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Top 10 for May

Pine, Levit, Lang, Ma, make Chicago Tribune 'Best classical recordings of 2018'

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For the top classical recordings of the year, Chicago Tribune - Contact Reporter, Howard Reich conversed with John von Rhein, who retired as the newspaper's classical music critic in July. What follows are five picks from each of them, with comments:

Rachel Barton Pine: "Blues Dialogues" (Cedille). The definition of classical music keeps expanding, thanks to new generations of musicians uninterested in the strictures of old. Chicago violinist Pine underscores the point with "Blues Dialogues," a revelatory recording bringing welcome exposure to music of black composers. Most of this repertoire may be unfamiliar to many listeners, with works by David Baker, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, William Grant Still and others rarely performed by a soloist of Pine's gifts and stature. In her hands, this music takes on new luminosity, her sensitive readings accompanied by pianist Matthew Hagle.

Igor Levit: "Life" (Sony Classical). Even if you didn't know that this double album represents pianist Levit's response to – and contemplation of – the death of a close friend, it would be impossible not to be moved by the solemnity of his performances of large-scaled solo works by Busoni, Bach/Brahms, Schumann, Liszt and Rzewski. When taking on virtuosic passages, Levit conveys a degree of gravitas not often encountered in such fare. That he concludes with jazz pianist Bill Evans' "Peace Piece" tells you a great deal about the breadth of Levit's interests and the hopeful outcomes of this journey.

Yo-Yo Ma: "Six Evolutions: Bach Cello Suites" (Sony Classical). The singular cellist takes on a landmark of the solo repertory for his third and what he asserts in the liner notes "will be my last recording of the suites." That remains to be seen, but, regardless, the tonal depth, intellectual clarity and emotional directness of this version radiate from every track. Music scholar Nicolas Slonimsky called Bach the "supreme arbiter and lawgiver of music." In this recording we hear those laws articulated – passionately, by Ma.

Lang: "Writing on Water" (Canteloupe Music). "The album gathers four compelling instrumental pieces by American composer David Lang, cofounder of the new music collective Bang on a Can," says von Rhein. "The title track (concept and libretto by film director Peter Greenaway) has the male vocal trio Synergy Vocals and the London Sinfonietta frisking through postminimalist ‘water music' inspired by Shakespeare, Coleridge and Melville. The pulsing, burbling companion pieces – ‘Forced March,' ‘Increase' and ‘Pierced' – add to the pleasures, as do razor-sharp readings by Alarm Will Sound and the other ensembles.