The Well-Tempered Ear

The New York Times names the top 25 classical recordings of 2020 and includes sample tracks

December 27, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

What did the holidays bring you?

Did Hanukkah, Christmas or Kwanzaa bring you a gift card?

A subscription to a streaming service?

Maybe some cash?

Or maybe you just want to hear some new music or new musicians or new interpretations of old classics?

Every year, the music critics of The New York Times list their top 25 recordings of the past year. Plus at the end of the story, the newspaper offers a sample track from each recording to give you even more guidance.

This year is no exception (below).

In fact, the listing might be even more welcome this year, given the  coronavirus pandemic with the lack of live concerts and the isolation and self-quarantine that have ensued.

The Ear hasn’t heard all of the picks or even the majority of them. But the ones he has heard are indeed outstanding. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear a sample of the outstanding Rameau-Debussy recital by the acclaimed Icelandic pianist Vikingur Olafssen, who scored major successes with recent albums of Philip Glass and Johann Sebastian Bach.)

Here is a link: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/17/arts/music/best-classical-music.html

Of course not all critics agree.

The Ear has already listed the nominations for the Grammy Awards (a link is below), and more critics’ picks will be featured in coming days.

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/11/28/for-holiday-shopping-and-gift-giving-here-are-the-classical-music-nominations-for-the-63rd-grammy-awards-in-2021/

You should also notice that a recording of Ethel Smyth’s “The Prison” — featuring soprano Sarah Brailey (below), a graduate student at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music and a co-founder of Just Bach — is on the Times’ list as well as on the list of Grammy nominations.

What new recordings – or even old recordings — would you recommend?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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It’s Thanksgiving Day. Conductor Marin Alsop, NPR, WQXR, WFMT and Wisconsin Public Radio offer music suggestions. What piece would you choose to mark the holiday?

November 26, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today – Thursday, Nov. 26, 2020 — is Thanksgiving Day.

Right now, the U.S. has had more than 12 million cases of COVID-19 with more than 260,000 deaths plus all the alarming signs and conditions that many more cases and deaths are coming in the next several months.

We might be sad that we can’t be with the family and friends we usually celebrate with. But we nonetheless have many things to give thanks for during this strange and tragic time.

We can thank the vaccine researchers; the doctors and nurses; and the other health care workers who take care of Covid patients, even those who don’t observe precautions and bring on their own illness.

We can thank all kinds of people on the front lines — food and transportation workers, for example — who help protect us and care for us.

We can thank the friends, family and others who stay in touch and help get us through these trying times.

And we can thank technology that makes isolating a lot less unbearable because we have telephones, radios, TVs, CD players, computers, cell phones and virtual online ZOOM meetings and gatherings and various other events including live-streamed concerts.

For The Ear, music has never meant more or brought more comfort than during this difficult year. He is giving thanks for that as well as for the other people and things just mentioned.

So what music should we celebrate this year’s emotionally complicated and mixed Thanksgiving holiday with?

Well, you can Google sources and go to YouTube to find compilations of music appropriate to the holiday. (See one playlist lasting 90 minutes in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Famed classical radio station WQXR in New York City has five suggestions for being musically grateful: https://www.wqxr.org/story/top-five-expressions-thanks-classical-music/

And WFMT in Chicago is offering 20 suggestions based on holiday food: https://www.wfmt.com/2019/11/25/a-complete-thanksgiving-feast-in-20-food-inspired-pieces/

But here are a couple of other suggestions, some local.

Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR) is always a reliable source. And tomorrow is no exception.

If WPR programming stays true to past patterns, music by American composers will be emphasized.

Plus, starting at 10 a.m. WPR will broadcast performances from the Honors Concerts (below) by middle and high school students around the state and who participate in the Wisconsin School Music Association. This year, for the first time, the performances will be virtual. But as in past years, they are sure to be moving and even inspiring.

Other fine suggestions from the world-famous conductor Marin Alsop  (below), a Leonard Bernstein protégée, who recently spoke for 7 minutes to NPR Weekend Edition host Scott Simon. 

Here is a link, but you should listen rather than just read the transcript if you want to hear the musical samples: https://www.npr.org/2020/11/21/937448472/this-thanksgiving-put-on-some-music-to-soothe

Do you like any of those suggestions? Were any new to you?

What piece of music would you choose to express gratitude on this particular Thanksgiving?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: Weekends are a good time to explore music and listen to it. So today The Ear starts a “2020” series for the new year.

January 4, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

It’s a new year and the first weekend of the new year. And The Ear wanted to find some kind of organizing principle to explore recorded music in the coming weeks and months.

Turns out the year 2020 – with its symmetry of numerals and suggestions of excellent vision — held a certain appeal.

So he checked out musical works that were either Op. 20 or No. 20. They could even occur together, like, say, a Prelude that is Op. 20, No. 20.

What he found was more than he expected: Dozens of composers and works that qualify as interesting and of suitable quality.

Some are well known, but many are rarely performed live or are neglected in recordings.

They come from all periods and styles, from early music to contemporary music.

And they come in all kinds of genres from vocal and choral music to chamber music, solo instrumental music and symphonic music.

Some works are short, some are medium and some are long.

For the longer ones, which are often divided up into smaller movements or other sections, it seems better to post the whole piece and let the reader decide how long they want to listen at a time rather than to post one part at a time and limit or force the reader.

Anyway, here is the first installment.

It is a wonderful solo piano piece that is too often overlooked, even though it is by a great composer who wrote it in his prime when he was writing many of his other more popular piano works.

It is the Humoresque, Op. 20, by the German Romantic composer Robert Schumann (below). It lasts about 29 minutes but is divided into other sections.

And the performance, often praised as outstanding or even definitive, is by the Romanian pianist Radu Lupu (below, young and old, the latter by Roberto Serra), the 1966 first prize-winner of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition who recently retired because of ill health.

Here is a link to a detailed biography of the distinguished and somewhat reclusive and enigmatic 74-year-old pianist:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radu_Lupu

Here is YouTube video of Radu Lupu playing the Schumann Humoresque in a live recording from 1983:

Let The Ear know what you think of this piece and this idea for a 2020 series.

A long playlist for future 2020 postings – including works by Bach, Vivaldi, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Brahms and others — has already been compiled.

But if you have a favorite or suggested “2020” piece, leave word in the comment section.


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