Sunday, 18 December 2011

Performances of the Year, 2011

If fate be tempted by the presentation of such a reckoning prior to the year's end, all the better: I should be delighted, verging upon astonished, if another performance this year came close to those below. The past couple of years, I have presented a list of twelve: an arbitrary number, of course, but akin to one per month, which did not seem unreasonable. This year, I have decided, in doubtless equally arbitrary fashion, to present four performances in each of six categories: instrumental, chamber, orchestral, vocal/choral, opera, and contemporary.  The categories seemed a reasonable reflection of my listening: I am certainly not claiming that one could not come up with others, but it would be rather silly for me to have, say, a 'period performance' or an 'operatic recitals' category - though who knows what 2012 may bring? Part of the reason for this experiment was to give opera more of a chance, since almost any operatic performance is likely, given the large number of variables, to have something that might persuade one to eliminate it from consideration. It is not easy in any sense, of course, to give an outstanding performance of chamber music, but it almost seems so by comparison. I was in two minds concerning 'contemporary', since I do not wish to ghettoise new music from any other. However, on balance, I thought it a good way of drawing attention to excellent performances of excellent music that is truly of our time. (Not that Beethoven is not of our time, but that is another matter...) In the hope that such a preamble has not dissuaded readers from venturing further, here are my choices:

Instrumental

Performance of the Year

This is doubtless grossly, even obscenely, unfair to any other instrumentalist this year, since what could possible compare with the Southbank Centre's 'Pollini Project'? Five recitals, opening with the first book of Bach's Forty-Eight Preludes and Fugues, and culminating in Boulez's Second Piano Sonata. It might be thought cheating to select a whole series, rather than a single concert; if so, so much the better for cheating. Any one of Pollini's recitals could and would have made this list - save for the unfortunate matter of having chosen four performances per category - but the whole was even more than the sum of the parts, and those parts include an astounding account of the three final Beethoven sonatas.

Other contenders

Konstantin Lifschitz's Art of Fugue led one from Bergian chromaticism to Birtwistle's labyrinth, or rather Bach did. This, I wrote at the time, 'was music both for and beyond the piano, shimmering Romanticism and old-fashioned organ-reed registration dissolving or sublating themselves seamlessly into abstraction that yet reached beyond abstraction.' I also wrote that I should be astonished if it did not prove to be one of my performances of the year: no need for further astonishment.

Pollini again, I am afraid: this time in Salzburg, with four more Beethoven sonatas, nos 21-24. The tragic inevitability of the Appassionata and the coruscating chiaroscuro of the Waldstein simply had to be heard to be believed, but equally estimable was the emergence of the scandalously-overlooked F-sharp major sonata as Romantic character-piece.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard's two-concert 'Liszt Project' - might we perhaps rid ourselves of the modish 'project' next year? - placed a little of the still grossly misunderstood composer's finest piano music in the context of followers from Wagner to Marco Stroppa. Context may mean a great deal, but not all, for Aimard's B minor sonata could hold its own in any company whatsoever.

Chamber

Performance of the Year

The Quatuor Ebène's visits to the Wigmore Hall are eagerly awaited; I have yet to be disappointed. Prokofiev, Debussy, and Brahms all received exquisite, profoundly musical treatment from this fine group of musicians. Unanimity of ensemble never sounded slick; it simply arose out of the excellence of their playing - and listening. Prokofiev's first quartet emerged as far more than a concatenation of melodies; Debussy's quartet formed a perfect cyclical whole; Brahms's second essay in the genre glowed, captivated, and profoundly satisfied.

Other Contenders

Sir Simon Rattle's Berlin Philharmonic account of Mahler's Third Symphony was roaringly acclaimed, though in truth it was a dreadfully mannered affair. The opening concert of the BPO's four-night London residency was an immeasurably superior experience, offering the musicians in chamber mode for works by Schubert, Mahler, and Schoenberg. The Schoenberg performances will perhaps linger longest in the memory. For the Second String Quartet, Anna Prohaska joined the ensemble, violence and melodic profusion proving two sides of the Schoenbergian coin. Rattle directed his players in the First Chamber Symphony, an exhilirating ride with none of the infuriating mannerisms of his Mahler, whose early piano quartet can rarely have received such persuasive advocacy.

Schoenberg again, for the Jerusalem Quartet and friends. Verklärte Nacht was performed as true chamber music, not an aspirant orchestral work, though with no loss to its glittering 'pictorial' elements, quite the contrary. Climaxes sent shivers down the spince. Brahms's string sextet offered ghosts from the Classical past, battling and yet affirming them.

It sounds like madness, and it probably is, to perform Schubert's C major String Quintet in the Royal Albert Hall. Yet somehow, the Belcea Quartet and Valentin Erben managed to draw one in. Ambivalence and regret were certainly present; so was quiet determination. Heavenly lengths seemed all too short, all too mortal.

Orchestral

Performance of the Year

The Staatskapelle Berlin and Pierre Boulez provided, along with Aimard's 'project' (see above), the highlight of this year's Liszt anniversary. Despite an erratic performance of the second piano concerto from Daniel Barenboim, the first concerto emerged very much in the line of Beethoven: a musicianly riposte to any idea of Liszt as mere showman. Finer still, though, were Boulez's Wagner performances, both revelatory: a questing Faust Overture and a truly magical, properly symphonic Siegfried-Idyll, outstripping any I have ever heard, live or on record. For that alone, this concert would surely deserve top billing. If only the Wagner pieces had been recorded along with the concertos by Deutsche Grammophon .

Other contenders

Bernard Haitink's Ravel and Mendelssohn with the LSO presented the Mother Goose Suite with an unforced nobility that hinted at Elgar, with no cost to orchestral bite. Solos were as excellent as one would expect from this orchestra. The Midsummer Night's Dream music offered almost Wagnerian musico-dramatic flow through which gossamer delight was spun.

The hype surrounding a visit to London from Claudio Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra - would The Guardian kindly calm down, at least until after a few notes have been played? - inclines one to react adversely, but these performances were outstanding. Abbado's latter-day way with Mozart has won ecstatic plaudits, though I have remained sceptical; not so here, for this was a Haffner Symphony of surpassing elegance. Bruckner's Fifth Symphony remains something of an enigma to me, but Abbado's reading probed, without offering easy answers. What a collection of musicians, moreover, is to be heard in this orchestra!

Throughout the year, the Philharmonia and Esa-Pekka Salonen have been celebrating Bartók, in a series named 'Infernal Dance'. An October concert brought Contrasts, the Wooden Prince suite, the Dance Suite, and the second piano concerto (Yefim Bronfman). An utterly gorgeous account of the Wooden Prince suite left one longing for the entire ballet, rhythmic exactitude and sheer fantasy united.


Vocal/Choral

Performance of the Year

No question whatsoever here: Sir Colin Davis's Proms performance of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis. If you think no one has come close to Klemperer, listen to Davis. With the LSO and London Symphony Chorus on superlative form, we were taken to the abyss, and never quite drew back. Perfection is not a word this work recognises, but greatness and impossibility both are; the same goes for this performance. LSO Live only issues recordings from the Barbican, but might it make an exception, or might someone else issue a recording? It is not only desirable but absolutely necessary to do so.

Other Contenders

The same orchestra and chorus offered a scintillating performance, this time under the baton of Sir Mark Elder, of Elgar's resolutely unfashionable oratorio, The Kingdom. Urgency, dramatic tension, and again, that trademark Elgar word, 'nobility, were there in abundance. I doubt that the work has ever received more glorious choral singing than it did from the LSC.

Bach's St John Passion suffers none of the difficulties concerning taste that The Kingdom does, though I am not sure why that ought to be the case. Many of those who sing its praises would surely be distressed by its message, were they to heed it. For the rest of us, it remains, of course, a towering masterpiece, though present-day performances often fall horrendously short of registering its shattering impact. This Good Friday performance from the Thomaskirche came closer than many, in part because its unassuming quality simply permitted the extraordinary narrative to emerge for itself. Johannes Chum was an excellent Evangelist, Stephan Loges a richly toned, dignified Christ.

Another masterpiece only a madman would deny, though perhaps it renders one more than a little mad to experience it, is Schubert's Winterreise. Movingly, indeed terrifyingly, performed by Pierre-Laurent Aimard (again, I know) and Simon Keenlyside, Schubert in Salzburg offered no Mozartkugeln consolations: instead we looked forward to Wozzeck, even beyond. (Audience behaviour, alas, was nothing short of unforgivable.)

Opera

Performance of the Year

Monteverdi brought musical drama to a level that has been surpassed, perhaps, only by Mozart and Wagner, and equalled by very few. The English National Opera's Return of Ulysses, was, quite simply, essential theatre. Benedict Andrews's production at the Young Vic grabbed one from the outset, the Prologue's Abu Ghraib-style abuse of Human Frailty gloatingly captured on camera, and never let one go. Minerva emerged more a trickster than Ulysses? Was she even a goddess at all? Jonathan Cohen led members of the ENO orchestra with great dramatic flair, Pamela Helen Stephen and Tom Randle heading an outstanding cast.

Other Contenders

Christoph Marthaler's Katya Kabanova received its final outing in Paris, at the Palais Garnier. Thank goodness I caught up with it in time. A drab apartment block and its closed moral world provided the setting for searing musical drama, courtesy of Angela Denoke, Jane Henschel, et al. Katya's goodness shone through with almost unbearably moving effect; the Kabanicha horrified as only she can.

Back to the Coliseum, for ENO's brilliant Midsummer Night's Dream. Leo Hussain, making his ENO debut, conducted a magical account of the score, that magic questioned and deepened at every turn by Christopher Alden's tremendous production. Anathema to loyalists to an Aldeburgh that never was, this was a world of twisted abuse, tormented memory, and troubled defiance. The school entrance said it all, in brazen capital letters: 'BOYS'.

Stefan Herheim's Bayreuth production of Parsifal is, not to beat about the bush, one of the great Wagner stagings of all time. It remains electrifying; it remains faithful; it remains questioning; it remains far more than anyone could possibly take in on a single viewing, which is why I felt properly blessed to be granted a second helping. The tightrope remains precarious: can he really simultaneously tell the story of Parsifal both in Wagner's terms and those of its reception? Yes he can. Daniele Gatti's masterly pacing upset some impatient souls, but the score unfolded as if in a single breath: the only true measure of Wagner performance. If only the roles of Gurnemanz and Parsifal himself had been better filled, this would have been my opera, and not just my Bühnenweihfestspiel, of the year.

Contemporary

Performance of the Year

As with the 'Pollini Project', the Southbank Centre did not permit anything else a chance with its unforgettable weekend, 'Exquisite Labyrinth: the Music of Pierre Boulez'. Pierre-Laurent Aimard  - what a year for him! - and Tamara Stepanovich offered the almost-complete piano works, replete with second-to-none analytical commentary from Aimard. The London Sinfonietta provided the mesmerising moment when I fell head over heals in love with ...explosante-fixe. Above all, Barbara Hannigan, the Ensemble Intercontemporain, and Boulez himself put one in no doubt whatsoever that Pli selon pli is not just a modern masterpiece, but a masterpiece tout court. This was as seductive as Mozart.

Other Contenders

The Arditti Quartet performed four contemporary quartets, two world premieres, two mere London premieres. James Clarke's second quartet proved an intense musico-dramatic experience, Bryan Ferneyhough's sixth less fragmentary, more melodic, than one might have expected, though certainly no less challenging. Hilda Parades’s Canciones lunáticas, with Jake Arditti as counter-tenor soloist, delightfully enjoined us to dance with the moon.

Bruno Mantovani's Akhmatova received its world premiere at the Bastille earlier this year. From the opening viola solo, there was no doubt that musical considerations were to the fore of this new opera. (What a contrast with Anna Nicole, which I had heard just the month before, in London!) Akhmatova is almost a concerto for orchestra, with voices. Yet not quite; for, even if Christophe Ghristi's libretto is far from avant-garde, a burning question remains with one, the question that is Anna Akhmatova's own: should a poetess have children?

There is certainly a French theme in this contemporary selection, my final choice being an outstanding performance from the Neuevocalsolisten Stuttgart and the Ensemble Intercontemporain of works by Mantovani, Ivan Fedele, and Johannes Maria Staud. Fedele's Animus anima II exulted and beguiled; Staud's Par ici! emerged almost as a Lisztian tone-poem for the twenty-first-century; Mantovani's Cantata no.1 proved fully worthy of Rilke's verse, Bach refracted through the ages.

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