Part 3 of 3 of the 2016 Mega-Meta-List: 34 Classics that Made Someone's Year

Mar 15, 2017

Just how much is classical music about classics? According to the 2016 Mega-Meta-List, about 80%. I'm kidding, of course, when I answer a complex, subjective question with a number (trust me, it was funny in Douglas Adams), but quantifying the unmeasurable is sort of what the meta-list project does. This year, it aggregated 70 best-classical-albums-of-2016 lists to see what stood out worldwide. In my first post, I cautioned that the winners aren't objectively "the best," since reception is hostage to chance, fashion, distribution, and PR, and besides, the finest art can't be ranked. But I did float the possibility that the meta-list could help us see patterns, so let's return to that opening question. Of the finalists, 20% were all-new, including the breakaway top album, Let Me Tell You. While that makes the meta-list more contemporary than the playlist of a classic-rock or classic-country station, still, 80% of the finalists were, to coin a phrase, classic-classical. I discussed 16 of these classic finalists in Parts One and Two, but that leaves 34 more, which I'll round up below.

They deserve at least a few words each, because it's harder than ever for new recordings of old music to stand out. Performers compete not only with their peers, but with a swelling horde of recordings from the past. When Jeremy Denk made his (delightful) recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations, he asked, “How many hours have I spent backstage fretting, knowing that there will be several insufferable know-it-alls in the audience, with their 700 recordings and deeply considered opinions?” There really have been 700 Goldberg recordings since 1928, and more and more of them are being republished. That's why I left reissues off the meta-list: let's give active musicians a fighting chance!

 

Denk feared that once he played the Goldbergs he "would become like all the others—besotted, cultish—and that is exactly what happened.” And it is exactly why musicians keep recording classics. It's not to boost their careers, but because they're besotted. Love makes you spend years working on a masterpiece, and eventually might lead you to you record it. Besottedness: it’s what makes a meta-list a mega-meta-list. 

In spite of it all,  then, here are 34 recordings of “classics” that made at least 4 (but fewer than 10) best-of-year lists.  I’ll divide them into five categories, with instruments first and voices second, going from solo to ensemble: 1) Solo Instrument; 2) Instrumental chamber; 3) Orchestral; 4) Solo vocal; and 5) Ensemble vocal (choral or operatic).

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CLASSICS SPOKEN FLUENTLY: solo instrument division  

FREDERIC CHOPIN: Mazurkas - Pavel Kolesnikov, piano (Hyperion CDA 3187) - At first glance, the Mazurkas seem like modest folk dances, but look again and you’ll notice some of Chopin’s wildest explorations and deepest emotions. How do pianists convey such inspiration while still dancing? Not even the steps are easy, since Chopin’s notation doesn’t capture the rhythms exactly. He wrote the mazurkas in three beats to a bar, like a waltz, but he played them closer to two-to-a-bar, in line with folk idioms that he said couldn't be notated. The melodies, too, aren't played just as notated. And like Strauss waltzes, most of these dances repeat sections; how does a player avoid sounding repetitive? The young Russian pianist Pavel Kolesnikov transcends these challenges with what feels like spontaneous fluency. Like a great film actor, he lets the depth emerge without distortions or overacting and with just the right sense of insouciance.

  

Rachel Barton Pine performing at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. in 2011.
Credit Lou Brutus at Wikipedia

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH: Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin - Rachel Barton Pine (Avie 2360). With hundreds of recordings available, some of them revered, the BBC says, “it takes an inventive mind to find anything new in this pinnacle of the violin repertoire," but Chicago-based violinist Rachel Barton Pine "stands out, amid a wealth of alternatives, as truly distinctive." Her path to distinction precluded shortcuts. She studied these works and their historical background for decades, mastered period instruments, and even recorded some of the solo-violin precursors of Bach. For the recording she uses her modernized Guarneri and strings but a baroque bow. Gramophone praises the "surprisingly striking contrast between [her] crystalline voicing, clear articulation and warm tone," and notes "moments of extraordinary beauty... sparing touches that under the fingers of many players can sound glib at best or contrived at worst, serve to finesse an already thoughtful and generous performance into something of great maturity and depth."

 JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH: Goldberg Variations - Mahan Esfahani, harpsichord (Deutsche Grammophon 479 592)   - The Iranian-American artist Mahan Esfahani is the first harpsichordist signed by Deutsche Grammophon in three decades, and this is his first all-Bach recording. It justifies itself with a performance so alert to the music's subtleties that it sounds original but not eccentric. You’ll notice a lively mind at work at the start where, like Igor Kipnis, Esfahani plays the halves of the theme without ornaments the first times through, then with them the second times, letting us hear for ourselves the difference between what Bach called “invention” and what he called “decoration.” He makes full use of the techniques and colors available to his instrument, such as higher-pitched registers on some of the repeats, so the sound doesn't get tiresome over 77 minutes, especially with this pleasing instrument being recorded beautifully. Ad he makes his instrument sing. If you haven’t heard the Goldbergs on the instrument Bach specified, this humane, engaging performance is a good one to start with.

 FRANZ LISZT: Transcendental Etudes - Kyrill Gerstein (Myrios 019) -  One critic said it was just plain bad luck for Gerstein that his probing recording of these works came out in the same year as Daniil Trifonov’s, which was the most frequently chosen “best of year” instrumental recording in 2016. But Jed Distler preferred Gerstein interpretively, and The New York Times chose both for its best-of-2016 list, which seems only fair. It is by no means routine, and is often, indeed, "transcendental." 

DOMENICO SCARLATTI: 18 Sonatas - Yevgeny Sudbin, piano ( BIS 2138) -  Domenico Scarlatti was a prodigy who became a prodigal son. He was supposed to write hit operas like his dad Alessandro, the reigning musician in Naples, but instead dropped out of the family business, absconded to Lisbon, and spent his career creating a new keyboard genre that he called "ingenious jests with art.” By 1738 these sonatas were the hottest sounds in Europe. Handel stole ideas from them and Bach paid tribute in some of the Goldberg Variations. The year 2016 brought us at least three notable recordings. This one by Russian pianist Yevgeni Sudbin was eagerly awaited, since his earlier Scarlatti album has become a classic; It made no fewer than eight best-of-year lists. Also noted were pianist Angela Hewitt and harpsichordist Pierre Hantai; each received "only" three votes but they were enthusiastic ones. 

MAURICE RAVEL: Complete Piano Works - Bertrand Chamayou (Erato 82564602681) - This release sharply divided opinion. Gramophone heard "revelatory performances of breathtaking beauty and incomparable power,” and added, “Most striking, perhaps, is their unforced naturalness." But that last attribute turned off other writers. The BBC found it "hard to warm to much of Chamayou’s playing," which, for them, missed the music's emotional undercurrents. Subjective responses like these by definition can't be adjudicated, so if you share my love of Ravel, you'll want to hear it. (I admit I came to agree with the Beeb, not that you asked. I would suggest Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Angela Hewitt, or Stephen Osborne among recent complete sets; but some prefer Chamayou.)  

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  CLASSICS SPOKEN FLUENTLY: Chamber instrumental division

 

FRANZ SCHUBERT: String Quintet and songs - Ebene Quartet, with Gautier Capucon, cello, and Matthias Goerne, baritone (Erato 0825646487615) -  Near the end of his brief life, Schubert perfected a new way to integrate his potently Romantic melodies and harmonies into classically unified works. The greatest example is this Quintet, which also exemplifies the paradox of sorrow becoming beauty. The work has inspired major artists since the mono era, but this new recording stands with the finest. The Ebene Quartet have played the Quintet with almost two dozen cellists over the years, and the cellist they chose when they took it to the studio, Gautier Capucon, sounds at one with them. The group “gets” all of Schubert’s musical references, from Beethoven to Rossini to the “Hungarian” style of the finale, and let you hear detail you sometimes miss. Above all they sweep you away with emotion. A bonus is a set of Schubert songs with the piano part arranged for string quintet, a practice sometimes used in Schubert’s circle, with the great Matthias Goerne singing. The results were, for me, a box of candies.

 

JOHN DOWLAND: Lachrimae or Seven Tears, and other works  - Phantasm, with Elizabeth Kenny, lute (Linn CKD 527) - American musician-scholar Laurence Dreyfus calls Dowland's Lachrimae or Seven Tears "the most sensuously tuneful hour of music ever written." For evidence, try this new recording by Dreyfus and his group Phantasm. Their passionate yet subtle and alert playing is  captured in warm, rich sound by the most audiophile of indie labels, Linn. While some critics wanted more spotlighting of lutenist Elizabeth Kenny, others recognized that the balance of all of the instruments is exceptionally realistic, attesting to Linn’s philosophy of natural sonics. 

JOHANNES BRAHMS: Violin Sonatas; F.A.E. Scherzo - Christian Tetzlaff, violin/ Lars Vogt, piano (Ondine 1284) - The violin sonatas show Brahms at a peak. For all their intricate craft and perfected form, they seem like spontaneous outpourings of feeling, at least when performers are in the groove. A few have reached the zone especially memorably, from Adolf Busch in the 1930s to Augustin Dumay recently, and Tetzlaff and Vogt belong on the short list. Their approach is intimate rather than grandly Romantic, but for all the polyphony and dialog they also build the works over long spans to climaxes that are all the more rhapsodic. Their decade-old live concert EMI recording has been a favorite of mine, but this studio revisiting is even greater.

 JOHANNES BRAHMS: String Quartets, Piano Quintet - Belcea Quartet, Till Fellner, piano (Alpha 248) - In the string quartets some performers leave you all too aware of Brahms’s thoroughness and craft. Not the Belcea, who let us hear tham as "outpourings of angst, ardency and resolute jubilation," says the Guardian, thanks to "intense and wonderful quartet playing: lucid and agitated, sleek and muscular, with Corina Belcea’s silvery-lean first violin sound balanced by the huge warmth at the centre of the ensemble from violist Kzystof Chorzelski."

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CLASSICS SPOKEN FLUENTLY: Orchestral instrumental division

 

EDWARD ELGAR - Symphony no. 1 in E-flat Major - Staatskapelle Berlin (Berlin Municipal Orchestra) conducted by Daniel Barenboim (Decca 4789353)  -  Elgar was 50 when he completed his FIrst Symphony in 1908, and he told a friend that it had no program other than a "wide experience of human life with a great charity (love) and a massive hope in the future.” It struck its first conductor as “the greatest symphony of modern times.” Then came the Great War, which made Edwardian optimism feel provincial and dated. The ensuing shift to high modernism may be why the Elgar First never become a repertory piece outside of the UK, but the Argentine-born Israeli pianist/ conductor/ activist Daniel Barenboim believes that response itself is dated and I have to agree. More broadly, Barenboim finds it "belittling" to "think of Elgar only as an English composer,” and this new recording could be taken as evidence of the point. Barenboim recorded this symphony 40 years ago with the London Philharmonic, but this time performs it live with the Berlin Municipal Orchestra, which in 2000 named him "conductor for life," and many listeners find it the greater experience. 

EDWARD ELGAR, Cello Concerto; WILLIAM WALTON, Cello Concerto; GUSTAV HOLST, Invocation; IMOGEN HOLST, The Fall of the Leaf - Steven Isserlis. Cello; Philharmonia Orchestra/ Paavo Jarvi  (Hyperion 68077) -  The Great War divided European history into before and after, ending the optimistic “long 19th century” with a cataclysm. Edward Elgar straddled the  divide. His 1919 Cello Concerto, says Steven Isserlis, is “a poem of regret, a searching elegy for the whole world - both inner and outer - that had been swept away by the horrors of the Great War.” Isserlis recorded it two decades ago, but the Guardian find his new recording "fiercer" and "older, wiser and even more convincing. Isserlis’s cello rages against the dying of the light, sounding angry yet still beautiful." He pairs the Elgar with another great British cello concerto, that of William Walton, and with two shorter works to which he has a special connection. Gustav Holst’s Invocation lay unpublished until Isserlis convinced the composer’s daughter Imogen to release it; and Imogen’s remarkable set of variations on The Fall of the Leaf. 

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN: SYMPHONIES 4 and 5 -  Concentus Musicus Wien/ Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Sony 88875136452) - Before Harnoncourt's death last year at the age of 86, he asked Sony to issue two concert tapings of Beethoven that he had made in 2015 with his pioneering period-instrument group, Concentus Musicus. Their Missa Solemnis was a "top-tier" meta-list choice, and stands with the greatest recordings of that work, but this performance of two symphonies was more controversial. In it, Harnoncourt radically rethinks the modern-instrument versions he recorded in 1990. By 2015 he conducted these symphonies with far more "intervention," such as long pauses and slowdowns not marked in the score. Reviews ranged from puzzlement to enthusiasm, but Gramophone's critic observed that he was “relieved to hear Harnoncourt going out with a bang rather than a whimper. He is too courageous a musician to have done anything less." 

AARON COPLAND: An Outdoor Overture/ Rodeo/ Billy the Kid/ El Salon Mexico - Colorado Symphony/ Andrew Litton (BIS 2164)   ; and/or AARON COPLAND: Fanfare for the Common Man; El Salon México; Suites from Billy the Kid & Appalachian Spring; Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo - BBC Philharmonic/ John Wilson (Chandos 5164) - Who would YOU turn to for the Copland classics? American critics preferred a wonderful recording from Colorado led by the American conductor Andrew Litton (who last year became music director of the New York City Ballet); Brits preferred the BBC led by John Wilson. Me,I’ll go with the Coloradans, but am glad for both releases. 

GUSTAV MAHLER: Symphony no. 10 - Seattle Symphony Orchestra/ Thomas Dausgaard (Seattle Symphony Media 1011) - Mahler lived to complete only the first movement of his Tenth Symphony, but in 1960 Deryck Cooke had the audacity to offer a completion of the remaining four, which Mahler had sketched but not orchestrated. Cooke improved his completion over several iterations, and his final version from 1989 has now been recorded many times. At least one other completion was released last year, but this live concert performance impressed several critics as standing with the best on record, and the recorded sound is apparently stunning. 

RALPH VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphonies nos. 2 and 8 - Royal Liverpool Philharmonic/ Andrew Manze (Onyx 4155) - This new cycle of Vaughan Williams's complete symphonies begins with two that are unique, different from the others. The Second, which the composer called "A London Symphony," was a programmatic piece originally composed in 1912-13; Vaughan Williams did not consider it one of his numbered symphonies. The  Eighth, which he began when he was 80, sounds enchantingly different from his previous masterpieces, partly because it uses what he described as "all the 'phones and 'spiels known to the composer."  This recording, led by a conductor who first made his name as a Baroque violinist, struck four critics as among their favorites of the year. 

WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART: Piano Concertos 13-15 - Kristian Bezuidenhout, Freiburg Baroque Orchestra (Harmonia mundi HMC 902218)  -  When Mozart left his church-court job in Salzburg to try his hand as a freelancer in the big city, Vienna, he set to work on piano concertos. He told his father that while only connoisseurs would get some of the subtleties of these three works, "non-connoisseurs will also be pleased, without knowing why." The same could be said of this recording. If you've found period pianos clangy, wait till you hear the beautiful sounds it creates in this recording, which was nominated for a Grammy. 

WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART: Violin Concertos - Isabelle Faust/ Il Giardino Armonico/ Giovanni Antonini (Harmonia mundi HMC902230/31) - Isabelle Faust is known for probing intelligence and depth - she's often described as "self-effacing,” as opposed to a ham - so how does she respond to the works of the cheeky teenage Amadeus? With an invigorating sense of play and wonderful attunement to her colleagues.  The new cadenzas are a decided attraction. 

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH: Violin Concertos, Chaconne  - Nemanja Radulovic, violin, Tijana Milosevic (violin II in BWV 1043), Double Sens (Deutsche Grammophon 479 5933)  I am about a decade behind in keeping up with recordings of these concertos - there are hundreds - and in 2016 I was once again overwhelmed. I loved the set by Cecilia Bernardini, but the one that made the most lists was by a young Serbian who plays with daredevil intensity and velocity and uses every expressive means available to a modern violin.

 PIOTR TCHAIKOVKSY and JEAN SIBELIUS: Violin Concertos - Lisa Batiashvili, violin/ Berlin Staatskapelle/ Daniel Barenboim (Decca 479 6038 6) Great violinists since the mono era have paired the melodious romanticism of the Tchaikovsky concerto with the austere romanticism of the Sibelius. So isn't yet another album of the two redundant? That's more or less what the great Georgian violinist/ conductor Batiashvilli told Barenboim when he approached her about this project, but he responded, basically, think again. He encouraged her to go back to the music and explore it as if it were new, and what she does with it soars. Barenboim's orchestra plays with all the mastery and commitment they've brought to Beethoven and Elgar. 

PIOTR TCHAIKOVKSY: Symphonies nos. 1, 2, and 5 - Royal Liverpool Philharmonic/ Vasily Petrenko (Onyx 4150) - A new Tchaikovsky symphony set faces the now-familiar problem of a saturated market with hundreds of options available. So a new cycle from Liverpool better be special to justify itself, and this first installment seemed that way to some critics. The BBC, for example, wrote, "Alive and articulate, these three performances remind us that it’s just as possible to be stunned by an original interpretation of a familiar symphony (the Fifth) as it is to be refreshed by a bright-eyed approach to less familiar works (the First and Second).”   

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CLASSICS SPOKEN FLUENTLY: Solo vocal division

    

ERIK SATIE: Socrate; Songs - Barbara Hannigan, soprano, Reinbert de Leeuw, piano (Winter and Winter 9012342) - Last year was the 150th anniversary of the birth of Erik Satie, the French bohemian once called “the original hippie.” Among many anniversary releases, one made many lists. It featured Barbara Hannigan, the singer/ conductor/ composer behind the 2016 Mega-Meta-List's top choice, Let Me Tell You. When Virgil Thomson wanted to convince Gertrude Stein of Satie's greatness he played Socrate, Satie’s cantata about the philosopher based on texts from Plato, and it’s the high point of this album. 

WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART: The Weber Sisters - Sabine Devieilhe, soprano/ Ensemble Pygmalion/ Raphael Pichon (Erato 2564607584) Mozart wrote arias for all three of the Weber sisters, and eventually married one of them, Constanze. This album organizes a wide range of his arias by dedicatee, which is clever, but what makes it exceptional is the singer, Sabine Devieilhe, one of the great Mozartians of our time.

JOHANNES BRAHMS: Four Serious Songs and other songs - Matthias Goerne, baritone / Christoph Eschenbach, piano (Harmonia mundi HMC 902174) - To sing these songs decently isn’t easy, says David Vernier, but “to convey these songs straight to the heart of the listener as Goerne does is the mark of an extraordinary artist.” 

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH, Cantatas 82 and 170, and GEORG PHILIPP TELEMANN: Cantatas “Christ on the Mount of Olives” and “Jesus liegt in letzten Zügen” - Philippe Jaroussky, countertenor, Freiburg Baroque Orchestra (Erato 557 659) - For a countertenor to be signed by Warner and make four best-of-year lists is remarkable, especially given the neglect of Telemann’s cantatas. I haven’t heard it, but am looking forward to it.  

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CLASSICS SPOKEN FLUENTLY: Ensemble vocal division 

LEOS JANACEK: Orchestral Works, vol. 3 - Sara Jakubiak, Susan Bickley, Stuart Skelton, Gabor Bretz, Thomas Trotter  Bergen Philharmonic/ Edward Gardner (Chandos 5165) - The Moravian composer’s “Glagolithic Mass” - in Old Church Slavonic- is in this performance “ablaze with excitement, the whole well balanced but still dangerous and invigorating,” according to The Guardian

 HERBERT HOWELLS: Collegium Regale (complete)  -Trinity College Choir Cambridge/Stephen Layton (Hyperion CDA 68105)  - In 1941, the organist of Cambridge University’s St. John’s College left for active duty, and to fill in they sought a substitute who was too old for combat. They settled on the 49-year-old Herbert Howells, and it became more than a temp gig. At Cambridge, he wrote his most lasting masterpieces, a setting of the canticles for King’s College or "Collegium Regale." In recent years, King’s College choir has recorded the canticles, but this new recording by another Cambridge choir, Trinity led by Stephen Layton, adds new works and also uses female singers on the upper vocal parts instead of boys' voices. Critics found it gloriously recorded as well as performed. 

THOMAS TALLIS: Spem in Alium, Sing and Glorify and other sacred  vocal music - Cardinall’s Musick/ Andrew Carwood (Hyperion 68156) - You may already have a recording of Tallis’s soaring 40-voice motet, Spem in Alium, but this one adds something new. First, it also includes the English-language version, Sing and Glorify. Second, it reproduces the “dry” acoustic of the original performance, which lets you hear detail, and with 40 parts, yes, bring on the detail! Says the BBC, “'Carwood moulds the structures to great effect, with wide-ranging dynamics from hushed groupings of eight voices to the full force'.”  

MAXIMILIAN STEINBERG: Passion Week - The Clarion Choir/ Steven Fox (Naxos 9.8573665 ) - Shortly after the Bolsheviks banned most religious music, the St. Petersburg musician Maximilian Steinberg composed a massive liturgical setting based on medieval Slavonic chant. The New York Times says “It was evidently a deeply felt act of quiet defiance." It was not published in the Soviet Union or performed in his lifetime, and lay dormant until recently. A first recording came out only two years ago, and in 2016 a second one was released by New York’s Clarion Choir. (For the back story, see the embedded video below.) Says David Vernier, the success of the Clarion recording “has to be attributed to this excellent chorus, 30-plus voices who collectively project a serious love for this music with a vibrant, shimmering tone, perfectly judged dynamics, and consistently fine balance and intonation." 

ARTHUR HONEGGER and JACQUES IBERT: L'aiglon ("the Eaglet") - Anne-Catherine Gillet, Marc Barrard, Étienne Dupuis, Montreal Symphony Orchestra/ Kent Nagano (Decca 478 950) - Wait, two composers? Yes, this opera about Napoleon's son was a collaboration, and this is its first recording in 70 years. The Guardian notes that this "stirring and often jolly little opera wasn’t a masterpiece," but that the Canadian orchestra and French-speaking cast sound "energized" by their American conductor, Kent Nagano. 

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH: Mass in B minor BWV 232 -  Maria Keohane (soprano), Joanne Lunn (soprano), Alex Potter (alto), Jan Kobow (tenor), Peter Harvey (bass) /  Concerto Copenhagen/ Lars Ulrik Mortensen (CPO 777 851-2) - Joshua Rifkin’s theory that Bach expected his choral works to be sung by one singer per choral line has, in the last 25 years, gained more advocates than ever seemed possible. (Full disclosure: I've been a proponent since 1999). They have been especially drawn to a work Bach probably never performed, the last major piece he worked on before his death, the Mass in B minor. There are now at least 9 one-per-part recordings, several of them excellent (my personal favorites include Rifkin's own, John Butt's, and Konrad Junghanel's, each quite different), but this new one from Denmark might win over the most skeptics. The Concerto Copenhagen creates a sound with as much identity as a polished modern chorus but so different from it that you have to adjust your expectations. If you come to appreciate its chamber-like intimacy, you may notice that the (superb) singers and instrumentalists interact like chamber musicians and seem inspired by the process. Yet their overall blend glows. Points, too for the exceptional recorded sound, which manages to combine pinpoint clarity with richness, warmth, and a full bass sonority. 

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH: Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248 - Mary Bevan (soprano); Claire Wilkinson (mezzo); Nicholas Mulroy (tenor); Matthew Brook (bass-baritone) (cantatas 1, 3 & 6); Joanne Lunn (soprano); Ciara Hendrick (mezzo); Thomas Hobbs (tenor); Konstantin Wolff (bass-baritone) (cantatas 2, 4 & 5) / Dunedin Consort/John Butt (LINN CKD499) - There’s more than one way to embrace Rifkin’s theory. John Butt has been one of its most important scholarly supporters, and has also offered a new interpretation of what one-per-part scoring might have meant to Bach. Part of this interpretation is theological, and I won't go into it here, but it also addresses performance style. Butt argues that we often think of this scoring "the wrong way around." With modern choral singing as our template, we expect the singers to blend into a unified sound, and we thus hear one-per-part groups as minimized choirs. Yet Butt suggests that Bach (who lived before community choirs) instead expected each choral singer to sound like an individual, with a style "perhaps closer to operatic, multi-solo practice than to a modern, blended ‘choir’."  Butt's approach is especially evident in this new set, since the Christmas Oratorio is not a single work that Bach performed in one day, but rather six cantatas for different church days. Some use trumpets and drums, others are more intimate, and in the former and the latter cantatas Butt uses different singers and groupings. How you feel about each singer will determine how you respond to the various cantatas, and critics have been divided. (I very much enjoy all of them, but that's just me.) As in other Dunedin recordings, the conducting and playing are unerringly apposite and convey a sense of "liveness," a sense of joy in making music. And once again, Linn's engineering puts us there: the opening timpani bursts out of your speakers, and the distinguished organist Andrew Benson-Wilson points out that "such is the immediacy of the Linn recording that some of the mechanics of the woodwind instruments (probably the bassoon) can be occasionally heard as a tiny background clatter. Like action noise from an historic organ, this doesn’t unduly concern me." Or me. If you've read my previous year's lists it won't surprise you that it's now my own Christmas Oratorio of choice, though I admit that most listeners prefer choral performances. (By the way, Rifkin was the first to explain why we can never know what Bach would have preferred if he'd had the choice; I am glad, personally, to have so many artists engaging with the music so intently from so many perspectives.) 

Bach - Christmas Oratorio from Dunedin Consort on Vimeo.

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH:   St. John Passion - Werner Güra (tenor, Evangelist), Johannes Weisser (bass arias/Christus), Andrew Redmond (bass, Petrus), Johannes Schendel (bass, Pilatus), Sunhae Im (soprano arias), Benno Schachtner (alto arias), Sebastian Kohlhepp (tenor arias), Fabienne Weiss (soprano, Ancilla), Minsub Hong (tenor, Servus), RIAS Kammerchor, Staats- und Domchor Berlin Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin/René Jacobs (Harmonia mundi HMC802236/37 ) – The above recordings aside, the norm among period-instrument Bach performers is still the chamber choir of three-to-four voices per choral part, and that is what Rene Jacobs uses as his main ensemble. He is, however, influenced by recent scholarship: his soloists sing in the big choral movements along with the 16-voice chamber choir, and he pares the ensemble down to one-per-part in places for special effect.  It demonstrates why the Belgian singer-turned-conductor is renowned for his ear for color. He’s also noted for the sense of commitment he elicits from his singers, and that is especially evident in this recording, which Nicholas Kenyon calls "a powerful and individual reading" with "strongly profiled rhythms" and "full-throated singing."