Welcome to the halfway point of the year.
Typically critics and fans announce their favorite albums at the end of each year. It’s a fine tradition, but wouldn’t it be nice to get a head start? By looking at the best classical albums released thus far we can preempt some of our December binge-listening.
The ground rules: No reissues and no re-recordings. If your group recorded a Mahler symphony cycle I’m not recommending it. We reward originality, we patronize living composers. Second, this list ain’t exhaustive. I’m only one listener. I’m open to additions because the list will change over time. Finally, your mileage may vary. If you’re gonna buy something, preview it first lest you get burned. Click on the titles to buy the albums.
Paola Prestini ‘The Hubble Cantata’
The Kennedy Center staged an astounding performance of The Hubble Cantata in May that included solo singers, an instrumental ensemble, the Washington Chorus, narrator Mario Livio (astrophysicist, director of the Hubble project), and a virtual-reality film. Paola Prestini composed the music and Royce Vavrek the libretto. While this recording won’t have quite the same impact — for obvious format reasons — it gets close. Turn off the lights, put on headphones, lie back and blast off.
Ars Nova Copenhagen ‘First Drop’
Ars Nova Copenhagen are a vocal group formed in 1979. These Danes program centuries-old music and cutting-edge new music. Standouts on their latest album, called First Drop, include Michael Gordon’s He Saw a Skull (straight wizardry), Pablo Ortiz’s Five Motets, and a remix of Steve Reich’s Clapping Music by group leader Paul Hillier that’s arguably better than the original.
Does it help your chances to get on this list if your group name’s slightly punny? Hell yes my friend. Bearthoven are a piano-bass-drums trio that at first blush might be mistaken for a jazz group. Truthfully they might be that, but as Bearthoven note in their official bio they don’t put much stock in labels or expectations. Trios includes Brendon Randall-Myers’s dirty, twisting groove called Simple Machine, Fjóla Evans’ thick, ethereal Shoaling, and an opener (Undertoad) and closer (The Ringing World) that flirt with orchestrated, Gil Evans-style writing.
New Vintage Baroque, Oracle Hysterical ‘Passionate Pilgrim’
This is wild. Oracle Hysterical call themselves “half band, half book club.” They’re comprised of composer-performers Doug Balliett, Brad Balliett, Majel Connery, Elliot Cole, and Dylan Greene. Passionate Pilgrim pairs Oracle Hysterical with period orchestra New Vintage Baroque. They take “discredited” verses once thought to be Shakespeare’s and weave them into a 19-song cycle. It goes by fast, the reason being that the idea is fresh. Passionate Pilgrim is beautifully original, if you’re open to it.
Alvin Lucier ‘Two Circles’
All right I know I said no reissues but I’m banking on few people having heard of Alvin Lucier. You might’ve caught Lucier’s music on the current season of Meet the Composer, when Nadia played his beguiling I Am Sitting in a Room. Two Circles includes that work along with others in a similar vein: all feature repeated figures, long, drawn-out notes, absolutely zero haste. Screw all you short attention-span-having millennials (of which I am one).
Jasper String Quartet ‘Unbound’
From Caroline Shaw’s jangly opener Valencia to Ted Hearne’s Law of Mosaics, this program from the Jasper is a treat. Sometimes string quartet writing doesn’t allow the format’s best characteristics — distinct voices, ability of all four players to lead, unity of timbre, wide expressive range — to shine through. Another way of saying it is that inferior composers have as much chance of succeeding in the string quartet format as a Perkins pie-maker on The Great British Bake Off. It don’t end well, bruv. Luckily, Unbound is quality music top to bottom. If you’re not impressed by the one-two punch of Annie Gosfield’s The Blue Horse Walks on the Horizon and Judd Greenstein’s Four on the Floor, then we’re done here.
ACME ‘Thrive on Routine’
The American Contemporary Musical Ensemble is a shape-shifting new music group started in 2004 and led by cellist and artistic director Clarice Jensen. Their performance roll reads like a who’s who of NYC classical luminaries, and their catalog features heavy hitters: an eight-hour recording of Max Richter’s Sleep; Carolina Eyck’s Fantasias for Theremin and String Quartet (a CDA 2016 album pick); and enough New Amsterdam records to build your week around. This year’s Thrive on Routine is an ACME family affair, with pieces by group members Caroline Shaw, Caleb Burhans and Timo Andres. Bonus fun fact: Andres’ “Potatoes” was inspired by the morning routine of Charles Ives, who listened to Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier while working in his potato patch.
Iceland Symphony Orchestra ‘Recurrence’
Iceland is having a moment. What Atlanta is for rappers, New Orleans is for jazz, Silicon Valley is for douchey tech broflakes, and Florida is for uniformly shocking news headlines, Iceland is for contemporary classical music. We’re talking about a country with an equivalent population to Corpus Christi, Texas, built on lava fields and “geologically active” terrain, that endures months of either constant light or enveloping darkness. (Thinking.) Okay, maybe that’s a fertile musical breeding ground. Recurrence by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra features pieces by Anna Thorvaldsdottir, María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir and similarly white-hot Icelandic composers. Don’t hesitate to ride this wave.
The Knights, Yo-Yo Ma, Osvaldo Golijov et al. ‘Azul’
You have to hand it to Yo-Yo Ma — the guy won’t sit still. Ma has racked up more travel miles than a US Secretary of State. The worldwide projects he’s undertaken are more impressive when you consider he doesn’t have anything left to prove. He’s a performer for the ages. So then, how about a new collabo between Ma, the NYC chamber ensemble The Knights, composer Osvaldo Golijov, and um, Sufjan Stevens? Yes please. Like Postmates when you’re too lazy or too lit up to drive, this one delivers.
Brian Eno ‘Reflection’
This is an electronic album from Mr. Eno that has me scratching my head over the distinction between classical composition and whatever this is. Do the musical implements of execution matter? Is Eno a composer, or “just” a music programmer? Weirdly, Reflection has been a staple of airline in-flight entertainment, so I’ve listened to it in the air (back to back) as often as on terra firma. It’s good both ways. Reflection is an accomplishment, and a strong contender for our year-end list.