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LEBRECHT LISTENS | Album of the Year 2021

By Norman Lebrecht on December 17, 2021

Ebene Quartet's Round Midnight is Norman Lebrecht's 2021 Album of the Year. (Photo: Herve Martin/Virgin Classics)
Ebene Quartet’s ‘Round Midnight’ is Norman Lebrecht’s 2021 Album of the Year (Photo: Herve Martin/Virgin Classics)

Choosing an album of the year is never easy. In a pandemic period of alternating isolation and emergence, there are additional pressures and distortions. A performance that overwhelms one week can seem ephemeral the next. Marketing hype melts like the snows of yesteryear. An eye-catching cover offers nothing to the ear.

That said, 2021 has yielded more memorable albums than I can count on the fingers of two hands. So I drew up a longlist to get some perspective.

I’ve now whittled these selections down to three.

The new partnership of German baritone Matthias Goerne and Korean pianist Seong-Jin Cho on Deutsche Grammophon will still take our breath away ten years from now. Performing drawingroom Lieder of Richard Wagner, Hans Pfitzner, and Richard Strauss, the pair take us into unimagined realms of fantasy and fulfillment. A major contender for record of the decade.

The Canadian mezzo Emily D’Angelo has made the boldest debut recording in years — songs by women, many of them young and alive (DG). This is gateway music of a very high order.

It has been the toughest year I can remember for string quartets, with three leading ensembles giving up the ghost and others fretting how to rebuild their connection with a home bound public.

For sheer beauty and brave decision-making, the Quatuor Ebène (Erato) leave the rest of the field breathless. Fresh from a world-encircling Beethoven tour, they took up a pair of modern nocturnalities by Schoenberg and Dutilleux, augmenting them with new settings of nightclub songs, winding up on Moon River without a care in the world. Exhilarating? Just what the pandemic expert ordered.

By the narrowest of margins, I declare the Ebène Quartet’s Round Midnight my Album of the Year.

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