Celestial harmonies: top classical albums of 2006

By TULLY POTTER

Last updated at 11:45 29 December 2006


Tchaikovsky: Suite No. 3 etc. (Pentatone Classics 5186 061)

*****

The orchestral Suites are among Tchaikovsky's best orchestral works, and the Third is the finest of them. This is an absolutely spiffing version by the superb Russian National Orchestra, under the hugely talented young maestro Vladimir Jurowski, known to us from Glyndebourne. His chosen coupling, Stravinsky's Divertimento from the ballet The Fairy's Kiss, is very apt, as Stravinsky based his score on various songs and piano pieces by Tchaikovsky. But most people will want the disc for the Tchaikovsky Suite, a lovely piece with a gentle, memorable opening movement, a waltz, a scherzo and a magnificent set of variations. The playing is first-rate, and Pentatone is acquiring a reputation as a label for the real hi-fienthusiast, with state-of-the-art engineering. The SACD is playable on normal gear.

Handel: Messiah (Linn CKD 285, two SACDs)

****

The best of a recent crop of recordings of Messiah, this one comes from Scotland and the Dunedin Consort & Players. The choir and the orchestra are quite small, but once you have become accustomed to the scale of the performance, it seems right. Everyone performs well under John Butt's rhythmically lively direction and the five soloists — including two contraltos (and no counter-tenors) — all sing with beautiful tone. For added interest, Butt has chosen to base his edition on Handel's original performances in Dublin, which means a few slightly unaccustomed variants of arias and choruses. The presentation is very attractive, and the recording quality (as we have come to expect from Linn) is unspectacularly excellent. On normal equipment you will hear good stereo.

Beethoven: Symphony No. 9. (Warner Classics 2564 63927-2)

****

The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, bringing together players from different Middle Eastern countries, is a recent success story. It is perhaps the best thing Daniel Barenboim has done, in a long and varied career, and here he tackles one of the peaks of classical music, Beethoven's mighty Choral Symphony. Recorded live on tour in Berlin, it is a traditional performance, richly romantic in places, but with a warm current of humanity running through it, especially in the slow movement. The finale, with a good quartet of international soloists and the chorus of the Deutsche Staatsoper (where Barenboim also rules), has the necessary power, thrust and excitement. We have had several good Ninths this year, but this one is a little different, expressing the real message behind the music. The recording is pretty good, considering its provenance.

Jenkins: Six-Part Consorts. (Avie AV2099)

****

Cast aside any prejudices you might have about 'early music' and try these amazing viol pieces by John Jenkins (1592-1678). Born in Maidstone, he was mainly active in East Anglia, and one can imagine that he was a welcome guest in the great houses where a 'chest of viols' was part of the furniture. These works in six astonishingly equal parts were written for amateurs but respond well to the highly professional musicians of Phantasm, led by the American Laurence Dreyfus. This is the kind of playing that banishes any thought of dry and dusty antiquarian professors. The four members of Phantasm and their guests hold the interest with lively interchanges.

You have the feeling that you are eavesdropping on six friends who are indulging in viol consorts for their own enjoyment. The recordings are splendidly alive, too.

No comments have so far been submitted. Why not be the first to send us your thoughts, or debate this issue live on our message boards.

We are no longer accepting comments on this article.

Who is this week's top commenter? Find out now