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YEAR IN REVIEW | Classical Music: Discovering 2021’s Lesser Known Gems

By Anya Wassenberg on December 31, 2021


2021 may not have been a banner year for live performance — to say the least — but classical music fans can still take comfort in a string of notable recordings released in the last 12 months.

With high profile releases from luminaries like Yannick Nézet-Séguin and others, it’s easy to slip into a comfortable groove. Our list delves into the lesser traveled corners of the classical music world to include an eclectic assortment of 2021 releases that may not have made it to your radar this year.

Together, they illustrate the vibrant depth of classical music as it exists today.

Frank Horvat: Music for Self-Isolation (Centrediscs)

Toronto musician and composer Frank Horvat began Music for Self-Isolation as a COVID lockdown project to keep fellow musicians afloat, but the impetus, begun on social media, soon began to pick up steam. Eventually, his pieces, written for 31 different instruments, including those not usually seen in the classical world such as marimba and accordion, were recorded at Roy Thomson Hall. Most are solos, with a few duets, all of which the musicians were able to play in isolation. The results are mournful, thoughtful, joyful – expressing the range of emotions the pandemic has evoked.

Philip Blackburn: Justinian Intonations (Neuma Records)

American composer Philip Blackburn began what he thought would be a series of acoustic tests of the ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city of Istanbul. Carved out literally underneath the city streets, the giants cisterns of marble and granite feature arched ceilings and stone arches. The unique acoustics of the cisterns, which once held water, inspired composition well beyond sonic experimentation. The results interlace electronic and acoustic sounds, and feature British counter-tenor Ryland Angel. Sounds become weightless, and Angel’s voice floats and shimmers in a dreamy soundscape. Ideal for meditation and mindfulness.

Christina Petrowska Quilico: Vintage Americana (Navona)

Canadian pianist Christina Petrowska Quilico created this recording during the pandemic lockdown. It’s a compilation of recordings of work by contemporary American composers during the 1970s and 1990s, produced for the CBC. The pieces offer a cornucopia of modern music, from the subtlety of Lowell Liebermann’s Apparitions to the agitated The Turtle and the Crane by Frederic Rzewski, who passed away in June 2021. Quilico is known for her wide-ranging musical tastes, and she gives each composer their due in interpretation. The recording also includes works by American–Canadian composer David Jaeger, Mario Davidovsky, Paul Huebner and David Del Tredici.

Imani Winds: Bruits (Bright Shiny Things)

Woodwind quintet the Imani Winds mix issues of social justice and race into this recording of contemporary music by composers Reena Esmail, Frederic Rzewski, and Vijay Iyer. The “Bruits” of the title comes in reference to the medical terms for the sound that blood makes trying to pulse through a blocked vein. Iver’s piece, the titular Bruits, uses music and spoken word to tell the story about the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Also includes is Reena Ismail’s piece, The Light is the Same, about the common threads of all humankind, and Frederic Rzewski’s Sometimes, a nod to Black historian John Hope Franklin.

Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra / Andris Nelsons: Sofia Gubaidulina / Orchestral Works (Deutsche Grammophon)

Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina turned 90 in 2021. Her story is the stuff of legend: growing up poor but determined, allegedly attacked by a KGB operative in 1973. As he strangled her, she supposedly asked him, “Why so slow?” and her cool aplomb unnerved him so much that he turned and ran. Condemned by the Soviet regime, she nonetheless garnered awards and acclaim, including the Prix de Monaco in 1987, and the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement for the Music section of the “Venice Biennale” in 2013. Her work is known for using a large orchestra, often focusing on the brass section. The pieces on this recording reference philosopher Martin Buber, among other themes, and her compositions often incorporate a spiritual element.

Toumani Diabaté & London Symphony Orchestra: Kôrôlén (World Circuit/BMG)

In interviews, Malian musician Toumani Diabaté has said his goal in this recording with the London Symphony Orchestra was to get audiences to hear African music in a different context. Largely slotted into the ambiguous “world music” category, Diabaté long dreamed of recording with a symphony orchestra. His wish came true in 2008 with the LSO and conductor Clark Rundell, with the recording just released in 2021 for reasons unknown. Diabaté plays the kora, a 21-string bridged harp, that beautifully blends with the orchestra’s colours in six of his compositions.

Lucas Debargue / Gidon Kremer / Kremerata Baltica: Zal – The Music of Miłos Magin (Sony Classical)

French pianist Lucas Debargue made it his mission to spotlight the work of lesser known Polish pianist and composer Milos Magin (1929 – 1999), resulting in this recording. Debargue uses his unique interpretative gifts to bring Magin’s music to life, including a lively concerto, a violin concerto (with Gidon Kremer), and other chamber music. In contrast with many of his contemporaries, Magin’s music is largely melodic, with a Slavic flavour, including some melodic elements inspired by Polish folk music. The enthusiastic performances make a convincing argument for Magin’s inclusion in classical repertoire.

Matthew Larkin Plays Casavant Opus 550 (Atma Classique)

Organist Matthew Larkin brings the warmth of the majestic Casavant Opus 550 at St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Toronto to your living room in his debut on the Atma Classique label – and his sophomore recording after a 38 year hiatus. It was the pandemic lockdown that gifted him with the time to make the recording. Larkin showcases the organ’s tonal range and reach in a variety of pieces by Bach, Mendelssohn, Duruflé, Franck, Messiaen, Jongen, Howells and Willan, along with a surprise composition by jazz musician Keith Jarrett, and Larkin’s own arrangement of Couperin’s Les Barricades mysterieuses.


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