Best of 2020
Best Classical Music of 2020
A host of livestreamed concerts, the sounds of silence, time-hopping quartets and at-home divas were among the highlights…
A flood of free streams immediately started, mostly from determined musicians playing from their homes. One ambitious and heartening standout was the violinist Jennifer Koh’s “Alone Together” project, for which she played 40 new solo works, half donated, half commissioned, broadcasting them over Instagram from her apartment in Manhattan.
The pianist Daniil Trifonov ended up demonstrating the before-and-after realities of the pandemic with two performances of Bach’s “The Art of Fugue.” The first took place in early March at Alice Tully Hall, and he played magnificently. He played the work again in June, without an audience, in a studio at Tanglewood. It was broadcast in August. This time, though he wasn’t required to, he wore a mask, which came across as a gesture of solidarity with viewers around the world.
‘Lift Every Voice’ (Morris Robinson)
If in March “everything stopped,” then in late May everything changed. After the killing of George Floyd sparked nationwide demonstrations against racial injustice and police brutality, institutions across society felt compelled to reckon with racial disparities within their ranks — and that includes classical music. A bevy of online panels explored the troubled legacy of the art form, which remains overwhelmingly white. The most powerful was “Lift Every Voice,” a panel of six Black singers hosted by the Los Angeles Opera at the suggestion of Ms. Bridges, who moderated. The discussion exposed the discomfort, slights and pain artists of color have faced even during careers that might seem like success stories. Orchestras and opera companies have announced plans to perform works by composers of color and to find ways to make their ensembles more reflective of the diverse communities they serve. If these moves bring about real change, this could be at least one great benefit of the most devastating year ever for classical music.
The Best of the Year’s At-Home Divas
There was an encompassing sense of safety in the pop standards this eminent mezzo-soprano posted on Facebook from her couch, accompanying herself on the ukulele. This was truly person-to-person communication through music: comfort-food consolation of the highest quality, warmed by Ms. Blythe’s palpable love for her invisible audience. I keep thinking about her sweet, deep take on David Bowie’s “Changes,” which she put up on April 27, and how she turned Bowie’s “float” to “flow” in a line that was newly resonant at that relentless moment: “Though the days flow through my eyes, still the days, they seem the same.”
The Broadening Canon
Are we getting there? Are we finally building a more inclusive culture in classical music? Nobody could possibly argue that the work is done, particularly when it comes to race, but there has been evidence this year — on record at least — that female composers are starting to get more of their due…Amy Beach has long been on the edges of the chamber music canon, even if it was her “Gaelic” Symphony and Piano Concerto that made her famous — but Garrick Ohlsson and the Takacs Quartet, the world’s best, gave a haunting beauty to her 1908 Piano Quintet (Hyperion).
The Time-Crossing Quartets
Including older and contemporary works on the same program is nothing new. But two string quartets took such era-spanning perspectives to fresh heights this year. Brooklyn Rider had the temerity to sequence new pieces between the movements of Beethoven’s Opus 132 on their double-disc set “Healing Modes.” … On Brooklyn Rider’s album, the playing of Beethoven’s tender slow movement seemed to gain additional poignancy when coming after detours into the sounds of today’s avant-garde from composers like Du Yun and Matana Roberts.
The Glimpses of Change
Classical music has never been more accessible. But in 2020, every taste of good news came with a buffet of horrors; no matter what we celebrate, we can’t forget that in what seemed like an instant, the industry was paralyzed by the pandemic. For so many artists, this year ended the second week of March.
If we take a moment to appreciate the positive, though, remember that, as people became homebound en masse, they suddenly had the world’s greatest musicians available on demand through livestreams and archival videos put online at no cost. As live performance crept back, the New York Philharmonic offered itself to the city from the back of a pickup truck (Anthony Roth Costanzo). Yuval Sharon, the most innovative American opera director, transplanted the blaze of Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung” to a parking garage, for Michigan Opera Theater; when the shows sold out, the company opened the cavernous Detroit Opera House to the public for free live screenings. (Christine Goerke & Morris Robinson)
Best Theater of 2020
‘The Great Work Begins’ (Patti LuPone)
In October, after more than 200,000 coronavirus-related deaths in the United States, the creators of “The Great Work Begins,” subtitled “Scenes From ‘Angels in America,’” could not ignore the parallels between the current pandemic and AIDS, which over the course of four decades has killed millions worldwide. In five brilliantly imaginative excerpts, distilling Tony Kushner’s seven-hour epic to 50 minutes, the director, Ellie Heyman, and a cast both starry (Glenn Close as Roy Cohn) and multifarious (three Priors, three Belizes, all excellent) showed how classic plays speak not only to their time but also predict their own futures — often, as here, with fury and regret.
Best Dance of 2020
Newly relevant: Bill T. Jones
This choreographer, who lived through the AIDS crisis, never left the performance world, but his artistic voice is more potent than ever. After “Deep Blue Sea,” his ambitious production for the Park Avenue Armory was canceled because of the pandemic, he told his company, “You will be able to survive, but life will change.” He knows that firsthand. His latest ventures — “Afterwardsness,” a socially distanced work culled from archival repertory, and “Our Labyrinth,” a video collaboration with Lee Mingwei — have demonstrated an unflinching look at the world, both as it was and as it is now.
The 25 Best Classical Music Tracks of 2020
Nadia Boulanger: ‘Soir d’hiver’
“Clairières: Songs by Lili and Nadia Boulanger”; Nicholas Phan, tenor; Myra Huang, piano (Avie) After Lili Boulanger, the gifted French composer, died in 1918 at just 24, her devoted older sister Nadia suffered doubts about her own composing and turned to teaching. On this lovely recording, the tenor Nicholas Phan performs elegant songs by both sisters, ending with Nadia’s misty, rapturous “Soir d’hiver,” a 1915 setting of her poem about a young mother abandoned by her lover.
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 2, Andantino; “Silver Age”; Daniil Trifonov, piano; Mariinsky Orchestra; Valery Gergiev, conductor (Deutsche Grammophon) The thoughtful pianist Daniil Trifonov explores the music of Russia’s so-called “silver age” of the early 20th century on a fascinating album that offers various solo works and concertos by Scriabin, Prokofiev and Stravinsky. The spacious yet fiendishly difficult first movement of Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto is especially exciting.
Schubert: ‘Des Fischers Liebesglück’ “Where Only Stars Can Hear Us: Schubert Songs”; Karim Sulayman, tenor; Yi-heng Yang, fortepiano (Avie) Intimate, sweet-toned and more easily given to dry humor than its powerful keyboard successors, the fortepiano should be a natural choice for Schubert lieder. Yet recordings such as this exquisitely personal recital — with the clear-voiced tenor Karim Sulayman and the sensitive pianist Yi-heng Yang — are still rare. Listen to them weave a storyteller’s spell in this song about a nighttime tryst in a fishing boat, and marvel at the emotional arc they weave with the simplest of gestures.
Best jazz albums of 2020
Aaron Diehl, The Vagabond
At age 35, Aaron Diehl is the most elegant young pianist on the scene, equally accomplished with Ellington, Gershwin, Philip Glass, jazz standards, and the blues. This trio album spans his waterfront, and it’s all captivating, the more so with each successive hearing.
Best Theater of 2020
Randy Rainbow on YouTube. Keeping theater people sane with his music videos in this annus horribilis, Randy Rainbow led the YouTube comedy resistance with clever show-tune parody numbers that plumbed the depths of Donald Trump’s madness. Favorites include “A Spoonful of Clorox,” Gee, Anthony Fauci!” and “If Donald Got Fired,” a duet with Patti LuPone that helped many of us over the election finishing line.
“The Great Work Begins: Scenes From ‘Angels in America,’” Broadway.com’s YouTube channel. A streaming benefit to support the Fund to Fight COVID-19 set up by amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research, this collage of scenes from Tony Kushner’s masterwork invited one plague era to share wisdom with another. Filming themselves at home, Glenn Close, Brian Tyree Henry, Laura Linney, Paul Dano, Andrew Rannells and Patti LuPone, among other luminaries, delivered novel spins on indelible characters in an artfully edited production that provided invaluable research and development for a future “Angels,” a play that continues to resonate across national crises.
From Messiah to Jonas Kaufmann: the best classical Christmas albums of 2020
For old carols made new, from plainchant to Away in a Manger to a medley written in 2017 by Rosephanye Powell, try Chanticleer Sings Christmas (Warner Classics), from the a cappella American male voice choir. Its folksy snow-scene cover hides a well-conceived programme, the choir just a dozen-strong but blended, clear, with a west coast zing.
Notable Performances and Recordings of 2020
“Lift Every Voice: A Conversation Hosted by J’Nai Bridges,” June 5th
In the wake of nationwide protests following the murder of George Floyd, the soprano J’Nai Bridges organized an online discussion with five fellow African-American singers: Julia Bullock, Lawrence Brownlee, Russell Thomas, Karen Slack, and Morris Robinson. Their candor rocked the complacent world of American opera, encouraging an outwardly liberal establishment to see how systemic racism cuts through the heart of their institutions.
“Twilight: Gods” in Detroit, October 17th
Early in the pandemic, opera companies began reaching out to Yuval Sharon, who had long made use of the unconventional settings into which mainstream institutions now found themselves forced. Michigan Opera Theatre agreed to Sharon’s improbable scheme to mount a drive-through production of Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung,” in a parking garage. Sharon was subsequently appointed the company’s artistic director—a sign that the reigning unrest might lead to a long-overdue rethinking of complacent assumptions. “Twilight: Gods,” as the Wagner production was called, would have been a triumph in any season; in 2020, it felt borderline miraculous. (Christine Goerke & Morris Robinson)
Concertos by Tyshawn Sorey, November 6th and 19th
The composer and multi-instrumentalist Tyshawn Sorey unveiled not one but two major works in November, both cast in unconventional concerto form: “For Marcos Balter,” which the violinist Jennifer Koh presented with the Detroit Symphony, and “For Roscoe Mitchell, ” which the cellist Seth Parker Woods played alongside the Seattle Symphony. They were purely abstract creations, yet I couldn’t help hearing them as contrapuntal responses to a dire, vicious year—enigmatic monuments of artistic strength and conviction.
Best Classical Recordings
Jennifer Koh: “Bach & Beyond, Part 3” (Cedille Records).
Violinist Koh concludes her epic traversal of solo violin repertoire with music of J.S. Bach, Luciano Berio and John Harbison. The point in this two-CD set, and in the series’ previously released Parts 1 and 2, is to show the enduring vitality of a tradition that dates back to the baroque but can speak urgently via contemporary composers. Koh makes this case through performances bristling with intellectual rigor, tonal depth and technical elan. In all, a monumental achievement.
Best classical albums released in 2020
Busoni: Divertimento, Op. 52; Penderecki: Flute Concerto; Reinecke: Flute Concerto in D; Ballade, Op.288; Takemitsu: I Hear the Water Dreaming ; Emmanual Pahud (Flute); Munich Radio Orchestra/ Ivan Repušić Warner
‘Emmanuel Pahud consistently delivers high-quality recordings with a twist. Dreamtime is similarly creative, programming a wide selection of concertos and concertante pieces themed around different experiences of that state.’
Hindemith: Kammermusik Nos 4-7
Stephen Waarts (violin), Timothy Ridout (viola), Ziyu Shen (viola), Christian Schmitt (organ); Kronberg Academy Soloists; Schleswig-Holstein Festival Orchestra/Christoph Eschenbach Ondine
‘This vivid work opens with a pungent fanfare, its colours stemming from jazz-band instrumentation and the absence of orchestral violins. Stephen Waarts plays the solo part with brilliant attack. A long, central ‘Nachtstück’ conveys the uneasiness of the times.’
Handel: Ah! Crudel, nel pianto mio, HWV 78; Haydn: Arianna a Naxos, HOB. XXVIB:2; A Scarlatti: L’Arianna; Kate Lindsey (mezzo-soprano); Arcangelo/Jonathan Cohen Alpha Classics
‘Cohen takes risks with his tempos and dynamics, and by allowing the instrumentalists to sometimes push Lindsey aside; these pay off in many striking moments’
Songs by Ravel, Debussy, Poulenc and Fauré Sabine Devieilhe (soprano), Alexandre Tharaud (piano) Erato
‘Soprano Sabine Devieilhe has the ideal voice for the Ariettes oubliées, with a creamily dreamy opening to ‘C’est l’extase’. Her iridescent clarity is to the fore throughout, vivacious in ‘Chevaux de bois’ and soaring gloriously in the middle of Fauré’s ‘Les berceaux’.’
Beach • Elgar
Beach: Piano Quintet in F sharp minor, Op. 67; Elgar: Piano Quintet in A minor, Op. 84 ; Garrick Ohlsson (piano); Takács Quartet Hyperion
‘This is a performance every bit as imaginative and expressive as Elgar’s remarkable score, rich in contrast and daring but never overblown and always precise. With excellent recording quality throughout, this is in every respect an outstanding disc.’
Dejours • Schubert
Schubert: Piano Quintet in A major, D667 ‘The Trout’; Landler – D366 Nos 12 & 15; D790 Nos 5, 7, 8, 10 & 12; Olivier Dejours: Schubertiade Yann Dubost, Christoph Eschenbach, Jean-Frederic Neuberger (piano); Thymos Quartet, Yann Dubost (double bass) Avie
‘In this delightful recording, the limelight is shared between Eschenbach’s crystalline piano playing and the creamy string sound, underpinned by the rumbling, bouncing bass. The tempo is elastic, yielding. And there’s no rigid ensemble, either; the mood is convivial, like conversing friends who occasionally interrupt each other. Eschenbach’s solo moments have memorable rhetorical swagger.’
Preludes; Etudes-Tableaux; Moments Musicaux ; Sergei Babayan (piano) DG 483 9181 58:26 mins
‘There’s some extraordinary playing on this beautifully recorded disc. The Armenian-born American pianist Sergei Babayan exhibits a profound empathy for Rachmaninov’s music, revelling in its richness of sonority, its contrasting moods of elation and melancholy and its structural fluidity.’
Recordings of the year (Editor’s Choices)
Alexandre Tharaud ‘Versailles’
Alexandra Tharaud is an artist able to make the rhythmic essence and inward intensity of the Baroque feel vibrantly alive on a modern piano, and this wonderful programme is another impressive achievement.
Isabelle Faust & Alexander Melnikov ‘Mozart Violin Sonatas, Vol 2’
While the catalogue boasts several inspired collaborations in this repertoire, forming here is another exquisite series from two key members of Harmonia Mundi’s formidable artist family.
Jean-Guihen Queyras & Alexandre Tharaud ‘Complices’
A brilliant example of how an album of encores can – when performed with such style as by these perfectly matched soloists, and programmed so thoughtfully – become a captivatingly crafted through-listen.
Garrick Ohlsson & Takács Quartet ‘Beach.Elgar Piano Quintets’
Deeply reflective playing of these beautiful and emotionally crafted quintets from the ever-impressive Takács Quartet, joined by a perfect partner in the pianist Garrick Ohlsson.
Alisa Weilerstein ‘JS Bach Six Solo Cello Suites’
Alisa Weilerstein embraces the full emotional and technical range of Bach’s Solo Cello Suites with open-hearted devotion – richly coloured playing held aloft in a lovely acoustic.
VOCES8 ‘After Silence’
This is a very fine album from Voces8 – hugely varied in scope, though thematically prepared so as to be inspiring, consoling and uplifting in equal measure, and exquisitely sung throughout.
Best Music of 2020 | Staff picks
Top 10 Albums Of 2020 from Nikki Birch; Producer, Jazz Night in America
1. Thundercat, It Is What It Is 2. Kassav’, 40ème anniversaire – Le concert 3. Salaam Remi, Black on Purpose 4. Nick Hakim, WILL THIS MAKE ME GOOD 5. KIRBY, Sis. 6. Piano Novel, Lumino Forest (Alternative Takes) 7. Megan Thee Stallion, Good News 8. Kes, We Home 9. yMusic, Ecstatic Science 10. 11:11, The Night Before The Morning After