Well folks, we made it. Another year in the books. 2022 was, for the most part, a seemingly normal year (whatever “normal” may mean these days). Besides the start of a senseless war in Ukraine, a contentious election season, climate change worries, and other tensions and tragedies at home and abroad, many of our activities have largely returned to how they were pre-spring 2020. It seems that, finally, the worst of the pandemic is behind us. (At least, one can hope. *Knock on wood.*) Personally, I have a lot to be thankful for this year. I finished my dissertation, graduated with a PhD in musicology, and got the chance to travel to London and the East Coast/Midwest. There were some low points, too. A mild bout of COVID (after successfully dodging it for 2.5 years) and a so-far-unsuccessful job search cast a bit of a cloud over the final months of the year, but all things considered, I’d give 2022 an enthusiastic two-thumbs up.
Classical music also experienced something of a renaissance this year, and the recording realm captured some incredible artistry and fantastic music. There’s lots to love: vivacious viola music from an underrated Baroque composer, a shimmering Christmas oratorio, the soundtrack from a mind-bending new streaming series, the list goes on. Vocal music made quite a showing, in particular, with many intimate recordings that probe the depths of the human experience, particularly those of underrepresented communities.
Below are ten of my favorite recordings from this past year and five honorable mentions. As I say every year, Spotify and Apple Music are great for their convenience, but streaming royalties are generally atrocious. By all means, feel free to stream and enjoy the albums below, but if a particular one strikes you, please consider purchasing it as a digital or physical copy. Outlets like Bandcamp are especially great options for this, as most of the proceeds go directly to the artists.
Alright, let’s begin. In no particular order…
J’Nai Bridges, Will Liverman, Paul Sánchez, Leonardo Altino & Caen Thomason-Redus – Shawn E. Okpebholo: Lord, How Come Me Here? – Spirituals, Folk Hymns, and Art Song Reimagined (Navona Records)
The African American spiritual is perhaps the most miraculous genre of American music. Though a by-product of slavery—an abhorrent scar on our nation’s history—these songs encapsulate a stunning range of human expression in the face of shocking injustice, from grief and anger to joy and hope. Lord, How Come Me Here? presents a new look into this rich repertoire, featuring several spirituals and folk hymns arranged by the young American composer Shawn E. Okpebholo. Okpebholo is a remarkably-gifted arranger; his harmonic palette is broad and luminous, yet sensitive, and the results are breathtaking. This album tag-teams between the voices of two extraordinary singers—mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges and baritone Will Liverman—with amicable accompaniment from pianist Paul Sánchez. (Cellist Leonardo Altino and flutist Caen Thomason-Redus also appear in two separate tracks, which add an extra dash of color.) Rounding out the album is Two Black Churches, an original composition by Okpebholo that offers a striking reflection on two separate tragedies—the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963 and the mass shooting at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in 2015. “How much has changed?” asks Okpebholo in the liner notes. Clearly, we have a long way to go as a nation. We would do well to listen to this music, learn from our history, and work towards a brighter, more just future.
Attacca Quartet & Caroline Shaw – Evergreen (Nonesuch Records)
Since starting this blog in 2017, Caroline Shaw has appeared three separate times in my yearly album round-up, and for good reason: her music is simply astonishing. As with the fantastic 2019 album Orange, Evergreen pairs the vigorous musicianship of the Attacca Quartet with six of Shaw’s works for string quartet (either in their original form or in arrangements). The performances here bubble and glow, and the Quartet is fully committed to Shaw’s puzzle box-like creations, which branch every which way on a joyous journey of discovery. As an added bonus, Shaw herself appears as vocalist in three tracks, lending her crystalline soprano voice to her own magical sound world. Listen and prepare to be wowed.
Antoine Tamestit, Sabine Fehlandt, Bernhard Forck & Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin – Georg Philipp Telemann: Viola Concertos, Overtures, Fantasias (Harmonia Mundi)
Georg Philipp Telemann tends to get the short end of the stick when placed alongside his Baroque companions Handel, Vivaldi, and J.S. Bach. This assessment is a tad unfair, considering that he holds a posthumous Guinness World Record as history’s most prolific composer (it’s true, look it up!). Sure, his music can often sound similar to Bach and others, but it’s still wonderfully endearing. This recent release gives us a (very) small snapshot of Telemann’s output, highlighting several of his works for viola. Headlined by the brilliant French violist Antoine Tamestit, the performers are all top-notch and breathe new vibrancy and excitement into this now-centuries-old music. The remainder of the album comprises two of Telemann’s “overture-suites” for orchestra, which are a pure delight from start to finish. Let’s have more of this music in concert, please!
James Conlon & Artists from the Colburn School – Shapeshifter: Music of Erwin Schulhoff (Delos Productions)
In a similar “prolific-but-neglected” category is Erwin Schulhoff. Born in Prague in 1894, Schulhoff was a well-regarded composer of the early twentieth century who wrote in a dizzying panoply of styles, embracing late Romanticism, modernism, folk, jazz, and even the avant-garde. (One of his experiments in the latter arena was the 1919 Sinfonia Erotica, in which a solo soprano evokes an, um… You know what, I’ll let you investigate at your own risk. Tee-hee.) Schulhoff’s career was cut tragically short. In response to his Jewish heritage and left-leaning politics, Schulhoff and his music were declared “degenerate” by the Nazi regime, and the composer was later arrested and deported to the Wülzburg prison camp, where he died from tuberculosis in 1942. His music soon fell into relative obscurity. Thankfully, that neglect has since begun to be rectified. In Shapeshifter, conductor James Conlon—who has a commendable track record of reviving forgotten music from this era—and musicians from the Colburn School offer a peek into Schulhoff’s vast musical world. From the tempest-tossed Piano Concerto with Small Orchestra—performed with jaw-dropping aplomb by the young pianist Dominic Cheli—to the impish Five Pieces for String Quartet, this is a vital release that presents a strong case not only for Schulhoff but for the music of all composers whose lives were inhumanely destroyed by fascism.
Julia Bullock, Christian Reif & Philharmonia Orchestra – Walking in the Dark (Nonesuch Records)
This is a rather late contender to the list—the album was only released on December 9—but man, what an entry. Soprano Julia Bullock is currently blazing a path through classical music, marked by her powerful voice and thoughtful programming decisions, which often explore ideas of justice, race, and gender. Walking in the Dark is her long-awaited solo album debut. Anchored by two major works for voice and orchestra—Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and a selection from John Adams’s El Niño—the rest of the album contains a mostly quiet, yet probing selection of songs for voice and piano. Several are more familiar, having been covered by artists like Nina Simone, Judy Collins, and Mahalia Jackson, but there’s at least one curiosity: a gorgeous tune (“One By One”) by the little-known singer-songwriter Connie Converse, who disappeared mysteriously in 1974. Bullock’s voice shines on every single track, showcasing a rich, full-bodied tone that speaks in the softest utterances and soars over the sound of a full orchestra. Her husband, Christian Reif, impressively pulls double duty as both pianist and conductor (in the latter case, leading the fabulous London-based Philharmonia Orchestra). My one complaint? The album is over much too soon. Still, this is a truly exceptional document of Bullock’s artistry and whets our appetites for (hopefully!) more to come in the future.
Golda Schultz & Jonathan Ware – This Be Her Verse (BR Klassik & Alpha Classics/Outhere Music France)
South African soprano Golda Schultz is a musician of staggering talent, with a wondrously light and agile voice that lends itself well to a broad repertoire. As with Julia Bullock, this is her first solo album, and it was well worth the wait. This Be Her Verse presents a vibrant selection of art songs written entirely by women composers. Opening with four Lieder of Clara Schumann and ending with a newly-commissioned work by composer Kathleen Tagg, the album revolves around a single question: “What if a woman told her own story?” We get a variety of responses, from the frenetic forest journey of Emilie Meyer‘s “Erlkönig”—in a very different approach to Schubert’s famous setting—to an airy depiction of the sea in Nadia Boulanger‘s “La mer est plus belle.” Throughout this wonderful album (which is accompanied excellently by Jonathan Ware), Schultz shows her vocal prowess and deep love for this music. As the classical realm increasingly begins to recognize the contributions of women composers throughout history—who have gone underappreciated for far too long—we can be grateful that artists like Golda Schultz are showing us the way forward.
Time for Three, Xian Zhang & Philadelphia Orchestra – Letters for the Future (Time for Three LLC, Deutsche Grammophon)
The string trio Time for Three is one of the most dynamic performing ensembles around today. Their casual, fun-loving approach, diverse repertoire—from classical to bluegrass and beyond—and technical wizardry have rightly earned them accolades from many corners of the musical world. They are also committed to commissioning new works, and this album highlights that effort, featuring two concertos by Pulitzer Prize-winning composers Kevin Puts and Jennifer Higdon. Both are exciting, highly-accessible works; Puts’s Contact paints an expansive musical universe—even requiring the multi-talented trio to sing at certain points—while Higdon’s Concerto 4-3 stays a bit closer to Earth with its roots planted in a more folksy, bluegrass style. Conductor Xian Zhang and the Philadelphia Orchestra provide more-than-admirable accompaniment for both concertos. When next you encounter someone who thinks that classical music is “boring,” just shove this album in their face. (Gently, of course.)
Sean Shibe – Lost & Found (Pentatone)
To be honest, I don’t usually care for classical guitar music. More often than not, it tends to sound relatively homogenous—and even a bit boring—after just a few selections. (My opinion!) This album turns that notion on its head entirely. The young Scottish guitarist Sean Shibe has proven himself a disrupter in the field, performing a striking array of music with sensitivity and impeccable skill. Lost & Found puts his musical curiosity on full display. Played on a Fender Mexican Stratocaster guitar, the album wanders through works by Hildegard, Chick Corea, Meredith Monk, Moondog, and others. This might seem like an odd assortment on paper, but it works astonishingly well. By the time the album reached Shibe’s hazy setting of the time-stopping motet O sacrum convivium! by Messiaen, I was sold. This is one musician to keep an eye (and ear) on.
Lucy Crowe, Roderick Williams, Mark Elder, London Philharmonic Orchestra & Choir – James MacMillan: Christmas Oratorio (London Philharmonic Orchestra)
Handel’s Messiah is a beloved holiday tradition for many reasons. However, it’s always refreshing when other large-scale works come along that offer a break from the umpteenth rendition of the “Hallelujah” Chorus. (I say this as someone who adores the Messiah, but also, let’s be real, it’s not really a Christmas piece.) In 2019, Scottish composer James MacMillan crafted his own spin on the Christmas story. Taking a cue from J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, MacMillan’s oratorio intersperses scripture with words from non-Biblical sources (here, Christmas antiphons and poetry by Robert Southwell, John Donne, and others). The music itself is wildly diverse; one moment, there are violent orchestral outbursts—reminding us, in one movement, of the horrific infanticide ordered by King Herod—and the next, there are some of the most tender, rapturous melodies. A performance of this remarkable work was captured live in December 2021 with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, choir, and soloists, all led by conductor Mark Elder. Will performances of MacMillan’s Christmas Oratorio one day be as commonplace as Handel’s Messiah? Only time will tell, but if they did, I certainly wouldn’t complain.
Theodore Shapiro & Various Artists – Severance: Season 1 – Apple TV+ Original Series Soundtrack (Lakeshore Records/Endeavor Content)
Let’s cut straight to the chase: the Apple TV+ series Severance is one of the best shows of the year and one of the best I’ve seen in a long time. Period. Its premise is simple and unsettling. Imagine a world where you could “sever” your work memories from your outside-work memories. Would you do it? Alongside fantastic writing, cinematography, and performances—Adam Scott, John Turturo, Christopher Walken, and Patricia Arquette are among those in the stellar cast—the mercurial score by American composer Theodore Shapiro adds the perfect atmosphere to this workplace thriller, where something sinister is afoot in the halls of the fictional Lumon Industries. If you like mysteries that unravel slowly and meticulously, all while amping up the tension to a breaking point, watch this series. If you like science-fiction premises that feature deep world-building, dark humor, and social commentary, watch this series. If the words “code detector,” “defiant jazz,” or “waffle party” intrigue you, watch this series. Trust me, you will not regret it. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to keep working towards some of those sweet company perks. The egg bar is coveted AF. (If you want to understand this reference, watch this series. Have I sold it enough?)
- Raphaël Pichon, Pygmalion & Various Artists – Johann Sebastian Bach: Matthäus-Passion (Harmonia Mundi)
- Gabriel Kahane – Magnificent Bird (Nonesuch Records)
- Pekka Kuusisto, Tomas Nuñez-Garcés, Nicholas Collon & Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra – Thomas Adès: Orchestral Works (Ondine)
- Víkingur Ólafsson – From Afar (Deutsche Grammophon)
- Jacob Collier – Piano Ballads: Live from the Djesse World Tour 2022 (Hajanga Records)
*Header image from the cover of the Caroline Shaw/Attacca Quartet album Evergreen