I foolishly thought that beginning with a round-up of favourite CDs would be a nice way of easing myself gently into this series of year-in-review write ups. Now I find it's not so easy. I'm convinced my memory is shot. I've spent a whole year amassing various recordings and longing for others, and yet when the crucial moment comes, my mind is a blank. Besides, I am an old fashioned girl in many ways; I might keep adding to the library, but the fact remains that most of what remains in high-rotation is stuff I've had for years — new releases take time to engrave themselves upon my consciousness. And then there's the confession I must make in hushed tones, which is that many of the real treasures I've acquired this year have not been, well, commercial releases, and thus it seems prudent not to trumpet their (considerable) virtues too conspicuously.
All that aside, however, I'm not a total amnesiac. I couldn't, for instance, forget Joyce DiDonato's sensational Rossini Arias. Nor, for that matter, her Handel disc, Furore. Each disc on its own is a significant achievement; to have produced both of them in such a short space of time, and at the very outset of her EMI/Virgin recording deal, is just further proof of the gloriousness of Joyce. More poignant, but no less joyous in its way, was Harmonia Mundi's posthumous release of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's Recital at Ravinia, a beautiful and extraordinarily wide-ranging disc of Lorraine at her loveliest. Handel, Mozart, Debussy: they're all there, but the best thing about this CD is the final track. Trust me, you need it in your life.
Two local girls made very good indeed. Much to my surprise, I fell instantly in love with Emma Matthews in Monte Carlo, my years of Emma-indifference proving no match for the sparkle and style she brought to this set of coloratura showpieces. And to absolutely nobody's surprise, I fell even harder for Cheryl Barker's magnificent and eclectic Great Operatic Arias in English, in which my #1 diva managed exquisitely to avoid every single aria I'd hoped for and come up with something much much better. She would. Two more of my favourite Australian releases came from one tenor, the very special Steve Davislim, whose delightful disc of Britten folksong arrangements was outdone only by his breathtaking Winterreise. Every eminent critic under the sun seems currently to be raving about Mark Padmore's recent recording of the cycle but personally, if I had to choose, I'd take Steve's.
And of course I can't possibly forget the baritones. Matthias Goerne's Die Schöne Müllerin is hands down one of the finest recordings of anything I've heard all year: heartbreaking, hypnotic and exactly as beautiful as it ought to be, with neither prettiness nor roughness forced in for its own sake. More recently, one of my favouritest baritones in the world, Simon Keenlyside has released disc of Brahms and Schumann which I already adore; his Wigmore Hall recital promises to be similarly remarkable (and swoonworthy) although I've not yet had the chance to sit down and listen to it properly. The great tragedy of my baritone life is that no record label has yet had the good sense to record Peter Coleman-Wright in a solo disc of lieder (or arias, even). I've consoled myself more than amply, however, with his towering performances in two Chandos releases, both conducted by the late and greatly missed Richard Hickox — a new recording of Britten's Owen Wingrave and a reissue of Mendelssohn's Paulus. Both were revelations to me, and the latter also includes, as a bonus, the divine Susan Gritton, with whom every Sydneysider who saw Peter Grimes is (or should be) in love.
As far as complete opera recordings go, my pick of the new releases has to be Alan Curtis's Alcina, with Joyce DiDonato (her again!) in the title role. Pappano's Madama Butterfly had plenty to recommend it too — not least the Pinkerton of Jonas Kaufmann —but I just couldn't warm to Angela Gheorghiu's superficial take on the role; I think she's much better in every way on the recent L'amico Fritz, singing opposite her (ex?)husband. In re-issue territory, I was delighted to pick up Brilliant's budget reissue of the Sills/Verrett Anna Bolena, a gutsy bit of bel canto splendour with both Beverly and Shirley in electric form. Decca's Heritage re-issue of the Solti/della Casa Arabella, was another spectacular bargain — not to mention, of course, jaw-droppingly beautiful. And although they're not strictly opera — in that they contain no singing — I can't recommend enough Naxos's fabulous series of orchestral suites from the operas of Janacek. Especially Volume 2.
Is that everything? I doubt it. I'm heartened, though, to find I've remembered more than I thought; perhaps I'm not losing my mind just yet after all. I apologise right now for what I'm sure are many shocking omissions. Do feel free to contribute your own favourite 2009 releases in the comments. All going to plan, I hope to be back tomorrow night with Part Two of this series, shining a spotlight on some of the students and rising stars who especially impressed me this year.