Saturday, 3 January 2015

Performances of the Year, 2014

Again, I have limited myself to twelve: an arbitrary number, with a number of exclusions very difficult or impossible to justify, though I suppose there is a Schoenbergian satisfaction in such limitation. (I am tempted to cheat, by mentioning other performances in passing here, but shall resist!) The ordering is purely chronological.

My first selection comes from the Wigmore Hall, home to many a happy evening in 2014 and indeed in other years. Renaud Capuçon and Khatia Buniatishvili offered a scintillating programme of Bartók, Beethoven, and Brahms. Looking back, I see that I was so carried away as to conclude by writing: ‘It was difficult not to think that a great Beethovenian such as Daniel Barenboim, even Furtwängler, would have approved.

English National Opera offered a Peter Grimes that definitively rid the work – far from my favourite opera, but that perhaps enhances the significance of its selection – of any ‘Campaign for Real Barnacles’ taints. David Alden’s staging, poised dramatically rather than distractingly, between the time of composition and episodes of heightened expressionism, perfectly complimented the finest musical performance I have heard at ENO for some time: the best I have heard from Edward Gardner, and, from Stuart Skelton, the best assumption I have ever heard in the title role.

A few yards away, the Royal Opera not so long after gave anniversary-boy Strauss his full due in a terrific Frau ohne Schatten. Semyon Bychkov showed not only what a great Straussian he is, but what a great orchestra the Covent Garden players can be under the right conductor. Comparisons with the very finest Continental orchestras were not remotely amiss on this occasion. My first act upon returning home from the first night was to buy myself a ticket for a subsequent performance.

Maurizio Pollini continues to astonish with his depth of insight. His Royal Festival Hall performance of Beethoven sonatas offered tension and excitement that would have been incredible in a pianist half his age. Not least of the virtues of this recital – largely misunderstood, I fear, by critics who believe there is only ‘one way’ to perform a masterpiece – was the rethinking so characteristic of ‘late’ or rather ‘latest’ Pollini. In theory, I, especially as one not generally inclined to swift tempi, should have been shocked by the speed of the Hammerklavier’s slow movement; in context, it made perfect sense, indeed recreated the piece anew.

Another of the greatest pianists of our time, Radu Lupu, performed Schumann and Schubert at the Semperoper in Dresden. My first hearing of Lupu in the flesh – when will he again play in London?! – was a truly memorable experience. Again, the depth of insight and the individuality, though never for its own sake, of interpretation marked this out as a very special evening.

The Barbican’s ‘Birtwistle at 80’ season provided riches aplenty. My choice of its opening concert (if I remember correctly) is perhaps arbitrary, since all the performances I attended were greatly to be valued, but this concert performance of Gawain packed an unforgettable punch, taking me back to my first ‘live’ experience of the composer’s music, the same opera at Covent Garden (only my second visit to the Royal Opera House). I now never want to hear the work without the reinstated full version of the Turning of the Seasons again.

As greatness in twentieth-century opera goes, things do not get much greater, of course, than Moses und Aron. Welsh National Opera bravely mounted Schoenberg’s unfinished, unfinishable masterpiece and deserved every plaudit thus gained. The choral singing simply had to be heard to be believed.

Back to Strauss – and back to Bychkov. His Proms Elektra once again offered Londoners the very finest of Straussian understanding. This was a musico-dramatic reading that needed no elaborate staging for the work to make its shattering impact. Christine Goerke excelled in the title role.

One is unlikely ever to experience a poor performance from Bernard Haitink and Mitsuko Uchida. I certainly did not in a ravishing LSO account of Mozart’s twenty-second piano concerto: one in which the still greatly lamented Colin Davis would surely have delighted. Brahms’s Fourth Symphony and perhaps the best performance I have ever heard of Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune made for a truly splendid, wonderfully ‘old-school’ symphonic concert.

Debussy also did extremely well in a superlative concert staging of Pelléas et Mélisande, the Philharmonia and Esa-Pekka Salonen playing this miraculous score to the manner born. Stéphane Degout and Sandrine Piau headed a remarkable cast.

Salonen has, of course, worked with Patrice Chéreau, but it was Simon Rattle I heard in the pit of the Berlin Staatsoper for Chéreau’s From the House of the Dead. Everything you have heard about this great staging is true. London, for reasons I simply cannot imagine, continues to ignore Janáček; Berlin did him, and Chéreau, proud. The cast had not a single weak link and the orchestra, the great Staatskapelle Berlin provided the most richly post-Romantic Janáček I have heard, without any loss of bite.

And finally, a third Strauss opera. Back to the theatre, for the Semperoper’s Rosenkavalier. Conducted by Christian Thielemann, the ‘other’ Staatskapelle – and yes, I know that there are many more – played Strauss with a familiarity that spoke not of contempt but of the greatest fluency and understanding. Anja Harteros’s portrayal of the Marschallin was for the ages.