My Favorite Recordings of 2020

Dec 17, 2020

“I haven’t burned a CD in five years,” yelled a local musician who wanted to send me recordings for possible broadcast. “I don’t even own a CD player.”

OK, I get it. The compact disc is going the way of the dinosaurs, as are elderly broadcasters who admire the ancient technology.

We are in the age of downloads and devices. More music, more easily available. Good.

These are my five favorite recorded performances of 2020. A lousy year otherwise wasn’t bad for recorded music. All of these performances are available as downloads of course, and on compact disc!

5. Virgil Thomson: Portraits, Self-Portraits and Songs (EVERBEST 1002)

Anthony Tommasini is the chief music critic for the New York Times. He’s the author of Composer on the Aisle, a biography of the Kansas City born Virgil Thomson (1896-1989) , who honed his skills as composer, wit and raconteur in Gertrude Stein’s Paris.

Tommasini was a very young man when he produced a series of recordings of Thomson’s music, including piano portraits of Georges Hugunet and Alice B. Toklas. There’s a gorgeous sonata for piano and violin included here, along with Five Ladies for Violin and Piano. Songs include the cycle Mostly About Love, and Shakespeare Songs gorgeously sung by D’Anna Fortunato, and the cantata Capital Capitals, set to Gertrude Stein. If you want to be in Paris in their 20s, or Kansas City one hundred years ago, or New York, you will love this set.

P.S. Thomson was the best writer on musical topics I’ve ever encountered. Don’t miss his autobiography, or his newspaper pieces written while he was music editor of the New York Herald Tribune. They are intelligent, scathing and fun.

4. Dello Joio: The Trial at Rouen (BMOP/Sound 1083)

Norman Dello Joio (1913-2008) was Dean of the College of the Arts at Boston University when I was a student there in the 1970s. I never knew him. I’m not sure I ever saw him. I don’t recall him using this position to foster performances of his own music. Too bad because based on this opera about the final days of Joan of Arc, Dello Joio is a composer worth knowing better.

This production comes from Odyssey opera and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, conducted by Gil Rose. BMOP has its own label, with more than sixty releases. These are sent to me (on CD!) on a regular basis. The repertoire is generally music written the last fifty years. The performances and production values are consistently superb. As is the case with Dello Joio’s opera.

The Trial at Rouen was only one of several works the composer penned about Joan the Maid. The recording is based on Odyssey Opera’s performances given in 2015. This is a grand opera with a large orchestra, chorus and libretto, fit for the Metropolitan or La Scala. The artists and orchestra in this recording would be at home in those theaters. Superb production from BMOP and Gil Rose. Magnificent singing of score with a nearly Wagnerian texture. This recording has been nominated for a Grammy Award, for best opera recording. Bravo!

3. Amici e Rivali: Rossini Duets, with Lawrence Brownlee, tenor and Michael Spyres, tenor. Corado Rovaris conducts I virtuosi italiani (ERATO Bo89TWR262)

You’re a young American tenor with a voice of beauty, power and flexibility, perfect for the dramatic and florid writing of Rossini. You are in great demand for this music, and then what happens? Another young American tenor with a voice of beauty, power and flexibility comes along. Either you try to poison the guy, or you become buddies.

Tenors Lawrence Brownlee and Michael Spyres give us a musical bromance. They blend perfectly in these Rossini duets; in a repertoire each has made his own. There’s a sense of anything you can do I can do better-not to get in the way of the performances but to add a bit of frisson. You want to hear some splendid singing? This is for you.

2. Bach: Goldberg Varitations, Lang Lang, piano (DGG B089TV17F7)

Critics needled Luciano Pavarotti for being “too famous”. Needle all you want, he was still Pavarotti and he was famous because his singing was magnificent. This is starting to happen for Lang Lang. Too famous! Baloney. A superb pianist, he brings fire and drama, and a sense of what is between the notes, to his new recording of the Goldberg Variations.

You don’t need to throw away your Glenn Gould recordings. Most of us first heard the Goldbergs from the Canadian master. I’m partial to a recording on the harpsichord by Pierre Hantai-with all of the repeats. Lang Lang uses the variations and his piano to tell a story. There’s nothing abstract in this deeply personal performance. The two CD features the repeats and Lang Lang isn’t afraid of rubato. This is Bach out of the classroom, and into your soul.

1. Steffani: Duets for Sophie Charlotte of Hanover, A ton tres humble service (Musica Omni mo0802)

Music fit for a queen. Some written to texts by that lady.  Agostino Steffani (1654-1728) was a courtier, diplomat and above all a musician admired throughout Europe. His correspondence with the Electress Sophia-sister of King George I of England- is described as “surprisingly direct and personal in tone.” Jory Vinikour, harpsichordist extraordinaire is music director of this 2 CD set, a collection of eleven duets written for-and sometimes with-Sophia. Some of these are mini operas. You may feel the influence of Monteverdi and look forward to Handel. Steffani was a master of opera and sacred music. That he knew how to work a court helped.

Jory Vinikour has assembled a wonderful ensemble of five singers, with cello, theorbo/guitar and harpsicord. The duets mix the voices providing delightful listening variety. The texts are love desired, love unrequited, and love abandoned. The music and performances are sublime. This is my favorite recording—CD or download!-issued in 2020.