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Andrew Beer and Sarah Watkins. Photo/Supplied

The Listener's Best Classical Albums of 2019

Elizabeth Kerr picks her top releases of the year.

Orchestral

Henryk Górecki: Symphony No 3, Beth Gibbons & the Polish National Radio Symphony, conducted by Krzysztof Penderecki (Domino Records)

Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, a modern masterpiece lamenting the horrors of war, invariably captures an audience with its direct emotional appeal and profound desolation. Singer Beth Gibbons, of Portishead, has a very different background from the classical operatic sopranos usually associated with Górecki’s work but her live performance of the symphony in Warsaw in 2014 was compelling. She learnt Polish for that occasion and in this recording, the raw and individual quality of her voice enhances the searing tragedy of this unforgettable music. Penderecki, one of Poland’s greatest living composers, is on the podium. The work will open the NZ Festival in February, with the NZSO and Syrian soprano Rasha Rizk reflecting on the tragic events in Christchurch on March 15 this year.

Early music

Buxtehude: Abendmusiken, Ensemble Masques (conductor Olivier Fortin) & Vox Luminis (conductor Lionel Meunier) (Alpha)

This rare gem of a collection of Baroque music features two stunning specialist early-music ensembles; one instrumental, one choral. Dietrich Buxtehude was a Danish-born German organist and composer working half a century before JS Bach, who apparently walked more than 200 miles as a young man to hear the older master play. The album takes its name from the evening concerts of organ and choral music – Abendmusik – established by Buxtehude at his Lübeck church for the five Sundays before Christmas. These immaculate, thoughtfully prepared performances of cantatas and trio sonatas are beautifully expressive and full of warmth and subtle variety.

The Exterminating Angel. Photo/Getty Images

Opera

THOMAS ADÈS: The Exterminating Angel, Met Opera & soloists, conducted by Thomas Adès, DVD (Erato)

British composer Adès, now 48, is one of the most brilliant of his generation, with an increasingly global reputation. His surreal opera, The Exterminating Angel, is based on Luis Buñuel’s 1962 film. Adès’ version is a dazzling ensemble piece with 15 principal singers and a large orchestra, including a massive percussion section and ondes Martenot. The satirical story is set at a lavishly costumed dinner party where the guests discover they are trapped by a strange enchantment. Live sheep on stage and saucepans in the orchestra belie the sophistication of this exhilarating production. The DVD was filmed with inventive sleight of hand by the team at the Met, with Adès conducting.

New Zealand composers

ANDREW BEER & SARAH WATKINS: 11 Frames (Rattle)

The splendid partnership and accomplished playing of violinist Beer and pianist Watkins showcase the strength and diversity of New Zealand composition in a well-curated set of 11 works. Highlights include Gillian Whitehead’s subtle earthquake-influenced Tōrua, Leonie Holmes’ otherworldly Dance of the Wintersmith, the surges and flutters of Reuben Jelleyman’s tiny Variations and a lovely simplicity in Alex Taylor’s Three Endings. Composer-pianist Gao Ping lived in New Zealand long enough for us to claim him, though the meditative folk song in his beautiful Questioning the Mountains is unmistakably from his Sichuan homeland. Gareth Farr's Unforeseen Evolutions is another standout, contrasting ethereal and savage material to dramatic effect. The most experimental composer is expat Juliet Palmer, her intriguing small excesses painting a widening aural space. The youngest is much-awarded Josiah Carr, with his darkly imaginative Dance. More abandoned playing may have worked in Anthony Ritchie’s captivating Rhapsody, but for Water Sketch with Tūī, by Philip Brownlee, the musicians find a liquid improvisatory flow. Composer-violist Anthony Watson died aged 39 in 1973, but his modernist, marvellous Concert Piece (1964) reminds us of a major figure in our composing history.

Bella Hristova. Photo/Getty Images

New Zealand performer

BEETHOVEN: THE VIOLIN SONATAS, Bella Hristova (violin); Michael Houstoun (piano) (Rattle)

Beethoven’s piano music has been a major part of Houstoun’s career and this four-CD set of the composer’s 10 sonatas for violin and piano is a timely New Zealand contribution ahead of
Beethoven’s 250th birthday celebrations in 2020. Houstoun established a magical rapport with Bulgarian violinist Hristova during a New Zealand tour, part of her prize as winner of the 2007 Michael Hill International Violin Competition. Recording these sonatas a decade later, the passion, tenderness and sparkling brilliance of their playing and sensitive ensemble work reveal a shared conception of Beethoven’s music. Houstoun plans to retire at the end of next year and this fine album may become a collector’s item.

This article was first published in the December 14, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.