Lebrecht's Album of the Week

Album of the Year: 2021

2021 has yielded more memorable albums than you can count on the fingers of two hands

Choosing an album of the year is never easy. In a pandemic period of alternating isolation and emergence, there are additional pressures and distortions. A performance that overwhelms one week can seem ephemeral the next. Marketing hype melts like the snows of yesteryear. An eye-catching cover offers nothing to the ear.

That said, 2021 has yielded more memorable albums than I can count on the fingers of two hands. To get some perspective, I drew up a longlist: 

  1. Anna Clyne’s Mythologies  an amiable walk into a wonderfully interesting composer (Avie).
  2. Vasily Petrenko’s Miaskovsky and Prokofiev for those who don’t get Stravinsky (LAWO)
  3. Matthias Goerne’s slow burner (DG)
  4. Alfred Schnittke’s cadenza for the Beethoven violin concerto (BIS)
  5. A Warsaw Pact nostalgia album (Linn)
  6. Great Brexit string quartets (Onyx)
  7. At the midnight hour with the Ebène Quartet (Erato)
  8. Emily D’Angelo’s debut (DG)

I’ve now whittled these selections down to three.

It has been the toughest year I can remember for string quartets

First, the new partnership of German baritone Matthias Goerne and Korean pianist Seong-Jin Cho on Deutsche Grammophon will be taking our breath away ten years from now. Performing drawingroom Lieder of Richard Wagner Hans Pfitzner and Richard Strauss, the pair transport us into unimagined realms of fantasy and fulfilment. A major contender for record of the decade.

Second, the Canadian mezzo Emily D’Angelo has made the boldest debut recording in years with songs by women, many of them young and alive (DG). This is gateway music of a very high order. 

It has been the toughest year I can remember for string quartets, with three leading ensembles giving up the ghost and others fretting how to rebuild their connection with a homebound public. 

For sheer beauty and brave decision making, the Ebène Quartet (Erato) leave the rest of the field breathless. Fresh from a world-encircling Beethoven tour, they took up a pair of modern nocturnalities by Schoenberg and Dutilleux, augmenting them with new settings of nightclub songs, winding up on Moon River without a care in the world. Exhilarating? Just what the pandemic expert ordered.

By the narrowest of margins, I declare the Ebène Quartet’s Round Midnight my Album of the Year.

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