As in the past, my annual classical picks are not the "best" albums of 2013 (who could possibly have heard them all?), but, rather, releases that have brightened my listening year. I recommend them in the hope they will provide a rewarding soundtrack to your holidays, and beyond.
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 4. Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Vasily Petrenko, conductor (Naxos): The young Russian conductor's nearly-complete Shostakovich cycle on Naxos has brought some terrific entries, but this latest installment is in a class of its own. The 1936 Fourth is Shostakovich's suppressed symphony, withdrawn on the eve of its premiere and not heard until 1961. In none of his later symphonies did the composer pack such unrelenting desperation and numbed despair. Petrenko takes us directly to the music's troubled soul.
Mercadante: "I Due Figaro" ("The Two Figaros"). Soloists, Philharmonia Chorus of Vienna, Orchestra Giovanile Luigi Cherubini, Riccardo Muti, conductor (Ducale, three CDs): Riccardo Muti's latest effort on behalf of neglected Neapolitan School composers is a real find: a delightful "sequel" to "The Marriage of Figaro" and "The Barber of Seville" you would easily mistake for a bel canto comedy by Rossini. The live recording is an outgrowth of the Muti-led modern premiere of Saverio Mercadante's 1826 buffa in Ravenna, Italy, and elsewhere, in 2011. I trust it will bring this operatic sleeper the mainstream attention it deserves.
"Jonas Kaufmann—Wagner" (Decca). "Jonas Kaufmann—The Verdi Album" (Sony): Today's reigning superstar tenor is heard in recitals released in honor of the 2013 bicentennial celebrations of Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi. Kaufmann's plush, baritonal sound (like the richest dark chocolate) is allied to impeccable musicianship and a virile expressive involvement. If I slightly prefer the Wagner disc to the Verdi, you can't go wrong with either.
"Panorama of American Piano Music." Yvar Mikhashoff, piano (Mode): The pianist explores the staggering diversity of 20th century American piano works and does so with deep idiomatic understanding. This specially-priced four-disc set holds 62 works by 48 composers – from Antheil to Zappa – including more than 15 first recordings.
"Il Cor Tristo." Hilliard Ensemble (ECM New Series): The a cappella vocal group, renowned for its cross-cutting between early and new music, takes that practice to an intriguing new level with this commission from British contemporary composer Roger Marsh. His colorful and imaginative settings of cantos from Dante's "Inferno," which absorb Renaissance techniques into an attractive modern idiom, are seamlessly interspersed with Petrarch settings by 16th century composers Bernardo Pisano and Jacques Arcadelt.
Raff: Symphony No. 2; Four Shakespeare Preludes. Suisse Romande Orchestra, Neeme Jarvi, conductor (Chandos): You probably have never heard of the German-Swiss composer Joachim Raff, much less any of his music. Raff, who died in 1882, was a transitional figure in German Romanticism whose music shows the influence of Mendelssohn, Schumann and Wagner. Charming stuff, played to a fare-thee-well by Jarvi's fine French-Swiss orchestra.
Britten: "The Rape of Lucretia." Soloists, Aldeburgh Festival Ensemble, Oliver Knussen, conductor (Virgin Classics): The year's other big birthday boy, Benjamin Britten, has done very well indeed on recent recordings. To my ears this new account of his 1947 chamber opera, recorded in performance at the 2011 Aldeburgh Festival, is one of the most accomplished of any of them. A work that can feel terribly arch and stilted in the wrong hands comes off in affectingly human terms that make this performance a powerful alternative to the composer's own classic version on Decca.
Bach: "Goldberg" Variations. Jeremy Denk, piano (Nonesuch): Just as the American pianist's reading of Bach's monumental "Goldbergs" was a revelation in the concert performances he gave last fall, so does his recording (with a witty lecture-demo as DVD extra) illuminate the work with all manner of insights at once profound and playful.
Dutilleux: "Correspondances," "Tout un Monde Lointain," "The Shadows of Time." Soloists, Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor (DG): The distinguished French composer Henri Dutilleux, who died in May, at 97, could not have wished for a finer tribute than this collection of his vocal and instrumental works, recorded under the direction of his former pupil. The luminous, dreamlike "Correspondances" (2003) shares the program with works written for cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Shostakovich: String Quartets Nos. 13-15; Schnittke: String Quartet No. 3. Pacifica Quartet (Cedille): The final installment of the Pacifica Quartet's Shostakovich string quartet cycle, containing his last three works in that form, is as much an artistic and technical triumph as the three previous releases in the series. Alfred Schnittke's bleak Third Quartet (1983), aswirl with allusions to Shostakovich and Mahler, adds to the attractions of Cedille's double-disc set.