NPR Classical's 10 Favorite Albums Of 2013
The year may have suffered a couple of black eyes in the form of shuttered opera companies and orchestras in labor disputes, but as far as recordings go, don't let anyone tell you classical music is dying — the music and musicians are thriving.
2013 revealed a rich trove of talent. There were promising debuts from young composers like Caleb Burhans, fascinating cross-pollinations between indie rock and classical musicians in David Lang's Schubert-inspired song cycle and extraordinary vocal delights from the superb singer Christian Gerhaher and the resplendent Latvian Radio Choir.
This list of classical albums we loved in 2013, while diverse, represents only a small sampling of the dozens of compelling releases we were forced to shave off to get down to a Top 10. If you're favorites aren't here, tell us all about them: on Facebook, on Twitter (@nprclassical) or in the comments section here.
Isabelle Faust: Bartók, Violin Concertos Nos. 1 & 2
In 1997, German violinist Isabelle Faust released fearless performances of Béla Bartók's violin sonatas. Now she has returned to take on the Hungarian composer's concertos with similar results — spirited, strikingly poetic, with great attention to detail. Faust spent considerable time researching the original scores of these two very different concertos. Written 30 years apart, they display an impetuous young composer in love with a violinist and a mature master of his craft. With subtlety and esprit, Faust uncovers sweet passion and Bartók's trademark acidity in the earlier work, and the broad, romantic sweep of the later work. The soaring folk melody, backed by strumming strings and harp, that kicks off the second concerto is at once delicious and magical. Daniel Harding conducts an energetic, nuanced performance with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. — TH
Maria Schneider & Dawn Upshaw: Schneider, Winter Morning Walks
Maria Schneider is already widely hailed as a composer for big bands. But for this collaboration with the silvery-voiced classical singer Dawn Upshaw, she takes her talents to a new and welcome realm: two song cycles for soprano and orchestra that limn both classical music and jazz. In the title song cycle, performed with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Schneider and Upshaw — who's as much an actress as she is a singer — lead us along paths taken by poet Ted Kooser, who wrote an affecting set of poems while recuperating from cancer. (Schneider and Upshaw are also cancer survivors.) In the second cycle, Carlos Drummond de Andrade Stories, Upshaw sings texts from the Brazilian poet, this time with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. For this outing, Schneider borrows brightly colored Brazilian musical elements, from an opening, wordless vocalise that echoes Heitor Villa-Lobos to the sly and sensuous Quadrille at its close: "John loved Teresa who loved Raymond who loved Mary who loved Jack who loved Lily who didn't love anybody." — AT
Various Artists: David Lang, 'Death Speaks'
Composer David Lang put together the extended meditation on mortality called Death Speaks with some very distinctive musicians in mind: vocalist Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond), violinist Owen Pallett, pianist (and fellow composer) Nico Muhly and The National guitarist Bryce Dessner. The result is a haunting and momentous title work — by turns exquisitely delicate and ruthlessly unforgiving, both in texture and in emotional punch, and enlivened by the unusual textures Lang creates with this quartet of performers. The album pairing is the brilliant and luminous Depart, multi-tracked by cellist Maya Beiser, which offers welcome relief. — AT
Latvian Radio Choir: Rachmaninov, 'All-Night Vigil'
Latvians love to sing. They routinely gather by the tens of thousands for song festivals. No surprise then, that the small country has produced one of the world's finest vocal ensembles, the Latvian Radio Choir. Founded in 1940 and led today by Sigvards Kļava, the choir sports a surprisingly large (for just two dozen singers) and lustrous tone, a highly polished vocal blend and breathtaking precision. It's all on display in Rachmaninov's All-Night Vigil, an hour-long, a cappella set of Russian Orthodox church music that is at once joyous and meditative, rapturous and wistful. The Latvians soar, shine and spin diaphanous fabrics of sound, as lovely as rays of light through stained glass, all the while instilling the words with genuine emotion. Listen to this gorgeous recording with the volume raised considerably. — TH
Christian Gerhaher: Mahler, Orchestral Songs
Christian Gerhaher might not be a big name in the U.S., but his reputation in Europe is considerable, especially as one of today's top singers of German art songs. His voice — a plush, but not huge, instrument with honeyed tones and effortless production — is like a smooth pinot noir. Then there's what the German baritone does with it. In "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" (I am lost to the world), Mahler's majestic, soul-crushing ode to alienation, he is a master of subtle expression — first disoriented, then smug and finally dark and troubled. At the end, as he drains the color from his voice, there's nothing left to live for. Conductor Kent Nagano and the Montreal Symphony are equally detailed. Listen for the eerie string slide, near the close, carrying us into the next world. — TH
Caleb Burhans: 'Evensong'
It's tempting to label Caleb Burhans as a sensualist, but that would underestimate the 33-year-old composer's considerable range. While the music on Evensong indulges in rich textures — from rapturously blended choirs to sweet-layered cellos — the straight-ahead spirit of rock, pop and improvised music is never far off. Burhans, a musical polyglot, plays in a variety of new music ensembles and electronic outfits, plus he's got 20 years behind him as a chorister. He knows how to build drama in pieces like oh ye of little faith ... (do you know where your children are?), and pull off century-arching choral pieces like Super Flumina Babylonis and Nunc Dimittis, that could be welcomed in many Episcopal church services. That Evensong is his debut album makes Burhans all the more impressive. — Tom Huizenga
Reza Vali, 'Toward That Endless Plain'
East and West collide in this fascinating album of music composed by the "Iranian Bartók." As Bartók did, Reza Vali collects folk melodies from his native land and blends them into his music. The two sets of Persian Folk Songs here are both "authentic and imaginary," Vali says. Scored for soprano and chamber orchestra, the songs traverse wide emotional territory, from love and lament to children's amusements — some wild, others soft as a lullaby. The album's title piece is a concerto for Persian ney (bamboo flute) and orchestra, pitting two worlds against each other — Vali's Persian roots and his Western classical training. The middle movement dances with folksy tunes for ney and frame drum, interrupted by outbursts of Western strings and brass. Vali's music vibrates with Stravinskyian rigor and deft orchestration. — TH
Various Artists: John Luther Adams, 'Inuksuit'
An extended exploration of the intersection of sound and the world around us? Maybe that sounds a little New Age-y to you. Well, prepare to be shocked — and enthralled — by composer John Luther Adams' Inuksuit ("...to act in the capacity of the human"), a piece written to be performed outdoors by nine to 99 percussionists. Recorded by a group of 30-odd musicians helmed by percussionist Doug Perkins in the woods of Vermont, this version of Inuksuit opens with several minutes of bird song, a world that is very, very, oh so slowly — nearly imperceptibly at first — set sideways by what morphs into a dense, towering, crashing monster of sound that, in its own time, gives way again to an exuberant, twittering mass of brightly piping piccolos, triangles and glockenspiels. I'd understand if you were inclined to think that Inuksuit would be more enjoyable in concept than in actual execution, but the results are both riveting and exhilarating. — AT
Minnesota Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä: Sibelius, Symphonies 1 & 4
It's entirely possible that the Minnesota Orchestra was the most talked-about American orchestra in 2013 — despite the fact (or, regrettably enough, probably because) the musicians did not play a single concert in their home hall, due to a lockout that began in October 2012. This entry was meant to be just the latest installment in what was to be a complete Sibelius cycle with Minnesota and their widely beloved, now former artistic director, Osmo Vänskä. However, it will probably be their swan song.
Even leaving aside the unfortunate timeliness of this release, the Minnesotans' traversal of Sibelius' First and Fourth Symphonies would still be a treasure. Vänskä is a Sibelius expert (he's already made a complete cycle of his fellow Finn's symphonies with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra), but the band from Minneapolis proves not only that they are up to par — they set the bar. These are recordings brimming with vigor and grace. — AT
Leonidas Kavakos: Beethoven, Violin Sonatas
A violinist's violinist, the Greek artist Leonidas Kavakos eschewed his competition prodigy past a long time ago. In the interim, he's focused on making beautiful music, gorgeously played (and, occasionally, conducted as well). Here he proves that his single-minded devotion to interpretation has paid off in spades. His three-disc set of the complete Beethoven violin sonatas is astonishing. With the elegant pianist Enrico Pace, Kavakos creates lines that are taut and muscular, while his tone positively glows. — AT