Favorite Albums of 2019

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.

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Bach’s Delectable “Coffee Cantata”

J.S. Bach never wrote any operas, but his secular Cantata—Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht, BWV 211—is probably the closest we’ll get to hearing what a Bach opera could have been like. Commonly known as the “Coffee Cantata,” this mini drama for small orchestra and three singers was likely first presented in 1735, at the Café Zimmermann in Leipzig. Coffee drinking was the new craze sweeping Europe, but for some, the drink was still controversial, as its side effects were not fully known yet. (If only they could fast-forward to the twenty-first century!)

Bach’s Coffee Cantata is charming, humorous, and, yes, a tad ridiculous. The plot follows a young woman (Lieschen) who is chastised by her father (Schlendrian) for her coffee-drinking habit. Schlendrian threatens to take away Lieschen’s possessions and privileges in an attempt to win her obedience but to no avail. Finally, when the father vows to prevent his daughter from marrying, Lieschen agrees to give up coffee. But, Lieschen has one final trick up her sleeve: she tells potential husbands that their marriage contract has to allow her to drink coffee whenever she desires.

The moral of the story comes in the final chorus:

Cats do not give up mousing,
girls remain coffee-sisters.
The mother adores her coffee-habit,
and grandma also drank it,
so who can blame the daughters!

Pamela Dellal

Recently, the Netherlands Bach Society—who is in the midst of a multi-year project to create high-quality video recordings of Bach’s works—mounted a staged version of the Coffee Cantata. The results, seen below, are delightful and only amplify the charms and humor of what is perhaps Bach’s quirkiest work.

An English translation of the Cantata’s German text can be found here.

R.I.P. Christopher Rouse (1949-2019)

On September 21, 2019, the classical music world bade a sad farewell to Christopher Rouse, one of America’s most esteemed contemporary composers. Winner of numerous awards—including the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for his Trombone Concerto—Rouse’s compositions reflect a vast and sophisticated musical palette, treading confidently between ear-shattering dissonances (heard in his jaw-dropping tone poem Gorgon) and sweeping neo-Romanticism (displayed in the poignant Flute Concerto).

Rouse was also an expert craftsman of musical color and composed exceptionally well for the orchestra. In the last year of my undergrad, my college orchestra programmed his Der gerettete Alberich, essentially a “fantasy” on themes of Wagner for solo percussionist and orchestra. Though the horn part was one of the most challenging I’ve yet to learn in an orchestral setting, I was struck by Rouse’s penchant for dynamic extremes and careful scoring to avoid a haphazard, “we’re playing loud for loud’s sake” feel. His novel, touching, and even humorous transformation of Wagnerian gestures—all in a non-kitschy manner—was also admirable (especially in the luminous six-part horn canon about 3/4 of the way into the piece). It was an immensely rewarding experience.

Christopher Rouse’s passing occurs—sadly—mere weeks before the world premiere of his Sixth Symphony by the Cincinnati Symphony. (The New York Philharmonic’s 2016 recording of his Third and Fourth symphonies—posted below—is absolutely stunning.) Based on the recent outpouring of reminiscences from friends, colleagues, and admirers, it is clear that Rouse and his music will be remembered and performed far into the future.