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Classical 101

5 Wonderful Recordings From 2021

violin in water
Josep Molina Secall
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Should I call these the “best of”? (How would I know? I haven’t listened to every classical recording issued in 2021.)

Should I call these my favorites? Maybe. It all depends on my mood, on what I need music for at any given time. I can tell you that these are the recordings issued in 2021 that give me a lot of pleasure.

Beyond the Music: Marian Anderson, Her Complete RCA recordings

Sony now licenses most of the RCA Classical catalog. Thus, an RCA release now carries the Sony label. And what a release! A fifteen CD set in a lavish book containing Marian Anderson’s recordings from 1924 to 1966.

Contralto Marian Anderson (1897-1993) was the first African American to make an international career in classical music, although there certainly had been fine artists of color from Sisaretta Jones to Roland Hayes. Anderson was a beautiful woman with a rich contralto voice and an imposing presence that transcended prejudice.

Almost.

Anderson was denied the opera stage until the very end of her career. There were hotels where she could not stay and halls that would not accept her. She sang on for forty-five years, long past her wonderful prime. By the end of her life, she was honored everywhere. She never really retired. This writer heard the lady narrate Copland’s Lincoln portrait in the 1970s. To the end of her long life, she was given accolades and awards and warmly applauded whenever she attended public events.

The voice? The early recordings sound tentative. By the early 1930s, the artistry had matured, and the voice had come into its own. Recordings made over twenty years after that are filled with vocal beauty. The Spirituals recorded over two generations will have you weeping or crying for joy. I especially treasure her three recordings of Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody, songs by Sibelius (who admired Anderson), Schumann’s Frauenliebe und leben, Handel and Bach…oh, just buy the thing. The book with all fifteen discs is a terrific package that weighs about 10 pounds. I’d love it and carry it around, even if it weighed five times as much.

Ives: Four Symphonies, Los Angeles Philharmonic/Gustavo Dudamel

Charles Ives was a wealthy business executive who didn’t need to earn his living in music. He wrote what he wanted, he liked what he liked… and if you didn’t like it, too bad about you. His orchestrations can be thick and busy. He’ll wander through several different tonalities in a matter of minutes and bring you back, somewhere else.

These four symphonies were written between 1898 and 1916. If you think you’ll be hearing faux-Brahms Victoriana, think again. These are bracing and original works--compact, astringent, and beautiful.

You’ll hear these once, dislike them, and know you’ll need to hear them again. Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic play these symphonies as if no one ever told them they were difficult. These are the most impressive--and downright enjoyable--performances of Ives’s music since Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic in the 1960s.

Juan de Lienas: Vespers - Music from the Convento de la Encarnacion Mexico City, The Newberry Consort/Ellen Hargis

I had never heard of Juan de Lienas. This lovely recording makes us want to know him better. Alas, he remains elusive in terms of further work and even dates.

The music on this recording comes from part books used at the Convent of the Incarnation in Mexico City in the mid-17th century. I hope the choir of nuns in Mexico City four hundred years ago sang as beautifully as the ten women of the Newberry Consort do in 2021. Included are psalms, antiphons and music by one Friar Jacinto, and Francisco Correa de Araxuo.

If a bad day has you wanting to lock your spouse out of the house and sell your kids to the circus, this recording is for you. We don’t know much about Juan de Lienas, and the nuns of 17th century Mexico remain a mystery. But if they sang this music, they lived and prayed in beauty. Sometimes beauty is enough.

Bach: Goldberg Variations, Mahan Esfahani, harpsichord

Earlier this year I was on a real Goldberg variation kick. I reached out to Arved Ashby, Processor of Music at OSU and all-around good egg. Arved, what performances of the Goldbergs do I need to hear? I have both Glenn Goulds, I have Landowska, I have Jory Vinikour and Igor Levit.

“You need to hear Mahan on the harpsichord,” said the good Professor.

Mahan Esfahani was born in Tehran in 1984. He studied at Stanford and in Boston. I love hearing the Goldbergs on the harpsichord. The piano can give a warmer, richer tone--there may be more love in the sound. Esfahani’s harpsichord teases and dances through the variations. Sound gradations may be difficult in the instrument. Still, Mahan Esfahani offers a lot of variety in touch, and I have never heard the wit in this music. This recording is a delight.

Schubert: Winterreise, Joyce DiDonato, mezzo-soprano, Yannick Nezet-Seguin, piano

I can think of three mezzo-sopranos in recent years who completely captured my imagination. I never tire of hearing them: Christa Ludwig, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, and Joyce DiDonato. Christa Ludwig made a wonderful recording of Schubert’s dark Winter Journey with James Levine at the piano. I don’t know if Lieberson sang Winterreise. Her early death may have robbed us.

Joyce DiDonato’s recording of Schubert’s final work comes from a performance in Carnegie Hall two years ago, accompanied by Yannick Nezet-Seguin. He is of course music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera. No one is busier or more gregarious musically. Here, he is an equal partner at the keyboard to DiDonato’s beautiful singing. Her voice has the color almost of a clarinet.

Winterreise is usually sung by a man. Hans Hotter’s recording with Gerald Moore made sixty years ago is still unbeatable. DiDonato can’t quite encompass the despair. She easily presents the humanity of Wilhelm Mueller’s words and Schubert’s music.

It is winter as I type these words. The last two years have been difficult for everyone. Many people have known despair. Joyce DiDonato, Yannick Nezet-Segun and Schubert allow us to look despair in the face, to know darkness--and to know that music of such beauty must mean better times are coming.