Tom Huizenga

While the new year is still fresh, let's take a look in the rearview mirror at some of the noteworthy happenings in the classical music world. Were you listening last year? See if you remember the big, and not-so-big, stories from 2012 in our quiz.

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In high season, as many as two dozen albums appear in my mail bin each week. But in the first weeks of any new year, new releases are a rarity. That means patiently waiting for 2013's first intriguing albums to arrive. As a sort of appetizer, we offer three tracks from albums I'm really looking forward to. These artists (and their record companies) have generously allowed us these tantalizing tastes of what's to come.

Any releases you're impatiently awaiting? Let us know in the comments section.

You know an album is special when the music and performances transport you to another place.

From mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli's ambitious revival of the early Baroque composer Agostino Stefani (and yes, she's got another outrageous album cover) to three very different roles for the violin, here's a clutch of classical albums I returned to again and again this year for sheer delight and aural inspiration. Bartoli lavishes extravagant attention on the music of a fascinating but forgotten link in the history of opera.

Stile Antico is a 13-member a cappella choir based in London. These young, fresh-faced singers have already racked up some impressive awards for their recordings — mainly of intricately woven music from the Renaissance.

If Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach wrote a dull piece of music, I've not yet heard it. And even if there is a workaday piece or two lurking within his 300 keyboard sonatas, you certainly won't find it on this new album by British pianist Danny Driver, who deftly uncovers the surprising restlessness of the music.

There comes a time in the life of most string quartets when, for better or worse, Beethoven must be confronted. For the acclaimed Belcea Quartet (named after its first violinist Corina Belcea), that time is now. The London-based group, founded at the Royal College of Music in 1994, is thoroughly steeped in Beethoven's 16 string quartets — pieces written throughout the early, middle and late stages of his career in an epic sweep of compositional mastery and imagination.

Few classical musicians these days are serious improvisers — aside from organists and early-music practitioners. But pianist Gabriela Montero is absolutely fearless when it comes to creating a new piece, right out of the air, right on the spot. At her concerts she takes requests from audience members. They can suggest a song for her to improvise on, or simply a topic of interest.

When catastrophe strikes, when lives and livelihoods are lost, we hold tight to family, friends and our deepest beliefs for consolation. We also sometimes turn to music. With its inexpressible power, music can help channel memories, soothe the loss and salve the pain. And it can uplift, reminding us of our resiliency.

Call it what you want — superstorm, Frankenstorm, post-tropical cyclone — Mother Nature dished out something freakishly fearsome with Hurricane Sandy. It claimed more than 100 lives throughout the Northeast and the Caribbean, while causing what will surely be billions of dollars of damage in the form of washed-out businesses and flood-ravaged homes. It's a history-making hurricane that, alas, will not be soon forgotten.

Perhaps no other composer's music has been dressed up (and down) in a wider variety of outfits than Johann Sebastian Bach's.

As the presidential campaign heads into the homestretch, with binders, bayonets and a profusion of political ads, perhaps it's time to step back from the election hubbub.

Twenty-five years ago today, Houston Grand Opera mounted the world premiere of Nixon in China, the first opera by a young composer named John Adams. Two days later, The New York Times described it as a "coy and insubstantial work" and "hardly a strong candidate for the standard repertory."

There's something about Johann Sebastian Bach's music that nourishes musicians. Pianist Andras Schiff and cellist Yo-Yo Ma have said that they play Bach almost every day — like having breakfast, it seems essential for them.

After 17 years molding the Los Angeles Philharmonic into one of the smartest and most adventurous U.S. orchestras, music director Esa-Pekka Salonen called it quits in 2009. Among his reasons for leaving the ensemble was to devote more time to composing.

Polish pianist Rafał Blechacz was just 20 years old when he swept all five top prizes at the 2005 Chopin Competition in Warsaw. His domination was so thorough the judges declined to award a runner-up.

Cecilia Bartoli has a passion for musical archaeology: "I am the Indiana Jones of classical," she says jokingly to All Things Considered host Robert Siegel.

Bartoli rummages through music history to uncover forgotten opera composers deserving of her detailed and dramatic performances. Her new album, Mission, introduces her most recent "find," the late-17th-century Italian Agostino Steffani.

Twenty years have passed since Polish composer Henryk Górecki became one of the most talked about figures in classical music. In 1992, his painfully beautiful Third Symphony, the "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs," shot up the charts and was played on the radio everywhere. A recording conducted by David Zinman and featuring soprano Dawn Upshaw sold more than a million copies — huge for a classical album.

Other than bluegrass virtuosos like Ricky Skaggs, players of the mandolin don't often get taken very seriously. But a young Israeli musician named Avi Avital is trying to change that. He's not a bluegrass star; instead, his mandolin sings with the sounds of Johann Sebastian Bach, Ernest Bloch and contemporary composers like Avner Dorman.

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