The Best Classical Albums of 2016

From a surprising new interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, to medieval and Renaissance music in a moving re-release, from CD to YouTube. 2016, a classical wrap-up.

Conductor Teodor Currentzis.
Robert Kittel, Sony music

A large number of classical CDs were released in 2016, of which I only heard a small fraction. Many people continue to prefer discs, but others, mainly young people, have switched to more contemporary media, notably streaming and YouTube. The immediate question is what a reviewer should focus on. As the streaming sites are basically organized in a format of albums, a CD review enables the reader to look for the content on Apple Music, Spotify or on the most interesting site for listening to classical music, Tidal, with its High Fidelity sound quality.

Accordingly, I continued to focus on the medium that I buy and listen to: CDs. My list of favorites doesn’t take into account whether the CD is imported to Israel. That approach would limit the discussion, and in any event ordering via the Internet has become the norm. I also considered a few segments on YouTube, which is now a major source of music consumption. There I found several exceptional recordings that can’t be found elsewhere and are available for free. In the end, my survey consists of four new albums that I listened to on CDs, one YouTube segment and one boxed set, a re-release of old recordings.

Teodor Currentzis, Patricia Kopatchinskaja & MusicAeterna : Tchaikovsky & Stravinsky YouTube

Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto, Stravinsky: Les Noces; Patricia Kopatchinskaja, violin; soloists: MusicAeterna (chorus and orchestra); conductor: Teodor Currentzis (Sony Music)

Probably the most original and surprising CD I listened to in 2016. For me, it resurrected Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto. In the performances I was familiar with – with the possible exception of the old Jascha Heifetz recording – it always sounded laden with raucous sentimentality. Kopatchinskaja and Currentzis offer a new interpretation. It’s still extroverted and dramatic, but also mysterious and riveting. The sound of the violin is clean and glowing. Also on the CD is Stravinsky’s “The Wedding,” a bold and sweeping work, in a magnificent performance. It’s an intriguing combination, adding up to a rare breed of an album.

Matthias Pintscher prsente le nouvel album Bartók/Ligeti YouTube

Bartok: Contrasts; Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion / Ligeti: Concerti for Piano, Cello, Violin; EnsembleInterContemporain; conductor: Matthias Pintscher (Alpha Records)

Matthias Pintscher, composer, conductor and the musical director of Ensemble InterContemporain, which does New Music, signals his intention to reach achievements with this ensemble that exceed those of its legendary founder, Pierre Boulez. Disc One of this double album contains unusual chamber works by Bartok; Disc Two offers Ligeti’s three challenging concerti. The connection between the two Hungarian composers is manifest. It underscores the continuity of the 20th century – in contrast to the conventional view, which maintains that the innovative works of the mid-20th century generated a substantial rift in the history of music. The album also offers abundant enjoyment. The playing of the ensemble and the soloists is brilliant, and the recording is superb.

Yevgeny Sudbin - Scarlatti Sonata in G minor YouTube

Domenico Scarlatti: 18 Sonatas; Yevgeny Sudbin, piano (BIS Records)

Domenico Scarlatti’s sonatas are unique and occupy a special place in music, and for me, too. These are amazingly constructed miniatures, each of which offers a deep, complex narrative in a brief moment. There are very fine harpsichord performances, but I tend to prefer piano executions that allow for rich color and dynamics. I was very enthused by Yevgeny Sudbin’s album – his second album of sonatas after more than a decade – because of its fusion of virtuosity, depth, sensitivity and fascinating piano hues.

Andris Nelsons & BSO - Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 - Under Stalin's Shadow (Trailer) YouTube

Shostakovich: Symphonies 5, 8, 9, Incidental Music to Hamlet; Boston Symphony Orchestra; conductor: Andris Nelsons (Deutsche Grammophon)

Despite the many excellent recordings of Shostakovich’s symphonies, I prefer the interpretation of Andris Nelsons, the musical director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The performances of the three symphonies was one of the exciting listening experiences of the year: intensive but also meticulously upholding the structure and the classical symmetry. The extraordinary recording quality heightens the experience.

Schoenberg: Pierrot Lunaire; Hila Baggio, soprano; Israeli Chamber Project (YouTube)

This famous work by Schoenberg is written for a female singer, in a spoken-singing style, and a small instrumental ensemble. It consists of 21 poems, which cast an atmosphere of strangeness. A stage production of the work with the soprano Hila Baggio and members of the Israeli Chamber Project was highly acclaimed. The concert was recorded, and today, on YouTube, ranks with the best performances of the work. The approach is theatrical, with the emphasis on the soloist. Baggio fills the role with an abundance of dramatic shades and impressive vocal quality. At the same time, she also relies on excellent accompaniment by members of the Israeli Chamber Project, whose playing adds an emotional dimension to the performance.

Abrahamsen: Let me tell you / Hannigan Nelsons Berliner Philharmoniker YouTube

Hans Abrahamsen, "Let me tell you," a song cycle for soprano and orchestra – Barbara Hannigan, soprano; Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra; conductor: Andris Nelsons (Winter & Winter).

When I first watched the Stanley Kubrik film "Barry Lyndon," long ago, I found it a little boring. And yet I was compelled to watch it a second time, and a third, and gradually, I fell in love with it. Similarly, I wasn't particularly excited when I first listened to this album, but I was compelled to listen to it again and again. Gradually, I was enchanted by Barbara Hannigan's singing, the work's hazy melody and most importantly, its mysterious and captivating vibe. The work is a song cycle for soprano and orchestra, with texts written by British critic and author Paul Griffiths, based on the character of Ophelia from "Hamlet." The work was commissioned by the Berlin Philharmonic and was dedicated to Hannigan. It combines elements of contemporary music with elements from the past. It's communicative, emotional and well preformed.    

Music from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance by diverse composers, performed by various artists (L’Oiseau-Lyre, Florilegium Series)

A boxed set of treasures that delighted me on its release last year, and which will continue to give me pleasure for a long time to come. First, a nostalgic thrill: Recordings by the Consort of Musicke under the baton of Anthony Rooley; the New London Consort, with Philip Pickett; the Medieval Ensemble of London, conducted by the Davies brothers – these were all new and exciting musical adventures of my youth. The more one listens, the more it becomes evident that most of the performances remain fresh, enjoyable and relevant. If this were the only album to join my collection in 2016, it would be enough to term it a successful musical year.