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Best Classical Music Performances of 2022

Zachary Woolfe

A Year of Steady Rebuilding

It sometimes feels like this year began about a decade ago, so it can 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 year of slow but steady rebuilding, which is ending — knock on wood — with something approaching normalcy for live music.

‘Monochromatic Light (Afterlife)’

It took considerable guts for the composer Tyshawn Sorey to face so directly one of his idols, Morton Feldman, whose “Rothko Chapel” was commissioned around the 1971 opening of that nondenominational space in Houston. For the chapel’s 50th anniversary, Sorey wrote this piece, with musical forces and a spacious style both reminiscent of the Feldman. But at its premiere in February, “Monochromatic Light” — ill-advisedly expanded for a grandiose staging at the Park Avenue Armory this fall — had a patience and invoked a history all its own. (Read our review of “Monochromatic Light” in Houston.)

Lise Davidsen’s Ariadne

The title role in Strauss’s metatheatrical masterpiece “Ariadne auf Naxos” brought this Norwegian soprano to international attention just a few years ago. It wasn’t her Metropolitan Opera debut when she sang it there in March, but the performance felt like the moment she truly arrived, filling the vast Met with shimmering floods of sound, the kind that gently 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, 20th-century giants of easy, expansive tone, by way of comparison. (Read our review of “Ariadne auf Naxos.”)

‘Hamlet’ at the Met

Boldly slashing and reshaping Shakespeare’s play, the composer Brett Dean and the librettist Matthew Jocelyn created a grim, unsettling opera that came to New York in May, emphasizing tumultuous surrealism with a dazzling score for a huge, virtuosic orchestra, alternately pummeling and simmering. In a very different but also 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 big enough for both approaches. (Read our review of “Hamlet.”)

Cleveland Orchestra

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 final work this orchestra played before the first pandemic lockdown. The Clevelanders had, as usual, clarity, poise and adroit balance among the 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 about the Cleveland concerts.)

Franz Welser-Möst conducting the Cleveland Orchestra, which delivered an impressive Schubert’s Ninth at home in May.Credit…Roger Mastroianni/The Cleveland Orchestra

Yunchan Lim

Just 18, this Korean pianist became the youngest-ever winner of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in June. He daringly chose Liszt’s deliriously difficult “Transcendental Études” for his semifinal round, and in the finals played Rachmaninoff’s classic Third Concerto with a power and — more important — poised poetry that had a standard sounding fresh. I wasn’t at the competition in Fort Worth, but even as seen on YouTube this is superb work, with a maturity and confidence uncanny in a teenager. (Read our feature about the Cliburn competition.)

A New Bayreuth ‘Ring’

There is hardly a directorial assignment in opera more daunting than staging Wagner’s epic “Ring” at the Bayreuth Festival. This summer, Valentin Schwarz eliminated the cycle’s magical effects in his acidic, contemporary-dress production, and added ominous hints of child abuse and whiffs of daytime soaps in the harsh vividness of the visuals and acting — but also mysterious, lyrical touches. The cast 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.”)

‘Poppea’ in Aix

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 cast in scenes that were genuinely sexy — heated by this exquisitely sensual score, with Leonardo García Alarcón conducting a small but potent group from his ensemble, Cappella Mediterranea. At the Salzburg Festival, spare was also the most successful, in the form of Barrie Kosky’s pared-down take on Janacek’s breathless operatic tragedy “Kat’a Kabanova,” with the soprano Corinne Winters ecstatic and anxious in the title role. (Read our Critic’s Notebook about the Aix festival.)

Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a true culture war; Russia is seeking not just land but also 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. Throughout the year, powerful performances of Russian music — like a savagely colorful revival of Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” at the Met this fall, with Wilson on the podium — gave the lie to Putinists’ claim that their country’s culture has been canceled in the West. (Read our review of the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra.)

Keri-Lynn Wilson conducted the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra outdoors at Lincoln Center in August. Credit…Caitlin Ochs for The New York Times

Igor Levit’s Busoni

Ferruccio Busoni’s Piano Concerto, written in the first years of the 20th century, is a 70-minute birthday cake, rich and loaded high with demands on orchestra, soloist and audience. And after everything 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 was seated a stone’s throw from Levit and his indefatigable page turner, for a spectacle that was exhilarating, dizzying, astonishing.

The New Geffen Hall

The acoustics may lack enveloping warmth, and the expanded public spaces have the cheesy functionality of an airport lounge. But there’s no doubt that the decades-delayed gutting of the New York Philharmonic’s home at Lincoln Center — which has reduced the theater’s capacity, pulled the stage forward, and wrapped seating around it — is an improvement in sound and intimacy. That said, I was reminded of an evergreen challenge facing the orchestra — the parade of competitors that tour to the city — when the Berlin Philharmonic came 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 another. And another.)


Joshua Barone

Nailing Down the Ephemeral

Catskills on the Spree: “Barrie Kosky’s All-Singing, All-Dancing Yiddish Revue” was Kosky’s farewell production at the Komische Oper in Berlin.Credit…Monika Rittershaus

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

‘Lakmé’

I’ve long been most familiar with 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 at the Opéra Comique in Paris, made a convert of me — thanks to the brilliant rising conductor Raphaël Pichon’s driving baton guiding his ensemble, Pygmalion, along with Sabine Devieilhe’s crystalline soprano and Stéphane Degout’s richly resonant baritone.

‘Barrie Kosky’s All-Singing, All-Dancing Yiddish Revue’

Everything you need to know about Barrie Kosky’s farewell production at his Komische Oper in Berlin is there in the title. To experience it, however, was something else entirely. With such a thorough commitment to the kind-of joke — of recreating mid-20th century Jewish Catskills resort entertainment — it could be hard to tell whether this show alternated between registers of reverence or irony, or operated on both at once. All you could do in response was laugh, cry and, most important, leave dancing. (Read our review here.)

‘Omar’

Rhiannon Giddens’s first opera, written with the composer Michael Abels, premiered at Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, S.C., just a short walk from where some of its history — of the trans-Atlantic slave trade — took place. What Giddens and Abels created is an ideal of American sound, an inheritor of the Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess” but more honest to its subject matter, conjuring folk music, spirituals, Islamic prayer and more, woven together 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.)

James McCorkle, center, in the title role of Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels’s “Omar” at the Spoleto Festival USA.Credit…Leigh Webber/Spoleto Festival

Thomas Adès: ‘Dante’

Orchestras rarely break the habit of commissioning curtain-raisers — something brief and often forgettable to open a program before the fun of a familiar concerto or symphony. The Los Angeles Philharmonic is an exception, though, and this year 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 score, it belongs alongside the great dance music of Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky that thrives on the concert stage. (Read our review of “Dante” here.)

Marlis Petersen

This soprano is among 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 finest acting talents in opera this year. Twice. First came her elusive and ageless, yet desperate and increasingly weary, Elina Makropulos of Janacek’s “The Makropulos Case” at the Berlin State Opera. Then, at the Bavarian State Opera, she performed the Marschallin in Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier” with sexy confidence and refreshingly wise serenity. (Read our feature about Marlis Petersen.)

Igor Levit

Once-rare visits to New York became more regular for the pianist Igor Levit this year, with two solo recitals and a concerto appearance with the New York Philharmonic — all at Carnegie Hall. (This on top of yet another 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, an evening that ran over three hours, leaving Levit visibly dazed. So was the audience. (Read our review of the Shostakovich.)

‘Antony and Cleopatra’

San Francisco Opera celebrated both its centennial and the 75th birthday year of John Adams, our greatest living American composer, with the premiere of “Antony and Cleopatra.” (I watched a streamed version after attending rehearsals.) Adams wrote his score with adoration for and absolute control of the English language, and with the unshowy confidence to take on Shakespeare, whose poetry teems with musicality. His orchestra is a restless character in 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.)

Amina Edris as Cleopatra in San Francisco Opera’s world premiere of John Adams’s Antony and Cleopatra.Credit… Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Mitsuko Uchida and Mark Padmore

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

‘Jakob Lenz’

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

‘Tár’

If there’s a hill I’m all too ready to die on, it’s that “Tár” is the comedy of the year. A slippery blend of surreal thrills, reticent storytelling and irreconcilable mystery, it is also a satire from start to finish — about cancel culture, to a degree, 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 impossible schedule for rehearsals and programming, but much else is uncomfortably accurate, and easy to laugh at. The less seriously you take this movie, the better. (Read our review of “Tár” here.)


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