Top Classical Albums Of 2011 : Deceptive Cadence From American modernism to Mendelssohn and the massive sound of Mahler, a wide-ranging top 10 list.

NPR Classical's 10 Favorite Albums Of 2011

Fiction by the Ebene Quartet was one of our favorite albums this year. Virgin Classics hide caption

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Virgin Classics

The silly season of endless lists is upon us. You might notice that here at Deceptive Cadence, we don't even try to enumerate which albums were "best" — we use the word "favorite" quite intentionally, as you'll see from the pan-genre list painstakingly compiled with our NPR Music colleagues. We surely don't try to rank our lists in some impossibly subjective and ultimately totally arbitrary order; we find that the alphabet works quite nicely. We are bitterly aware of the piles of still-unheard albums that rest on our desktops (both real and digital), and we rue the onslaught of late-year releases that probably didn't get their due consideration.

And now that there are two of us hosting this blog, the lovely round number of ten is cleaved right in half, meaning that, at least in theory we each had just five spaces in which to pack 365 days' worth of listening. (In truth, there was quite a bit of happy overlap between our picks.)

Despite all those factors and caveats, however, a year-end summation, stock-taking, trend-marking, conversation-starting — whatever you might call it — feels both inevitable and irresistible. So what are the trends of 2011? Big voices, both expected (Joseph Calleja and Montserrat Figueras) and surprising (the Ebène Quartet's Mathieu Herzog); impassioned pianists (including two Kristian/Krystians — Bezuidenhout and Zimerman); and championing of severely under-heard composers (Zimerman again, playing Bacewicz, and Juri Belohlavek leading the symphonies of Martinu). Here's to many contented hours of listening in 2012!

Deceptive Cadence: Favorite Classical Albums Of 2011

Martinu: The 6 Symphonies.

Martinu: The 6 Symphonies (Bělohlávek, BBC Symphony)

  • Song: Symphony No. 5 — Adagio - Allegro
  • from Martinu: The 6 Symphonies
  • by BBC Symphony

What's it like to see the world from a bird's-eye view? Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů spent the first decade of his life in a church tower. His father was the village fire watchman, and the family's elevated apartment gave the young musician a perspective that informed the music he wrote throughout his life. You can hear Martinů's soaring spirit in his six symphonies, each of them written in the U.S. after he fled the Nazis. Though they are rarely heard in concert halls today, they're well-represented on CDs. And this new set, from Czech conductor Jiří Bělohlávek — who has recorded the works previously — ranks among the very best for how it brings out the individual character of each of these infectious, propulsive works. (TH)

Cover for Mendelssohn

Kristian Bezuidenhout: Mendelssohn, Piano Concerto; Double Concerto

  • Song: Concerto for Piano and Strings in A minor
  • from Mendelssohn
  • by Kristian Bezuidenhout

When artists specializing in historically informed performance practice play Romantic repertoire, the results are sometimes deadly dull – the luster and depth get bleached right out. But South African-born fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout, who has been a consistent source of delight for us this year, has made a Mendelssohn recording of amazing musicality, lyricism and muscularity. His pairing of the well-known Piano Concerto in A minor with the little-heard Double Concerto for violin and piano, which the composer wrote at just 14 years old, makes this even more of a treat. (AT)

Joseph Calleja.

Joseph Calleja: The Maltese Tenor

  • Song: Mefistofele, opera in prologue, 4 acts & epilogue: Act 1. Dai campi, dai prati
  • from The Maltese Tenor
  • by Joseph Calleja

It's rare these days to find an opera singer with such an individual sound that you can identify him or her in just a couple notes. Tenor Joseph Calleja, from the tiny island of Malta, is just such a singer. You can hear the golden Mediterranean sunshine in his voice, and I love his old-fashioned fast vibrato, which flickers like a vintage silent movie. Calleja, still in his early 30s, is arguably today's finest lyric tenor and in this, his third recording for Decca, his voice is even bigger and richer than in his equally superb earlier albums. It will be fascinating to hear this excellent singer evolve over the next couple of decades. (TH)

Cover for Fiction

Ebène Quartet: Fiction

  • Song: Streets Of Philadelphia (with Mathieu Herzog)
  • from Fiction
  • by Ebene Quartet

We like this album so much that it's made both the NPR Music's overall 50 Favorites of 2011 and our own classical-centric list. (Come to think of it, we've talked about the "ebony" foursome a whole lot of other times this year, too). So let's focus now on another aspect of this album, the gorgeous vocals – and not even from guest collaborators Natalie Dessay, Spain's Luz Casal or jazz vocalist Stacey Kent. It's the quartet's own singing that haunts me. Over and over this year, I've returned to violist Mathieu Herzog's sweet and shatteringly melancholy cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Streets of Philadelphia." ­(AT)

Cover for Charles Ives: Four Sonatas

Hilary Hahn: Ives, Four Violin Sonatas

  • Song: Sonata, for violin & piano No. 2, S. 61 (K. 2C5) [2. In the Barn]
  • from Charles Ives: Four Sonatas
  • by Hilary Hahn

The four violin sonatas by Charles Ives are rather curious things. They aren't showcases for a violinist or even harmonious partnerships between instruments. I've come to think of them instead as a series of constantly shifting, articulately detailed negotiations between two independent and powerful entities. Ives himself called them the products of his "weak-minded, retrogressive moments." But violinist Hilary Hahn and pianist Valentina Lisitsa create a graceful balance of rich lyricism and mordant bravura, proving that these direct, folksy works are anything but soft and sentimental, given the American steeliness at their core. Very powerful stuff indeed. (AT)

Mahler Courtesy of the artist. hide caption

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Courtesy of the artist.

Mahler: Symphoy No. 2 (London Philh., Vladimir Jurowski, cond.)

  • Song: Allegro maestoso
  • from Mahler: Symphony No. 2
  • by London Philharmonic, Vladimir Jurowski

Gustav Mahler maintained that the symphony should contain an entire world. And in an 82-minute piece like his Second Symphony, there is a world of things that can go haywire in any performance. But young conductor Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic seem to get everything right in this extraordinary live recording, from small details like the weight of the bass line in the opening movement to the overarching themes of innocence, death and resurrection. In this performance, Jurowski's fresh, insightful touch reveals not just a world but a terrifying then heavenly universe. (TH)

Cover for Steve Reich: WTC 9/11; Mallet Quartet; Dance Patterns

Kronos Quartet & So Percussion: Reich, 'WTC 9/11'

  • Song: Mallet Quartet: II. Slow
  • from Steve Reich: WTC 9/11; Mallet Quartet; Dance Patterns
  • by Kronos Quartet, So Percussion

It was the title piece (and the cover artwork) on Steve Reich's WTC 9/11 album that drew most of the commentary and criticism about this recording. But despite some very strong sentiment against this piece — including, frankly, from within the ranks of my respected NPR Music colleagues — I still think that WTC 9/11, played by the Kronos Quartet, is one of the most gripping, intense, intelligent, emotionally honest and artistically successful works to come out of the tragedy. But I'd also like to turn attention to the wonderful Mallet Quartet that appears on this album. Written in 2009 and performed here by one of the piece's co-commissioners, New York's superb So Percussion, the Mallet Quartet possesses a quiet beauty that, almost despite its subtleties, demands to be heard. (AT)

Cover for La Sublime Porte: Voix d'Istanbul

Jordi Savall: La Sublime Porte — Voix D'Istanbul 1430 -1750

  • Song: Punxa, Punxa
  • from La Sublime Porte: Voix d'Istanbul
  • by Jordi Savall

We lost Catalan singer Montserrat Figueras when she died Nov. 22 at 69 years old. Along with her husband and musical partner of more than 40 years, Jordi Savall, Figueras was pivotal in opening up the strictures of classical tradition to music created before 1600 and beyond western Europe. The last project to be released before her death was this album, which explores the amazingly diverse music of the Ottoman Empire. It is one of the quintessential and most revealing expressions of the couple's shared artistic vision, exquisite technique and wide embrace. A fine example is Figueras and her colleagues performing the Sephardic song "Punxa, Punxa." (AT)

Pianist Alexandre Tharaud.
Virgin Classics

Alexandre Tharaud Plays Scarlatti

  • Song: Sonata ini E major, K. 380
  • from Scarlatti: Piano Sonatas
  • by Alexandre Tharaud

Paris-born pianist Alexandre Tharaud can play Chopin, Ravel and Satie with the best of them, but he excels in baroque repertoire, transforming centuries-old music for the harpsichord into vibrant, fresh adventures on the modern Yamaha piano. In this album, Domenico Scarlatti's myriad coloristic effects (evoking guitars, castanets, trumpets, drums) emerge organically. Tharaud deftly maneuvers all the cascading runs and leaping octaves in the faster-paced sonatas, and also makes the piano sing with the flowing line of an opera singer in the gorgeous slower ones. (TH)

Krystian Zimerman plays Bacewicz.

Krystian Zimerman Plays Bacewicz

  • Song: Piano Sonata No. 2 [2. Largo]
  • from Grazyna Bacewicz: Piano Sonata No. 2; Piano Quintets Nos. 1 & 2
  • by Krystian Zimerman

Grazyna Bacewicz is far from a household name in almost every country except her native Poland. But the formidable pianist (and fellow Pole) Krystian Zimerman is doing his best to change that. This album includes a thrilling performance of the Piano Sonata No. 2, which Bacewicz herself premiered in 1953. It opens with massive chords crashing like breakers on a jagged coastline. The harmonies are dense like those in Brahms, her percussive attacks like Prokofiev's but spoken in a language closer to Bartok's. Yet Bacewicz isn't derivative. She has her own voice, best heard in the Sonata's haunting largo, with its opening theme suspended above spacious, swaying chords. (TH)