Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Upon reaching my thousandth post...

My most recent blogpost turned out to be my 1000th. No one can be more surprised about having reached that milestone than I am; when I started out, just over six years ago, I really had no idea what I was doing, barely knowing what a ‘blog’ was. I had made a pilgrimage to Berlin, for what still remains one of the most extraordinary musical experiences of my life, the opportunity to hear in a little over a week all of the Mahler symphonies, in performances by the Staatskapelle Berlin, conducted by Pierre Boulez and Daniel Barenboim. Whilst there, it occurred to me that it would be a nice idea simply to record some of my impressions. Having returned home to Cambridge – as home then was – I sent my little report of those performances to a few interested friends. One of them suggested that others, whom neither she nor I might know, might also be interested to read an English-language report, and that setting up a blog would be a way for them to reach it, should they wish. Being anything other than a technologically-minded person, I was quite pleased with myself for managing to do that without any help from anyone else. So unversed was I in the ways of this new world, that it had never occurred to me that I should need a name for the blog; so, when I was asked, I simply wrote the first thing that came into my mind, doubtless a consequence of Boulez’s pre-eminence in those performances, but not even realising that it was anything more than a user-name, such as I had for e-mail. Though offering a tribute to the man I still regard in many ways as the conscience of new music was far from unfitting, there was thus a great deal of ‘happenstance’ in the naming: not entirely unlike that of his wonderful choral work, Cummings ist der Dichter (not, incidentally, a work of which I have had any opportunity to review a performance).
Perhaps, then, it would have been especially fitting, had that final posting of the first thousand related to Boulez in some way, but it did not, and I had no intention of writing something just for the sake of such symmetry. (More to the point, I only realised the day before that I was approaching my 1000th posting!)  However, were I not dealing with Boulez, it would have been difficult to happen upon something more appropriate than a memorial concert to Sir Colin Davis, whose performances, largely with the LSO and the Royal Opera, consistently lit up my musical life until his death earlier this year. Indeed, I recently noted that the little tribute I wrote, immediately upon hearing of his passing, has been the most-read item here. And now my 1001st is able to feature them both.

In that spirit, I decided to mark this coming of age by selecting twenty-one performances that have meant and, in retrospect, continue to mean a great deal to me. (Not all of my postings have been reviews, but I shall leave the others on one side for the moment.) It would be meaningless to claim that they were my absolute ‘favourite’ performances during this period, for the competition would be far too fierce, and in any case, musical performance does not or should not constitute a competition. With all the necessary caveats, however, here is a selection of those I especially wished to remember (in chronological order):

1.       Berlin Mahler-Zyklus

I could hardly fail to include it, given the formative status mentioned above; nor, however, should I ever have wished not to do so.

A truly astounding performance at the Royal Opera House; somehow, Davis’s ineffable magic managed to redeem what ought to have been irredeemable, given the tawdry production.

I heard three out of the eight recitals Barenboim gave at the Royal Festival Hall. Somewhat arbitrarily yet perhaps inevitably, I select here the final one, ending with op.111.

Gluck remains perhaps the most scandalously neglected of all musical dramatists. Barrie Kosky’s scintillating production of perhaps his finest opera offered a standing rebuke to the silence from other houses.

Self-recommending, one might think, but this concert with the Scharoun Ensemble and Barbara Hannigan went beyond that to undoubted greatness; I doubt that any of the works performed has ever received a superior performance.

An historic event, to be sure, but also a profoundly musical experience, culminating in Schubert’s great B-flat sonata, D 960.

The premiere of Robert Carsen’s production at the Prinzregententheater offered one of those rare occasions when everything worked together and proved so much more than the sum of its considerable parts – especially to be valued in this of all operas.

I have been fortunate enough to see Stefan Herheim’s staging of Parsifal three times now, twice conducted by Daniele Gatti. Here I have chosen the stunning experience of my first encounter; it remains the case that I have seen no better production of any opera, anywhere.

I agonised over whether to include this Wigmore Hall concert, since part of its memorability is ‘extra-musical’. However, the way in which musicians and music rose above disruption proved both admirable in itself and a proper reminder that there is no more ideological a construct than ‘absolute music’.

The heroic efforts of English Touring Opera may often be overshadowed by London’s permanent companies. The first performance of a masterpiece, however, stood in stark contrast to some of the misfires offered both by Covent Garden and ENO (Anna Nicole, Miss Fortune, and above all, the execrable Two Boys...)

In truth, I could have chosen any of the five ‘Pollini Project’ recitals given at the Royal Festival Hall, in which our greatest living pianist performed works from Bach to Boulez. How, though, not to single out transcendental accounts of opp.109-11?

Not that any of us in the know has ever doubted it, but here were a searing performance and production, directed by Benedict Andrews, starring Tom Randle and Pamela Helen Stephen, that demonstrated beyond doubt the towering greatness of opera’s first titan.

A signal achievement, in turning an opera that so readily palls into a great evening’s theatre: a staging, then, much better than the work itself.

Perhaps the ultimate challenge, met more successfully than any performance I have heard since Klemperer’s EMI recording. This was a reckoning indeed with Beethoven’s towering masterpiece.

A performance that went far beyond the self-recommending, as much a summation of a life as Sir Colin’s Missa solemnis. Again with the excellent Barbara Hannigan.

This is the only performance I have ever heard that ‘worked’ in St Paul’s Cathedral. And how! The last time I heard Davis conduct.

A triumphant, life-affirming conclusion to a triumphant, life-affirming Proms cycle of the Beethoven symphonies (and works by Boulez). The symphonic Beethoven regained meaning, regained burning necessity.

Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s masterpiece receiving its Salzburg premiere, showing, amongst other things, that when the Vienna Philharmonic puts its mind to doing so, it can be a great advocate for new music.

Goodness knows how the Birmingham Opera Company under Graham Vick managed to give the premiere of Stockhausen’s opera, helicopter quartet and all, let alone to do so with such incredible success. This achievement arguably puts all of the others mentioned here in the shade. Unforgettable!

The first time around, I had had no doubt what a fine work this was, but it had not quite knocked me for six as Gawain had on only my second ever visit to the Royal Opera House. A superior conductor made all the difference on the 2013 revival.

If not quite the birth of a masterpiece, given that it had been premiered the previous year in Aix, my first encounter with what will surely be judged a key opera of the twenty-first century.


Gavin Plumley said...

Congratulations, Mark, on reach the 1000 mark. The blogosphere is genuinely so much richer for your contribution.

Anonymous said...

Congrats, on your 1000th post. I have only started reading your blog over the past year or so and love it despite your hatred of Verdi. But, we can all politely disagree on certain things. I'm suprised Two Boys didn't make your list since it was one of the best reviews of any opera production I have read over the past few years. You do withering scorn and sarcasm very well. I guess it was right that you only posted past reports of performances that gave you so much pleasure. I look forward to reading them. Keep up the wonderful work. Bryan

Mark Berry said...

Thank you very much, both of you! I did think about adding a postscript of turkeys, but decided against it: not that that decision is irreversible... Suffice it to say, Two Boys would have to be a favourite for the coveted top spot.

Anonymous said...

You take yourself far too seriously. Your reviews are highly predictable - since the ideological stance you take determines your response. The way you insult those who have different views to yourself suggests some pyschological issues. You would have us listen to a very narrow range - with only Furtwanglerian performance type permitted of the classics and only modern works 'authorised' by Boulez (the conscience of modern music????) getting an accolade from you.
Most significant works can take a range of different interpretations and not everything we listen to has to be a masterpiece ( a much overused term in the modernist lexicon ).

Mark Berry said...

Sorry you feel that way, though your claims are certainly not borne out by the evidence. There are few greater admirers of Klemperer than I, and he could not be farther removed from Furtwängler. Having mentioned Colin Davis more than once in the posting above, I could add that he has little obvious connection with Furtwängler either; indeed the only conductor named who really does is Barenboim, and even that kinship can readily be exaggerated.

Moreover, if you think that Boulez's 'approval' - is there a list somewhere, to which one can refer? - is somehow crucial, then it would put me in a very odd position as, for instance, an admirer and indeed scholar of Hans Werner Henze. As for my choice of Stockhausen's 'Mittwoch' above, I'd hazard a guess that it would not meet with any such 'approval'.

I should happily go into more detail, had you the courtesy not to post with a name rather than anonymously. My suspicion, however, which may be entirely unfounded, is that you came here to insult, not to discuss; hence your derogatory reference to 'psychological issues'. (Many bloggers, I might add, permit neither anonymous comments nor personal abuse. The only comments I have ever refused have been spam.)

In any case, if you dislike what I have written so much, there is no earthly reason why you should feel any need to read me. 'Predictable' as I seem to be, you could probably write the piece yourself anyway.

Simon Morgan said...

I'm a bit late here, too.
But congratulations are definitely in order.
Always a pleasure to read your expert and erudite reviews and postings, which keep an expat like me abreast of what's going on in the UK (and elsewhere of course).
I look forward to reading the next 1,000.
Very best

Mark Berry said...

Thanks, Simon: much appreciated!