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A Year Of Listening Desperately: 10 Classical Albums That Saved 2016

Soprano Barbara Hannigan shines in <em>let me tell you</em> by Hans Abrahamsen.
Elmer de Haas
Soprano Barbara Hannigan shines in let me tell you by Hans Abrahamsen.

Looking back over the year, it's clear my listening habits and preferences were colored by the most contentious presidential election of our time.

More than usual, I found myself drawn to the comfort of old standbys like Joni Mitchell, and craving escape into endless hours of ambient music, mainly by Brian Eno, while also exploring darker sounds. In surveying the year's classical releases, I discovered similar nostalgic and escapist trends that revealed themselves slowly as the months of political sniping dragged on.

The year did get off to a most amazing start. Hans Abrahamsen's song cycle let me tell you, which I'd been worshiping for about a year on Youtube and heard at Carnegie Hall in January, finally received its debut recording.

Rarely do music and performance align with this kind of power. Soprano Barbara Hannigan is as luminous as Hans Abrahamsen's nuanced orchestration in his award-winning work, a prismatic vision of Shakespeare's Ophelia from Hamlet. Conductor Andris Nelsons' sublime Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra pulls you inside the character's head, revealing a woman sparking with newfound confidence yet still vulnerable. Hannigan's gleaming high C in the music's final pages caps one of the finest works for voice and orchestra so far this century.

Another immersive January release I clung to as a life raft all year was Holographic by the Paris-born, Los Angeles-based Daniel Wohl, with help from Bang on a Can All-Stars, the Mivos Quartet and vocalist Caroline Shaw, among others. Wohl's dense, wildly textured blends of acoustic and electronic sounds offer dark and mesmerizing spaces — perhaps a little threatening, but also irresistible.

Wohl's album provides a rabbit hole of sonic adventures, whereas Elgar's First Symphony, in a rapturous performance by conductor Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin, is a luxury ride to the land of pleasant memories. The orchestra taps deep into a vein of British melancholy and reserve, circa 1908. The opening movement, processional in gait and wistful in theme, is musical comfort food that sustains with, as Elgar himself put it, charity and hope.

In a year brimming with compelling albums from solo pianists (Michael Mizrahi, Murray Perahia, Kristian Bezuidenhout) three recordings provided varying degrees of blissful escape.

Controlling the subtlest details of color and rhythm, the young Russian Pavel Kolesnikov makes each of the two dozen Mazurkas on his new Chopin album sound as if they've been made up on the spot. His finespun performance of the trippy Op. 17, No. 4 in A minor should be registered as an intoxicant.

If Kolesnikov's Chopin is catnip in triple time, then Boris Giltburg's Rachmaninoff album, with all its muscular charm, is fantasy fiction in sound. The Russian composer's Études-tableaux, Op. 39 unfold like cinematic shorts. In No. 6, inspired by "Little Red Riding Hood," wolf fangs snap in clipped chords, while shutters flap on empty houses at the close of No. 3 and seagulls hover in the delicate undulations of No. 2. Giltburg navigates Rachmaninoff's finger-stretching virtuosity with ease, adding a little of his own stamp on the miniature tone poems along with the composer's Moments musicaux, Op. 16.

Lara Downes' powerful album America Again isn't so much an escape as a revealing look in the mirror. In a year that provided heated debates on what defines America, Downes reminds us just who we are, a nation of diverse voices and experiences. The astutely programmed album offers solo piano music by American composers past and present, male and female, white and black and brown, straight and gay, rich and poor. You can hear the richness of difference in Nina Simone's reflective arrangement of Gershwin, Amy Beach's take on Native American rhythms, Morton Gould's mischievous syncopations and the swaying of Angélica Negrón's gentle lullaby. The album, with music by more than 20 composers, is capped with an unsentimental performance of our national anthem of hope and dreams, Harold Arlen's "Over the Rainbow."

Errollyn Wallen's music was a refreshing surprise. Before the June release of Photography, I hadn't heard of the Belize-born British composer, who was the first black woman to have her work performed at the BBC Proms concerts. Her Cello Concerto, in a commanding performance by Matthew Sharp, speaks fluent English pastoralism with a searching individual voice. In Earth, with rumbling bass guitar, string quartet and Wallen's fragile voice, is the composer's dark riff on Purcell's "When I am laid in earth." The piece triggers, for me, a kind of suffocating under this year's avalanche of political rhetoric.

Wallen's cello concerto wasn't the only bright spot for the instrument this year. Cellists Alisa Weilerstein, Maya Beiser and Sol Gabetta each released compelling recordings, but surely none more vibrantly alive that Nicolas Altstaedt's album of C.P.E. Bach cello concertos with Jonathan Cohen leading the Arcangelo orchestra. Altstaedt, with his warm, slightly nasal tone, navigates all of the composer's topsy-turvy rhythms with élan. The music can be deceptively placid one moment, blast off like a rocket the next, only to slam on the breaks for a false cadence. It's mercurial and perfectly matched to our ever-shortening attention spans.

Altstaedt's Bach was my kick butt "rocker" in a year where I was drawn to darker, moodier territory. Enter Christopher Rouse, who says he used to be typecast as the "gloom and doom" composer.

While tenebrous spaces pervade much of the music (two symphonies and two shorter works) on Rouse's album, there's unbridled splendor in hearing what a modern orchestra, revving on all cylinders, is capable of. Alan Gilbert inspires arresting detail and energy from the New York Philharmonic in the more harrowing passages of Odna Zhizn (A Life), a portrait of his wife's troubled childhood, and in the colorful outbursts of Prospero's Rooms, based on Edgar Allan Poe's The Masque of the Red Death.

The fear of death also shrouds Dog Days, David T. Little's shockingly bleak post-apocalyptic opera from 2012, which has now received its first recording. Royce Vavrek's libretto — light on its feet and riddled with profanity — tells the story of a dysfunctional rural family struggling to redefine humanity in the aftermath of war. The cast, all from the original production, is uniformly strong, especially soprano Lauren Worsham as the kindhearted tween daughter who befriends a man in a dog suit. In the opera's most heart-wrenching scene, she stares at her bony frame in the mirror, thinking her washboard ribs are the result of impending womanhood rather than slow-moving starvation. Just when you thought you've had enough smartly managed misery, an ending comes to up the ante, leaving you breathless and stunned.

And that's not far from how I've felt much of the year. Fortunately, there was an awful lot of good music to help me through.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.
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