The Top 10 classical CDs of the year

Our reviewers Edward Seckerson and Stephen Johnson each select their five favourite releases of 1995
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'Is it that people simply fall for the ethereal sounds and the evocation of a mythical "Age of Faith"?

If so, Robert White will probably create the required mood as well as any of his contemporaries'

There are two ways of doing this. I could affect Olympian detachment and announce the "best" records of 1995, or I could simply list the five new discs that have come down off my shelves most often. Option No 2 feels more honest; it's also easier. So here goes.

According to the sales charts, renaissance choral polyphony has been going through a renaissance of its own for some time. Is it, as some have suggested, that people simply fall for the ethereal sounds and the evocation of a mythical "Age of Faith"? If so, the Tudor composer Robert White will probably create the required mood as well as any of his contemporaries.

But there are good reasons for listening closer. As I've realised, listening repeatedly, White has a sound-world of his own: slow-moving, less intricate than Byrd or Tallis, backward-looking in a time of great change, but wonderfully expressive, especially in the great five-part setting of the Lamentations (Gimell CDGIM 030). The scribe who copied out the music added a note: "Not even the words of the gloomy prophet sound so sad as the sad music of my composer." Peter Philips and his virtuoso Tallis Scholars bring out that intensity, but with dignity, restraint and elegance fitting to music that's so finely crafted.

My record of the year? Perhaps, but two other discs have run it close in the listening stakes. The Symphonies Nos 8 and 9 of the veteran Danish composer Vagn Holmboe (BIS CD 618) still impress, still reveal more each time I listen, and still sound utterly different. The Eighth runs its course like a great northern river; while the Ninth can seem more like a collage of sights and sounds revealed in dreams, but it too has its own persuasive logic. The Aarhus Symphony Orchestra plays with tremendous authority for Owain Arwel Hughes - have we underrated him?

The first release in Stephen Kovacevich's cycle of Schubert piano sonatas does seem to have been strangely underrated - or at least underproclaimed. The romantic reputation of the final sonata ("the dying composer confronts eternity") frightens some pianists into self-consciousness. Not so Kovacevich; there's an extraordinary inevitability about his performance (EMI 5 55359 2), an inner strength and coherence that have nothing to do with predictability. This is not the kind of playing that draws attention to itself, and yet how beautifully Kovacevich plays, not just in the sonata but in the miniature German Dances too - very repeatable, those.

The final two choices were harder. Franz Welser-Most's EMI disc of Schmidt's Fourth Symphony and Collins Classics' collection of Britten folksong arrangements nearly made it, but ES bagged them first. So that leaves a disc of orchestral works by Colin Matthews and Ravel's L'Enfant et les sortileges conducted by Charles Dutoit.

The Matthews works (DG 447 067 2) are very demanding - in one review I called Suns Dance and Broken Symmetry "dance till you drop" pieces. But there have been times when I've found in them a perfect outlet for pent-up rage or surplaas energy - especially in these exhilarating, superbly recorded performances by Oliver Knussen and the London Sinfonietta.

L'Enfant et les sortileges (Decca 440 333 2) may seem a huge leap from Matthews, but Dutoit and his main soloist, Colette Alliot-Lugaz, find dark depths in this music as well as the tenderness, colour and imaginative super-resourcefulness normally associated with Ravel. Similar depths are probed in the orchestral song-cycle Sheherazade (with Catherine Dubosc). If you still think of Ravel as - in Stravinsky's phrase - "the most perfect of Swiss clockmakers", try this. SJ

'John Eliot Gardiner's Don Giovanni is that rare occurrence - a live performance to live with. The momentum is so irresistible that he can afford to relax - to yield to the score's innate sensuality'

Not much "core repertoire" (don't you just hate the phrase?) among this year's prime pickings. Why, even the majors have decided that it's time to go gold-digging, that there might be money (or at least a little kudos) in them there rarities: another Gorecki, another Tavener, another tenor, another trend. Well, that's the cynical view. But if it keeps the A & R men on their toes, who cares?

So why am I leading with Don Giovanni? Because John Eliot Gardiner's Archiv production (DG 445 870-2) is that rare occurrence - a live performance to live with. The heat is on, the clock is running, the pace - as those who know their Gardiner would expect - is fairly lively. But the impetus behind Gardiner's reading is truly dramatic and the momentum, once established, is so irresistible that he can afford to relax and to savour - to yield to the score's innate sensuality. It's funny, sexy and scary, this performance. And exceedingly well sung. So make way for the stone guest, flanked by his bodyguard of 18th-century trombones, and abandon all preconceptions as Gardiner dispatches his Don in a grand and fiery allargando that would surely have raised even Mozart's eyebrows.

Actually, Gardiner made my short list twice: Percy Grainger's outrageous love-in cum tribal pageant The Warriors, back to back with a brilliantly recorded account of Holst's The Planets (on DG), would fill a large corner of any Christmas stocking. And since we're sneaking in the "honourable mentions", let's put on record the runners-up to my final five: Radu Lupu in Schumann (Decca), Rattle in Shostakovich 4 (EMI), the musical petits fours of Richard Addinsell, he of the Warsaw Concerto (Marco Polo), and two remarkable symphonies from a great Dane - no, not Nielsen, but Vagn Holmboe (on BIS).

In a very close call between him and Franz Schmidt (a name that, in Vienna, is still mentioned in the same breath as Bruckner's), I've plumped for Schmidt. His remarkable Fourth Symphony - a compelling musical odyssey falling somewhere between improvisation and meditation - is championed in an equally remarkable performance by his compatriot Franz Welser-Most and the LPO (EMI 5 55518 2). I've a feeling that, had Welser-Most programmed such works early in his tenure as music director of that orchestra, his critics might have been singing from a different hymn sheet.

It's been the year of "Fairest Isle", and at least my remaining choices are home-grown. The Collins Classics edition of Britten Folk Songs (Collins 70392) has proved a source of great pleasure. I've had it programmed on random play to avoid heading straight for my old favourites. Eventually they come around - "O Waly, Waly", "The Salley Gardens"... Britten was an inveterate collector of these lovable, hummable, indelible songs. But loving them meant being a part of them, truly inhabiting them. And that he did in mysterious, telling ways. The singers here find their own way too - "interpret" is too grand a word, but you know what I mean. So even if you can't get Peter Pears's deadpan delivery of "The foggy, foggy dew" out of your head, Philip Langridge will help.

Finally, two of British music's best-kept secrets. George Dyson's Violin Concerto (Chandos 9369), a real discovery, starting as it means to go on - with an epic tutti worthy of Elgar - never to look back. It's 1941, the lights are going out all over Europe, but the melodic and harmonic reach is consistent with music of aspiration, adventure and optimism.

Not so Constant Lambert, whose strange, distracted music (Hyperion CDA 66754) comes hurtling out of the Roaring Twenties pursued by demons - his darker self. The Piano Concerto of 1931 is like no other music you've ever heard - the jolly japes of The Rio Grande, the Jazz Age, turned in on itself. Stunning work from Ian Brown and the Nash Ensemble. And there's something subversive for the little ones, too: Mr Bear Squash-you-all- flat. Well, it is the festive season. ES

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