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Best Music Of 2015

Our 10 Favorite Classical Albums Of 2015

The San Francisco Symphony's recording of two Beethovenian works by John Adams is one of our picks for 2015. Courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony

The San Francisco Symphony's recording of two Beethovenian works by John Adams is one of our picks for 2015.

Courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony

Say what you will about the demise of the CD and the battles between downloads and streams, in 2015 the flow of classical music recordings seemed as full and rich as ever.

Devising a list of just 10 was downright painful. We were forced to leave so many terrific albums in the wings, from Giya Kancheli's dark and lyrical Chiaroscuro to a stunning debut recital, "Héroïques," from gifted young American tenor Bryan Hymel.

Our list feels wide-ranging, as open to possibilities as classical music itself. Andrew Norman's recent and rigorously flamboyant orchestral work Play rubs elbows with maximalism from the 17th century in the form of Heinrich Biber's 54-part Missa Salisburgensis. And J.S. Bach, played elegantly by Piotr Anderszewski, sits beside Anna Thorvaldsdottir, a confident new composer from Iceland. With Verdi, Sondheim, John Adams and Dvořák, there's something here for most any musical appetite. Sit back and turn it up loud.—T.H.

Our 10 Favorite Classical Albums of 2015

Cover for John Adams: Absolute Jest; Grand Pianola Music

01Absolute Jest, for string quartet & orchestra [Beginning]

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    Song
    Absolute Jest, for string quartet & orchestra [Beginning]
    Album
    John Adams: Absolute Jest; Grand Pianola Music
    Artist
    Michael Tilson Thomas
    Label
    SFS
    Released
    2015

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John Adams: 'Absolute Jest'

  • Song: Absolute Jest, for string quartet & orchestra [Beginning]
  • from John Adams: Absolute Jest; Grand Pianola Music
  • by Michael Tilson Thomas

This pairing of two works by John Adams, written some 30 years apart from, is one of the most fun classical releases of 2015 — and the San Francisco Symphony, conductors Michael Tilson Thomas and the composer himself, and the soloists are clearly having a blast. The newer piece, Absolute Jest, featuring the St. Lawrence String Quartet, takes shards of Beethoven and places them in a big, dizzying vortex of sound. Grand Pianola Music (1982), with pianists Orli Shaham and Marc-Andre Hamelin and the Synergy Vocals trio, reaches for the positively transcendent, moving between episodes of meditative grace and enormous arcs of motion and statement.—A.T.

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Song
John Adams: Absolute Jest; Grand Pianola Music
Album
John Adams: Absolute Jest; Grand Pianola Music
Artist
Michael Tilson Thomas
Label
SFS
Released
2015

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Anderszewski, Bach English SUites.
Courtesy of Warner Classics

10Bach, English Suite No. 1 in A Major, BWV 806 - II. Allemande

Piotr Anderszewski: Bach, English Suites Nos. 1, 3 & 5

  • Song: Bach, English Suite No. 1 in A Major, BWV 806 - II. Allemande
  • from Bach, English Suites Nos. 1, 3 & 5
  • by Piotr Anderszewski

In any given year you have a choice between plenty of Bach keyboard albums. I count at least 11 in 2015. But this elegant, insightful and life-affirming recording by Piotr Anderszewski stands far above the bunch. Here every emotion, from exuberant joy to deep despair, and its attendant colors, rhythms and inner voices, is meticulously considered, with a result that sounds as natural as breathing. Anderszewski's haunting ornamentations in the Third Suite Sarabande seem to comment on the anguish while, three movements later, the subtle droning effects he uncovers in the jaunty Gavotte II bring the sound of a bagpipe to the party. There are dozens more details that make this graceful, brilliant album one to savor far into next year.—T.H.

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Song
Bach, English Suites Nos. 1, 3 & 5
Album
Bach, English Suites Nos. 1, 3 & 5
Artist
Piotr Anderszewski
Released
2015

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Biber Baroque
Courtesy Of Alia Vox

15Missa Salisburgensis, mass for 2 double choruses in 16 parts, double orchestra & double continuo, C. App. 101 (attribution uncertain) [Sanctus - Benedictus]

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    Song
    Missa Salisburgensis, mass for 2 double choruses in 16 parts, double orchestra & double continuo, C. App. 101 (attribution uncertain) [Sanctus - Benedictus]
    Album
    Biber: Baroque Splendor – Missa Salisburgensis
    Artist
    Jordi Savall
    Label
    Alia Vox
    Released
    2015

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'Baroque Splendor'

  • Song: Missa Salisburgensis, mass for 2 double choruses in 16 parts, double orchestra & double continuo, C. App. 101 (attribution uncertain) [Sanctus - Benedictus]
  • from Biber: Baroque Splendor – Missa Salisburgensis
  • by Jordi Savall

Sometimes you just need some balm for the soul. May I suggest turning to the overwhelming forces of Heinrich Biber's Missa Salisburgensis — written for 54 separate parts, and one of the most massive works in Baroque sacred music — and let it enfold you completely.

Perhaps in part because of its extraordinary demands (and also because its score was lost for about 250 years), this polychoral work for several groups of singers and instrumentalists, as well as multiple organists, is not often recorded or performed. But this exemplary rendering by Jordi Savall and all three of his ensembles (Hespèrion XXI, Le Concert des Nations and La Capella Reial de Catalunya), with crystalline sound engineering, makes a very fine case for adding this Mass to the Baroque canon.

Even though the Missa Salisburgensis is this recording's focal point, don't miss out on the other works on offer, especially Biber's lively Battalia à 10; its head-meltingly dissonant second movement is a particularly nice tonic for the heft and might of the Mass.—A.T.

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Song
Biber: Baroque Splendor – Missa Salisburgensis
Album
Biber: Baroque Splendor – Missa Salisburgensis
Artist
Jordi Savall
Label
Alia Vox
Released
2015

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Anthony de Mare - Liaisons
Courtesy of ECM

25Another Hundred People

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    Song
    Another Hundred People
    Album
    Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim from the Piano
    Artist
    Anthony de Mare
    Label
    ECM
    Released
    2015

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Anthony de Mare: 'Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim From The Piano'

  • Song: Another Hundred People
  • from Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim from the Piano
  • by Anthony de Mare

Just when you thought you knew Sondheim showstoppers, from "Send in the Clowns" to "The Ladies Who Lunch," along comes Anthony de Mare to stir up the status quo. The New York pianist commissioned 36 composers to pick Sondheim songs and rework them for solo piano. The result is a lovingly rendered compendium ranging from Daniel Bernard Roumain's dark and deconstructed "Another Hundred People" to Fred Hersch's tender, and more faithful, "No One is Alone." Wynton Marsalis gives a barrelhouse treatment to a little-known number from Follies, while Paul Moravec pours out despair in a wrenching rendition of "Losing My Mind" from the same musical. And Steve Reich, true to form, deploys a second piano part to achieve a slightly phasey "Finishing the Hat." Liaisons demonstrates the strength of these songs by the great man of Broadway, but also the fertile imaginations of three dozen composers and one bold pianist.—T.H.

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Song
Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim from the Piano
Album
Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim from the Piano
Artist
Anthony de Mare
Label
ECM
Released
2015

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Tigran Hamasyan
Courtesy of ECM Records

05Your Mercy is Boundless (Bazum en Qo gtutyunqd)

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    Song
    Your Mercy is Boundless (Bazum en Qo gtutyunqd)
    Album
    Luys i Luso
    Artist
    Tigran Hamasyan / Yerevan State Chamber Choir
    Label
    ECM
    Released
    2015

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Tigran Hamasyan: 'Luys I Luso' (Light From Light)

  • Song: Your Mercy is Boundless (Bazum en Qo gtutyunqd)
  • from Luys i Luso
  • by Tigran Hamasyan / Yerevan State Chamber Choir

What if a choir of 5th century Armenian monks interrupted Keith Jarrett's Köln Concert? It might sound something like the fascinating blend of old and new found in Luys i Luso (Light from Light) by Tigran Hamasyan. Primarily known as a jazz pianist (who won the 2006 Thelonious Monk Piano Competition), Hamasyan grew up hearing the ancient chants and hymns of his native Armenia; for him making the album was a chance to bring the old music into the light with infusions of jazz. Hamasyan's piano provides everything from evocative scrims of sound to improvised solos. The Yerevan State Choir sounds rustically authentic, especially in the beautiful music by 5th century composer St. Mesrop Mashtots. In a few places, the singers let loose into something approaching scat singing. Luys i Luso is an odd combination that clicks, opening up two separate sound worlds while creating a third.

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Song
Luys i Luso
Album
Luys i Luso
Artist
Tigran Hamasyan / Yerevan State Chamber Choir
Label
ECM
Released
2015

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Cover for Andrew Norman: Play

Andrew Norman: Play

Andrew Norman: 'Play'

  • Song: Level 3 (from Play)
  • from Andrew Norman: Play
  • by Gil Rose

If you've ever wondered how much raw power a symphony orchestra can unleash, you must hear Play, Andrew Norman's extraordinary 40-minute orchestral thrill ride, as executed by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project under the direction of Gil Rose. The piece, which seems to pivot wildly from one complicated set of sounds to another, is actually meticulously constructed. Inspired by a "wedge-shaped melodic line," Norman, 36, traces a dramatic arc through the music's three movements (or "Levels"), ultimately spinning the wedge into a giant canon throughout the orchestra. Passages can leave you breathless, like much of the frenetic opening level or later in a violent battle between slapsticks. But there are also serene landscapes to explore — a garden of chirping woodwinds and, in the final level, a ravishing oboe soaring above an increasingly roiling orchestra. Gloriously rambunctious, Norman's symphonic masterwork yields new discoveries each time you hop on for another ride.—T.H.

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Song
Andrew Norman: Play
Album
Andrew Norman: Play
Artist
Gil Rose
Label
BMOP/sound

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Seattle: Dvorak & Varese
Courtesy of the Seattle Symphony

05Amériques, for orchestra

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    Song
    Amériques, for orchestra
    Album
    Dvorák: Symphony No. 9 "New World"; Varèse: Amériques
    Artist
    Ludovic Morlot
    Label
    Seattle Symphony
    Released
    2015

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Seattle Symphony: Dvořák, Symphony No. 9 'From The New World'; Varèse, 'Amériques'

  • Song: Amériques, for orchestra
  • from Dvorák: Symphony No. 9 "New World"; Varèse: Amériques
  • by Ludovic Morlot

Straight on the heels of their enormously gratifying recording of John Luther Adams' Become Ocean last year, the Seattle Symphony and conductor Ludovic Morlot released another dynamite project — smartly pairing two European sound portraits of the U.S.A. just coming into its own. Dvořák's Symphony No. 9, "From the New World," is a staple, but this excellent rendition, with standout contributions by Seattle's powerhouse brass and razor-sharp strings, demands us to listen anew. Edgard Varèse's crackling, clangorous Amériques is far more rarely encountered, but the orchestra offers a tour de force performance, especially the percussion section.

Seattle, under Morlot's leadership, has proved itself to be one of the truly great and most vital American orchestras. (And they are really on a roll: Be sure to keep an ear on their terrific and ongoing Henri Dutilleux cycle.)—A.T.

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Song
Dvorák: Symphony No. 9 "New World"; Varèse: Amériques
Album
Dvorák: Symphony No. 9 "New World"; Varèse: Amériques
Artist
Ludovic Morlot
Label
Seattle Symphony
Released
2015

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Cover for In The Light Of Air
Courtesy of Sono Luminus

01In The Light Of Air: Luminance

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    Song
    In The Light Of Air: Luminance
    Album
    In The Light Of Air
    Artist
    Anna Thorvaldsdottir, International Contemporary Ensemble
    Label
    Sono Luminus
    Released
    2015

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Anna Thorvaldsdottir: 'In The Light Of Air'

  • Song: In The Light Of Air: Luminance
  • from In The Light Of Air
  • by Anna Thorvaldsdottir, International Contemporary Ensemble

In her online bio, composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir talks of "listening to landscapes." You can hear them, it seems, in her imaginative four-movement work for chamber ensemble and electronics, In the Light of Air, played by ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble). Subterranean bass tones, icy strings and ethereal percussion evoke the rumbling volcanoes, crystalline lakes and spouting geysers of her native Iceland. There's a visual component as well: In performance, a constellation of light bulbs glows and dims with the intensity of the music. And giant metallic snowflakes, called klakabönd (bind of ice), which the composer designed, resonate like gongs in the final section. Thorvaldsdottir and her music are earning much deserved recognition outside Iceland. Earlier this year, she received the New York Philharmonic's Kravis Emerging Composer Award. Judging from the way she manipulates textures and colors in sound on this album, which also includes a compelling solo cello piece, she will be a composer to follow.—T.H.

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Song
In The Light Of Air
Album
In The Light Of Air
Artist
Anna Thorvaldsdottir, International Contemporary Ensemble
Label
Sono Luminus
Released
2015

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Cover for Verdi: Aida

04Aida, opera [Act 1, Scene 1: Celeste Aida]

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    Song
    Aida, opera [Act 1, Scene 1: Celeste Aida]
    Album
    Verdi: Aida
    Artist
    Jonas Kaufmann
    Label
    Warner Classics
    Released
    2015

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Verdi: 'Aida'

  • Song: Aida, opera [Act 1, Scene 1: Celeste Aida]
  • from Verdi: Aida
  • by Jonas Kaufmann

It was big news in the opera world when this studio recording of this beloved Verdi opera was first announced; it's cheaper to cull from live performances instead. So for this occasion, conductor Antonio Pappano gathered a luxury cast led by soprano Anja Harteros and tenor Jonas Kaufmann as the star-crossed lovers Aida and Radames — neither of whom had sung their roles before — with Ekaterina Semenchuk as the scheming Amneris and baritone Ludovic Tézier as Aida's father, Amonasro.

Kaufmann is the runaway standout here, suave and vocally splendid; listen to the stunning ease with which he sings the iconic aria "Celeste Aida." Harteros carefully tends to both text and phrasing, while Semenchuk proves fiery with a big voice. And Pappano coaxes crisp, attentive performances from his excellent instrumentalists and choristers.—A.T.

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Song
Verdi: Aida
Album
Verdi: Aida
Artist
Jonas Kaufmann
Label
Warner Classics
Released
2015

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Cover for Bach, Beethoven, Rzewski

Igor Levit: Bach, Beethoven, Rzewski

  • Song: The People United Will Never Be Defeated (El pueblo unido jamás será vencido), 36 Variations on a Chilean Song, for piano [Var. 8 - With agility; not too much pedal; crisp]
  • from Bach, Beethoven, Rzewski
  • by Igor Levit

This is one heck of an ambitious program: three of the most compelling and demanding sets of variations ever devised for keyboard players. One could argue that there's no need for any current pianist to record yet another version of the Goldbergs, but Russian-German pianist Igor Levit more than makes his case in this trinity of pianistic expression, ranging from Bach's magisterial masterpiece to the radical virtuosity of Beethoven's Diabelli Variations to a recent monument of the form, American composer Frederic Rzewski's variations on the Chilean nueva cancion classic "El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido." The demands Levit has put on himself — and on his listeners — are manifold, but the effort pays off in spades. He brings uncommon intensity, clarity and strong emotion to all 99 variations.—A.T.

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Song
Bach, Beethoven, Rzewski
Album
Bach, Beethoven, Rzewski
Artist
Igor Levit
Label
Sony Classical
Released
2015

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John Adams: Absolute Jest; Grand Pianola Music

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Album
John Adams: Absolute Jest; Grand Pianola Music
Artist
Michael Tilson Thomas
Label
SFS
Released
2015

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Dvorák: Symphony No. 9 "New World"; Varèse: Amériques

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Album
Dvorák: Symphony No. 9 "New World"; Varèse: Amériques
Artist
Ludovic Morlot
Label
Seattle Symphony
Released
2015

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Verdi: Aida

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Verdi: Aida
Artist
Jonas Kaufmann
Label
Warner Classics
Released
2015

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Bach, Beethoven, Rzewski

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Album
Bach, Beethoven, Rzewski
Artist
Igor Levit
Label
Sony Classical
Released
2015

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Biber: Baroque Splendor – Missa Salisburgensis

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Album
Biber: Baroque Splendor – Missa Salisburgensis
Artist
Jordi Savall
Label
Alia Vox
Released
2015

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