As the year nears its end a pile of albums stares at me pleading for attention. So I dig in a find some that I cannot allow to pass unnoticed.
The Alagna-Kurzak recording of Massenet’s rarely-heard La Navarraise (Warner ****). Sumptuous singing and gorgeous sound, recorded in New York wth a pick-up ensemble that sounds like it can play anything sight unseen.
If you wanted to hear Bach on the piano, would you go to Iceland? Seriously? And played by the winner of the Iceland Optimism Prize? Vikingur Olafsson is altogether unexpected. His compilation of pieces by Bach, interleaved with reworkings by Kempf, Busoni, Rachmaninov and himself, is an extraordinary experience, going darker and deeper into the music as the album progresses and played with a nonchalance that Busoni himself might have envied. I keep hitting the replay button. This shock surprise of the year is a ***** on DG.
Daniil Shafran was the cellist’s cellist in Soviet Russia. The antithesis of crowd-pleasing Rostropovich, he always seemed to play as if there was only one person listening – himself. Melodiya have just reissued his Bach suites in late-Soviet sound (****). If cello means anything to you, you will need to hear this set.
Where does one start with the Haydn string quartets? The opus 64 set played by the London Haydn String Quartet is as good an entry point as I have hear in years. Played with fervency and a sense of fun, I keep putting it on when I have a thorny piece of text to tackle, and the problem just resolves itself (Hyperion****).
100 Years of British Piano Miniatures (Grand Piano**) is an acquired taste. Or, in my case, dis-acquired. Every piece sounds like the incidental music the BBC used to play when I was a kid and they had got an embarrassing gap between programmes. Some will find this music nostalgic, others may consider it cult. Do I need to hear this again? Is this not Muzak with a stiff upper lip?
Walter Bricht (1904-70) is one of thousands of Austrian musicians who fled Hitler and found oblivion in America. After 1940, Bricht stopped composing. A premiere recording of his orchestral works reveals a young composer at ease with the entire palette of symphonic sound, a man with something to say, albeit in his own time. Like Franz Schmidt, to whom he has been compared, Bricht lacks a certain urgency, but there is post-Mahlerian largesse in abundance and the Fort Wayne Philharmonic give full value under conductor Andrew Constantine. Definitely one for the reference shelves (Toccata ****).
In my world, there is not much that can’t be put right by a splash of Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959). The first symphony, twinned with his American opera What Men Live By, has the year’s most arresting cover and some irresistible playing from the Czech Philharmonic with the irreplaceable Jiri Belohlavek (Supraphon ****).
Finally, have you ever wondered what Bartok might have made of the peasant songs he collected if he had lived a century later? The Modern Art Orchestra of Budapest does dirty things with tenor sax and cimbalom, culturally incorrect in every way, and with wedding vocals that could cause a riot. You’d have to stray down some very murky Buda alleys to hear anything like this. Search it out on Budapest Music Centre Records (BMC*****). You won’t be sorry.
By Norman Lebrecht