Classic FM, the UK’s fun-loving, classical-only radio station, releases an annual list of “Albums of the Year” selected by the station’s staff and presenters. This year’s list features an enormous variety of genres, instruments, and personalities, with repertoire ranging from Bach to Bon Iver. All the albums selected, however, share a dedication to reinventing, revitalizing, or redefining the traditional classical album. Here’s how they do it.
We Are Young
Nine of the twenty albums spotlight classical artists under the age of 40. This may not seem like a big deal — there are plenty of talented young musicians out there — but billing these albums right up there with 2013 releases by masters like Chailly (Classic FM’s #1) and Pavarotti (#11) really creates an image of classical music that is vibrant and current, appealing to a new audience of younger listeners. This isn’t a changing of the guard, just a welcoming of a new generation of talent who can hold their own next to the longtime titans of the industry. As a bonus, these young faces have the potential to win over Skeptics who have long believed classical music to be a realm of stuffy, tuxedoed, gray-haired maestros with whom they share nothing in common. Troubling is Classic FM’s reverence of “young Russian” Vasily Petrenko, whose Rachmaninov album clocked in as #12, despite Petrenko’s wildly sexist remarks back in September. But the other fresh faces who made the list — the Ottensamers and Jansens and Yundis now breathing life and youth into this industry — offer a promising peek at the next generation of classical masters.
In the right hands, a pop song can become a very beautiful thing, or a classical piece can be transformed into something innovative and new. Albums like Gareth Malone‘s intriguing pop songs gone choral (Classic FM’s #20), Martynas‘ thoroughly enjoyable accordion renditions ranging from Lady Gaga to Vivaldi (#6), and Amy Dickson‘s sexy, saxophone-y tour of everything from Fauré to Tom Waits (#15) all really open the door to some unique musical adventures. Classic FM describes Malone’s song choices as “delightfully bonkers,” Dickson’s as “deftly selected,” and says of Martynas’ album, “It really shouldn’t work…But, miraculously, it really does work.” These artists’ creative interpretations blur the lines between genres, and encourage fans of all types to try something new. This means some Skeptics wandering their way into the classical neck of the woods, but it also means some classical fans branching out in their tastes. As they say, “Variety is the spice of life.”
A number of the albums selected by Classic FM feature classical artists already in the Skeptical public eye. Martynas, for one, became a household name in his homeland thanks to his successful competitive run on Lithuania’s Got Talent, and has used that fame as a springboard for more global accordion-y endeavors. Gareth Malone has built his career as a self-described “populariser of choral singing,” making appearances and presenting on popular TV shows as platforms for his mission. Pavarotti is obviously an uncontested and deserving celebrity whom everyone’s at the very least heard of, if not heard. Valentina Lisitsa was a YouTube sensation (“the pianist who won the Internet”) before signing on for her “superb” Rachmaninov album (Classic FM’s #4). Ludovico Einaudi (#3) is extremely popular even in Skeptic circles for his so-called “neo-classical” compositions, and he has the soaring digital sales to prove it. With such star power in the mix, new listeners are sure to turn their heads in the classical direction to see what all the buzz is about.
New Year’s Revolutions
Classical music is a centuries-old art, but when approached with a fresh perspective, it can sound like something totally new and current. Between the Tallis Scholars‘ “radio-friendly chunks” of Renaissance hits (#19), the youthful Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra‘s energetic take on Rameau (#17), a “spectacular” performance of Peter Grimes actually recorded live on the beach (#16), the Dunedin Consort‘s “vivacious” interpretation of the Brandenburg Concertos (#14), Stephen Hough‘s collection of Brahms piano concertos that “makes it fun” (#9), Janine Jansen‘s “electric” iterations of the Bach violin concertos (#8), Jonas Kaufmann‘s “gutsy” Verdi album (#5), and Daniel Hope‘s violin-tastic proof that “being accessible doesn’t mean dumbing down” (#2), 2013 has clearly been a year of evolution and revolution in classical music. Of course, seminal artists and interpretations still stand strong — Sir John Eliot Gardiner‘s “beautiful monster” of a Bach Cantatas album (#18) “is basically a masterclass,” and Pavarotti (#11) “in many ways…dominated the year every bit as much as he did when he was alive” — but with Riccardo Chailly bagging Classic FM’s top spot for his “unmissably exciting” and “ferociously entertaining” Brahms symphonies, praised for “shedding new light” on Brahms’ “oft-interpreted” symphonic canon, it’s easy to see a bright year ahead for classical music. If classical artists continue to “shed new light” on their art, 2014 is sure to rock.