Best Classical Albums of 2020
Dear Classical Music, can we talk?
Things Ain’t What They Used To Be
This year is different than past ones, so this list is different, it’s not the best (as in finest) standard rep/new music classical releases, it’s the ones that matter the most, that are relevant to 2020.
This has been a hard year for classical music. All music has suffered from the pandemic shutting down live performances, but it has hit classical music because classical, as a whole, is uniquely unable to respond musically to rapid and drastic changes in society.
This wasn’t always the case. Classical music used to be new music, newly and made not just for entertainment but for social and liturgical ceremonies, even to commemorate the Battle of Waterloo (yes, even Beethoven wrote some stinkers). But the long development of classical music as an historically minded genre, and the institutionalization of the music that is a direct outgrowth of the rise of the bourgeoisie and of mass-media culture, means that classical music is mostly ossified.
The institutions are great for preserving and passing on the tradition, but that means places like Lincoln Center are just not nimble—tied down by long-term scheduling and hampered by the board model of artistic governance—and composers, pretty much all ensconced in academia, have their work filtered through commissioning institutions and their experiences and perceptions filtered through mindsets the seek to label and systematize every ordinary nuance of life, the substitute debates over the definition of words for empathy and anger.
Classical prides itself on being timeless, that music made hundreds of years ago has meaning in the present day. It’s a nice idea, and once in a while it’s true, but mostly it’s a marketing tautology. So the music has been presented as the glory of the past, and has been so for 200 years now (the 21st century has seen a greater push for new and recently made compositions, but the vast bulk of those are still reworking long-established clichés of tonal forms and structures, which itself is an important issue). The ironic thing is that Beethoven is one of the few classical music figures who’s work truly is timeless, it is always relevant and speaks to the moment in individuals and societies across the globe, yet the stupendous effect of his music was the first brick in the road towards institutionalization.
By relevance and meaning, I’m going beyond pleasure—and as I’ve written before, by all means find your own pleasures in music, no matter what it is—and speaking to the point where personal experience and the listening experience meet. The mass experiences of 2020 are the pandemic, the police murders of Black citizens and the social unrest that followed, and the political fight against amoral nihilism, authoritarianism, racism, and state-sanctioned right-wing violence (by both militias and cops, who are mostly a right-wing armed street gang). Some of the ways those manifest on a personal level include anger, isolation, and anxiety, and of course the pleasure of music can reach those. But to say Bach, or Haydn, or even Debussy speak to American society in 2020 is laughable. Strauss and Puccini, with their misanthropy, misogyny, and sycophantic chuminess with authoritarianism are relevant for this year, which goes to show you that not only can bad people create (what many feel is) good art, but bad people can create art that can fool others into thinking it’s good when it’s ethically and morally reprehensible.
So it’s been hard to listen to new releases of old music, the extended standard repertoire, this year, and it’s been frustrating and disappointing to listen to new releases of new music. The old stuff just seems pointless, and the new stuff out of touch, not only in terms of being wrong for the moment but in extending a tradition that has questionable value in these times. Composers have been showing me through records that they can manage voice leading and harmonic rhythm, tonal form, syncopations, repeated patterns and have a taste for literary poetry, and those, along with conservatory and graduate pedigrees, usually seem utterly meaningless.
How to be in touch with the mood and motion of society? How to be sensitive to, reflect, and respond to the zeitgeist? Be in it. Despite the process of producing classical music, it’s possible to make relevant musical art. But I see from my social media feeds that composers with the best intentions work with academic language when they discuss the world at large. On the right side of things, but also caught up in debates over not only how to label issues and what words to use, but even who has standing to discuss them.
The clichés of modernism have felt beyond tiresome this year, gestures meant to present a self-conscious knowledge and respect for a tradition that is out of touch, like getting a business card from someone that says “Horseless Carriage Purveyor.”
A sense of the eerie, a sense of being out of some kind of linear or even orderly progression of events and time, a sense that things don’t have to make sense, that teleology is superfluous, even ridiculous, and action and being is everything, that’s what I want. This is the year of nonsense, meaninglessness, le bateau ivre. In time, the pandemic, George Floyd’s murder, the state of authoritarianism and white supremacy, all these may resolve into some kind of meaning—no guarantee it will be a positive one—but right now, we can’t know or see any of those things and pretending we can is, for someone creating any kind of art that confronts these questions, dishonest.
Things don’t always have to make sense, right now. The classical music that has worked for me this year is the stuff that doesn’t try to make sense, doesn’t try to make an argument about the place of classical music in society, or the position that the music itself has in the tradition. It doesn’t try and “address the issue”—and most of the stuff I’ve heard that tries to “address the issues” has been just awful. This attitude, I think, is not a bad one, but it does go against my normal values. But then, here I am, sending this newsletter out into the void and hoping you’ll all toss some coins my way. Never thought I’d be doing that.
But embracing that idea has been like launching Kill Yr Idols, a way of shedding notions of how I’m supposed to think and act and getting closer to doing and thinking that’s authentic to myself. Perhaps you’ll share some interest in this recordings, which are all excellent and have offered possibilities.
(The picks in this list, from halfway through the year, are still valid, and some of them are included in the very bests of this list.)
Best Albums of Standard Repertoire
Owain Park & The Gesualdo Six; Fading
Stephen Hough; Brahms: The Final Piano Pieces
Bruce Brubaker and Max Cooper; Glassforms
Jerusalem Quartet; Béla Bartók: String Quartets 1, 3 & 5
Holst Sinfonietta, Klaus Simon; Steve Reich: Eight Lines; City Life
Xenia Löffler, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin; C.P.E. Bach: Oboe Concertos, Symphonies Wq. 180 & 181
Steven Osborne; Prokofiev: Piano Sonatas 6-8
Raphaël Sévère, Paul Montag; On Tour
Hannu Lintu, Finish Radio Symphony Orchestra; Lutosławski: Symphonies Nos. 2 & 3
Vikinger Olafsson; Debussy - Rameau
Alban Gerhardt, Jukka-Pekka Saraste & WDR Sinfonieorchester; Shostakovich: Cello Concertos
David Greilsammer; Labyrinth
Martyn Brabbins, BBC Symphony Orchestra; Vaughan Williams: Symphonies 3 & 4
Best Albums of New Music
Ensemble Klang, Keir Neuringer: Elegies & Litanies
Erik Griswold, Wallpaper Music IV
Mia Cooper, Joachim Roewer, William Butt; Linda Caitlin Smith: Meadow
Tristan Perich; Drift Multiply
Aisha Orazbayeva, Music for Violin Alone
Ecce Ensemble; John Aylward: Angelus
Claire Chase; Density 2036: part i-v
Caroline McKenzie; for the days to come
Gallicantus; Sarah Kirkland Snider: Mass for the Endangered
Oregon Symphony Orchestra, Carlos Kalmar, Alice Hall Moran; Gabriel Kahane: emergency shelter intake form
PRISM Quartet; Surfaces and Essences
Brooklyn Raga Massive; In D
Various Artists; Modulation Necklace: New Music from Armenia
I want to highlight one special album that is one of the best of the year and belongs on both lists, Experiments in Living from the Spektral Quartet. This puts together superb performances of string quartets from Brahms, Schoenberg, and Ruth Crawford Seeger with new music from Sam Pluta, Anthony Cheung, Charmaine Lee, and George Lewis. I particularly love the Brahms and Lee’s and Lewis’ new pieces. This is a digital recording but there is a nice piece of physical media, a set of Tarot-style cards that you can use to reorder the track list (one of the advantages of digital media). The whole package is as lovely as the music making is excellent.
Best Historical/Archival Albums
Charles Curtis, Performances & Recordings, 1998-2018
Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Rhizoma
Institute for Computer Music and Sound Technology, Les Espaces Électroacoustique II
Philip Glass Ensemble; Glass: Music in Eight Parts (a new realization of a previously heard but then lost composition)
Peter Serkin; Complete RCA Album Collection
George Lewis: Rainbow Family
Fromm Music Foundation; Twentieth Century Composer Series
Hans Rosbaud, SWR Sinfonieorchester des Südwestrundfunks, WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln; Mahler: Symphonies 1, 4, 5-7, 9 & Das Lied von der Erde
Isabelle Faust, Alexander Melnikov, Jean-Guihen Queyras; Beethoven: Duos & Piano Trios
Glenn Gould; Bach Box
If you’re looking for opera on here, I would direct you to this article I wrote in the December-January issue of The Brooklyn Rail as a start. I will be writing more extensively on recent operas in an upcoming newsletter that will only go to paid subscribers. So please consider a subscription.
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Look for my last list of the year next week, all the weird experimental music that is my real first love, plus a look at just what “experimental” means in the 21st century.