Best Classical Music Albums of 2023

Thomas Adès: ‘Dante’

Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor (Nonesuch)

“Inferno”: “The Gluttons — in slime”


This recording has so much to applaud: the achievement of Thomas Adès in writing such a clever, vivid, effective work; the ambition of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in performing its hour and a half of music in a single evening and taping it live; the wisdom of Nonesuch in releasing the audio. Essential listening. DAVID ALLEN

Bach: ‘Goldberg’ Variations

Vikingur Olafsson, piano (Deutsche Grammophon)

Variation 15

Deutsche Grammophon

The finest interpreters of the “Goldberg” Variations balance the individuality of each section with a sense of shape over the work’s 75 minutes. Vikingur Olafsson does that — achieving unity while avoiding flatness — and more, from a beautifully simple Aria to a life-affirming Quodlibet and back, with nostalgic sweetness, to the Aria again. JOSHUA BARONE

‘Broken Branches’

Karim Sulayman, tenor; Sean Shibe, guitar (Pentatone)

Fairuz: “Li Beirut” (arr. Sean Shibe and Karim Sulayman)


This year, there wasn’t anything in classical music quite like this thoughtful program of songs, arranged for Karim Sulayman’s alluring voice and Sean Shibe’s expressive guitar, that create dialogues across cultures and centuries — raising complicated questions about identity, exoticization and exchange along the way — while providing an absolutely beautiful listening experience. JOSHUA BARONE

Byrd: ‘The Golden Renaissance’

Stile Antico (Decca)

Mass for Four Voices: “Agnus Dei”


William Byrd died 400 years ago this July, and the anniversary celebrations offered no finer tribute than this typically imaginative, immaculate record from Stile Antico. At its heart is the Mass for Four Voices; I could listen to the exquisitely tender “Agnus Dei” all day, and for a week or two last winter, I think I actually did. DAVID ALLEN

Christopher Cerrone: ‘In a Grove’

Metropolis Ensemble; Andrew Cyr, conductor (In a Circle)

“Scene 5: The Outlaw”

In a Circle

Christopher Cerrone and Stephanie Fleischmann’s “In a Grove,” an operatic retelling of the short story that also inspired the film “Rashomon,” is a vividly immersive thriller about the nature of truth and memory. Not a word or note is without dramaturgical purpose, and both are captured, if not enhanced, in this richly produced recording. JOSHUA BARONE


Michael Spyres, tenor; Il Pomo d’Oro; Francesco Corti, conductor (Erato)

Latilla: “Se il mio paterno amore”


With a juicy, chesnut-colored timbre, a stupefying three-octave range and a keen instinct for showmanship, Michael Spyres flies through virtuoso arias from the Baroque and early Classical eras. It’s 70 minutes of gobsmacking singing. The effervescent playing of Il Pomo d’Oro contributes to the album’s heady effect. OUSSAMA ZAHR

‘Julius Eastman, Vol. 3: If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?’

Wild Up; Devonté Hynes and Adam Tendler, pianos (New Amsterdam)

“Evil Nigger”

New Amsterdam

This latest in Wild Up’s series of recordings of works by Julius Eastman takes on three stormy, swiftly shifting, open-ended scores, rendered in new arrangements for a large and varied ensemble with passion, richness and complexity — a forest of details — and a controlled chaos inspired by free jazz. ZACHARY WOOLFE


Igor Levit, piano (Sony Classical)

Liszt: Piano Sonata in B minor, first movement


Refulgent Bach, poetically precise Liszt, twilit Berg, artfully brooding Busoni — the pianist Igor Levit is aware of style but more beholden to affect. He works methodically, his mind on not just the next bar but the next page, as he proves the coherence and the imagination of this album’s expansive, fantasy-like pieces. OUSSAMA ZAHR

Fauré: ‘Nocturnes & Barcarolles’

Marc-André Hamelin (Hyperion)

Nocturne No. 12 in E minor


Fauré’s 13 nocturnes and 13 barcarolles — two and a half hours in all — are not the kind of dizzyingly virtuosic works that are the fire-fingered Marc-André Hamelin’s stock in trade. But his clarity and sensitivity confirm that this is music of tender poignancy and subtle experimentation. ZACHARY WOOLFE

‘Gradus ad Parnassum’

Jean Rondeau, harpsichord (Erato)

Fux: Ciaccona in D


Taking on works for piano by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Debussy on this quietly audacious album — a reflection on influence, transcription and re-creation — the harpsichordist Jean Rondeau also shows his gift for in-the-moment artfulness in pieces originally for his instrument by Palestrina, Clementi and Johann Joseph Fux. ZACHARY WOOLFE

Johnson: ‘De Organizer’ and ‘The Dreamy Kid’

University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra; Kenneth Kiesler, conductor (Naxos)

“De Organizer”


Here, James P. Johnson, the composer of “The Charleston,” sets texts by Langston Hughes and Eugene O’Neill in two short stage works. Aside from scholars, who knew? Well, now everyone can experience this Harlem Stride pianist’s talent for orchestration, shaping narrative — and, on occasion, weaving the feel of spirituals into the fabric of American opera. SETH COLTER WALLS

Liszt: ‘Transcendental Études’

Yunchan Lim, piano (Steinway & Sons)

“Harmonies du Soir”

Steinway & Sons

Yunchan Lim was just 18 when he played this formidable Liszt collection during the semifinals of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition last year. He is already so mind-bogglingly accomplished technically, and so refined musically, that these formidable works sound easy. “I’d like to be a musician with infinite possibilities,” he has said. And so he would appear to be. DAVID ALLEN

Wynton Marsalis: Symphony No. 4, ‘The Jungle’

Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra; Nicholas Buc, conductor (Blue Engine Records)

Movement VI: “Struggle in the Digital Market”

Blue Engine Records

Wynton Marsalis’s best symphony draws from his familiar lodestars. Duke Ellington looms large, as ever and as he ought. But other affinities also bloom: post-Minimalist orchestral riffing, pastoral melody and noir ambience all have their say. Plus, Marsalis’s climactic trumpet exclamations summon Cootie Williams from the grave. SETH COLTER WALLS

Missy Mazzoli: ‘Dark With Excessive Bright’

Peter Herresthal, violin; Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra; Arctic Philharmonic; Tim Weiss, James Gaffigan, conductors (Bis)

“Dark With Excessive Bright”


Missy Mazzoli is a master of chiaroscuro. Her first full-length album of orchestral music opens with a bold statement of blinding light and warmly inviting darkness. Her compositions have a signature sound and a sense of movement, as in the enlarging circles of “Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres)” and the plunging explorations of “These Worlds in Us.” OUSSAMA ZAHR

Mendelssohn: ‘Quartets Vol. 2’

Quatuor Van Kuijk (Alpha)

String Quartet No. 6 in F minor, Finale: Allegro molto


It can be difficult, throughout this survey of Mendelssohn’s string quartets, to tell whether one or four instruments are being played, so unified are the Quatuor Van Kuijk players in their interpretation and delivery. At their most impressive, as in their excellent Schubert album, they are capable of shattering expressivity without a hint of sentimentality. JOSHUA BARONE

Monteverdi: ‘Vespro della Beata Vergine’

Pygmalion; Raphaël Pichon, conductor (Harmonia Mundi)

“Ave maris stella”

Harmonia Mundi

There was good reason to think a little more deeply about the future of the period-instrument movement this year, but in Raphaël Pichon and his Pygmalion ensemble, the future may already be here. They already have a strong list of recordings to their name, but this is one of their most daring, fervent and joyous and free. DAVID ALLEN

Ravel: ‘L’Oeuvre Pour Piano’

Philippe Bianconi, piano (La Dolce Volta)

“Une Barque sur l’Océan”

La Dolce Volta

The French pianist Philippe Bianconi traces his pedagogical lineage back to Ravel’s circle, and the result is an album that is magical and transporting, lean and precise. There is no wallowing, no schmaltz. The melancholy he finds in “Sonatine” is as sharply observed as the jerky flight of moths in “Noctuelles.” OUSSAMA ZAHR

Saariaho: ‘Reconnaissance’

Helsinki Chamber Choir; Nils Schweckendiek, conductor (Bis)

“Nuits, Adieux”: VIII. Adieu III — IX. Adieu IV — X. Adieu V


The painful loss of Kaija Saariaho this year makes this album particularly precious. Saariaho’s choral music — including the title work, from 2020, to a text about encounters with Mars — looks back to medieval chant and Renaissance madrigals, and forward to a future of eerie cyborg combinations of the acoustic and electronic. ZACHARY WOOLFE


Lawrence Brownlee, tenor; Kevin J. Miller, piano (Warner Classics)

Robert Owens: “In time of silver rain”

Warner Classics

This beautifully curated album has the sound of an artist who went into the recording studio with something urgent and personal to say. Lawrence Brownlee, Rossini tenor extraordinaire, stretches his vibrato-dense instrument to register subtle feelings aroused in him by songs of the African American experience. Captivating in his commitment, he doesn’t waste a note. OUSSAMA ZAHR

Henry Threadgill: ‘The Other One’

Henry Threadgill Ensemble (Pi Recordings)

“Of Valence”: Movement I, Sections 6A-7A

Pi Recordings

This is where the Second Viennese School meets American second line parade music. Recorded live at Roulette in Brooklyn, and conducted by Henry Threadgill, the blend of strings, woodwinds, tuba, piano and percussion on this recording of “Of Valence” conjures jazz combo and chamber music ecstasies alike. SETH COLTER WALLS

‘Weather Systems II: Soundlines’

Steven Schick, percussion (Islandia Music Records)

Vivian Fung: “The Ice Is Talking”

Islandia Music Records

Ever ambitious, the percussionist Steven Schick fills this set with three hours of self-challenges, including Xenakis’s benchmark “Psappha”; Vivian Fung’s “The Ice Is Talking,” played on a block of the frozen stuff; Roger Reynolds’s “Here and There,” incorporating a Beckett text; and the hourlong sparseness of Sarah Hennies’s “Thought Sectors.” ZACHARY WOOLFE

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra; Manfred Honeck, conductor (Reference Recordings)

II. Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenza

Reference Recordings

Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra have a habit of recording benchmark accounts of classic works, and this Tchaikovsky is no exception. It’s not just their ability to make the most of even the tiniest details that makes this account special, but also how each of those details speaks in service of Honeck’s hair-raising conception of the work. DAVID ALLEN

Anna Thorvaldsdottir: ‘Archora/Aion’

Iceland Symphony Orchestra; Eva Ollikainen, conductor (Sono Luminus)

“Aion”: “Entropia”

Sono Luminus

The Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir has long been associated with evocations of the earth and tectonic forces. Here, especially in the symphony-length “Aion,” her preoccupation is still ecological, but in an abstract, grander sense that surveys immense textures and forms from ever-shifting scales of time and space. Feel small yet? JOSHUA BARONE

Mary Lou Williams: ‘Zodiac Suite’

Aaron Diehl Trio and the Knights; Eric Jacobsen, conductor (Mack Avenue Records)


Mack Avenue Records

The chamber orchestra edition of Mary Lou Williams’s “Zodiac Suite” receives marvelous new life here. The Knights revel in textures flowing from her appreciation of Hindemith; a rhythm section locks into swing grooves. The pianist Aaron Diehl moves deftly between those worlds, and supports an art-song finale that features the soprano Mikaela Bennett. SETH COLTER WALLS

Eric Wubbels: “If and Only If”

Josh Modney, violin; Mariel Roberts, cello; Eric Wubbels, piano (Carrier Records)


Carrier Records

The composer-performer Eric Wubbels brings meticulous poise to his experimentalism. Each new movement of this hourlong piano trio may sound alarming at first. But it’s not shock for shock’s sake: Wubbels maintains immersion in alternate tunings and microtonality in order to set up gradual, ravishing changes. You just might bliss out. SETH COLTER WALLS

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