[UPDATED Jan 18: Expanded to include 36 publications and over 100 critics - yielding some new rankings:] What were the best classical releases of 2014? Don't ask me!- or any one person alone. After all, thousands of releases came out last year, and nobody had the time or money to listen to every contender. Besides, we're more likely to hear about artists from our own necks of the woods. And that neck is defined not only geographically but also musically, since most critics have specialized tastes and expertise.
So here's an alternate strategy, taken from the economist and blogger Tyler Cowen. Every year, he puts together a "Fanfare Meta-list," consisting of albums that made two or more of the "Want Lists" posted by the critics at his favorite classical magazine, Fanfare. I've expanded his method to include every list of "best classical albums of 2014" that I could find from anywhere on the planet. My sources come from all over the US and from Canada, the UK, France, Denmark, Germany, and Australia (there's a list with links at the bottom of the page). Right now, the count is up to 36 publications; but since pubs like the New York Times, Music-Web International and Fanfare run individual lists from each of their critics (45 of them at Fanfare!), my total number of panelists comes in at over 100.
I put all their choices into a spreadsheet, then ran a "sort." About 30 classical releases emerged as worldwide 2014 favorites. That status was operationally defined as an album that appeared on at least four best-of-year lists.
CAVEATS (you can skip these if you want to just see the lists): If a meta-list were big enough it could, in theory, balance out the diverse orientations, locations, and tastes of different critics. But I don't want to overstate the rocket science here. For one thing, to get a real "wisdom of crowds" effect, all the critics would have to be judging all the albums independently, but in fact we tend to read and influence each other. Also, to get truly accurate reads all the critics would have to listen "blind" to plain-brown-wrapper tracks with no hint about who was playing. Research has shown that most people find a $750 wine way tastier than a $4 wine - even if, unbeknownst to them, it's the exact same wine served in a different bottle; the same thing happens to musicians, some of whom we tend to hear as Chateaux Haut-Brion no matter how they play and others whom we tend to diss as Two-Buck Chucks. Finally, even when you look around the world, musical attention is finite and tends to get funneled. We hear (and hear about) artists who can afford publicists but not so much about the ones who can't; and we give too little respect and time to certain Rodney Dangerfield genres. These include music for organ, plucked string (although guitarist Jason Vieux's irresistible album "Play" made two lists), and band (only Fanfare named any from that thriving field). Yet great CDs came out this year in all those genres. So, what rises to the top of a "mega-meta-list" may not always be the cream, and by no means will ALL the cream get there. A final caveat: I took advantage of my position as scorekeeper to change one of my own votes, as I now think differently. (Hey, it's my football! I figure it's okay as long as I disclose that I did it, right?)
I'd say the results support John von Rhein of the Chicago Tribune when he says it was a great year for classical recordings. New music and golden-age performances abounded. To be sure, the list reflects classical music's woman problem - not a single album of music composed by a woman made more than one or two lists. (Alex Ross of The New Yorker listed 3 women composers on his top-10 list - well-done, sir! - but really folks, let's work on this.) On the other hand, remarkably, not a single Beethoven album made four or more lists. I doubt that this reflects a decline in performance standards so much as saturation: not even Leif Ove Andsnes's Concertos or Steven Isserlis's cello sonatas, both superb, got the nod from four of the critics surveyed, perhaps because they already have dozens of glorious predecessors on their shelves and didn't feel like comparing.
But enough with the apologia - you ready? I've separated the albums into three rungs based on popularity - call them Gold, Silver, and Bronze. In a future post I hope to list the albums that got three votes each - they include some of the most interesting - and I do recommend that you click through to the individual critics to get to some fascinating idiosyncratic choices. Ok, then: The envelope, please!
I. GOLD: THE ALBUMS THAT MADE 7 LISTS OR MORE
It's a symptom of the health of the classical music scene that if you love music of almost any genre, you will very likely dig these:
1. Benjamin Grosvenor: Dances (Decca) - The 22-year-old British pianist has appeared twice with the Des Moines Symphony in the last two years, to the delight of everyone who heard him - and that joy is shared by music writers around the world. No fewer than 11 chose this imaginatively programmed album for their best-of-year lists. It features music from Bach through Morton Gould inspired by dance. Great concept, but what makes it so irresistible is the exhilarating, masterly piano playing. Jessica Duchen's take: "Themed around dance, the disc offers pieces both well-known and very rare and some exquisitely ‘golden age’ takes on the former. Grosvenor’s touch is swift and soft, incisive and clear; though he is capable of considerable power, he never bashes, even at high volume. And his sense of rhythm – vital for a dancey disc – is so assured that you imagine if you dropped him, he’d bounce." Here's a sample:
2. John Luther Adams: Become Ocean - Seattle Symphony/ Ludovic Morlot (Canteloupe 21101) - This piece also won the Pulitzer Prize, so make that 9 lists. (And, newsflash: Adams just become the eighth composer in 33 years ever to win the prestigious William Schuman Award.) The eclectic Ted Gioia, who ranked it the best album of 2014 in any genre, writes, "I never thought I would pick a Pulitzer Prize-winning composition for the top spot on my end-of-year list. For as long as I can remember, the Pulitzer judges focused on pleasing a niche group of academics who care more about 'compositional strategies' than how music actually sounds. But contemporary classical music has changed, and the field is now spawning many appealing and genre-bending works. John Luther Adams lives up to the title of his composition, capturing an oceanic torrent of sound in an awe-inspiring performance." And here's an informative review from NPR's Tom Huizenga (excerpt:" "Adams' piece is as much a seascape as Debussy's iconic La Mer, in its roiling waves of sound curling up and out, building to climaxes and receding, and at the end not so much ebbing as subsuming everything else... Become Ocean ushers you in and swallows you up...")
Amazingly, you can watch it here!:
3. John Adams: City Noir/ Saxophone Concerto - St. Louis Symphony/ David Robertson, Timothy McAllister, saxophone (Nonesuch) - John "Not Luther" Adams (the other major American composer named like an American founder) had quite a year - and two new albums of his works made "best of 2014" lists. This one made seven of them. It was brilliantly reviewed at IPR's website by Susan Scheid, who tells us that saxophonist Timothy McAllister's "extraordinary work on City Noir prompted Adams to write the Saxophone Concerto specifically for him." Composers like Mozart and Brahm wrote what now seem timeless works for specific soloists who inspired them; how cool is it to hear the same process in our own decade? That's especially so given what Susan calls the "daredevil, take-no-prisoners performance" by McAllister; she adds, "That he’d once been a champion stunt bicycle rider came as no surprise."
4. Anton Bruckner: Symphony no. 9 - Lucerne Festival Orchestra/ Claudio Abbado (Deutsche Grammophon 479 3441) -
Abbado, a humane, self-effacing giant of the podium, died in 2014 after a long struggle with cancer; this is his last recording. He couldn't have chosen a better swansong: Bruckner left this powerful masterpiece unfinished, yet conductor Ken Woods just ranked it the greatest of all D-Minor Symphonies. There are numerous inspired recordings of it, but according to Andrew Clement in The Guardian, this one is different: "a transparency .... especially in the great transfiguring adagio ... a soundworld that belies all the cliches about Bruckner's scoring and the ponderousness of his symphonic thinking....time seems infinitely elastic, and everything has all the space it needs.
5. Joyce DiDonato: Stella di Napoli (Erato) - In an age of great mezzos, Kansan Joyce DiDonato is a standout - and she just keeps hitting the artistic heights. In this release, she explores some less-well-known Italian arias, and, as Fiona Maddocks put it, " You may think bel canto recital discs are not your thing. Let Joyce DiDonato convince you otherwise. She did me." Me too!
6. Franz Schubert: Winterreisse - Jonas Kaufmann, with Helmut Deutsch, piano (Sony) Schubert's wrenching exploration of romantic loss had, for me, been done a little too often - great recordings come out in handfuls every year - but I put on Kaufmann's CD and within moments was gripped. Part of what got me was the sheer richness and color of his voice, but more of it was the emotional depth and acuity. As usual, collectors had more than enough Winterreises to process in 2014 - some critics preferred Gerald Finley's on Hyperion or Matthias Goerne on Harmonia mundi (I haven't heard either, though I love both singers). But many chose Kaufmann - in fact, seven put his recording on their best-of-2014 lists. All I can say is that Kauffman and his collaborator, pianist Helmut Deutsch, moved me deeply. Here's a video on the making of the cycle:
II. SILVER: THE ALBUMS THAT MADE 5 or 6 LISTS EACH
1. John Adams: The Gospel According to the Other Mary - Los Angeles Philharmonic/ Gustavo Dudamel (Deutsche Grammophon 479 2243) - Susan Scheid reviewed this other major John Adams release (equally brilliantly) at IPR's website.
2. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: Magnificat and Heilig! - Akademie fur alte Musik Berlin; (Harmonia mundi HMC 902167) If you love the choral works of J.S. Bach - say, the Mass in B Minor or Magnificat - where do you turn next?
Here's your answer: to his number-two son, whose 3ooth birthday was in 2o14. CPE wrote his Magnificat in the hopes of succeeding his dad as cantor of Leipzig; he didn't get the job, but not because this music is less than glorious. The Heilig!, written decades later, explores a new world of sound and rhetoric. The CD is sensational - hear it! (I reviewed it on IPR's homepage in June.)
3. Johann Sebastian Bach: The Art of Fugue - Angela Hewitt, piano (Hyperion 67980) - Two decades ago, the Canadian pianist began recording all of Bach's keyboard works, and in 2014 her project reached a glorious culmination with this, Bach's last keyboard collection. The best review of it you can read was published at Iowa Public Radio's website by the Israeli Bach scholar Uri Golomb. Many outstanding recordings of the music of J. S. Bach came out in 2014, but this is the one that made the most best-of-year lists.
4 Leonard Bernstein, West Side Story - San Francisco Symphony/ Michael Tilson-Thomas (SFS Media 059) - Thirty years ago Bernstein himself recorded what was meant to be the definitive West Side Story. But, says Jonathan Blumhofer, Lenny's decision to use opera stars rather than Broadway singers was a fail. Says Blumhofer, "all the lead roles suffer. Totally miscast as Tony, Jose Carreras, for all his musicianship and vocal power, never shakes his Spanish accent. Kiri Te Kanewa isn’t convincing as a sweet, innocent, and – above all – young Maria.... Kurt Ollmann, while conveying youthful bravado, too often sounds stiff and uncomfortable as Riff." Michael Tilson Thomas, who began working with Bernstein in the 1970s, set out to get it exactly right in a live concert performance from San Francisco, and critics are unanimous: THIS is the West Side Story we've been waiting for. And while the glory of Lenny's recording was the orchestral playing, MTT and his players hold up in this department, too; says David Hurwitz, "more than in Bernstein’s more aggressive, almost heavy-handed DG production, MTT captures the work’s sophistication, stylishness, spontaneity, and sheer, easy melodic flow, while the playing of the San Francisco Symphony is simply beyond criticism."
5. Johannes Brahms: Symphonies and orchestral works - Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipiz/ Riccardo Chailly (Decca) - Gramophone Magazine's overall "Recording of the Year." The New York Times says the orchestra "sounds urgent, its light textures revealing all the complexity of Brahms’s inner parts in vibrant recorded sound. There are rough, biting edges to the playing, to be sure — this is not cosseting, luxurious Brahms — but they only enhance the anger and frustration of the Third and Fourth."
6. Ferrucio Busoni: Late piano music - Marc-Andre Hamelin (Hyperion 67951) The French-Canadian pianist gave us no fewer than three awesome CDs. His Schumann/ Janacek recording made three best-of-year lists, and his end-of-year Debussy release may make a few in 2015. But it was this album, focused on the works of an enigmatic Italian-German genius, that won major awards and made four lists. Said Gramophone, "Hamelin, playing with unfaltering lucidity and authority, achieves an astonishing triumph even by his exalted standards. As always, Hyperion has done him proud … an album that could never be bettered."
7. Antonin Dvorak: Cello Concerto and other cello music - Alicia Weilerstein, cello/ Czech Philharmonic led by Jiri Behlohlavek (Decca 478 5705) - The young American cellist (a MacArthur "genius") plays the greatest of cello concertos. Geoffrey Norris of The Telegraph says it's "an interpretation of passion. It is by no means heart-on-sleeve but, rather, it is distinguished by well-harnessed vigour and attack, susceptibility to the music's lyrical heart, and by a range of tone that traces the concerto's expressive contours with the assurance, sweep and attention to nuance that derive both from mature artistry and from a deep understanding of the music's emotional trajectory. There is a spine-tingling thrill and generosity of feeling to this performance that make it irresistible."
8. Mozart: Requiem - Dunedin Consort/ John Butt (Linn 449) - Do we need another Mozart Requiem? Yes, when it's performed like this! The recording aims to reconstruct the score and orchestration of the first performances in Vienna, but it's the artistic power, style and insight that have stayed with me. The Linn recorded sound is almost like being there.
9. Carl Nielsen: Symphonies nos. 1 and 4, "Inextinguishable" (Da Capo)-New York Philharmonic / Alan Gilbert (Da Capo) - From the BBC's review: " 'Music is life and, like it, inextinguishable.' Nielsen's explanation of the title of his Fourth Symphony is also a key to the interpretation ... Alan Gilbert succeeds in suggesting the force underlying its progress through changing landscapes towards the thrilling conclusion with two battling timpanists. ... The New York Philharmonic players respond collectively and as individuals. Handovers between string sections are at daringly quiet dynamic levels and are almost imperceptible. The woodwind combine to produce a fresh, well-blended sonority in the pastoral second movement; but in the transition to the finale the first oboist gives a personal twist to his solo...."
10. Sergei Prokofiev: Piano Concertos - Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, piano/ BBC Philharmonic/ Gianandrea Noseda (Chandos) Few critics were less than floored by this collaboration.
11. Mieczysław Weinberg: Symphony no. 10 and Chamber Music- Gidon Kremer, Kremerata Baltica (ECM New Series 2368/69) Weinberg was born in Warsaw in 1919, the son of a musician famous in the Yiddish theater. A piano prodigy, Mieczyslaw entered the Warsaw Conservatory at the age of 12, graduated in 1939, then escaped the Nazi invasion by fleeing to the USSR. (His parents and sister did not get away; the Nazis literally burned them alive.) In 1943 Weinberg's music led to a lifelong friendship with Dmitri Shostakovich, who came to regard him as one of the great composers of the 20th century. Shostakovitch tried to intervene on Weinberg's behalf when in February, 1953 the latter was arrested in Stalin's anti-Semitic "Doctor's Plot." (Stalin had already assassinated Weinberg's father-in-law.) Stalin died in March; two days later, Weinberg was released. He became one of the most-performed composers in the USSR. While critics used to complain that Weinberg's music sounded obviously influenced by Shostakovich, scholars increasingly see that the influence went both ways. The "Jewish style" that Shostakovich explored in some of his major works was a conscious tribute to his friend's music. So where can we go to start in exploring this important but long-forgotten composer? Here's your answer - a two-cd musical portrait by the great Latvian violinist/ conductor Gidon Kremer, who also considers Weinberg one of the supreme composers of the 20th century, and may convince you with this set!
12. Leon Fleisher, piano: All of the Things You Are (Bridge) - NPR's Tom Huizenga writes: "When Leon Fleisher lost the use of his right hand in his 30s, the piano superstar could hardly have imagined he'd be enjoying such happy success some five decades later. Recorded earlier this year when Fleisher was 85, this album includes in a broad range of new and old music, mainly composed for left hand alone. Leading off with a penetrating account of J.S. Bach's Chaconne (arranged by Brahms), Fleisher moves deftly from the austere modernism of George Perle's Musical Offerings (written for Fleisher), to the introspective silence of Federico Mompou's Prelude No. 6, to Earl Wild's deceptively virtuosic transcription of Gershwin's "The Man I Love." All the while you'd swear he's using at least 10 fingers."
III. BRONZE: THE ALBUMS THAT MADE 4 LISTS EACH
1. Johann Sebastian Bach: The Partitas for Keyboard - Igor Levit, piano (Sony) Levit's survey of the late Beethoven sonatas made many best-of lists last year; he's back with Bach's finest set of dance suites for keyboard. Said Gramophone, the result is "fresh and joyous...Levit's achievement is to miss nothing of their scope and variety as compositions while conveying what it is that makes each one a unity, not an anthology, demanding to be performed complete."
2. Sir Harrison Birtwistle: Chamber Music (ECM New Series 2253) - The modernist British composer turned 80, and at least four record critics celebrated!
3. Mamoru Fujieda: Patterns of Plants- Sarah Cahill, piano (Pinna 2) - One thing classical music does superbly is convey what E. O. Wilson calls "biophilia": the sense of awe and connection inspired in us by nature. Think of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, Sibelius's Fifth (inspired by the wild swans of the Finnish forest), Debussy's La Mer - and of Become Ocean. Add to that list Patterns of Plants. These subtle, hypnotic creations take their inspiration directly from nature - specifically, the voltage patterns that plants emit. I was skeptical of the premise, but entranced by the music and the playing. And I was one of five who put it on my best-of-2014 list.
4. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: The Last Three Symphonies - Orchestra of the 18th Century/ Frans Bruggen (Glossa) - Bruggen, a vibrantly original pioneer of period instruments, died in 2014 at the age of 79. His 1980s recordings of these Mozart symphonies are still reference quality, but this recent (2010) concert recording struck four critics as even better.
5. Daniel Hope, violin (with the Stockholm Philharmonic and guest artists Sting and Max Raabe: Escape to Paradise (Deutsche Grammophon 479 2954) - While Weinberg escaped to Russia, many other European Jewish composers found refuge in Hollywood. One of them, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, had been hailed in his native Vienna (by people like Mahler and Richard Strauss) as the greatest prodigy since Mozart. By his 20s we was fulfilling that promise - but after the Anschluss, he fled to the US and found work in Hollywood, vowing to write no more classical music until Hitler was deposed. Instead, he and his fellow refugees, such as Miklos Rosza and Franz Waxman, poured their genius into a new genre they essentially created: the film score. Korngold's Violin Concerto, written in 1945, takes some of its themes from the genius-level inspirations he'd scattered through those films. Hope plays it passionately, along with a range of other masterpieces by him and many other refugees, as well as those they inspired.
6. San Francisco Symphony / Michael Tilson Thomas (with pianist Yuja Wang): Masterpieces in Miniature (SFS Media, 821936-0060-2) - Some of the year's best albums were self-produced and published by, among others, orchestras that have their own house labels. But only the San Francisco Symphony had two such CDs on the mega-meta-list. You would have heard all of the items on this one on IPR's San Francisco Symphony concert broadcasts - all were recorded live - but it's a treat to have this "greatest bon-bon performance" anthology. Along with beautiful performance of the Sibelius Valse triste, Faure Pavane, and Delius On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring are rarities like an orchestration of a movement from Charles Ives's Concord Sonata and Yuja Wang playing a movement from Henry Litolff. Delicious and nutritious!
7. Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim: Duo Piano Recital in Berlin (Deutsche Grammophon) - If his recording arrived in a plain brown wrapper, few of us would have made it past the first movement of the Mozart. What a loss that would have been! These are two of the greatest musicians of our time, performing together at the piano in public for the first time since they were kids in Buenos Aires in 1949. They've been central to my own musical experience since I was a teenager. Of course I can't resist, and why should we? It's thrilling:
8. Quicksilver: Fantasticus (Acis) - The critical favorite out of a number of great recordings of 17th-century instrumental chamber music - and the perfect introduction to the genre, since surveys a wide range of composers. The booklet says it "explores one of the cultural revolutions of the time: the development of the sonata as a purely instrumental work with no agenda. Besides the imagination of the composer, and with no standard formal shape except the passionate give-and-take of friends in conversation, this “new music” is virtuosic, experimental, unexpected, and deeply moving." It's true!
9. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and Manfred Honeck: Dvorak Symphony no. 8 and Janacek, Jenufa Suite (Reference) - In Classics Today, editor David Hurwitz wrote, "There are few things more wonderful in the life of a record collector than a really great recording of a repertory warhorse... [here is] a conductor who loves the music, who has genuine ideas about how it should go and what it reveals, a great orchestra in a performance that makes us listen to the piece afresh, and who reaffirms our belief not just in this particular work but in what it means to be a “classic”...."
10. William Walton: Symphony no. 1 and Violin Concerto - Tasmin Little (violin) BBC SO/Edward Gardner (Chandos 5136) - At MusicWeb, Michael Greennalgh writes, "I particularly admire the urgency of Gardner’s opening to the symphony, the icy soulfulness of his slow movement and formal, yet resplendent, grandeur of the finale. Add to that the feast of lyricism born of out sorrow in the opulence Gardner and Tasmin Little fully reveal in the Violin concerto."
DVD OF THE YEAR:
1. Richard Wagner's Parsifal from the Met (Jonas Kauffman in the title role, Daniele Gatti conducting) - I recently wrote about copyright, and noted that one type of justification for it, "moral" (as opposed to economic) rights, took form in Europe but was long rejected in the USA. (Moral rights include the artists' control of things like attribution and the "integrity" of their work - even long after the work is sold.) A classic example of the trans-Atlantic divide is Wagner's last work, Parsifal. Wagner described it as not an opera but a "stage-consecrating festival play," and, as Peter Baldwin writes in The Copyright Wars, the composer "insisted that it would be degraded by performance at any theater other than the one built in Bayreuth as a shrine to his own oeuvre." German law at the time gave copyright on Parsifal to Wagner's heirs for 30 years after his death, and they zealously protected the Bayreuth-only policy. When their copyright expired on December 31, 1913, says Baldwin, "Rarely has the liberation into the public domain been as spectacularly demonstrated as with the outpouring of pent-up Parsifal stagings outside of Bayreuth." But here's the thing: the Metropolitan Opera in New York had already violated the ban in 1903, because US courts had ruled that it had no legal force in US law. So it's fitting that 100 years after the ban ended, this penetrating new 2013 production by the Met has been the favorite DVD of four critics. And you can see it without going anywhere, enshrined or otherwise.
MY 36 SOURCES:
1. amazon.co.uk Best Classical Albums of 2014
2. Arkiv.com Best of 2014 list
3. Jonathan Blumhofer, ArtsFuse, Notable Classical Recordings of 2014
4. Big City Blog Best Classical Albums 2014
5. ClassicFM's Albums of the Year 2014
6. Andrew Clements, The Guardian, Best Classical CDS of 2014
7. NPR's Deceptive Cadence team, Anastasia Tsoulcias and Tom Huizenga
8. Diapason France, Palmares des Diapason d'or 2014
9. Jed Distler, All over the keyboard blog: "Some of my favorite 2014 keyboard CDs"
10. Charles Downey, Ionarts, Things I Liked This Year
11. Jeremy Eichler, Boston Globe, 2014 Best Classical Music Album Picks
13. Grammy Award Classical Nominations
14. Gramophone Awards 2014
15. Jens F. Laurson, Forbes, "The 10 Best Classical Recordings Of 2014 (New Releases)"
16. Music-Web International Recordings of the Year 2014
17. The New York Times classical critics
18. Presto Classical 2014 Top Ten Discs of the Year
19. Morten Ernst Lassen, Real Tidal Hifi (Denmark)
20. Ronni Reich, New Jersey Star-Ledger, "Top 10 2014 Classical Music Recordings"
21. Alex Ross, The Rest Is Noise blog, Notable recordings of 2014
22. Susan Scheid, Prufrock's Dilemma, My Year in Music
23. Suzanne Bona, Sunday Baroque Holiday Gift List 2014
24. Richard Scheinin, San Jose Mercury News, Best of 2014: Top 10 Classical Discs
25. Sinfini, Top 10 Classical Albums of 2014
26. WBUR: CDs in 2014
27. Kent Teeters, CapRadio, "Top Five Classical CDs of 2014
28. Readings (Australia) Best Classical CDs of 2014
29. KDFC - Favorite CDs of 2014
30. John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune, "Ten Discs That Made This a Great Classical Year"
31. Me at IPR and
32. BBC Music Magazine's 2015 Award Nominees
33. EchoKlassic Preistrager 2014
34. Sunday Times (gated - I only have 13 of their 20 so far)
36. Oh yes..... Fanfare's Want Lists (which are gated)