As I said, those lists of books-of-the-year only make me feel quite hopelessly out of touch, and leave me rather sadly wondering how to possibly find the time to read more. But lists of CD recommendations are much more cheering, and encourage enjoyable experimental listening on Apple Music (other streaming services are available …). So let me share some of my favourite new recordings from 2017. Here are my five runners-up for CD of the year, in no special order.
Glenn Gould recorded his 1955 Goldberg Variations a few months before his 23rd birthday. Now Beatrice Rana has recorded the same music when less than a year older. And this is another quite extraordinary performance. Utterly gripping from the beginning. From the Gramophone review: “The variations that in some hands become merely strong and affirmative are beguilingly multi-layered …. Gentler numbers benefit from Rana’s ability to conjure the most translucent of textures … In the famous so-called ‘Black Pearl’ (Var 25) she allows Bach’s tortured dissonances to speak for themselves … the tension finally released by the joyously airborne Var 26. In some hands, these last variations, which build on that sense of joy, can seem rather forced …. Not here, though, where they range from the bucolic to the transcendental. After a Quodlibet that rejoices in its simple good humour, the return of the Aria is as emotionally multifaceted as you would expect – mysterious, quizzical, noble, resigned, hopeful – setting the seal on a life-affirming disc.”
Ivana Gavrić‘s Chopin disc groups some of Chopin’s earlier Mazurkas, seperated by a couple of Preludes, a Nocturne and the Berceuse. This makes for something like a concert programme (you should listen up to the Berceuse — which is quite hauntingly played, her left hand rocking the cradle in a way that somehow catches at the heart — and then take an interval!). Some of the Mazurkas are very familiar, but many were (as good as) new to me. Her unshowy, undeclamatory, playing seems just entirely appropriate to the scale and atmosphere of the pieces, often tinged with melacholy as they are. She is across the room from a group of you, friends and family perhaps, rather than performing to a concert hall. And repeated listenings reveal the subtle gestures and changes in tone she uses to shape the dances; these are wonderfully thought-through performances.
Haydn’s inexhaustible humanity can be a comfort and inspiration in these dark times, no? So I have returned again and again to the Chiaroscuro Quartet‘s wonderful exploration of the Opus 20 quartets, completed this year. Four friends, occasionally coming together to play concerts and record, perform with delight and bold inventiveness and warm insight. Their use of gut strings makes for wonderful timbres, now earthy, now confiding, now echoing a viol consort. This is extraordinary playing, and not just from Alina Ibragimova who leads the quartet: the sense of ensemble and the interplay of voices puts some full-time quartets to shame. Richly rewards that repeated listening.
And here is Alina Ibragimova again, this time continuing her long-standing partnership with Cédric Tiberghien. They have now recorded four double CDs of Mozart Sonatas — in fact there are two sets from this year. The early pieces written by the very young Wolfgang are dispatched with affection and bring out the moments of musical magic that are scattered even there. The mature Mozart is played as well as I have ever heard. As the BBC Music Magazine said of one of the discs, “Tiberghien’s limpid phrasing, radiant cantabile and velvety, cushioned tone provides a continual source of pleasure, complemented ideally by Ibragimova’s silvery-toned exploratory zeal, as she delights in Mozart’s gentle textual interplay, as though discovering its special qualities for the first time.” A constant delight.
The Doric Quartet give us a driven, intense, performance of two of Schubert’s greatest works. From the Gramophone review: “Even in a work as familiar as the Quartettsatz the Doric lend character through elasticity of phrasing, which nicely counterbalances the piece’s inherent energy. … The main event, the G major quartet, is very impressive too, spacious without ever being ponderous. … The quartet build up their own kind of relentlessness, one that becomes more and more potent upon repeated hearings.” Convincing and emotionally gripping playing. (If you like the Pavel Haas’s take-no-prisoners Death and the Maiden, you should like this too.)
Others that almost made it: the very fine Schone Mullerin from Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber (but how often can you listen to that?), the second Scarlatti disc from Angela Hewitt, and for lighter relief, ‘The Italian Job’ from Adrian Chandler and La Serenissima.
Finally, what about the much hyped recording of the last two of Schubert’s sonatas from Krystian Zimerman? Try the opening of the first or second movements of D960 — I found the playing to be so affected, the hesitations and rushes forward so unnatural as to be simply unbearable.