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The Best Music Of 2014

Best Classical Albums Of 2014

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Become Ocean by John Luther Adams is one of NPR Classical's favorite albums of 2014. Cantaloupe hide caption

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Most years, Tom Huizenga and I spend a lot of time after Thanksgiving and well into December battling over — or, more truthfully, having many friendly but spirited discussions about — which recordings should comprise our 10 favorites of the year. We each come up with a list of 10, and then we start hammering things out in some amount of exquisite music-nerd agony. Some albums we agree upon, some are our individual picks. We revisit our final 10 selections over and over again, revising and refining until we are both satisfied with a harmonious whole.

The pace in 2014 was vastly different. This year's highlights were so above and beyond that without any discussion, we each picked seven of the same releases. Though I'm not going to divulge which ones they were, there was such a bounty of phenomenal albums released this year that the selection process was a joy.

From John Dowland's elegant, elegiac and intimate pavanes, written at the dawn of the 17th century, to John (Coolidge) Adams' Saxophone Concerto and John Luther Adams' Become Ocean, both premiered just last year, the scope of what we loved reaches far and wide. — Anastasia Tsioulcas

Best Classical Albums Of 2014

Cover for Become Ocean

01Become Ocean

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    Song
    Become Ocean
    Album
    Become Ocean
    Artist
    John Luther Adams
    Label
    Cantaloupe
    Released
    2014

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John Luther Adams: 'Become Ocean'

  • Song: Become Ocean
  • from Become Ocean
  • by John Luther Adams

This is the piece of classical music of 2014 that has crossed over to a mainstream audience, and rightly so. Put it on speakers and people will stop what they're doing to say, "What is this? I love it!" Written as a meditation on rising — and ultimately all-consuming — tides, Adams has created a work that is both an orchestral showpiece (written, actually, for three juxtaposed mini-orchestras) and a completely haunting inner journey. The Seattle Symphony should be hugely proud of having commissioned Become Ocean and their stellar performance under conductor Ludovic Morlot. — Anastasia Tsioulcas

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Song
Become Ocean
Album
Become Ocean
Artist
John Luther Adams
Label
Cantaloupe
Released
2014

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C.P.E. Bach: Magnificat
C.P.E. Bach: Magnificat

01Magnificat — 1. Chor. Magnificat

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    Song
    Magnificat — 1. Chor. Magnificat
    Album
    Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: Magnificat; Motet "Heilig ist Gott"
    Artist
    Hans-Christoph Rademann
    Label
    Harmonia Mundi
    Released
    2014

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C.P.E. Bach: Magnificat; Heilig; Symphony in D

  • Song: Magnificat — 1. Chor. Magnificat
  • from Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: Magnificat; Motet "Heilig ist Gott"
  • by Hans-Christoph Rademann

A most welcome addition to the year's tricentennial celebrations of C.P.E. Bach's birth, this album recreates a charity concert Bach himself conducted in Hamburg in 1786. It displays the composer's deliciously radical ideas for music, including plugging in raw emotions, pivoting suddenly from one mood to another and swerving from a wail to a whisper. The Magnificat bolts out of the gate with explosive energy while Heilig for double choir pits voices angelic and earthbound against each other. The Symphony in D twitches with odd harmonies and jolting rhythms. Performances by the RIAS Kammerchoir and Akademie für Alte Musik are precise and passionate. — Tom Huizenga

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Song
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: Magnificat; Motet "Heilig ist Gott"
Album
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: Magnificat; Motet "Heilig ist Gott"
Artist
Hans-Christoph Rademann
Label
Harmonia Mundi
Released
2014

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Cover for Stella di Napoli

02Adelson e Salvini, opera [Act 1. Scene 5. Dopo l'oscuro nembo]

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    Song
    Adelson e Salvini, opera [Act 1. Scene 5. Dopo l'oscuro nembo]
    Album
    Stella di Napoli
    Artist
    Joyce DiDonato
    Label
    Erato
    Released
    2014

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Joyce DiDonato: 'Stella Di Napoli'

  • Song: Adelson e Salvini, opera [Act 1. Scene 5. Dopo l'oscuro nembo]
  • from Stella di Napoli
  • by Joyce DiDonato

Operatically speaking, 2014 might as well be subtitled "The Year of Joyce DiDonato." There she was singing the National Anthem at the final game of the World Series, in front of her beloved Royals; inaugurating the first video broadcast from Carnegie Hall from Medici TV; and headlining the Perspective series, also at Carnegie. But the feather in DiDonato's 2014 cap just might be this remarkable album of 19th-century arias from Naples. It's a feast of bel canto thrills, from the finale of Rossini's opera Zelmira to shapely traversals of two gorgeous Bellini arias, along with a sampler platter of names nearly forgotten: Pacini, Carafa, Mercadante and Valenti. — Anastasia Tsioulcas

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Song
Stella di Napoli
Album
Stella di Napoli
Artist
Joyce DiDonato
Label
Erato
Released
2014

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Cover for All The Things You Are

03The Man I Love (arranged for the left hand by Earl Wild)

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    Song
    The Man I Love (arranged for the left hand by Earl Wild)
    Album
    All The Things You Are
    Artist
    Leon Fleisher
    Released
    1969

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Leon Fleisher: 'All The Things You Are'

  • Song: The Man I Love (arranged for the left hand by Earl Wild)
  • from All The Things You Are
  • by Leon Fleisher

When Leon Fleisher lost the use of his right hand in his 30s, the piano superstar could hardly have imagined he'd be enjoying such happy success some five decades later. Recorded earlier this year when Fleisher was 85, this album includes in a broad range of new and old music, mainly composed for left hand alone. Leading off with a penetrating account of J.S. Bach's Chaconne (arranged by Brahms), Fleisher moves deftly from the austere modernism of George Perle's Musical Offerings (written for Fleisher), to the introspective silence of Federico Mompou's Prelude No. 6, to Earl Wild's deceptively virtuosic transcription of Gershwin's "The Man I Love." All the while you'd swear he's using at least 10 fingers. — Tom Huizenga

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Song
All The Things You Are
Album
All The Things You Are
Artist
Leon Fleisher

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Cover for City Noir
Courtesy of Nonesuch

01City Noir (excerpt)

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    Song
    City Noir (excerpt)
    Album
    City Noir
    Artist
    St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, David Roberston
    Released
    1969

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John Adams: 'City Noir'; Saxophone Concerto

  • Song: City Noir (excerpt)
  • from City Noir
  • by St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, David Roberston

Before all the controversy about the Met Opera performances of The Death of Klinghoffer, this John (Coolidge) Adams album highlighted a very different facet of his work. It pairs the orchestral City Noir (a cinematic, jazzy and cool homage to 1940s and '50s Los Angeles) and the fresh and exciting Saxophone Concerto featuring the outstanding Timothy McAllister. The performances by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, led by David Robertson, are invigorating and top-notch. — Anastasia Tsioulcas

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Song
City Noir
Album
City Noir
Artist
St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, David Roberston

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Cover for Glagolitic Mass / The Eternal Gospel

03Glagolitic Mass - 'Slava'

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    Song
    Glagolitic Mass - 'Slava'
    Album
    Glagolitic Mass / The Eternal Gospel
    Artist
    Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra/Prague Philharmonic Choir
    Label
    Supraphon
    Released
    1969

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Janáček: Glagolitic Mass

  • Song: Glagolitic Mass - 'Slava'
  • from Glagolitic Mass / The Eternal Gospel
  • by Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra/Prague Philharmonic Choir

This isn't your regulation Mass. Janáček's idiosyncratic 1927 work is life-affirming, explosive, even irreverent, especially for a 73-year-old composer. Writer Milan Kundera called it "more of an orgy than a Mass." With its cascades of brass fanfares, concussive repetitions, pounding timpani, high-flying strings and choristers straining as if their lives depended on it, you'd be hard pressed to disagree. As is typical for Janáček, there are also passages of exquisite tenderness. This spirited performance from Prague musicians under conductor Tomáš Netopil relies on an early version of the score, before the composer polished a few rough edges. — Tom Huizenga

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Song
Glagolitic Mass / The Eternal Gospel
Album
Glagolitic Mass / The Eternal Gospel
Artist
Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra/Prague Philharmonic Choir
Label
Supraphon

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Cover for Sibelius, Adès: Violin Concertos

01Adès: Violin Concerto 'Concentric Paths': 1. Rings

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    Song
    Adès: Violin Concerto 'Concentric Paths': 1. Rings
    Album
    Sibelius, Adès: Violin Concertos
    Artist
    Augustin Hadelich
    Label
    Avie
    Released
    2014

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Augustin Hadelich: Adès/Sibelius: Violin Concertos

  • Song: Adès: Violin Concerto 'Concentric Paths': 1. Rings
  • from Sibelius, Adès: Violin Concertos
  • by Augustin Hadelich

Augustin Hadelich is a laser-sharp violinist who is fast becoming a favorite soloist for orchestras around the world, and this disc of concertos — one familiar, one new — demonstrates why. He brings a deep urgency to the outer movements of Sibelius: forward propulsion where other violinists are all too often content to luxuriate in the landscape and their own technical splendor. His performance in the furiously brilliant concerto by British composer Thomas Adès is equally splendid. (We'll understand if you need a few minutes to recuperate after the emotionally intense second movement.) It's a fantastic partnership with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Hannu Lintu, who introduced Hadelich to the Adès concerto. — Anastasia Tsioulcas

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Song
Sibelius, Adès: Violin Concertos
Album
Sibelius, Adès: Violin Concertos
Artist
Augustin Hadelich
Label
Avie
Released
2014

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Cover for Wood Works

06Sonderho Bridal Trilogy - Part II

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    Song
    Sonderho Bridal Trilogy - Part II
    Album
    Wood Works
    Artist
    Danish String Quartet
    Label
    Dacapo
    Released
    2014

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Danish String Quartet: 'Wood Works'

  • Song: Sonderho Bridal Trilogy - Part II
  • from Wood Works
  • by Danish String Quartet

It was a good year for Danish music, with excellent recordings of symphonies by Carl Nielsen, Per Nørgård and Poul Ruders, plus two lovely albums of Rued Langgaard's string quartets. But the most striking of all is Wood Works, a musical journey through Nordic folk music guided by the extraordinarily gifted Danish String Quartet. "Sønderho Bridal Triology — Part II," with its colorful grooves, turns out to be a 400-year-old wedding song from the Danish island of Fanø. There are stops in other Nordic hamlets for local versions of polkas and jigs, all played with such unmannered charm that you might wish the group would give up its usual diet of Haydn and Brahms. — Tom Huizenga

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Song
Wood Works
Album
Wood Works
Artist
Danish String Quartet
Label
Dacapo
Released
2014

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John Holloway plays Dowland.

01John Dowland: 'Lachrimae Antiquae'

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    Song
    John Dowland: 'Lachrimae Antiquae'
    Album
    Pavans And Fantasies From The Age Of Dowland
    Artist
    John Holloway
    Label
    ECM New Series
    Released
    2014

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John Holloway: 'Pavans and Fantasies from the Age of Dowland'

  • Song: John Dowland: 'Lachrimae Antiquae'
  • from Pavans And Fantasies From The Age Of Dowland
  • by John Holloway

An album of solemn, slow-moving counterpoint is admittedly not the most joyous of picks, but John Dowland's journey in his Lachrimae through seven kinds of sadness — "sighing tears," "forced tears" and "true tears" among them — is sublimely melancholy. Each is beautifully shaped in this performance by musicians led by Baroque violinist John Holloway playing Baroque violins, violas and a bass viola (rather than the viol and lute group Dowland originally called for). And it's not all doom and gloom, as the pavanes are tempered by lovely music by Purcell, William Lawes, John Jenkins, Thomas Morley and Matthew Locke. — Anastasia Tsioulcas

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Song
Pavans And Fantasies From The Age Of Dowland
Album
Pavans And Fantasies From The Age Of Dowland
Artist
John Holloway
Label
ECM New Series
Released
2014

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Cover for Carl Nielsen: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 4 "The Inextinguishable"

01Symphony No. 4 — 1. Allegro

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    Song
    Symphony No. 4 — 1. Allegro
    Album
    Carl Nielsen: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 4 "The Inextinguishable"
    Artist
    Alan Gilbert
    Label
    Dacapo
    Released
    1969

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Nielsen: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 4

  • Song: Symphony No. 4 — 1. Allegro
  • from Carl Nielsen: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 4 "The Inextinguishable"
  • by Alan Gilbert

As a kid, Carl Nielsen made music by pounding on logs in the family woodpile. He'd grow up to become one of the most important, if still undervalued, symphony composers of the 20th century. Conductor Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic have been making a case for Nielsen, recording live performances of all six of the great Danish composer's symphonies. Pairing the First and Fourth shows both how bracing and fresh the works sound and how Nielsen's symphonic language developed. The first, even with its whiffs of Dvorak, reveals the characteristic Nielsen rhythmic life force and harmonic personality. The Fourth, from 1916, subtitled "The Inextinguishable," unfolds in one continuous flow, with episodes of rambunctious glee (lots of fun for two timpanists), potent introspection and, ultimately, triumph. — Tom Huizenga

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Song
Carl Nielsen: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 4 "The Inextinguishable"
Album
Carl Nielsen: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 4 "The Inextinguishable"
Artist
Alan Gilbert
Label
Dacapo

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Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: Magnificat; Motet "Heilig ist Gott"

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Album
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: Magnificat; Motet "Heilig ist Gott"
Artist
Hans-Christoph Rademann
Label
Harmonia Mundi
Released
2014

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Pavans And Fantasies From The Age Of Dowland

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Album
Pavans And Fantasies From The Age Of Dowland
Artist
John Holloway
Label
ECM New Series
Released
2014

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