Quirky, revealing, intimate… the best classic releases of 2022

After nearly two years in which record labels were seriously compromised in what they could record, whether live or in the studio, things started to return to normal in 2022. That genre changes and repertoire – away from full-scale studio recordings of orchestral and lyrical works and towards derivative releases of live performances – were part of a gradual shift in focus that had taken hold before the pandemic, though, or a direct consequence of it, was difficult to determine.

Certainly the cost of embarking on studio recordings of complete operas now seems likely to ensure that such projects become permanent rarities. Instead, their places are mostly taken by CDs and DVDs derived from staged performances and concerts, sometimes straight warts and all, sometimes with discreet post-event fixes. René Jacobs’ typically offbeat retelling of Weber’s Der Freischütz was an exception to this rule, but in the longer term it seems likely that it will be mainly Baroque operas with their small casts and orchestral strengths that will get the treatment in bespoke studio. There were fine examples of this this year with Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company recordings of Handel’s Amadigi and the rarely performed 1749 score of Rameau’s Zoroaster by Alexis Kossenko and Les Ambassadeurs – La Grande Écurie.

And, indeed, at the top of the list this year is François-Xavier Roth’s revealing version for period instruments of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, staged in Lille (although, due to restrictions of Covid at the time, it was broadcast but never performed in front of a live audience). The most interesting opera sets were also derived from live performances. There was Edward Gardner’s magnificent account of Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage, a worthy successor to Colin Davis’ classic version; the Boston Odyssey Opera’s version of Saint-Saëns’ epic Henri VIII; and Heinz Holliger’s delicate and elusive Lunea, with baritone Christian Gerhaher in the central role of poet Nikolaus Lenau.

Gerhaher and Holliger (as conductor) were also responsible for one of the most interesting revivals of a concert rarity – Othmar Schoeck’s quietly melancholy song cycle Elegie. Other welcome rarities from the early 20th century included a disc of Charles Koechlin’s wonderfully luminous orchestral music, including his Symphony of the Seven Stars, conducted by Ariane Matiakh, and one of the works inspired by the Finnish national epic The Kalevala by composers other than Sibelius. Baritone Roderick Williams’ collection of English songs, in his own orchestrations, was a quiet delight; a comprehensive survey of songs by Samuel Barber and one of Norwegian mezzo-soprano Marianne Beate Kielland’s Sibelius Orchestral Songs were valuable reminders of how much 20th-century song repertoire remains to be explored.

But outstanding new recordings of orchestral mainstream audiences were rare. Some, however, were surprisingly rewarding. These include Adam Fischer’s Brahms ensemble, recorded with orchestral forces of the size that were employed in Brahms’s day; Domingo Hindoyan’s French ballets disc, by Debussy, Rousseau and Dukas; the Berg collection by Andrew Davis, including a beautiful interpretation of the violin concerto with James Ehnes as soloist; The set of Stravinsky’s first ballets by Vladimir Jurowski with the London Philharmonic and the symphonic poems of Strauss by Franz Welser-Möst with the Cleveland Orchestra.

If some of the most interesting chamber music releases – Mendelssohn’s string quintets and Ferdinand Ries’ sextets – have been neglected repertoire rather than basic masterpieces, then the exceptional piano records have crossed the directory. There were Mitsuko Uchida’s Diabelli Variations, a work she had long wanted to record, Maurizio Pollini’s severe Hammerklavier Sonata, Krystian Zimerman’s dazzling Szymanowski, Leif Ove Andsnes’ Dvořák miniatures, Bertrand Chamayou’s Messiaen and the exuberant disc of pieces by Grażyna Bacewicz by Peter Jablonski. They were all worthwhile, although the most fascinating of all keyboards of the year was Igor Levit’s two-disc Tristan-themed collection, dominated by Hans Werner Henze’s Tristan Concerto (recorded only one times before), but also including piano transcriptions by Wagner and Mahler.

A duet between Stockhausen’s Carré and Mauricio Kagel’s Chorbuch can hardly be considered contemporary music – Stockhausen’s piece is now over 60 years old – but both works still sound as if they could have been written yesterday. Kafka Fragments by György Kurtág, wonderfully sung and performed by Anna Prohaska and Isabelle Faust, also deserves classic status, while a double set celebrating Wolfgang Rihm’s 70th birthday, a new version of Hans Abrahamsen’s mesmerizing Schnee, as well as Rebecca Saunders’ outstanding Skin and Heiner’s Typically Eclectic, Goebbels’ A House of Call, are recent works that are probably all classics in the making.

The 10 best classic releases of 2022

François-Xavier Roth during the general rehearsal of Pelléas et Mélisande at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris in 2021. Photography: Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images

1 Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande
Julien Behr/Vannina Santoni/Alexandre Duhamel/The Centuries/François-Xavier Roth

We said: “In an opera whose drama depends so much on the tiniest nuances of word composition and the network of orchestral motifs that underlie it, the use of gut strings and the woodwinds and brass of the early 20th century adds a touch of extra dimension to the expressive palette. The gains are evident from the opening, where the dark, slow strings…evoke the atmosphere of ambiguity and veiled menace that permeates the entire work. Read the review

2 Saunders: Skin; To cancel; Without breath
Klangforum Vienna/Wiegers

We said: “This superb record should win Rebecca Saunders even more admirers, as it includes one of her finest achievements: Skin, for soprano and ensemble, which was composed in 2016 for Juliet Fraser, who is the outstanding singer here with Klangforum Wien. .” Read the review

3 Szymanowski: Piano Works
Kristian Zimerman

We said, “His mastery of virtuoso brilliance is just as extraordinary as his mastery of the finer nuances of phrasing and rhythm. It’s a marvelous record from a truly exceptional artist. Read the review

4 Koechlin: The Symphony of the Seven Stars
Basel Symphony Orchestra/Ariane Matiakh

We said: “The score is a dazzling display of Koechlin’s orchestral imagination…The performance of the Basel Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Ariane Matiakh has a marvelous supple elegance, which matches the beauty and refinement of Koechlin’s writing in every way. Read the review

5 Brahms: The Four Symphonies
Danish Chamber Orchestra/Adam Fischer

We said, “These consistently compelling performances demonstrate that, even with Brahms, less can mean so much more.” Read the review

6 Tippett: The Summer Wedding
Murray/Nicholls/Spence/France/London Philharmonic/Gardner

We said, “Propelled by the LPO’s lavish playing and the contributions of his choir, the performance is charged with a particular intensity in every bar.” Read the review

7 Igor Levit: Tristan

We said, “As you’d expect, Levit’s choices are audacious…Liszt’s Transcendental Etude No. 11, with its undulating, harp-like left hand and lilting right-hand chords, bursts forth and subsides into a dark and quiet ending, the record’s perfect finale. Read the review

8 Goebbels: A Calling House
Modern Ensemble/Vimbayi Kaziboni

We said: “Hauntingly…a fascinating work, strikingly beautiful. Read the review

9 Beethoven: Diabelli Variations
Mitsuko Uchida

We said, “His playing conveys a keen sense of the music’s absurdities without exaggerating its quirks, gently raising an eyebrow at Beethoven’s deliberately heavy passages and revealing a heartfelt, profound truth right behind them.” Read the review

10 Kurtag: Kafka’s Fragments
Anna Prohaska/Isabelle Faust

We said, “Among the best of what has become one of Kurtág’s most frequently recorded works.” Read the review

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