The 25 Best Classical Music Tracks of 2021

Andy Akiho: ‘Pillar III’

“Seven Pillars”; Sandbox Percussion (Aki Rhythm Productions)

A lush, brooding celebration of noise, “Seven Pillars” is the sprawling result of a deep collaboration between a composer and a percussion quartet. Mixing antsy chimes and a low-slung beat below, “Pillar III” builds in force before collapsing in ferocious shudders, explosions and shivers — and an ominous lullaby coda. ZACHARY WOOLFE

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C.P.E. Bach: Rondo in D minor

“Mozart and Contemporaries”; Vikingur Olafsson, piano (Deutsche Grammophon)

The pianist Vikingur Olafsson has released another fascinating album, this one offering works by Mozart alongside pieces by his contemporaries Domenico Cimarosa, Baldassare Galuppi, Haydn and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. Olafsson’s lucid and intense account of this Bach rondo is especially exhilarating. ANTHONY TOMMASINI

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J.S. Bach: Fugue in D sharp minor

“Well-Tempered Clavier”; Piotr Anderszewski, piano (Warner Classics)

Piotr Anderszewski’s strange, ultimately satisfying selection of half the preludes and fugues from Book Two of “The Well-Tempered Clavier” might well be one of the great Bach recordings — in no way more so than in the psychological depths it charts in the slowest of its fugues. Anderszewski’s is playing of almost heroic concentration, and profound humanity. DAVID ALLEN

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Bartok: ‘Oh! Viragok! Oh! Illatos kert!’

“Bluebeard’s Castle”; Szilvia Voros, mezzo-soprano; Mika Kares, bass; Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra; Susanna Malkki, conductor (Bis)

A tour of Bluebeard’s home is the stuff of HGTV nightmares. His new wife, Judith, should beware what lies behind each locked door, but fatefully insists on opening them. The fourth reveals a secret garden — rendered vividly in this recording, a master class in orchestral coloring and texture. Because the tension never truly slackens in Susanna Malkki’s interpretation, even a moment of fleeting beauty is shaded with nervous anticipation. JOSHUA BARONE

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Amy Beach: ‘By the Still Waters’

“Summertime”; Isata Kanneh-Mason, piano (Decca)

There’s suave Gershwin on Isata Kanneh-Mason’s most recent album, as well as elegant Samuel Barber and moving Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, including a heated yet heartbreakingly dignified “Deep River.” But Amy Beach’s “By the Still Waters” was new to me, and Kanneh-Mason makes of it a dreamy, unhurried little masterpiece. ZACHARY WOOLFE

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Brahms: Symphony No. 4, Allegro giocoso

“Brahms/MacMillan”; Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra; Manfred Honeck, conductor (Reference Recordings)

After a bland Tchaikovsky Fourth and a finicky Beethoven Ninth, I had started to wonder whether Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony were getting a little too invested in their innovative approach to the canonical repertoire for their own good. This furious Brahms Fourth dispels those doubts; at times, the orchestral playing is barely believable. DAVID ALLEN

The Best Music of 2021

From Lil Nas X to Mozart to Esperanza Spalding here is what we loved listening to this year.

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Christopher Cerrone: ‘I Will Learn How to Love a Person and Then I Will Teach You and Then We Will Know’

“The Arching Path”; Timo Andres, piano; Lindsay Kesselman, soprano; Ian Rosenbaum, percussion; Mingzhe Wang, clarinet (In a Circle)

In his song cycle “I Will Learn to Love a Person,” Christopher Cerrone combines Minimalism and a casually profane confessional text by Tao Lin, initially suggesting a certain ironic detachment. But then Lindsay Kesselman’s anguish wells forth, spilling over the song’s brim. As in much of Cerrone’s best work, this unraveling is too exposed to be blasé, and turns the piece into a genuine weeper, worthy of early opera. SETH COLTER WALLS

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Debussy: ‘En Bateau’

“French Duets”; Steven Osborne and Paul Lewis, pianos (Hyperion)

At first glance, this album of four-hand piano pieces might seem like a middlebrow lark coming from two pianists capable of — and known for — much more difficulty and depth. But it’s one of the year’s most disarmingly lovely recordings, elevating amateur-level scores like Debussy’s Petite Suite with unwavering sensitivity and grace. JOSHUA BARONE

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Philip Glass: ‘Evening Song’

“Satyagraha”; Richard Croft, tenor; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra; Dante Anzolini, conductor (Orange Mountain Music)

For over a decade, you had to trust the people who said that Phelim McDermott’s production of “Satyagraha” was one of the best things at the Metropolitan Opera this century. Now we have proof in this, the first complete recording of the work — captured in 2011 and finally released — whose ending exemplifies Philip Glass’s operatic writing at its finest: mysterious, meditative, endless beauty. JOSHUA BARONE

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Charlotte Greve: ‘Sediments We Move,’ Part II

“Sediments We Move”; Wood River; Cantus Domus (New Amsterdam Records)

This ambitious suite from the saxophonist and composer Charlotte Greve contains guitar parts that might appeal to fans of jazz musician Nels Cline. And its choral writing should excite devotees of Roomful of Teeth. Yet it’s the effortless feel of Greve’s fusion that feels most notable — and capable of creating new audiences of its own. SETH COLTER WALLS

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Handel: ‘Tu del ciel ministro eletto’

“Bach/Handel”; Sabine Devieilhe, soprano; Pygmalion; Raphaël Pichon, conductor (Erato)

Time seems to stand still when Bellezza — Beauty — cleanses herself of “faithless yearning” and “vain passion” as she peers toward God at the conclusion of Handel’s “Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno.” It’s a moment that Sabine Devieilhe sings with apt simplicity, as the lutenist Thomas Dunford, the violinist Sophie Gent and the conductor Raphaël Pichon cast a spell around her, as if to lift her heavenward. DAVID ALLEN

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Sigismondo d’India: ‘Io viddi in terra angelici costumi’

“Lamenti e Sospiri”; Julie Roset, soprano; Cappella Mediterranea; Leonardo García Alarcón, director (Ricercar)

At the dawn of the 17th century, the composer Sigismondo d’India was a master of intimate chamber madrigals of luminous clarity, unexpected harmonies and startling evocations of emotional extremity. In “Io viddi in terra angelici costumi,” a setting of Petrarch, both the piece and the soprano Julie Roset’s performance on a new d’India compilation reach hypnotic heights. ZACHARY WOOLFE

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Nikolai Kapustin: Piano Concerto No. 4

“Kapustin: Orchestral Works”; Frank Dupree, piano; Württemberg Chamber Orchestra; Case Scaglione, conductor (Capriccio)

Star pianists have long championed the piano solos of Nikolai Kapustin, a jazz-inspired Russian maverick. But we haven’t had many recordings of his concertos for the instrument. Frank Dupree offered redress this year, with a fizzy, addictive performance of the Fourth. The performance was a reminder of the productive (if underexplored) sway American jazz has had over global classical culture. SETH COLTER WALLS

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Liszt: Fugue on ‘Ad nos, ad Salutarem Undam’

“Jeanne Demessieux: The Decca Legacy”; Jeanne Demessieux, organ (Eloquence)

Archival releases have proceeded unabated this year, as record companies continue to mine their catalogs in the name of more or less worthy causes. Jeanne Demessieux is certainly the former, an organist of staggering ability whose reputation unfairly dimmed after her untimely death in 1968. This Liszt, from 1952, is ample proof of her talents, a ferocious assault on a work of frightening difficulty, yielding intensely musical results. DAVID ALLEN

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Liszt: ‘Der König von Thule’

“Freudvoll und Leidvoll”; Jonas Kaufmann, tenor; Helmut Deutsch, piano (Sony Classical)

In recent years the charismatic, smoky-voiced Jonas Kaufmann has been in demand as a heldentenor in roles now including Wagner’s Tristan. But on this marvelous album, with the fine pianist Helmut Deutsch, devoted to Liszt’s imaginative (and still-neglected) songs, Kaufmann is often in his more tender, intimate mode, as in his alluring performance of “Der König von Thule.” ANTHONY TOMMASINI

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Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 22, Allegro

“Mozart Momentum: 1785”; Leif Ove Andsnes, piano; Mahler Chamber Orchestra (Sony Classical)

On this fascinating album, the pianist Leif Ove Andsnes presents works that Mozart wrote during the artistically transformative year of 1785, including three piano concertos, a piano quartet and other scores. This spirited and crisp yet elegant account of the finale from the Concerto No. 22 may be my favorite track. ANTHONY TOMMASINI

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Angélica Negrón: ‘Cooper and Emma’

“Alone Together”; Jennifer Koh, violin (Cedille)

When the pandemic made in-person performances impossible, the superb violinist Jennifer Koh began an inspiring project to commission short solos, which she premiered online from her Manhattan apartment. “Alone Together” offers the results: 39 strikingly diverse pieces, among them Angélica Negrón’s playful, inventive “Cooper and Emma.” ANTHONY TOMMASINI

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Salieri: ‘Dilegua il tuo timore’

“Armida”; Les Talens Lyriques; Christophe Rousset, conductor; Lenneke Ruiten and Florie Valiquette, sopranos; Choeur de Chambre de Namur (Aparté)

In Salieri’s opera “Armida,” given a taut, elegant recording this year, the two lovers — Armida, a sorceress of Damascus, and the enraptured Christian crusader Rinaldo — are both sopranos, which lends a “Rosenkavalier” feel to their early idyll. This duet shows both their passion and their mutual suspicion as their spell begins to break. ZACHARY WOOLFE

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David Sanford: ‘Subtraf’

“A Prayer for Lester Bowie”; David Sanford Big Band (Greenleaf Music)

Aside from writing chamber and orchestral music, David Sanford also runs a big band. That group’s latest release reveals some of Sanford’s current enthusiasms. On this track, a strangled-gasp sound reminiscent of Helmut Lachenmann’s music provides some initial kindling. Later, the bonfire climax is indebted to the experimentalism of Miles Davis circa “Agharta.” SETH COLTER WALLS

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Kamala Sankaram: ‘Ololyga’

“Resonant Bodies”; Kamala Sankaram, voice (New Focus Recordings)

From 2013 to 2019, the Resonant Bodies Festival explored experimental vocal music at the start of each New York fall season. The use of electronics — as canvas for, and distortion of, the voices — was widespread. Texts were far rarer than squawks, moans, clicks and wails. The prevailing style was agile expressionism, as in this 2017 piece by Kamala Sankaram, a highlight of a memorable compendium of festival highlights. ZACHARY WOOLFE

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Schumann: ‘Requiem’

“Schumann: Alle Lieder”; Christian Gerhaher, baritone; Gerold Huber, piano (Sony Classical)

If there is a finer match of musician and composer than Christian Gerhaher and Robert Schumann, I would be surprised. The 11-disc box from which this track comes fulfills Gerhaher’s mission to record the complete songs of his idol, and it ends with this “Requiem,” a song “so full of feeling, a coming-together of spirituality and sensuality,” as the baritone has put it. It is the perfect demonstration of Gerhaher’s surpassing art. DAVID ALLEN

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Shostakovich: Prelude No. 14 in E flat minor

“On DSCH”; Igor Levit, piano (Sony Classical)

The latest essential release from the formidable pianist Igor Levit is a three-disc album pairing commanding accounts of Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues with the Scottish composer Ronald Stevenson’s daunting, fantastical “Passacaglia on DSCH,” a 90-minute suite paying homage to Shostakovich. Listen to Levit’s probing performance of this fugue, and you will want to hear them all. ANTHONY TOMMASINI

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Gabriella Smith: ‘Bard of a Wasteland’

“Lost Coast”; Gabriella Smith and Gabriel Cabezas (Bedroom Community)

This radio-ready opener to Gabriella Smith and Gabriel Cabezas’s album “Lost Coast” is difficult to categorize. Art song, political anthem, pop — all or none of the above? Regardless, it’s a work of affecting counterpoint: the rage that accumulates in the layered sounds of Cabezas’s extended cello technique against the resignation of Smith’s elegiac vocals. JOSHUA BARONE

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Tyshawn Sorey: ‘For George Lewis’

“For George Lewis/Autoschediasms”; Alarm Will Sound (Cantaloupe Music)

Tyshawn Sorey has long worked with a stretched-out scale of time that can invite comparisons with Morton Feldman. But here, across 53 minutes of material — patiently arranged for subgroups within the chamber ensemble Alarm Will Sound — the wide variation of instrumental colors and harmonic material serves as a clear encomium to another composer: George Lewis, a mentor of Sorey’s who is also still in rude creative health. SETH COLTER WALLS

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Anna Thorvaldsdottir: ‘Enigma,’ I

“Enigma”; Spektral Quartet (Sono Luminus)

Listening to Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s music, I often feel like I’m hearing the earth through a stethoscope. But her debut string quartet more resembles dispatches emerging from the white noise of another world. It’s a masterly entrance to the genre, and a deceptively vast soundscape conjured with just four acoustic instruments. JOSHUA BARONE

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