29 best classical music festivals in Europe: what's on this year?
It's looking like a busy summer for operas, concerts and music festivals across Europe. Here are some of the very best classical music festivals that you may want to grab tickets for
Best classical music festivals in Germany
18 May-18 June
Last year’s 45th anniversary festival was all about magic; 2023 takes its theme from Tolstoy, ‘Black and White’ taking a deep dive into the world of contrasts and opposites. Playing on the title, a mini festival-within-the-festival is devoted to the piano including pianists Emanuel Ax and Hélène Grimaud, plus a complete Beethoven symphonies cycle in the transcriptions by Liszt.
A rare outing for Schumann’s Genoveva conducted by Kent Nagano, plus Wagner’s Das Rheingold supply the operatic firepower. Other highlights include Mahler Symphony No. 3 from the Dresden Staatskapelle under Christian Thielemann, and Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis with the period instruments of Jordi Savall’s Le Concert des Nations.
Exactly 300 years ago JS Bach took up the post of Thomaskantor in Leipzig – a job he would hold for the rest of his life. And the city’s annual Bachfest isn’t going to let the anniversary go unnoticed.
From churches and concert hall to the railway station and the main lecture hall of the Anatomical Institute, the fruits of Bach’s first year are proudly celebrated in over 150 events including a cantata cycle with contributions from conductors such as Philippe Herreweghe and Ton Koopman.
A gala in the Market Square hosted by violinist Daniel Hope includes Lang Lang and some ‘titans of rock and jazz’; the Mendelssohn and Schumann houses are co-opted; and the St John Passion is given in the context of a Good Friday Vespers service. Attracting visitors from over 50 countries last year, Bach beckons!
Munich Opera Festival
18 June-31 July
Strauss loomed large in Serge Dorny’s inaugural Festival as artistic director last year, and Salome disrobes in 2023’s cornucopia – which consolidates the current season’s theme of love and conflict, as well as encouraging a dialogue between Verdi and Wagner.
Munich firsts include Brett Dean’s Hamlet (conducted by Vladimir Jurowski), and Handel’s Semele, while the Wagnerian big guns conscript a new production of Tristan und Isolde. Verdi takes aim with Otello, Aida, and Don Carlo; and in an intriguing double-bill, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas goes head-to-head with Schoenberg’s Erwartung.
Best classical music festivals in France
Festival de Saint-Denis
Although the festival embraces a year-round presence, June is when things come together in the glorious Gothic Basilica and grandiose Maison d’Éducation de la Légion d’honneur. Vocal music abounds (including Coronation star Bryn Terfel taking a Celtic stroll with Beethoven, and Benjamin Appl tasting ‘forbidden fruits’).
But then again, Saint-Denis has something to sing about as it notches up its 55th edition. Biber and Lotti to Jimi Hendrix and George Crumb, violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja and the Radio France Philharmonic highlight ecological issues – a provocative postscript to Haydn’s The Creation, given in its 1800 French makeover.
Composer Betsy Jolas attended the very first Aix Festival 75 years ago and now, at the age of 97, a new orchestral work has been specially commissioned as part of the festival’s 75th anniversary celebrations.
Aix has long been a champion of the new, and Jolas is in good company. Other premieres include George Benjamin’s latest opera Picture a day like this, and Philip Venables’ The Faggots and Their Friends between Revolutions – part of 2023’s overarching theme charting moral confusion and manipulation of the vulnerable.
Christian Gerhaher takes the title role in Berg’s Wozzeck, while 15 concerts complement the operatic fare, among them a George Benjamin ‘Carte Blanche’ with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, and HK Gruber’s cabaret evening.
Café Baroque supplies organic sustenance to fuel the festival’s core pilgrimage to six Périgord churches, which this year will showcase Handel arias sung by soprano Mary Bevan.
Back at ‘HQ’, in Cercles’ Romanesque church artistic director Ton Koopman directs Amsterdam Baroque in three of the six symphonies Haydn wrote for Paris. There, too, Les Talens Lyriques under Christophe Rousset broker an Italo-French entente-cordiale pairing Monteverdi and Charpentier.
More like this
23 August-10 September
Where French, Spanish, and Basque cultures meet stands Saint-Jean-de-Luz, the town where the Sun King Louis XIV married Maria Theresa, Infanta of Spain. For musicians, though, its claim to fame is as the birthplace of Maurice Ravel who, since 2021, is the subject of an ambitious festival co-founded by pianist Bertrand Chamayou.
Among musicians paying court this summer are the Orchestre de l’Opéra National de Paris under Gustavo Dudamel, violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, and piano duo the Labèque sisters.
Best classical music festivals in Italy
7 June – 23 July
Ravenna relishes a notable literary anniversary. For 2023, the centenary of author Italo Calvino’s birth comes under scrutiny and with it a chance to navigate the nature of ‘Invisible Cities’ – the title of his 1972 novel inspired by the travels of Marco Polo.
Those with a hand on the tiller include legendary pianist Martha Argerich, violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, and the Tallis Scholars. Sinfonia Varsovia partners Penderecki and Górecki; while in the mosaiced jewel-box that is Sant’Apollinare in Classe, violinist Leonidas Kavakos plays unaccompanied Bach.
The city of Monteverdi’s birth has been honouring its most famous son for 40 festivals now, and the anniversary edition is anchored by two performances of the ground-breaking L’incoronazione di Poppea. Il Pomo d'Oro decamps to the Violin Museum to take the musical temperature of Rome between Monteverdi and Galuppi; and in the church of Sant’Agostino, La Fonte Musica recreates the first performance of Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda.
Concerto Italiano, meanwhile, tackles madrigals by Monteverdi, Castello and Uccellini - entrusting the finale to sacred music from John Eliot Gardiner’s Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra.
Best Czech classical music festivals
Prague Spring Festival
Prague, Czech Republic
12 May-2 June
Smetana’s great cycle Má Vlast (My Country) was dedicated to the city and by tradition usually announces the start of Prague’s springtime festivities. The Orchestra of Welsh National Opera under its music director Tomáš Hanus does the honours this year, heralding a delegation of visiting orchestras including the Bavarian Radio Symphony and Essen Philharmonic.
John Adams teams up with the resident Czech Philharmonic; ‘Prague Offspring’ explores contemporary music by, among others, Georg Friedrich Haas; in the Rudolfinum Les Talens Lyriques pair Rameau and Royer; and Messiaen absorbs mezzo Magdalena Kožená with pianist Mitsuko Uchida.
Best classical music festivals in Poland
Musica Electronica Nova
The 11th edition of Poland’s livewire experimental music festival is examining diverse paths out of the pandemic, and opens with Fluid Mechanics, a piece for ensemble and electronics by Benjamin de la Fuente and Samuel Sighicelli. Elsewhere, Lisboa, Valenciennes revisits a trip to Portugal by the Festival’s erstwhile artistic director Elżbieta Sikora.
And with an eye to the audience of the future, two concerts specially curated for youngsters translate the ever-changing patterns of the kaleidoscope into shimmering sound pictures.
‘Mother Nature’ supplies the thematic canvas on which this festival paints its 2023 edition – as ever putting the human voice at the heart of concerts across Wrocław and the nearby towns of Lower Silesia.
The National Forum of Music’s resident ensembles are joined by guest artists including the European Union Baroque Orchestra, countertenor Andreas Scholl, Il Giardino Armonico, and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. Christoph Eschenbach conducts Penderecki and Beethoven on opening night, while Giovanni Antonini addresses the festival’s theme with Haydn’s oratorio The Seasons.
Best classical music festivals in Norway
Bergen International Festival
24 May-7 June
Bergen is honouring one of its own this year as it pays tribute to Anne-Marie Ørbeck, a composer-pianist who settled in the city in 1940 and is credited as the first Norwegian woman to compose a large-scale symphony. Her music is threaded throughout a programme that ponders ‘the forgotten, overlooked, and hidden voices’.
There’s nothing ‘overlooked’ about the festival opener, however. Artist-in-residence Lise Davidsen sings the title role in Puccini’s Tosca, as well as taking part in a Verdi Requiem under Edward Gardner.
Rosendal Chamber Music Festival
Baroniet Rosendal, Norway
Following 2022’s focus on Beethoven, pianist and festival director Leif Ove Andsnes focuses 2023 on a man forever conscious of Beethoven’s shadow: Johannes Brahms. But he’s not forgotten Ligeti – whose Horn Trio, obligingly, is indebted to Brahms’s Opus 40.
Joining Andsnes is a galaxy of performers including fellow pianists Bertrand Chamayou and Yeol Eum Son; string players James Ehnes, Tabea Zimmermann, and cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason; not to mention the Dover Quartet and Zum Roten Igel (named for Brahms’ favourite watering hole). Accompanied by Andsnes, Matthias Goerne sings Brahms’s song cycle Die schöne Magelone.
Best classical music festivals in Ireland
Blackwater Opera Festival
29 May-5 June
‘Home’ might be the imposing Lismore Castle set in seven acres of glorious gardens; but the festival likes to share its bounty throughout the Blackwater Valley and beyond. Yeats is celebrated in St Carthage’s Cathedral Lismore, while tenor Ian Bostridge brushes up his Shakespeare in Aglish.
On the closing night it’s a case of Handel with care as mezzo Paula Murrihy joins director Peter Whelan and the Irish Baroque Orchestra in Dromore Yard. But it’s not just Bostridge who’s mindful of the Bard. Conducted by Killian Farrell and featuring Leonardo Galeazzi as the murderous would-be king, Verdi’s Macbeth is directed by Sarah Baxter.
West Cork Chamber Music Festival
23 June-2 July
Having just notched up its quarter-century, the West Cork Chamber Music Festival is doing things four-by-four this year. It’s headlined by four violinists, Alina Ibragimova and Viviane Hagner among them, and four international string quartets.
JS Bach and Mozart are woven through the six daily concerts, which are spliced with masterclasses, talks, and a musical nightcap. Cédric Tiberghien joins Ibragimova to champion late Schumann. And there’s contemporary music too from Georges Benjamin and Crumb; world premieres of works by Sally Beamish and Donnacha Dennehy; and, in the ‘land of saints and scholars’, Heinrich Biber’s Rosary Sonatas should find receptive ears.
Best classical music festivals in Turkey
Istanbul Music Festival
Last year’s 50th anniversary edition celebrated in style, indulging local pride with a performance of Fazil Say’s ‘Istanbul’ Symphony. 2023 marks the centenary of the foundation of the Turkish Republic, and alongside Turkish music (and Tango!) dating from the Republic’s early years, there are projects inspired by the women, historical and mythological, of Anatolia.
The customary Lifetime Achievement Award goes to violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter.
Best classical music festivals in Sweden
This year, O/Modernt’s mission to challenge preconceptions considers Brahms. Fervent 19th-century Wagnerians such as Liszt saw in Brahms only a reactionary figure – though Schumann and later Schoenberg hailed Brahms a ‘progressive’.
With its motto ‘Invent the Past. Revise the Future. Live the Now’, violinist Hugo Ticciati’s ensemble invites the likes of pianist Alexander Melnikov to a festival that has commissioned a clutch of works inspired by Brahms. It also sets the landmark Symphony No. 1 beside the serially-reinvented Piano Quintet, and crafts a programme teased by ‘Cyphers of Homage and Love’.
Birgit Nilsson Days
Båstad & Västra Karup, Sweden
Despite an international career, the Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson regarded the concerts she gave in her hometown of Västra Karup with particular affection. The town reciprocates.
Since 2018 the museum created in her honour has arranged a festival centred on concerts and masterclasses. There’s also an outdoor concert performance of Puccini’s Tosca. Pier Giorgio Morandi conducts the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra.
Best classical music festivals in Spain
21 June-19 July
From the Moorish Alhambra to its magical Generalife Gardens, the backdrop to Spain’s premiere festival could almost steal the show. Astute programming sidesteps the danger however, and as its 75th birthday nears, the ‘vocal universe’ is the guiding star for 2023.
This year's Granada Festival shines a light on operatic Falla, Telemann, and Puccini (Turandot); and includes recitals by mezzos Angela Gheorghiu and Magdalena Kožená. But keyboard stars twinkle too, including Víkingur Ólafsson, Igor Levit, and Ton Koopman. Bach and Ligeti 100 are fêted; and there are orchestral contributions from La Scala Milan and L’Orchestre des Champs-Élysées.
Best classical music festivals in Finland
Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival
Pianists Olli Mustonen and Heini Kärkkäinen, violinist John Storgårds, plus ensembles including the Meta4 and Castalian string quartets are heading to the lakes and forests of Eastern Finland. Some 60 concerts and 100 performers are at the service of a programme devoted to ‘Roots and Wings’.
Flaunting Zelenka and Zappa, operatic Orpheus, and postcards from America, this year’s Finno-Ugric Capital of Culture is living up to the award with a vengeance!
Best classical music festivals in Croatia
Dubrovnik Summer Festival
10 July-25 August
Boasting a harmonious collision of Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque buildings hunkered down beside an azure sea, ‘the pearl of the Adriatic’ is a city whose ‘harmony’ redoubles as summer’s festival hits its stride.
Pianist András Schiff inaugurates the musical component, which includes the Camerata Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, as well as Dutilleux and Widmann from cellist Nicolas Altstaedt. And a special concert acknowledges the 150th birthdays of Rachmaninov and local hero Blagoje Bersa.
Best classical music festivals in Estonia
Pärnu Music Festival
Seaside Pärnu isn’t just a destination for summer sun-seekers. Shostakovich and violinist David Oistrakh were no strangers to its charms, and it was the holiday destination of choice for the Järvi family, a family currently sporting three conductors who together preside over an academy-cum-festival that draws over 200 musicians.
Neeme conducts this year’s opening concert. Kristjan heads up the Baltic Sea Symphony. And under Paavo, the Estonian Festival Orchestra with Pinchas Zuckerman perform Berlioz’s Harold in Italy.
Haapsalu Early Music Festival
Where the Romanovs (and Tchaikovsky) once took the waters, the Baltic spa town of Haapsalu today hosts a compact festival devoted to the Baroque and early music. JS Bach’s B minor Mass and Art of Fugue bestride the 30th edition which, in the cathedral, invites countertenor Iestyn Davies and the Jupiter Ensemble to delve into Handel’s English oratorios.
Elsewhere, Les Basses Réunies commandeer St John’s church for a programme exploring the birth of the cello in Bologna and Naples. And, by way of a finale, Antwerp-based Graindelavoix probes ‘Josquin and the Undead’.
Best classical music festivals in Switzerland
Gstaad Menuhin Festival
14 July-2 September
As Gstaad embarks on a three-year thematic cycle exploring ‘Change’, 2023 is devoted to ‘Humility’. There’s nothing humble about the roll call of performers, however!
Pianists Mitsuko Uchida, András Schiff and Yuja Wang; violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja; and singers including Matthias Goerne, Cecilia Bartoli and Erwin Schrott are all heading for the Swiss Alps, where orchestras including the Festival Academy, Israel Philharmonic, and Freiburger Barockorchester await.
In the Festival Tent Ute Lemper pays tribute to Marlene Dietrich, while - fresh from singing at the Coronation of King Charles III - Pretty Yende heads a semi-staged Tosca. Across the Festival, meanwhile, Bach casts a humbling shadow.
In a Verbier winter, skiing is the thing. But 30 years ago a festival was born, and summertime’s musical après-ski is celebrating with an enthusiasm that contrives a Gala evening corralling more than 40 festival favourites.
These include soprano Barbara Hendricks, the Capuçon brothers, bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, and violinist Joshua Bell. Only Verbier!
Zubin Mehta conducted the very first concert and opens proceedings again. Debutants include cellist Yo-Yo Ma, while baritone Matthias Goerne is the downtrodden Wozzeck in a concert performance of Berg’s eponymous opera.
Among other highlights James Gaffigan masterminds a concert performance of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress; and, in a spectacular case of ‘coals to Newcastle’, 2023 BBC Music Magazine Awards nominee Klaus Mäkelä conducts Strauss’s Alpine Symphony.
8 August-10 September
Paradise and the longing for an ideal world is the elevated theme of Lucerne 2023, and it nails its colours to the mast with the Festival Orchestra’s first concert under Riccardo Chailly, given over solely to Mahler’s Symphony No. 3.
That composer makes another appearance at the close, as Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla leads the Munich Philharmonic in the Mahler's Symphony No. 2, 'Resurrection'. Elsewhere pianist Daniil Trifonov is ‘artiste étoile’, appearing in several guises.
And as ever the orchestral visitors cut quite the dash, spanning the period instruments of Il Giardino Armonico and Les Arts Florissants, through mainstream orchestral big beasts such as the Boston Symphony and Oslo Philharmonic, to the contemporary music focused Ensemble Intercontemporain.
Best classical music festivals in Austria
20 July-31 August
At Schloss Leopoldskron they’re throwing a party for the 150th birthday of theatre director Max Reinhardt. All Salzburg is invited to honour the memory of a man whose staging of Everyman in the Cathedral Square spurred the creation of a festival which, over a century later, is as lofty as the city’s surrounding peaks.
The Philharmonics of Vienna and Berlin are joined by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, and Les Siècles - who spearhead a Ligeti strand. Among operatic offerings John Eliot Gardiner conducts a concert performance of Berlioz’s epic Les Troyens, while Gerald Finley is the larger-than-life Sir John Falstaff in Verdi’s Shakespearian swansong.
Best classical music festivals in Romania
27 August-24 September
The biennial celebration of composer, violinist, and national hero George Enescu is a force of nature.
Its orchestral series doesn’t merely pay lip service to the much-bandied word ‘international’. For nigh on a month A-listers too many to mention flock to the Romanian capital.
Operas in concert include Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise, Britten’s Billy Budd, and Verdi’s Otello, while Les Arts Florissants propose Purcell’s irresistible semi-opera The Fairy Queen.