Quarterly Critic’s Choice

The best and most interesting new releases of the previous three months are awarded a place on the Quarterly Critic’s Choice. Evaluation criteria are artistic quality, repertoire value, presentation, and sound quality. From 2014 onward, the Long Lists are stored directly with each Quarterly Critic’s Choice.

Quarterly Critic’s Choice

Orchestral Music & Concertos

Debussy Schönberg: Pelléas et Mélisande

Claude Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande – Suite symphonique, Arnold Schönberg: Pelleas und Melisande op.5. Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Jonathan Nott. 2 SACD, Pentatone PTC 5186 782 (Naxos)

Wholly unexpected that »Pelléas et Mélisande«, the only finished opera by Claude Debussy, could one day be heard as a completely valid orchestral piece. Now it is reality – thanks to the conductor Jonathan Nott, who transformed the stage work into a veritable symphonic poem. Concentrating on essential passages and expanded by instrumental voices, the piece experiences a gripping compression, not least because of the brilliant performance by the Orchester de la Suisse Romande and its music director. And so, Debussy clashes directly with Arnold Schönberg, creating a unique horizon of experience. For the jury: Peter Hagmann

Orchestral Music & Concertos

Beethoven Berg Bartók: Violin Concertos

Ludwig van Beethoven: Violin Concerto op. 61, Alban Berg: Violin Concerto »Dem Andenken eines Engels«, Béla Bartók: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 & 2. Frank Peter Zimmermann, Berliner Philharmoniker, Daniel Harding, Kirill Petrenko, Alan Gilbert. 2 CD & 1 Blu-ray, Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings BPHR 210151 (direct sales)

The Berliner Philharmoniker and Frank Peter Zimmermann have been connected through a very fruitful artistic collaboration for quite a while. It began in 1985 when the young violinist was just twenty. This alliance is now being continued using the orchestra’s own label, with the highest degree of interpretation, sound and editing. Zimmermann shapes the violin concertos by Beethoven, Berg, and Bartók with confidence and calm, yet also exciting and imaginative and incredibly beautiful in tone. All of it with absolute equality, in harmony with the orchestra and the three conductors involved. This edition is also aesthetically very well-designed. Simply outstanding! For the jury: Norbert Hornig

Chamber Music

»‘round midnight«

Arnold Schönberg: String Sextet »Verklärte Nacht« op. 4, Henri Dutilleux: String Quartet »Ainsi la nuit«, Raphaël Merlin: String Sextet »Night Bridge«. Quatuor Ébène, Antoine Tamestit, Nicolas Altstaedt. Erato 0190296641909 (Warner)

In purer times, they might have called this album of night music »Nocturne«. But jazz-loving Quatuor Ébène and his two guest partners chose to use Thelonius Monk’s track » ‚Round Midnight‘ as a reference instead. Based on it and other great pieces Raphaël Merlin, the quartet’s cellist, has composed a fantastic suite. The six-chamber musicians combine this jazz-soaked work with the quartet masterpiece „Ainsi la Nuit« by Henri Dutilleux and Arnold Schönberg’s string sextet classic »Verklärte Nacht« with astonishing sophistication – great art. For the jury: Bernhard Hartmann

Chamber Music

Schostakowitsch Arensky: Piano Trios

Dmitri Schostakowitsch: Piano Trios No.1 C minor op. 8 & No. 2 E minor op. 67, Anton Arensky: Piano Trio No. 1 D minor op.32. Trio con Brio Copenhagen. Orchid Classics ORC100181 (Naxos)

This piano trio formation, founded twenty-three years ago at the Vienna University of Music, has mastered the art of wallowing without pathos. Heavy marble chords burst, and velvet melodies spread warmth in the pitch-black night. Melancholy weighs heavily on Arenski’s Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, but the Trio con Brio Copenhagen pierces it with a streamlined elegance. On the other hand, emotional chaos reigns in Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor: does this lightness want to make you laugh? Or is it already madness, raging in the forward-rushing virtuosity? It’s the ambiguity that makes this record shine so bright. For the jury: Thilo Braun

Keyboard Music

The Essential Scarlatti

Domenico Scarlatti: 37 Sonatas. Michael Korstick. 2 CD, cpo 555 473-2 (jpc)

Michael Korstick’s place on this list follows the 2014 edition published by the music publisher G.Henle, which he frames with four well-known Scarlatti hits. The listener is first taken by the hand with two more popular sonatas and then experiences an almost electrifying display of breathtaking virtuosity. The stylistic diversity and the limitless inventiveness of this enigmatic piano revolutionary seem to have been translated into the tonal language of the 21st century. What Vladimir Horowitz anticipated sixty years ago, when he first unveiled Scarlatti’s musical magic, Korstick enhances into a theater of powerful emotions, unleashed rhythms, and free-thinking. For the jury: Attila Csampai

Keyboard Music

Le fier virtuose: Le clavecin de Louis XIII

Works by Etienne Moulinié, Charles Bocquet, Antoine Boësset, Louis Couperin, Claude Lejeune, Michael Praetorius, Guillaume Dumanoir, Jacques Champion de Chambonnières. Arnaud De Pasquale. Château de Versailles Spectacles CVS047 (Note 1)

Arnaud De Pasquale has ventured to reconstruct a sound world that has often been described but rarely been captured in print: that of early seventeenth-century French harpsichord music. From testimonies about the way of making music, scattered sources, and later traditions, along with stylistically confident additions, he builds a rich program – and makes music with such swing and dance and a sense of sound that it’s impossible to ignore. This is also due to the two excellent, historically tuned instruments and vividly colored recording characteristics. For the jury: Friedrich Sprondel


Jean-Philippe Rameau: Platée

Marcel Beekman, Jeanine De Bique, Cyril Auvity, Marc Mauillon, Edwin Crossley-Mercer, Emmanuelle de Negri, Padraic Rowan, Emilie Renard, Ilona Revolskaya, Arnold Schoenberg Chor, Les Arts Florissants, William Christie. 2 CD, harmonia mundi HAF 8905349.50

It is rare for an opera production as funny as Rameau’s »Platée«, staged as a fashion circus parody by Robert Carsen, to first end up on DVD and then find its way to a brilliant CD. We have to thank the tonally energetic, nonchalantly pithy William Christie, as well as the ingenious Marcel Beekman in the title role. In his hands, the ugly swamp nymph who courts love is not a character to be laughed at. Beekman coos in a comic manner that provokes sympathy. Precisely because of his virtuoso arrangements, he succeeds in creating one of the most moving role portraits of recent years – and by breaking with the comedy taboo. Funny doesn’t mean silly. For the jury: Kai Luehrs-Kaiser


Antonín Dvořák: Rusalka

Asmik Grigorian, Eric Cutler, Karita Mattila, Katarina Dalayman, Maxim Kuzmin-Karavaev, Sebastià Peris, Manel Esteve, Juliette Mars et al., Chorus & Orchestra Teatro Real Madrid, Ivor Bolton, Stage direction: Christof Loy. 2 DVD/Blu-ray, C Major 759508/759604 (Naxos)

Director Christoph Loy and set designer Johannes Leiacker incorporated Eric Cutler’s Achilles tendon surgery, which was still in fixed bandages, into the production: crutches for the prince, additional seating, and Rusalka’s otherness is also based on a prima ballerina dream despite the crippled foot. Of course, this misfit couple has to find each other! Asmik Grigorian’s lyrical longing and soulful passion are overwhelming. These soloists and a well-differentiated ensemble are led by Ivor Bolton with rhythmic sensitivity and a feel for colorful sound: escalating to a moving love-death finale. For the jury: Wolf-Dieter Peter

Choral Music

Josquin the Undead

»Laments, deplorations and dances of death« – Works by Josquin Desprez. Graindelavoix, Björn Schmelzer. Glossa GCD P32117 (Note 1)

He has been undead for five hundred years, the master Josquin, and if you listen to the ensemble Graindelavoix, you believe it. Do the enticing vowel sounds beam you into an imaginary distant past? Or are the intertwined structures that give shape to lamentation and form to mourning, of an explosively existential presence? Hypnotic tempi and unbound ornaments, decoration without daintiness, in combination with a »grainy« singing style, add up to a breathtaking paradox: floating gravitas, timeless moments. The appeal to the »Nymphes des Bois« becomes what it demands: highly expressive lament, performative in the best sense. For the jury: Martin Mezger

Lieder and Vocal Recital


Arias by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Etienne-Nicolas Méhul, Gaspare Spontini, Gioacchino Rossini, Jacques Offenbach, Adolphe Adam, Gaetano Donizetti et al. Michael Spyres, Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg, Marko Letonja. Erato 0190295156664 (Warner)

A hybrid? Or a chameleon? Both terms fall short. On this concept album, Michael Spyres demonstrates a once commonplace subject of opera, which still lives on, albeit largely unrecognized. Whether vocal stratosphere or broad, bronze middle register, even the occasional dive into (abyssal) depths – all registers, all colors are available to this wonder of a man. Sung with impressive technique and flawless polyglot expression, and filled with great reflection. You hear a Circe-like lust, as well as astute scrutiny. A brilliant program, backed up by Spyres with a clever booklet text. For the jury: Markus Thiel

Early Music

Marin Marais: Quatrième Livre de Pièces de Viole (1717)

François Joubert-Caillet, L’Achéron. 4 CD, Ricercar RIC 432 (Note 1)

The viol player Marin Marais, the court composer of Louis XIV, was considered one of the greatest of his trade at the time. François Joubert-Caillet and his ensemble L’Achéron have now continued their complete recording of the Marais viol works with the fourth volume of the Pièces de Viole from 1717. The result is a clear, well-balanced recording of this lively, colorful music, characterized by a fun and playful virtuosity, never approaching monotone uniformity. This production not only arouses interest but also holds it for all of its 105 movements. For the jury: Thomas Ahnert

Contemporary Classical Music

Adriana Hölszky: grenzWELTEN – zeitENDEN

Sound pattern for a solo brass player. Paul Hübner. SACD, Neuklang NCD4250 (in-akustik)

When Adriana Hölszky wrote the approximately seven-minute piece »WeltenEnden« almost thirty years ago, she could not have guessed that years later, the brass player Paul Hübner would be moved to grow a sweeping opus from it. In 2016, the congenial collaboration between composer and performer resulted in »grenzWelten / zeitEnden« – a cosmos of sound images that shows the participant’s powerful, expressive will, documented via a perfectly produced multi-track tape: a piece of incredibly associative music, an expansive listening space which takes you to the boundaries of sound. An auditory »comic strip« that has it all! For the jury: Marita Emigholz

Historical Recordings

Claudio Arrau – The Unreleased Beethoven Recital 1959

Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos. 23, 26 & 31. Claudio Arrau. The Lost Recordings TLR-2103039 (Bertus)

In March 1918, the magazine »Signale für die musikalische Welt« wrote about the fifteen-year-old: »The young Arrau is already one of the ‚sold-out’ pianists. He achieves remarkable things both technically and musically. Beethoven’s Eroica variations reveal powerful forms and a developing artistic personality.« In his middle-age studio recordings, we then experienced Arrau more as a »rigid, rarely spontaneous master of the form«. But in the concert hall, he still delivered risky, flaming interpretations, which this recital captures! One can marvel again – at both Arrau and at Beethoven… For the jury: Wolfgang Wendel

Crossover Productions

Christian Brückner, Michael Wollny: Heinrich Heine – Traumbilder

CD/LP, ACT 9935-2/LP 9932-1 (Edel)

Christian Brückner, Michael Wollny: Heinrich Heine – Traumbilder. CD/LP, ACT 9935-2/LP 9932-1 (Edel)
»This afternoon, he came to us unexpectedly, hoarse, sickly, and with a pain in his chest.« ‚He’ is Heinrich Heine, who visited his Hamburg friend Rosa Maria in February 1830. The improvisations of the jazz pianist Michael Wollny and the recitation of the deservedly legendary Christian Brückner intertwine like a spontaneous conversation. Never has a duo better embodied the young, cheeky rascal or the aging exile dying of the »Wound Germany«. Poetry in a unique selection surrounded by provocatively beautiful sound garlands. Or rhythmically chopped up, satirically glaring, pessimistic and gloomy. Among them the often sung Lorelei, its poet »Unknown« in the Third Reich. For the jury: Nikolaus Gatter

Film Music

Alfred Schnittke: Film Music Vol. 5

(Tagessterne, Der Liebling des Publikums, Vater Sergius). Rundfunkchor Berlin, Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Frank Strobel. Capriccio C5350 (Naxos)

Conductor Frank Strobel has been fulfilling a heartfelt wish of the Russian-German composer Alfred Schnittke for twenty-five years: he arranges concert suites from Schnittke’s movie scores and records them with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra. Strobel snatches sketch after sketch from the archives and assembles them into a vibrant legacy. A special trust during Schnittke’s lifetime and loving service to his estate, reflecting a fascinating personality: warm-hearted, ironic, playful – just like Vol. 5 of this unique film music series. For the jury: Ulrich Amling


Erroll Garner: Symphony Hall Concert

CD/LP, Mack Avenue MAC1189 (in-akustik)

A memorable concert where past and future have a date: Erroll Garner had long since reached the level he maintained throughout his career. This artist with »more feeling than almost all other pianists« (Mary Lou Williams) paid his respects to Fats Waller and Art Tatum on that evening of January 17, 1959, and enriched the music of his great role models with his very own sound. The Garner garlands, the forceful chords of the powerful left, the glittering runs, the melodic embellishments – all of it makes the pieces sparkle with fresh energy. For the jury: Rainer Nolden


Adam O’Farrill: Visions Of Your Other

Digital, Biophilia Records BREP0025 (direct sales)

He’s only twenty-seven, but Adam O’Farrill is already one of today’s most distinctive trumpeters. Partially due to his roots: his grandfather is the Cuban jazz innovator Chico O’Farrill, his father Arturo directs the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra. Adam’s quartet acts without Latin influences and with free-floating ease. The furious stimulus-reaction patterns between him and his saxophonist are sometimes reminiscent of Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry. Except that we get to experience this in the here and now. The track »Kurosawa at Berghain«, for example, lets the torn abbreviations of the horns flash over a driving dance groove – alternating between structure and freedom, fire and concise expression. For the jury: Guenter Hottmann

World Music

Onipa: Tapes of Utopia

Digital, Boomerang Records BOOM005 (Rough Trade)

The British-Ghanaian producer duo Onipa has revived an old intoxicant called »Mixtape«: sound-seedlings well-mixed with disco-pop. Sparkling Soukous guitars, Afrobeat, space sounds, timid autotuning, analog percussion, and cheerfully marching choir riffs with chants are like sound stickers from Zimbabwe, Congo, Ghana and Nigeria. Add to it dubstep, electro percussion, synthetic sound-carpets, but also simple, resounding beats. Among them, the unobtrusively sorting percussion of the late Tony Allen, which stays forever young. All in all: pure pleasure. For the jury: Johannes Theurer

Traditional Ethnic Music

Susana Baca: Palabras Urgentes

CD/LP, Realworld RW237 (Universal)

What would we in Europe know about Afro-Peruvian culture if it weren’t for Susana Baca? With her new album, this grande dame, who almost single-handedly saved the songs and dances of black Peruvians from oblivion, celebrates her 50th stage anniversary. And it still sounds fresh and full of energy! She reinterprets an Argentine tango of the 1930s as Afro-Pacific. Celebrates an Andean spring festival with a full brass band. And honors, on the bicentenary of Peruvian independence, the legendary freedom fighters Micaela Bastidas and Juana Azurduy. This soundtrack of a new Peru was co-produced by Snarky Puppy bandleader Michael League. For the jury: Stefan Franzen

German language Singer/Songwriters

Barbara Thalheim: Novemberblues

Germany’s Ninth November. Reptiphon 03847 (Broken Silence)

She is the Thalheim: a GDR seedling from 1947 that continued to grow happily after reunification, blooming both in East and West. She cultivates the »November blues« in a unified fashion, by playing a program with a chanson-trained band that confronts us with a specifically German misery. She accompanies the traditional November commemoration of the dead with songs that commemorate the violently suppressed revolts of the same month, across two centuries. A musical history lesson for everyone, quite helpful perhaps, to those that nowadays think they are the victims of a »corona dictatorship«. For the jury: Harald Justin

Folk and Singer/Songwriters

La Kejoca: Libertad

CD/DL, ARTyCHOKE artist productions AP-0821-CD (direct sales)

They know very well what they are doing! After all, the Trio La Kejoca enjoyed the solid training of the Düsseldorf Robert Schumann Academy of Music. After the thematically mixed bag of their debut CD, KEno Brandt, JOnas Rölleke, and CArmen Bangert have now concentrated on the theme of freedom for their internationally inspired song selection – and suddenly it all fits perfectly. The three are not only gifted multi-instrumentalists but also very talented vocalists. Moreover, they go back to their differing roots: Bolivia, Portugal, and Friesland. Intelligent, courageous, convincing. For the jury: Mike Kamp


Steely Dan Live: Northeast Corridor

CD/2LP, Universal 00602435938981

Some parts of the repertoire of »Northeast Corridor« have a history that goes back to the seventies. Yet, Donald Fagen, with his current Steely Dan line-up, manages to sound as up-to-date as if he and his team had just come up with these songs. Recorded in 2019 in noble US halls with a top team of mature pop, the live album sums up musical perfection, from the thrilling stage atmosphere to the pithily grooving arrangements, to the sophisticated songwriting that is as up-to-date as ever. For the jury: Ralf Dombrowski


Robert Plant & Alison Krauss: Raise the Roof

CD/2LP, Rounder Records 0190296672194 (Warner)

Among the couplings of the type of »older man seeks a younger woman«, that of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss present the most harmoniously coherent. What this hard rock fossil has to do with the bluegrass songbird was a quickly dismissed question fifteen years ago by way of »Raising Sand«. And now, with this new, only slightly differently titled cover collection of country, folk, and blues, it’s still meaningless! The songs, which go back to the American depression and are sometimes gently plucked, sometimes droning, and once again ideally produced by T. Bone Burnett, are prime examples of contemporary roots music that just glows with love, despondency, and confidence. For the jury: Edo Reents

Hard and Heavy

Mastodon: Hushed and Grim

2CD/2LP, Reprise 9362487979 (Warner)

This much music can almost strike you dead: Mastodon, who stand for sophisticated headbangers with their very own mixture of sludge and progressive metal, present a double album of close to one and a half hours. Losses surrounding the band, and the memory of late friend and manager Nick John, break out in soulful tracks like »Skeleton Of Splendor« and »Teardrinker«. Otherwise, the US southerners are as intricately epic and musical (»The Crux«, »Eyes Of Serpents«) as ever, but they also use the fifteen songs to delve deeper into specific spheres. You can never have enough! For the jury: Sebastian Kessler


Low: Hey What

LP/CD/MC, Sub Pop SP1435 (Cargo)

Low’s thirteenth album seems like a life raft in the chaos, showing teeth and caressing the soul. The weightless singing of the couple Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk from Duluth is at the center of the action, the calm in the eye of the storm. Around it rage vibrations of deep, distorted guitar chord drones, jagged, harshly sliced sound samples, and intricate synth chords. The production with BJ Burton deconstructs the familiar, sacred beauty sustainably and innovatively with abstract electronic means and an aesthetic that shreds the synapses. For the jury: Götz Adler

Club and Dance

Eris Drew: Quivering In Time

LP/DL, T4T LUV NRG T4T006B (direct sales)

»The Motherbeat« – that’s what Eris Drew calls the sound that has become the heartbeat of her life and that she shares with her partner and label colleague Octo Octa. And though she’s traded Chicago, the epicenter of house music, for a cabin in the woods in New Hampshire, it’s here that she found the calm required to forge her homage to the dance floor into album form. In true DJ style, she expertly interweaves jackin’ bangers with psychedelic breakbeats, all while also providing a history lesson »on the house« using a flood of referential samples. A strong debut that shortens the wait until the club reopens. For the jury: Laura Aha

Electronic and Experimental

Dark Star Safari: Walk Through Lightly

LP/DL, Arjunamusic Records AMEL-LP721 (Alive)

This is the second album by Jan Bang, Erik Honore, Eivind Aarset, Samuel Rohrer, and John Derek Bishop to use the name »Dark Star Safari« for their sonic sound safaris. Together they embark on a trip to the stark, nocturnal, and introspective yet intelligent Leftfield pop, often led by Bang’s sonorous and longing vocal performance, laced with elements of dub. The emotional depth of these mostly fragmentary compositions and their dark, mysterious moments move atmospherically between jazz, ambient electronics, and impressionist melody. Just beautiful! For the jury: Olaf Maikopf

Blues and Blues-related

Eric Bibb: Dear America

CD/2LP, Provogue PRD76472 (Rough Trade)

This album is a love declaration to the USA, a shattered nation between a pioneering spirit and racism, cosmopolitanism and provincial narrow-mindedness. A personality shaped by spirituality, the singer-songwriter and guitarist Eric Bibb has always valued a straightforward attitude tempered with balance and reconciliation. Hardly anyone writes more genuine songs based on folk blues in such a flawless language the way he does! He is rather explicit in his critical appraisal of his homeland’s recent confusion, but his optimism is always palpable. An unambiguous statement at the right time. For the jury: Karl Leitner

R&B, Soul and Hip-Hop

Leona Berlin: Change

CD/DL, Wrong Lane Records 4064832723311 (direct sales)

With a name like that, you’ll definitely end up there: Berlin may be Leona Berlin’s adopted home, but her name is not a homage to the city – it’s inherited. An outstanding artist, making her way: Leono is still more of an insider tip, loved by her fans. For her, there never was an alternative to music. Her parents did not stand in her way, she studied it, a record deal with Warner, a song with Snoop Dogg. Now her second album is out, with a mixture of soul, R&B and jazz – independent and self-published: everything in Leona’s hands, from music to marketing to videos. And live, she is a genius too. For the jury: Jörg Wachsmuth

Spoken Word

Jahrhundertstimmen 1900-1945

German history in over 200 original recordings. Edited by Hans Sarkowicz, Ulrich Herbert, Michael Krüger and Christiane Collorio. 3 mp3-CD, der Hörverlag ISBN: 978-3-8445-1518-3

An auditory treasure chest! This fantastic listening expedition spanning almost half a century brings together the most varied quotes from contemporary witnesses, with knowledgeable commentary by the four editors. In 1903, for example, Emperor Franz Joseph praised the Austrian Academy of Sciences, which »recorded the languages and dialects of our fatherland phonographically«. But you can also hear Hannah Arendt, as well as Ernst Lubitsch, Max Pechstein, Otto Hahn, the economist Else Staudinger, or Wilhelm Voigt, the true captain of Köpenick. A clever essay written by Annette Vogt for the excellent booklet explains why there are so few women included. For the jury: Manuela Reichart

Recordings for Children and Youth

Alan Gratz: Vor uns das Meer

Lena Conrad, Omid-Paul Eftekhari, Benedikt Paulun. 7 CD, derDiwan Hörbuchverlag ISBN: 978-3-941009-83-7

Syria 2015: A bomb destroys Mahmoud and his family’s house. Germany 1939: Josef’s father is released from the concentration camp, with the condition that he and his family leave Germany. Cuba 1994: Isabel’s father narrowly escaped imprisonment after repeatedly demonstrating against hunger and dictatorship. Three twelve-year-olds and their longing for a life in peace – these stories of Josef, Isabel and Mahmoud, with all their fears and hopes, are timelessly connected with each other, gaining in intensity in the audio version. And between here and somewhere else: the sea. For the jury: Friederike C. Raderer