Monday, December 31, 2018

Best Of 2018: Classical

The fecundity of the contemporary classical scene continues to fill me with amazement - and gratitude. Hundreds of hours during my 2018 have been enhanced by the pioneering spirit of the composers, performers and labels who continue to inject streams of inventive sounds into an already rich river of music. My Top 25 included six of the best new music recordings, but barely scratched the surface of all the great albums that came out in the last 12 months. I will highlight some others that thrilled me this year, including a few new releases featuring old music that rose above the clamor, starting with those I already covered in previous posts.

Record Roundup: One Day In 2018

Johnny Gandelsman - J.S. Bach Sonatas and Partitas for Violin
Matteo Liberatore - Solos
Maya Baiser - The Day

Words + Music, Part 1: Laurie Anderson And Kronos Quartet

Laurie Anderson and Kronos Quartet - Landfall

Record Roundup: Electro-Acoustic Explorations

Clarice Jensen - For This From That Will Be Filled
Tania Chen - John Cage: Electronic Music For Piano

Best Of 2018 (So Far)

Wang Lu - Urban Inventory

Record Roundup: Avant Chamber and Orchestral

Duo Noire - Night Triptych
Joshua Modney - Engage
Seattle Symphony - Berio-Boulez-Ravel

Three Portraits: Cheung-Trapani-Du Yun

Anthony Cheung - Cycles And Arrows

Focus On Contemporary Classical

Nordic Affect - He(a)r
Lorelei Ensemble - Impermanence
Notus - Of Radiance And Refraction
The Crossing - Zealot Canticles
John Lane - Peter Garland: The Landscape Scrolls
Ken Thomson - Sextet
FLUX Quartet - Michael Hersch: Images From A Closed Ward

Piano Promenade
Whether solo and all-natural or treated and limned with electronics, the piano was at the center of dozens of notable recordings. These caught my attention.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard - Messiaen: Catalogue d'Oiseaux The 20th Century master's magnum opus of birdsong for 88 keys receives a gorgeous - a likely definitive - treatment from Aimard. If this is a Messiaen mountain you've been waiting to climb, let Aimard be your guide.

Igor Levit - Life It's wonderful to see this supremely talented pianist broadening his palate well beyond often recorded works by Bach and Beethoven. Here he blends Busoni and Liszt transcriptions of Bach and Wagner with Schumann's last work and pieces by Frederic Rzewski and Bill Evans for his most personal collection to date.

Lubomyr Melnyk - The Dreamers Ever Leave You and Fallen Trees Combining Melnyk's ecstatic and romantic approach to minimalism with ballet was a brilliant stroke and even without seeing the movement, Melnyk's inspiration feels very immediate. Fallen Trees is more of a group effort, with several of Melnyk's label-mates from Erased Tapes taking part - but his immersive vision is at the forefront.

Dmitri Evgrafov - Return Following on from his stunning and immersive Comprehension Of Light, Evgrafov narrows his focus on this EP, putting his melancholy piano in the foreground and proving that a limited palate hardly tones down his epic tendencies.

Tigran Hamasyan - For Gyumri This Armenian pianist is usually sorted with jazz, but his meditative pieces, especially on this EP, rub shoulders more naturally with the keyboard vanguard in this category. Put another way, when I want to listen to jazz piano I don't reach for Hamasyan, but if I've already listened to Melnyk or Evgrafov and want to keep the mood going I will.

Hauschka - Adrift and Patrick Melrose A contemporary savant of the prepared piano, Hauschka embarrassed us with many riches in the realm of soundtracks. These two are just the ones that stood out for me, with the first capturing the external loneliness of the open sea and the second exposing the contours of a different kind of loneliness, that of the acerbic character created by Edward St. Aubyn and played to a T by Benedict Cumberbatch.

Kelly Moran - Ultraviolet Moran also uses prepared piano to execute her sonic paintings, but I see her as more of a synthesist than Hauschka, which is why it makes perfect sense to see her working with Daniel Lopatin (who releases powerful electronic soundscapes as Oneohtrix Point Never) on this lush and sparkling collection.

Vicky Chow - Michael Gordon: Sonatra The great pianist from Bang On A Can demonstrates that nothing but a piano - and the wicked imagination of Michael Gordon - is required to create a musical brain teaser. M.C. Escher would be jealous of the way the repeating arpeggios seem to fold into themselves in an endless series.

Chamber Constellations
Perhaps due to economic factors, some of the most exciting and innovative new music is being written for solo instruments and small ensembles. Proof yet again that size doesn't matter!

JACK Quartet - John Luther Adams: Everything That Rises I admit to somewhat blanking out when terms like "just intonation" and "harmonic clouds" are thrown around, but one listen to this landmark, hour-long string quartet (the composer's fourth) will shut down anything cerebral for a glassy and fascinating journey into the heart of these instruments. The JACK's concentration is astonishing.

Aizuri Quartet - Blueprinting Since 2012, the Aizuri has been receiving constant acclaim for its performances but only just this fall put out its first album - and it's a doozy! Including five world-premiere recordings of works by Gabrielle Smith, Caroline Shaw, Yevgeniy Sharlat, Lembit Beecher and Paul Wiancko, Blueprinting evinces a complete unity of purpose amongst the four players in both their playing and artistic vision. While they push the envelope sonically, with percussive effects and Beecher's "sound sculptures," this is an easy album to love from the first listen.

Francis Macdonald - Hamilton Mausoleum Suite That the combination of string quartet and harp recorded in an especially resonant space (the titular mausoleum, which is in Lanarkshire, Scotland and once housed the remains of Alexander, the tenth duke of Hamilton) made for a lovely and transporting listen should come as a surprise to no one. That composer Macdonald is also the drummer in Teenage Fanclub, a band whose own fan club always seemed to overstate their importance, was certainly a surprise to me. Who knows what other amazing talents occupy the backline of other Scottish indie rock bands?

Wet Ink Ensemble - Wet Ink: 20 Even two decades in, this all-star group still plays cutting edge music as if the ink is still drying on the score. This collection, with works by Artistic Directors Alex Mincek, Sam Pluta, Kate Soper and Eric Wubbels among others, celebrates that legacy with style.

Trey Pollard - Antiphone The in-house arranger for Spacebomb, whose work has graced some of my favorite albums in recent years, is given his head as a composer and reveals a gift for pared down chamber pieces with a bit of drama and no lack of sparkle.

Jennifer Koh - Saariaho X Koh I knew this album was inevitable after hearing Koh's commanding performance of a solo violin piece by Kaija Saariaho at the Hotel Elefant fifth anniversary benefit two years ago - but the results far exceeded my expectations. Not only does Koh have an affinity for Saariaho's sound world, but the Finnish composer's work for strings is deeply affecting and involving. The world premiere recording of the cinematic Light And Shadow for violin, cello and piano is worth the price of admission but all the pieces are riveting.

The Hands Free This debut album by an ensemble comprised of James Moore (guitar/banjo), Caroline Shaw (violin), Nathan Koci (accordion) and Eleonore Oppenheim (bass) shows that supergroups can work as all are well known for their work in groups like Roomful of Teeth, Victoire and Dither. It also makes sense musically as the unusual combination of instruments seems to mesh perfectly with their musical vision. Lovely Jenny, which wears its folk roots on its sleeve, is an especially effective song but the whole album intrigues and satisfies in equal measure. Let's hope they find time in their busy schedule to make another one of these!

Marianne Gythfeldt - Only Human A clarinetist with the Talea Ensemble and other collectives, Gythfeldt steps out on her own with this stunning (and stunningly recorded - every pop, click and breath is perfectly captured) collection of commissioned electro-acoustic works. The composers - John Link, Mikel Kuehn, David Taddie, Elizabeth Hoffman, Eric Lyon and Robert Morris - are all unknown to me, which puts the album in the class of public service for raising their profiles. Gythfeldt is setting a new standard for her instrument here.

Transient Canvas - Wired The unusual duo of Amy Advocat's bass clarinet and Matt Sharrock's marimba comes into clearer focus on their second album. Works by Kirsten Volness and Dan Van Hassel bookend the record, effectively containing the variety within, which traverses the melodic and meditative to something approaching musique concrète.

Tigue - Strange Paradise Composers and percussionists Matt Evans, Amy Garapic and Carson Moody have assembled their most lapidary offering yet as Tigue, with three long tracks making epic - and even occasionally groovy - paintings for your ears. Post-rock aficionados looking to further broaden their horizons should get with Tigue stat.

The human voice, that most elemental of instruments, was well represented this year, especially in choral albums like those mentioned above and below.

Skylark Vocal Ensemble - Seven Words from the Cross One of my favorite things about this group, who were responsible for the remarkable Crossing Over, is their desire to use words and music to communicate. Sounds obvious, I know, but it's not always the case with choral music. Here the run the gamut, from William Billings and American traditional songs like Amazing Grace to Hildegard von Bingen and Anna Thorvaldsdottir, to take us on a dignified and moving journey through Christ's final statements from Golgotha. Through this kaleidoscopic selection, they manage to create a newly relevant impression of those canonical words. Like Christ's teachings themselves, these beautiful melodies need not remain in a house of worship. Play them in your house and find wonder wherever you are.

The Crossing - If There Were Water If this technically adept choir, led by Donald Nally had only released Zealot Chronicles (see above) this year, it would have been a distinguished year for them. But they also put out this dark and challenging album, which pairs two works about diaspora and displacement, stretching across centuries and continents. Greek composer Stratis Minakakais contributes Crossings Cycle, which addresses the tragedy of Syrian refugees, while Gregory W. Brown's un/body/ing addresses the removal of native Americans from western Massachusetts - and then a later eviction of European settlers, pushed out to build a reservoir. Between this and Zealot Chronicles, The Crossing is rapidly becoming a CNN for choral America.

Barbara Hannigan - Vienna: Fin de Siècle One of the finest singers of art songs takes on the birth of modernism as it arose out of late romanticism in Vienna. So we have cycles by Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, Zemlinsky, Alma Mahler and Hugo Wolf, beautifully sung and sensitively accompanied by Reinbert de Leeuw on piano. What more could you ask for?

Christian Gerhaher - Schumann: Frage Somehow the incredible series of albums by baritone Gerhaher and pianist Gerold Huber passed me by - maybe because many of them weren't released in the U.S. This, the first in a new series taking on all of Schumann's lieder, proves Gerhaher is a singer for the ages and that Huber is the perfect accompanist. This album is an instant classic and would not sound out of place among the great Deutsche Grammophon recordings of the 50's and 60's. Is there a subscription service so I don't miss anything else from these two?

Dmitri Tymoczko - Fools And Angels Given that prog rock is respectable now it was only natural for composers to start reverse engineering it for the concert hall. While Tymoczko seems to lean more toward Gentle Giant than my beloved King Crimson in his listening habits, this collection is a wild ride of outré harmonies and adventurous textures. He also makes a convincing stab at a Scott Johnson-like approach to field recordings in Let The Bodies Hit The Floor, which uses audio from This American Life.

Living Large
Even given what I said above, there are still many new works - and old works discovered - for larger forces. Here are three of the best. 

Michael Hersch - End Stages and Violin Concerto With Images From A Closed Ward immediately establishing Hersch as a striking architect of darkness for string quartet, this album shows that he can think big as well. The Concerto is a gnarly and gripping piece, with a performance by violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja and the International Contemporary Ensemble that will be hard to better. End Stages is featured in a live performance by the legendary Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and finds them delivering the eight short movements with authority, letting the emotionally probing writing shine. I have a feeling there will be more impressive work to come from Hersch.

Florence Price: Violin Concertos Inclusion is paramount on all sides of the concert stage and part of the road to parity is righting wrongs of the past - which is why the rediscovery of these major works by Price, an African-American woman who died in 1953, is so welcome. Albany Records, which has been championing American music for decades, is the perfect label to release Price's music, allowing her to enter the catalog alongside her peers. And this recording, with the violin of Er-Gene Kahng and the Janacek Philharmonic conducted by Ryan Cockerham, makes a more than persuasive case for these sweeping, tuneful pieces. They should be performed often, perhaps paired with a work by Dvorak, who reliably packs concert halls and famously remarked, "The future music of this country must be founded upon what are called the Negro melodies. This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States."

Daniel Bjarnason - Collider As demonstrated on last year's Recurrence, also performed by the excellent Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Bjarnason is a master of mood expressed in orchestral form. Could these pieces work as electronic soundscapes? Certainly - but the combination of his synthetic sensibility with the organic, analog sounds of the symphony is sublime. His soundtrack to Under The Tree, a 2017 Icelandic film nominated for an Oscar, was also released this year and is more than worthy of investigation.

Find selections from most of these albums (save Aizuri Quartet and The Hands Free) in this playlist or below. You may also find something to love in the Of Note In 2018 (Classical) playlist, which is a wider selection of what came out this year. Finally, I've collected many of the Grammy nominees in the Classical category here.

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