Best Classical Music of 2019

Our critics list the best performances, premieres and digital releases of the year from the world of classical music and opera.

The best of classical music this year included, from left clockwise: Davóne Tines in “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” Sondra Radvanovsky in the Metropolitan Opera’s retiring production of “Aida” and a performer in “Sun and Sea (Marina).”
The best of classical music this year included, from left clockwise: Davóne Tines in “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” Sondra Radvanovsky in the Metropolitan Opera’s retiring production of “Aida” and a performer in “Sun and Sea (Marina).”Credit...Clockwise from left: Eric Woolsey; Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera; Gianni Cipriano for The New York Times


These, in chronological order, are the performances that most stubbornly refused to quit me as the year went on.

The Metropolitan Opera swept in 2019 with a true gala performance: this Cilea potboiler, in a straightforwardly sumptuous David McVicar production conducted by a spirited Gianandrea Noseda. Anna Netrebko was commanding yet tender in the title role, one of her best parts to date. (She added another to that pantheon in London in March, with a fervent Leonora in Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino.”) Anita Rachvelishvili smoldered at the Met as Adriana’s malignant enemy; Piotr Beczala elegantly trumpeted as the man desired by them both. It was old-fashioned spectacle, in the best way.

After shocking the classical world with the announcement that he’d be the next music director of the San Francisco Symphony, this widely admired conductor and composer — who had previously indicated he was firmly out of the running for a new podium position — came to California in January to lead his new band. The charged, time-crossing program of works by Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Strauss and Sibelius, played with unified commitment, boded well.

This new work by the composer and trumpeter Nate Wooley was for quartet, but its primary mood was loneliness. Performed at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn on a chilly February night, with Mr. Wooley alongside Susan Alcorn, Mary Halvorson and Ryan Sawyer, it did evince a sense of camaraderie amid gloom, of quiet exaltation and dread in the face of the great beyond.

Addio, we said in March, to Sonja Frisell’s eye-wideningly gargantuan, lovably hoary, undeniably dramatic Met staging of Verdi’s Egyptian classic. After 31 years and nearly 250 performances, it was stepping aside, to be replaced next fall by a Michael Mayer production that will, most likely, involve a lot less stone-styled plaster and pseudo-weathered hieroglyphics. Both will be missed, as will the hordes of often-recalcitrant horses in the Triumphal Scene.

Meredith Monk’s only true opera — an almost entirely wordless, ethereal and lyrical parable of exploration — hadn’t been done since the early 1990s, and, like the other theatrical pieces she’s masterminded, it had never been attempted by new creative forces. Enter Yuval Sharon, a talented director who was entrusted by Ms. Monk with reviving “Atlas.” This he did, in June, with both admirable ambition and essential modesty, and with the tremendous resources of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which paid for the massive sphere, 36 feet in diameter, that seemed to float over the stage and served as both playing space and projection screen.

I had heard about the success of this superstar cellist’s performance of the six Bach solo suites for his instrument at the 18,000-seat Hollywood Bowl in 2017. But it just seemed impossible that this intimate, subtle music, played almost without pause for nearly two and a half hours, could scale to such surroundings. But now I’m a believer: When he repeated the feat in June at Millennium Park in Chicago, many thousands of people — including me — were silently riveted putty in Mr. Ma’s hands.

During an especially strong Salzburg Festival this summer, including a poignant “Alcina” with Cecilia Bartoli, this was unforgettable: George Enescu’s rarely performed Oedipus opera, a perfect match for the director Achim Freyer’s surreal, symbol-laden, carefully childlike style. The stage was covered in his signature faux-naïve chalk drawings — and puppets, giant rag dolls, primary colors, skull masks, the juxtaposition of elongated and squat figures, expressionistically bold makeup and glacial movement. They all conjured a fairy-tale nightmare, while Ingo Metzmacher expertly unleashed the Vienna Philharmonic’s full radiance.

After “4.48 Psychosis,” Philip Venables and Ted Huffman’s brutal operatic study of mental illness, impressed in New York in January, expectations were high for their new piece, the highlight of Opera Philadelphia’s O19 festival in September. Written for two singers and four cellos, and performed on a nearly bare stage, “Denis & Katya” was a stark yet sensitive study of the voices surrounding a real-life tragedy: the death (possibly at the hands of Russian security forces) of two teenage lovers holed up with weapons in a cabin in 2016. Never didactic, it nevertheless suggested, through tense, delicate music, musings on language, storytelling, social media and artistic ethics.

It could have gone so, so wrong. A French Baroque opera that puts an aesthetic gloss on colonial encounters, refitted with street choreography: a recipe for awkwardness, at best. That it was instead one of the freshest, most charismatic and poignant performances I’ve ever seen speaks to the conceptual focus of Clément Cogitore, an artist and filmmaker making his debut as a stage director, and Bintou Dembélé, a pioneer of French hip-hop dance (and to the keen instincts of Stéphane Lissner, the leader of the Paris Opera, where I saw it in October). The cast of singers and dancers was superb, led vibrantly by the conductor Leonardo García Alarcón and his Cappella Mediterranea ensemble.

After leading an intense “Idomeneo” in Salzburg — the latest in his slew of recent coups at that festival — Teodor Currentzis did it again. In November at the Shed, this Greek-born, Russian-incubated conductor and MusicAeterna — the orchestra and choir of estimable passion and cultlike devotion to Mr. Currentzis — brought both grace and literally spine-tingling ferocity to Verdi’s Requiem, a work that even in good performances can have an audience checking its watches. An accompanying film by Jonas Mekas, the nonagenarian avant-gardist who died in January, suffered from some banal, repetitive imagery, but MusicAeterna made a stylish impact on its own, even given the traces of amplification required by the looming space.

Anthony Tommasini

Though it was just a coincidence of planning, the summer seasons of both Opera Theater of St. Louis and the Glimmerglass Festival, in Cooperstown, N.Y., featured premieres of powerful new operas about contemporary struggling African-American families. This double, original and timely triumph was one of the most encouraging developments of the year in classical music.

Written by the composer Terence Blanchard and the librettist Kasi Lemmons, from a memoir by Charles M. Blow (an Opinion columnist for The New York Times), this opera tells of a childhood shaped by cycles of violence, tough motherly love and the lasting wounds of sexual abuse. Mr. Blanchard, an acclaimed trumpeter and film composer, aptly described his vibrant, moody score as an “opera in jazz.” The story’s volatile hero was presented as both a vulnerable boy (Jeremy Denis, at the premiere) and an angry 20-year-old (the remarkable bass-baritone Davóne Tines, in a wrenching performance). The Metropolitan Opera has announced its intention to present the work in a coming season.

The composer Jeanine Tesori, best known for her Tony Award-winning musical “Fun Home,” and the librettist-director Tazewell Thompson tell the story of a striving black family in Harlem with a rebellious teenage son who’s incensed over police intimidation of young black men. In a twist, the devoted but flummoxed father is a police officer. Ms. Tesori’s strong yet subtle score is combined with Mr. Thompson’s grimly elegant and snappy words — one of the best librettos I’ve heard in a long while.

The main event of “Caramoor Takes Wing,” a celebration of birdsong at the lively Caramoor festival in Katonah, N.Y., was this pianist’s brilliant performance of Messiaen’s complete “Catalogue d’Oiseaux” (“Catalog of Birds”). It’s a staggeringly difficult suite of 13 pieces lasting more than two and a half hours, into which the composer incorporated his own transcriptions and transformations of bird calls. Mr. Aimard performed it in three installments over two days in open-air spaces. Naturally, actual birds in nearby trees sang along, which would have delighted Messiaen.

Though it’s still early to tell what long-term artistic goals Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Metropolitan Opera’s new music director, has in store, this year he led consistently distinguished performances, especially a ravishingly and revelatory account of this Debussy work, with an appealing cast.

Jaap van Zweden arrived as music director of the New York Philharmonic with a reputation for bold performances of standard repertory. Yet he has been more impressive, so far, in 20th-century and contemporary works, especially his blazing, probing accounts of Schoenberg’s monodrama “Erwartung” and Bartok’s one-act shocker “Bluebeard’s Castle,” paired in an inventive semi-staged production.

In two programs over three days, in elegantly intimate rooms at the Park Avenue Armory, this soprano, one of the most restlessly adventurous artists of our time, gave a pair of extraordinary performances. The first, devoted to works by John Zorn, featured the composer’s wild 25-minute song cycle “Jumalattaret.” Ms. Hannigan conquered its fierce challenges in a mesmerizing performance with the stalwart pianist Stephen Gosling. On the second program, joined by members of the Emerson String Quartet, she took an enraptured audience on a journey through landmark 20th-century vocal works by Cage, Berio, Nono and Schoenberg.

With her New York recital debut at Zankel Hall in March, this young Italian pianist, playing works by Chopin, Ravel and Stravinsky, demonstrated why she is increasingly seen as one of the most insightful and prodigiously gifted artists of the new generation. Three months later, she was back at Carnegie for a stupendous performance of Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto with Mr. Nézet-Séguin leading the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Kelli O’Hara, a leading lady of Broadway, and Leif Ove Andsnes, a superb pianist, both surprised me during solo appearances with orchestras. On the New York Philharmonic’s opening night in September, Ms. O’Hara sang Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915.” Her light, shimmering voice suited this wistful music beautifully. Yet it was her keen feeling for James Agee’s elegiac, homespun text that made the performance exceptionally moving.

If Ms. O’Hara’s singing was a delightful surprise, Mr. Andsnes’s Apollonian account of Grieg’s Piano Concerto, with the Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, was an unexpected one. He brings the affinity of a fellow Norwegian, plus long experience, to the piece. Yet this thrilling performance sounded rethought. Played by Mr. Andsnes with clarity, eloquent lyricism and fearless bravura, Grieg’s familiar music, often milked to Romantic excess, emerged as an intricate, even daring composition.

Founded in 2013 by the pianist and conductor David Greilsammer, this ensemble has been winning over audiences, and shaking up classical music, in Europe. For its American debut, the 40-member group, along with the dancer Martí Corbera, presented the program “Dance of the Sun,” pairing a suite from Lully’s “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme” and Mozart’s Symphony in G Minor. The musicians not only played the works (from memory!) but also marched and danced. That all music is movement came through viscerally.


New works premiere every week, from brief curtain-raisers to lengthy symphonies and operas. Many are passing; a few, however, feel inescapable, haunting. Of the pieces I heard this year, these three were the ones I couldn’t get out of my head — the ones I would happily see become classics.

Audaciously traditional, Mr. Adès’s first “proper” piano concerto, as he described it, has flashes of reverential familiarity — a little Gershwin, a little Beethoven — though they’re nearly impossible to place, and are distorted through the prism of this composer’s wry sensibility. It was written for Kirill Gerstein, with a blend of staggering virtuosity and tenderness that fits him like a bespoke suit.

A lot of art about climate change is ungracefully polemical. But not this earworm-rich opera by the filmmaker and director Rugile Barzdziukaite, the writer Vaiva Grainyte and the artist and composer Lina Lapelyte, which won the Golden Lion for the Lithuanian pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Its insidiously pleasant melodies, impossible to dislodge from your memory, can leave you contemplating our environmental crisis for days on end.

The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra gave the premiere of Mr. Rouse’s final work a month after his death from cancer. He had intended for the piece to be his last artistic statement, and it had a sweep befitting the circumstances: a touching summation of a great American composer’s style, playful, eclectic and full of feeling.


While the classical music industry gave up on the primacy of the CD a while ago and embraced streaming platforms, this digital-first strategy usually allowed for physical editions, too. But in 2019, three major orchestral efforts were available digital only.

The best three-day concert I saw this year was “Aus Licht,” the Holland Festival’s truncated tour through Karlheinz Stockhausen’s seven-opera cycle “Licht.” Soon after, nearly an hour and a half of thrilling audio excerpts — including the devil’s drum line from “Samstag aus Licht” and ghostly tape-music choirs from “Donnerstag aus Licht” — was released to one streaming service, Idagio, which hopes to corner the classical-streaming market. (It offers a free trial.)

When I talked to Wynton Marsalis about his recent orchestral projects, he seemed resigned to the turn toward streaming. “Mainly stuff is digital, at this point,” he said, before describing an ambitious slate of upcoming releases. His boisterous “Swing Symphony” — recorded by the St. Louis Symphony and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra — is only available from your digital file purveyor of choice.