Classical & Jazz Albums of the Year: 2023

From Monteverdi’s madrigals to piss-take parodies, here’s our critic’s top ten for the year

December 29, 2023
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Illustration by Vincent Kilbride

Monteverdi: Tutti i madrigali by Concerto Italiano, Rinaldo Alessandrini (Naïve Records)

Renaissance composer Claudio Monteverdi’s madrigals were sketchpads: the place where his hunches about vocal utterance, word setting and harmonies were tested, before he plotted those same ideas over grander canvases. Monteverdi’s themes—sex, death, myth, the brutality of war—remain universal, while the wowing, bewitching effect of his melodies is still entirely fresh. Italian conductor Rinaldo Alessandrini has slaved for 30 years to record the madrigals in their entirety, and his choir of Italian singers reveals an endlessly rotating kaleidoscope of vocal timbres, stories and tunings. For me, the standout classical highlight of 2023.

The Very Fabric by John Butcher (Hitorri)

British saxophonist John Butcher’s obsession with what he terms “resonant spaces” has led him to carve out music inside spaces usually considered out-of-bounds: a Second World War oil tank and a hollowed-through mountain in Japan. Ricocheting sound around these spaces, then listening carefully to the peaks and drop-offs of the echoes, allows Butcher to enter into a dialogue with their geometric dimensions. This new instalment—recorded inside a Copenhagen water tower—dares to be both hauntingly beautiful and bracingly granite. Moments when you can’t be sure where the saxophone ends and the echoes begin resonated across my year.

Dvořák: The Complete Piano Trios by Boris Giltburg, Veronika Jarůšková and Peter Jarůšek (Supraphon)

The sheer joy of Antonin Dvořák’s music for piano trio—played by these three distinguished soloists—was frequently streaming from my CD player this year. Dvořák’s deep love for Schubert and Brahms is knitted inside everything, and during the early trios you hear him working out something new: the rhythmic and melodic inflections of folk music weighed against the complexity of his compositional response. The last trio, the “Dumky”, is the sound of a happy composer flying with everything he’s learned.

Black Classical Music by Yussef Dayes (Brownswood Recordings)

Young London-based drummer Yussef Dayes’s meld of the old-school jazz that has clearly nurtured his soul—John Coltrane, Max Roach, Sun Ra—with funk and drum & bass presents us with an intelligent weave of influences, brilliantly executed, in his Black Classical Music. The music hits peak energy when starry guest soloists such as the saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings are given scope to stretch their lungs, underscored by the athletic lash of Dayes’s polyrhythmic drumming. A long album, which might have benefitted from an occasional nip-and-tuck, but an impressive big-label starting point that points towards a giddy future.

The French Suites by Mahan Esfahani (Hyperion)

The best years of the harpsichord are still ahead of it—even though too many people mistakenly consider it to be a relic of the Baroque. This appears to be Mahan Esfahani’s working assumption, since, alongside commissioning and recording new music for his instrument, he’s also actively engaged in recording the complete keyboard works of JS Bach—with all the freshness he brings to modern composition. Here, you feel as though Esfahani has ingested the French Suites whole, and that his performances, split between harpsichord and clavichord, are a real-time working-out of how to mould Bach contrapuntal nests so as to reveal their inner lyricism. This is playing of daredevil spontaneity, backed up by intense scholarly discipline.

Long Gradus by Sarah Davachi (Late Music)

The Canadian composer Sarah Davachi obsesses over the minutiae inside the minutiae of sound. Her pieces tend to be shaped around tuning systems infinitely more complex and ornate than is normal in western music, tuning systems that allow her music to float and rotate slowly, rather than being anchored by cadences and harmonic full stops. Her big release this year, Long Gradus, is a 4-hour-30-minute meditation on those same obsessions, now rendered for acoustic instruments and opening with the string quartet Quatuor Bozzini outlining a bare-bones harmonic grid around which the remainder of the music gathers: fresh instrumental voices, new perspectives on the grid, like taking a slow walk through sound.

Pharoah by Pharoah Sanders (Luaka Bop)

Pharoah Sanders’s death in 2022 felt like such a jolt because he had been one of the last surviving links back to the heyday of the 1960s free-jazz revolution. Yet when Sanders released Pharoah in 1977, the album received some respectful attention before quickly disappearing without trace. This reissue—bolstered by two live rethinks of its centrepiece track “Harvest Time”—restored a vital piece of jazz history. “Harvest Time” is a beguiling performance indeed: cheerily familiar melodic patterns are led up dark alleys, folk music-like directness is transformed into trippy, harmonic science fiction. Tremendous to have it back.

Beethoven: Révolution; Missa Solemnis by Jordi Savall et al (Alia Vox)

Anyone reckoning that Beethoven interpretation must, in 2023, be a settled matter should prepare for a shock. This new recording of Beethoven’s epic Missa solemnis by Jordi Savall—renowned for his Bach—has left some reviewers spitting with fury, while others have applauded the freshness of Savall’s approach. The main bone of contention—that he deploys a smaller orchestra and choir than the modern norm, so as to conform with the orchestra Beethoven would have expected—can be argued either way, but no question that Savall has a persuasive view: a delicate, vulnerable account of a piece more often driven like a juggernaut.

The Holy Mother by Madhuvanti Pal (Sublime Frequencies)

Madhuvanti Pal is a virtuoso player of the rudra veena, a zither-like instrument with a history reaching back 2,000 years to the very roots of North Indian classical music. It’s traditionally played by men, making Pal the first woman to record a whole vinyl album documenting her art this year—and what music! Melodic scales unwrap themselves over the elegantly placed swells of sustained drones. Pal’s control of her instrument and her feel for improvisational architecture is awe-inspiring: by the end, her scales have been transformed completely, with notes constantly on the move.

Fly or Die Fly or Die Fly or Die ((world war)) by Jaimie Branch (International Anthem)

This third album by trumpeter and vocalist Jaimie Branch will sadly be her last: the much-loved musician’s sudden death in 2022, at the age of 39, left the New York jazz community stunned and traumatised. Her music had become the sound of an enraged but joyful defiance, and her singing—ranging from vocalised howls to piss-take parodies of crooners and bubble-gummy pop—was a force of nature. With its grounding in jazz self-evident, Branch’s album also drew on country music, the swirl of free improvisation, hip-hop, punk and formal composition, which she bitch-slapped into coalescing into a consistent vision, daring them to not.