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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Beethoven and AI: the battle of the superhumans

Did you hear? They finally finished Beethoven’s tenth symphony using artificial intelligence! Pretty cool, right?

Well, no. That spectacular news story misrepresents Beethoven’s tenth and what AI can do for music.

Let’s start with the easy part.

Beethoven’s tenth is not ‘unfinished’, it simply doesn’t exist

While music history’s most famous unfinished symphony – Schubert’s eighth – is pretty much complete, Beethoven’s tenth was never begun. Even though the promo text of the AI project subtly tries to convince you otherwise:

“All he left behind were some musical sketches. Ever since then, Beethoven fans and musicologists have puzzled and lamented over what could have been. His notes teased at some magnificent reward, albeit one that seemed forever out of reach.”

Really? Click here to listen to those sketches. Then let me know how they make you feel. Lamenting about unfulfilled promises? Or just ‘Meh’?

Blocks of marble
“It makes me crazy that we will never know how Michelangelo would have finished these.”

No, Beethoven fans and musicologists have not been madly pulling out their hair about what could have been. Most of them couldn’t care less. One of them already claimed to ‘finish’ the tenth more than thirty years ago. Which is to say: he wrote a symphony in Beethoven’s style using that handful of melodies. Because that’s all you can reasonably do. Unless, apparently, you can “harness the power of AI”.

The contribution of AI to the ‘finishing’ of the ninth is probably minimal

That aforementioned promo text is extremely vague about how they used AI to ‘complete’ Beethoven’s tenth symphony. So all I can do is make an educated guess – and I’m not an educated data scientist. Fortunately, this guy is, and he does a nice job of explaining how it works for Bach chorales, so I’ll start from there.

Up until now, those AI-generated Bach chorales are the most famous examples of computer compositions. They’re impressive, but the project is also a bit of a scam. The name ‘Bach’ inflates the implied accomplishment, while the key word is actually ‘chorale’.

A chorale is a four-voice setting of a Lutheran hymn. Here’s a classic example:

Beautiful. Yet also, in many ways, simple:

  • The main melody (usually in the top voice) is a given so doesn’t need to be composed.
  • The instrumentation – four voices and basso continuo – is fixed.
  • All voices have a more or less equal number of notes to sing and move together in the same rhythm.
  • It lasts no longer than a few minutes.

When you look at it from the standpoint of a computer, those are many fewer variables that it needs to worry about then when it’s asked to compose a, well, let’s say, … Beethoven symphony.

Nevertheless, the AI-composed chorales are extraordinary. How does it work? Not by music-savvy programmers – or IT-savvy musicologists – who write all the rules, that would take decades. It’s achieved by a process called deep learning where the computer kind of writes its own code. It works like this:

  1. The computer is given an input, such as a few notes of a melody of a chorale.
  2. The computer is asked to guess certain parameters, such as what the next note will be or what the underlying voices are.
  3. If the computer is ‘right’ – makes the same choice as Bach – the algorithm is slightly adjusted accordingly.
  4. After many, many trials and errors, the algorithm becomes so refined that it always guesses right or at least almost right.
  5. You can now use it to write new stuff in the style of Bach.

Number 4 is important here: you need a lot of input to train a deep learning system. In this case, there are about 350 Bach chorales, which our data scientist source calls “an extremely small dataset”.

Compare that to a measly nine Beethoven symphonies and you’ll probably agree that something’s not right here. The promo text of the project mentions that they used “completed compositions from Beethoven’s entire body of work”, but that’s not very impressive when you realize that a lot of that isn’t even orchestral, and that Beethoven significantly changed important aspects of his style during his lifetime. Is the AI offering us the tenth symphony as it would have been composed by the 1827 Beethoven or by the ‘average’ Beethoven?

For all those reasons, I find it hard to believe that this tenth symphony was completed by artificial intelligence. I suspect that a lot of work was done by the composers and musicologists involved. So much that they could have done it faster and cheaper on their own. But then of course, they wouldn’t have made the news.

Why is that idea so easy to sell? Why do we instinctively believe that artificial intelligence can do a better job of imitating Beethoven than a 21st-century composer? This quote from the CEO of Playform AI, the company that did the AI part of this project, speaks volumes:

“At every point, Beethoven’s genius loomed, challenging us to do better.”

For a man who probably uniwheels to work and says ‘engaging in ideation’ when he means ‘thinking’, that’s a statement with surprising 19th century overtones. Didn’t we put behind us this idea of ‘great men’ who lived in a ‘golden age’ and now hover like demigods over us mere mortals? Apparently not. A lot of us still believe that present-day composers (F/M) are no match for Beethoven. And that only our new deity can come to the rescue: the Almighty Algorithm.

AI and music: servant rather than master

All this doesn’t mean there isn’t a case for using AI in music making. In the end, artificial intelligence is no different than a harpsichord, a synthesizer or a laptop – a tool that can also inspire.

Instead of using AI to come up with music that we can just as well imagine ourselves, why not take advantage of its ability to make connections that we would never come up with, to think of completely weird, but sometimes oddly beautiful sounds? Please decide for yourself whether this piece of music falls under that definition:

Like it or not, this is what a computer composes when humans don’t tamper with it. Its creator Holly Herndon said this about it:

“I find something hopeful about the roughness of this piece of music. Amidst a lot of misleading AI hype, it communicates something honest about the state of this technology; it is still a baby.”

Amen to that.

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Why Beethoven wrote the best music ever

Although it was of course mostly awful, the coronavirus lockdown also brought a gift – the gift of time. Finally, there was a chance to get that body into shape, master a new skill, reconnect with close friends and family, …

Me, I seem to have spent it all watching YouTube.

That’s not a complete waste of time. There’s a lot of good stuff on there, not least for music nerds. People such as Adam Neely, David Bruce, David Bennet and 12tone manage to make music theory and analysis accessible, even fun. Quite an accomplishment.

And then, I bumped into this one:

I know that title is deliberately crude and silly. It’s supposed to make me mad so I would click on it and – even better – leave a comment. That’s how YouTube works. Well, how the internet works, really.

Beethoven best composer
It never fails.

The movie is a lot more nuanced than you would expect from its title. Its point is not that Beethoven sucks at music. Just that his status as the greatest composer in history is not – and cannot be – based on any objective truth. Because there’s no way to measure musical quality.

So why do we accept Beethoven’s greatness – or Mozart’s, or Bach’s, but never Chevalier de Saint George’s or Florence Price’s? The answer is that the canon of classical music was first compiled by late-19th century Germans who naturally favored the big names of German music.

And now we’re stuck with a classical music culture that’s biased against women, people of color, and all the other folks that 19th century Germans weren’t so keen on. It’s time for change. Let’s take Beethoven of the programs for a few years and give the stage to some unheard voices – as was suggested in this excellent, similarly themed podcast.

All this could have been the perfect intro to a good old rant about ‘woke madness’. But that’s not what I have in mind. In fact, a lot of these reevaluations of our classical canon make perfect sense. They’re also not nearly as new some people think. They’re just finally making it into the mainstream. Which is about time.

But I find it hard to believe that the canon, as 12tone puts it, “has nothing to do with musical quality.” Beethoven’s place on top of the musical Olympus is down to more than him being “in the right place at the right time”. Just consider that …

1. Not all attempts at shaping the canon are successful.

It’s true: the idea of the divide between serious/visionary versus popular/derivative composers is deeply connected to German nationalism. This official version of the musical 19th century can be summarized as follows:

  • All of music culminated in and started again with Beethoven.
  • The ‘progressives’ such as Liszt and Wagner explored Beethoven’s adventurous side.
  • The ‘classicists’ such as Schumann and Brahms devoted themselves to guarding Beethoven’s classical legacy.
  • These two factions were united by Arnold Schoenberg, who was deeply rooted in tradition and showed the way forward – in other words, a new Beethoven.

You might notice that there are a lot of people who don’t fit into that picture. Chopin, for example who didn’t even like Beethoven’s music very much. And indeed, there was a time when this Polish Frenchman was looked down upon in serious music circles. Not only because of his Polish Frenchness, but because his music didn’t quite fit the ‘logical’ progression that would culminate in Schoenberg.

Speaking about Schoenberg, does anybody still believe that he’ll be remembered as the greatest composer of the twentieth century? That he’ll be as popular as Beethoven once people ‘get over’ the unfamiliar harmonies and lack of singable tunes? On the contrary, the popularity of ‘reactionary’, ‘neoromantic’ near-contemporaries such as Vaughan-Williams and Copland seems continuously on the rise.

There definitely was – still is and always will be – an attempt at shaping the canon top-down. But it doesn’t always work. In time, an essential run-down of the top musical names of the last two centuries will include Chopin rather than Schumann, Elgar rather than Richard Strauss and Lennon-McCartney rather than Stockhausen.

Stockhausen Sgt. Pepper's
You might know Stockhausen from the cover Sgt. Pepper’s.

That’s because …

2. The opinion of the masses does matter

“Liking Beethoven is seen as a sign of class and taste”, says 12tone in his video. That’s only true up to a point. I dare you to introduce yourself to a group of pretentious classical music lovers with the confident declaration that you love Für Elise, the Fifth Symphony and the Ode to Joy. You will be greeted with chilly silence and smug smirks. Perhaps someone will ask you if you also like Tchaikovsky’s Overture 1812. If so, please don’t answer. It’s sarcasm at your expense.

If you really want to impress that imaginary group of snobs, clearly state your appreciation for:

  • Beethoven’s late string quartets, not the Mondschein sonata
  • Verdi’s Falstaff, not Aida
  • Bach’s Kunst der Fuge, not his Air
  • The list goes on and on.

There’s an unwritten rule among classical elitists that ‘great’ composers are great despite their popular appeal. In other words: if the masses also happen to like them, they do it for the wrong reasons.

When someone states that the elite imposed the canon based on their own aesthetic principles, they’re buying into this myth that the elite entertains about its own power. A lot of times, canonizing is just adding intellectual veneer to a choice that has already been made in the court of popular opinion.

This doesn’t mean that the canon is no more than a long-term hit parade. If that were true, Rossini would be considered the greatest composer of all time. Professional arbiters of taste – such as journalists, academics and musicians – can influence rankings by leveraging their standing in society. But catapulting a nobody with merely ‘interesting’ music to the musical pantheon? Never happened.

What works best is to encourage people to listen more closely to music they already like. Tell them to which deeper layers they should listen and there’s a good chance they will enthusiastically agree. If only because they don’t want to be thought of as unsophisticated. And sometimes because they truly enjoy the music on a deeper level. The chance of that happening is seldom greater than with Beethoven. That’s because …

3. Beethoven and his contemporaries hit a sweet spot that’s difficult to match

In his famous work on the music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven – The Classical Style – Charles Rosen writes:

“The procedures of Haydn and Mozart must be understood in a larger context, that of the creation of a popular style which abandons none of the pretensions of high art. Their achievement is perhaps unique in Western music. […] Only for one brief historical period in the operas of Mozart, the symphonies of Haydn and some of the Schubert songs, has the utmost sophistication and complexity of musical technique existed alongside – or better, fused with – the virtues of the street song.”

Rosen doesn’t include Beethoven in this list, except for the final movement of the Ninth. That’s because he seems to consider only recognizable (pseudo-)folk tunes as popular melodies. But isn’t something like the opening theme of the Fifth Symphony one of the greatest ‘hooks’ in the history of music?

Google search Beethoven 5
Yes, that one.

The whole art of this first Viennese school was to build sophisticated structures with simple elements. And maybe this is the reason why their music remains the best gateway into the pleasure that a complex piece of music can bring. The irresistible and instantly memorable tunes not only draw you in, but also help you to understand, experience and enjoy the larger form.

Once you’re into that listening habit, you can start enjoying music which is pure abstraction, foregoing those catchy tunes and other pleasing elements altogether. Although, quite frankly, why should you have to?

4. Beethoven is a rock star

Stop your eye-roll, I’m not claiming that Beethoven was the rock star of his times. I’m saying that he is one right now. Wait, didn’t Chuck Berry roll him over? But that’s the point. Chuck chose Beethoven – even though he didn’t even fit his rhyme scheme – because Beethoven is an idol. That’s also why 12tone chose him, and why we’re all supposed to get super mad because they’re trying to erase him from our history. Trust me, if Chuck Berry couldn’t cancel Beethoven, neither can a bunch of underpaid woke scholars in musicology. If they wanted to. Which they don’t.

Beethoven is not a darling of the elite foisted upon us, he’s a part of our global popular culture. That’s because of his literal image – the bushy hair, the shabby clothes. And because of his supposed unconformity and disdain for social conventions which aligns perfectly with how a lot of people like to see themselves – especially when they’re young.

The bottom line is: Beethoven is cool. And apart from his afro and his attitude, I think there are a number of musical reasons for why he’s such a good fit with our popular music culture:

  • His repertoire is mainly instrumental, which helps because the handling of the voice is what puts a lot of people off classical music.
  • His music has a rhythmic drive that combines a regular beat with plenty of syncopation, just like a lot of jazz and popular music.
  • His harmonic language is tonal – not too chromatic and complex but not too bland either, with plenty of major/minor shifts. From the classical/romantic composers, only Schubert was closer to pop music harmony in this respect.
  • Most importantly, but hardest to describe, Beethoven’s music – at least that from his ‘heroic’ middle period – has an emotional charge that resonates well with how a lot of people still define ‘depth’ in music. It’s sad but not schmaltzy, sarcastic but not funny, noble but not arrogant, … You get my point – or not. It’s why today we value acts like Nick Cave or The National. It’s not only about the notes, it’s also about the attitude.

To conclude: Beethoven is not the greatest composer of all time, but he is the greatest classical composer for our time. That’s not because his music is objectively the best. But it’s also not because we’re collectively brainwashed by a white supremacist elite. It’s because his music like no other from the classical tradition combines accessibility with what we perceive as emotional depth. And it’s because of his hair.

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Are these the best classical albums of 2020?

Probably not. But out of the ones I’ve heard, I’ve enjoyed these the most:

10. The Leipzig Circle, Vol 2. (London Bridge Trio)

The Leipzig Circle record sleeve

If I were making a list of silliest sentences in CD booklets, this one would take the top spot: “[the first movement of the featured Felix Mendelssohn trio] has both firmness and determination that immediately declare it to be a strong and masculine conception.”

Luckily, the performance is a lot better than the commentary. It demonstrates that Clara Schumann’s feminine conceptions didn’t stop her from writing music that was on a par with Mendelssohn’s. And that Robert Schumann surpassed them both. In imagination, not testosterone.

9. Miroir (Alexandre Collard, Jean Daufresne and Mathilde Nguyen)

Miroir record sleeve

If I were making a list of understatements in CD booklets, this one would take the top spot: “Rarely, in the history of music, have composers written for horn, saxhorn and piano.”

In fact, only one work on this album was originally written for that combination – after a special request from the performers. In any case, it sounds amazing. Moreover, this record brings to light some unfamiliar and underrated repertoire from Belgian and French composers from the 19th through 21st centuries.

8. Debussy – Rameau (Vikingur Ólafsson)

Debussy - Rameau record sleeve

This one will feature on many ‘best of 2020’ lists. And if the Icelandic pianist releases another record in 2021, it will probably end up on that year’s lists as well. Because he’s as good as the hype that surrounds him.

This record would have ended up higher on my list if Ólafsson wouldn’t have made the misguided decision of combining Rameau with Debussy. Not because they make a bad couple. But because I don’t like Debussy’s piano music. Or the unacceptable way he wears a hat.

7. Anna Clyne: DANCE – Edward Elgar: Cello Concerto (Inbal Segev, London Philharmonic Orchestra & Marin Alsop)

Clyne-Elgar record sleeve

Now here’s someone who knows how to wear a hat:

Anna Clyne
Perfect!

No melodies moved me more last year than the sentimental, folk-influenced themes that form the basis of the four dances – excuse me, DANCES – by Anna Clyne.

The expressive style of cellist Inbal Segev serves them well. Although it steals too much of the spotlight from the orchestra. That’s especially true in the Elgar concerto. If you’re a fan of that work – and who isn’t? – the 2020 recording by Sheku Kanneh-Mason is probably a better choice.

6. Blessed Art Thou Among Women (PaTRAM Institute Singers)

Blessed Art Thou Among Women record sleeve

One of the greatest pleasures in life is listening to the sound of oktavists, the ultra-low bass singers that feature in Russian music. They’re abundantly present on this record, rumbling their way through four centuries of enchanting orthodox choral music.

If, God forbid, 2021 turns out to be another year in which we need extra comfort, this album is guaranteed to provide it. Just let the sounds of those amazing human didgeridoos gently vibrate your worries away.

5. Bohemian Tales (Augustin Hadelich)

Bohemian Tales record sleeve

Some stuff that you know, some stuff that you don’t. That remains the perfect mix for a classical concert or album. Often, the unfamiliar work that you dreaded makes more of an impression than the well-known piece that you came for.

That was certainly the case with this recording of Bohemian violin music. I was lured in by Dvořák and Janáček, but it was the Op. 17 by Josef Suk that blew me away – less ‘romantic’ than Dvořák, more ‘popular’ than Janáček and with a unique approach to musical form.

Intrigued, I decided to seek out more music by Suk, especially his orchestral works. And I quickly decided that it wasn’t worth another second of my time. But it could have been the beginning of an exciting journey of musical discovery, is what I’m saying.

4. Beethoven: Songs & Folksongs (Ian Bostridge, Antonio Pappano)

Beethoven songs and folksongs record sleeve

For obvious reasons, 2020 will not be remembered as ‘the year we celebrated the 250th birthday of Beethoven’. But it was an excellent year to explore Beethoven with a small b. Confined to my home, an album full of ‘domestic’ compositions was exactly what the doctor ordered.

Apart from the visionary An die ferne Geliebte cycle, the Beethoven songs are generally considered of little importance. And that’s even more true of his settings of Irish, British, Scottish and Welsh folk songs that he purely made – gasp! – for money. It’s to Bostridge’s credit that he applies his otherworldly talent to these supposedly mundane compositions – and reveals that they are anything but that.

3. Proving Up (Missy Mazzoli)

Proving Up record sleeve

2020 was also the year in which we witnessed how the American democracy nearly drove itself off a cliff.

There are a lot of reasons for what happened during the last four years. One of them is the destructive idea behind the American dream. Missy Mazzoli and her librettist Royce Vavrek turned that into a wonderful opera. And I’m not going to repeat what I already wrote about it.

2. Not Our First Goat Rodeo (Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer & Chris Thile)

Not Our First Goat Rodeo record sleeve

Wait, is this a classical album?

Well, on the one hand, it’s labelled by the record company as such. It includes Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer. And in what other category would you put a track like Not For Lack of Trying?

On the other hand, who cares? I don’t trust jazz or bluegrass fans enough to feel confident that they will include this record in their end-of-year lists. And this joyous display of musicianship and collaboration cannot get enough praise from every corner.

1. Adès Conducts Adès (Boston Symphony Orchestra)

Adès conducts Adès record sleeve

Of the contemporary composers on this list, Thomas Adès is probably the most ‘difficult’ one. And yet, if you listen to some connoisseurs, you’d think he’s one cowbell removed from becoming André Rieu.

That’s probably because Adès’ music packs an emotional punch that resonates with a lot of people. Which makes it suspect in the ears of some.

Yet you only need to listen to the second movement of his piano concerto to realize that this guy is something special. There are echoes from many traditions, but the language is unique. And underneath is a musical progression that you don’t need to fully understand to be overwhelmed by it. That’s something that only comes around, well, every 250 years or so.

Did I just imply that Adès is the new Beethoven? Must be the champagne talking. All I wanted to say is: some things that came out of 2020, are worth remembering. Happy New Year!

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Dive into my selection of favorite albums from 2021

Review: Dag Wirén String Quartets

Apparently, Punxsutawney Phil predicts an early spring this year. That means you only have a few weeks left to enjoy the winter with its perfect soundtrack: the Dag Wirén string quartets by the Wirén Quartet.

Dag Wirén string quartets

Dag Wirén: not a man of words

Never heard of Dag Wirén? Neither did I before this record caught my attention. Some quick facts:

Wirén already stopped composing in 1970, stating: “One should stop in time, while one still has time to stop in time.”

Dag Wirén

Luckily, his music is more memorable than his aphorisms.

Timeless craftmanship

Wirén’s style, especially in his early years, can only be described as neoclassical. To my ears: very neoclassical. Actually, he sounds like Brahms with a pair of warm woolen mittens.

But who cares that he was not hip with the times? Especially if he managed to come up with compositions such as his third string quartet, my favorite one on this record.

Its first movement starts off with a softly rocking accompaniment. Like a flower from under a snow bed, the first violin rises to the surface with the basic melody. Gradually, the other instruments join in to start a fascinating dialogue based on that motif. And just when their disagreement reaches its climax, the conversation abruptly halts and begins anew.

The second, slow movement is a romantic piece based on a pining melody that I’m sure I’ve heard before but can’t quite place. Drop me a note in the comments if you can help me out.

After the short but stirring minuet, the quartet closes with a finale where Wirén waves a tapestry out of the basic melodies of the previous three movements.

None of this would have sounded innovative in 1941. And it sounds even less so today. But the way Wirén develops and combines his musical themes bears witness to a timeless craftmanship that engages your attention while still being easy on the ears. And sometimes that’s all you need during those darkest days of the year.

Pizzicati and … er … stuff

What’s left for a composer after writing a neoclassical masterpiece such as that third string quartet? Judging from his fourth and fifth quartets, also included on this record, Wirén chose to adopt a more modern style. Not Stockhausen or Ligeti modern though, more like Sibelius and Shostakovich modern.

One thing that remains constant is Wirén’s wonderful talent for string arranging. All the quartets are overflowing with plinky plonks and zings and fiiiieuws – or whatever the technical terms may be.

It’s all immaculately performed by the Wirén Quartet. A bit too immaculately, perhaps. I get the feeling that, if they would tone down their reverence towards the composer a bit – he’s in their name after all – and let their own musical personalities shine through, this music would sound even better.

But what do I know? Do make up your own mind by listening to Dag Wirén string quartets by the Wirén Quartet on CD, Spotify or Apple Music. You won’t regret it.

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More about 20th century music

Mozart for Managers

Imagine this nightmare scenario: seconds before an important meeting you find out that you brought the wrong presentation with you. A similar thing – only a million times worse – happened to star pianist Maria João Pires. The orchestra was already playing when she realized that she prepared for the wrong Mozart concerto.

 

Leading by example

One of the things I like about this video is the reaction of conductor Riccardo Chailly. You could use it to illustrate a management seminar: instead of getting mad or acting disappointed, he keeps his cool and affirms his trust in her. The result? Pires gives a flawless performance. All thanks to Chailly’s excellent management skills. And because Pires has the memory of an elephant, of course.

“Unlike business companies, orchestras are simple.”

An even better example is this wonderful performance of another Mozart concerto.

Do you see how conductor and pianist David Greilsammer is ‘a part of his team’ and how he ‘leads by example’? With a bit of creativity, you can match just about every business cliché to classical music. There’s even no ‘I’ in ‘orchestra’! I can’t believe http://www.mozartformanagers.com is still available – it’s a goldmine.

Mozart for Managers: the inspiration

‘Harmonious tunes for mergers & acquisitions’

Of course …

Imagine my total lack of surprise when I found out that this sort of thing is already being done. At Music & Management they “invite the corporate world to explore new ways of thinking about business practice” and “provide extraordinary insights into leadership, collaboration, creativity and personal development.”

The lucky participants of the Orchestra Experience are seated within an orchestra to:

  • “see and hear music being played from inside the orchestra, observe the role of the conductor and orchestral players.” Which sounds like fun.
  • “engage in an interactive discussion with the conductor and musicians about how playing in an orchestra mirrors the culture of a business organization.” Which sounds horrible.

Money well spent

Will this experience enhance the participants’ management skills? Probably not. You see, unlike business companies – especially the ones who can afford the Orchestra Experience – orchestras are simple. Everybody knows who the boss is and believes in the common goal. Each member has a recognizable skill and clear task, so nobody needs to hide the fact that he secretly feels unnecessary. That’s what managers should learn from musicians, not “the importance of creative freedom within the constraints of a large organization.”

But that doesn’t mean those seminars are a waste of time. Some of those people will surely walk out with a new or renewed love for music – never a bad thing. Because when the next financial crisis comes along, it’s good to have Mozart’s shoulder to cry on.

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