The 25 Best Classical Music Tracks of 2020


“In Seven Days”; Kirill Gerstein, piano (Myrios)

The composer Thomas Adès and the pianist Kirill Gerstein’s artistically fruitful friendship has given us two essential albums this year: the premiere recording of Mr. Adès’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, featuring Mr. Gerstein and the Boston Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon); and this one, which includes a solo arrangement of the harrowing and slippery Berceuse from Mr. Adès’s opera “The Exterminating Angel.” JOSHUA BARONE

Bach: Complete Cello Suites (Transcribed for Violin); Johnny Gandelsman, violin (In a Circle)

From the beginning of this movement, ornamented with the insouciance of folk music, it’s difficult to resist tapping along with your foot. That urge doesn’t really leave throughout the rest of the six cello suites, lithely rendered here on solo violin by Johnny Gandelsman. This is Bach in zero gravity: feather-light and freely dancing. JOSHUA BARONE

Beethoven: Symphonies and Overtures; Vienna State Opera Orchestra and others; Hermann Scherchen, conductor (Deutsche Grammophon)

The few new Beethoven symphonies released in this, his 250th birthday year, have largely offered more evidence for the drab state of interpretive tastes today. Not so the rereleases — above all this remastered and exceptionally bracing cycle that was eons ahead of its time when it first came out in the 1950s. Scherchen’s Beethoven — like this Second Symphony with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra — is fast, sleek and astonishing detailed, as exciting as anything set down since. DAVID ALLEN

“Clairières: Songs by Lili and Nadia Boulanger”; Nicholas Phan, tenor; Myra Huang, piano (Avie)

After Lili Boulanger, the gifted French composer, died in 1918 at just 24, her devoted older sister Nadia suffered doubts about her own composing and turned to teaching. On this lovely recording, the tenor Nicholas Phan performs elegant songs by both sisters, ending with Nadia’s misty, rapturous “Soir d’hiver,” a 1915 setting of her poem about a young mother abandoned by her lover. ANTHONY TOMMASINI

Chopin: Piano Concertos; Benjamin Grosvenor, piano; Royal Scottish National Orchestra; Elim Chan, conductor (Decca)

There’s pianism of historic caliber on this release, and another mark of Mr. Grosvenor’s breathtaking maturity, even though he is still in his 20s. Summoning playing of pure poetry, he lavishes on these concertos all his lauded sensitivity, innate sense of pace and effortless way with phrasing. He’s matched bar for bar by Ms. Chan, an impressive young conductor who makes an occasion of orchestral writing that in other hands sounds routine. DAVID ALLEN

“Black, Brown and Beige”; Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis (Blue Engine)

If Ellington’s 1943 Carnegie Hall performance of his “Black, Brown and Beige” remains matchless, its radio broadcast sound has dated, making the crispness of this faithful recent rendition worth savoring. Sterling interpretation and production values permit a fresh look at “Light,” including the elegant way Ellington weaves together motifs heard earlier in “Black,” just before a rousing finish. SETH COLTER WALLS

“Rising w/ the Crossing”; the Crossing (New Focus)

Earlier this year, when singing together became just about the most dangerous thing you could do, Donald Nally, the magus behind the Crossing, our finest contemporary-music choir, began posting daily recordings from their archives. He called it “Rising w/ the Crossing,” also the title of an album of a dozen highlights. There’s David Lang’s eerily prescient reflection on the 1918 flu pandemic, performed last year, and Alex Berko’s stirring “Lincoln.” But I keep returning to Eriks Esenvalds’s dreamily unfolding appeal to the Earth, its text a prayer of the Ute people of the American Southwest: a work of true radiance, fired by the precision and passion of this spectacular group. ZACHARY WOOLFE

“Barricades”; Thomas Dunford, lute; Jean Rondeau, harpsichord (Erato)

This is Baroque music as hard-rock jam: driving, intense, dizzying, two musicians facing off in a brash battle that raises both their levels. It is the raucous climax of an album that creates a new little repertory for lute and harpsichord duo, with arrangements of favorites and relative obscurities that highlight Thomas Dunford and Jean Rondeau’s sly, exuberant artistic chemistry. ZACHARY WOOLFE

“Something to Hunt”; International Contemporary Ensemble; Lucy Dhegrae and Alice Teyssier, vocalists (Sound American)

I try not to be fussy with audio quality. But if anything calls for an exception, it’s this long-awaited collection of music by Ash Fure — works that experiment with how sounds are made and felt. So before hitting play, gather your focus, along with your best headphones or speakers, for an intensely visceral listening experience. JOSHUA BARONE

“Agrippina”; Joyce DiDonato, mezzo-soprano; Il Pomo d’Oro; Maxim Emelyanychev, conductor (Erato)

A shot of venom, boring its way into the brain: There are some arias that aim to soothe anxiety, but for pure cathartic transference of all the anger, fear and impotence that 2020 has sparked, this aria — “Thoughts, you torment me” — by the title character of Handel’s “Agrippina” is the ticket. The fiercely dramatic Joyce DiDonato brings her multihued mezzo and over-the-top embellishments to the music, while the period-instrument orchestra pushes things along with raw-edged insistence. CORINNA da FONSECA-WOLLHEIM

Handel: Suites for Harpsichord; Pierre Hantaï, harpsichord (Mirare)

Handel’s eight suites for harpsichord, published in 1720, haven’t always gotten as much attention or respect among performers as the keyboard works of Couperin, Rameau or, especially, Bach. Sometimes they’ve been viewed more or less as training exercises: good for technique but not quite sublime. Pierre Hantaï, known for his vivid Scarlatti, dispels the slightly derogatory preconceptions with suave danciness and lucid touch. ZACHARY WOOLFE

“The Wake World”; Maeve Hoglund, soprano; Samantha Hankey, mezzo-soprano; Elizabeth Braden, conductor (Tzadik)

With his playfully convoluted 2017 fairy tale opera “The Wake World,” David Hertzberg demonstrated that voluptuous, sweeping elements of grand opera could be reimagined for today. In the work’s swelling, shimmering climactic duet between a young seeker and her fairy prince, Ravel meets Messiaen, and Wagner meets Scriabin; the music is spiky, original and wondrous strange. ANTHONY TOMMASINI

“Forward Music Project 1.0”; Amanda Gookin, cello (Bright Shiny Things)

Even when brief and minimalist, Nathalie Joachim’s compositions cross complex ranges of emotion. Here, in a piece for cello (and vocals recorded by its composer), the somber cast of mood at the opening is complicated by a change in gait. The effect is akin to what you might feel inventing a new dance on the spot, while trudging through otherwise grim surroundings. SETH COLTER WALLS

“Breaking News”; Studio Dan (Hat Hut)

Boisterous riffs and counter-riffs seem to suggest improvisatory practices; after all, this veteran artist has explored those practices. Yet George Lewis’s 25-minute joy ride is fully notated. And it was written for an Austrian ensemble which appreciates the chug and wail of Duke Ellington’s train-imitation music, as well as the rigors of extended-technique modernism. SETH COLTER WALLS

“Memory Game”; Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble; Bang on a Can All-Stars (Cantaloupe Music)

For almost 60 years, the composer and performer Meredith Monk has created works mainly for herself and her close circle, so it’s been an open question what will happen to those intricate, idiosyncratic pieces when she’s gone. This album of sympathetic but not slavish new arrangements — collaborations with the Bang on a Can collective — offers tantalizing experiments. The clarinetist Ken Thomson gives the hawing vocals of “Downfall,” part of Ms. Monk’s post-apocalyptic 1983 evening “The Games,” seductively sinister instrumental surroundings. ZACHARY WOOLFE

“Drift Multiply” (New Amsterdam/Nonesuch)

Music emerges out of snowdrifts of white noise on this mesmerizing track. Tristan Perich is one of the most innovative tinkerers in electronic music, creating works of vibrant mystery. In “Drift Multiply,” 50 violins interact with 50 loudspeakers connected to as many custom-built circuit boards that channel the sound into one-bit audio. The result is a constantly evolving landscape where sounds coalesce and prism, where the violins both pull into focus and blur into a soothing ether. CORINNA da FONSECA-WOLLHEIM

“The Grey Land”; Numinous (New Amsterdam)

Joseph C. Phillips Jr.’s “The Grey Land” is a stirring, stylistically varied mono-opera that draws on its composer’s reflections on being Black in contemporary America. The longest movement on the premiere recording makes an early textual reference to Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” while dramatizing an expectant couple’s unease in the wake of the death of Michael Brown. SETH COLTER WALLS

“Silver Age”; Daniil Trifonov, piano; Mariinsky Orchestra; Valery Gergiev, conductor (Deutsche Grammophon)

The thoughtful pianist Daniil Trifonov explores the music of Russia’s so-called “silver age” of the early 20th century on a fascinating album that offers various solo works and concertos by Scriabin, Prokofiev and Stravinsky. The spacious yet fiendishly difficult first movement of Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto is especially exciting. ANTHONY TOMMASINI

“Debussy Rameau”; Vikingur Olafsson, piano (Deutsche Grammophon)

Few musicians craft their albums with as much care as Vikingur Olafsson, whose “Debussy Rameau” is a brilliantly conceived, nearly 30-track conversation across centuries between two French masters. There is one modern intervention: Mr. Olafsson’s solo arrangement of an interlude from Rameau’s “Les Boréades” — tender and reverential, a wellspring of grace. JOSHUA BARONE

“Labyrinth”; David Greilsammer, piano (Naïve)

In his riveting, aptly titled album “Labyrinth,” the formidable pianist David Greilsammer daringly juxtaposes pieces spanning centuries, from Lully to Ofer Pelz. The theme of the album is captured in Jonathan Keren’s arrangement of Rebel’s “Le Chaos,” which comes across like an early-18th-century venture into mind-spinning modernism. ANTHONY TOMMASINI

“Musica Viva, Vol. 35”; Carolin Widmann, violin; Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra; Ilan Volkov, conductor (BR-Klassik)

A renowned figure on Europe’s experimental music scene, Rebecca Saunders builds teeming systems of shimmying severity from the sparest melodic materials. In this live recording of her violin concerto, Carolin Widmann excels in fulfilling the score’s contrasting requirements of delicacy and power. Helping judge the balance is the conductor Ilan Volkov, an artist American orchestras might consider working with. SETH COLTER WALLS

“Where Only Stars Can Hear Us: Schubert Songs”; Karim Suleyman, tenor; Yi-heng Yang, fortepiano (Avie)

Intimate, sweet-toned and more easily given to dry humor than its powerful keyboard successors, the fortepiano should be a natural choice for Schubert lieder. Yet recordings such as this exquisitely personal recital — with the clear-voiced tenor Karim Suleyman and the sensitive pianist Yi-heng Yang — are still rare. Listen to them weave a storyteller’s spell in this song about a nighttime tryst in a fishing boat, and marvel at the emotional arc they weave with the simplest of gestures. CORINNA da FONSECA-WOLLHEIM

“The Prison”; Experiential Orchestra and Chorus; James Blachly, conductor (Chandos)

Ethel Smyth, suffragist and composer, is among several female composers receiving fresh, deserved attention as the classical music industry tackles its diversity problem. If they all receive recordings as perfect as this account of her last major work, we will all benefit. Half symphony, half oratorio, “The Prison” includes this striking chorale prelude, with dark and light in the same bars, at its heart. DAVID ALLEN

“Epicycle II”; Gyda Valtysdottir (Sono Luminus)

A subterranean hall of mirrors lures in the listener in this deeply affecting three-minute track. Gyda Valtysdottir’s cello takes on the guise of a modern-day Orpheus and the spectral sounds of the underworld as she layers her performance on top of two prerecorded tracks. As this protagonist cello line sighs, heaves and slackens, the taped parts add fragmented scratch tones, whispers and tremors, evoking terrain both alluring and treacherous. CORINNA da FONSECA-WOLLHEIM

“The Beethoven Connection”; Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, piano (Chandos)

No finer recording has emerged from the Beethoven celebration than this, and it has not a single work by Beethoven on it. Mr. Bavouzet’s inquisitive look at the musicians who were composing at the same time as their colleague and competitor features Muzio Clementi, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Jan Ladislav Dussek — but it’s the forgotten Joseph Wölfl, who once battled Beethoven in a duel of keyboard skills, who comes out best, in this immaculate, charming sonata. DAVID ALLEN


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