The best news was right at the beginning of the year when it was announced that the MDG and Denon labels were joining forces to once again make available as part of a joint edition, top-quality recordings from the extensive Denon catalogue along with new productions, on a world-wide distribution basis. And it all started with a bang with the release of this powerful account of the Symphonies 4 and 7 by Anton Bruckner conducted by Herbert Blomstedt, a remarkable recording from the early 1980s in which the natural soundstage allows you to hear the dimensional depth of the orchestra. Bruckner fans take note!
Another surprise was this wonderful interpretation of the Chopin Piano Concertos by relative newcomer Benjamin Grosvenor on the Decca label. There's a constant fluid limpidity and clarity to his phrasing, and an overall forward momentum shaped by delicate contours. Nothing ever sounds forced or affected, but rather seemingly moves along naturally. The slow passages are contemplative whilst the fast passages quite simply dance off the keyboard.
And how's this for something different. Transcriptions and arrangements for pipe organ of some of the great piano pieces by jazz artist Bill Evans from organist David Schollmeyer who does an incredible job of capturing and projecting the jazzy feel and swing of each and every piece on an instrument as unwieldy and ponderous as a pipe organ. This ain't no Sunday morning church service music.
The Toccata Classics label continued their overview of the orchestral music of British composer Steve Elcock, a shining example of modern day composers who persevere on writing "new" symphonic works that eschew self-absorbed intellectual pursuits but instead continue to compose highly expressive music that still communicates with the listener on an emotional level.
In a more traditional vein, the Reference Recordings label continued their Pittsburgh Live! series of audiophile quality recordings this time around with an over the top performance of the Symphony No. 4 by Tchaikovsky brimming with so much energy that I finished my review with these lines: And wow, does this orchestra ever show its mettle during the exhilarating race to the finish. Play it loud and feel the orchestral sizzle. Seriously, if you play this in your car, you'll be bouncing up and down the road.
Another Symphony No. 4 that was a revelation to me and literally pulled me in as soon as I heard it is by the British composer Philip Sawyers. A symphonic work composed in 2018 that sounds more like it was written in 1918 with Mahler and Hartmann overtones. It speaks to the listener at a deep-seated, visceral level. If, like me, you are still living in the past, musically speaking that is, I strongly recommend you give this commited composer a listen.
As far as authenticity is concerned, I haven't heard a recording this year that can match this new recording of the Beethoven Sonatas for Cello and Fortepiano on the newly established Italian label NovAntiqua Records. Cellist Alessandro Andriani and pianist Mario Sollazzo really get within the music and bring it to life. And best of all is the incredible audio engineering quality that makes it all sound as if the musicians are right there with you in your living room.
And now for something completely different. Another recording from this year that impressed me as soon as I heard it is a recording on the First Hand Records label titled Solas which features Gerard McChrystal on saxophones and Christian Wilson on pipe organ. I know, I had the same knee-jerk negative reaction of thinking this wouldn't work, but was I ever wrong. Great sound blend, a variety of pieces suited to this sound, and all played with expressive commitment. If you click on the link you can hear an audio clip from the CD.
And last but not least is this CPO recording of the Symphonies 3, 5 and 11 by Swedish composer Hans Eklund. His music is filled at times with brutally violent outbursts, percussive elements, episodic statements and fractured ideas, all strongly rooted in tonality and very well orchestrated. In other words an orchestral onslaught on your senses, very well performed by the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra and as with all CPO releases, very well recorded.
All in all, despite the many challenges, this was, at least from my perspective, a strong year for the classical music industry. A few more new labels were established, new artist contracts were signed, and musicians from all over have come up with new and ingenious ways to keep their listeners engaged. So please remember that now more than ever they need your support and encouragement. If you enjoy classical music and want to see it thrive moving forward you need to reassure these recording artists, orchestras and conductors, that life outside the recording studio is not a vacuum.