Commentary: Best and Worst Classical Recordings of 2018

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Our critic’s year-end tally of the classical albums that, in looking back over 2018, stand tallest – plus a few that didn’t make the bar.

The past year has been a robust one for the classical music recording industry, both in terms of output and quality: indeed, over the last twelve months, I’ve reviewed over one hundred albums, which is only a small fraction of what’s come out. Many of them were good or better, some less than that. Below is my year-end tally of the ones that, in looking back over 2018, stand tallest – plus a few that didn’t make the bar.

Top 12 Recordings of 2018

American Romantics (American String Quartet)

The ASQ’s account of a pair of old favorites – Dvorak’s American Quartet and Barber’s Adagio for Strings – was flawless: characterful and note-perfect. On top of that, they offered the ingratiating premiere recording of Robert Sirota’s String Quartet no. 2. What more could you ask for?

Beethoven, Eroica Symphony (Reference Records)

Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony set the bar for Beethoven these days. Their account of the Eroica Symphony was nothing short of spectacular: bracingly rhythmic, blazing with color, totally fresh. If you only hear (or own) one Eroica, it might as well be this one. For a bonus, there’s William Caballero’s kinetic performance of Richard Strauss’s Horn Concerto no. 1 to fill out the album.

Bernstein, A Quiet Place (Decca)

Leonard Bernstein’s problematic, profoundly disturbing opera A Quiet Place is, at first glance, probably nobody’s idea of the Great American Opera. And yet, with its uncompromising approach to the broken American Dream – a family trying to save itself even as it’s coming apart at the seams – it’s a hard piece to look away from and, ultimately, a powerful, moving study in the complexity of human relationships. All of that comes across in Kent Nagano’s new recording (with the Orchestre symphonique du Montreal) of Edwin Garth Sunderland’s excellent chamber adaptation of the score, which restores much music Bernstein cut in his 1984 revision of the original.

Destination Rachmaninoff (Deutsche Grammophon)

Daniil Trifonov can do no wrong, at least when it comes to Rachmaninoff. His second DG Rachmaninoff disc pairs the Second and Fourth Piano Concertos with the Russian master’s transcription of Bach’s E-major violin Partita. Terrific music, faultlessly played by, let’s face it, the greatest pianist (in this repertoire, at least) of the day.

Four Pianos (Harmonia mundi)

Alexander Melnikov’s approach to a fundamental musical question – how do the limitations of a given instrument determine the ways composers write music – was one of the year’s compelling discs. His survey of pieces by Schubert, Chopin, Liszt, and Stravinsky was, on the one hand, a demonstration of the development of the modern piano. But, more than that, it was a colorful, evocative, thoroughly-engrossing exploration of the virtuosic strands that tie these disparate pieces, eras, and composers together.

The Gershwin Moment (Myrios)

Are there any new depths to plumb in Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue or his Piano Concerto in F? Well, if Kirill Gerstein’s the pianist, the answer’s “yes.” Subtly interweaving improvised sections into his total stylistic command of Gershwin’s notated language, Gerstein’s accounts of both pieces prove vivid and spontaneous. Throw in some of Earl Wilde’s Gershwin-inspired Virtuoso Etudes plus duets with vibraphonist Gary Burton and vocalist Storm Large (not to mention locked-in collaborations with the St. Louis Symphony and conductor David Robertson), and you’ve basically got the perfect Gershwin album.

Hilary Hahn plays Bach (Decca)

Twenty-plus years after Hahn’s first all-unaccompanied-Bach album (her debut disc, no less!), her sequel, featuring the other three solo violin sonatas and partitas, was released this fall. Hahn’s technique remains irreproachable and her interpretive powers are second-to-none. But her true gift is her ability to bring this complex music’s timeless humanity – its mix of joy, sadness, purpose, and elegance – to life better than nearly any violinist on record, period.

Langgaard, Symphonies (Dacapo)

Rued Langgaard is one of the greatest symphonists about whom you’ve likely never heard. That’s partly because his music could be all over the place: stodgily imitative one moment (or piece), shockingly visionary the next. Sakari Oramo’s recording of a pair of those disparate works with the Vienna Philharmonic – the sumptuous, Straussian Symphony no. 2 and the wild, apocalyptic Symphony no. 6 – plus a couple of short fillers was nothing short of magnificent, the VPO not just playing the music to the hilt but seeming to enjoy every bar along the way.

Reich, Drumming (Colin Currie Percussion Group)

The Colin Currie Percussion Group’s recording of Reich’s 1971 masterpiece is one of – no, the – greatest recording of the piece to date. Exuberant, assured, bristling with color, theirs is simply an electrifying reading, and a truly emotionally satisfying one to boot.

Shostakovich, Symphonies nos. 4 & 11 (Deutsche Grammophon)

Andris Nelsons has a great affinity, generally speaking, for music from Eastern Europe. His Shostakovich cycle with the Boston Symphony has been nothing short of exemplary and this latest release, of the enigmatic Fourth and propagandistic (or not?) Eleventh Symphonies, drawn from concerts taped live at Symphony Hall, continues that trend.

Visions and Variations (A Far Cry)

The Criers had a couple of impressive releases this year (their Bach/Glass album with Simone Dinnerstein was also fantastic). But this one, which was recently nominated for a Grammy, was impeccable: scorching Britten, zany Prokofiev arrangements, and Ethan Wood’s marvelously inventive reworking of Mozart’s Ah vous dirai-je, Maman. It hardly gets better than this. Until the Criers’ next album, that is.

Visions Take Flight (Innova)

Here’s a real delight: six pieces by five living composers that all manage to speak with brio and clarity, are brilliantly engaging, and superbly played. The River Oaks Chamber Orchestra’s debut disc featured works by Karim Al-Zand, Reena Esmail, Derek Bermel, Anthony DiLorenzo, and Marcus Maroney that powerfully married musical intelligence with expressive directness. If there’s only one new-music album you check out this year (though there should be more), this one ought to be a top contender.

Best Box Set/Multi-disc Series

Debussy, Orchestra, vocal, and chamber works (Harmonia mundi)

One of the year’s recording pleasures was the ongoing series of Debussy releases from Harmonia mundi that commemorated the hundredth anniversary of the composer’s death. Yes, all of the music has been recorded before and some older performances are perhaps more persuasive. But nothing about HM’s nine new Debussy releases was anything less than engaging and the best of them – keyboard and vocal selections, in particular – were first-rate, indeed.

Honorable Mentions

Celebrating Piazzolla (Azica)

The Neave Trio’s second album of 2018 (and first with vocalist Carla Jablonski) was a late-year treat: a brilliant, passionate homage to Astor Piazzolla (and, on the last track, his larger influence).

Mendelssohn, Symphony no. 2 (Pentatone)

Andrew Manze’s Mendelssohn symphony cycle with the NDR Radiophilharmonie wrapped up with a stirring account of the Second Symphony (Lobgesang).

Tesla Quartet playing Ravel, Haydn, and Stravinsky (Orchid Classics)

The Tesla’s performances of string quartets by Ravel, Haydn, and Stravinsky was both a bit off-beat – matching Ravel’s magnificent Quartet in F with Stravinsky’s acerbic Concertino – and played with absorbing energy and charm. Easily one of the year’s top chamber music releases.

Bottom Recordings of 2018

Berlioz, Requiem (Seattle Symphony Media)

Berlioz’s Requiem is – and I say this knowing and loving Verdi’s – the greatest, most theatrical adaptation of the Roman liturgy anyone’s ever set to music. You would never guess that, though, from this tepid, by-the-numbers recording of the piece featuring Ludovic Morlot and his Seattle-based forces.

Bernstein, Mass (Deutsche Grammophon)

This should have been one of the big successes of the Bernstein centennial, Yannick Nezet-Seguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra finally completing DG’s recorded catalogue of Bernstein’s theater music with a live taping of Mass. Instead, what we got was a dreadfully engineered recording: shrill, tinny, and poorly balanced. If you can look past those glaring flaws, the performance itself seemed to be a pretty good one. But that’s asking a lot – too much, actually.

Bruckner, Symphony no. 7 (Deutsche Grammophon)

Andris Nelsons’ Shostakovich symphony cycle with the Boston Symphony is terrifically compelling. His Bruckner cycle with the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig? Not so much. It’s beautifully played, to be sure, and, in this reading of the E-major Seventh Symphony there are some moments of real heart (like the symphony’s great second movement). But too much of the interpretation is tedious and self-conscious. At least the Wagner selections he’s paired with the symphonies have fared conspicuously better.

Haydn, An Imaginary Orchestral Journey (LSO Live)

The concept here wasn’t a bad one: Haydn was one of Western music’s great innovators; let’s celebrate that aspect of his musicianship. But the execution was anything but. Tying together a baker’s dozen examples of visionary, 18th-century pieces with no stronger connection than their respective degrees of originality (in performances that ranged from OK to quite good) proved to have the opposite effect, dulling their brilliance.

Mahler, Symphony no. 6 (BIS)

Osmo Vänskä can be an inspired conductor: his Sibelius, for instance, is widely (and rightly) acclaimed. But this Mahler Six with the Minnesota Orchestra – aimless, slack, lacking any semblance of terror or ferocity – was a colossal disappointment. Ironically, it was brilliantly engineered, so you could hear with perfect clarity everything that was going on. That only made it more disappointing.

Music of the Americas (Pentatone)

Andres Orozco-Estrada and the Houston Symphony have been a hit-or-miss pairing, at least on disc. This early-year release was a case-in-point. A so-so “Symphonic Dances from West Side Story” and a lively Piazzolla Tangazo framed some anticlimactic Revueltas and a listless, sorry An American in Paris.

Schubert, Octet (Harmonia mundi)

Violinist Isabelle Faust does a lot of things right, interpretively, so her misfires tend to stand out. This recording of Schubert’s charming Octet was one of them: raw, fussy, and mannered, it’s a reading that tries too hard. And, in music that ought to sound effortless and natural, that’s fatal.

Schumann, Complete Symphonies (SFS Media)

The San Francisco Symphony’s Schumann traversal should have been one of the Michael Tilson Thomas’s and the orchestra’s recorded triumphs. It wasn’t. Technically, the playing was fine and some moments really came to life. But much of it just fell flat: stiff, square, lacking an emotional punch – a surprising (and unfortunate) result, especially given the conductor, ensemble, and composer.

Wagner, Orchestral music from The Ring (Naxos)

JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic are a much better conductor-orchestra pairing than their unfortunate Wagner album demonstrates. Suffice it to say, it’s a disc that doesn’t showcase either in a flattering light, featuring some of the most sluggish, flaccid taped performances of some of the most thrilling, inventive orchestral music ever written.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

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