Follow us on
Facebook Icon LinkedIn Icon Twitter Icon Youtube Icon Instagram Icon
Feature Image

Classical Choices: Best of 2023 - Curated by Charlotte Gardner

Charlotte Gardner selects her classical music highlights of 2023 for the dCS Edit

Tags: Music,

Listen now on

Welcome to our final Classical Choices of 2023! To celebrate, this month’s playlist is a bumper one, honouring some of the year’s notable recordings and events.  

There’s plenty to honour: for starters, two of my January Classical Choices recommendations – Vilde Frang performing the Beethoven and Stravinsky violin concertos with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen under Pekka Kuusisto, and violist Timothy Ridout’s Elgar Viola Concerto with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins – turned out to be auspicious selections, because in October the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen was named Orchestra of the Year at the 2023 Gramophone Awards, while Ridout won the award for best Concerto recording. It’s with those two that I’ve chosen to open our Best of 2023 playlist. Following that is a track from another wonderful 2023 release supported by the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen: Schubert Revisited, bass-baritone Matthias Goerne’s programme of orchestrated Schubert Lieder.

2023 has felt like a golden year for young artist releases. Solo recitals-wise, the two I’ve returned to most since first featuring them here have been cross-genre offerings: guitarist Sean Shibe and tenor Karim Sulayman’s presentation of western and eastern song, Broken Branches, and violinist Tessa Lark’s melding of classical and bluegrass, The Stradgrass Sessions. Also worth mentioning are two concerto albums: Beethoven and Beyond, the much-anticipated Deutsche Grammophon debut from the winner of the 2021 Menuhin Violin Competition, Maria Dueñas, with the Vienna Philharmonic under Manfred Honeck; and a just-released ravishing French programme for Harmonia Mundi from cellist Bruno Philippe, partnered by the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra under Christoph Eschenbach, and pianist Tanguy de Williencourt.

As for young ensembles, 2023 saw the much-anticipated recording debut on Mirare from BBC New Generation artists, the Leonkoro Quartet, who have enjoyed a meteoric rise since triumphing at the 2022 International String Quartet Competition at London’s Wigmore Hall and the 2022 Bordeaux International String Quartet Competition. The album’s Ravel and Schumann pairing was one which easily met the high expectations surrounding it. 

Two more classy and notably creatively programmed offerings came from the Ruisi Quartet (another debut album) and the Solem Quartet, all of which served to further reinforce the sense that there really is an embarrassment of riches right now in the new-generation end of the string quartet world; and also (with Ruisi and Solem quartets in mind) that some of the most genuinely original and forward-thinking programming is happening in the UK.

Moving on to classical’s biggest names, and sticking with string quartets, Quatuor Ébène has had a great year, picking up first Gramophone’s Recording of the Month, and then Gramophone’s 2023 Chamber award, for the glowing accounts of Mozart’s third and fourth string quintets that it recorded during the Covid lockdown with violist Antoine Tamestit. 

Pianist Yuja Wang had a stellar recording year, releasing not one but two zinging albums: The American Project with Teddy Abrams and the Louisville Orchestra, featuring the jazz piano concerto Abrams wrote for her, plus live recordings with the LA Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel of all four Rachmaninov piano concertos plus the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, performed over two February 2023 weekends in LA’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, in honour of the 150th anniversary of Rachmaninov’s birth.

Over in the Baroque world, the fifteenth anniversary of Johannes Pramsohler’s always well-reviewed Ensemble Diderot was marked with a superb recording of their new arrangements of Bach’s A Musical Offering. In a nice piece of presumably unplanned symmetry, Pramsohler’s former teacher, Rachel Podger, also released a superb set of Bach arrangements by Chad Kelly with her own ensemble, Brecon Baroque, titled Bach: Goldberg Variations Reimagined

There are two more Baroque albums I can’t stop returning to: Correlimania from recorder player Michala Petri, viola da gambist Hille Perl and harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani, and perhaps my favourite of all, Le Consort’s celebration of early 18th century London, Mrs Philharmonica, named after the pseudonym under which one of its most mysterious figures published.

Arguably London’s own biggest musical event this year was the Coronation of King Charles III and Queen Camilla, which inevitably served as a glorious showcase for the UK’s sacred choral tradition. Highlights of the newly commissioned works led by Westminster Abbey’s brand new Music Director, Andrew Nethsingha (previously of St John’s College, Cambridge), included bass-baritone Sir Bryn Terfel making history as the spine-tingling soloist in Paul Mealor’s Kyrie Eleison, the first ever Welsh language work to be sung at a coronation.

Indeed, while our Classical Choices series is focused on recordings, I can’t not mention the fact that this year felt as optimistic for live music as it did at home with the stereo, and especially so when it came to the major summer festivals. Finally, three years after Covid struck, both the BBC Proms and the Verbier Festival (celebrating its 30th anniversary with serious star-studded panache) had multiple sell-out concerts, something we hadn’t seen since Covid. One further personal pleasure from this year’s live concerts was a visit to cellist Natalie Clein’s Purbeck International Chamber Music Festival which served as a beautiful reminder that, come the summer months in particular, some of the highest-level and most creative programming, and best concert atmosphere, is to be found not in the world’s cities at all, but in the many music festivals dotted around some of the most picturesque rural spots.

Back to recordings, and March saw two notable events in the streaming world. First, Universal’s acquisition of acclaimed specialist classical label, Hyperion, meaning we’re finally able to stream its many wonderful recordings from the likes of pianist Stephen Hough, violinist Alina Ibragimova, and cellists Alban Gerhardt and Steven Isserlis – acknowledged on this month’s playlist with yet another magnificent recording featuring the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, Steven Isserlis’s 2017 reading of Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C major. There was also the launch of the Apple Music Classical app – finally, a dedicated platform for classical from one of the majors, with classical-friendly metadata and track display.

March also saw the BBC’s announcement of the disbandment of the BBC Singers, the UK’s only full-time professional choir and one its most important commissioners of new music; followed by a huge public outcry, and the BBC’s eventual capitulation. The ensemble’s future is still by no means certain, but while there’s life there’s hope.

Of course the year came with losses as well as gains: luminary figures we bid goodbye to in 2023 included Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho (aged 70), Russian conductor Yuri Temirkanov (aged 84), soprano Renata Scotto (aged 89), and pianist Menahem Pressler, co-founder of the Beaux Arts Trio (aged 99).

Rather beautifully, we’re now ending the year with a silver screen celebration of the achievements of another past luminary, Leonard Bernstein, through the biographical film starring and directed by Bradley Cooper, Maestro. Most of the film’s music is presented in new performances by the London Symphony Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin (another artist with multiple strong 2023 releases, including the second and final part of his and The Philadelphia Orchestra’s survey of Rachmaninov’s symphonic works).

Deutsche Grammophon has also put together a stonking compilation of classic Bernstein recordings that’s well worth diving into once you’ve finally had enough of Christmas music. Speaking of which, our bumper selection ends with the jolly Christmas Party carols medley from the Royal Ballet Sinfonia conducted by Gavin Sutherland, taken from their newly-released A Child’s Christmas.

Enjoy! To all those celebrating, I wish you a very happy new year! See you in 2024…

Share this article: