Friday, 27 December 2013
Performances of the Year, 2013
As ever, it has proved both a joy and a challenge to select performances of the year; there are certainly a good few others which demanded inclusion. I have decided to stick with the format to which I reverted last year: twelve, so as to average one per month. (In 2011, I decided to split performances into categories, partly to help out opera, which, so many variables being involved, seemed to have had something of a bad deal; yet, this year and last, it has proved itself in more need of restraint than assistance.) In any case, I have been tremendously fortunate to hear so many splendid performances, and am delighted to share this end-of-year selection with you, in chronological order. Full reviews may be read by clicking on the links:
1. The Minotaur. Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s latest – final? – operatic masterpiece was if granted its Covent Garden revival. More tightly conducted than the first time around, Ryan Wigglesworth replacing Antonio Pappano, it already seemed a ‘classic’, yet without any sense of the routine. There is room for a more probing staging, but if a new production is not presented somewhere soon, then there truly is no justice in the world. (And yes, of course we still await a new production of The Mask of Orpheus. Is anyone listening?)
2. Written on Skin. Yes, another twenty-first-century English opera: George Benjamin’s masterpiece received its first English performance, conducted by the composer. Performances could hardly have been bettered; and for once a near-unanimous positive reception was perfectly justified.
3. Die Feen. Wagner year experienced in the city where it all began, and with the opera with which it all began. Oper Leipzig’s magical production revealed to a larger audience the true stature of a work far superior to many that hold places in the repertoire – and in which so many of the seeds of Wagner’s subsequent development may be discerned.
4. Wozzeck. And still more opera! The greatest twentieth-century opera of all received a shattering production from ENO, which reminded me quite why this, the first opera I ever saw in the theatre, remains an experience unlike any other. Carrie Cracknell’s brilliant ‘Hamlet in Hull’ staging concentrated upon the experience of military trauma and the hero’s ensuing crime – often overlooked. Keith Warner’s Royal Opera production, revived later in the year, would prove the ideal complement.
5. Rite of Spring centenary concert. Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia achieved what one might have thought well-nigh impossible, at least this side of Pierre Boulez: in its centenary year, the Rite once again shocked. Drama was to the fore, enhanced by brilliant programming, the first half devoted to exemplary performances of Debussy and Varèse.
6. Mahler and Lachenmann. Mahler has long faced a similar fate to that of Stravinsky’s ballet, reduction to the level of mere ‘orchestral showpiece’. If Mahler’s music receives far too many unnecessary performances, Jonathan Nott and the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra showed in their Proms performance of the Fifth Symphony just how necessary this music remains. Equally necessary, of course, is the equally uncompromising music of Helmut Lachenmann, his Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied here receiving its first (!!) British performance with the help of the indefatigable Arditti Quartet.
7. Götterdämmerung. I should probably have chosen every performance of Daniel Barenboim’s Proms Ring, but have forced myself to opt for just the one, which therefore had to be the grand finale. Barenboim, conducting his beloved Staatskapelle Berlin, has done nothing greater – and that is truly saying something. We shall come no closer than this to the spirit of Furtwängler reincarnated, even developed, for our own age. And what singing from Nina Stemme and Andreas Schager! If anything, the astonishing Schager proved even better than when I heard him sing the same role (Siegfried) in Berlin with Barenboim, earlier in the year.
8. Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. An experience at least as shattering as that of Wozzeck. Michael Gielen is perhaps the most scandalously underrated of all living conductors. This Salzburg Festival performance with the SWR SO Baden-Baden and Freiburg took one to Hell, and barred the doors. My hands were literally shaking when the time came to applaud.
9. Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. No, not every aspect of the performances was perfect by any means. But in this of all works, let us not play Beckmesser. Stefan Herheim’s characteristically superlative Salzburg production has one never wishing to see anything else. Michael Volle put his status as the Sachs of this generation quite beyond doubt.
10. Thomas Zehetmair’s Mozart. With the Royal Northern Sinfonia, Zehetmair offered quite the most invigorating concert of Mozart orchestral music I have heard in years. From serenade through sinfonia concertante to symphony, every note sounded both fresh and considered: a superlative achievement.
11. Bernard Haitink’s Brahms. With the Capuçon brothers and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in Amsterdam, Haitink showed once again why not only his musicianship now stands at its greatest, but why there is no greater conductor alive. No wonder the COE so clearly adores him.
12. Michael Volle and Helmut Deutsch. In this Wigmore Hall Liederabend, Volle’s performance proved every inch the equal of that already mentioned in Salzburg. Deutsch may be an ‘accompanist’, but he did not sound like one; the pianism just as distinguished, just as considered as the vocal performance. Schubert, both Schumanns, Mahler, and Strauss could not have been served better; I even found myself thinking of Fischer-Dieskau.