While there have been some fine releases this year, it would be silly to pretend that classical music recording is in good health. With a glut of cheaply remastered "classic" reissues from the past on the market, record companies prefer to put their money into pseudo-classical crossover releases rather than into fostering new talent. There is some good sense in this - why, after all, would record companies squander cash making new recordings when they will only end up competing with their own back catalogues? Sensible or not, this reluctance has a deadening effect on production, as while some excellent new releases struggle through, they are often of live performances rather than proper studio recordings.
Reports of the death of classical music on CD, however, have been much exaggerated. The stream of genuinely new albums may have slowed to a trickle (around 100 annually, compared with 700-odd 20 years ago), but there are still some fantastic new performances finding their way to public ears. With superb rediscoveries of lesser-known British music, great new recordings of this year's birthday boys Chopin and Mahler and some solid contemporary proof that brilliant scores are still being written, this year's releases proved anything but dull. Here is a round-up of some of the best.
Haydn: 12 London Symphonies. Les Musiciens Du Louvre-Grenoble conducted by Marc Minkowksi (Naïve)
This gutsy, playful take on Haydn's London symphonies has certainly ruffled the feathers of some conservative listeners, with words like "grotesque" and "vulgar" being bandied about in the classical blogosphere. The controversy comes from the never-dull conductor Minkowski's free hand with the score. Instead of the now-familiar "surprise" shift from quiet to deafening in Symphony No 94, for example, he has the orchestra screech at the top of their voices, audibly shaking the audience in this live recording. Traditional it might not be, but this iconoclastic take on Haydn certainly brings out the delightful variety, joy and dynamism in the composer's music, with the excellent Les Musiciens Du Louvre on fine form. If you still think of Haydn as Mozart's tamer contemporary, this recording is the one to prove you wrong.
James Levine: 40 years at the Met (Decca)
A monumental CD box set, this new release is so blockbusting it could flatten a pet if it fell off a high shelf. Containing 32 CDs, it follows the career of the chief conductor at New York's Met Opera over the past four decades through live recordings. With many Levine-led Met recordings already out on CD or DVD, this unreleased set of 11 performances by necessity showcases some slightly less common works rather than being the operatic greatest hits collection you might expect. Wagner (represented by Lohengrin) and Debussy are included, but otherwise it's an intriguingly leftfield collection including Berg, Berlioz, Schoenberg and Stravinsky, with some wonderful star turns by the likes of Dawn Upshaw and Deborah Voigt. Not necessarily an ideal buy for a casual opera fan, but for a die-hard opera lover this is food for a whole year.
Thomas Adès: Tevot and Violin Concerto, Three Studies from Couperin, Dances from Powder Her Face. Berlin Philharmonic Conducted by Simon Rattle (EMI)
If there's a young composer around producing better music than 39-year-old Adès, I haven't been lucky enough to hear it. Headlined by a piece commissioned specially for the Berlin Philharmonic, this collection shows how phenomenally versatile Adès is. Tevot is an epic, intensely moody piece that feels like the soundtrack to a crippled spaceship's voyage through unknown regions, while Adès's orchestral versions of themes from his opera Powder Her Face use twisted versions of 1930s popular dance tunes to eerie, witty effect. Compared with the usual tension of his music, the warm brass and jaunty baroque of Adès's Three Studies from Couperin sound almost bucolic in their charm, while Adam Marwood's superb playing on the taut, sinewy violin concerto makes it arguably the best thing on the disc.
Mahler: Des Knaben Wunderhorn & Adagio from Symphony Number 10. Pierre Boulez and the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, Christian Gerhaher and Magdalena Kozena (Deutsche Grammophon)
Mahler's powerful, brilliantly varied song cycle was so superbly performed by Dietrich Fischer Dieskau and Elizabeth Schwartzkopf on EMI's classic recording that it takes a brave soul to try to match it. This live recording from Boulez comes very close, with delightful, fantastically expressive singing by Kozena and Gerhaher that keeps you hanging on every note. Boulez wisely chooses to leave the music's folksy element understated, husbanding a precise, flawless performance by the Cleveland Orchestra.
Nico Muhly: A Good Understanding. The Los Angeles Master Chorale conducted by Grant Gershon (Decca)
The 29-year old American composer Muhly has been given such fulsome early exposure in the media (including in this paper) that it's not surprising he's also been greeted with a fair dose of scepticism. Although the rather bald assertion in this CD's sleeve notes that Muhly is "America's leading young composer" is unlikely to win doubters over, the emotionally charged choral music included here might do. Muhly's score reflects the influences of earlier minimalists such as Glass and Reich, but his time as a choral scholar is perhaps the main shaping force in this collection, including a mass and a setting of poetry by Walt Whitman. With a forest of voices showing his love of Elizabethan composers such as Byrd (see above), the music balances delicately in the space between the contemporary and the bygone and suggests further interesting things to come.
Britten: Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, performed by Gerald Finley and Julius Drake (Hyperion)
These all-too-rarely recorded settings of poems by the British visionary William Blake are seductive and unsettling in equal measure. Composed by Britten towards the end of his life, the settings match delicate, shimmering piano with a plaintive, heavily chromatic vocal line to create an atmosphere of bleak tenderness. Finley and Drake interpret the songs beautifully, shining some welcome light into a fascinating and under-explored corner of British culture.
Chopin: Late Masterpieces. Stephen Hough (Hyperion)
It's only Chopin's premature death at the age of 39 that makes the beautiful music on this new recording "late", but its sweet, reflective sadness certainly sounds like the work of an exceptionally mature composer. With endless invention, these brief, unreservedly gorgeous piano pieces maintain the tuneful momentum of the folk dance forms they are based on, but transforms them into something meditative and wistful. Stephen Hough's playing is sensitive and song-like in its rhythm, making each piece sound fresh and distinctive.
William Byrd: Infelix Ego: The Cardinall's Musick (Hyperion)
The 13th volume of their survey of the English renaissance composer William Byrd's work has proved anything but unlucky for the choral ensemble the Cardinall's Musick. It has won them a Gramophone Award for Record of the Year, a remarkable achievement for a group playing pre-baroque music, which shows how popular and central this once-fringe musical area has become. Demonstrating Byrd's versatility to brilliant effect, it centres on the composer's Infelix Ego (roughly translatable as "unhappy me"), an agonised but stunningly beautiful piece that explores a martyr's preparation for death and reflects Byrd's status as a persecuted Catholic in intolerantly Protestant England.