Notable Recordings of 2011 – Part 1

As the end of the year approaches, the Internet is inundated with best-of and 10-best lists of everything from books and music to celebrities and memes. Not interested in such lists myself, I nevertheless thought it would be interesting to look at my iTunes library and see what music I added this year, and see which of these recordings stood out. Here is a list, in chronological order, of the new recordings that I got in 2011 that I find noteworthy. Some were released in 2011, but most were recordings that I discovered during this year. (This is part 1 of a 2-part series, covering January through June.)

The first new recordings I added to my library in 2011 were by Alfred Brendel. Not new, but re-released in budget sets, were collections of his Schubert’s Piano Works, 1822-1828 and his Beethoven’s Complete Piano Sonatas & Concertos. Both of these sets show Brendel at the peak of his career, in the music that he was most attached to. It’s fair to say that the Schubert set is one of the best of that composer’s music, and, while the Beethoven has much more competition, Brendel is in the top few as well.

Thomas Hampson’s new recording of Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn songs, is nearly perfect. As I said in my review on MusicWeb International, “It’s fair to say that in lieder terms Thomas Hampson is to Mahler what Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was to Schubert – and was, in his time, to Mahler as well. Hampson owns Mahler’s songs.” This recording with a chamber orchestra offers a new approach to the music, which is generally performed either with just the singer and a piano, or with a full orchestra.

I knew Liszt the pianist, but this year, I discovered the Liszt that composed for the orchestra, by way of a budget recording of his Symphonic Poems, by Bernard Haitink and the London Philharmonic. The richness of this music is astounding, but this was a new orchestral style at the time, and it takes repeated listenings to understand where Liszt was going with this music.

I had never heard of York Bowen before, but this two-disc set of his Piano Sonatas, played by Danny Driver, helped me fill that gap. Sometimes called “the English Rachmaninoff,” Bowen’s romanticism is beautiful, and Driver’s performances impeccable.

The Durutti Column has been a favorite of mine for some 30 years, and while the album, Vini Reilly, is not one of the best, this remaster sheds new light on the music, and helps me better appreciate this period of this artist’s music. Vini Reilly is the name of the artist who records, on his own or with others, as The Durutti Column. This eponymous album, released in 1989, came after a fallow period, and marked a rebirth in Vini’s music.

Charles Ive’s Concord Sonata is my favorite modern piano work, and this orchestration by Henry Brant, called the Concord Symphony, performed by the San Francisco Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas, is a brilliant transformation of that piano sonata to an orchestral form. With exquisite sound, this is an excellent recording. (It is paired with the rather tepid Organ Symphony by Aaron Copland.)

András Schiff is an excellent pianist, and his recordings of Bach’s Solo Keyboard Works is a delight. I hadn’t known many of these recordings, but listening to all of them over a few days showed me just how much Schiff understands Bach. (As you’ll see in Part 2 of this article, I was also impressed by a Blu-Ray disc of him performing Bach’s French Suites.)

If you want to put a smile on your face, listen to some music by Henry Purcell. This set of three CDs of his Complete Secular Solo Songs is nearly four hours of happiness, with some of the most delightful melodies and excellent singers. This music deserves to be better known. A companion set, The Complete Ayres for the Theatre, is just as wonderful.

Phantasm’s recording of William Byrd’s Complete Consort Music was a revelation. I’ve long loved the viola da gamba, and especially viol consort music (that written for an ensemble of viols), but this is the best such recording I’ve ever heard. Not only is Byrd’s music extraordinary, but this performance and recording are exceptional. A must-have disc for anyone who likes early music.

Read part 2 of this article.

See also Classical Music Box Sets for the Holidays.

Feel free to add comments about the recordings that you enjoyed most this year.