Despite its reputation, classical music – the formal “concert music” that’s usually all written down on paper -- is actually one of the most stylistically varied traditions we have. (It has something of a jump on everyone else, thanks to its multi-century, intercontinental role across cultures.) To wit: In 2012, Joyce DiDonato brought her best baroque opera game, while young composers like William Brittelle and Mario Diaz de Leon flirted with programmed percussion and experimental rock textures. Classical star Hilary Hahn improvised with indie-world prepared-piano master Hauschka. Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted his own thrilling violin concerto. Forgotten masters of the recent and distant pasts were rediscovered, as well. Viktor Ullmann’s piano sonatas, little heard after his murder at the hands of the the Third Reich, came back to us in a worthy new collection. And a forerunner of computer-aided composition and playing, Laurie Spiegel, saw a deluxe reissue of her long out-of-print LP The Expanding Universe.
Meanwhile, a few heavy hitters do tend to show up on any year-end list of classical releases. This year, Beethoven was served well by two very different pianists: The reserved Leif Ove Andsnes took on the first concertos, while the more aggressive Jeremy Denk handled Sonata 32. In a year that saw the passing of Elliott Carter, we were treated to a blazing new take on his cello concerto. And a new vocal octet, Roomful of Teeth, debuted to sing works by a number of young composers, including Merrill Garbus, she of tUnE-yArDs.
The act of making classical mixes is rather tough. Do you focus only on single movements at the expense of long-form compositions? Or do you bog down a playlist with a series of long works? I’ve chosen a middle way here, with bursts of mixology following each longer piece. But the Top 20 Classical Albums of 2012 below are each worth investigating in full.
20) William Brittelle, Loving the Chambered Nautilus
19) Los Angeles Philharmonic, Shostakovich: Prologue to 'Orango'; Symphony No.4
18) Missy Mazzoli, Song from the Uproar (The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt)
17) Icebreaker, Apollo
16) Nicholas Phan, Still Falls the Rain
15) Kaija Saariaho, Saariaho: Trios
14) Third Coast Percussion, The Works for Percussion 2
13) Alisa Weilerstein, Elgar & Carter Cello Concertos
12) Jonny Greenwood, The Master: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
11) Magnus Lindberg, Lindberg: Chamber Works
10) Mario Diaz de Leon, Hypnos
9) Mariel Roberts, Nonextraneous Sounds
8) Leif Ove Andsnes, The Beethoven Journey - Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 3
7) Roomful of Teeth, Roomful of Teeth
6) Joyce DiDonato, Drama Queens
5) Jeanne Golan, Ullmann: Complete Piano Sonatas
4) San Francisco Symphony, American Mavericks
3) Jeremy Denk, Ligeti/Beethoven
2) Esa-Pekka Salonen, Salonen: "Out Of Nowhere" - Violin Concerto; Nyx
1) Laurie Spiegel, The Expanding Universe