Best classical music recordings of 2020

By Tyler Cowen

As you might expect, this has been a pretty spectacular year for listening to classical music on disc, too good you might say.  Here is what I enjoyed the most:

Beethoven Complete Piano works, by Martino Tirimo.  I probably know the performance canon for Beethoven piano sonatas better than any other area of classical music, and this is one of my two or three favorite sets of all time.  They are fresh, direct, and to the point, and remind me of the earlier Yves Nat set, though with better sound and the mistakes edited out.  Here is one review: “It’s decades since a pianist has managed to convey such an overwhelming sense that we’re listening to pure Beethoven. And there are 20 hours of it — surely the greatest recorded achievement of this anniversary year.”  The pianist is a 78-year-old Cypriot who is barely known even to most of the concert-going public.

Beethoven Bagetelles, by Tanguy de Williencourt.  This is Beethoven at his most arbitrary and willful and whimsical, all good things.  I have many recordings of these pieces, but these are perhaps my favorite.  Why again is it that French pianists are so good with Beethoven?

Beethoven, Complete works for Piano Trio, van Baerle Trio.  Again, the best recording of these works I have heard, and there is stiff competition.

Masaaki Suzuki put out more Bach organ music, and conducted an incredible version of Beethoven’s 9th symphony.  His genius remains under-discussed, as he is also a world-class harpsichord and keyboard player, and has produced the definitive recording of Bach’s entire cycle of cantatas.  Why is there no biography of him?  He is one of the greatest creators and performers in the entire world in any area.  If you are wondering, his parents were Japanese Protestants and he is a Calvinist.

Chopin CD of the year would be by Jean-Paul Gasparian.

Morton Feldman piano box set, played by Philip Thomas.  Five CDs if you go that route, this is what I listened to most this year.  It is also very good played at low volume, a useful feature in crowded pandemic homes.

I listened to a good deal of Szymanowski, who has finally started to make sense to me.  In prep for my CWT with Alex Ross, I relistened to a great deal of Wagner.  What rose in my eyes was the von Karajan Die Meistersinger and the Clemens Krauss Ring cycle.

As for contemporary classical music, I enjoyed:

Hans Abrahamsen, String Quartets.

Philippe Manoury, Temps Mode d’Emploi.

Caroline Shaw, Orange, Attaca Quartet.

This year I also rediscovered Robert Ashley’s opera Atalanta (Acts of God), and Raymond Lewenthal’s Alkan CD, one of my favorite recordings of all time, a kind of proto-rock and roll.

As for concert life, I did manage to see Trifonov play “Art of the Fugue” at the Kennedy Center before the whole season shut down, and in January the Danish Quartet playing Beethoven in NYC.