Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Performances of the Year 2009

This really has been a year full of wonderful performances. Even singling out a goodly number entails almost arbitrarily excluding others. It becomes all the more difficult with opera in particular, since the odds of a production and performance having nothing with which one might quibble verge upon the fantastical. Moreover, even when it comes to concert life, there can often be one or two outstanding performances amongst others, which, relatively speaking at least, disappoint. Nevertheless, I have managed to come up with a list of twelve performances - one for each month, on average, but not one from each month - which give some indication of the musical riches on offer in London and beyond this year.

Back in January, I was fortunate enough to attend four concerts as part of the annual Salzburg Mozartwoche. The pick of the bunch, if only just, was an all-Boulez concert, presented by Jörg and Carolin Widmann, the Experimental Studio of the Südwestrundfunk Freiburg, and Hidéki Nagano, who gave the Austrian premiere of Une page d’éphéméride. Carolin Widmann's Anthèmes 2 was simply mesmerising. Further proof, as if any were needed, as to the ongoing importance, indeed necessity, of the man who may justly be accounted the conscience of modern music.

From Boulez to the music he has done so much to champion: that of the Second Viennese School, in this case early Schoenberg. A performance of the Gurrelieder would be hard put not to be a special event. Nevertheless, Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia conjured up something unforgettable for the inaugural concert of their 'City of Dreams' festival.

Murray Perahia and the Concertgebouw under Bernard Haitink in Schumann's piano concerto, followed by Bruckner's Ninth Symphony: somehow, this concert lived up to and even surprassed expectations. I summarised the Bruckner thus: 'It was desperate but never Mahlerian, a true (non-)conclusion to a truly great performance. Haitink at eighty has never been greater.'

I initially prevaricated about including the Staatsoper Unter den Linden's new Lohengrin. Not every element of the musical performance quite matched up to Stefan Herheim's extraordinary, brilliant new production, though Klaus Florian Vogt made a powerful case to be considered the world's leading Heldentenor. Herheim's production, a worthy successor to his Bayreuth Parsifal, simply demands to be seen.

Matthias Goerne and Christoph Eschenbach have been performing the three Schubert song cycles together recently - and will perform all three at next year's Salzburg Festival. I caught their Wigmore Hall Winterreise, which was utterly devastating.

July took me to Aix en Provence, for an extremely pleasurable few days. Truly outstanding here was a concert from Pierre-Laurent Aimard, the Berlin Philharmonic, and Boulez as conductor. Bartók, Ravel, and Boulez (piano and orchestral Notations) would seem an almost stereotypical Boulez programme, but there was nothing routine to this concert.

Haitink returned to London for the Proms, conducting Mahler's Ninth Symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra. I had been stunned earlier in the year by Daniele Gatti's performance of the very same work with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Haitink's reading was very different but equally powerful - and, forced to choose just one, the magnificent playing of the LSO would win out. Debating whether this extraordinary symphony, is ‘about’ life or death misses the point; Haitink showed that one cannot consider one without the other.

Daniel Barenboim brought his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra to the Proms for a trio of concerts. I could justifiably have chosen all three (Waltraud Meier in Fidelio was utterly unforgettable), but perhaps the finest of all was a chamber concert, which worked surprisingly well in the Royal Albert Hall. Barenboim's musicians were left to their own devices - and how! - for a magical performance of Mendelssohn's Octet. The Berg Chamber Concerto saw Barenboim return to the podium, his son Michael the violin soloist and Karim Said the piano soloist. Many find this work intractable; I have never understood the problem. But even the naysayers would surely have been bowled over by this incendiary account, which led us into a labyrinth from which no one would wish to depart.

The programming of much of the Philharmonia's City of Dreams festival was a little disappointing: no Webern, for instance, in a series dealing with Vienna 1900-35! However, the final concert, a semi-staged performance of Wozzeck, proved a shattering experience. Simon Keenlyside was close to definitive in the title role, whilst having the orchestra on stage rather than in the pit permitted Berg’s writing to resound as rarely it can.

A second Wigmore Hall Winterreise was equally demanding of inclusion, this time from Wolfgang Holzmair and Andreas Haefliger. Holzmair's very Austrian-sounding tenor is a very different instrument from Goerne's dark baritone. This was a Winterreise that refused to subordinate dramatic truth to musical beauty, often more akin to a poetry reading than a conventional Liederabend. I was chilled to the bone.

It had been many years - nine in fact - since I had heard Christian Thielemann live. I wish the wait had not been so long, but it was nevertheless worth it. The Berlin Philharmonic was here on home territory, in the Philharmonie, in a programme of Brahms and Schoenberg. Three Brahms choral gems, all far too infrequently heard, prepared the way for Schoenberg's Pelleas und Melisande, which for the first time in my listening experience fell into place. Thielemann’s long-term structural understanding set me wondering what Furtwängler would have made of a work I have long underestimated.

Finally, we return to the opera house, for Oper Leipzig's Al gran sole carico d'amore. Almost unbelievably, I saw two different productions of Nono's second 'opera' within a matter of months. Salzburg boasted the Vienna Philharmonic under Ingo Metzmacher, with Katie Mitchell directing. Leipzig's performance, however, was rendered all the more revolutionary immediate by Peter Konwitschny's searingly committed production. And the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra was pretty good too...

May I take this opportunity to wish my readers a very Happy New Year for 2010? I hope that the coming year will prove as rewarding as this one has.

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