2021 may not have been a banner year for live performances – to say the least – but classical music fans can still take solace in a series of notable recordings released over the past 12 months.
With highly publicized releases from luminaries like Yannick Nézet-Séguin and others, it’s easy to slip into a comfortable groove. Our list explores the less traveled corners of the classical music world to include an eclectic assortment of 2021 releases that may not have been on your radar this year.
Together they exemplify the vibrant depth of classical music as it exists today.
Frank Horvat: Music for Self-Isolation (Centrediscs)
Toronto musician and composer Frank Horvat began Music for self-isolation as a COVID lockdown project to keep other musicians afloat, but the momentum, which started on social media, quickly started to gain momentum. Eventually his pieces, written for 31 different instruments, including those not usually seen in the classical world like the marimba and accordion, were recorded at Roy Thomson Hall. Most of them are solos, with a few duets, which the musicians were all able to play in isolation. The results are sad, thoughtful, joyful – expressing the range of emotions the pandemic has evoked.
Philip Blackburn: Justinian intonations (Neuma Records)
American composer Philip Blackburn began what he thought was a series of acoustic tests of the ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city of Istanbul. Carved literally under the city streets, the giant cisterns of marble and granite feature vaulted ceilings and stone arches. The unique acoustics of the cisterns, which once held water, inspired the composition far beyond sound experimentation. The results interweave electronic and acoustic sounds and feature British countertenor Ryland Angel. The sounds become light and Angel’s voice floats and sparkles in a dreamy soundscape. Great for meditation and mindfulness.
Christina Petrowska Quilico: Vintage Americana (Navona)
Canadian pianist Christina Petrowska Quilico created this recording during pandemic containment. This is a compilation of recordings of works by contemporary American composers from the 1970s and 1990s, produced for the CBC. The pieces offer a cornucopia of modern music, in the subtlety of Lowell Liebermann Appearances to the restless The turtle and the crane by Frederic Rzewski, deceased in June 2021. Quilico is known for her varied musical tastes, and she gives each composer his due in performance. The recording also includes works by American-Canadian composer David Jaeger, Mario Davidovsky, Paul Huebner and David Del Tredici.
Imani Winds: Bruits (Bright Shiny Things)
The Imani Winds wind quintet mixes issues of social justice and race in this recording of contemporary music by composers Reena Esmail, Frederic Rzewski and Vijay Iyer. The title “Sounds” refer to the medical terms for the sound blood makes when trying to pulsate through a blocked vein. Iver’s coin, the holder Noises, uses music and speech to tell the story of the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Also includes Reena Ismail’s play, The light is the same, on the common threads of all humanity, and that of Frédéric Rzewski Occasionally, a nod to black historian John Hope Franklin.
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra / Andris Nelsons: Sofia Gubaidulina / orchestral works (Deutsche Grammophon)
Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina turned 90 in 2021. Her story is legendary: she grew up poor but determined, was allegedly attacked by a KGB agent in 1973. While he was strangling her, she asked her: “Why so slowly? and his cold poise got him so angry that he turned and ran. Condemned by the Soviet regime, she nevertheless won awards and praise, including the Monaco Prize in 1987, and the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement for the Music section of the “Venice Biennale” in 2013. His work is known to use a large orchestra. , often focusing on the brass section. The pieces on this recording refer to the philosopher Martin Buber, among other themes, and his compositions often incorporate a spiritual element.
Toumani Diabaté & London Symphony Orchestra: Kôrôlén (World Circuit / BMG)
In interviews, Malian musician Toumani Diabaté said his goal in this recording with the London Symphony Orchestra was to bring African music to audiences in a different context. Widely listed in the ambiguous category of “world music”, Diabaté has long dreamed of recording with a symphony orchestra. His wish came true in 2008 with LSO and conductor Clark Rundell, with the recording just released in 2021 for unknown reasons. Diabaté plays the kora, a 21-string harp with a bridge, which blends wonderfully with the colors of the orchestra in six of his compositions.
Lucas Debargue / Gidon Kremer / Kremerata Baltica: Zal - Music by Miłos Magin (Sony Classical)
French pianist Lucas Debargue made it his mission to highlight the work of the lesser-known Polish pianist and composer Milos Magin (1929 – 1999), which gave rise to this recording. Debargue uses his unique performing gifts to bring Magin’s music to life, including a lively concerto, violin concerto (with Gidon Kremer), and other chamber music. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Magin’s music is largely melodic, with a Slavic flavor, including some melodic elements inspired by Polish folk music. The enthusiastic performances are a convincing argument for the inclusion of Magin in the classical repertoire.
Matthew Larkin plays Casavant Opus 550 (Atma Classic)
Organist Matthew Larkin brings the warmth of the majestic Casavant Opus 550 at St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Toronto to your living room on his debut on the Atma Classic label – and his second recording after a 38-year hiatus. It was the pandemic lockdown that gave him time to do the recording. Larkin showcases the tonal range and scope of the organ in a variety of pieces by Bach, Mendelssohn, Duruflé, Franck, Messiaen, Jongen, Howells and Willan, as well as a surprise composition by jazz musician Keith Jarrett, and Couperin’s arrangement of Larkin The mysterious Barricades.
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