Top 10 Classical Albums of 2012

Jeremy Denk, Alisa Weilerstein, Brooklyn Rider

At first glance, our top picks for 2012 may seem to range far and wide, from a fresh take on an epic late Beethoven string quartet to cellist Maya Beiser playing spaciously layered new music by Michael Harrison. What unites this diverse bunch is a spirit of discovery — not just in new music that we'll return to again and again but in the artistic energy that animates each of these projects. This electricity flows through newly created works like Esa-Pekka Salonen's Violin Concerto, but it also sparks music that has become second nature, such as Bach's St. Matthew Passion, released this year in a revolutionary production directed by Peter Sellars. These are recordings that stand apart as vivid and vital, challenging and incredibly exciting.

Alisa Weilerstein: Elgar And Carter - Cello Concertos

It's the Elgar cello concerto that has drawn most of the attention for this recording, in which MacArthur "genius" cellist Alisa Weilerstein teams up with the Berlin Staatskapelle and superstar conductor Daniel Barenboim, whose late wife Jacqueline du Pre fairly owned this work. Inasmuch as Weilerstein draws out many brilliant and deeply felt currents in this early 20th-century concerto — one of the staples of the cello repertoire — it's the performance of centenarian-plus Elliott Carter's astringently jocular cello concerto that is arguably even more of a draw, at least among Carter fans. Released just weeks before Carter's death at age 103, this album packs some emotional punches that couldn't have been foreseen when it was recorded. (Even after he turned 100, Carter seemed destined for literal immortality.) But more than that, it's brimming with smart, beautiful and fully present performances. (AT)

Brooklyn Rider: Seven Steps
The centerpiece of this album is Beethoven's massive, mysterious String Quartet No. 14 in C# minor, Op. 131. The young New York-based quartet Brooklyn Rider gives the music a very different spin, sliding from note to note sometimes in what some purists would call excessive portamenti. The players want to uncover the vocal aspects of Beethoven's music, presenting themselves as singers of a song. It's a bold step that pays off in the expansion of the music's legato lines, in what is a brand-new view of an often-heard piece. (TH)

Jeremy Denk: Ligeti/Beethoven
Jeremy Denk is smart. Really smart. But that doesn't make him a dweeb at the piano. His performances of terrifyingly difficult music — like Ligeti's finger-crushing Etudes — seem as natural as the weather, but with a decidedly personal stamp. His curiosity and wit also surface in his writing for The New Yorker, NPR Music, Newsweek and the New York Times Book Review. (The MacArthur "genius" award seems like a future no-brainer.) This coupling of Beethoven's final, forward-looking sonata with Ligeti's Etudes is fascinating. (TH)

Maya Beiser: Time Loops
Maya Beiser is a gifted, TED Talk-ing young cellist, unafraid to push her instrument in many genre-blurring directions. On her recent album Time Loops, she conjurs a chorus of cellos, looping herself electronically in a handful of fascinating compositions by Michael Harrison (with stops along the way for music by Arvo Pärt and Bach). "Just Ancient Loops," with its evocative drone and pizzicato opening, unfolds like a journey. The music, with its blend of East and West, soars in interlocking swirls of color, rests in a central chorale and builds steam to an ecstatic conclusion, sounding as if it had always been here. (TH)