Quirky, revelatory, intimate … the best classical releases of 2022

From live Tippett, locked-down Debussy and luminous Charles Koechlin to dazzling Szymanowski and dextrous Beethoven, we pick the outstanding releases of the past 12 months

After nearly two years in which record companies were seriously compromised in what they could record, whether live or in the studio, things began to get back to normal in 2022. Whether the shifts in genres and repertoire – away from studio recordings of large-scale orchestral and operatic works and towards releases derived from live performances – were part of a gradual change in emphasis that had set in before the pandemic, though, or a direct consequence of it, was hard to determine.

Certainly the cost of embarking on studio-made recordings of complete operas now looks likely to ensure such projects become permanent rarities. Instead, their places are being mostly filled by CDs and DVDs derived from staged and concert performances, sometimes directly warts and all, sometimes with discreet patching after the event. René Jacobs’s typically quirky account of Weber’s Der Freischütz was an exception to that rule, but in the longer term it looks likely that it will mainly be baroque operas with their smaller casts and orchestral forces that get bespoke studio treatment. There were fine examples of these this year with recordings of Handel’s Amadigi from Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company and the rarely performed 1749 score of Rameau’s Zoroastre from Alexis Kossenko and Les Ambassadeurs – La Grande Écurie.

And, indeed, heading my list this year is François-Xavier Roth’s revelatory period-instrument version of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, which stemmed from a staged production in Lille (although, because of Covid restrictions at the time, it was streamed but never performed before 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’s classic version; the Boston-based Odyssey Opera’s version of Saint-Saëns’s epic Henry VIII; and Heinz Holliger’s delicate, elusive Lunea, with the baritone Christian Gerhaher in the central role of the poet Nikolaus Lenau.

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

But exceptional new recordings from the orchestral mainstream were few and far between. Some, however, were unexpectedly rewarding. These include Adam Fischer’s Brahms set, recorded with orchestral forces of the size that were employed in Brahms’s time; Domingo Hindoyan’s disc of French ballets, by Debussy, Rousseau and Dukas; Andrew Davis’s Berg collection, including a fine performance of the violin concerto with James Ehnes as soloist; Vladimir Jurowski’s set of the early Stravinsky ballets with the London Philharmonic, and Franz Welser-Möst’s Strauss tone poems with the Cleveland Orchestra.

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

A pairing of Stockhausen’s Carré and Mauricio Kagel’s Chorbuch hardly qualifies as contemporary music – the Stockhausen piece is now more than 60 years old – but both works still sound as if they could have been written yesterday. György Kurtág’s Kafka Fragments, wonderfully sung and played by Anna Prohaska and Isabelle Faust, deserves classic status too, while a double set celebrating Wolfgang Rihm’s 70th birthday, a new version of Hans Abrahamsen’s beguiling Schnee, as well as Rebecca Saunders’s outstanding Skin, and Heiner Goebbels’s typically eclectic A House of Call, are recent works that are all likely classics in the making.

The top 10 classical releases of 2022

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

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

We said: “In an opera whose drama depends so much on the minutest nuances of the word-setting and the web of orchestral motifs underpinning it, the use of gut strings and turn-of-the-20th-century woodwind and brass adds an extra dimension to the expressive palette. The gains are obvious right from the opening, where the dark, slowly churning strings … conjure up the atmosphere of ambiguity and veiled menace that pervades the whole work.” Read the review

2 Saunders: Skin; Void; Unbreathed
Klangforum Wien/Wiegers

We said: “This superb disc ought to gain Rebecca Saunders many more admirers, for 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
Krystian Zimerman

We said: “His command of virtuoso brilliance is just as extraordinary as his control of the most subtle nuances of phrasing and pacing. This is a marvellous disc from an utterly exceptional artist.” Read the review

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

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

Conductor Ariane Matiakh
Conductor Ariane Matiakh. Photograph: Marco Borggreve

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

We said: “These constantly fascinating performances demonstrate that, even in Brahms, less can mean a lot more.” Read the review

6 Tippett: The Midsummer Marriage
Murray/Nicholls/Spence/France/London Philharmonic/Gardner

We said: “Powered by the sumptuous playing of the LPO and the contributions of its chorus, the performance is charged with a special intensity in every bar.” Read the review

7 Igor Levit: Tristan

We said: “As you might expect, Levit’s choices are daring … Liszt’s Transcendental Etude No 11, with its rippling, harp-like left hand and song-like right-hand chords, bursts into radiance then subsides to a shadowy, tranquil ending, the disc’s perfect finale.” Read the review

8 Goebbels: A House of Call
Ensemble Modern/Vimbayi Kaziboni

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

9 Beethoven: Diabelli Variations
Mitsuko Uchida

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

10 Kurtág: Kafka 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


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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