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 Presto Editor's Choices, Presto Editor's Choices - January 2021

January Editor's Choices 2021Personal favourites from January include a spellbinding debut disc of York Bowen from Georgian pianist Nicolas Namoradze, Reicha in all his infinite variety from Ivan Ilić, Swedish Romantic composer Helena Munktell's expansive, exuberant Violin Sonata, and the world premiere recording of John Eccles's colourful setting of Semele from the Academy of Ancient Music.

It’s early days, but I’ve already earmarked this young Georgian pianist’s dazzling debut disc as a potential Recording of the Year: his sheer technical brilliance will make you catch your breath time and again, but he’s also a born story-teller, bringing Andersen’s Metal Pig and Tin Soldier to life with an abundance of charm, wit and warmth. Despite their rather utilitarian titles, the twelve Op. 46 studies are scarcely less characterful in his hands, the alla marcia exercise ‘for the glissando’ a particular delight.

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

It’s not only Reicha but Ilić himself who gives us a genial masterclass in ‘the art of variation’ on this quite extraordinary account of an extraordinary work: though all 57 variations (Heinz should really do a marketing tie-in here) were recorded on a Steinway Model D, such is the range of touch and colour that there are moments you’d swear he’d switched to an Érard, a Broadwood, or even (for some of the unexpectedly jazzy movements) a modern upright with a colourful past. 80 minutes flies by in such imaginative company.

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

Simone Menezes, Ensemble K

This invigorating debut album from Menezes's France-based collective could be just the pick-me-up you need in the depths of this particularly bleak mid-winter: effective, lean chamber arrangements bring out the folkish colours of Borodin's Polovtsian Dances and in particular Copland's Appalachian Spring, which truly sounds like country music here. And everything really dances - as did I on first hearing, lockdown sluggishness notwithstanding!

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

Tobias Ringborg (violin), Peter Friis Johansson (piano), Sofie Asplund (soprano), Kristina Winiarski (cello)

The Swedish composer (1852-1919) trained as both a singer and pianist, and it certainly shows in the ten beguiling mélodies here (the majority originally composed to Swedish texts and later translated by Munktell’s publisher, though it all sounds entirely idiomatic). The major discovery here, though, is the irresistibly exuberant Violin Sonata from 1905, premiered by George Enescu and inspired in part by Munktell’s love for the César Franck sonata.

Available Formats: SACD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Christian Immler (baritone), Helmut Deutsch (piano)

This beautifully structured and executed recital is clearly a labour of love on the part of both artists, who were granted access to Gál’s manuscripts by his family and have selected twenty-six little gems which match (and in some cases even surpass) the quality and invention of the Op. 33 songs which Gál chose to publish. The disconcertingly pragmatic depictions of disappointed love in Liebesmüde and Rücknahme are particularly striking, whilst the cabin-feverish Novembertag resonates keenly in these locked-down times.

Available Formats: SACD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Polina Pasztircsák (soprano), Sophie Harmsen (mezzo), Steve Davislim (tenor), Johannes Weisser (baritone); Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, RIAS Kammerchor, René Jacobs

Jacobs’s fresh, often febrile Missa has the same sense of the ink still being wet on the page that made François-Xavier Roth’s 2020 recording of the Fifth Symphony such a Presto favourite: there’s an exciting rawness (particularly in the lower regions) to the orchestral sound when required, though no rough edges whatsoever from the RIAS Kammerchor, who surmount Beethoven’s formidable technical challenges with exhilarating aplomb.

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Nathalie Stutzmann (contralto/director), Orfeo 55

The French contralto is in magnificent vocal form throughout this programme of baroque arias (the coloratura in Porpora’s ‘Torbido intorno al core’ is pinpoint-accurate, and she summons an astonishing range of colours in Vivaldi’s great lament ‘Gelido in ogni vena’), but the real glory here is the earthy, vibrant playing of Orfeo55 – the ensemble disbanded in 2019, with Stutzmann set to move onto pastures new with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and they’ve certainly bowed out with a bang rather than a whimper.

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

Anna Dennis (Semele), Richard Burkhard (Jupiter), Helen Charlston (Juno), Aoife Miskelly (Ino), William Wallace (Athamas), Héloïse Bernard (Iris); Academy of Ancient Music Julian Perkins

There’s fun to be had in comparing Eccles’s response to Congreve’s libretto with Handel’s setting from nearly four decades later (‘Endless pleasure’, for instance, is here a wistfully reflective aria for the lovelorn Athamas rather than a lubricious showpiece for the heroine, and the ‘mighty thunderer’ Jupiter is endowed with rather more gravitas), but the score is a delight entirely on its own terms. Dennis is a sensuous, elegant Semele, and mezzo Helen Charlston positively spits fire as her vengeful nemesis.

Available Formats: 2 CDs, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC, Hi-Res+ FLAC