Like last year, here are my top picks for the best classical music albums released in 2019. These are presented in random order, except for my selection for the Best Classical Album of the Year which is presented last. When available, there are links to the individual reviews on this site.
Bruckner, Symphony 9 / Jansons / Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra / BR Klassik
For the orchestral fluidity, the blending of sounds the conductor achieves with the BRSO, a reminiscence of the Karajan/BPO era. But mainly for Jansons’s highly individual, visionary approach. The last movement alone (only at 22 minutes) is illuminating in its up-tempo development leading to a devastating conclusion. Read my full review.
Salonen, Cello Concerto / Yo-Yo Ma / Salonen / Sony Classical
Imaginative, lushly orchestrated with some magical, eerie moments. Yo-Yo Ma’s solo playing is breathtaking despite the sheer technical difficulties. Read my full review.
Bach, The French Suites / Alexandra Papastefanou / First Hand Records
Like her excellent performance of the Well-Tempered Klavier which received accolades when it was released last year, Papastefanou’s interpretation of the French Suites is a winner. There is a lot to admire here: the delicacy of playing, the transparent fingerwork, the careful handling of the dynamics. It is clear that every movement has been thought-out carefully, the tempi perfectly judged to create a cohesive whole for each Suite. But above all, what makes this special is Papastefanou’s humanity – a primary ingredient when it comes to Bach performance. (Unfortunately, this album hasn’t been reviewed on this site yet, being a mid-November release.)
Beethoven, Late Piano Sonatas (op. 109, 110, 111) / Steven Osborne / Hyperion
Can I just say that this is the best digital rendition I have heard of the late sonatas? Osborne’s pianism is daring, revolutionary and insightful. Read my full review.
Alkan, Symphony for Solo Piano & Concerto for Solo Piano / Paul Wee / BIS
Breakneck speed. Clarity of expression. Precise playing. Add to the mix plenty of emotion in what is some of the most difficult repertoire for solo piano. And all this by a lawyer, not a professional pianist! Read my full review.
Beethoven, The Complete Piano Sonatas / Igor Levit / Sony Classical
Yes, I like and admire the excessive speeds because Levit knows when to slow down and offer insightful passages of reflection and grace. If you have heard any of Levit’s previous albums, you know what you’re in for: Dazzling virtuosity, technical brilliance, a full-bodied tone and plenty of introspection. Is there anything else to ask for?
Zimmermann, Violin Concerto, Photoptosis, Die Soldaten Vocal Symphony / Josefowicz / Hannu Lintu / Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra / Ondine
The Zimmermann Violin Concerto should be regarded as one of the great contemporary concertos and here it receives the virtuoso performance it deserves from Leila Josefowicz, a violinist who often challenges modern works. Kudos to Hannu Lintu and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra for the great orchestral contribution (just listen to the rumba finale). Not to mention their stellar account of Die Soldaten Vocal Symphony and Photoptosis. If you like contemporary music, this release is a must have.
Sibelius, Symphonies 1-7 / Orchestre de Paris / Paavo Järvi / RCA
A French orchestra doing the Sibelius symphonies? Why not when the results are so rewarding. Paavo Järvi’s account of the 7 is refreshing and often idiomatic. A lot of emphasis is given to the timpani, and this is not a bad thing. The 1st and 2nd are epic, the 3rd clear-textured and the 4th as dark as it should be. What follows is a bold 5th, a characterful 6th and an impressive, no-nonsense 7th. All this in first-rate sound.
The High Arts Review – Best Classical Album of the Year
Bruckner, Symphony 9 with completed finale (Schaller completion 2018) / Philharmonie Festiva / Gerd Schaller / Hänssler Classic
This will raise some eyebrows because it is not one of the mainstream completions. Schaller might divide listeners with his decision to include some of Bruckner’s original sketches (which the composer revised later), but what really matters here is the beauty and power of the music. Perhaps we haven’t heard the ideal completion yet, but Schaller’s attempt is impressive and in line with Bruckner’s mystical sound world. What is more, it gives listeners the chance to take the reconstructed finales more seriously: It is high time major conductors and orchestras included the completed 9 in their repertoire – be it the Schaller, Carragan, Letocart, Samale-Phillips-Cohrs-Mazzuca; all of them have their merits and need to be heard (and not only by hardcore Bruckner fans). Read my full review.
Two of the greatest classical music artists passed away in 2019. Jessye Norman and Mariss Jansons (the obituary I wrote here). Hopefully, we might see some previously unreleased material from the record labels. But until then, I strongly recommend Jessye Norman’s heartbreaking account of Strauss’s Four Last Songs, a legendary performance that has stood the test of time, greatly accompanied by Kurt Masur and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. As for Jansons, I think the best introduction, and a great set overall, is the Mariss Jansons Portrait 5-CD set that includes one of the best accounts of the Alpensinfonie you’re likely to hear and his exceptional account of Mahler’s 9th that should be included in the pantheon of Mahler 9 recordings.