Are these the best classical albums of 2021?

Probably not. But out of the ones I’ve heard, I’ve enjoyed these the most. Listen to this playlist for a selection of some favorite tracks.

10. Saint-Saëns (Quatuor Tchalik)

Quatuor Tchalik Saint-Saëns

Not even the French made a big deal of the 100th anniversary of the death of Camille Saint-Saëns. But you can be sure of more exuberant festivities when his 200th birthday comes along in 2035. Because Camille’s star is rising. No longer the two-hit wonder of Carnaval des animaux and Danse macabre. No longer the old-fashioned opponent of progressives such as Debussy. But an exceptionally talented composer whose oeuvre is as bounteous as his beard.

Camille Saint-Saëns

These string quartets were written in 1899 and 1918. While the times were very much a-changin’ in the world of music, Saint-Saëns stuck to the principles he believed in: beautiful melodies, clear formal structures and neatly dosed pathos. All perfectly conveyed in this recording by Quatuor Tchalik.

9. Piazzolla Reflections (Ksenija Sidorova)

Piazzolla Reflections (Ksenija Sidorova)

Another composer we celebrated this year is Astor Piazzolla – who was born in the year Saint-Saëns died. During Piazzolla’s lifetime, the opinions about his work diverged. For some, he betrayed the authenticity of the tango. For others, he didn’t deviate from it enough to be taken seriously as a ‘classical’ composer. As time goes by, such considerations lose more and more of their importance. Which is why Piazzolla’s star is also on the rise.

Be that as it may, I think all that tangoing can get a bit tedious – especially for a whole album. That’s why it’s nice that Sidorova pairs Piazzolla’s compositions with works from other composers that are often a bit more adventurous. And that she gives plenty of room for musicians from different backgrounds (jazz, world music) to shine.

But the absolute highlight is an exhilarating performance of Piazzolla’s Concerto for bandoneon and chamber orchestra. Inevitably, this is one of those compositions where he veers more to the ‘classical’ side of his musical persona. But then comes the build-up to the big climax at the end of the third movement: a shy shuffle gradually turns into an outburst of pure passion. And you immediately grasp the unique position this man occupies 20th century music – and far beyond.

8. Verklärte Nacht – German Orchestral Songs (Edward Gardner, BBC Symphony Orchestra)

Verklärte Nacht - German Orchestral Songs (Edward Gardner, BBC Symphony Orchestra)

A woman and a man take a stroll through a dark forest. She confesses the child she’s carrying is not his. He says that’s fine. That, in a nutshell, is the story of Verklärte Nacht (transfigured night), a poem by Richard Dehmel.

Verklärte Nacht was famously translated into music (for string sextet – no voice) by Arnold Schoenberg before he turned atonal on us. This recording pairs that version with another one (with mezzo-soprano, tenor and orchestra) by Oskar Fried. They’re both beautiful examples of late German romanticism – pulling out all the stops regarding orchestration and daring post-Wagnerian harmony. You can easily understand why Schoenberg thought there was nowhere left to go – even if you don’t like his solution. The songs by Erich Wolfgang Korngold that round off this album demonstrate there were different roads to take.

But the big surprise on this record is Fieber by Franz Léhar. Yes, the Franz Léhar who wrote operettas like Die lustige witwe and was Hitler’s favorite composer (Adolf claimed it was Wagner, but Léhar was what he actually listened to).

Léhar’s contribution might be less sophisticated than those of Fried, Schoenberg and Korngold. It’s essentially a tearjerker about a dying soldier during the first world war (written in 1915). But that ending – “Herr Stabarzt, der Kadett vom Bette acht is tot” – sends shivers down my spine every time I hear it. I know I’m being emotionally manipulated but can’t resist reveling in it.

7. Otaka: Piano Concerto & Symphony “Au-delà du temps” (Live) (Junichi Hirokami, Japan Philarmonic Orchestra)

Otaka: Piano Concerto & Symphony "Au-delà du temps" (Live) (Junichi Hirokami, Japan Philarmonic Orchestra)

Atsutada Otaka died 100 years after the death of Saint-Saens and the birth of Piazzolla. If you’ve been paying attention, you realize that means he passed away this year.

Just like Saint-Saëns and Piazzolla, he studied in Paris. And that’s about all I can tell you – since the non-Japanese part of the internet I rely on for my musicological research doesn’t have a lot to say about him.

Luckily, his music speaks loud and clear. Especially the piano concerto is a tremendous example of the rhythmic vitality that characterizes so much of the best 20th and 21st century music. It mainly reminds me of Stravinsky, Gershwin and Glass. But that might be because I don’t know enough about Japanese music. This recording powerfully demonstrates why fixing that should be one of my new year’s resolutions.

6. Mozart Momentum – 1785 (Leif Ove Andsnes, Mahler Chamber Orchestra)

Mozart Momentum – 1785 (Leif Ove Andsnes, Mahler Chamber Orchestra)

This album consists of compositions:

  • written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart …
  • during his most productive year …
  • performed by one of the greatest pianists of our time …
  • who also turns out be a wonderful conductor.

And that’s all I have to (need to) say about it.

5. En Albion: Medieval Polyphony in England (Paul Van Nevel, Huelgas Ensemble)

En Albion: Medieval Polyphony in England (Paul Van Nevel, Huelgas Ensemble)

2021 was also the year of The Beatles: Get Back – a valuable addition to the already mythic story about four British lads who changed the history of music. A similar thing happened about 600 years earlier, when the works of – largely unnamed – English composers became all the rage on the continent and catalyzed the transition from the musical Middle Ages to the Renaissance.

Commentators from that time praised English music for its ‘sweet sound’. British composers achieved it through an increased used of sixths and thirds instead of fifths and octaves. And by taking care that simultaneous notes always sounded good together – in contrast to medieval composers who concentrated on nice chords on the beginnings and endings of phrases and didn’t much care about what happened in between.

This panconsonant style was then picked up on the continent by the first generation of Renaissance composers and would be of fundamental importance for the development of Western music – from Beethoven to, yes, The Beatles. But especially during the Renaissance, the ever-greater insistence on frictionless harmony meant that music also became a lot more boring. It lost all the edge that medieval music had.

From that respect, this collection of 14th century English music represents a unique balance between medieval edginess and Renaissance sophistication. It’s performed by the Huelgas ensemble, one of the pioneering and still most respected ensembles of early music. I generally find them a bit too tame and reverent when performing renaissance music. But in this recording, Paul Van Nevel takes a looser approach – playing around with voice arrangements to build dynamic structures and adding some unusual embellishments.

4. And Love Said… (Jodie Devos, Nicolas Krüger)

And Love Said... (Jodie Devos, Nicolas Krüger)

Did the English produce any other music of merit between the 1300s and the 1960s? Some might argue that they didn’t, especially since their one ‘big name’ was a German import. They would, of course be wrong – as Jodie Devos demonstrates through this collection of wonderful songs by – mainly – English composers from the early twentieth century such as Ivor Gurney, Benjamin Britten and William Walton.

Most of all, this record distinguishes itself by containing the most beautiful note of 2021. It’s at 2:13 of track 12 – Let the florid music praise by Benjamin Britten. On ‘hour’, Devos produces a tone (I think it’s a blue note) that threatens to snap all your heartstrings at once.

Extra points for the cover of Freddie Mercury’s You take my breath away. It proves that pop interpretations by classical musicians don’t need to be cringeworthy.

3. Schütz: Musicalische Exequien. German funeral music of the 17th century (Johannes Strobl, Voces Suaves)

3. Schütz: Musicalische Exequien. German funeral music of the 17th century (Johannes Strobl, Voces Suaves)

One of the things we all know about J.S. Bach is that he made a synthesis of all the music that preceded him. Maybe that’s why I never paid much attention to 17th century music, thinking I could just as well listen exclusively to Bach instead.

Boy, was I wrong. Since I dived into the works of people like Purcell, Rameau, Biber, Schütz and Schmelzer, I realized there’s yet another treasure trove of music that I will never be able to fully unpack. This collection of German funeral music is full of the harmonic eccentricities that were ironed out by the time Bach and Handel wrote their choral masterpieces.

Schütz is the biggest name here, but I was especially blown away by the first track: Ich will schweigen by Johann Hermann Schein. It’s extraordinary to think that such a masterpiece was ‘Gebrauchsmusik’ – meant to be played only once and then, well, taken to the grave.

2. Summertime (Isata Kenneh-Mason)

Summertime (Isata Kenneh-Mason)

2021 was the year when identity politics – or wokeism if you like – fully entered the world of classical music. That leads to toxic debates such as the imaginary cancellation of Beethoven. But also to a long overdue reevaluation of composers from disadvantaged groups such as women and people of color.

From that last category, I especially like Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, a turn-of-the-century English composer who was actually quite popular during his lifetime – mostly for his oratorio Song of Hiawatha. Maybe his ‘fall from grace’ has more to do with his musical style than the color of his skin. He composed in the tradition of Dvorak and Brahms, without advancing it very much. But isn’t ‘progressism’ another noxious ideology that the classical music world should leave behind?

Some of Coleridge-Taylor’s biggest fans came from the African-American community. When he learned of the sorrows of his brothers and sisters across the ocean – and discovered their music – he was extremely touched. His version of the spiritual Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, so soulfully performed by Kenneh-Mason, is a heartbreaking testament to that.

That track alone would be enough to put this record in my top ten. What launches it to the second spot is the inclusion of an equally impressive – yet completely different – work: Samuel Barber’s piano sonata. This is an extremely complex work that even uses – yikes! – some 12-tone rows. And nevertheless I was completely sold after no more than two listens. Remarkable!

1. Eilífur (Viktor Orri Árnason)

Eilífur (Viktor Orri Árnason)

If you care about making classical music less white, Iceland probably isn’t the best place to look. But it’s undeniable that there’s something in the water of this volcano-ridden Viking hide-out that inspires musicians who effortlessly skate between pop, post-classical and avant-garde.

Not all of that music is to my taste. I love Björk, but never understood the attraction of Sigur Rós or Jóhann Jóhannsson. ‘Atmospheric’ is the word that’s most often used to describe their music. And while that makes for a perfect aural backdrop during sauna sessions, my attention quickly starts to drift away from the music. Which – I know – is probably exactly the point.

But once Árnason grabbed my attention, he never let go. He constantly plays around with his imaginary orchestra (different instrumental groups and voices were recorded during different sessions) to mix up the texture. Neoromantic strings and winds – sounding like Bruckner from under 15 meters of ice – are combined with an eerie avant-garde choir. In The thread a solo viola plays the saddest motif you can imagine. In The vision an ensemble of woodwinds weaves a brittle contrapuntal structure. There are ominous drones, syrupy fragments, impressive crescendos and sudden silences … Always something happening and yet beneath it all is a constant all-pervasive quality, a … – what should I call it – atmosphere!

Its booklet reveals that Eilífur – which means eternal – is a concept album. It conveys what life would be like if (when?) we all live forever. To me, it sounds like a state of limbo where we oscillate between hope and fear. A fitting tribute to 2021.

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