Album of the Year 2013

Alisa Weilerstein
Sinfini Music

By Norman Lebrecht

It's been an eventful year for record companies and recordings, says Norman Lebrecht. Even so, the disc at the top of his list was released in January 2013, and there's been nothing since to match it.

Label: Decca Classics

Rating - 5 stars

In January 2013 I reviewed an album that I thought would be the year’s best. Ridiculous thought. There were eleven and a half months of the year to go and it was not long before this album was comprehensively outsold by another recording of the same concerto, albeit (in my view) no contender for imaginative reinvention.

There were shoals of marvellous releases all year, including many that I hadn’t the time or space to review. There was Riccardo Chailly’s expansive yet incisive reading of the Brahms symphonies in Leipzig (Decca); any number of Verdi Requiems, among which Philippe Jordan’s from Paris (Warner) struck me as standout; two solo recital debuts from the 89 year-old Menahem Pressler (Bis, La Dolce Vota); several versions of the Britten violin concerto - I liked Matthew Trusler’s (Orchid); and far too many moments when I was swept into suspension of disbelief by a new artist, only to be restored to reality by a reminder of the competitive facts of life. Oh, and did I mention the Vienna Philharmonic and Herbert von Karajan in 1962 (ICA Classics) playing God Save the Queen as if it had the flu?

The record business underwent seminal changes in 2013. A cornerstone label, EMI, disappeared, its place taken by resuscitated Warner labels. Sony Classical hitched its plough to Lang Lang and Jonas Kaufmann, an unlikely pair of workhorses. The Universal conglomerate (owner of Sinfini Music) just grew and grew, and a population of small labels battled for a nanosecond’s limelight.

Among my 50 albums of the week was a recording of Britten’s Peter Grimes (Signum), taken on Aldeburgh beach where the story is set and musically exalted to rank with the greatest on record. A Wigmore Hall recital by two Portuguese speakers (DG) left me breathless at the human capacity for non-verbal communication. I rediscovered Hanns Eisler on Harmonia Mundi and thought better of him than ever before. Kuniko, a Japanese drummer on Linn drew out stunning sensitivity from taut skins. A Collection of British Folk Songs on Naxos seemed simply unbeatable.

A Romanian debutante, Alexandra Dariescu, doubled her profile on the strength of a striking cover (Champs Hill). A reissue of Leonard Bernstein’s downwrong Rite of Spring (Sony) stopped the year in its tracks. Valentina Lisitsa’s set of Rachmaninov concertos (Decca) will last as long as records are played.

Still, when all’s said and spun, my album of the year is the one from January – Alisa Weilerstein playing the Elgar cello concerto as if no one had played it before, steering us away from postwar terror and pity into a dawn of golden beauty, and pairing this striking reinvention with modernist nocturnal rustlings in Elliott Carter’s quiet valediction. Daniel Barenboim conducted the Berlin Staatskapelle on Decca. It’s an album worthy of the best of years.