Best classical music recordings of 2016

I found it to be a remarkably deep year for recordings, against all economic odds.  I could easily go twenty deep with little loss of quality, but these are the few that stood out for me:

The Complete Songs of Virgil Thomson for Voice and Piano, by the Florestan Recital Project.  This release wins the prize for “music I didn’t really know existed before.”  Here is one stellar review.

Inspired by Brahms: Music for Horn Trio, including works by Ewazen, Kellogg, and Brahms.  After German Requiem, the Horn Trio is perhaps my favorite work by Brahms.

Brahms Lieder and Liebeslieder Waltzes, by Andrea Rose, Thomas Quasthoff,  Finally a rendition as good as the classic Vronsky/Babin recording.

Domenico Scarlatti Sonatas, by Angela Hewitt.  This is the recording I feel most comfortable recommending to most of you.

Franz Liszt, Transcendental Etudes, by Danil Trifonov.  Probably the most widely and best reviewed release of the last year, here is some background information on the etudes.

Rêve d’un Enfant, works by Franck, Ravel, and Ysaÿe, by Sophie Rosa and Benjamin Powell, the Franck is especially fine.

Mozart, Don Giovanni, conducted by Teodor Currentzis.  I never thought I would be swept off my feet by an original instruments performance of this opera, but there you go.  From Gramophone:

…briskly paced, crisp, bristling attacks – it is also unlike anyone else’s take on the great opera. It isn’t weird or eccentric; everything feels just right. What separates it from the crowd is the depth of attention which is applied to every detail, the profoundly imaginative shaping of each and every phrase, and the extraordinary, razor-sharp precision of the ensemble playing. The stuff, in other words, that everyone else would like to do, but doesn’t know how. The singing, in accordance with Currentzis’s beliefs – and others in the HIPP world – is a touch “lighter” than usual: less “operatic”, more “natural”, if there is such a thing. All the roles are superbly sung (including a best-ever Don Ottavio) and the recording is rich, warm and finely detailed.

That’s the one that wins my top prize.


Also new on my discovery list were the string quartets of Ben Johnston and also Robert Simpson, although these were not generally new recordings.  I listened to plenty of Haydn, rediscovered Idomeneo, for some reason was a bit bored by Beethoven, and rued the passing of Pierre Boulez.


'I found it to be a remarkably deep year for recordings, against all economic odds.'

So, average is still over? Or is art not really well understood using a commercial culture framework?

Don't get complacent, class - these questions will undoubtedly be handled in a future column or book.

There seems to be a cheaper recording of the Don Giovanni opera than the one in your link. I can't tell why its double listed.

thank you. i look forward to these write ups.

Is it possible these are just pretentious poseurs who mechanically but flawlessly perform their craft without feeling (whatever that means; can a robot play the violin with feeling? Sounds like a 1950's SciFi short story) and it their off-time listen and enjoy UK Top 40 pop music? Yes it does. Google the Mexican musician Perez in Xicohtzinco, a tiny village in the Mexican state of Tlaxcalaklezmer, who plays Jewish folk music klezmer (as read in the Wall Street Journal yesterday). Not that it matters, enjoy!

Not quite sure what your point is; but that aside, how can "Yes it does" answer the question "Is it possible"?
Also, Perez and his cohort sound like street musicians (which is fine) but are hardly -- to my ears -- flawlessly mechanical poseurs.
In any case, thanks for pointing him/them out.

I'm glad to see Ben Johnston's quartets getting some attention. For my money they are the best string quartets from a US composer, and some of the best in the genre since Shostakovich. I would also recommend both the quartets and symphonies of Coates, if you are not already familiar with her work.

In addition to Johnston's music, I think if more math nerds in particular read his writing on tuning systems (collected in his book, MAXIMUM CLARITY) there would be a golden age of microtonal music. Deriving tuning systems turns out to be more fun than sudoku.

The background link for the Etudes is broken.

Somehow Liszt is very in now. Maybe he should have been more so all along. Of course at one point, in his own lifetime, he was overblown. But indeed his piano compositions are really something else.

I also applaud new attention to Ben Johnston's work.

I also love Brahms horn trio. I used to play it with my late mother and sister, me on horn, mother on violin, and my sister on the piano.

Can someone comment on how the Trifonov recording compares to Janice Weber's recording?

2016 was a good year for fans of Alexander Mosolov, the underappreciated Soviet composer who spent time in a Stalin prison. The first recording of all of the available piano sonatas (one was lost) was issued, played by Russian pianist Olga Andryushchenko. She does a good job.

I hadn't heard of the Currentzis Mozart recordings before, but I just started listening to the Don Giovanni. My old Giulini recording may not get much play time from now on. Wow. Thanks.

After 3 seconds of googling I found this panegyric:

Mozart did not know he was producing "classical" music, only music for operas and plays. Likewise the best classical music recordings this year was probably released by John Williams(Star Wars) or Hans Zimmer, maybe even Nick Cave & Warren Ellis... and certainly not that hack Alan Silvestri (of generic & forgetable superhero movie soundtrack fame), prolific as he may be.

I would call the guys rerecording Beethoven what they are, cover bands.

Justin Kelly - but Silvestri was really on his game when he wrote the end music for that movie called Cast Away (or Castaway): the chord changes track the emotions better than any actor did in the movie, and the movie had actors at the top of their game (Helen Hunt in particular, and the cinematographer who tracked Wilson floating away :( ----- >>>>>< ). I too am a fan of our Hollywood and other contemporary movie composers - there are a few Russians (Ptichkin, for one) who also do well, and lots of composers of other nationalities. We should judge artists at their best - if one day we ourselves are considered artists, or our children are considered artists, or someone else we care about is considered as such, we (or our children or someone else we care about) will instinctively know we need to measure and treasure an artist at her best . Before her best, she was that amazing person who is about to become a true artist: after her best, she is in that zone that so few of us know - the zone where we have said said what needed to be said and are living on in a world where one is, after all, loved for being who one is, but, as an 'artist', loved for being who one was: the zone where one finally realizes that God does not love us for our gifts but gives us those gifts out of His love. Life is not simple!

Alan Silvestri can come up with tones and chords that fit a mood or scene, the problem is that they are inseparable from it, and absent the cinema they accompany they are incomplete. The man has a great talent and uses it to exploits an economically niche but artistically his work seldom stands on its own. Save for "back to the future" or "predator", or maybe forest gump, I have difficulty recalling any of his work, but can tell it when I see it. Silvestri is hard pressed to fit them into a memorable piece.

I can always remember what Basil Poldouris or Hans Simmer or John Williams wrote, their pieces are classic like that of Mozart or Beethoven. They stay with you, they invite their own visual accompaniment. Their work will be remembered long after their films are forgotten.

I am not disagreeing with anything you say... I am just saying I really liked Silvestri's work on the end credits of Cast Away. I do not have a favorite composer (well there is Mozart,and a few others, about whom I am reluctant to say that each of them was not an angel of God in his or her best moments): sadly, for the moment, I am too old to think of any composer without thinking I wish my child or my grandchild was as talented as him or her. We all want to excel,in one way or another. Again, I am not disagreeing with anything you say.

Tchaikovsky was sound on Brahms.

Yes Tchaikovsky understood Brahms well. Rachmaninoff included many jokes in his chamber music - well not just jokes, actually beautiful passages of reconciliation of melodies and harmonies of what in the real world would be battling textures but in music of angelic genius were simply something anyone who meets the minimum requirements of liking to listen to harmonious things likes to listen to - (starting the sentence over again...) ... that were, when you play them over again, priceless musical meditations on Brahms trying to understand the limitations --- passionate limitations, but limitations nonetheless --- of Tchaikovsky --- and Tchaikovsky trying to understand an infinity --- the very same infinity that Brahms was so often thinking about. Good times while it lasted!

Thank you for reviewing Currentzis! Maybe you saw my comment or maybe not, but you delivered.
How does it rank for you? as in this list:

Number one!

Thanks for this Tyler, esp. bringing my attention to the Liszt, which I had overlooked. Listened via Amazon's streaming service, and it's a stunner. Great listening!

I look forward to hearing the horn trio disc. If you haven't already heard it, the Ligeti horn trio is very good. &, yeah, the Ben Johnston quartets are fabulous.

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