Sunday, 30 December 2018

Performances of the Year, 2018

Anniversaries too often prove a lazy way to programme. Sometimes, though, especially in the case of composers in need of rediscovery, they afford excellent opportunities. Such has been in the case of Karlheinz Stockhausen, latterly overlooked in favour of other post-war avant gardists. His ninetieth birthday has brought forth a number of outstanding performances. (One excellent thing about Stockhausen’s music in performance is the consistently high quality of performance. Either you can do it well, it seems, or you do not do it at all.) A standing rebuke to those who would fashionably claim that the later Stockhausen, the Stockhausen of the Licht operas, had gone off the boil – usually one discovers that they do not even know the later music – was provided by Paris’s Opéra Comique and Le Balcon, in an unforgettable staging of Donnerstag. Two concerts in particular from this year’s Musikfest Berlin had the composer from Sirius shine almost as brightly as his star itself: Mantra from Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich, and a truly once-in-a-lifetime – I hope I am wrong – performance from Aimard of the first eleven Klaverstücke.

Another anniversary composer, Bernd Alois Zimmermann, in this case celebrating his hundredth birthday, featured in an altogether magnificent concert from Håkan Hardenberger, the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, and John Storgårds in Vienna, Gunther Schuller and Dvořak the other composers. Debussy may be less in need of special exposure, but the centenary of his death brought a good number of excellent performances, from which I shall choose first a January concert from the LSO and François-Xavier Roth, Jeux in as comprehending an account as that is never something to be taken for granted. Debussy, Zimmermann, and Roth came together in a concert at least its equal with the Berlin Philharmonic. Debussy’s Images interspersed with works by Ligeti: no gimmick, genuine illumination.

Returning to opera, the Festival d’Aix en Provence offered a splendid staging, broadly what one might call ‘modern conventional’, yet excellent of its kind, of Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel. Katie Mitchell had gone one further the previous night, with a long overdue feminist reassessment of Ariadne auf Naxos, also notable for a superlative performance of the title role from Lise Davidsen. Over to Salzburg and Hans Neuenfels showed that he very much still has ‘it’ in his new production of The Queen of Spades, Mariss Jansons and the Vienna Philharmonic in the pit, a fine cast to boot. Indeed, this proved a vintage year for Salzburg opera – an appalling Magic Flute notwithstanding – with excellent new stagings of Henze (The Bassarids, Krzysztof Warlikowski) and Monteverdi (L’incoronazione di Poppea, Jan Lauwers). Mozart's operas are perhaps the most difficult of all to bring off. Even to consider including one here speaks volumes: volumes should certainly be spoken of a magical Così fan tutte from Opera Holland Park this summer.

Earlier in the year, the Royal Opera House’s world premiere performances of George Benjamin’s Lessons in Love and Violence revealed another towering operatic masterpiece from the composer. Fashionable voices said otherwise; they are no more to be heeded than in Stockhausen’s case. The Royal Opera’s new From the House of the Dead (Warlikowski again, in a long awaited house premiere) also shone, not least on account of Mark Wigglesworth’s typically first-rate conducting. Frank Castorf’s Munich production of the same work may ultimately have eclipsed it – it would have eclipsed most things – but what a year it was in which to see both. Daniel Barenboim conducted Tristan und Isolde in a new, truly thought-provoking production – sad to say, much misunderstood – by Dmitri Tcherniakov. Also at the Berlin Staatsoper, now rightly returned to its home on Unter den Linden, came a further Neuenfels hit: Salome that announced to all the world in neon lights: ‘Wilde is Coming’.

I always look out for Schoenberg performances. This year, the Dresden Semperoper offered perhaps the finest staging I have yet seen of Moses und Aron, directed by Calixto Bieito. What a joy, moreover, to hear the great Staatskapelle Dresden in such music! Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Philharmonia in Gurrelieder sent shivers down the spine and brought (many) tears to the eyes: another outstanding performance from a consistently excellent team.

The Wigmore Hall is reliably the best concert venue in London, arguably the greatest chamber music venue in the world. Highlights included a wonderful evening of string quartet music by Schubert, Webern, and Haydn from the Hagen Quartet, and more than one evening of Bach from Mahan Esfahani. From the latter, I shall somewhat arbitrarily choose this concert in June. Esfahani’s survey of the complete Bach harpsichord works continues next year. Igor Levit’s concert for Frederic Rzewski’s eightieth birthday, including a Rzewski premiere, cannot fail to be included in any such survey. Pavel Kolesnikov’s wonderfully imaginative – and coherent! – programme of piano works from Louis Couperin to Lachenmann also lingers long in the mind. So too do a recital of Haydn from the Jerusalem Quartet and an evening of Fauré, Brahms, and Schumann from Stéphane Degout and Simon Lepper

Other instrumental and chamber highlights included hearing the Alban Berg Ensemble Wien (drawn from the Vienna Philharmonic) at the inaugural BERGfrühling festival by Carinthia’s Lake Ossiach. From that, I shall opt for a concert of Debussy, Webern, and Mozart. Quite a year then: onwards and upwards…

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