Music: The best classical CDs of 1999

From the massive, 153-CD set of Bach 2000 to Thomas Ades's Asyla, Rob Cowan chooses the top 20 releases from his year's reviewing
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It's been an amazing year for recorded cycles, marathon editions and epic retrospectives. Teldec set the ball roller-coasting with 153 CDs-worth of BACH 2000 (3984-25704-2), everything of note that the Leipzig cantor wrote in performances that raise either spirits or eyebrows, or both.

Rival Bach editions will no doubt dominate the coming CD year (they've already started), but Teldec's budget-price enterprise has a missionary zeal that sets it apart. Who can resist Nikolaus Harnoncourt's blazing Christmas Oratorio, or Ton Koopman's improvisatory - and, in many cases, newly released - accounts of the organ works, or Il Giardino Armonico's provocative set of the Brandenburg Concertos? True, the Harnoncourt-Leonhardt sacred cantatas are sounding a little tired nowadays, hi-fi-wise, but I still wouldn't trade them for their successors.

Teldec's Bach is available virtually anywhere, but if you want the New York Philharmonic's limited-edition 10-CD American Celebration (New York Philharmonic NYP9904) you'll need either to go to your nearest Tower Records or e-mail the Philharmonic at:

It'll be well worth the trouble, with previously-unissued Bernstein recordings of key Copland, MacDowell, Schuman, Rorem and Varese vying with Barbirolli's Loeffler, Monteux's Creston, and Boulez's Carter for top billing. Just a tad esoteric, perhaps? Not in the least. Twentieth-century musical Americans have bags to say and their best interpreters help them say it with style. Artur Rubinstein's piano-playing was, in a sense, the very epitome of sophisticated interpretative style.

Listening to the 94 CDs of RCA's Rubinstein Edition (RCA Red Seal 09026- 63000-2) recalls a brand of post-Romantic excitement (in the early recordings) and a degree of urbanity (in the later ones) that are fairly characteristic of this great artist. RCA's sumptuous presentation borders on kitsch and there are countless repertory duplications (most of them illuminating), but the actual playing, of Chopin and Brahms in particular, is indelibly memorable. Still, if pressed to choose a recording of Chopin's two piano concertos, I would personally opt for Krytsian Zimerman's newest, with the Polish Festival Orchestra (DG 459 684-2, two discs).

True, the performances are pretty slow, and Zimerman's very individual way of bending the musical line will not be to all tastes (even I can imagine tiring of it on occasion). But with every note of both scores presented intact, and a fastidiously attentive approach to Chopin's orchestral writing, I doubt that these loveable war-horses will ever sound more musically interesting.

Hearing "standard rep" brought newly to life is a major justification for listening to fresh recordings of old favourites, which is why the late Sergiu Celibidache's conducting has made such a strong impact among collectors. Celibidache's well-known refusal to make records is hardly an issue now that EMI and DG have provided us with generous "official" CD "editions" of live or broadcast material.

DG's Brahms symphony cycle (459 635-2, three discs plus a free rehearsal disc) with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony offers a luminous slant on music that others tend to smother with excessively rich textures. Subsequent DG/"Celi" collections of Strauss, Debussy, Ravel and mixed Russian repertoire have proved equally stimulating.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt is similarly attentive to Dvorak's Eighth Symphony, inspiring his woodwinds to virtual birdsong and treating the dance element as a central musical priority. Harnoncourt's live Concertgebouw recording is brimful of musical points worth making, with the grizzly tone-poem The Noon Witch as a modern-sounding extra (Teldec 3984-24487-2).

Dvorak's last orchestral works are rich in shock-value, but there are other ways of arresting musical attention. Pianist Thomas Larcher alternates Schubert's late piano pieces (or Klavierstucke) with piano pieces by Schoenberg (ECM 1667), allowing one voice to pose the questions while the other responds with relevant answers. It's a strange but effective idea, much aided by Larcher's intensity.

The ever-provocative Hagen Quartet adopt a similar interpretative manner in Beethoven's "Serioso" and Schubert's late G major Quartets, maximising contrasts between charm and chill while keeping the near-surreal element of both scores in clear focus (DG 457 615-2).

The Leopold String Trio are rather less innervating in Beethoven's three delightful Op 9 Trios (Hyperion CDA67254), though always genial, warmly blended and appreciative of musical argument. Sergio Fiorentino's more concentrated playing style suits Schumann's turbulent Fantasie in C major, which clocks up a very broad total timing of 35'07" (the finale runs to 13'40"). Appian's continuing efforts on behalf of this underrated musician - who died suddenly on 22 August 1998 - have never borne richer fruit and the remaining items (more Schumann, including the G minor Sonata) are virtually as distinctive (APR5560).

Indeed, pianists have been enjoying a bumper year on CD, what with a healthy deluge of new issues and the much-lauded climax of Philips's exhaustive "Great Pianists of Twentieth Century" series. There's also Frederic Rzewski's 36 piano variations on the Chilean song "The People United Will Never Be Defeated", pleasing to the ear but very difficult to play. Marc-Andre Hamelin takes it all in his stride, adds an amazing cadenza and rounds off with Rzewski's minimalist-style "North American Ballads" (Hyperion CDA67077). Rzewski's musical agenda has jazz hovering somewhere in the background, but when it comes to the "real thing", no one in my book compares with Duke Ellington.

RCA's handsome limited edition Duke Ellington Centennial Edition: the Complete RCA Victor Recordings 1927-1973 (RCA 09026-63386-2, 24 discs) takes us from Cotton Club to Church, toying with harmonies that even nowadays sound new, and proving beyond doubt that the Duke was one of the century's greatest composers.

Edgar Varese is another unsung musical innovator, and while Riccardo Chailly's spectacular Gramophone-award-winning Decca "Complete Varese" wins justified plaudits, I'd like to recall a rather earlier and even more vividly spot-lit-account of Varese's "Arcana".

Jean Martinon conducts the Chicago Symphony (RCA 09026 63315 2) in an aural star-burst, while the couplings are Bartok's Miraculous Mandarin Suite and the finest-ever recording of Hindemith's Suite "Nobilissima visione". It would seem that Thomas Ades has earned himself the unofficial title of crown prince among younger British composers. But while Ades's opera Powder Her Face will likely provoke the strongest reaction among a wider public (you can see it for yourself on Channel 4 on Christmas Day), his purely orchestral "Asyla" is surely the more enduring work.

Sir Simon Rattle's fine-tipped CBSO reportage of "Asyla" (EMI CDC5 56818 2) creates an appropriate illusion of space. Mysterious half-lights predominate, much as they do in Simon Bainbridge's disquieting "Ad Ora Incerta". Bainbridge takes Primo Levi's Holocaust poetry as his starting point, and his music swirls off the page like a sickly ill wind.

Martyn Brabbins conducts the BBC Symphony in a fine performance (NMC D059), whereas composer Frank Bridge enjoys an extra dash of interpretative perception under his one-time star-pupil Benjamin Britten. "Enter Spring" is a glorious paean to nature which, towards the end of its ecstatic course, delivers a sure premonition of Britten's own Spring Symphony.

It's the star attraction on a memorable BBC Legends CD (BBC BBCB 8007- 2) that also features Bridge's evocative suite "The Sea".

Antonio Pappano, like Britten, is a deeply intuitive interpreter. Pappano's new Werther for EMI was among the year's happiest operatic releases and is only marginally surpassed by his Il Trittico (EMI CDS 56587-2, three discs) with Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu tackling some of the pivotal roles. Pappano's handling of Il Tabarro - "one-part Tosca, two of Turandot and one of Richard Strauss", as I wrote at the time - is consistently satisfying.

Alagna and Gheorghiu crop up again in Riccardo Chailly's La Scala La boheme (Decca 466 070-2, two discs), a vivacious reading with a warmly lyrical core that occasionally recalls Toscanini's legendary 50th- anniversary broadcast (RCA). Chailly keeps to the musical text without resorting to dry literalism and his refusal to wallow (always a temptation with Puccini) somehow lends extra pathos to the drama.

Another brand of pathos visited the 1951 post-war opening of Wagner's Bayreuth Festival when Hans Knappertsbusch conducted Parsifal and a complete Ring cycle. Legal wrangles had long deprived us of the Ring's crowning Gotterdammerung, that was until Testament fought the battle head-on and won. Soprano Astrid Varnay is a resplendent Brunnhilde, but the real hero is Knappertsbusch himself who, though hardly the most disciplinarian of maestros, inspires a reading of unrivalled cumulative power (SBT 4175, four discs).

And while Gotterdammerung marks the end of one world, Jean- Luc Godard's Histoire(s) du Cinema (ECM New Series 465 151-2 five discs, plus four hard-bound books) symbolises the coming of another. Only Godard and Manfred Eicher could have celebrated cinema without recourse to the visual image, and the resulting aural montage (snippets of soundtrack, concert music, recitations, etc) is breathtaking.

It was the most nourishing musical surprise of my year, but before taking my leave, I simply have to recall an historical release that will have you dancing deliriously round the living-room.

Grigoras Dinicu was a resourceful - and highly creative - Romanian gypsy fiddler who inspired both Menuhin and Heifetz. Listening to his records is like sampling ceilidh music spiced with garlic. The sound-frame might be scuffed, the musical material occasionally strong meat (loads of darkening minor-key stuff), but Dinicu's playing is aflame with dash and bravura. It is called Zigeunerweisen (Symposium 1218), so be sure to add it to your trans-millennial play list.