every last bit of choral capability and training, and the Monteverdi Choir delivers in every way: phrasing, diction, speed, separation of part-writing, textual grasp and emotional impact are all perfect. The recording quality of Gardiner’s independent label, Soli deo gloria, is also impeccable. It feels somewhat impossible to do this recording justice in a single paragraph; if you buy only one classical CD from 2012, this should probably be the one.