Thursday, 31 December 2015

Performances of the Year, 2015

Scene from Romeo Castellucci's Moses und Aron in Paris (Bernd Uhlig)

2015 has been a splendid musical year, even if, politically, it has often been catastrophic. As my previous posting showed, the ninetieth birthday of Pierre Boulez has loomed large, and it does here too. It could readily have loomed still larger here, but I tried to offer, in this list of twenty performances, something of a cross-section. There were a good few other performances worthy of mention, but I had to stop somewhere; having failed to keep the list down to last year’s twelve, twenty was just about possible.

The year began with a mesmerising Wigmore Hall recital from Jonas Kaufmann and Helmut Deutsch. Kaufmann might be indulging in some ill-advised populist activity – why? he can hardly need the money – but he remains a superlative artist, not just in opera, but also in Lieder. London’s and indeed the world’s greatest chamber venue also played host to a dazzling recital of Cardew and Rzewski from Igor Levit; if that was not great pianism, then I do not know what is. An equally captivating programme of Haydn, Ravel, and Schumann, from the Quatuor Ebène and Mitsuko Uchida, rounds off my three Wigmore selections.

Returning to song, but in another venue – I like to think of Vienna’s Konzerthaus as my Wigmore Hall abroad – Christian Gerhaher’s ‘Wiener Schule’ recital proved well-nigh perfect: performances as exalted as the programming. Barbara Hannigan is a performer who seems to inspire the highest praise in everyone, without exception. Her concert (as singer and conductor) of Haydn, Mozart, and Stravinsky, with the Britten Sinfonia would surely have been a highlight in anyone’s year. Schumann featured in both the Kaufmann and Ebène programmes; he was the sole composer in an unforgettable – with these artists, how could it be otherwise? – Musikverein concert from Murray Perahia, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and Bernard Haitink.

Haitink may or may not be the greatest living conductor; he has few serious rivals. One of them, however, would unquestionably be Daniel Barenboim, who features heavily in this list. His Vienna Philharmonic Mahler Ninth doubtless moved all the more, coming as it did in the wake of the Paris attacks, but this was an astounding performance by any standards. Both Barenboim and Haitink offered memorable Schubert Ninths too, but if pushed to choose, I should – perhaps more out of temperament than anything else – opt for Barenboim, again with the Vienna Philharmonic, prefaced by equally fine performances of works by Boulez. Boulez’s Dérive 2 had long been a work I had struggled to understand; finally, the penny dropped with a performance from Barenboim and his West-Eastern Divan musicians. The Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony, which completed that Salzburg WEDO programme, proved, in its very different way, just as great a performance.

Salzburg also offered the unforgettable experience of my first Répons – my first two, to be precise, since the work was performed twice, with different seating for each member of the audience. Matthias Pintscher and Boulez’s own Ensemble Intercontemporain did the maître proud. Maurizio Pollini is, of course, another fine advocate for Boulez; on this occasion, again in Salzburg, he gave us quintessentially ‘late Pollini’ readings of Beethoven and Schoenberg. Some self-styled ‘pianophiles’ have never ‘got’ Pollini; they still do not now. The problem remains entirely theirs. Michael Wendeberg’s Berlin recital of the complete Boulez works for solo piano will linger long in the memory; this was an astonishingly assured and varied performance from a pianist (and conductor) of whom I look forward to hearing much more. (He was also the pianist in the aforementioned Dérive 2.)

That leaves us with opera: again a fine year indeed. Waltraud Meier as Isolde would have left no one disappointed; Peter Konwitschny’s Munich staging of Tristan, provocative in the best sense, was, her reported scepticism notwithstanding, a fine setting for this distinguished artist to bid one of her greatest roles farewell. Barenboim conducted a world-beating cast in Dmitri Tcherniakov’s brilliant ‘post-Herheim’ Parsifal. There is so much to say on that front that I think it best simply to refer to you to my initial review; however, I cannot resist intoning the name ‘Andreas Schager’. Moving across Berlin from the Staatsoper, still in its Schillertheater exile, to the Komische Oper, Calixto Bieito’s Easter Sunday (!) double bill of Gianni Schicchi and Bluebeard’s Castle hit spots that few directors would even suspect existed. Ausrine Stundyte’s Judit was, quite simply, a revelation.

Since the death of Sir Colin Davis, I had almost begun to despair about the possibilities of hearing a Mozart opera convincingly conducted again. There are a (very) few exceptions to the general Mozartian malaise: Barenboim and Muti, for instance. To their exclusive club, we should now add Jane Glover, at the helm for a sparkling Royal Academy Opera Figaro, whose memory I shall long treasure. I shall be astonished if we do not hear more, much more, in the near future from many of the young singers at the Hackney Empire. Opera Holland Park goes from strength to strength in repertory works too: Il trittico was perhaps the finest performance I have yet heard there.

Contemporary opera fared well, insofar as our companies permitted it to do so. ‘Outstanding in pretty much every way – just what an opera house should be doing, in this case in collaboration with Aldeburgh and the London Sinfonietta,’ was the opening of my review of Birtwistle’s The Cure and The Corridor at the Royal Opera House. If Kurtág’s Beckett opera was yet again postponed – so it has been for 2016 – there was impressive compensation in Salzburg’s staging (Konwitschny again) of Rihm’s Die Eroberung von Mexico.

Schoenberg still sometimes finds himself – absurdly – filed under ‘contemporary’. His ‘difficulty’ is more an ideological claim, of course, than a reality. All one needs to do – admittedly too much for some – is listen. Stéphane Lissner’s new regime at the Paris Opéra opened with a bang, with Romeo Castellucci’s new staging of Moses und Aron. The contrast, not only between this and the benighted intendancy of Nicolas Joël, but between Lissner’s programme for the whole year and that of his predecessor, offers true hope that Paris might recapture the spirit of Gerard Mortier: a cheering thought with which to approach 2016.

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