RECORDS OF THE YEAR / Hearing is believing: From Purcell to Simpson: Edward Seckerson and Stephen Johnson pick out the best from 1992

Click to follow
THE CULT of Tavener and Gorecki confounded the music marketers and dominated the best-selling lists this year. Mystic minimalism had acquired a heart and a soul. Something stirred in me from the moment that parched string basses, like old voices, began their long painful ascent in the opening pages of Henryk Gorecki's beautiful Third Symphony (Elektra Nonesuch 79282 - London Sinfonietta / David Zinman).

This is the kind of music that precedes the notes and resonates long after they have died. Feelings of renewal are affirmed and re-affirmed here in the sun and moon of all polyphonic string climaxes; melismatic song-settings find Dawn Upshaw's luminous soprano. Revelatory. As are the key moments in Constant Lambert's flawed masterwork, Summer's Last Will and Testament - an epic of the great English choral renaissance long overdue for exhumation (Hyperion CDA 66565). This darkling 'masque' takes its cue from the Elizabethans, rapturously, sometimes tawdrily romping its way through visions of plague, pestilence, and autumnal decay. It's big, ambitious, too portentous for its own good, but its defiant originality keeps pulling the rug from beneath you.

In tandem is The Rio Grande, that exquisite folly of Lambert's youth where jazz comes to the Edwardian glee club and frightfully proper close-harmony voices invoke spirituals on the 'soft Brazilian air'. Dotty but irresistible. It was a close call opting for Lambert over Vernon Handley's stunning disc of Robert Simpson's Second and Fourth Symphonies, closer still when it came down to a choice between Simon Rattle in Mahler's Seventh Symphony (EMI CDC7 54344-2) and Andrew Davis's ardent, majestic account of the Elgar Second. Rattle reveals more of Mahler's phantasmagorical 'song of the night' than I would have imagined possible. Hearing is believing. He even pulls off the finale, that seemingly incoherent apotheosis of the Viennese dance. Not even Bernstein quite managed that.

A step or three back to Brahms now, and one of those rare performances with nothing to prove and everything to communicate: Stephen Kovacevich and Wolfgang Sawallisch, with the London Philharmonic, achieve a quite remarkable 'wholeness', a quiet authority, with their account of the D minor Piano Concerto No 1 (EMI CDC7 54578-2). And the coupling scores a perfect six for both idea and execution: Ann Murray in Brahms's heavenly songs for alto with viola and piano.

In the theatre, Sir Georg Solti found a shadow and fulfilled a dream. His long- awaited recording of Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten (Decca 436 243-2) doesn't entirely surpass expectations, not everything quite ignites as one might have hoped, but the Vienna Philharmonic duly work their black magic on Strauss's fabulous orchestrations, and in Julia Varady's Empress has a performance to outshine even the hottest of the year: Cheryl Studer's in Salome and Jennifer Larmore's in Giulio Cesare.

And let's not forget Julie Andrews making a belated encounter with the one Governess to have thus far eluded her: Anna Leonowens in Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I (Philips 438 007-2). John Mauceri's imaginatively cast revival brings back the gamelan and schmaltz of Alfred Newman's original movie orchestrations to conjure an Orient of pure Hollywood. A bit like the Strauss, really.

THE OFFICIAL line used to be that opera before Gluck was a monster: all that attitudinising and cross-dressing, and the life-denying formality of it all - those endless da capo arias] But set a genius like Handel to it and miracles can happen, as they do almost without ceasing in Giulio Cesare. It's just possible that one day someone may supplant Rene Jacobs's recording (HMC90 1385/7), but I'll believe it when I hear it.

Until then this elegant, agile, impassioned and, yes, intensely dramatic performance remains one of the best arguments I have heard for accepting Baroque opera on its own terms. I wouldn't say quite the same of Purcell's church anthems, but dour and dusty they most certainly are not. Robert King and his King's Consort began their long trek through this poorly charted territory this year, and the results are eye-opening: could 18th-century English church music really be so vital, and so voluptuous? The first disc is as good a place as any to start (Hyperion CDA 66585). O sing unto the Lord has moments where the writing almost overflows with delight in its own resourcefulness, while My beloved spake tells of a time when churchmen were not embarrased by the juicier pages of the Bible. Nor, it seems, are King and the Consort - wonderful performances.

The period instrument brigade have already arrived at Brahms, and there is talk of going further (watch out for authentic Strauss]). But for me the Brahms issue of 1992 was firmly, grandly traditional. Pianist Stephen Kovacevich teamed up with Wolfgang Sawallisch and the LPO to produce a First Concerto with the sweep and drama of a great symphony and the intimacy and subtlety of chamber music (EMI CDC7 54578 2).

Karol Szymanowski's reputation seems to be in gradual ascendent at the moment - and about time too. The Carmina Quartet's disc of the two string quartets (Denon CO 79462) should do him nothing but good. Not only is this some of the finest quartet playing I have heard on disc in quite a while, the feeling these musicians show for the exquisite, dreamlike logic in the first movement of the Second Quartet is unique in my experience - and if you want to know how a near-impossible marking like 'ppp dolce' should sound . . . Beautiful recordings, too.

I had a hard time choosing between Gunter Wand's characteristically mature and perceptive Bruckner Symphony No 3 (BMG/RCA 0926 61374 2) and Andrew Davis's Elgar No 2 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (Teldec 9031 74888 2). Eventually I went for the Elgar disc - not for narrow chauvinistic reasons, but because it opened this work afresh for me, and convinced a doubter that the finale really does belong to the rest of the work.

Contemporary music to end with. Again I hesitated: Oliver Knussen's collection of orchestral works by Elliott Carter with the London Sinfonietta (Virgin VC7 91503 2) is a brilliant effort, which proved surprising repeatable. But if it's pure pleasure we are talking about, then for me it has to be Robert Simpson's Second and Fourth Symphonies, given the kind of sympathetic, vibrant performances this music cries out for, and has so rarely received, by Vernon Handley and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (CDA 66505) - just the thing to energise the tired and unemotional.