CDs OF THE YEAR: CLASSICAL: Some easy listenin' Panufnik, better- than-ever Charlatans ... and verbal riches from Richman

SHOSTAKOVICH: STRING QUARTETS 2&3 (Hyperion)

The 15 Shostakovich string quartets rank alongside the six of Bartok as perhaps the greatest chamber music cycles of the 20th century - which is why there is no shortage of recordings. So, what room for any more? Well, listen to this first release in a cycle by the St Petersburg Quartet and you'll just have to make room: it's one of the finest chamber recordings I've heard all year, and one that catches the idiom of the music in near-definitive terms.

ROXANA PANUFNIK

(Teldec)

Until now, Roxana Panufnik's claim to fame has largely been as the daughter of her father, the composer Andrzej. But with her Mass setting - written for Cardinal Hume before his death - she emerged as a personality in her own right. True, the music casts its net around; true, the textures can be clogged and heavy. But the spangled delicacy of the Sanctus movement makes an easy-listening contrast. And even at its most overladen, the writing is rich in gorgeously imagined sounds - which the hard-edged part-singing of the Westminster Cathedral Choir sorts out handsomely.

THE ENGLISH SONGBOOK (EMI)

Whenever Ian Bostridge (right) issues a new disc I'm tempted to call it the one his voice was made for, but this really is the one: a garland of songs by several generations of composers who laid the ground for Benjamin Britten's pre-eminence in modern settings in English. Most of them are composers of the second rank but granted periodic visions of the first. And Bostridge does them beautifully. You won't hear a line in any of these texts delivered with less than perfect judgement. And with vivid playing from his regular accompanist, Julius Drake, it's one of the most ear-catching releases of the year.

BERNSTEIN: WONDERFUL TOWN

(Disc)

You saw it, heard it, maybe danced it at the Proms. Now there's the disc - which went into production well before that Albert Hall performance but has all the brilliant, brash, off-Broadway chutzpah of a live show. With instrumental playing from the BCMG of an order no musical would find in the pit of a theatre, and direction from Simon Rattle, it can hardly fail.

STRAVINSKY: THE RAKE'S PROGRESS (Disc)

It was a nice touch to engage a period-conscious conductor for a period- conscious opera. John Eliot Gardiner's speeds are briskly driven, his textures crystalline and his rhythms clipped. His reading is alive and vital with a rake, Ian Bostridge, whose innocence and pathos are exquisitely endearing.The American soprano Deborah York is tenderly free-floating in her aerial coloratura. And Bryn Terfel's Nick Shadow has all the virtues of his performances on stage with few of the drawbacks. Probably the best recording since Stravinsky's own.

ANDREAS SCHOLL: HEROES

(Decca)

Scholl is in every sense the crowning glory of the past few decades' drive to reinstate the high-pitched male as a dramatic presence. In this disc he lays out his wares in forcefully high-altitude accounts of Handel, Hasse, Gluck and early Mozart. Scholl's artistry is absolute. You might just wish there was more bite, but it's exquisitely accomplished singing and delivered with a sense of theatre.

PUCCINI: IL TRITTICO

(EMI)

The three component parts of Puccini's triptych don't often make it as a whole onto the opera stage - too long an evening - so the only standard chance you get of hearing them together is on disc. Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna don't disappoint. And that they come as a package with conductor Antonio Pappano is what really commends this set - he's the best you'll find today in this sort of repertory.

PUCCINI: LA BOHEME

(Decca)

Here they are again: Gheorghiu and Alagna, the golden couple of the post-Domingo opera generation. This new recording is a good one, guaranteed by Chailly in the driving seat; and the beauty of the singing is undeniable - not just from the two stars but from the rest of an intelligent, alert cast which includes Simon Keenlyside.

GIAN CARLO MENOTTI: THE CONSUL (Chandos)

Menotti's currency, though fallen, isn't off the market. And this recording of his operatic masterpiece is music-theatre of unnerving power, with a climactic Act II aria that stops the show, your heart, and your disbelief. The ENO star Susan Bullock takes the lead role with impassioned grandeur and heroic dignity. And the vivid drama of the live recording just about compensates for the obtrusive stage noise, the applause, and less than perfect quality of sound.

PIAZZOLLA: MARIA DE BUENOS AIRES (Teldec)

Gidon Kremer's past efforts to corral the tango-culture scores of Astor Piazzolla into classical repertory have always struck me as worthwhile and fun but never quite seized my interest as this does. It's an operetta steeped in dense poetic metaphor that defies explanation but concerns an Argentine Carmen, part-goddess, part-whore, who is Tango personified

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