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 Presto Editor's Choices, Presto Editor's Choices - December 2017

One of my New Year's Resolutions is to devote more time to getting to know the music of composers I've only encountered in passing, if at all, so I've been getting in slightly early (lest that sound too smug, I should point out that it's the only one of my resolutions which I'm remotely likely to keep!) and exploring three recordings which fit the bill: Marin Marais’s 1709 setting of the Semele legend, a ‘Greek Mass’ and motets by Jacob Obrecht, and the piano trios of Johann Peter Pixis. Myths and story-telling in general have inadvertently become a bit of a theme on my playlist this month: as well as Semele, there’s a riveting set of Saint-Saëns’s Classicaly-inspired symphonic poems from Jun Märkl and his Lille Orchestra, and Jörg Widmann’s imaginative responses to Schumann’s two sets of musical fairy-tales.

The Chopin Competition winner enters a crowded field with this all-Debussy recital (Hough, Osborne and Barenboim are all marking the centenary of the composer's death with new albums), but he more than holds his own, with highlights including a daringly spacious Clair de lune, an insouciant Golliwog's Cake-Walk, and a truly iridescent Poissons d'Or.

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Soloists Européens Luxembourg, Christoph König

The 'First Romantic' (1763-1817) was one of the big musical discoveries of 2017 for me, thanks to a showcase concert at St John's Smith Square and the first recording of his Highland opera Uthal; the First Symphony springs into crackling life here, shot through with foreshadowings of Berlioz and Weber. Beethoven's Eroica, composed five years earlier, makes a fascinating comparison.

Available Format: CD

Orchestre National de Lille, Jun Märkl

Saint-Saëns's skill as a musical narrator on this collection of Omphale's spinning-whirls with malign, uncanny impetus, Phaéton's ill-fated chariot scuds through the skies with swashbuckling fleetness, and even the over-exposed Danse macabre comes up as fresh as paint thanks to Death's rough, folksy violin and the heavy rustic tread of the demonic dancers.

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Jörg Widmann (clarinet), Tabea Zimmermann (viola) & Dénes Várjon (piano)

There's yet more vivid story-telling (albeit on a smaller canvas) from Widmann, Zimermann and Varjon: Schumann's two sets of musical fairy-tales are supplemented with quirky, often deliciously macabre vignettes composed by Widmann himself, in which the spirit of the Brothers Grimm and Roald Dahl are never far away. Perfect listening for a dark, chilly winter's evening.

Available Format: CD

Leonore Piano Trio

Three hugely attractive chamber-works from a neglected German pianist-composer of the early nineteenth century receive dynamic and committed performances from the Leonores – there are memorable melodies galore, and the vivacious outer movements of the two longer works are positively bursting with energy.

Available Format: CD

The Brabant Ensemble, Stephen Rice

Much of the fifteenth-century Flemish composer's music here sounds disconcertingly modern (as the booklet-notes point out, his compositional techniques in the Missa Grecorum prefigure those of the Second Viennese School), the unexpected harmonic twists and dissonances brought out to startling effect by the attractively austere, straight-toned singing of the Brabants.

Available Format: CD

Le Concert Spirituel, Hervé Niquet

Pre-dating Handel's setting by 35 years, Marais's 'tragédie lyrique' grants the hubristic heroine (more sympathetic and complex here than in Congreve's libretto) a happy ending of sorts, but Marais provides fire and brimstone aplenty along the way, interspersed with some wonderfully atmospheric ballets for the returning warriors of the Prologue and the nymphs and shepherds of Act Four.

Available Format: 2 CDs

Gaëlle Arquez, Daniel Johansson, Scott Hendricks, Elena Tsallagova; Wiener Symphoniker, Paolo Carignani, Kasper Holten

The location is the real star of this breathtaking production, filmed at at Bregenz last summer – Es Devlin's spectacular designs include giant playing-cards suspended over the lake, which Elena Tsallagova's intrepid Micaëla scales on her journey to rescue José from the smugglers' mountain lair, and other coups de theatre including Carmen diving into the water to evade arrest at the end of Act One) – but the spirited young cast are by no means dwarfed by the setting, particularly Gaëlle Arquez's fearless anti-heroine.

Available Format: DVD Video

Gaëlle Arquez (Carmen), Daniel Johansson (Don José), Scott Hendricks (Escamillo), Elena Tsallagova (Micaëla); Wiener Symphoniker, Paolo Carignani

The location is the real star of this breathtaking production, filmed at at Bregenz last summer – Es Devlin's spectacular designs include giant playing-cards suspended over the lake, which Elena Tsallagova's intrepid Micaëla scales on her journey to rescue José from the smugglers' mountain lair, and other coups de theatre including Carmen diving into the water to evade arrest at the end of Act One) – but the spirited young cast are by no means dwarfed by the setting, particularly Gaëlle Arquez's fearless anti-heroine.

Available Format: Blu-ray