First up are links to my posts covering 50+ albums(!) in this sphere, followed by short takes on many other fantastic releases that astonished with their creativity, commitment, and impact.
Listen to excerpts from most of these in this playlist or below.
Of Note In 2020: Classical
Ekmeles - A Howl, That Was Also A Prayer
Y Music - Ecstatic Science
Quarterly - Pomegranate
Barbora Kolářová - Imp In Impulse
Richard Valitutto - Nocturnes & Lullabies
Cenk Urgün - Sonare & Celare
The String Orchestra Of Brooklyn - Afterimage
Clarice Jensen - The Experience Of Repetition As Death
Luis Ianes - Instrucciones De Uso
Record Roundup: Unclassifiable
Wet Ink Ensemble - Glossolalia
Jobina Tinnemans - Five Thoughts On Everything
Amanda Gookin - Forward Music 1.0
Ning Yu - Of Being
Andy Kozar - A Few Kites
Dai Fujikura - Turtle Totem
Collage Project - Off Brand
Matteo Liberatore - Gran Sasso
Sreym Hctim - Turn Tail
Record Roundup: Vox Humana
Roomful Of Teeth - Michael Harrison: Just Constellations
Roomful Of Teeth - Wally Gunn: The Ascendant
Lorelei Ensemble - David Lang: Love Fail (Version for Women's Chorus)
Quince Ensemble - David Lang: Love Fail
Michael Hersch - I hope we get a chance to visit soon
Sarah Kirkland Snider - Mass For The Endangered
Miyamoto Is Black Enough - Burn / Build
Missy Mazzoli - Proving Up
Du Yun - A Cockroach's Tarantella
Record Roundup: Fall Classics, Vol. 1
Michi Wiancko - Planetary Candidate
Clara Iannotta: Earthing - JACK Quartet
Gyða Valtýsdóttir - Epicycle II
Tomás Gueglio - Duermevela
Kaufman Music Center - Transformation
Record Roundup: Fall Classics, Vol. 2
Grossman Ensemble - Fountain Of Time
Páll Ragnar Pálsson - Atonement
Sarah Frisof and Daniel Pesca - Beauty Crying Forth: Flute Music By Women Across Time
Bára Gísladóttir - Hīber
Hildegard Competition Winners Vol. 1
Record Roundup: Fall Classics, Vol. 3
Christopher Cerrone - Liminal Highway
Christopher Cerrone - Goldbeater's Skin
Stara: The Music of Halldór Smárason
Third Sound - Heard In Havana
Jacob Cooper - Terrain
Record Roundup: New Music Cavalcade
Ash Fure - Something To Hunt
Anna Thorvaldsdottir - Rhízōma
Jacqueline Leclair - Music For English Horn Alone
Dominique Lemaître - De l’espace trouver la fin et le milieu
Brooklyn Rider - Healing Modes
Nicolas Cords - Touch Harmonious
Johnny Gandelsman - J.S. Bach: Complete Cello Suites
Chris P. Thompson - True Stories & Rational Numbers
John Luther Adams - Become River and Lines Made By Walking Become River, the first of The Become Trilogy to be composed, now receives the same gorgeous treatment from Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony as Become Ocean and Become Desert. While quite a bit shorter than either of those, it is no less satisfying an opportunity to contemplate the wonders of our natural world and Adams' gifts as a composer. Lines Made By Walking is also Adams' String Quartet No. 5, and is just as lush, elegiac, and architecturally sure as it seemed when I saw the New York premiere performed by the JACK Quartet, who play it here. The album also includes Untouched, another three-movement piece for string quartet, but one in which there are no stopped notes, only the sound of natural strings and harmonics, and a wonderful immersion in the drone and sparkle of these instruments.
Kirsten Volness - River Rising On these six pieces for electronics and mostly solo instruments, Volness displays both a piquant melodic sense and an adventurous command of texture. Whether inventively dissecting ragtime in the nearly club-ready dance rhythms of Nocturne or spiraling into the ether on the yearning title track, brilliantly played by violinist Lilit Hartunian, there's plenty of variety and no shortage of personality on this wonderful album. It will stay with you - as will the trippy visuals for the "Psaltriparus minimus mix" of Nocturne, one of the best videos of the year!
Patrick Higgins - Tocsin I was not previously familiar with Higgins, who also works in the realms of math rock and electronic music, so I probably got to this through Mivos Quartet or Wet Ink Ensemble, both of whom perform on this assured and explosive collection of chamber music. SQ3, performed with frightening ease by Mivos, makes the most of the instrumental possibilities while also carrying you through a four-movement narrative. In Wet Ink's hands, EMPTYSET [0,0] is a fascinating little engine of interconnected sounds. We also get the title piece, an alternately busy and spectral trio for piano and two cellos, played with swagger by Vicky Chow, Mariel Roberts, and Brian Snow. There's also a sweet arrangement of Bach's unfinished Contrapunctus XIV, mere icing on a dense cake baked with intensity by an emerging master.
Pierluigi Billone - Mani. Giacometti and 2 Alberi Here we have two epic pieces by Billone, the first for violin, viola, and cello and the second for alto sax and percussion. Each is played with pure commitment by Distractfold and scapegoat respectively, two ensembles new to me, and with such expertise that the performance melts away into a pure experience of sound. That same sense of "ritual moment" I felt in 2015 at a Talea Ensemble concert of Billone's works is present on this album as well. Turn your first listen into an event - I guarantee it will be memorable.
Christopher Luna-Mega - Aural Shores Here's another name new to me, but with the involvement of JACK Quartet, Splinter Reeds, Arditti Quartet, and New Thread Quartet, I suspected it would be worth a listen. I was not wrong. Luna-Mega uses field recordings and a deep engagement with natural sounds as leaping-off points into musical innovation and delight. Perhaps most astonishing of all is Geysir, with pianist Seung-Hye Kim in a bizarrely consonant conversation with the titular water feature. In short, burbles and bubbles combining with knotty piano gestures for a truly startling masterpiece. But I love the whole album, which was nearly a decade in the making. Hopefully we don't have to wait that long for more.
Dana Jessen - Winter Chapel The evocative title will not lead you astray as Splinter Reeds co-founder and bassoonist Jessen takes you on a winding pathway of resonant noises in these six improvisations. From bird-calls to sinuous melodic lines, all of which she explores with mastery, nothing about her instrument is alien to Jessen. After a few plays, you will feel the same way.
Jen Curtis and Tyshawn Sorey - Invisible Ritual Shortly into this series of duos between Curtis (violinist with the International Contemporary Ensemble) and Sorey (composer, multi-instrumentalist, here playing drums or piano), I completely forgot they were improvised, so structurally satisfying is each piece. That sense of being in good hands as a listener is there in both the high-wire moments and the contemplative sections, with the latter being some of my favorite moments on this dazzling collection. Everything from Neue Wiener Schule knottiness to jazz fusion thrills to post-rock quietude and more are reference points and connecting the dots is pure delight.
Julia Den Boer - Lineage Of the four Canadian composers represented on this sparkling and contemplative collection of piano music, only Reiko Yamada was known to me. But I quickly fell for the world Den Boer creates from the first notes of 371 Chorales (2016), a short piece by Chris Paul Harman. Tombeau (1996) by Brian Cherney did not break the spell, weaving a tale across its seven movements, and neither did the searching interior monologue of Matthew Ricketts' Melodia (2017). Yamada's Cloud Sketches (2010) closes the album, a very 21st century update on impressionism with a little touch of Schumann. Gorgeous stuff and Lineage has been go-to "morning album" since I first heard it.
Thomas Kotcheff - Frederic Rzewski: Songs Of Insurrection Could there have been a better year to release the world-premiere recording of this 2016 piece? Well, maybe any of the last four, but I'm happy to have it now. Rzewski's applies his pointed and inventive variations to a global lineup of resistance songs, ranging from Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around, that anthem of the Civil Rights movement, to Oh Bird, Oh Bird, Oh Roller, from a 19th-century Korean peasant uprising. Along with Rzewski's tart compositional approach, Kotcheff's stylish playing, including some fearless improv, ties all of these varied works together and reveals a piano work for the ages. And even if you wouldn't sing along to any of these at a protest, as Ted Hearne suggests in the wise essay included in the smartly assembled booklet, we can always "think of the concert hall as the setting, and perhaps the subject, of the protest itself."
The Crossing - Michael Gordon: Anonymous Man, James Primrosch: Carthage, and Rising w/ The Crossing The variety of works pursued by this choir, whether in the moods they set, or the concerns they address, is as dazzling as their technical skills. Under the direction of Donald Nally, they never cease to amaze in their total immersion within the sound world of any composer with whom they choose to work. The Gordon piece, for 24 unaccompanied voices, gives a biography of the NYC block where he lives, from meeting his wife to finding commonality with the homeless, all served up in melodies and harmonies both plangent and haunting. Carthage, which was nominated for a Grammy, finds Primrosch engaging with texts that explore the nature of our purpose on earth, whether by Meister Eckhart, 13th-century monk, or contemporary novelist Marilynne Robinson. As you might imagine, this inspires an melodic architecture and harmonic counterpoint not too distant from ancient chants, yet there's still a freshness and originality here. The last release of the three contains all of The Crossing's virtues in one extremely enjoyable package - uplifting, even, as the marketing promises. David Lang's Protect Yourself From Infection, composed for the 100th anniversary of the 1918 flu epidemic, is obviously on point, and we also get Ted Hearne's What It Might Say, a soulful piece based on Winnicott's theories of communication between infant and mother. The whole thing, including two stunning Buxtehude cantata movements, is sequenced for maximum enjoyment. If you're looking for choral music, just set up a Google alert for The Crossing and take whatever they give you!
Silkroad Ensemble - Osvaldo Golijov: Falling Out Of Time Almost anything I could write in this format about this extraordinary piece would feel inadequate. A shattering 80-minute "tone poem with voices" based on David Grossman's book of the same name about child loss, there are moments of beauty, moments of pain, and a baffling variety of sonic texture and detail, from the high-pitched pipa to modular synthesizer. I admit to being a Silkroad skeptic, such is the facility with which they please PBS fundraising audiences, but I take it all back. This recording falls into the realm of a public service and the deep collaboration with Golijov, a major composer who has been MIA for too long, has resulted in a rendering of a new masterwork that is hard to imagine being equalled. As someone whose child died, I am filled with gratitude to all involved. Whatever grief or bereavement you have experienced, this work will touch you in ways art rarely does. Do not hesitate.
Counter)induction - Against Method With players like Miranda Cuckson (violin), Benjamin Fingland (clarinet), Dan Lippel (guitar), Jessica Meyer (viola), Caleb van der Swaagh (cello), and Ning Yu (piano), there is no hype in calling this ensemble a supergroup. In celebrating their 20th anniversary, they've assembled a collection that plays to all of their strengths - from an interest in instrumental interaction, as in The Hunt By Night (2020), the charming Douglas Boyce trio that opens the album, to cutting-edge practices, as in Meyer's own Forgiveness (2016) for bass clarinet and loop pedal, a deceptively quiet exploration into uncomfortable emotions. The performances are all excellent, the sound is warm yet crisp, and the whole album satisfies far beyond its commemorative purpose. Here's to another 20 years!
Scott Lee - Through The Mangrove Tunnels Somehow conjuring everything from noirish swagger to chamber jazz with a string quartet, piano, and percussion, Lee has crafted an album-length piece that is a cinematic blast from start to finish. Having it played by the ever-amazing JACK Quartet with Steven Beck (of my beloved Talea Ensemble) and Russel Harty (a drummer equally comfortable in classical and jazz) doesn't hurt in the least. Based on the history of Florida's Weedon Island (an axe murder! a failed movie studio!), I only hope that when the inevitable Netflix docu-series is made, they're smart enough to use this delightful and highly original music.
Happy Place - Tarnish Somewhere at the intersection of jazz, art rock, and contemporary chamber music, drummer/composer Will Mason has cooked up a thrill ride, aided and abetted by such luminaries as Kate Gentile (drums), Elaine Lachica and Charlotte Mundy (vocals), Andrew Smiley and Dan Lippel (guitars). You will be deliciously off-kilter throughout this brittle and brilliant album.
Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti - Anna Thorvaldsdottir: Sola This spare, haunting piece for viola and electronics is the first salvo in a new commissioning project from Lanzilotti, whose In Manus Tuas was a highlight of 2019. It's a accompanied by a long interview with the composer, which is full of insights but not something you'll want to hear each time you listen to the piece - which is likely to be often as it is very beautiful and gorgeously played.