The writing was on the wall when Universal Music Group announced its acquisition of Hyperion Records in March 2023. Hyperion, a boutique British label with more than four decades of history, had been one of the last holdouts against the streaming industry. Its business model, based on an audience of devoted audiophiles buying full albums, was at stark odds with those of Universal’s corporate, pizzazz-forward, streaming-obsessed classical subsidiaries, Deutsche Grammophon and Decca Records.
Predictably, Hyperion released 200 of its most popular albums to Spotify, Apple Music, and other streamers at midnight on July 28. The holiday that classical cheapskates so eagerly awaited had finally arrived, sweetened with the promise of a full catalog migration by spring of 2024.
Hyperion is not one of the record houses that redefines or pushes boundaries. It clings to the canon through a distinctly British lens, largely forgoing pieces that interrogate classical music’s antique forms for those that conform to them. White male “greats” both known and obscure often steal the limelight from living and marginalized composers. The 34 full-length albums Hyperion has released in the past year contain a whopping 25 minutes and 48 seconds of music by women — but if it’s the orchestral music of Sir Granville Bantock you’re craving, good news.
Where Hyperion excels is in its artist roster. The label’s performers rank among the classical scene’s most highly reviewed — and with fresh, vibrant insights playing even the most stalwart of classics, they deserve every word of praise. I’ve spent the last month and a half familiarizing myself with Hyperion’s exclusive artists, many of whose work I had heard only in ensemble or collaborative contexts or not at all. These were a few of my favorites.
The first tracks I reached for were violinist Alina Ibragimova’s Paganini Caprices, though out of curiosity more than affinity. The caprices notoriously leave little room for anything other than pyrotechnics; Ibragimova’s records spotlight her cerebral interpretations, full of intention and wit. How would such a consummate musician handle music that leaves so little room for interpretation? True to form, the violinist leads with gestures rather than notes, each bit of filigree contextualized within soaring sweeps of phrase. But her fingers still move with superhuman accuracy, as she reminds us with every laser-focused double-stop trill in the Caprice No. 3. I’ll bet her Eugène Ysaÿe record, not yet available to stream, is worth a listen, too.
Ibragimova’s recital discs, mostly tandem efforts with French pianist and longtime collaborator Cédric Tiberghien, stray from the usual suspects only as far as Karol Szymanowski and Louis Vierne (both still unavailable online), but the duo make clever jabs with the standards. Their Mozart lilts playfully, punctuated by twinges of droll humor. On Schubert, Ibragimova’s tone shimmers with plum vibrato, although her runs sometimes err scratchy. That same scratch adds drama to a menacing cycle of Shostakovich concertos.
And don’t miss Ibragimova’s forays into historical performance — she channels the foot-stamping exuberance of Georg Philipp Telemann’s 12 Fantasias for Solo Violin in her latest release. (Ibragimova is also first violinist of the period-instrument Chiaroscuro Quartet, recommended as well, though the group doesn’t record for Hyperion.)
The Choirs of Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral
Half a mile of London’s Victoria Road separates Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral, perhaps the world’s most frequently conflated religious institutions. They’re really quite different — Anglican versus Catholic, 11th versus 20th century, and lavishly Gothic versus squatly Byzantine, respectively — but as is British tradition, the two each run a boarding school to train some of the country’s most elite choirboys. They sing daily services alongside professional altos, tenors, and basses (full-time church employees), and that rare, luxurious performance burden develops the two choirs’ distinctive sounds.
The cathedral’s boys have superb, almost instinctive musical intuition, well suited to any repertoire. Their William Byrd crests and plummets with polyphonic direction. They pass Francis Poulenc’s crunchiest chords with graceful ease. Even in the stratosphere of a comically slow performance of John Sheppard’s Media vita, their phrases never break. The abbey’s boys are less musically nimble, but their round, radiant tone is downright addictive in the Anglican music that forms their core repertoire. If you’re in the mood for Gerald Finzi, Hubert Parry, or good old Ralph Vaughan Williams, you’ll hardly find better — and the many monarchs that the abbey choir has helped crown would likely agree. The pro in both choirs’ sound is par for the British course, a velvety, echoey blend that affords the basses just a bit of wobble.
British conductor, harpsichordist, and onetime cellist Jonathan Cohen is just beginning his stateside ascent as the new director of Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, but across the pond, he and his Baroque ensemble, Arcangelo, have been early-music mainstays for more than a decade. With gregarious interpretations, superhuman polish, and an explorer’s spirit, Arcangelo mirrors the spry, youthful energy of France’s Baroque scene more than the staid stateliness of Britain’s. The ensemble’s longstanding collaboration with countertenor Iestyn Davies makes a lovely starting point, whether with arias for Handel’s castrati (one of whom Davies played on Broadway) or Bach solo cantatas with fiery organ obbligato.
Unlike most British period ensembles, Arcangelo excels in French délices as well. Cohen also works in Paris as an associate conductor for pioneers Les Arts Florissants — and even borrows a few of that group’s musicians for a recordings of Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s meditative Holy Week services.
The Choir of Trinity College Cambridge
In 2010, Gramophone magazine commissioned an international jury to name the world’s top 20 choirs. The Choir of Trinity College Cambridge placed fifth, a press quote in the ensemble’s bio ever since. And though Gramophone’s list favors British ensembles to a biased fault, the Trinity College Choir is indeed stellar, its sound more unified than many of its professional counterparts. The ensemble recently finished a productive 17-year term with British choral legend Stephen Layton at the helm. (Layton’s professional choir, Polyphony, also a Hyperion artist, placed second on that same Gramophone list.)
Among nearly two dozen Layton-era albums, Trinity’s renditions of British classics reign supreme. One streamable volume of Herbert Howells, centered around the composer’s poignant Requiem, whets the palate for another to come. Another disc selects hit Anglican anthems from composers dead and alive, not only spotlighting the college’s two organ scholars but also soloists from within the choir. Bass Florian Störtz, the machine-learning student who won the London Handel Festival’s 2021 aria competition, is the album’s clear standout. Avoid Trinity’s new-music offerings — Layton’s taste errs corny — but seek out the choir’s Bach collaborations with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment when they become available online.
2023 marks British pianist Steven Osborne’s 25th year as a Hyperion artist, and the range of repertoire that his biannual releases cover is simply dizzying. Hyperion sells Osborne as a docent of the 20th century, a hat he wears with style. The 2002 recording of Olivier Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus (20 contemplations on the infant Jesus) that shot the pianist to international fame more than holds up against the scores of recordings since, his flurries crisp, his homophonic chords ethereally cloudy.
Freakishly accurate performances of Maurice Ravel and Benjamin Britten concertos portend more fabulous concertante work from Osborne to become available for streaming: Messiaen’s behemoth Turangalîla-Symphonie, Michael Tippett’s meandering Piano Concerto (and complete sonatas), and in Osborne’s maiden 1998 recording, concertos by a Scot, Donald Tovey, and an Englishman, Alexander Mackenzie, who traded spaces for their careers.
Should you care about Tovey and Mackenzie? Depends how much you like straight-ahead Romanticism, but if you choose to drink Hyperion’s Kool-Aid of obscure British classical music, Osborne’s flavor will undoubtedly serve you well. Other unmissables include Sergei Prokofiev’s sonatas executed with a sharpshooter’s touch, an obscure set of sketches by virtuoso pianist Charles-Valentin Alkan, and an album of four-hands French comfort food with fellow Brit Paul Lewis. (Lewis, who records for Harmonia Mundi, also has a vast and worthwhile catalog.)
The London Haydn Quartet
The London Haydn Quartet has only recorded one composer for Hyperion, but its performances of Papa Haydn’s string quartets stand out in a highly saturated market. So many ensembles evoke the sounds of Haydn the jokester in their interpretations, and where appropriate, so too do the Londoners. But their overarching ethos is more serious, their sound dominated by bear hugs of deep, guttural warmth rather than jaunty quips. Unfettered rubato characterizes the Quartet’s style, though the group never show signs of unraveling — every member leads those pushes and pulls in lockstep, as in an impressive zingarese section of the “Emperor” Quartet’s opening movement.
You won’t go wrong wherever you start, but my personal favorite is Op. 76, No. 5, with its gorgeous, otherworldly slow movement. The London Haydn Quartet also has a fantastic account of the Seven Last Words, each of Jesus’s final proclamations dripping with pathos. Like many of Hyperion’s ensembles, the Quartet has several recordings that predate its exclusive contract — worthy accounts of Mozart and Brahms clarinet quintets feature on cello a London Haydn Quartet co-founder and former member, Arcangelo’s Jonathan Cohen.
It will be interesting to see how Hyperion progresses as a Universal subsidiary. Will it remain boutique and focused, as it has been for so many years? Or will corporate ownership sell it out? Only time will tell, but in the meantime, happy exploring!