The 25 Best Classical Music Recordings of 2017
Posted December 14, 2017 7:06 p.m. EST
Music writers spend their days guiltily staring down literally dozens of unheard new recordings that pile up as the year goes on, with more coming in each day. So it has been an arduous and frustrating but also inspiring and illuminating exercise to narrow our favorites down to five each, for a list of 25 gorgeous releases that covers a huge amount of chronological and stylistic ground.
‘THE JOHN ADAMS EDITION’
Berlin Philharmonic (Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings)
This isn’t one recording so much as a hefty collection of them from the 2016-17 season, when Adams was this orchestra’s composer in residence (and occasional conductor). Some classic works are represented alongside more recent ones, led by Alan Gilbert, Gustavo Dudamel, Simon Rattle and Kirill Petrenko. — JOSHUA BARONE
BACH: Cantatas Nos. 152, 199, 202
Carolyn Sampson, soprano; Freiburg Baroque Orchestra; Petra Müllejans, director (Harmonia Mundi)
Who can forget the great mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in the Cantata No. 199, “Mein Herze Schwimmt im Blut”? Fortunately, Sampson’s brighter version is different enough to be appreciated on its own terms. — JAMES R. OESTREICH
BACH: ‘Goldberg’ Variations
Beatrice Rana, piano (Warner Classics)
In the United States, at least, Rana has not yet acquired the reputation of some other young pianists. She should, and she will, for what she displays here is playing of preternatural sensitivity, sophistication and control, along with a touch of magic, as Bach’s theme returns at the end. — DAVID ALLEN
BEACH, CHAMINADE, HOWELL: Piano Concertos
Danny Driver, piano; BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra; Rebecca Miller, conductor (Hyperion)
Major orchestras ignored the 150th birthday this year of Amy Beach (1867-1944), but Hyperion did not in this fine release, recorded with tangible commitment by all concerned. Nor should the works by Dorothy Howell and Cécile Chaminade be overlooked. — D.A.
BERLIOZ: ‘Les Troyens’
Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg; John Nelson, conductor (Erato)
Berlioz’s epic opera has rarely been given such luxury treatment as in this magnificent live recording from France. Nelson, a “Troyens” veteran many times over, expertly handles the unwieldy score with help from starry singers like Joyce DiDonato, in her role debut as Didon, and Michael Spyres as Enée. — J.B.
Kelly Moran, keyboards (Telegraph Harp)
When writing for “prepared” piano, some composer-performers focus on timbral effects to the exclusion of all else. Throughout this rewarding set of miniatures, Moran avoids this pitfall. The avant-garde touches she employs may be inspired by John Cage, but her melodies are memorable, and original. — SETH COLTER WALLS
BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 9
Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Riccardo Muti, conductor (CSO Resound)
Happily, Muti seems to have had a Bruckner epiphany in Chicago. The orchestra responds to him with an unforced power that works beautifully with this composer. We have to hope that the Bruckner symphonies he has performed since, and others, will soon follow on record. — J.R.O.
Daniil Trifonov, piano; Mahler Chamber Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)
Do we need another recording of Chopin’s piano concertos? Well, we need this one, because Trifonov plays them magnificently; because of illuminating chamber-orchestra arrangements by Mikhail Pletnev, who conducts; and because of Chopin-inspired works by Grieg, Barber and others that join. — ANTHONY TOMMASINI
‘CRAZY GIRL CRAZY’
Barbara Hannigan, soprano and conductor; Ludwig Orchestra (Alpha Classics)
Hannigan can do so many things so well, and she does most of them here. She conducts and sings music from Berg’s “Lulu” and Gershwin’s “Girl Crazy” with predictable aplomb, but for me it is the sensuous and utterly uninhibited rendition of Berio’s solo “Sequenza III” that seals the deal. — J.R.O.
‘DISCUSSIONS’ Roscoe Mitchell has long been interested in teaching orchestras how to improvise, and this album reveals the fruits of his labor. A chamber orchestra digs into new arrangements of his past free-improvisation saxophone solos; the sense of fresh community they create around “I’ll See You Out There” is a testament to Mitchell’s underlying vision. — S.C.W.
PHILIP GLASS: Piano Works
Vikingur Olafsson (Deutsche Grammophon)
Glass’ piano études have been criticized as unmusical or even boring. But Olafsson’s recording of 10, rich with interpretive depth and surprising turns, is nothing short of eye-opening. — J.B.
HARTKE: ‘The Ascent of the Equestrian in a Balloon’
Boston Modern Orchestra Project; Gil Rose, conductor (BMOP/sound)
This exciting recording of four works by Stephen Hartke, written over some 30 years, confirms that he is one of the most distinctive and important living composers. If the title of “The Ascent” doesn’t grab you, the breathless, fractured, skittish music will. — A.T.
‘HOMMAGE À BOULEZ’
West-Eastern Divan Orchestra; Daniel Barenboim and Pierre Boulez, conductors (Deutsche Grammophon)
Boulez, who died in 2016, gets quite the tribute here with more than two hours of music, including “Le Marteau Sans Maître.” That score might frighten some young musicians; here, the contralto Hilary Summers and members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra are fearless. — J.B.
Danish String Quartet (ECM New Series)
It is wonderful to hear these superb players let their collective hair down in this collection of (mostly) Scandinavian folk tunes and original material composed in like fashion. This should warm the heart of every fan of fiddling, whether bluegrass, Celtic or Bachian. — J.R.O.
Calmus Ensemble (Carus-Verlag)
Collage indeed. This excellent German vocal quintet presents seven of Martin Luther’s chorales in many versions, typically changing composers from one verse to the next. Those composers include some from Luther’s time and some from our time, and instrumental chorale preludes appear in Swingle Singers-like vocalize, without the insistent perkiness. — J.R.O.
MAHLER: Symphony No. 3
Gerhild Romberger, alto; Cantemus Children’s Choir; Bavarian Radio Chorus; Budapest Festival Orchestra; Ivan Fisher, conductor (Channel Classics)
Every moment of this recording is fresh and insightful, traits we have now come to expect from Fisher. But it is the finale, Mahler’s ode to love, that pulls at the memory — a miracle of phrasing; a quiet wonder of string tone and balance; a paean to a devotion tender, fragile and deep. — D.A.
MESSIAEN: ‘Quartet for the End of Time’
Martin Frost, clarinet; Lucas Debargue, piano; Janine Jansen, violin; Torleif Thedeen, cello (Sony Classical)
Frost was the driving force behind this recording of Messiaen’s mystical, wild-eyed quartet. He is joined by three formidable artists who all demonstrate infectious affinity for this profound music. — A.T.
‘RIGHT UP ON’
Oliver Lake, alto saxophone; FLUX Quartet (Passin’ Thru)
Lake has never paid genre distinctions much heed. This collaboration with the FLUX Quartet is a crucial document of his thinking. “5 Sisters” traffics in modernist blues; pointillism and sweet harmonies alternate in “2016.” When Lake joins the quartet, his saxophone playing sparks new heights of intensity. — S.C.W.
SCHUBERT: ‘Die Schöne Müllerin’
Christian Gerhaher, baritone; Gerold Huber, piano (Sony Classical)
It’s Gerhaher at the peak of his abilities, with his marvelous accomplice Huber, singing Schubert. Need one say more? Probably not, except that their decision to weave in the Wilhelm Müller poems that Schubert did not set is a masterstroke, especially when read with such musical sense by Gerhaher. — D.A.
SIBELIUS: Piano Works
Leif Ove Andsnes, piano (Sony Classical)
Who knew? Sibelius, composer of seven visionary symphonies, wrote a sizable body of piano pieces that remain mostly neglected. The adventurous Andsnes discovers them on this exquisitely played album of beguiling, lyrical and quirky works. Even those with tame titles like “Impromptu” startle you. — A.T.
TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 6
MusicAeterna; Teodor Currentzis, conductor (Sony Classical)
Some listeners might find the approach here overblown. I do not. There is more cultivated Tchaikovsky out there, to be sure, and more precise, too, but none more faithful to his devastating purpose. The climaxes of the first movement feature some of the scariest conducting I have ever heard, the dark night of a soul pushed over the brink. — D.A.
‘THOUSANDS OF MILES’
Kate Lindsey, mezzo-soprano; Baptiste Trotignon, piano (Alpha Classics)
Lindsey shows just how nimble her voice can be with this diverse collection of 20th-century songs by Alma Mahler, Weill, Korngold and Zemlinsky, who all fled the Nazis. Especially worth hearing is Zemlinsky’s music, which is tragically underrepresented in concert halls today. — J.B.
Alex Mincek, composer (Sound American)
“Pendulum VII” is a thrill ride. At a second-by-second level, it might seem as if the sonic riot is too much to process. But zoom out, and this hailstorm’s qualities of shape and proportion begin to emerge. The slower compositions on this bracing album of Mincek’s music are just as fine. — S.C.W.
Jasper String Quartet (Sono Luminus/New Amsterdam)
This quartet’s taste in repertoire runs toward post-minimalist composers who work with melody — and an edge. The pop-style rhythmic fury of Judd Greenstein’s “Four on the Floor” is exhilarating. Annie Gosfield’s “The Blue Horse Walks on the Horizon” shows some of the same dramatic flair as her recent opera for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. — S.C.W.
Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra; Constantine Orbelian, conductor (Delos)
Last year, while battling brain cancer, baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky spent nine days recording “Rigoletto,” which was released this November, shortly before his death at 55. He gives a russet-toned, compelling performance, joined by an impressive cast for a gripping and, in every sense, poignant performance. — A.T.