Sacred Classics: 10 great recordings featured over the past year

Photo: Tallis Scholars perform John Tavener screengrab
The Tallis Scholars perform "Ikon of Light" by John Tavener.

In no particular order, here are 10 favorite recordings from 2014, proving yet again there's endless discovery in the last 1,000 years of music.

Bach: Easter Oratorio

John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir add to their excellent series of recordings of Bach’s cantatas. This includes the Easter Oratorio and a cantata for which we don’t know the occasion that prompted its composition. Actus Tragicus (Cantata No. 106) is a work for a funeral, beautifully juxtaposing Old and New Testament texts. You just can’t beat the experience that these performers bring to the table.

​Robert Kyr: The Cloud Of Unknowing/Songs Of The Soul

​"The Cloud of Unknowing" uses text from St. Teresa and from Psalms 42 and 136, as well as from a 14th century guide to contemplation. Indeed, the tone of the entire piece is that of contemplative humility, pondering the weightiest of subjects without pretension. Conspirare’s performance hits the mark perfectly.

Voces8/Les Inventions: A Purcell Collection

​Voces8 had a couple successes with new recordings this past year. This extremely versatile double quartet of two sopranos, two countertenors, two tenors and two basses released "Eventide" and this collaborative recording with early music ensemble Les Invention of the music of Henry Purcell. It demonstrates the composer's incredibly diverse output.

Choir of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge: In Praise Of Saint Columba

​One of my biggest fascinations of the year. St. Columba was responsible for bringing Christianity to Scotland by way of the island of Iona, and the project revives music from the Celtic church from the 7th, 10th and 14th centuries. The album features the recently resurrected northern triplepipe – constructed (believe it or not) by studying ancient stone carvings and incorporating principles from a similar Sardinian instrument. A truly remarkable recording in terms of both performance and research.

Seraphic Fire: Reincarnations: A Century Of American Choral Music

Seraphic Fire is a dream-team of singers who live around the country, then fly to Florida to perform and record. Their latest recording is titled "Reincarnations – a Century of American Choral Music" with music by Nico Muhly, Samuel Barber, Morten Lauridsen, Jake Runestad and others.

Dunedin Consort and John Butt: Mozart: Requiem

In a sea of good recordings of Mozart’s Requiem, this one is truly extraordinary. It is remarkable in part because it’s a recording of the most recent reconstruction of the original completion by Mozart’s student, Franz Sussmeyer, whose work has been considered problematic by many over the centuries. In the past several decades many modern completions of the Requiem have been offered as a much better alternative. For many generations after Mozart’s death, however, Sussmeyer’s work was all that existed, and the Dunedin Consort has set out to restore that sound: A relatively small orchestra, 16 singers for the chorus, among whom are the soloists. It was never an 18th century practice to place the soloists out front. This performance is perfectly executed and balanced.

Elina Garanca: Meditation

Any recording from the Latvian Radio Choir is worth listening to. Add the voice of the great mezzo soprano Elina Garanca, and you have a Top 10 recording. In addition to works by Gounod, Bizet and Allegri, there are works by Latvian composers Ugis Praulins and Peteris Vasks that just may be the highlights of the album.

Eric Whitacre: Choral Works, Volume 1 & Volume 2

One of the finest collegiate choral ensembles in the U.S. is the Brigham Young University Singers, directed by Dr. Ronald Staheli. Staheli will retire at the end of this school year after a stellar 30-year tenure. The BYU Singers released two volumes of Eric Whitacre’s music this past year. Both volumes comprise top-notch performances that Whitacre fans will be glad to have in their collections.

​John Tavener: Ikon of Light

The Tallis Scholars’ latest is an album comprised entirely of music of John Tavener, who died in November 2013. The ensemble worked with Tavener on the music for this recording prior to his death, so this represents performances as close to the composer’s wishes as could be possible without the composer himself conducting or performing.

​Polyphony and Stephen Layton: Arvo Part

Stephen Layton and Polyphony are on their way to becoming the foremost experts on the music of Arvo Part, since this is their third album featuring his music. Polyphony has a strong relationship with composer Arvo Part, who consults with them directly on each new recording. The choral style of Polyphony is perfectly suited for Part’s music – illuminating the incredible depth of what seems so simple on the surface.