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.

Google Celebrates J.S. Bach

Since this blog is titled Bachflip, I would be remiss not to highlight today’s Google Doodle, which celebrates the 334th birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach. In this interactive experience, you begin by creating a short, two-bar melody. Then, AI software—which has “analyzed” hundreds of Bach’s chorales—will generate an original, Bach-style harmonization around your tune. The results are a bit hit or miss, but some sound surprisingly good. Overall, it’s a fun little diversion that shows the far-reaching effects of Bach’s music as well as the possibilities (and limitations) of AI technology.

Check out the short video below to learn more about the creation of the Doodle, and try your hand at the experience here. (Also be on the lookout for some fun Easter eggs in the Doodle. Hint: one involves 80s-style rock…)