The Best Classical Albums of the Year
As the year 2014 draws to a close, we can look back at a year packed with fantastic classical album releases.
This has been a superb year for the alive-and-well world of classical music, in which we were treated with splendid releases from stars, legends and rising newcomers alike. Here’s our take on the best from 2014. And if you haven’t already, take a look at our list of four great classical albums that flew under the radar this year.
1. Teodor Currentzis: Le Nozze di Figaro
This spectacular new recording was done at the local opera house in Perm, Russia, when outdoor temperatures were down to -30 degrees Celsius (-22 Fahrenheit). Isolated by the cols, this group of musicians and singers had only one goal in mind: to deliver the most uncompromising, ideal recording of Mozart’s opera under the most optimal working conditions. Day and night was commissioned to get every little detail perfect, often for hours, and the results speak for it selves!
2. Leonidas Kavakos, Yuja Wang: Brahms Violin Sonatas
On this new album Leonidas Kavakos plays together with the 27 year old Chinese pianist Yuja Wang, one of the young musicians most in demand on the international music scene. The two began their musical partnership at the Verbier Festival in 2013, and it continues on this album and at concerts where they perform alongside each other as soloists.
3. Max Richter, Daniel Hope: Recomposed by Max Richter - Vivaldi’s Four Seasons
Inspired equally by the Beatles and Bach, punk-rock and electronica, Max Richter is mixes Baroque beauty with minimalist methodology, and classical orchestration with modern technology. The result is a monumental musical universe that includes concerts, operas, ballets, art and video installations, film, theater and television and a number of critically acclaimed solo albums, as well as poetry and literature. On his newest album, he has taken one of the most famous pieces of music from the classical world – Vivaldi’s Four Seasons – and “recomposed” it for the 21st century, performed by violin virtuoso Daniel Hope.
4. Reza e iRagazzi: Reza e iRagazzi
Reza e iRagazzi is a chorus of male soloists, consisting of some of Norway’s most powerful singers, several of them with international careers: Carsten Stabell, Yngve Søberg, Marius Roth Christensen, Henrik Engelsviken, Hallvar Djupvik, Thor Inge Falch, Espen Langvik, Ole Jorgen Kristiansen, Rolf Magne Asser, Håvard Stensvold, Fredrik Otterstad, Kjetil Støa and Jens-Erik Åsbø. With the album and the project they not only perform music of the highest quality, but also break down musical boundaries and build bridges between different musical cultures. This is done with a mixture of very high artistic expression, a good shot of humor and testosterone, and an incredible energy.
5. Alisa Weilerstein: Dvorak
The young American cellist Alisa Weilerstein was described by BBC Music Magazine as “one of the most extraordinary” soloists of her generation. On this album, following her critically acclaimed debut album with Elgar’s Cello Concerto, she has chosen Dvorak’s concerto for the instrument she masters. On this vital new interpretation of Dvorak’s Cello Concerto, along with conductor Jiri Belohlavek and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Weilerstein casts new and visionary light on the Czech composer’s epic concert. Together they capture Dvorak’s spirit beautifully and also shows his deep love to his beloved home country.
6. Anna Netrebko, Plácido Domingo: Giovanna d’Arco
Maestro Verdi’s opera Giovanna d’Arco, or Joan of Arc, premiered at La Scala in Milan in 1845 and was to be his seventh opera. The dramatic story of the “Virgin of Orleans,” who is burned at the bonfire, is sung heroically by the Russian super-soprano Anna Netrebko. The recording was done during the Salzburg Festival in 2013 and also in the cast is Plácido Domingo, here in his new role as a baritone. Münchner Rundfunkorchester and Philharmonia Chor Wien is conducted by Italian Paolo Carignani.
7. Sakari Oramo: Nørgårds: Symphonies 1 & 8
On this album Per Nørgårds’ 1st and 8th symphonies were recorded by the world famous Vienna Philharmonic. With this premiere recording they cast new light on one of Nordic music’s most visionary voices and one of the greatest symphonic composers ever – Per Nørgård. Led by the Finnish conductor Sakari Oramo these performances of his symphonies no. 1 and 8 – two symphonic milestones written between an interval of nearly six decades – the legendary orchestra’s first recording ever of new Nordic music. “The music I wanted to hear, was not there,” Nørgård explained as the reason why he became a composer, and that attitude has persisted.
8. Lang Lang, Christoph Eschenbach, Wiener Philharmoniker: Sommernachtskonzert 2014
The expectations are soaring every year when the annual “Sommernachtskonzert” approaches and audiences flock to Austria’s ancient castle Schönbrunn to hear the legendary Vienna Philharmonic perform under the open sky. It’s always a magical concert and this year is no exception. The concert took place on May 29th and starred the Chinese pianist Lang Lang and the conductor Christoph Eschenbach in a very varied program.
9. Lucerne Festival Orchestra, Claudio Abbado: Bruckner: Symphony No. 9 in D minor
Music lovers all over the globe grieved, on the day in January of this year, when it emerged that one of the world’s greatest conductors had passed away; namely, the Italian maestro Claudio Abbado. In the last ten years of life, where he incidentally also recovered from a serious illness, the legendary conductor started a sovereign orchestra which played for his sake. Lucerne Festival Orchestra is the name and Abbado managed to lift them to a level that may have never been matched. Concert goers around the world had rarely experienced something like this concert, which literally got reviewers and audiences alike on their feet. The performance took place at the Lucerne Festival in 2013, and this album features a recording of the second part of the program, dedicated to Anton Bruckner’s ninth and final symphony, which he did not live to finish writing and therefore is incomplete.
10. Carlo Bergonzi: The Sublime Voice
The Italian tenor Carlo Bergonzi, who also died in 2014, is described as one of the 20th century’s greatest singers. Bergonzi was 90 years old and he leaves a large and versatile discography and a reputation as one of the most gifted singers with a more than refined musical taste. On this album you will hear Carlo Bergonzi in some of his greatest moments from the operas he loved and mastered as few others could: La Bohéme, Tosca, Don Carlos, Il trovatore, Aïda and Rigoletto.
11. Igor Levit: Bach Partitas
On his second album, 27-year-old Russian-German pianist Igor Levit plays the music of Bach; namely Bach’s Partitas – BWV 825-830. Levit is widely considered one of his generation’s greatest talents and he has already received many accolades along the way. He also won the ECHO Award at this year’s ceremony in Munich, and with this album he underpins his position as one of today’s most skilled young pianists.
12. Benjamin Grosvenor: Dances
With the spotlight directed towards music with a dancing character, this album, aptly titled Dances, was inspired by a letter from the great pianist and composer, Ferruccio Busoni, to his student at the time, Egon Petri. In the letter Busoni recommends young Petri to create a “dance programme” as the theme for a concert. Benjamin Grosvenor found this concept so interesting that he composed a similar theme for his debut concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 2012.
13. Daniel Hope: Escape to Paradise
On this album Daniel Hope puts focus on the Hollywood scores, and takes us on a musical journey where he seeks out the echoes of exiled European composers such as Miklos Rozsa, John Waxman, Hanns Eisler and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. At the heart of the album Hope plays Korngold’s wonderful Violin Concerto. The album also contains pieces from classics modern soundtracks such as: Schindler’s List, American Beauty and Cinema Paradiso to reflect on the strong musical influence exiled composers had and still have on contemporary film scores today.
14. Alice Sara Ott, Francesco Tristano: Scandale
On Alice Sara Ott’s new album, the young star pianist has this time chosen colleague Francesco Tristano as a partner. They are both incredibly talented and both guarantors of very innovative projects. The album, entitled Scandale, settles up of the scandal that took place May 29, 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. The scandal was the first performance of Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps” and it was at that time a significant one. And when two prominent young artists choose to play a version for two pianos, there is really also need to fold your ears! In addition to Sacre de Printemps, the duo plays Ravel’s “La Valse,” Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” and a completely fresh composition by Tristano itself.
15. Leif Ove Andsnes, Mahler Chamber Orchestra: The Beethoven Journey
The renowned Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes has been on a journey over the past several years; a journey in which he has chosen to take on Beethoven’s five piano concertos with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. The project resulted in three albums – the last of which came this year. And when they have chosen to spend several years at these five concerts, there is also a good reason for it. One is that it is utterly wonderful music and a very big challenge for any pianist. Something else is that Andsnes had the opportunity to get exactly the terms he wished, since he directs the orchestra, without a conductor, from his grand piano. With the albums behind him, he continues to perform his journey, having completed no fewer than 144 concerts in 44 countries so far.
16. Carl Nielsen, The New York Philharmonic: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 4
Denmark’s national composer was met with ardent interest this year in New York, where tens of thousands of Americans lined up to hear his symphonic music at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall. On this album the eponymous Philharmonic - which had, among others, Leonard Bernstein as their chief conductor – plays Nielsen’s 1st and 4th symphony. As Philharmonic Music Director Alan Gilbert has declared on several occasions, “Nielsen’s time has come!” And you have to say it has.
17. Cecilia Bartoli: St. Petersburg
For the first time Cecilia Bartoli explores Baroque musical treasures from Tsarist Russia with music composed for three of the 1800s’ principal female Tsars; namely, Anna, Elizabeth and Catherine the Great. The music is written by Italian and German composers who at the time worked for the Russian court, and this album sheds new light on an incredible and important time for Russia, which shaped politics and culture in the direction of the enlightened West.
18. Carsten Dahl: Goldberg Variations
Carsten Dahl is one of the most active and productive concert musicians the world over. His latest project is J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations. It’s a mouthful, even for experienced, classically trained pianists, but for Carsten Dahl the challenge is raised substantially given the fact that he is self-taught and unable to read music! He has therefore spent several years just to learn music and several more to find his own way to do it – and it must be said that he has succeeded.
19. Lang Lang, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Wiener Philharmoniker: The Mozart Album
This album features Chinese star pianist Lang Lang, recording his first album entirely devoted to the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Lang Lang is joined by Nikolaus Harnoncourt on the podium and the Vienna Philharmonic. On this brand new album, you can hear two of Mozart’s beloved piano concertos and a number of his solo piano sonatas, performed by the best musicians out there today.
20. Elīna Garanča: Meditation
“No matter what I record,” says Elīna Garanča, “it is always a reflection of my own emotional and psychological situation.” In other words, the Latvian mezzo-soprano’s music is always a deeply personal matter. This has been the case with all her previous albums, and it is thus so with the new, Meditation. Here she sings a selection of incredibly beautiful, quiet moments with songs by composers from her homeland as well as more well-known names like Mozart, Bizet and Mascagni.
21. Anna Netrebko, Daniel Barenboim: Richard Strauss
On her latest album, Russian superstar Anna Netrebko sings Richard Strauss’ “Vier Letzte Lieder” (“Four Last Songs”). She is joined by one of today’s most important conductors and orchestras, Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin. On the album you can also hear Strauss’ “Ein Heldenleben” Although it was composed many years earlier, the piece was his last tone poem, and a deeply personal work Strauss himself often described as a sort of aural autobiography.
22. Patricia Petibon, Susan Manoff: La belle Excentrique
The French soprano Patricia Petibon gorgeously sings French chansons by Satie, Poulenc and Fauré, with detours to lesser-known composers such as Hahn and Rosenthal. On the album she is accompanied by her faithful musical partner, Susan Manoff, among featured appearances by star violinist Nemanja Radulovic and actor Olivier Py.
Those are the year’s best classical albums, as seen from my chair. I wish you a Happy New Year as we look forward to the many highlights coming in 2015.
And remember that if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to contact me at email@example.com
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