What does a year in listening really sound like? According to my Tidal 2022 Rewind, the albums I listened to the most this year tell a different story than this column: Bo Burnham’s “Inside” (because I have the triple-crown of anxiety, depression, and ADHD), the original concept recording of “Chess” (because it beats out the “Ring” Cycle as the single greatest achievement in the fusion of music and theater), and Talking Heads’ “Stop Making Sense” (because I’ve got two ears and a heart).
Thanks to Instagram slowly going the way of TikTok, there are also works and songs that felt all-pervasive for the hashtag-mood that was 2022 (hashtag–Harry-Styles, hashtag–Taylor-Swift, hashtag–Offenbach-but-everyone-thinks-it’s-Beethoven). The potential for divided attention is so high, it’s frankly amazing that I was able to listen to and process enough music to fill a near-weekly column that didn’t include a 12-part series devoted to Talmudic analyses of “Midnights,” a line-by-line breakdown of why Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy” is the perfect pop song, or the net effects of listening to a metric fuck-tonne of Bizet’s “Carmen.”
Sidebar: If you listen to nothing else this year, let it be Mariah Carey’s mother, former New York City Opera company member Patricia Hickey, singing the “Habanera.”
The end of the year invites a lot of Mariah Carey, as well as a modicum of reflection. With that in mind, and in no particular order, here are my top 15 albums of 2022.
1. Anna Prohaska, La Folia Barockorchester, Robin Peter Müller: “Celebration of Life in Death” (Alpha)
Psychologists love to remind us that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s famous “stages of grief” were initially intended to map onto the experiences faced by people realizing they’re about to die—not by the people who will survive them. Anna Prohaska’s second COVID-related album for Alpha is a testimony to our longstanding cultural fixation on death from that other side of the equation: How do we make meaning from individual loss? What about loss on a mass scale, such as the 14th-century Black Death? Tracing the history from Guillaume de Machaut to Leonard Cohen, Prohaska delivers both keen curation and a performance that feels like a theater of the voice.
2. Kate Soper: “The Understanding of All Things” (New Focus Recordings) and Olivia De Prato: “I, A.M.” (New World Records)
Many of the new works I listened to in 2022 felt single-minded in their drive; the sort of fixation that comes from spending one too many days not touching grass (as, I am told, the kids say). In a year full of anxiety and insomnia, they’re works that obsess over the questions that keep us up at night, over lines from an essay read in college that still remain firmly planted in the back-forty of memory. It’s the focus of Justina Jaruševičiūtė’s “Wolf Hour,” the time-obliterating drones of Kali Malone’s “Pipe Inversions (for Kimberger III),” or the linguistic fixations of Eric Nathan’s “Missing Words” and Anthony Cheung’s “All Roads.”
I’m hard pressed to choose between the two, but Kate Soper’s “The Understanding of All Things” and Olivia De Prato’s “I, A.M.” both reflect this guileless pursuit of what is truthful, if not true. This comes through in Soper’s settings of texts by George Berkeley, Parmenides, Yeats, Frost, and Kafka—with one of the lattermost writer’s lines defining the focus of her works: “Once the smallest detail is truly known, are all things known.” De Prato’s collection of commissioned works represents a hivemind hangup between violinist and composers: How do the roles of motherhood and musicianship coincide?
In the best way possible, this album was the opposite of thoughts. Joined by violist Tabea Zimmerman and cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras, the Belceas delivered a cozy blanket of Brahms’s two String Sextets, all Romantic texture and gesture. Now that the weather is getting colder again, I’ve begun revisiting this album as a talisman against the mid-afternoon sunsets of winter in Berlin.
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“The purpose of dissonance in life,” Asmik Grigorian writes in the liner notes for her recording of Rachmaninoff songs, “is to make one hear the consonances—that beauty and harmony so one can appreciate them again.” I’d hesitate to say Grigorian’s debut solo album is a Brahms-like comfort; it’s more the concluding beat of a Chekhov play (which also forms some of the texts set by Rachmaninoff for this recording). Recorded long before 2022 really began to go off a cliff in terms of cortisol-raising headlines and angina-inducing events, “Dissonance” only became more relevant as the year went on.
It was a good year for Alpha across musical genre and themes, with Golda Schultz’s gleaming soprano illuminating Olivia De Prato-esque themes of womanhood and identity through two centuries of art song. Like Grigorian’s Rachmaninoff recording, it’s the perfect combination of singer, accompanist, and program, and I wish I could bottle Schultz’s particular combination of intelligence and energy.
Of experimentalism, John Cage wrote: “Nothing was lost when everything was given away. In fact, everything is gained.” Can the same be said for control? If we give up control, do we gain more than we lose?
I don’t know. But it seems like a worthwhile thought experiment. While Cage provides patterns and, occasionally, pitch ranges for his choral artists, he assumes no more control over the specific pitches—or, for that matter, the instruments playing them. It’s a gamble, but in the hands and vocal chords of Sigvards Kļava and the Latvian Radio Choir, everything is gained.
I’m pretty sure I’ve seen this album on every single “Best of 2022” roundup for classical music. No argument here. Julius Eastman is remembered as a composer whose life ended early, in both tragic obscurity and dire straits, but that was by no means the full measure of his personality. Under conductor Christopher Rountree, Wild Up has committed to reconstructing that full personality through a seven-volume initiative that also brings many of the composer’s works to the recording studio for the first time. Like Cage, those works offer generous room for interpretation, meaning we’re also getting much of Wild Up’s own ebullient personalities and razor-sharp acumen in the music as well. The energy of works like Wild Up’s momentous reconstruction of “Stay On It” is compulsively contagious.
As I wrote in June, the Danish String Quartet’s “Prism” series is a sprawling dinner where the candles have begun to taper out, the napkins are stained with wine and sauce, but a discussion is just starting to go somewhere and nobody wants to be the first person to stand up. Six months later, I still don’t want to go anywhere.
Another Danish string quartet with a singular vision, the Nightingales are at their best with compendiums of compatriot composers whose works failed to become international household names. Over the last decade, it was the Egon-Schiele–esque brushstrokes of Rued Langgaard’s quartets. More recently, they’ve turned to the equally engrossing world (musical and otherwise) of Vagn Holmboe, a landscape they tread with a rigorous grace.
Nico Muhly’s eponymous song cycle for this recording is intelligent in its source texts, revolving around a question that has grown all the more pressing in the world of classical music: “Is it possible to recover and interpret the past?” Tenor Nicholas Phan’s passion, chiaroscuroed by a Britten-esque detachment, brings the nuances of that question’s myriad potential answers to the forefront. The album could hold up well if it were focused solely on Muhly’s work, but the other pieces included—featuring Phan in combination with Brooklyn Rider, The Knights, pianist Lisa Kaplan, and countertenor Reginald Mobley—make it a cabinet of wonders in terms of text and reference, and represent some of Muhly’s strongest vocal writing so far.
In subsequent re-listens of “Inhale/Exhale,” I keep finding new things to discover and latch onto, to the point where I’ve begun to question whether or not it’s actually the same album I first listened to over the summer, or whether new MP3 files keep getting uploaded to replace the old ones.
Similar to Chacon, Nakatani, and Santistevan’s collaborative improvisation, Halla Steinunn Stefánsdóttir’s “strengur” feels more like a place than a work of music, a landscape to return to over holiday breaks and long weekends; a house where there are always things to be done that keep the hands busy and the inhabitants active participants in its existence. Stefánsdottir’s testament to kinetic potential through the static electricity of sound is riveting and wondrous.
It’s safe to say that Czech conductor and Royal Opera House Music Director-designate Jakub Hrůša had a good 2022. Among the highlights was this recording of Hans Rott’s first and only symphony, which contextualizes the forgotten composer in terms of his contemporaries and champions Bruckner and Mahler. It’s one of those recordings where you wonder how such a work of unapologetic beauty could go largely under the radar for over a century, though much of that beauty is owed to Hrůša’s lack of ego and the Bamberg Symphony’s depth of interpretation.
A smart concept that was adapted from a live performance to a recording in the wake of the pandemic, Clarice Jensen’s “Esthesis” is like a book that, upon reading it for the first time, you impulsively go back to the start to begin again.
15. Hilary Hahn, Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, Andrés Orozco-Estrada: “Eclipse” (Deutsche Grammophon)
Much like Hrůša, 2022 was a good year for Czech composers on the whole. There was Camerata Zürich and Igor Karsko’s recording of Janáček’s “On an Overgrown Path” for ECM, Leif Ove Andsnes’s collection of Dvořák’s “Poetic Tone Pictures” for Sony Classical, and a live recording of Smetana’s “Má vlast” by Collegium 1704 and Václav Luks released on the Czech label Accent.
Hilary Hahn’s recording of Dvořák’s Violin Concerto fits into this category as well, but what makes “Eclipse” a darling of 2022 is how the Dvořák feeds into and from Ginastera’s own Violin Concerto; one lush where the other is rigorous. I could have done without Sarasate’s “‘Carmen’ Fantasy,” but given that this was a year for the Winter Olympics—a season that seems to herald nonstop figure-skating programs set to “Carmen” medleys (as well as Ravel’s “Boléro”)—perhaps it’s a fitting coda to the year that was. ¶
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