I love end-of-year lists. They condense the significant happenings of the past eleven months into an accessible, easy-to-follow format. They can also celebrate the best of humanity, or remind us of the uncertainty of the times and how far we have to go in achieving a peaceful world. (Though “Baby Yoda” was one of the year’s most Googled terms worldwide, so there is hope for us!)
In the artistic realm, I especially love reading critics’ picks for the most noteworthy classical music events and audio releases of the past year. The sheer amount of musical achievement and ingenuity is usually staggering, and this year was no exception.
With that said, here are ten of my favorite albums from 2019, along with a handful of honorable mentions. (I much prefer a “favorite” rather than “best of” approach, which acknowledges the inherently subjective nature of this exercise and puts my personal preferences on full display!) If you like what you hear, I encourage you to support the artists and purchase their work instead of just streaming it. In no particular order…
Attacca Quartet – Caroline Shaw: Orange (New Amsterdam Records/Nonesuch Records)
Ever since winning the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013, Caroline Shaw has quickly become one of today’s most talked-about young composers, and this past year saw the first album devoted entirely to her music. Featuring five works for string quartet (and one for string duo), this release showcases Shaw’s wondrous composition style, which delights in bright textures, sonorous harmonies, and quirky turns of phrase that occasionally collapse into chaos. Plus, nods to the works of Bach, Ravel, Mozart, Haydn, and even Shaw herself are never far off. The Attacca Quartet‘s dynamic and sensitive performances only increase the impact of this release.
Emi Ferguson & Ruckus – Fly the Coop: Bach Sonatas and Preludes (Arezzo Music)
Those who typically associate Bach with powdered wigs and pompous scowls need only take one listen to the work of flutist Emi Ferguson and the early-music group Ruckus. In their latest release, pieces by the beloved composer are given infectious energy thanks to new and vibrant arrangements. The results “tak[e] Bach out of the museum and infus[e] his music with equal parts tradition, funk, whimsy, and fun” (as the group so eloquently states on the album’s website). Who says that Baroque music can’t be a banger?
Kings Kaleidoscope – Zeal (Rainbow Records)
Most contemporary Christian music is perfectly fitting for worship services. Still, as a genre for straight-up listening, it often gets a bad rap for being trite, sugary, and overproduced. The Seattle-based band Kings Kaleidoscope is breaking away from these clichés through its fresh, distinctive sound. Their songs brim with surprising rhythmic and chordal turns, and—true to their name—a kaleidoscopic array of instrumental colors. Their fourth release, Zeal, is no different. Rich in both textual and musical content, the album presents an optimistic journey from apathy to unabashed faith, breaking through in the rapturous, tripartite song “The Rush.”
John Mauceri, Sandy Cameron, Royal Scottish National Orchestra & Philharmonic Piano Quartet Berlin – Danny Elfman: Violin Concerto “Eleven Eleven” and Piano Quartet (Sony Classical)
Danny Elfman is one of the most iconic voices in film music today, beloved especially for his collaborations with director Tim Burton. However, Elfman’s resume also includes an increasing series of concert works. This recording highlights two—his large-scale Violin Concerto (subtitled “Eleven Eleven”) and the playfully dark Piano Quartet. Both sound undoubtedly “Elfman” but also showcase his ability to skillfully embrace approaches outside his idiosyncratic personal style. The Violin Concerto, for instance, is a well-constructed and thoughtful musical journey overflowing with drama and wit (listen for the allusion to Shostakovich at the beginning of the fourth movement). Elfman’s Piano Quartet is no less engaging—the second movement is a clever set of variations on an infamous playground taunt. As a whole, this album is a deeply rewarding listen for both film music buffs and classical aficionados.
Gustavo Dudamel & Los Angeles Philharmonic – Andrew Norman: Sustain (Deutsche Grammophon)
Like Caroline Shaw, Andrew Norman is another young composer whose career has skyrocketed in recent years. His latest success is the Pulitzer- and Grammy-nominated Sustain, a 30-minute orchestral work commissioned for the Los Angeles Philharmonic‘s 100th anniversary. Sustain is built around a single “block” of musical ideas, which is gradually repeated faster and faster over the work’s duration. (The beginning of each cycle is marked by a haunting flourish from two pianos—one tuned normally and the other slightly detuned.) By the end, the musical cycles whiz by at a blinding rate before drawing to a surprising close. (No spoilers!) Though I’m certain this recording does not fully capture the magic of hearing Sustain live, it is still an extraordinary sonic experience—the musical equivalent of being sucked into a black hole.
Neave Trio – Her Voice (Chandos)
I’ve previously discussed on this blog how anachronistic notions of gender roles, canonicity, and genius in the 1800s prevented women from being widely accepted as “great” composers (which you can read here). While there is still much to be done in achieving equal representation in concert programming, albums like this point towards a more hopeful future. Here, the East Coast-based Neave Trio offers vivacious interpretations of piano trios by Louise Farrenc, Amy Beach, and Rebecca Clarke. All are masterful creations couched in a distinctive musical language—Beethovenian echoes in Farrenc, Romantic leanings in Beach, and folk-inspired gestures in Clarke (who also peppers in some daring harmonic turns). One hopes that this music will not be neglected for much longer.
Donald Nally & The Crossing – Kile Smith: The Arc in the Sky (Navona)
“…to be that high is to be at one with the source of all true blessings…” So reads one line in Robert Lax‘s poignant reflection on Louis Armstrong’s stratospheric trumpet playing. Lax’s effervescent poems are given appropriately bright and airy settings in Kile Smith‘s The Arc in the Sky. Brimming with vibrancy, the challenges present in this unaccompanied choral work are executed by The Crossing with dazzling effortlessness.
John Wilson & Sinfonia of London – Korngold: Works for Orchestra (Chandos)
We have Erich Wolfgang Korngold to thank for perpetuating the “Hollywood sound” in his film scores of the 1930s and 40s. Less appreciated—though slowly gaining reevaluation—is his prolific output in the concert realm. One such work is his rarely-performed Symphony in F-sharp major from 1952. Grand in scope, the symphony goes in slightly more esoteric directions than Korngold’s cinematic work, but still encompasses many familiar gestures—sweeping melodies (some even taken from his film scores), lush orchestrations, and an introspective, Romantic sensibility. This album captures a thrilling and convincing performance of the symphony, in addition to two of Korngold’s other late-concert works, courtesy of John Wilson and the Sinfonia of London.
Kronos Quartet – Terry Riley: Sun Rings (Nonesuch Records)
The cosmos have long been a source of musical inspiration for composers across the centuries. In 2002, Terry Riley continued this tradition with Sun Rings, a multi-movement work for string quartet, chorus, visuals, and pre-recorded sounds, many captured from space. The work—written for the inimitable Kronos Quartet—was lauded when first performed, though it has taken until now for Sun Rings to receive its first recording. The results are well worth the wait, revealing a sprawling and profound work rich in musical influences ranging from jazz to Gregorian chant. The final movement—subtitled “One Earth, One People, One Love”—is a gorgeous hymn to humanity and is alone worth the price of the album.
Jerry Junkin, Christopher Martin & Dallas Winds – Asphalt Cocktail: The Music of John Mackey (Reference Recordings)
Like Christian music (mentioned above), music for wind ensemble also tends to be looked down upon by more pretentious scholars and classical musicians. However, some of the most exciting music in recent years has been written for wind ensemble. John Mackey‘s output is a case in point. Powerful, wacky, lyrical, and ear-shattering are all adjectives that might describe the pieces on Asphalt Cocktail, which are given dynamic performances by the Dallas Winds (and Christopher Martin, who performs Mackey’s fiendishly difficult trumpet concerto Antique Violences). Put aside any associations of out-of-tune community bands and Sousa marches, and prepare to be wowed.
- John Jeter & Fort Smith Symphony – Florence Price: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 4 (Naxos)
- Jaap van Zweden, The Crossing, Young People’s Chorus of New York City & New York Philharmonic – Julia Wolfe: fire in my mouth (Decca Gold)
- Daníel Bjarnason, Vikingur Ólafsson & Iceland Symphony Orchestra – Concurrence (Sono Luminis)
- Conrad Tao – American Rage (Parlophone Records Ltd.)
- John Williams & Studio Orchestra – Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge Symphonic Suite (Lucasfilm Ltd.)