We’re living in a strange time. OK, we’ve been living in a “strange time” since March 2020, but everything now seems a bit like it’s in limbo. On one hand, our day-to-day activities have more or less returned to normal for the time being, thanks to the wide availability of vaccines and boosters (at least, in the U.S.). But on the other hand, the discovery of new, more transmissible COVID variants has sparked a renewed air of caution and concern. (Who would’ve thought that we’d all be getting a crash course on the Greek alphabet?)
Still, there’s been so much to be grateful for this past year. Namely, the wealth of new music released was a consistent bright spot amidst the unpredictability of it all. (Adele’s new album, anyone?) The classical realm in particular really came through with some incredible albums. Resurrected classics, dazzling contemporary music, and the presence of more diverse voices—both new and old—marked many of the releases this year.
Below are ten of my favorite albums from 2021. If you like what you hear, as always, I encourage my readers to consider purchasing the album rather than just streaming it. Apple and Amazon are convenient choices for this, but if possible, I highly recommend using Bandcamp, which donates most of the proceeds directly to the artists.
Without further ado, here are my ten choices, along with a handful of honorable mentions. In no particular order…
Timo Andres, Ian Rosenbaum, Lindsay Kesselman & Mingzhe Wang – The Arching Path (In a Circle Records)
For those who have doubts about the future of classical music—or whatever one wants to call it—listen to anything by Christopher Cerrone and you will be convinced that it is in more-than-capable hands. (See also Caroline Shaw below.) This album captures four examples of Cerrone’s kaleidoscopic sound world. Bookended by two sparkling piano pieces—Hoyt-Schermerhorn and the titular Arching Path—the middle of the album features works for slightly-larger ensemble (showcasing some remarkable performances by soprano Lindsay Kesselman, pianist Timo Andres, clarinettist Mingzhe Wang, and percussionist Ian Rosenbaum). Double Happiness blissfully ruminates on the composer’s travels to Italy, while the song cycle I will learn to love a person is an ode to the joys and frustrations of being a Millennial. Who says that classical music can’t speak to us twenty- and thirty-somethings?
(For more on this album, be sure to check out my conversation with Cerrone from May 2021.)
Various Artists – Ellen Reid SOUNDWALK (Eclipse Projects, Echoes.XYZ)
An appropriate choice for our era of social distancing, SOUNDWALK is a public art installation that combines original music composed by Pulitzer Prize-winner Ellen Reid with the natural beauty of the great outdoors. Though not technically an album—hey, it’s my end-of-year list, I can do what I want!—it’s still pretty darn cool nonetheless. Users download the free SOUNDWALK app, visit one of the corresponding locations, put on their headphones, and let technology do the rest. As you walk/jog through your surroundings, your phone’s GPS will track your location and trigger corresponding “zones” in the soundscape. (The music is also completely different at each location, an excellent opportunity to experience it multiple times.) I tried it out at Heisler Park in Laguna Beach and was transported by Reid’s shimmering music, which meshed perfectly with the Park’s zig-zagging pathways and aural backdrop of waves crashing against the bluffs.
Caroline Shaw & Sō Percussion – Let the Soil Play Its Simple Part (Nonesuch Records)
Caroline Shaw is equally comfortable in the realm of Haydn string quartets as she is collaborating with pop artists such as Kanye West. Her music, simply put, is a marvel—fresh yet familiar, ecstatic yet thoughtful. This album showcases Shaw’s talents as both a composer and a vocalist, featuring ten songs of hers performed in collaboration with the forward-thinking Sō Percussion. Each song is a little world unto itself. Texts from James Joyce and the Sacred Harp swirl around a wonderland of bells, marimbas, drums, flower pots, and other delightfully ear-catching instruments. It’s an extraordinary listen from beginning to end.
London Symphony Orchestra & Sir Antonio Pappano – Vaughan Williams: Symphonies Nos. 4 & 6 (London Symphony Orchestra Ltd.)
In my opinion, Ralph Vaughan Williams’s music is criminally underexplored, especially in the United States. Releases like this offer a glimmer of hope that more performing organizations will soon take note of the richness that exists beyond the oft-heard staples The Lark Ascending and Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. Here, conductor Antonio Pappano and the inimitable London Symphony Orchestra tackle the two darkest symphonies in Vaughan Williams’s output, both composed in the shadow of World War II. The dramatic sense of foreboding in the pre-war Fourth Symphony takes on a more menacing—and even angry—tone in the Sixth Symphony, which concludes with a bone-chilling Epilogue that barely rises above a whisper. To add another disquieting layer of subtext, this recording of the Sixth was taken from a live concert in March 2020, mere days before the world went into lockdown.
Cataylst Quartet, Stewart Goodyear & Anthony McGill – Uncovered, Vol. 1: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (Azica Records)
Though the pandemic has been awful in so many ways—one being its stark reveal of systemic racism and economic disparity—one admirable side effect is a growing and long-overdue appreciation for the contributions of women and BIPOC composers, many of whom have been unjustly marginalized until now. The Catalyst Quartet is tackling this problem head-on with a series of forthcoming albums that will each explore the output of a different Black composer. The first spotlights chamber works by the English-born Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, who fused European art music traditions with inspiration from his African heritage. All the selections are gorgeously performed; a particular standout is Coleridge-Taylor’s Clarinet Quintet, where the Catalyst Quartet is joined by the amazing Anthony McGill. This is definitely an album series to get excited for.
Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice & Michael Halász – Saint-Georges: Symphonies Concertantes (Naxos)
Another figure who is gaining some rightly-deserved exposure is the 18th-century French composer of African descent, Joseph Bologne. Bologne’s story is fascinating, demonstrated in small part by the many “hats” he wore during his lifetime, including that of a composer, conductor, violinist, chevalier (knight), colonel, equestrian, and fencer. His music demonstrates the clarity and balance of the Classical style but, at the same time, exudes a marvelous warmth and wit. These qualities are showcased in this terrific recording of four of Bolgone’s symphonies concertantes (sort of the Classical era equivalent of a concerto grosso.) Historically, Bologne has—somewhat problematically—been referred to as the “Black Mozart,” but the day is hopefully coming where Bologne’s name and his music can stand entirely on their own.
Wild Up & Christopher Rountree – Julius Eastman, Vol. 1: Femenine (New Amsterdam Records)
The music of American composer Julius Eastman has also been experiencing a renaissance as of late. A talented composer, pianist, vocalist, and dancer, Eastman made waves in the late 20th-century for fusing minimalist structures with provocative political statements, many of which grappled with his identity as a gay Black man in America. Tragically, Eastman passed away in 1990, and his music fell into relative obscurity. This is quickly changing, though. A series of new releases planned by the LA-based new music collective Wild Up aims to make Eastman’s music known to a broader public. The first of these showcases Eastman’s (purposely-misspelled) Femenine, a jangling, joyous work for a flexible ensemble. To describe this music is a tricky task, but to experience it is mind-blowing.
Jonny Greenwood & Various Artists – The Power of the Dog (Soundtrack from the Netflix Film) (Lakeshore Records)
Based on Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel, Jane Campion’s film The Power of the Dog is a psychological dive into the experience of cattle ranchers in 1920s Montana. Undergirding the emotional turbulence of the story—and great performances by Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, and Kodi Smit-McPhee—is a stunning score by Jonny Greenwood, of Radiohead fame. The performing forces are small—just a few strings, piano, and two horns—but the end results are unsettling and beautiful.
Pekka Kuusisto & Norwegian Chamber Orchestra – First Light: Muhly & Glass (Pentatone)
Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto is one of the most dynamic performers on the scene today. (If you need proof, check out his witty encore from the BBC Proms in 2016.) An advocate of both canonic and new repertoire, this release demonstrates the latter to great effect. The album begins with an explosive reading of Nico Muhly’s 2019 violin concerto (titled Shrink) before continuing with selections by Philip Glass, including a mesmerizing string orchestra arrangement of his Third String Quartet (“Mishima”). The most poignant selection, however, is a snippet from Glass’s incidental music for The Screens, which Kuusisto and Muhly recorded remotely in 2020.
The Westerlies – Fireside Brass: A Westerlies Holiday (The Westerlies Music Inc.)
In the five years that I’ve compiled an end-of-year album round-up, I’ve routinely failed to include any sort of holiday album. Well, that changes this year. This new album from the brilliant New York-based brass quartet The Westerlies features clever arrangements of seasonal classics and some more off-the-beaten-path selections. (Just one highlight is their gorgeous take on three movements from Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols.) The album is wonderful on its own, but one’s listening may or may not be improved with the addition of a roaring fire and a hot beverage of some sort.
- Spektral Quartet – Anna Thorvaldsdottir: Enigma (Sono Luminus)
- Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Lise Davidsen & Edward Gardner – Sibelius: Lunnotar & Other Works (Chandos Records)
- Emily D’Angelo – enargeia (Deutsche Grammophon)
- Swedish Chamber Orchestra & Thomas Dausgaard – The Brandenburg Project (BIS Records)
- The Cleveland Orchestra, Yefim Bronfman & Franz Welser-Möst – Schnittke and Prokofiev (The Cleveland Orchestra and Musical Arts Association)