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Best Classical Music Performances of 2022


Zachary Woolfe

It sometimes looks like this yr began a few decade ago, so it may be easy to forget that we rang in 2022 with the performing arts hobbled by the Omicron surge. In chronological order, these were my favorite performances in a yr of slow but regular rebuilding, which is ending — knock on wood — with something approaching normalcy for live music.

It took considerable guts for the composer Tyshawn Sorey to face so directly considered one of his idols, Morton Feldman, whose “Rothko Chapel” was commissioned across the 1971 opening of that nondenominational space in Houston. For the chapel’s fiftieth anniversary, Sorey wrote this piece, with musical forces and a spacious style each paying homage to the Feldman. But at its premiere in February, “Monochromatic Light” — ill-advisedly expanded for a grandiose staging on the Park Avenue Armory this fall — had a patience and invoked a history all its own. (Read our review of “Monochromatic Light” in Houston.)

The title role in Strauss’s metatheatrical masterpiece “Ariadne auf Naxos” brought this Norwegian soprano to international attention just a couple of years ago. It wasn’t her Metropolitan Opera debut when she sang it there in March, however the performance felt just like the moment she truly arrived, filling the vast Met with shimmering floods of sound, the sort that lightly presses you back in your chair — from gleaming, solar high notes to brooding depths. Davidsen had connoisseurs dropping names like Kirsten Flagstad and Birgit Nilsson, Twentieth-century giants of easy, expansive tone, by means of comparison. (Read our review of “Ariadne auf Naxos.”)

Boldly slashing and reshaping Shakespeare’s play, the composer Brett Dean and the librettist Matthew Jocelyn created a grim, unsettling opera that got here to Recent York in May, emphasizing tumultuous surrealism with a stunning rating for an enormous, virtuosic orchestra, alternately pummeling and simmering. In a really different but in addition deeply satisfying vein, Gregory Spears and Tracy K. Smith’s “Castor and Patience,” which premiered at Cincinnati Opera in July, was an unshowy, restrained, warmly tonal exploration of a Black family and the land it owns. The art form is large enough for each approaches. (Read our review of “Hamlet.”)

I traveled to Cleveland in May for a concert performance of Verdi’s “Otello.” But that grand, turbulent opera was overshadowed by a matinee featuring Schubert’s Ninth Symphony, the ultimate work this orchestra played before the primary pandemic lockdown. The Clevelanders had, as usual, clarity, poise and adroit balance among the many sections: elegance without reticence, urgency without pressure, airiness without weightlessness. But while descriptions of their precision and transparency sometimes make them seem cool, even chilly, this was poignant, humane music-making. (Read our Critic’s Notebook concerning the Cleveland live shows.)

Just 18, this Korean pianist became the youngest-ever winner of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in June. He daringly selected Liszt’s deliriously difficult “Transcendental Études” for his semifinal round, and within the finals played Rachmaninoff’s classic Third Concerto with an influence and — more vital — poised poetry that had an ordinary sounding fresh. I wasn’t on the competition in Fort Value, but even as seen on YouTube this is excellent work, with a maturity and confidence uncanny in a teen. (Read our feature concerning the Cliburn competition.)

There may be hardly a directorial task in opera more daunting than staging Wagner’s epic “Ring” on the Bayreuth Festival. This summer, Valentin Schwarz eliminated the cycle’s magical effects in his acidic, contemporary-dress production, and added ominous hints of kid abuse and whiffs of daytime soaps in the cruel vividness of the visuals and acting — but in addition mysterious, lyrical touches. The forged sang well and acted with passionate commitment, though Cornelius Meister’s conducting was merely solid, sensibly paced and somewhat faceless. (Read our review of the “Ring.”)

The highlight of this summer’s Aix-en-Provence Festival in France was Ted Huffman’s vivid, spare staging of “L’Incoronazione di Poppea,” Monteverdi’s razor-sharp tale of ancient Roman lust and ambition. Huffman guided his youthful forged in scenes that were genuinely sexy — heated by this exquisitely sensual rating, with Leonardo García Alarcón conducting a small but potent group from his ensemble, Cappella Mediterranea. On the Salzburg Festival, spare was also essentially the most successful, in the shape of Barrie Kosky’s pared-down tackle Janacek’s breathless operatic tragedy “Kat’a Kabanova,” with the soprano Corinne Winters ecstatic and anxious within the title role. (Read our Critic’s Notebook concerning the Aix festival.)

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a real culture war; Russia is searching for not only land but in addition the erasure of a nation’s artistic output and history. The brave soldiers fighting against that include the members of this pickup orchestra (which toured this summer under the assured baton of the conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson) and the Odesa Philharmonic, which traveled to Berlin for an inspiring performance in September. All year long, powerful performances of Russian music — like a savagely colourful revival of Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” on the Met this fall, with Wilson on the rostrum — gave the misinform Putinists’ claim that their country’s culture has been canceled within the West. (Read our review of the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra.)

Ferruccio Busoni’s Piano Concerto, written in the primary years of the Twentieth century, is a 70-minute birthday cake, wealthy and loaded high with demands on orchestra, soloist and audience. And after all the things else there’s a final-movement men’s chorus chanting quasi-Islamic mysticism in German! It’s a culmination of the tradition of the piano concerto — from Mozart through Beethoven, Brahms, Liszt and Tchaikovsky — and its rare appearances are thrilling events for its partisans. When the peerlessly sensitive, ardent Igor Levit played it in September in Berlin with the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia under Antonio Pappano, I used to be seated a stone’s throw from Levit and his indefatigable page turner, for a spectacle that was exhilarating, dizzying, astonishing.

The acoustics may lack enveloping warmth, and the expanded public spaces have the cheesy functionality of an airport lounge. But there’s little doubt that the decades-delayed gutting of the Recent York Philharmonic’s home at Lincoln Center — which has reduced the theater’s capability, pulled the stage forward, and wrapped seating around it — is an improvement in sound and intimacy. That said, I used to be reminded of an evergreen challenge facing the orchestra — the parade of competitors that tour to town — when the Berlin Philharmonic got here to Carnegie Hall in November with playing, especially in Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, that simply blew the hometown band out of the water. (Read our Critic’s Notebook about Geffen Hall. And one other. And one other.)

In classical music and opera, more so than in fields like film and tv, year-end lists can seem unimaginable. The art is ephemeral, and global. A critic can only experience a lot. But of what I did, listed below are 10, in no particular order, that stuck with me.

I’ve long been most conversant in this Delibes opera through its famous “Flower Duet” and nothing more; the French kitsch and cringy colonialism put me off. But a blockbuster production, directed with graceful restraint by Laurent Pelly on the Opéra Comique in Paris, made a convert of me — due to the good rising conductor Raphaël Pichon’s driving baton guiding his ensemble, Pygmalion, together with Sabine Devieilhe’s crystalline soprano and Stéphane Degout’s richly resonant baritone.

Every thing it’s essential to find out about Barrie Kosky’s farewell production at his Komische Oper in Berlin is there within the title. To experience it, nonetheless, was something else entirely. With such an intensive commitment to the kind-of joke — of recreating mid-Twentieth century Jewish Catskills resort entertainment — it may very well be hard to inform whether this show alternated between registers of reverence or irony, or operated on each without delay. All you would do in response was laugh, cry and, most significant, leave dancing. (Read our review here.)

Rhiannon Giddens’s first opera, written with the composer Michael Abels, premiered at Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, S.C., just a brief walk from where a few of its history — of the trans-Atlantic slave trade — took place. What Giddens and Abels created is a great of American sound, an inheritor of the Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess” but more honest to its subject material, conjuring folk music, spirituals, Islamic prayer and more, woven along with a compelling true story that transcends documentary. The opera culminates in a patient moment of collective contemplation and, ultimately, healing. (Read our review of “Omar” here.)

Orchestras rarely break the habit of commissioning curtain-raisers — something temporary and infrequently forgettable to open a program before the fun of a well-recognized concerto or symphony. The Los Angeles Philharmonic is an exception, though, and this yr went a step further in presenting the roughly 100-minute “Dante,” a triptych loosely inspired by “The Divine Comedy” but more a dizzying homage to Liszt, synagogue music and the enchantingly upward infinity of the cosmos. Conceived as a ballet rating, it belongs alongside the nice dance music of Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky that thrives on the concert stage. (Read our review of “Dante” here.)

This soprano is amongst few singers who bring the dramatic skill of an Ibsen or O’Neill veteran to any work they touch. Although her voice has grown smaller recently — farewell, roles like Lulu — Petersen was among the many finest acting talents in opera this yr. Twice. First got here her elusive and ageless, yet desperate and increasingly weary, Elina Makropulos of Janacek’s “The Makropulos Case” on the Berlin State Opera. Then, on the Bavarian State Opera, she performed the Marschallin in Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier” with sexy confidence and refreshingly sensible serenity. (Read our feature about Marlis Petersen.)

Once-rare visits to Recent York became more regular for the pianist Igor Levit this yr, with two solo recitals and a concerto appearance with the Recent York Philharmonic — all at Carnegie Hall. (This on top of yet one more monumental album release, “Tristan.”) Most memorable was his engagement in October, which consisted of a single work: Shostakovich’s complete 24 Preludes and Fugues. Overwhelming in scale and variety, this was a marathon, a night that ran over three hours, leaving Levit visibly dazed. So was the audience. (Read our review of the Shostakovich.)

San Francisco Opera celebrated each its centennial and the seventy fifth birthday yr of John Adams, our best living American composer, with the premiere of “Antony and Cleopatra.” (I watched a streamed version after attending rehearsals.) Adams wrote his rating with adoration for and absolute control of the English language, and with the unshowy confidence to tackle Shakespeare, whose poetry teems with musicality. His orchestra is a restless character within the nonstop drama, while the vocal lines have the directness of Debussy or Janacek, rendering the libretto clearly enough to follow without titles. This was not opera at its most groundbreaking, but at its most masterly. (Read our feature about John Adams.)

On an otherwise forgettable Sunday afternoon in March, the pianist Mitsuko Uchida and the tenor Mark Padmore got together within the intimate Zankel Hall for the best lieder recital I heard all yr: songs by Beethoven, in addition to his cycle “An die ferne Geliebte,” and Schubert’s posthumous collection “Schwanengesang.” Our most sensitive and searching Schubert interpreters, they gave a correctly restrained yet shattering account of this repertory. On the time, I wrote that it’s difficult to avoid superlatives when writing about these two. Perhaps that’s the one language possible. (Read our review of the recital here.)

The Salzburg Festival’s Ouverture Spirituelle — the underrated series of performances leading as much as the foremost slate — was so richly varied, difficult and expertly delivered last summer, it could populate a Top 10 list by itself. But one moment stands out: a harrowing yet wondrous concert performance of Wolfgang Rhim’s opera “Jakob Lenz.” In the course of the curtain call, the composer was supported by Markus Hinterhäuser, the festival’s artistic director, to stand up from his seat to greet a full house of roaring applause. Already heartening, the ovation was also deserved; the opera is amongst essentially the most powerful and ingenious of the past half-century, and it’s hard to assume a greater presentation than this one, conducted with ferocity by Maxime Pascal and starring the Lenz of our time, Georg Nigl. (Read our Critic’s Notebook concerning the Ouverture Spirituelle here.)

If there’s a hill I’m all too able to die on, it’s that “Tár” is the comedy of the yr. A slippery mix of surreal thrills, reticent storytelling and irreconcilable mystery, it is usually a satire from start to complete — about cancel culture, to a level, but more so the politics and particulars of classical music. Sure, there are slip-ups like incorrect references to Mahler’s Fifth and a dreamy but unimaginable schedule for rehearsals and programming, but much else is uncomfortably accurate, and straightforward to laugh at. The less seriously you’re taking this movie, the higher. (Read our review of “Tár” here.)

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