Our Top 10 of 2023Our Top 10 of 2023 (available until 2nd Jan 1970) 1 to 10 of 10 results

Every year we receive hundreds of review discs from our suppliers, from which we select titles for our weekly Friday reviews. Towards the end of the year – and notwithstanding our Spin Doctor's provocative warning about the dangers of such lists! – we whittle them down to our Top Ten essential discs of the year. It’s always a daunting task, and we’ll never please everybody, with even some personal favourites not making the final cut. Several high-profile 2023 releases haven’t featured at all (no Goldbergs or Nielsen symphonies), and regrettably neither Florence Price, Ethel Smyth nor Grażyna Bacewicz quite squeezed into our eventual top choices, although each received our enthusiastic welcome. Nevertheless we have tried to achieve a broad geographic spread – from Norway to Spain, from Hungary to the States – as well as a variety of genres and performing forces. At first blush, our pick this year may seem a little weightier than usual, but delve into the selection below and you’ll find a kaleidoscopic assortment of moods and styles, of familiar works and enticing rarities. We’ve tried to avoid some of the more obvious choices while highlighting recordings of real quality and durability, records that will reward repeated listening and (we believe) stand the test of time.

Czech Harpsichord ConcertosBack in February, Mahan Esfahani – best-known for his ongoing series of Bach harpsichord discs on Hyperion – released an enterprising album of Czech harpsichord concertos that pays tribute to the influence of his teacher, the late Zuzana Růžičková. Martinů’s three-movement Concerto for harpsichord and small orchestra reflects the composer’s interest in the Baroque concerto grosso. The harpsichord cuts through clearly against the other instruments in the nutty textures of the opening movement. A dreamy central Adagio and blithe concluding Allegretto make for an absorbing work, too seldom performed. Hans Krása’s Hindemithian Kammermusik for harpsichord and seven instruments mixes neoclassicism and jazz influences to create a powerfully haunting two-movement piece, while the Concerto for harpsichord and strings by Viktor Kalabis (Růžičková’s husband) is a uniquely powerful work by one of the most distinctive Czech musical voices of the later 20th century. Gramophone rightly hailed this release as ‘an unalloyed joy from first chord to last’, and Esfahani is superbly partnered by the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra under Alexander Liebreich.

LigetiAmong this year’s high-profile anniversaries, the Ligeti centenary has been widely celebrated on disc, but nowhere more thrillingly than on a disc of his string quartets from the Diotima Quartet on the Pentatone label. The Diotimas are established masters of the 20th-century repertoire (as their previous albums of Bartók, Janáček and the Second Viennese School have amply demonstrated), and here they deliver performances of blazing commitment and stunningly detailed textures, from the Hungarian folk roots of the Andante and Allegretto, through the microscopically varied First Quartet (‘Métamorphoses nocturnes’) to the harder-edged modernism of the Second, which we declared ‘one of the boldest and most persuasive performances of this remarkable music ever committed to disc’. Happily, many other reviewers came to the same conclusion!

Spontini2023 was another year of many excellent opera recordings, and among the companies leading the way is the French-based Palazzetto Bru Zane, which has revived many neglected 19th-century French masterpieces. Their recording of the original French version of Spontini’s La Vestale features a splendid cast starring Marina Rebeka, Stanislas de Barbeyrac, Tassis Christoyannis and Aude Extrémo. The Flemish Radio Choir and Les Talens Lyriques under the vibrant direction of Christophe Rousset make the best possible case for this version (complete with concluding Danse générale), which is transformed as much by the use of period instruments as by the French language. As always, Bru Zane’s presentation is sumptuous: if you know only the Italian version of Spontini’s masterpiece, you need to hear this!

RavelAnother operatic release transformed by period timbres is a rather later work: Ravel’s Hispanic-flavoured one-act comedy L’Heure espagnole. It’s the latest in François-Xavier Roth’s series of Ravel discs on Harmonia Mundi with the splendid musicians of Les Siècles. The performance oozes both sparkling wit and Spanish sensuality, and the marvellous Francophone cast is headed by mezzo-soprano Isabelle Druet as the coquettish Concepción. Roth paces the work perfectly, highlighting a multitude of captivating details while managing never to sound fussy. The same can be said of the coupling, a revelatory account of that old chestnut Bolero which, among other things, restores Ravel’s original castanets to the work’s climactic tutti! The whole disc brings enormous freshness to these works, and represents another triumphant release from this seasoned team.

RachmaninovProbably the most prominent of this year’s anniversaries has been Rachmaninov’s sesquicentenary (it was also the 80th anniversary of his death). There’s certainly been no shortage of releases to mark the occasion, and we reviewed no fewer than three of them over the course of the past 12 months. Among them all, one of the most outstanding was from Yannick Nézet-Séguin and his Philadelphia Orchestra – an ensemble with a long and illustrious Rachmaninov pedigree – on Deutsche Grammophon. Their double album of the Second and Third symphonies, coupled with the powerful symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead, revisits repertoire that the composer himself recorded with the orchestra but with the added benefit of demonstration-quality modern sound. The Second Symphony has passion and an epic sweep to it. The lesser-known Third Symphony combines seamless transitions with rhythmic alertness, while a hugely commanding account of The Isle of the Dead has an inexorable quality to it. As Edward Seckerson wrote in his Gramophone review, ‘If ever there was an authentic Rachmaninov sound, this is it.’

ByrdThe other big anniversary of 2023 marked 400 years since the death of one of Britain’s very greatest composers, William Byrd. Once again, many releases have been forthcoming, and among these was an exceptionally fine disc of viol fantasias and consort songs from the Chelys Consort of Viols and mezzo-soprano Helen Charlston on BIS. We could happily review only discs of string quartets and viol consorts all year long, and the Chelys players are some of the finest around. Pair them up with Charlston’s wonderfully rich voice and you have a sure recipe for success, in a programme that ranges from the wryly humorous to the intimate and even mournful, and includes such delights as the Browning ‘The Leaves be Greene’ and the intensely touching tribute to Tallis, Ye sacred Muses, with which the disc ends. The performances are every bit as vivid as the Albrecht Dürer watercolour that graces the cover. This is as fine a tribute to Byrd as we’ve heard all year.

Inifinite VoyageAnother vocal/chamber release that captivated us is Infinite Voyage on Alpha Classics, the latest in a series of discs for the label from soprano Barbara Hannigan. This time, however, it’s largely a vehicle for the revered Emerson String Quartet, marking the final album of their more than four-decades-long career. Together with Hannigan they open proceedings with Paul Hindemith’s Melancholie, op.13, a rarely-performed four-movement setting of poems by Christian Morgenstern, composed towards the end of World War I. It’s closer to Expressionism than the ‘New Objectivity’ with which Hindemith is usually associated, and its tonal centre links it with Schoenberg’s groundbreaking Second String Quartet, where Hannigan provides the vocal line in the last two movements. Pianist Bertrand Chamayou joins the ensemble for Chausson’s Chanson perpétuelle, creating an absorbingly thought-provoking programme that’s completed by a masterly account of Berg’s String Quartet, op.3. All the performances reflect the ripe maturity of long experience, and the disc as a whole makes a terrific final bow.

FantasiaOur solo instrumental pick of the year is every bit as immersive: Fantasia is the latest in an impressive series of thoughtfully programmed albums from virtuoso pianist Igor Levit on Sony. It couples two tremendous B minor Sonatas which stand at the apex of the repertoire, by Liszt and Berg. These performances themselves are stupendous, as rich in detail and deeply felt as you’d expect of Levit, and underpinned by phenomenal technique. Yet the journey starts with one of the foundation stones of the piano fantasia genre, Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, and leads eventually to the awe-inspiring mixture of chorales, fugues and variations that is Busoni’s Fantasia contrappuntistica. Alongside these major works, each composer is also represented by a shorter work, from Bach’s ‘Air on the G string’ (as arranged by Siloti) to Busoni’s Nuit de Noël. The result is a programme that’s both provocative and tremendously compelling, charting unexpected connections while engaging the emotions at a profound yet immediate level.

DeliusIt has been another impressive year for choral music, from Benevoli and Handel to Bartók and Kodály. One of the most fascinating recordings, however, came fairly recently: a new account of Delius’s A Mass of Life, sung in the original German under the assured, visionary direction of Mark Elder. The Norwegian forces that form the backbone of the performance, including the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra of which Elder is principal guest conductor, reflect Delius’s deep attachment to the country. The Mass is an intriguing work, which combines Wagnerian, Straussian and Mahlerian influences with French Impressionism and Delius’s own uniquely refined soundworld to set passages of Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra. Rivalling classic accounts by Beecham and Groves, and in excellent modern sound, this new LAWO Classics recording boasts an impressive solo team headed by baritone Roderick Williams in the role of the prophet. Culminating, as we observed, in ‘waves of shimmering ecstasy [that] wash over the listener like balm’, this is an appropriately engrossing performance, as remarkable for its moments of tender intimacy as for its majestic grandeur.

Aux EtoilesFor our overall recording of the year, however, we return to the world of purely orchestral music and a subgenre that is slowly gaining the greater exposure that has long been enjoyed by its Germanic neighbour: the French symphonic poem. Another release from the Bru Zane team, Aux Étoiles presents no fewer than fifteen works over two discs, ranging in length from five minutes to a quarter of an hour. They are performed with typical Gallic flair by the Orchestre national de Lyon under the assured direction of Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider, and contain such tried-and-tested favourites as Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Chabrier’s España, Saint-Saëns’s Danse macabre and a wonderfully atmospheric account of Franck’s Le Chasseur maudit. What really gives this anthology an edge over rivals, however, is the way in which it combines these familiar pieces with a wide selection of rarities, including four by women composers: Mel Bonis, Lili Boulanger, Augusta Holmès and a figure whose star is steadily rising: Charlotte Sohy. Topped off with pieces by such rare names as Alfred Bruneau, Ernest Guiraud and Henri Rabaud, as well as Chausson, d’Indy and the ‘title track’ by Duparc, this is a real coffret délices which has already been a big hit with many of our customers. Chapeau!

Delius - A Mass of Life

Lawo Classics LWC1265
CD (2 discs)

Delius - A Mass of Life

£18.95

In stock - available for despatch within 1 working day

Artists: Roderick Williams (baritone), Gemma Summerfield (soprano), Claudia Huckle (contralto), Bror Magnus Todenes (tenor), Bergen Philharmonic Choir, Edvard Grieg Kor, Collegium Musicum Choir, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra

Conductor: Mark Elder

Aux Etoiles: French Symphonic Poems

Bru Zane BZ2007
CD (2 discs)

Aux Etoiles: French Symphonic Poems

£24.65

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Artist: Orchestre national de Lyon

Conductor: Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider

Igor Levit: Fantasia

Sony 19658811642
CD (2 discs)

Igor Levit: Fantasia

£18.95

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Artist: Igor Levit (piano)

Infinite Voyage: Schoenberg, Hindemith, Berg, Chausson

Alpha ALPHA1000
CD (1 disc)

Infinite Voyage: Schoenberg, Hindemith, Berg, Chausson

£14.49

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Artists: Emerson String Quartet, Barbara Hannigan (soprano), Bertrand Chamayou (piano)

Gramophone Editor's Choice
Byrd - The Honour of William Byrd

BIS BIS2663
Hybrid SACD (1 disc)

Byrd - The Honour of William Byrd

£13.25

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Artists: Chelys Consort of Viols, Helen Charlston (mezzo soprano), Harry Buckoke (tenor viol)

Rachmaninov - Symphonies 2 & 3, Isle of the Dead

Deutsche Grammophon 4864775
CD (2 discs)

Rachmaninov - Symphonies 2 & 3, Isle of the Dead

£16.10

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Artist: The Philadelphia Orchestra

Conductor: Yannick Nezet-Seguin

Gramophone Editor's Choice
Ravel - L’Heure espagnole, Bolero

Harmonia Mundi HMM905361
CD (1 disc)

Ravel - L’Heure espagnole, Bolero

£17.05

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Artists: Isabelle Druet (mezzo-soprano), Julien Behr (tenor), Loic Felix (tenor), Thomas Dolie (baritone), Jean Teitgen (bass), Les Siecles

Conductor: Francois-Xavier Roth

Gramophone Editor's Choice
Spontini - La Vestale (CD + Book)

Bru Zane BZ1051
CD + Book (2 discs)

Spontini - La Vestale (CD + Book)

£35.10

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Artists: Marina Rebeka, Stanislas de Barbeyrac, Tassis Christoyannis, Aude Extremo, Nicolas Courjal, David Witczak, Flemish Radio Choir, Les Talens Lyriques

Conductor: Christophe Rousset

Ligeti - Metamorphosis: String Quartets

Pentatone PTC5187061
CD (1 disc)

Ligeti - Metamorphosis: String Quartets

£14.49

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Artist: Quatuor Diotima

Martinu, Krasa & Kalabis - Harpsichord Concertos

Hyperion CDA68397
CD (1 disc)

Martinu, Krasa & Kalabis - Harpsichord Concertos

£14.20

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Artists: Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord), Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra

Conductor: Alexander Liebreich

Gramophone Editor's Choice