The Best Classical Music of 2018

In a year of beginnings, the Jaap van Zweden era started at the New York Philharmonic, and the 92-year-old composer Gyorgy Kurtag’s first opera had its premiere.

Read all about it, and listen to some of our favorite artists.

Best Surprises | Best Performances | Best Pianists | Best Ensemble

anthony tommasini

The Best Surprises

We depend on the composers and performers we admire to keep enriching us. But it is even more exciting when great artists surprise us, as several did for me during an exceptional year in music.

Jaap van Zweden

When the New York Philharmonic chose Mr. van Zweden as its music director, the orchestra went for a maestro known for powerful accounts of repertory staples. His commitment to contemporary music seemed less certain. As if in defiant reply, he opened each of his first three Philharmonic programs this fall with the premiere of a commissioned work.

Mr. van Zweden began with a boldly unconventional piece by a young American: Ashley’s Fure’s dark, strange, exploratory “Filament” for orchestra, three instrumental soloists and a chorus that moves around the space. For almost 15 minutes, David Geffen Hall was turned into a haunting aural environment through Ms. Fure’s mystical, atmospheric music, by turns dreamy and dangerous. The following week, Mr. van Zweden led Conrad Tao’s “Everything Must Go,” written as a curtain-raiser for Bruckner’s sprawling Eighth Symphony. Combining seriousness and youthful abandon, Mr. Tao grappled with Bruckner’s symphony in his restless piece. A Dutch modernist master, Louis Andriessen, provided the third premiere, “Agamemnon,” a teeming, raucous, strangely alluring 20-minute score.

In another encouraging sign, Mr. van Zweden introduced and hosted two contemporary music initiatives, presenting Mr. Tao in an eclectic “Nightcap” program at the Kaplan Penthouse, and Mr. Andriessen in a substantive “Sound On” concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center. What’s still open to question, actually, is Mr. van Zweden’s approach to the staples that are supposedly his specialties. My reactions have been mixed, at best, to his accounts of that Bruckner symphony and other works including Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and Debussy’s “La Mer.”

Anna Netrebko

It was a gamble for this soprano to sing the touchstone title role of Puccini’s “Tosca” for the first time ever this spring at the Metropolitan Opera. But she knew what she was doing. From her first entrance, Ms. Netrebko was every bit Puccini’s passionate, vulnerable and charismatic heroine, a renowned prima donna in 1800 Rome. She captured every nuance of the music and Tosca’s volatile emotions with rapturous, tender, fierce singing. She was just as riveting at the Met this fall in the title role of Verdi’s “Aida.” The Met’s general manager, Peter Gelb, should follow her around with contracts in hand.

Daniil Trifonov

I expected beautiful Chopin from this young Russian pianist, a brilliant virtuoso with poetic sensibilities, in two programs early this year that were part of his Perspectives series at Carnegie Hall. But I was impressed by his formidable playing of nine daunting 20th-century works in the ambitious concert with which he ended his series. Called “Decades,” the program offered Mr. Trifonov’s personal survey of the century, with works by Berg, Prokofiev, Bartok, Copland, Messiaen, Ligeti, Stockhausen and more. We are used to watching him play challenging concertos and études effortlessly. But on this night, Mr. Trifonov let us see him sweat.

George Benjamin

Since its premiere in 2012, the opera “Written on Skin,” by this British composer and the librettist Martin Crimp, has been produced around the world and acclaimed as one of the most important operas of our time. Could the team do it again? Yes, as they proved in May with the premiere of “Lessons in Love and Violence” at the Royal Opera House in London. Mining the relationship of Edward II and his courier Piers Gaveston, this disturbingly tragic opera offers an object lesson in what can transpire when an absolute ruler conflates his personal desires with the identity of his suffering nation. Mr. Benjamin’s score, though unabashedly modernist, was beguiling and mysterious.

Huang Ruo

In 2011, a 19-year-old Army private named Danny Chen killed himself at an outpost in Afghanistan after suffering months of vicious hazing and racist taunts. Three years later, this composer and the playwright David Henry Hwang turned the harrowing story into a 60-minute chamber opera. Taking a risk, they expanded the piece into a full two-hour work, “An American Soldier,” which had its premiere this summer at Opera Theater of St. Louis. This inventive and searing opera could not have been more relevant in an America riven by issues of race, war and bullying. The opera shifts between scenes in which the ghost of Pvt. Chen witnesses the trial of his sergeant for negligent homicide, and flashbacks from his teenage life: hanging out with friends in New York’s Chinatown, making dinner with his mother in the kitchen, arriving for basic training full of patriotism and zeal.

Kaija Saariaho

For all its orchestral and choral lushness, this composer’s 2000 opera “L’Amour de Loin” has an intimate quality. Her latest opera, “Only the Sound Remains,” which had its American premiere last month at Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival, manages almost the opposite: The genuinely intimate work — for two singers, a dancer, a background vocal quartet and chamber ensemble — gathers full-scale musical richness and powerful thematic resonance. Based on two Japanese Noh plays, one about a young monk transfixed by the ghost of a dead man he prays for, the other about a fisherman who finds the feather mantle of a moon spirit, proved subtly riveting and wondrously spiritual in an imaginative, simple Peter Sellars production.

zachary woolfe

The Best Performances

These are the concerts and operas (and a couple of films) that have stuck with me through months filled to overflowing with music. They run the gamut — Verdi and Julius Eastman, Bach and Ashley Fure — but all shared that mixture of confidence and adventurousness that defines a memorable performance.

Anita Rachvelishvili

This young Georgian mezzo-soprano had been daringly grim in “Carmen” and sensuous in “Prince Igor” in recent seasons at the Metropolitan Opera, but I was still unprepared for her overwhelming portrayal of Azucena in Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” in January, sung with bel canto elegance and startling authority. She brought warmth, fear and eloquence back to a character that can often be merely blunt, then followed up the feat in September, conjuring a seductive yet implacable Amneris in Verdi’s “Aida.” (As far as staged opera, just Patricia Racette’s sensitive, richly rueful Elle in “La Voix Humaine,” at Opera Philadelphia in September, has stayed with me so strongly.)

‘That Which Is Fundamental’

The return of the vital, stormy music of the composer Julius Eastman, who died in obscurity in 1990, has been an inspiring story in recent years. His resurgence took a major step forward with this festival, organized in January and February by the artist Tiona Nekkia McClodden, Dustin Hurt of the Philadelphia arts organization Bowerbird, and the Kitchen in Chelsea. It included a revival of the jeweled “Femenine” and a clangorous, intense evening of Eastman’s moody works for multiple pianos.

Anna Caterina Antonacci

One of our most essential singers arrived for a rare New York recital in February at Zankel Hall. It was a quietly shattering yet deeply satisfying evening, a study in aging, nostalgia and death pursued through ripe Respighi songs, autumnal Nadia Boulanger, changeable early Britten, wryly pained Poulenc. (And, as encores, exquisitely shaped Frescobaldi and an almost murmured Habanera from “Carmen.”) No program notes, no speeches from the stage: She treated her audience like adults, sharing an intimacy charged with mystery.

Yo-Yo Ma

Few pleasures could equal the spectacle of this masterly musician playing all six of Bach’s suites for solo cello in a space where the composer worked, St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig, Germany. Given on a September evening with honesty, straightforwardness and lack of exaggeration, the music was milked for neither laughter nor tears, with a tone like wire coated in silk. Mr. Ma’s final three suites, in particular, radiated visionary focus and fervor. (For instrumental recitals, only Yuja Wang’s unnerving program of Rachmaninoff, Scriabin and Prokofiev at Carnegie Hall in May could match it.)

Mark Morris: ‘Lou 100’

The centennial, last year, of the birth of the composer Lou Harrison was celebrated in April and May by a choreographer who’s always relished his smilingly ritualistic music, rhythmic yet relaxed. In the memorably intimate environs of his Dance Center, Mr. Morris — who sat in on percussion with the small, excellent musical ensemble — put on a program of works that culminated in the sweeping, enigmatic primordial society of “Grand Duo.”

Ojai Festival

Delicious quirks abound at this annual weekend-long event in an eccentric valley east of Santa Barbara, Calif. Each year a different artist organizes the festival; this June brought the earnest, raucous violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, who dived into organizing and performing alike with gusto. She corralled the JACK Quartet into performances of sumptuous serenity; early-morning Morton Feldman followed late-night John Luther Adams. And she persuaded Markus Hinterhäuser, the pianist who runs the Salzburg Festival, to join her in duets by the reclusive Russian composer Galina Ustvolskaya; he then played alone the hourlong cycle of Ustvolskaya’s six piano sonatas, a dumbfounding achievement of concentration and dignity.

‘Doctor Atomic’

A re-encounter that demanded a re-evaluation. I had remembered John Adams’s 2005 opera about the Manhattan Project as stolid and overlong. But in a pared-down production by Peter Sellars (also the work’s librettist) this summer at Santa Fe Opera — an enormous sphere hung above a bare stage — it was lean and surreal, alternating lush, ominous sensuality and pummeling intensity. A superb cast led by Ryan McKinny and Julia Bullock was conducted, with an instinct for tension, by Matthew Aucoin.

Ashley Fure

A one-two punch this year brought this young composer firmly into the New York musical spotlight. First, at Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival in the summer, “The Force of Things,” the glacial, scary “opera for objects” she created with her brother, the architect Adam Fure, used harrowing softness — even inaudibility — to evoke the permeating anxiety of our mounting ecological crisis. Then, at the concert that opened Jaap van Zweden’s tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic, came “Filament,” a slyly ominous drone of a fanfare.

‘Proving Up’

Brooding on the impossibility of the American dream, Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek’s tense, creepy new opera, which came to the Miller Theater at Columbia University in September, shows the fracturing of a homestead family suffering on the brutal Nebraska plains. The setting is the middle of the 19th century, but the lessons — about prosperity, virility, patriotism and cycles of violence — are crushingly contemporary. And Ms. Mazzoli’s score, for just a dozen or so players, is a landscape of shimmering aridity.

‘Fin de Partie’

An era ended with the November premiere, after many false hopes over the past decade, of this opera by the 92-year-old Hungarian master Gyorgy Kurtag at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. A series of scenes and monologues extracted from the Beckett play “Endgame,” it is a work of utterly assured starkness — confident and patient. The music seems to wrap around and subtly trail off the words; the lucid orchestra is neither bullying nor reticent, producing an atmosphere of gnomic, melancholy beauty. It is, like its Beckett source, tender, transparent, unsentimental and unsparing.

‘Maria by Callas’ and ‘Amazing Grace’

The year ended with the release of two essential documents of two of the 20th century’s greatest divas. “Maria by Callas” is an impressionistic, melancholy portrait — primarily a self-portrait, heavy on candid, little-read letters — of a meteoric rise and agonizing decline. “Amazing Grace” is a sweatily veristic immersion in the recording of Aretha Franklin’s 1972 gospel album — with choir, in front of amazed, raucous audiences in an intimate Los Angeles church. We hear Callas sing “Ah! non credea” from Bellini’s “La Sonnambula,” rapt in hurt. We hear Franklin close with “Never Grow Old,” her tone focused, her phrasing transcendently free. The passing details that bring these giants to human life are what catch your heart: Aretha clasping the Rev. James Cleveland’s hand behind her back while she sings; a jokey glance from Callas as she walks backstage. “Maria by Callas” is crushing; “Amazing Grace,” a teeming potluck of virtuosity and heart.

joshua barone

The Best Pianists

The 21-year-old Daniil Trifonov arrived at Lincoln Center in 2012 with a dazzling yet nuanced account of Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto. Igor Levit, shortly after his 27th birthday in 2014, fearlessly played Beethoven’s late piano sonatas at the Park Avenue Armory with maturity beyond his years.

In those New York debuts, Mr. Trifonov and Mr. Levit already showed the makings of greatness. But they truly blossomed this year with performances — onstage and in the recording studio — that surpassed their past achievements and brought their artistry to thrilling heights.

Mr. Trifonov concluded his Perspectives series at Carnegie Hall in May with “Decades,” a survey of 20th-century piano music and a departure from the Romantic repertory that made him famous. I won’t forget Stockhausen’s “Klavierstück IX”: Mr. Trifonov hunched over, sweat dripping from his long hair, hands hesitating ever so slightly before landing, confidently, on the keyboard with a mighty chord. It was the first time I’d ever seen him struggle, and the moment I realized he was capable of much more than showy war horse concertos.

This fall, Mr. Levit followed a three-disc album of variations by Bach, Beethoven and Rzewski with “Life,” a meditative yet sweeping response to the death of his best friend. (He played much of it in an outstanding recital at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall in October.) His recording of Wagner’s “Solemn March to the Holy Grail” from “Parsifal,” as transcribed by Liszt, is one the most hauntingly sublime tracks of the year. This is the type of searching album you would expect of a musician late in his career; Mr. Levit is just 31.

And apparently still aiming higher: By November, he was back in the studio.

seth colter walls

The Best Ensemble

The Wet Ink Ensemble celebrated its 20th anniversary this year. That checks out: Wet Ink is an extremely well-drilled contemporary music group. That doesn’t happen overnight.

But the idea of two decades is a little strange. It makes this group seem older than its music-making does. I don’t know of a classical ensemble with a more joyously hard-edge, go-for-broke attack than that required by the pianist and composer Eric Wubbels’s “Auditory Scene Analysis, Part One.” This first track from one of Wet Ink’s 2018 albums requires complex handoffs of melody between different instrumentalists, long blasts of white noise and some sumptuously Dionysian playing from the rhythm section.

Mr. Wubbels is one of seven directors of Wet Ink. Other performers in the group include the composer-saxophonist Alex Mincek (who made The New York Times’s best classical recordings list in 2017), as well as the violinist Josh Modney (whose triple-disc set “Engage” was another highlight of 2018).

Then there is the best-known composer in the ensemble, the soprano Kate Soper, whose charming and invigorating opera-slash-humanities lecture “Ipsa Dixit” arrived at the Miller Theater at Columbia University this fall, as well as on a new album from New World Records. It can start to seem a little unfair to the rest of the contemporary classical scene to put albums by this crew in every year-end list. On the 20th anniversary of their founding, perhaps it’s enough to call them the best band of 2018.

Anthony Tommasini is the chief classical music critic. He writes about orchestras, opera and diverse styles of contemporary music, and he reports regularly from major international festivals. A pianist, he holds a Doctorate of Musical Arts from Boston University. @TommasiniNYT

Zachary Woolfe has been the classical music editor since 2015. He was previously the opera critic of the New York Observer. @zwoolfe

Joshua Barone is a senior staff editor on the Culture Desk, where he writes about classical music and other fields including dance, theater and visual art and architecture. @joshbarone Facebook

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