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Chicago Tribune 'Best classical albums of 2019'

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The most valuable classical recordings of the year span a vast range, from genre-stretching contemporary music to re-evaluations of standard repertory:

Nicola Benedetti: Marsalis Violin Concerto (Decca). Three years ago, violin virtuoso Benedetti played the U.S. premiere of Wynton Marsalis' Violin Concerto in D with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park. This recording, featuring Benedetti with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Cristian Macelaru, reaffirms one's impression of the piece as a lustrous celebration of musical Americana. But the depth and rigor of Benedetti's performance here brings forth deeper aspects of the concerto than were apparent at Ravinia, suggesting Marsalis has given the violin repertoire a major work.

Black Oak Ensemble: "Silenced Voices" (Cedille Records). Music by Jewish composers killed during the Holocaust receives new life in this brilliantly conceived album, the Black Oak Ensemble giving voice to scores by Dick Katenburg, Sandor Kuti, Hans Krasa, Gideon Klein and Paul Hermann. The music spans youthful optimism to mature insight and attests to what was lost. But in a measure of hope, the album also includes the world premiere recording of a trio by Geza Frid, who survived the Holocaust and lived to 1989. An indispensable recording.

Igor Levit: "Beethoven Complete Piano Sonatas" (Sony Classical). Does the world need another traversal of Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas? Of course it does, for this monolith reshaped the definition of the sonata, expanded the instrument's possibilities and bears endless interpretation and contemplation. Pianist Levit brings considerable intellectual acuity and technical aplomb to this music, which arrives in time for next year's worldwide celebration of the composer's 250th birthday.

Third Coast Percussion: "Perpetulum" (Orange Mountain Music). Surely anyone who attended last year's world premiere of Philip Glass' "Perpetulum," commissioned and performed by Third Coast Percussion, felt the joy and rhythmic exuberance of this music. It's now documented on a two-disc set that also includes David Skidmore's similarly propulsive and still more expansive "Aliens with Extraordinary Abilities" and other works.

Mahan Esfahani: "Bach: The Toccatas" (Hyperion). Bach's Toccatas carry a measure of mystery, in that definitive scores for this music are impossible to come by, leaving performers ample latitude in ornamentation and other details. Harpsichordist Esfahani applies meticulous scholarship to this process yet has produced a vivid recording built on animated performances appropriate to the toccata form.

Jennifer Koh: "Limitless" (Cedille Records). In a bold and stylistically diverse recording, violinist Koh plays a series of duos with the composers of eight works included on this two-CD set. Where else is one likely to encounter music of contemporary composer-pianist Missy Mazzoli, soprano Lisa Bielawa and MacArthur Fellows Vijay Iyer (piano) and Tyshawn Sorey (glockenspiel) in a single project? The sounds are every bit as eclectic as one might expect, a testament to Koh's adventurousness and the creativity of all involved.

Rachel Barton Pine: Dvorak, Khachaturian Violin Concertos (Avie). Violinist Pine turns in vigorous readings of two landmarks of the concerto repertoire, accompanied by Teddy Abrams leading the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. The Khachaturian, in particular, benefits from Pine's grit and drive as performer. Her artistry continues to deepen.

Yo-Yo Ma: Salonen Cello Concerto (Sony Classical). Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonon's Cello Concerto unfolds on an epic scale, from the immensity of the orchestration to the vastness of its musical gestures. It all may seem a bit lush for some tastes, but the intense colors Salonen draws from the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the ardor of cellist Ma's performance sweep the listener along in their wake.

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