A Hit Parade of Small Labels and Upstarts The Best Classical Music Recordings of 2012

Inon Barnatan, Jennifer Koh, Minnesota Orchestra , Nicholas Phan
The New York Times

By James R. Oestreich

Fiscal cliffs are nothing new in the classical record industry. As became increasingly apparent when the classical music critics of The New York Times set about the annual ritual of choosing records of the year, the larger economy could perhaps learn a thing or two from certain classical cliff dwellers who have managed to tailor supply to demand while maintaining a zest for innovation and continuing to lead and expand taste.

For more than a decade, the so-called major labels, such as they still exist, have been paying a heavy price for long years of excess and shortsighted management. Some have maintained a core quality, often surrounded by layers of crossover pandering and superstar indulgence.

But as our honor roll suggests, these days most of the action lies elsewhere: with the latter-day stalwart Harmonia Mundi and upstart labels like Avie and Cedille; with big American orchestras recording for small international labels (the New York Philharmonic for Dacapo, the Minnesota Orchestra for Bis); with performing institutions issuing their own recordings (the Berlin Philharmonic; the Boston Symphony, Mariinsky and Philharmonia Baroque Orchestras; John Eliot Gardiner’s Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists).

To add to the industry’s uncertainties, we keep hearing that the CD is doomed, however much — as the list clearly shows — it continues to dominate our listening habits.

Be all of that as it may, our critics had little difficulty compiling a small treasury of excellent recordings. We allowed each critic to choose up to five CDs, DVDs or downloads and made a conscious attempt to spread the wealth, sorting out duplications. (I, for one, could happily have doubled up on two of the Bach recordings listed, Mr. Gardiner’s motets and Andras Schiff’s “Well-Tempered Clavier,” but was just as content to trawl more broadly.)

Happy listening.

BRITTEN: VOCAL WORKS Nicholas Phan, tenor; Myra Huang, pianist; other artists (Avie AV2258; CD). The young tenor Nicholas Phan again proves himself an affecting interpreter of Britten’s music. His new recording, “Still Falls the Rain,” offers seldom-heard Britten works, including “The Heart of the Matter” (revised by Peter Pears), for tenor, horn, piano and narrator (the actor Alan Cumming). ANTHONY TOMMASINI

SIBELIUS: SYMPHONIES NOS. 2, 5 Minnesota Orchestra, conducted by Osmo Vanska (Bis SACD-1986; CD). This is a poignant document: a longtime also-ran ensemble makes a persuasive bid to be ranked among the world’s greatest, absolutely luxuriating in its music director’s great specialty, only to have its current season seriously foreshortened, if not entirely wiped out, by labor-management strife. JAMES R. OESTREICH

‘BACH AND BEYOND,’ PART 1 Jennifer Koh, violinist (Cedille Records CDR 90000 134). The violinist Jennifer Koh is known as both a masterly Bach interpreter and a champion of contemporary repertory. As part of her “Bach and Beyond” series, she pairs alluring performances of Bach’s Partitas Nos. 2 and 3 with Ysaÿe’s Sonata No. 2 and works by Kaija Saariaho and Missy Mazzoli. VIVIEN SCHWEITZER

‘DARKNESSE VISIBLE’ Inon Barnatan, pianist (Avie AV2256; CD). Each piece on this recording by the brilliant and thoughtful pianist Inon Barnatan was inspired by a literary work: Ravel’s “Gaspard de la Nuit” and “La Valse”; Debussy’s “Suite Bergamasque”; Ronald Stevenson’s fantasy on music from Britten’s “Peter Grimes”; and, the title work, Thomas Adès’s “Darknesse Visible.” Each receives a superb performance. ANTHONY TOMMASINI