Europadisc Top 10 of 2020Europadisc Top 10 of 2020 (available until 2nd Jan 1970) 1 to 2 of 2 results

Our annual review of the year, including our Top 10 Recordings for 2020! All are available at reduced prices, detailed at the bottom of the review. Prices available until 23 February 2021.

At the end of a particularly difficult year for all involved in the performing arts, it has been some comfort to look back on a bumper crop of quality recordings which have offered those who have been isolated, in lockdown, or simply unable to attend live performances, both sustenance and distraction. In fact, such is the level of excellence among the many recordings we’ve heard this year that it has been uncommonly difficult to whittle them down to our end-of-year Top 10. In recent years, there have been strengths in particular genres: sometimes vocal and opera, in others concerto or orchestral; 2020, by contrast, has been remarkable for the breadth as well as depth of quality on offer.

SibeliusOrchestral music is always popular with our customers, and there have been splendid recordings of Mussorgsky, Ravel, Debussy and Schumann from François-Xavier Roth (with both his own Les Siècles and the LSO), as well as Roussel and Dukas, Bizet and Gounod, Rimsky-Korsakov, Novák, and the continuation of Giovanni Antonini’s widely-acclaimed Haydn2032 project. However, the orchestral disc that really stood out for us was a magnificent performance of Sibelius’s Second Symphony from the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra under Santtu-Matias Rouvali. A reading of ‘enormous integrity and structural coherence’ that combined ‘sheer mastery with a dazzling textural clarity’, it’s coupled with an equally impressive but pleasantly contrastive account of the King Christian II Suite. Rouvali’s Sibelius cycle is steadily shaping up to be something really special.

ChopinThere have been some outstanding concerto discs, too, including a hugely popular cycle from Stephen Hough of the Piano Concertos of Beethoven (of whom, more anon), and a lovely performance of the Dvořák Violin Concerto from Augustin Hadelich, as well as Vivaldi and Piazzolla from Arabella Steinbacher. Pick of the bunch, though, was undoubtedly a sparkling new account of Chopin’s Piano Concertos from Benjamin Grosvenor, marvellously supported by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Elim Chan. We found the performance of the First Concerto ‘as engrossing as any on disc’, with a central Romance that ‘flows with such natural grace and deftly graded dynamics as to silence all criticism’. Similarly, in the Larghetto of the Second Concerto, ‘the listener’s breath is taken away by the sheer translucency of Grosvenor’s playing’.

JanacekHandelWith many opera houses now shut or having to operate within social distancing guidelines, an impressive array of operatic discs has been especially welcome. Our reviews ranged from Charpentier to Puccini via Rossini (a fizzing disc of duets from tenors Lawrence Brownlee and Michael Spyres), a classy Bru Zane presentation of Offenbach’s rarely-performed comedy Maître Péronilla in a dazzling performance headed by Véronique Gens and Éric Huchet, and a collection of Donizetti’s ‘Tudor Queens’ from Diana Damrau. Even against such strong competition, however, two releases were conspicuous for their quality and sense of dramatic involvement: Handel’s Agrippina, with a top-drawer cast including mezzo Joyce DiDonato and countertenors Franco Fagioli and Jakub Józef Orliński, and the musicians of Il Pomo d’Oro under the dynamic baton of Maxim Emelyanychev; and a tremendously uplifting live performance of Janáček’s uniquely touching Cunning Little Vixen from a cast headed by Lucy Crowe and Gerald Finley, with the London Symphony Orchestra and Simon Rattle highlighting the sheer beauty and transparency of the composer’s magical orchestration.

FinnissyThere have also been some enormously involving vocal and choral discs in the last twelve months: Louise Alder’s ‘Russian Connection’, Véronique Gens’s ‘Nuits’, Beethoven Lieder from Ian Bostridge, and James Gilchrist’s ‘Solitude’ all offered rich food for thought, with the last being particularly apt for this of all years. Soloists Sarah Connolly and Robert Dean Smith excelled in an impressive new account of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde under Vladimir Jurowski. Among choral releases, Francesc Valls’s Missa Regalis from the Choir of Keble College, Oxford, offered a rarity from the Spanish Baroque, while the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, wove their customary magic on two of the late Stephen Cleobury’s final recordings: Bach’s St Matthew Passion with a team including James Gilchrist, Matthew Rose and Sophie Bevan, and a disc of Bruckner Motets and the Mass no.2, with the King’s trebles soaring up to the fan vaulting. Pipping all these to the post, though, was a disc of choral-instrumental music by Michael Finnissy, for many years now a mainstay of the new music scene. His Pious Anthems & Voluntaries, written for the Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge, was a bold piece of commissioning on the part of director of music Andrew Nethsingha, and it pays off handsomely. In this ambitiously conceived work, Finnissy takes works from the past (Tallis, J.S. Bach and Tippett) and uses them to weave his own increasingly complex lines in music that simultaneously respects and challenges tradition – much as the St John’s Choir has done in recent years under Nethsingha’s direction.

BeethovenThe Covid pandemic meant that most of the live events marking the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s death were cancelled or severely curtailed. Recordings, however, have been more than plentiful, including huge boxes of the complete works from DG, Warner and Naxos, ensuring that 2020 was still very much Beethoven’s year. But completeness isn’t everything, and, just as with the 2018 Debussy anniversary, it was Harmonia Mundi that came up with one of the most compelling cycles of discs, featuring many of their top artists. Their ongoing Beethoven 20/27 series has seen releases ranging from a splendid Leonore under René Jacobs to solo piano music from the likes Staier, Lewis and Lugansky, with piano concertos from Bezuidenhout and a symphony cycle shared between the Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin, Les Siècles and the Freiburger Barockorchester. Of the discs released thus far, perhaps the most compelling has been the Ninth Symphony from the Freiburg orchestra under Pablo Heras-Casado, urgently paced and astonishing in its expressive immediacy. With vocal soloists including Christiane Karg, Werner Güra and Florian Boesch, and a performance of the Choral Fantasy serving as a ‘taster’ for Krystian Bezuidenhout’s concerto cycle, this is one of the most persuasive Ninths in years, proof that even such an ‘iconic’ work can be renewed and refreshed by new perspectives from sensitive, stylish artists.

ThalbergAt the other end of the scale, there have been some particularly captivating instrumental recitals this year from pianists including Thomas Adès, Igor Levit and Nicolas Hodges. Even in such august company, a rare complete recording of Sigismond Thalberg’s L’Art du Chant appliqué au Piano stood out for not merely its novelty value but also the commitment and refinement of Paul Wee’s playing (all the more remarkable for an essentially ‘part-time’ pianist: in his ‘day job’ he’s a successful lawyer!). At a time when actual singing, certainly in public and even in private company, is so rare and fraught with risk, Thalberg’s deceptively virtuosic series of transcriptions which illustrate all the cantabile possibilities of the piano seem once more to have found their moment. An absolute must for pianophiles!

Elgar/Vaughan WilliamsThe Mad LoverChamber music, too, seems to have captured the intimacy of the past twelve months with particular intensity. String quartets from Haydn and Schumann (played, respectively, by Chiaroscuro and the revered Emerson Quartet) both proved especially resonant this year. We were most taken, however, by a pair of discs containing works a good two centuries apart, each of which features a solo violin in expressive partnership with another instrument. Jennifer Pike’s album of Violin Sonatas by Elgar and Vaughan Williams, accompanied by the hugely experienced Martin Roscoe, is remarkable as much for its expressive potency and involvement as for its lightly-worn technical polish, the rarely-encountered Vaughan Williams Sonata ideally complementing the better-known but often underestimated Elgar work. The violin-and-piano version of RVW’s perennially popular The Lark Ascending makes a winning bonus. Just as affecting in its very different way is a recent release from violinist Théotime Langlois de Swart and lutenist Thomas Dunford, in a beguiling programme entitled The Mad Lover, which includes music by pairs of composers from three musical families: Eccles (John and Henry), Matteis (Nicola the Elder and the Younger) and Purcell (Henry and Daniel). Tapping into a peculiarly English strand of reflective melancholy, ‘this is an album that, for all its deep (and unexpectedly topical) introspection, still manages to wear a smile’.

BachAnd so, to our Disc of the Year and a release which, perhaps more than any other, has managed to capture so much of the mood of 2020 while at the same time offering the resilience and optimism to overcome its many tribulations, and a level of musical excellence to stand out in any year. Guitarist Sean Shibe demonstrates a disarming maturity on a disc of lute works which we found to be ‘one of the finest Bach discs to come our way in a long time’. Bach’s ‘lute’ music is famously problematic: only playable on an actual lute with much alteration, and perhaps better suited to a keyboard instrument such as the lute-harpsichord, it has proved itself particularly amenable to performance on the classical guitar, as championed so memorably by the late Julian Bream. On this most recent of his albums for the Delphian label, Shibe presents himself as a musician more than worthy to walk in Bream’s footsteps, his performances by turns heart-stoppingly introspective and exuberantly uplifting. We found ourselves constantly returning to it throughout these helter-skelter months: for solace, to be sure, but also for sheer depth of enjoyment. In a reassuringly strong year for recorded music, it consistently lifted the spirits and delighted the ears. For what more could one ask?

Format
SACD

Pricing
Over £15.00

Thalberg - L’Art du chant

BIS BIS2515
SACD (2 discs)

Thalberg - L’Art du chant

£26.55

In stock - available for despatch within 1 working day

Artist: Paul Wee (piano)

Europadisc Top 10 of 2020
Janacek - The Cunning Little Vixen, Sinfonietta

LSO Live LSO0850
SACD (2 discs)

Janacek - The Cunning Little Vixen, Sinfonietta

£16.10

Usually available for despatch within 5-8 working days

Artists: Lucy Crowe, Gerald Finley, Sophia Burgos, Peter Hoare, Jan Martinik, Hanno Muller-Brachmann, Paulina Malefane, Anna Lapkovskaja, Jonah Halton, Irene Hoogveld, London Symphony Chorus, LSO Discovery Voices, London Symphony Orchestra

Conductor: Simon Rattle

Gramophone Editor's Choice Europadisc Top 10 of 2020