The Top 10 Classical Albums of 2021
The opening lines of Franz Schubert's song "An die Musik," his love letter to music from 1817, speaks of personal troubles, of being "caught in life's unruly round," and how the power of music can "lift you to a better world." Those sentiments have been hitting very close to the bone for many of us over the last year or so. Most of the albums on the list below were made while the pandemic was raging. And while musicians were largely sidelined from concert halls, many of them braved the recording studio and released perhaps the most meaningful albums of their lives. Musicians can't stop making music. Music lovers can't stop listening.
These 10 albums, presented here in unranked order, are my personal An die Musik. I found great beauty in the voices of Emily D'Angelo and Lise Davidsen, delighted in the ecstatic moments within Julius Eastman's Femenine, trembled in the face of Sofia Gubaidulina's mammoth symphonic forces and found comfort in the symmetry of a Mozart sonata and the sweet collaboration between Toumani Diabaté's kora and the London Symphony Orchestra. They lifted me to a better place. I hope they do the same for you.
Julius Eastman Vol. 1: Femenine
For Those Who Like: Terry Riley, free jazz, jam bands
The Story: Being a Black composer in the 1970s was tough enough. Being boldly gay as well added another layer of complexity to how audiences understood this particular brilliant composer and performer whose fame and success crested and ultimately crashed too soon. Julius Eastman collaborated with Pierre Boulez, Meredith Monk and other key figures in experimental music; his performances won him acclaim, and a Grammy nomination. His compositions, with their provocative titles and quirky instrumentation, earned him a reputation as distinctive and uncompromising. After a stint of homelessness and substance abuse, Eastman died alone in a Buffalo, N.Y. hospital in 1990. He was 49.
The Music: Femenine, from 1974, is a 67-minute groove based on a 2-note theme in the marimba that blossoms into a forest of captivating sounds, excursions for solo instruments and ecstatic episodes. This jubilant performance, by the Los Angeles-based ensemble Wild Up, marks a sparkling beacon in the current Eastman revival.
For Those Who Like: early music, luscious voices, so-called "indie classical"
The Story: On her debut album, Canadian mezzo-soprano Emily D'Angelo could have played it safe by singing staples by Rossini and Mozart, for which she's known worldwide. Instead, she chose to sing music by women composers spanning nine centuries, backed by a string quartet, chamber orchestra and electronics.
The Music: Like a mediaeval troubadour, dispensing insights in a modern, fractured world, D'Angelo's velvety, muscular voice presents a seamless weave of songs about identity, loss and the divine mysteries of life. Timeless antiphons by the 11th century abbess, poet and visionary Hildegard von Bingen interlace with contemporary songs by Missy Mazzoli, Sarah Kirkland Snider and Hildur Guðnadóttir, who won an Oscar last year for her score to Joker.
Toumani Diabaté & London Symphony Orchestra
For Those Who Like: global music, griot masters, Nico Muhly
The Story: Toumani Diabaté, a restless artist and master of the 21-string West African kora, loves a good collaboration. He's made albums with Taj Mahal and the flamenco group Ketama, and accompanied Björk on stage. For years Diabaté dreamed of melding his 800-year-old musical traditions with a symphony orchestra. In 2008 his wish came true when he made this live recording with the London Symphony Orchestra and conductor Clark Rundell. For reasons unknown, the tape languished in a vault until now.
The Music: Diabaté says his goal was to let people hear African music in a new way, and these strange bedfellows make a heavenly combination in six of his compositions, three of which are delicately orchestrated by Nico Muhly. In songs like "Elyne Road" and "Cantelowes Dream," Diabaté's lyrical flourishes float above the orchestra's translucent strings and winds, while "Moon Kaira" and "Mamadou Kanda Keita" feature additional musicians from Mali, including the late vocalist Kasse Mady Diabaté.
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra / Andris Nelsons
Sofia Gubaidulina: Orchestral works
For Those Who Like: Mahler, metal, the raw power of a symphony orchestra
The Story: Sofia Gubaidulina is a survivalist. The Russian composer, who just turned 90, grew up poor but always believed in her destiny as a composer. In 1973, she was attacked by a supposed KGB operative. While being strangled, she croaked out a question: "Why so slow?" It spooked her assailant, who turned away. Her music earned awards, but was also condemned by Soviet authorities. Through it all, Gubaidulina has continued to compose her singular music – large in scope, often spiritual in its overview, but intimate in the painterly details she conjures from a giant orchestra.
The Music: This album offers three broad, brass-heavy canvasses for large orchestra, tackling deep topics. Dialog: I and You tips a hat to philosopher Martin Buber while masquerading as a violin concerto, deftly negotiated by Vadim Repin; The Wrath of God unleashes a horde of snarling tubas to make its point. And The Light of the End hosts a dazzling battle between the very building blocks of music itself.
Count to Five
For Those Who Like: percussion, Caroline Shaw, long Mickey Hart solos
The Story: In a New Jersey grade school, four young girls of color – Aline Vasques, Alexis Carter, Tiahna Sterling and Arlene Acevedo — become friends and begin studying percussion. They advance through high school and a mentorship program and, still in their teens, release an arresting debut album. And in doing so, they upend the male-dominated percussion paradigm.
The Music: The album's six pieces, all by women composers (two Pulitzer winners), present surprisingly varied sound worlds. Caroline Shaw's take on the old hymn "Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown," features her own earthy vocals backed by percolating marimbas, while Angélica Negrón's Count to Five is scored for household items such as playing cards, newspapers and a rogue harmonica. The album is anchored by Hedera, a 20-minute (timpani) head banger that features the composer Lesley Flanigan's airy vocals twisting around a relentless groove.
Anna Thorvaldsdottir: Enigma
For Those Who Like: string quartets, noise bands, staring into the cosmos
The Story: For some years now, Iceland has been a hothouse for classical music of all stripes. At the forefront of the contemporary scene is 44-year-old composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir, whose rumbling, darkly textured music is being performed around the globe. Now based near London, she fields commissions by the world's top orchestras.
The Music: Enigma is Thorvaldsdottir's first string quartet and it sounds unlike any other. As I noted in August when the album was released, describing the music is challenging: "Imagine you're suspended in a primordial gas cloud where matter is transforming, regenerating, building toward the birth of a planet. Long arcs of shifting sound deliver melodies in slow motion, while the composer's extended techniques for the players can make a violin sound like a woodwind or a synthesizer. Percussive creaks and snaps collide with slippery glissandos that flash across the score like tails of cosmic particles in the black nothingness. The performance, by the Spektral Quartet, makes the music feel vast and intimate at once."
Lithuanian Symphony Orchestra / Giedrė Šlekytė
Žibuoklė Martinaitytė: Saudade
For Those Who Like: Debussy, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, film scores
The Story: Her name might be difficult to pronounce, but the beautiful and rigorously built music of Lithuanian composer Žibuoklė Martinaitytė (zhih-BWAH-kleh mar-tin-ay-TEE-tay) falls easy on the ears. Based in New York City, the composer, now in her late 40s, has slowly been making inroads in the U.S. with her music emerging at festivals and an appearance on radio host John Schaefer's New Sounds.
The Music: Martinaitytė's orchestral language is rich, colorful and textured with fine detail. On Saudade, composed in 2019, she instructs brass players to both blow and sing into their instruments, producing an otherworldly sound. Millefleur, composed a year earlier, hangs in a luminous air of subtle gestures — the composer describes it as a sonic garden. There's a dramatic concerto for piano and strings and the brooding, muscular Horizons, from 2013, which draws inspiration from cinema. This album makes the case for Martinaitytė as a one of today's most distinctive orchestral composers.
Mozart & Contemporaries
For Those Who Like: clever pianists, Glenn Gould, mixtapes
The Story: The thoughtful 37-year-old pianist, who has been called "Iceland's Glenn Gould," seemingly can do no wrong. The Gould comparison is flawed, but Víkingur Ólafsson does possess a big brain and staggering technical chops. His playing is a singular combination of warmth and transparency displayed on four terrific albums on the venerable Deutsche Grammophon label.
The Music: Here, Ólafsson wants to alter your attitude about Mozart. To dispel the image of the composer as giggling savant (as in the movie Amadeus), Ólafsson places some of Mozart's more experimental (Kleine Gigue) and dark (Sonata No. 14) music beside that of his contemporaries. The result is to hear Mozart afresh. Even popular pieces, like the so-called "Easy Sonata," sound newly minted mixed in with C.P.E. Bach's quirky Rondo in D or Ólafsson's own arrangement of Domenico Cimarosa's languid Sonata No. 55. The pianist not only has the smarts to re-frame old music in modern ways, he plays it all beautifully.
Beethoven Wagner Verdi
For Those Who Like: mammoth voices, Wagner, Kirsten Flagstad
The Story: Before she conquered the opera world as today's most exciting young dramatic soprano, Lise Davidsen was a guitar-strumming, handball-playing girl from a rural town in Norway who knew next to nothing about opera. She'd not even seen one on stage until she was 20. She's now in her early 30s.
The Music: Davidsen's voice, which has been called one-in-a-million, effortlessly soars above the huge symphonic forces on this album and exudes an intoxicating combination of heft, cream and steel up and down the registers. It's a big, brawny instrument, and like a 600-horsepower Ferrari, you have to know how to drive it. In a demanding aria like "Abscheulicher!" from Beethoven's Fidelio, Davidsen knows exactly when to step on the gas, when to lighten up and how to ignite the drama in music of emotional turmoil. Hers is a voice born for Wagner, and her rendering of the composer's Wesendonck Lieder offers moments of ravishing tenderness and torrents of sound unlike any singer today.
Lucas Debargue / Gidon Kremer / Kremerata Baltica
Zal – The Music of Miłos Magin
For Those Who Like: music discovery, Bartok, nostalgia
The Story: These days, Polish pianist Miłos Magin (1929-1999) is way off the radar. If he's remembered at all it's for his respected Chopin recordings made half a century ago. Like his beloved Chopin, Magin left his homeland and settled in Paris where he accepted many students. This album, which will serve as an introduction even to many classical mavens, makes the case for Magin the composer.
The Music: The brainchild of French pianist Lucas Debargue, the album is a multi-course Magin sampler, offering a pungent, energetic piano concerto with whiffs of Bartók, a folksy violin concerto inspired by Polish dances, plus chamber music and a stirring Stabat Mater for strings and timpani that unfolds like a prayer. At a time when writing atonal music was trendy, Magin remained true to melody, and what a satisfying discovery his tuneful music is in this collection of spirited performances.