International conductors, mezzo sopranos and reinterpretations made for a banner year in classical music.
The best of 2011's classical recordings
Hugo Wolf: Italienisches Liederbuch Christian Gerhaher, Mojca Erdman, Gerold Huber (RCA)
The German baritone Christian Gerhaher is such a great singer that I'd happily recommend an album of him playing Kylie Minogue on the kazoo. There's something far more interesting than that here - a collection of songs by the underrated late 19th-century Austrian composer Hugo Wolf, a great songwriter whose life was cut short at the age of just 43. Gerhaher's sweet but sober voice brings out just how beautiful and deeply felt these songs from Wolf's Italian Songbook are, even if you can't understand the words. Soprano Mojca Erdmann also does a great job with her portion of the songs, bringing a cool sadness to music whose chromaticism pushes gently at the boundaries of obvious tunefulness without ever stepping over them. Full of sweet melancholy, this is an album for sitting in the dark and listening to again and again.
Nico Muhly: Seeing Is Believing Thomas Gould and the Aurora Orchestra (Decca)
The 30-year-old American composer and one-time Björk collaborator Nico Muhly came in for a bumpy ride from the press this year, who went from heavy coverage to crying hype within the space of a few months. This album of fresh material has helped reset the balance, reminding listeners that Muhly composes lively, engaging music that wears its influences clearly without sounding derivative. Kicking off this new recording is the electric violin concerto that gives the album its title, an unapologetically beautiful, subtle piece of work that has echoes both of Muhly's mentor Philip Glass and of French impressionism. English Tudor music, a key influence on former choral scholar Muhly, also makes an appearance on the album, with fine but slightly skewed orchestral arrangements of songs by Byrd and Gibbon played superbly by the Aurora Orchestra. Modern without being spiky or rejecting tunefulness, this album might be a good place to start for people who fear contemporary art music as being brutal and cerebral.
The Liszt Project: Pierre Laurent Aimard (Deutsche Grammophon)
With the 200th anniversary of Franz Liszt's birth, the Hungarian composer has been getting a much-deserved re-examination this year, one that has brought a flood of recordings with it. This double album by French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard goes one step further than the competition, matching some of Liszt's most interesting piano music with pieces from composers he influenced, including Wagner, Ravel, Scriabin, Messiaen and Bartok. Thus, next to the sunny, delicate Les Jeux d'eau à la Villa D'Este (Fountains of the Villa D'Este) we get Ravel's exquisite Jeux d'eau, making clear how the later composer's impressionism had its roots in Liszt. A brilliant choice for classical music lovers trying to join the dots between different composers, no album could more convincingly blow out of the water the old prejudice that Liszt was more concert hall show pony than serious composer.
Bruckner / Sibelius / Nielsen: Gustavo Dudamel with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)
The classical music world has been going crazy about Gustavo "the Dude" Dudamel for some years now, the 30-year-old Venezuelan conductor leading orchestras with a fervour and charisma that invariably wins audiences over. This chunky three-CD collection of three very different late romantic composers manages to convey some of the fuss around the conductor on disc, commemorating Dudamel's stint leading Sweden's GSO. As usual, the music is immediate and alive - there's no apparent attempt to create a "definitive" version of the works. Bruckner's sombre but incredibly rich 9th Symphony is given an unusually tight, streamlined interpretation, while the darker side of Sibelius's 2nd Symphony is drawn out in a work that is usually seen as one of the composer's most sunny and accessible.
Dvorák: String Quartets in G Major Pavel Haas Quartet (Supraphon)
It's easy to hear why so many people love Dvorák's "American" String Quartet in F major - from its first bars the quartet's folksy, gorgeously tuneful strings balance energy and elegance perfectly. The piece's accessible charm means that we are hardly short of recordings of the quartet, but this new recording by the Czech Pavel Haas Quartet is especially dramatic and rhythmically punchy. Winner of a chamber music award for 2011 from Gramophone magazine, the players actually shine brightest playing the American quartet's partner on this album, Dvorák's String Quartet No. 13, played with an intensity that really makes you sit up and listen.
Diva / Divo: Joyce Didonato (Virgin)
Mezzo-sopranos such as American Joyce Didonato may not be able to hit the highest notes of the great soprano roles, but at least they get to play a wider range of characters - including men. This new album from one of the greatest mezzos currently working cleverly mixes songs from female opera parts with those from "trouser roles" - a fact underlined by cover art showing Didonato in both an evening gown and a man's tuxedo. Songs are partnered to give the impression that male and female characters are actually singing to each other. So many composers reused familiar stories - both Berlioz's and Gounod's versions of Faust, for example, are included - that this in-joke for opera lovers works well. With music from Mozart, Rossini, Gluck and Strauss among others, Didonato's singing is hard to beat, with an exceptionally rich timbre to her voice and an incredible sense of control that never robs her singing of emotional punch.
Shostakovich: Symphony Number 10 Royal Liverpool Philharmonic conducted by Vasily Petrenko (Naxos)
Premiered just after the death of Stalin in 1953, this incredible symphony is often considered the best of Shostakovich's 15. With constantly shifting moods, it veers from dark sobriety to wild frenzy to delicate mysticism, and in its fearsome second movement Allegro (said by Shostakovich to be a portrait of Stalin himself) contains one of the most exciting scores in all classical music. Russian conductor Petrenko has already been getting rave reviews for his series of Shostakovich symphony recordings with the Liverpool Philharmonic - this brooding dramatic interpretation is perhaps their most compelling collaboration yet.