This list of our critics’ favorite albums of the year, each represented by a single track, is a lot like the classical music scene: It might seem at first to be dominated by standards — alphabetical order, alas — but quickly reveals rarer treasures, from overlooked centuries-old works to fresh experiments. Enjoy.
Bach: Partita for Violin No. 2, Chaconne
“Sei Solo”: Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Violin Solo; Thomas Zehetmair, violin (ECM)
I promised myself I would find a track on this solemnly glittering set to highlight other than the obvious: the mighty Chaconne from the Second Partita. But here we are. Mr. Zehetmair’s interpretation of this classic feels dancily suspended in air, understatedly intense. As throughout the album, his touch is mistily veiled one moment, glinting copper the next. ZACHARY WOOLFE
Beethoven: Sonata No. 7 in D, Presto
Complete Piano Sonatas; Igor Levit, piano (Sony Classical)
While we’re not lacking in distinguished surveys of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas, Mr. Levit’s recording stands out impressively. He is such a probing and sensitive artist that it’s easy to take for granted how technically brilliant his playing is — as in his bracing account of the first movement of this early sonata. ANTHONY TOMMASINI
Beethoven: String Quartet No. 13 in B flat, Cavatina
“Prism II”; Danish String Quartet (ECM)
No quartet playing today has the Danish’s way with late Beethoven. Proof: a Cavatina that sings with divinity and yet with humanity; that neither wallows in beauty nor looks the other way; that, put frankly, is eight perfect minutes. DAVID ALLEN
Berlioz: ‘Autrefois un roi de Thulé’
“La Damnation de Faust”; Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg; John Nelson, conductor (Erato)
After setting a new standard in “Les Troyens” two years ago, Mr. Nelson is back with another immaculate account of a Berlioz masterwork. Two stars have returned as well: Michael Spyres as Faust and Joyce DiDonato as Marguerite, with a touching blend of hope and sad beauty in this lieder-like aria. JOSHUA BARONE
Derek Bermel: ‘amerikanizalodik’
“Migrations”; Juilliard Jazz Orchestra, Albany Symphony Orchestra; David Alan Miller, conductor (Naxos)
Besides being a composer, Mr. Bermel is a formidable clarinetist who in his early days played jazz and funk. “Migrations,” an album of his work, includes “A Shout, a Whisper, and a Trace,” a vibrant homage to Bartok. This, the first movement, is a dizzying melting pot of folklike rhythms, droning tunes and pungent modernist harmonies, spiked with bursts of wailing jazz. A.T.
Anthony Braxton: ‘Composition No. 255’
“GTM (Syntax) 2017”; Tri-Centric Vocal Ensemble (New Braxton House)
A dozen vocalists riff through Mr. Braxton’s pulsing “Ghost Trance Music” works, while improvising and layering other pieces atop the core material. Do you need 11 hours’ worth? I do: I’ve found these adroit, vertiginous performances to be crucial mood music all year. Lower opus numbers are suited to chill days; higher ones have proven cathartic in, well, more complex moments. No. 255 sits near the midpoint, so take it as you will. SETH COLTER WALLS
Bruckner: Symphony No. 9, Adagio
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra; Manfred Honeck, conductor (Reference)
Another year, another appearance on this list for Mr. Honeck and the orchestra he has brought to scarcely believable heights in the standard repertoire. This may well be their finest recording so far: breathtakingly intense, magnificently played and unrelentingly fresh. D.A.
Byrd: ‘Tristitia et anxietas’
“In a Strange Land”; Stile Antico (Harmonia Mundi)
Stile Antico excel in everything they sing, but for the yearning melancholy of William Byrd they always seem to reserve something particularly special, a balm for the troubled soul. D.A.
Rebecca Clarke: Piano Trio, Allegro Vigoroso
“Her Voice”; Neave Trio (Chandos)
What excellent performances this trio gives here of works that deserve them: by Louise Farrenc, Amy Beach and, most revealing, Rebecca Clarke, whose quicksilver, folk-inspired piece from 1921 can be combative, but has moments of haunting respite. D.A.
Du Yun: ‘Give Me Back My Fingerprints’
“Limitless”; Jennifer Koh, violin (Cedille)
Part of Ms. Koh’s double-disc project of collaborations with composers who also perform alongside her, this piece rises from quietly uneasy to rabid and raw, then back again. Violin lines emerge, as if from far away, to mingle with Ms. Du’s earthy, murmuring, sometimes choking voice. Z.W.
Michael Gordon: ‘Beautiful Monster’
“Acquanetta”; Choir of Trinity Wall Street, Bang on a Can Opera Ensemble; Daniela Candillari, conductor (Cantaloupe Music)
This piece of music theater, about a B-movie star of the 1940s, was smartly staged as a film within an opera at the Prototype festival in 2018. It works nearly as well audio-only, thanks to a strong cast, Deborah Artman’s crafty libretto and Mr. Gordon’s pummeling yet melodious brand of post-Minimalism. S.C.W.
Ives: Symphony No. 4, Comedy (Allegretto)
Symphonies No. 3 and 4; San Francisco Symphony; Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor (SFS Media)
The grand, glorious chaos of Ives’s Fourth Symphony — with its mad layering of different tempos, its discontinuities, its need for two conductors merely to keep the whole thing together — has rarely had this clarity. I’ve never heard the clearing of the air near the start of the second movement, marked “Comedy,” sound so eerily gleaming, nor the climaxes feel so sleek. There’s burning patience in the third movement Fugue, and mystery hovering over the Finale. Z.W.
Kurtag: Seven Songs
“The Edge of Silence”; Susan Narucki, soprano (Avie)
These seven songs, a highlight in this album of Kurtag’s vocal works, pass in just over nine minutes: dark little pools of fervor, articulated by Ms. Narucki with precision and tenderness and accompanied by just the percussive cimbalom, played here with richly pianistic resonance by Nicholas Tolle. Z.W.
Mahler: Symphony No. 6, Finale
SWR Symphony Orchestra Baden-Baden and Freiburg; Michael Gielen, conductor (SWR)
This release in memory of Mr. Gielen, who died in March, pairs performances of the same symphony, with the same orchestra, that could not be more different. The first, from 1971, is shimmering, vigorous and pretty good — but the second, from 2013, is the real deal: so slow, dark and heavy that it feels, by the end, truly like horror in sound. D.A.
Andrew Norman: ‘Sustain’
Los Angeles Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor (Deutsche Grammophon)
Mr. Norman’s music is best heard live: He’s a composer who thinks as much about the physical spectacle of playing as about the resulting sound. But “Sustain” loses none of its brilliance in this recording, available only on digital platforms — its shifts are now somehow more seismic yet more subtle, its details more focused. J.B.
Ockeghem: ‘Permanent vierge, plus digne que nesune’
Complete Songs, Vol. 1; Blue Heron; Scott Metcalfe, director (Blue Heron)
The 15th-century Franco-Flemish composer Johannes Ockeghem’s French chansons were like the pop songs of his day. Though these works for multiple singers are thick with contrapuntal lines, and have a tinge of austere Renaissance sacred music, they are also gorgeous, sensual and nuanced, as Blue Heron’s splendid account of “Permanent vierge” demonstrates. A.T.
Florence Price: Symphony No. 4, Scherzo
Symphonies No. 1 and 4; Fort Smith Symphony; John Jeter, conductor (Naxos)
Price’s First Symphony has already been recorded. So it was the Fort Smith orchestra’s premiere recording of her 1945 Fourth, in D Minor, that made news among fans of this long-snubbed composer. The brio of the best Americana is present throughout the work, particularly in its rousing climax. S.C.W.
Frederic Rzewski: ‘Which Side Are You On?’
“American Rage”; Conrad Tao, piano (Warner Classics)
Conrad Tao’s “American Rage” is a timely collection of flinty contemporary American pieces. It’s also a personal statement of protest from a young, outspoken American pianist and composer, the child of Chinese immigrants. Here, he captures both the angry idealism and the ingenious daring of Mr. Rzewski’s “Which Side Are You On?” in a teeming, and beautiful, performance. A.T.
David Sanford: ‘Black Noise’
“Black Noise”; Boston Modern Orchestra Project; Gil Rose, conductor (BMOP/sound)
Mr. Sanford’s big-band bona fides have long been established. But this is the first full-length recording that documents his approach to the orchestra, which encompasses Boulez-influenced harmony and Mingus-style propulsion. This latest triumph doubles as a leading question: Why isn’t every major orchestra in America commissioning him? S.C.W.
Clara Schumann: Scherzo No. 2 in C Minor
“Romance”; Isata Kanneh-Mason, piano (Decca)
Clara Schumann’s 200th birthday this year attracted a baffling lack of attention, but at least it gave us a bold debut recording from a young pianist worth watching. Ms. Kanneh-Mason’s account of Schumann’s Piano Concerto is more than convincing, but her performances of the solo piano works, especially this magical Scherzo, are even better. D.A.
Caroline Shaw: ‘Valencia’
“Orange”; Attacca Quartet (New Amsterdam/Nonesuch)
This eye-opening album is an invitation to consider the familiar — whether it’s the centuries-old form of the string quartet or, in the case of “Valencia,” the everyday orange. After an opening of glistening harmonics and pizzicato that’s like piqued curiosity, Ms. Shaw’s music takes off to discover surprising melodic turns with irresistible joy and wonder. J.B.
Stravinsky: ‘Danse Infernale’
Beatrice Rana, piano (Warner Classics)
Ms. Rana, at 26 one of the finest pianists of the new generation, is at her best on this recording, which includes solo piano transcriptions of works by Ravel and Stravinsky. The “Infernal Dance” from Stravinsky’s “Firebird” sounds blazing and demonic in this fierce, commanding performance. A.T.
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 (1879 version), First Movement
“The Tchaikovsky Project”; Czech Philharmonic; Semyon Bychkov, conductor; Kirill Gerstein, piano (Decca)
Although this boxed set has its share of longueurs — it’s bound to, with more than eight hours of Tchaikovsky interpreted, for the most part, with an extremely level head — you can skip to the First Piano Concerto, presented here in its original form: a revelation of delicacy, and a war horse as you’ve never heard it. J.B.
Anna Thorvaldsdottir: ‘Metacosmos’
“Concurrence”; Iceland Symphony Orchestra; Daniel Bjarnason, conductor (Sono Luminus)
In this quartet of contemporary works, you’ll find Haukur Tomasson’s Second Piano Concerto (the best way to hear Vikingur Olafsson on an album this year). And it offers a recording, at last, of Ms. Thorvaldsdottir’s “Metacosmos” (2017), which in its brief running time seems to ebb and flow on a cosmic scale. J.B.
Anna Webber: ‘Clockwise’
“Clockwise” (Pi Recordings)
This saxophonist has cited composers like Feldman and Xenakis as inspirations for some of the pieces on her album, but the tour through colors and dynamics that Ms. Webber produces with her group sounds fresh. S.C.W.