The imminent collapse of the classical recording industry has been predicted so regularly and so tediously over the last two decades that each year in which it remains in rude health seems like a bonus. Of course it evolves, as all cultural industries do, but while the predominance of the previously all-conquering multinational groups – such as Sony Classical, Warner Classics and Universal (Deutsche Grammophon and Decca) – continues to diminish, and the number of leading artists exclusively contracted to them declines, the vigour of newly created labels, often tailored to a niche, continues to generate a healthy spread of interesting releases.
Still very much with us too are CDs themselves. In the classical market at least, there remains a lot of ground for digital downloads to make up and there is little sign so far of discs being decisively superseded.
But the amount of the existing repertory made available online increases steadily, and the recent decision of ECM to make its entire catalogue available on Spotify shows the way that this forward-looking label thinks things are going. ECM’s output remains gloriously catholic – everything from medieval songs to 21st-century scores – but its faithful support for particular composers is admirable too, and the best example of that loyalty this year was its magnificent three-disc set devoted to György Kurtág’s vocal and ensemble works, a survey ranging across more than five decades of the Hungarian composer’s creative life in authoritative Dutch performances conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw.
Winter & Winter is another label with a reputation for championing a quirky roster of contemporary composers, one of whom is Hans Abrahamsen. Its collection of Abrahamsen’s four string quartets, magisterially played by the Arditti Quartet, follows on from the releases of his elusive ensemble piece Schnee and the entrancingly beautiful song cycle Let Me Tell You. NMC continues its steadfast support for British composers, most notably this year with a bewitching disc of Simon Holt’s concertos – including the percussion piece A Table of Noises, and Witness to a Snow Miracle, for violin and orchestra – while a newer, British-based label, Another Timbre, offers a rather different perspective on the music being written today. My personal discovery of 2017 was the insistently haunting music of the US-born, Canadian-based Linda Catlin Smith, both in concert at the Huddersfield festival and on Drifter, Another Timbre’s disc of her chamber music, which includes two string quartets and a piano quintet.
If there’s one area of the repertory that has declined on disc, it is mainstream opera. There may be plenty of works from the 17th and 18th centuries still being explored, but new versions of later repertory pieces are much more sporadic now, and far more likely to have been recorded in the concert hall or opera house than in bespoke studio sessions, which have become financially unfeasible. Audio-only releases are now significantly outnumbered by DVDs of fully staged productions, too, even if those are sometimes of dubious quality. That made Erato’s Strasbourg-sourced version of Berlioz’s Les Troyens particularly noteworthy this year; new versions of repertory operas rarely seem to rival let alone supplant the established classic versions, but this Trojans, taken from concert performances by about as a good cast as could be assembled today and conducted by John Nelson, really has done that.
Not that many new recordings of the mainstream orchestral repertory challenge what is already available either, especially when many classic recordings from the last 50 years are now available remastered and repackaged in bargain sets. For those familiar symphonies and concertos, only something really special is likely to upset longstanding recommendations – recordings like Isabelle Faust’s raw-edged, period-instrument performance of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, on Harmonia Mundi, with its minimal vibrato and generous portamenti, and Pablo Heras-Casado conducting the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra.
While the use of period instruments is taken for granted in many areas of the operatic and orchestral repertory right up to the early 19th century, and even into the early 20th century with the performances by François-Xavier Roth and his orchestra Les Siècles, the 19th-century keyboard repertory is proving more resistant; the Steinway still rules supreme for a huge proportion of new piano discs. Yet there are signs of change even there, and Krystian Zimerman’s wonderfully poetic accounts of two of Schubert’s late sonatas (Deutsche Grammophon), his first solo-piano disc in more than 20 years, uses a specially made keyboard that he designed himself, to enable the effortlessly light touch and subtle shading that illuminate these performances. The other outstanding piano disc of the year, Angela Hewitt’s second volume of Domenico Scarlatti’s sonatas (Hyperion), does use a conventional grand, though that is a Fazioli instrument rather than the ubiquitous Steinway.
But mainstream recordings still come along that would have stood out in any era. The Trio Zimmermann’s performance of Schoenberg’s daunting String Trio, coupled with two trios by Hindemith on BIS, is arguably the finest yet recorded, while Erato’s French-sourced Debussy collection, comprising the three late sonatas and the very early Piano Trio, with a starry lineup of instrumentalists that includes violinist Renaud Capuçon, flautist Emmanuel Pahud and pianist Bertrand Chamayou, is pure delight from beginning to end.
2. Berlioz: Les Troyens (Warner Classics)
3. Krystian Zimerman: Schubert Piano Sonatas (Deutsche Grammophon)
4. Debussy: Sonatas and Trio (Erato)
5. Holt: A Table of Noises (NMC)
6. Isabelle Faust: Mendelssohn Violin Concerto (Harmonia Mundi)
7. Schoenberg & Hindemith String Trios (BIS)
8. Angela Hewitt: Scarlatti Sonatas Vol 2 (Hyperion)
9. Abrahamsen: String Quartets (Winter & Winter)
10. Linda Catlin Smith: Drifter (Another Timbre)
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010