Even as we look forward to the concerts, projects, and music that lie ahead in the new year, let’s reaffirm New Year’s resolutions to listen to more works by women composers and have a look back at some of the best classical albums to come out of 2023. It’s time to look and listen beyond the good ‘ole standbys – including the new recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations (yes, another one). 

Missy Mazzoli: Dark with Excessive Bright

Mazzoli said this about the title work of the album, which includes other orchestral pieces:

While composing Dark with Excessive Bright for contrabass soloist Maxime Bibeau and the Australian Chamber Orchestra, I continuously listened to music from the Baroque and Renaissance eras. I was inspired in no small part by Maxime’s double bass, a massive instrument built in 1580 that was stored in an Italian monastery for hundreds of years and even patched with pages from the Good Friday liturgy. I imagined this instrument as a historian, an object that collected the music of the passing centuries in the twists of its neck and the fibers of its wood, finally emerging into the light at age 400 and singing it all into the world. While loosely based in Baroque idioms, this piece slips between string techniques from several centuries, all while twisting a pattern of repeated chords beyond recognition. “Dark with excessive bright,” a phrase from Milton’s Paradise Lost, is a surreal and evocative description of God, written by a blind man. I love the impossibility of this phrase, and felt it was a strangely accurate way to describe the dark but heartrending sound of the double bass itself. Dark with Excessive Bright was commissioned by the Australian Chamber Orchestra and the Aurora Orchestra in London.


Kaija Saariaho: Reconnaissance

Read Esteban Meneses’ review of the new recording at I Care If You Listen. Meneses places the new recording in context of Saariaho’s sudden death in June. Regarding this album, Meneses says:

Saariaho’s choral writing sits somewhere between the perfectly idiomatic and the idiosyncratic: she has a natural affinity for using the voice not as an instrument for channeling feelings and interpreting words — though she does that too — but as one thread in a larger, polystylistic sonic canvas. Her use of electronics, a signature of her music, often creates a shadow of the flesh-and-blood singers, overlapping with their live vocals like a specter, thickening the texture as it builds up to stirring choral climaxes.

In the works featured on the album, this creates a unified choral polyphony that nods to the past — from 16th-century composer Claude Le Jeune, to Messiaen, to traces of Ligeti. Saariaho weaves the choir and its constituent parts into a “multi-layered and heterogeneous whole,” she writes in the liner notes. You’re sometimes left with the impression that she’s dissecting the chorus and assembling it back together in the same breath.

Anna Thorvaldsdottir: ‘Archora/Aion’

The composer says this about one of the title works: AIŌN is a symphony-scale orchestral work in three movements, titled Morphosis, Transcension and Entropia.

AIŌN is inspired by the abstract metaphor of being able to move freely in time, of being able to explore time as a space that you inhabit rather than experiencing it as a one-directional journey through a single dimension. Disorienting at first, you realize that time extends in all directions simultaneously and that whenever you feel like it, you can access any moment, even simultaneously. As you learn to control the journey, you find that the experience becomes different by taking different perspectives – you can see every moment at once, focus on just some of them, or go there to experience them. You are constantly zooming in and out, both in dimension and perspective. Some moments you want to visit more than others, noticing as you revisit the same moment, how your perception of it changes. This metaphor is connected to a number of broader background ideas in relation to the work: How we relate to our lives, to the ecosystem, and to our place in the broader scheme of things, and how at any given moment we are connected both to the past and to the future, not just of our own lives but across – and beyond – generations.

As with my music generally, the inspiration behind AIŌN is not something I am trying to describe through the music or what the music is “about”, as such – it is a way to intuitively approach and work with the core energy, structure, atmosphere and material of the piece.


Mary Lou Williams: ‘Zodiac Suite’

The new recording of this beloved Jazz classic was made by Aaron Diehl & the Knights. Neil Spencer of The Guardian says this about the album:

Jazz history does not hear Mary Lou Williams’s name often enough, yet she was a prime mover and shaker in mid-century America: a piano prodigy, arranger for Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington and confidante to Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and other jazzerati. Here, New York-based pianist Aaron Diehl and orchestral collective the Knights recreate Williams’s most celebrated work, Zodiac Suite, a portrait of the 12 astrological signs and a landmark in jazz-classical fusion. Mary Lou struggled to fully realise the piece – tapes of its 1945 debut performances were stolen – but it has remained popular, while crying out for the meticulous treatment supplied here by Diehl, a noted fusioneer.


 Jennifer Higdon: Duo Duel, Concerto for Orchestra

Recorded by Robert Spano and the Houston  Symphony, these two works received their first recording on NAXOS. The liner notes share this:

Pulitzer Prize- and three-time GRAMMY award-winning composer, Jennifer Higdon, continues to write what the Chicago Sun-Times describes as music “both modern and timeless”. Duo Duel for two pitched percussion instruments and orchestra is a double concerto of scintillating, high-speed virtuosity: “don’t blink – you might miss something!” she advises the listener. Concerto for Orchestra demands the utmost in technical accomplishment from all members of the orchestra. The first movement was written last to give a clearer picture of what was needed to start a work that is both an orchestral celebration and a true virtuoso tour-de-force.

Joan Tower: Concerto for Piano (Homage to Beethoven)

NPR’s Tom Huizenga says this about the recording:

When Tower began writing her piano concerto in 1985, she experienced something supernatural. Her favorite composer, Beethoven, she says, entered the room and a conversation ensued. Tower ended up embedding fragments of three Beethoven piano sonatas within her muscular concerto, played here with characteristic élan by Marc-André Hamelin. The two concertos for flute were both written for the soloist on the album, Carol Wincenc. The Flute Concerto gives Wincenc a roller coaster workout up and down the registers, while Rising is obsessed with musical figures that journey upward. In Red Maple, Tower’s attractive bassoon concerto, the soloist Adrian Morejon is accompanied by strings only in order to let his low-voiced, soft-spoken instrument sing sweetly.

Bacewicz: Concerto for One and Two Pianos

Recorded by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, David Fanning of Gramophone says this about this recording:

Bacewicz’s music certainly thrives on its high metabolic rate, its impatience, even, for which this brilliantly executed new album makes no apology. The relatively early Overture, composed in Nazi-occupied Poland, already highlights this temperamental default, and not only because Nicholas Collon and his orchestra take it at such a cracking pace. The Piano Concerto of 1949 elevates convulsive contrast almost to a principle, with big neo-Romantic gestures (shades of the Rachmaninov of the Paganini Rhapsody) cheek-by-jowl with luminous Martin≤-like sequences, Polish folk-song paraphrases (semi-compulsory under the post-war Stalinist socialist realist aegis), and a percussive drive that suggests, to me, above all Honegger. Switch on to this restless mindset and it’s not hard to relish Peter Jablonski’s dashing account; resist it, however, and the suspicion of short-windedness persists.


Bruch & Price Violin Concertos: The Philadelphia Orchestra

This long anticipated recording of both of Price’s violin concertos was highly regarded by  Edward Seckerson of Gramophone:

Price’s First Violin Concerto may from time to time reference European models lurking in its shadows (there’s more than a hint of the Tchaikovsky in the first-movement coda – indeed it’s almost a homage) but Price is very much her own woman and nothing about her feels second-hand. Her ability to ‘spin’ ideas as a seasoned extemporiser or jazzer is a distinctive characteristic of this big and occasionally, one might argue, somewhat rambling piece. But against that one must weigh the distinctive colour and cast of her folk-inflected melodies and the highly personal way in which she journeys with them. Goosby’s identification with the music is so strong that every departure feels like it could be of his own making.

Price’s trademark solo trumpet – a plangent, evocative voice – leads off the ‘spiritual’ reverie of the slow movement and it is a measure of her individuality in my brief acquaintance with her music that I would be able to identify her from the first measures alone.

Concerto No 2 is a more exotic specimen, flecks of celesta immediately lending it a hothouse feel. But the compression and concision of it (15 minutes in a single span of music) and again its improvisational manner make for something you might describe as ‘stream of consciousness’ with Goosby seizing upon phrases so ravishing that you wonder where they’ve been all our lives.

What did we miss? What new (or new to you) recordings have you been listening to?