Our concert halls went silent in 2020, so it became the year we all had to look elsewhere for musical fulfilment. That meant an almost wholesale migration of live performance to livestreaming, the closest most of us have gotten to live music in 2020. I saw and heard my share, and some will linger long in memory — the Bang on a Can Marathons, Igor Levit’s series of Hauskonzert solo recitals, Metropolitan Opera productions. In the end, though, hunkering down with a laptop and headphones, or trying to fend off distraction in a busy household, only served to remind me how mediated, how un-live, the experience is. Performers and companies deserve deep gratitude and admiration for negotiating this digital shift, but I can never shake my awareness of its shortcomings, how dissimilar it is to the experience of music being made in your presence.
That’s why most of the musical experiences that got me through this year came, somewhat old-fashionedly, via recordings. The vinyl, CDs, downloads, and audio streams I heard offered music in a comfortingly familiar format, and if there was ever a year comfort was needed, it was this one.
With that in mind, here are some of the most important recordings by local performers and ensembles from 2020.
Few artists were more active on this front than Thomas Adès, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s artistic partner since 2016 and one of the world’s most important musicians. Over the course of the year he released a trove of recordings, including his “In Seven Days,” a hybrid tone poem-piano concerto from 2008; unusually fresh and unsentimental readings of Janacek piano works; and two entries in a series joining trim versions of Beethoven symphonies with the extrovert works of Irish composer Gerald Barry.
None, however, made a larger impression than Adès’s own Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, a tightly built whirlwind of rhythmic and melodic energy that the BSO and pianist Kirill Gerstein premiered in 2019. Their recording (Deutsche Grammophon) confirms the initial reaction of the piece as a brilliant negotiation between tradition and innovation, and one of the most sparkling and delightful to emerge from Adès’s pen. The other work on the recording, “Totentanz,” is as terrifying as the concerto is delightful — a pointedly contrasted pair.
Few composers were more celebrated at the beginning of this century than Osvaldo Golijov, whose culturally vibrant and approachable works seemed poised to welcome new audiences to classical music. Then things went askew: a few mediocre works were followed by a decade of creative silence — the result, he said recently, of an extended spell of depression.
“Falling out of Time,” an 80-minute song cycle performed by the Silkroad Ensemble (In A Circle Records), marks Golijov’s re-emergence. It is a solemn, almost unremittingly dark piece drawn from Israeli writer David Grossman’s novel about a man’s grief over the death of his son. The mélange of styles is still there, this time amplified to include an almost hallucinatory array of sounds and effects. There’s a more forbidding sense than in many of the composer’s earlier works, as the voices pose questions of grief, loss, and meaning. A remarkable (and welcome) return to form.
Pandemic or no, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s releases of modern and contemporary American music on its BMOP/sound label continued unabated. Especially worth hearing is the first recording of Charles Wuorinen’s opera “Haroun and the Sea of Stories,” based on a novel written by Salman Rushdie while he lived in exile under a fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini. Wuorinen’s dense, forbidding music adapts unexpectedly well to the comic seriousness of the story. There’s a dizzying array of color in the composer’s writing, but BMOP’s performance under Gil Rose makes the score transparent enough to let the wordplay of librettist James Fenton shine through.
The violinist Michi Wiancko’s album “Planetary Candidate” (New Amsterdam) is billed as a solo album, and the multifarious compositions all center on her instrument’s beguiling, voicelike timbre. But the violin isn’t alone; it’s doubletracked, or accompanied by her voice, or submerged in a crowded electronic soundscape. The album’s seven compositions create vastly dissimilar sonic panoramas. Composer William Brittelle contributes ingenious, deeply felt tributes to David Bowie and The Cure. It’s a shimmering, mesmerizing effort by Wiancko, who founded the Antenna Cloud Farm festival and retreat in Gill, Mass.
The duo Transient Canvas (bass clarinetist Amy Advocat and marimbist Matt Sharrock) has forged ahead in its advocacy for this no-longer-so-exotic instrumental combination. “Right now, in a second” (New Focus Recordings) is their newest assemblage of fresh compositions, and it demonstrates the expanse that the pairing of these instruments can afford imaginative composers. The inventive compositions range from the austerely lyrical title track, by Stefanie Lubkowski, to the dancing, stop-start motion of Emily Koh’s “\very/ specifically vague.”
Bang on a Can composer David Lang wrote “love fail” — a skeletal meditation on the Tristan and Isolde story and its twinned notions of love and death — in 2012 for Anonymous 4. A few years later he heard a recording by Lorelei Ensemble, Boston’s innovative female vocal ensemble, and immediately thought of arranging “love fail” for larger forces. Lorelei’s recording (Cantaloupe Music) of the version for women’s chorus sounds fuller and deeper, as one would expect, but it’s no less stark and quietly tragic than the original. “The joy of love is too short/And the sorrow thereof/Dureth over long,” goes one line by Thomas Morley from the libretto, and there is no better description of the piece and the chilling effect it leaves, especially in Lorelei’s precise rendering.
As the months dragged on and our state of isolation never truly lifted, the piece I came back to the most was Robert Honstein’s “Soul House,” commissioned and recorded by Hub New Music (New Amsterdam). Honstein’s piece is a portrait of the house in New Jersey where he grew up, sketched with deep beauty and just enough grit to make it seem honest. Most of us have spent this year confined to our homes, which has meant a particular, persistent kind of gloom — for me and, I suspect, many others. During those moments, “Soul House” was there to remind me that there can be magic even in an overfamiliar dwelling, if you make the effort to look for it. My year would have been a lot tougher without it.