Nobody listens to classical music. As I sat down to reflect on what I listened to this year, that thought gnawed at me. Despite its wide availability on streaming platforms like Spotify and the marketing that goes into high-profile releases (e.g., Deutsch Grammophon, one of the leading classical music record labels, now make trailers for most of its upcoming albums), classical music cannot seem to shake off its reputation as stuffy and high-brow. You don’t see classical musicians jiving with talk show hosts on TV. You don’t see red carpets at this year’s Gramophone Awards (the real Grammy for classical music). You don’t hear people casually professing their love for Chopin or Shostakovich in conversations. You apparently can’t “get girls” if you listen to classical music. It seems that classical music is, to most people, irrelevant and outdated.
Yet I happen to believe the opposite: that in these tumultuous times, classical music is not only relevant, but more timely than ever. After all, classical music as we define it has seen everything—the rise and fall of empires, the light and darkness of history, the blossoming of ideas, the winds of change, the birth of a nation, the death of an era, the blood and sweat and tears and everything in between and beyond. Whatever you feel, you can find it distilled in some form in classical music. But listening to classical music gives you so much more than recognizing your own experiences in artistry—it cultivates, elevates, and transforms, not necessarily for better or worse, but for you to carry within.
One verbalized example of that inner process has been haunting me of late. In his essay Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, Lewis Thomas, author of The Lives of a Cell and classical music enthusiast, wrote of the prospect of nuclear annihilation (1983) and how it changed what Mahler’s Ninth Symphony evoked for him:
There is a short passage near the very end of the Mahler in which the almost vanishing violins, all engaged in a sustained backward glance, are edged aside for a few bars by the cellos. Those lower notes pick up fragments from the first movement, as though prepared to begin everything all over again, and then the cellos subside and disappear, like an exhalation. I used to hear this as a wonderful few seconds of encouragement: we’ll be back, we’re still here, keep going, keep going.
Now…I cannot hear the same Mahler. Now, those cellos sound in my mind like the opening of all the hatches and the instant before ignition.
The symphony did not change; everything else did. As Thomas witnessed, government officials on TV talked about civilian defense in case of a nuclear attack, of mutually assured destruction, of radioactive fallout, of minimizing prospective death toll to “only forty million people instead of eighty.” “How can they keep their sanity?” Overwhelmed by a sense of impending doom, Thomas wondered about the young people. “How do the young stand it?” He reflected on his own youth, when things made sense the way Brahms’ symphonies did (for their structure) and Beethoven’s late quartets presumably would (for their sublimation). He reflected on how he had evolved since then, and how it had been mirrored by his relationship with music over time, particularly Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in that moment. What haunted me was his realization that listening to Mahler’s Ninth—and indeed, classical music broadly—was not only about understanding what was going on in the outside world, but also about understanding what was going on within himself.
Listening to classical music in this day and age, therefore, is simultaneously sense-making and self-knowing. These ends are not tchotchkes of a fancy habit; they lie at the heart of a journey inward and outward in equal measures.
On that personal journey this year, the following ten recordings were my dearest guides.
10. Shostakovich: 24 Preludes Op. 34 & Piano Quintet Op. 57
Michail Lifits (piano)
Work by: Dmitri Shostakovich
Performed by: Lifits, Szymanowski Quartet
Released on Decca, April 21, 2017
An excellent reading of Shostakovich’s 24 preludes. My go-to recording for this work has been Olli Mustonen’s precocious, awarding-winning disc, which came out when Mustonen was 24. Almost three decades later, Lifits recorded this work at the same age and continued the worldly sophistication that made Mustonen’s interpretation such a crowd-pleaser—but on his own terms. Prelude No. 10 (linked above) is a standout: Lifits sounds gentle, charming, and his trills almost Chopinesque. Beyond that, Lifits gave each prelude its own character, creating a smorgasbord of moods and colorings. The piano quintet is an additional delight.
9. New Era
Andreas Ottensamer (clarinet)
Work by: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Johann Stamitz, Carl Stamitz, Franz Danzi
Performed by: Ottensamer, Kammerakademie Potsdam (orchestra), Emmanuel Pahud (flute), Albrecht Mayer (oboe)
Released on Decca, February 3, 2017
I have mixed feelings about Andreas Ottensamer. On one hand, he sits at the pinnacle of privilege: born into the famed Ottensamer family (his father Ernst and older brother Daniel were both principal clarinetists at Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; his grandfather was formerly mayor of Wallern), educated at Harvard, and…let’s just say he is the Armie Hammer of clarinetists. On the other hand, he made good use of the resources afforded to him: Ottensamer was the first clarinetist ever to sign an exclusive recording deal with Deutsche Grammophon, which he later left for Decca, and he is currently principle clarinetist at Berlin Philharmonic, arguably one of the best orchestras today. More than in his previous recordings, Ottensamer plays confidently and masterfully in New Era, infusing plenty of energy and finesse. The Stamitz concertos are predictable but fun (especially the final movement of Clarinet Concerto No. 7, linked above), the Mozart effortlessly enjoyable—there is little to fault. Sometimes, you just need something conventional, sunny, and velvety smooth for yours ears; Andreas Ottensamer is your guy.
8. For Seasons
Daniel Hope (violin)
Work by: Antonio Vivaldi, Nils Frahm, Jean-Philippe Rameau, Max Richter, Aphex Twin, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Robert Schumann, Chilly Gonzales, Kurt Weill, Johann Melchior Molter, Johann Sebastian Bach, Johannes Brahms
Performed by: Hope (violin), Zürcher Kammerorchester (orchestra)
Released on Deutsche Grammophon, March 3, 2017
Ah, Daniel Hope and his Vivaldis. This is Hope’s third recording centered around Vivaldi in 10 years (I am counting Max Richter’s recomposed version, which is my most played classical music recording this year), and surprisingly his first recording of Four Seasons. This is what a big-budget “concept album” look like in the classical music world (Hope explains that in addition to the seasons, each month is represented by old and new works recorded for the album). Whereas I am not sure it works that well—the whole album feels bloated and barely coherent despite of its theme (just look at that list of composers!)—but when Hope hits, there is no stopping him. That demonic trill at the beginning of the first movement of Winter (linked above)! That transcendent buoyancy in Richter’s recomposed “Spring 1”! Hope also scores brownie points for supporting contemporary composers and bringing attention to obscure old works (e.g., Molter’s concerto pastorale). This may not be Hope at his best, but this surely is lovely.
7. Elgar & Tchaikovsky: Cello Works
Johannes Moser (cello)
Works by: Edward Elgar, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Performed by: Moser, L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (Orchestra), Andrew Manze (conductor)
Released on Pentatone, February 3, 2017
This is one of the darkest, most gripping accounts of the legendary Elgar cello concerto I have come across in recent memory. Moser plays on a 1694 Guarneri cello, whose incredibly rich tone is used to electrifying effect, particularly in the opening passages (first movement linked above) and the coda. Compared to his contemporaries’ Elgar, Moser seems to sink his teeth further into the dramatics (vs. the pensive Sol Gabetta’s account, or the vibrant Alisa Weilerstein’s), coming close on that front to Jacqueline du Pre’s landmark recording. Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations are also excellently played here: Fifteen years after winning the Tchaikovsky Competition with a Special Prize for those very variations, Moser has committed an exquisite addition to the catalog. A knockout.
6. Schubert: Die Schöne Müllerin, D. 795
Christian Gerhaher (baritone), Gerold Huber (piano)
Work by: Franz Schubert
Performed by: Gerhaher, Huber
Released on Sony Classical, October 6, 2017
The universal acclaim of this recording came in an avalanche. It is on multiple year-end “best-of” classical music lists, including those from The New York Times and Forbes (which calls it “the embarrassingly easy first choice” of the year). Gerhaher, “the most moving singer in the world,” sings with perfect sincerity and maturity (e.g., “Die liebe Farbe,” linked above), leaving no stones unturned in exploring the brutal drama of the song cycle that often goes amiss in other renditions. Huber, in turn, is with him every step of the way. I have always considered Winterreise the richer of the two major song cycles by Schubert; this recording of Die Schöne Müllerin seriously challenged that notion. At its heart, Die Schöne Müllerin is a tragedy of love unrequited, its emotional force piercing with crushed dreams; Gerhaher and Huber made sure you feel the pain. Well then, consider me a masochist.
5. Four Cities
Fazıl Say (piano, composer), Nicholas Altstaedt (cello)
Works by: Fazıl Say, Claude Debussy, Leoš Janáček, Dmitri Shostakovich
Performed by: Say, Altstaedt
Released on Warner Classics, February 24, 2017
The highlight of this disc is Say’s charging bull of a sonata, originally commissioned by BBC and premiered in 2012. Its ferocious drive is most palpable in the incessantly pulsating third movement, Ankara (linked above), which reminds me a lot of a similar soundscape achieved in Krzysztof Penderecki’s Symphony No. 3—specifically, the ominous passacaglia – allegro moderato movement (included in the soundtrack of the thriller film Shutter Island). So many things are working here: Altstaedt’s nuanced shadings in Janáček, Say’s fingerwork in Shostakovich, their high-octane energy in the Say sonata…altogether, awe-inspiring.
Jonas Kaufmann (tenor)
Work by: Charles Gounod, Jules Massenet, Ambroise Thomas, Georges Bizet, Édouard Lalo, Jacques Offenbach, Giacomo Meyerbeer, Jacques Fromental Halévy, Hector Berlioz
Performed by: Kaufmann, Bayerisches Staatsorchester (orchestra), Bertrand de Billy (conductor)
Released on Sony Classical, September 15, 2017
Jonas Kaufmann is at the top of his game, which—if calls of “the greatest tenor alive” are any indication—also happens to be the entire world. Kaufmann has long impressed in dark, muscular repertoire (e.g., Wagner, Verdi); with this tribute to French opera, he garners much success in these lighter, brighter (but by no means less dramatic) roles too. I find myself returning to L’amour… Ah! Lève-toi, soleil! (linked above), the impassioned aria in Act II of Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette. When Kaufmann’s Romeo calls for the sun to rise in the famous balcony scene (“Ah! lève-toi, soleil! Fait pâlir les étoiles”), how can anyone not pain for him? His voice, burnished and burning, softens and warms even the most hard-bitten listeners. Merveilleux.
3. Messiaen: Quatuor pour la fin du temps
Martin Fröst (clarinet), Lucas Debargue (piano), Janine Jansen (violin), Torleif Thedéen (cello)
Work by: Olivier Messiaen
Performed by: Fröst, Debargue, Jansen, Thedéen
Released on Warner Classics, November 3, 2017
“Quartet for the End of Time” was composed by Olivier Messiaen in 1940 while he was locked away in a prison-of-war camp. Listening to it in 2017 brings a particular kind of pathos, one that the current sociopolitical turmoil puts into relief and one that makes this work all the more relevant today. In his Pulitzer-nominated The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, music critic Alex Ross called the quartet “the most ethereally beautiful music of the twentieth century.” That ethereal beauty glistens on this disc: Jansen’s unbroken melodic line on the violin (particularly notable in the final movement linked above), Debargue’s soft touch on the piano, Fröst’s mellow tone on the clarinet, and Thedéen’s sustained drive on the cello all crystallize into unity. Simply breathtaking.
2. Beethoven Violin Concerto
James Ehnes (violin)
Works by: Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert
Performed by: Ehnes, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (Orchestra), Andrew Manze (conductor)
Released on PM Classics/Onyx, September 29, 2017
I used to think that Beethoven’s violin concerto is overrated. Like, way overrated. Beethoven wrote only one violin concerto, which has since been beaten to death by practically every violinist who can play it (regardless of whether they should). My attitude had softened of late, largely following Patricia Kopatchinskaja’s wildly out-of-the-box interpretation (as she does to most things she sets her bow to). But it is James Ehnes who set me straight: I came to, dare I say, love Beethoven’s violin concerto.
How did this happen? Unlike Kopatchinskaja, Ehnes plays by the rules: One of the purest living interpreters of the romantic violin repertoire, he has prioritized integrity over invention throughout his entire career. With each recording, he quietly underscores that musical artistry is, at its core, music done well. That message is conveyed with conviction here: In the opening allegro ma non troppo movement (linked above), it is clear that he has thought through and consequently accounted for every note. His playing is sweet and songlike, but beyond the lovely texture it also patiently and precisely builds up structural tension, whose eventual release toward the Kreisler cadenza feels exhilarating. Perfectly coupled with Andrew Manze at the helm, Ehnes carries the entire concerto (and indeed the rest of the disc as well) with lyrical virtuosity and stately grace. Everything fits just right.
Simply put: James Ehnes is royalty on strings. Take a seat, people—this is how it’s done.
1. Mendelssohn: Symphonies 1–5 (Live)
Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor)
Works by: Felix Mendelssohn
Performed by: Chamber Orchestra of Europe (Orchestra), RIAS Kammerchor (Choir), Nézet-Séguin
Released on Deutsche Grammophon, June 16, 2017
No other rendition of Mendelssohn’s 5th Symphony has brought me to tears. Multiple times. This is a brilliant package from Nézet-Séguin, who meteoric rise as a young conductor has been nothing short of staggering: He currently conducts three major orchestras (Orchestre Métropolitain, Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, and the venerable Philadelphia Orchestra, which has booked him until 2026); in addition, he is set to take over the Met Opera in New York in 2020. And somehow he still finds time to record. Everything comes together gorgeously in this disc: Under his baton, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe sounds fluid, vital, and free of the grandiloquence that tends to bruise many existing performances of some passages in this cycle. Just listen to the finale of the fourth movement in the 5th Symphony (linked above; or listen to, you know, the whole thing)—jubilance abounds. For further evidence, look at Nézet-Séguin’s face when the music reaches its climax:
In The Cambridge Companion to Mendelssohn, conductor Leon Botstein reminds us that Mendelssohn’s orchestral and choral works need to be performed “…in a manner that confronts the old clichés, defeats the Wagnerian orthodoxy, represents the composer’s ambitions and aesthetic justly, and reveals the dramatic, spiritual, and emotional power of the music” (p. 260). Check, check, check, and check, I say.
This is my favorite classical music recording in 2017, and one of the best out there. Bravo.