Wednesday 22 December 2010

Performances of the Year, 2010

2010 has been a depressing year politically (can anyone remember one that was not?), but there has been much to celebrate in the arts. I am probably tempting fate by naming performances of the year now, but should any more come along in the next week-and-a-half, all the better. I have limited myself, as last year, to twelve, so averaging once a month. A good few performances have found themselves almost arbitrarily rejected, sometimes on the grounds of offering a broader selection, but all the reviews remain of course. Enough of the caveats; here they are, the order solely chronological, with links to the full reviews:

Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim: Beethoven and Schoenberg, Royal Festival Hall

Daniel Barenboim's survey of the Beethoven piano concertos proved a little more hit and miss than his sonata cycle. However, when the performances came off, they really came off, as in this account of the Third. Nevertheless, it was for Schoenberg, an enduring passion, that Barenboim truly pulled out all the stops. Not only did he and the Staatskapelle Berlin - may they never be forgotten! - provide a superlative performance of the Variations for Orchestra, op.31, something of a Barenboim speciality; Barenboim prefaced it with a straightforwardly brilliant spoken introduction to the work. Did he not already have a multiplicity of careers, I should recommend him as a university lecturer, though the rest of us might soon be out of our jobs...

The Gambler: Royal Opera House

Prokofiev's first opera, bar juvenilia, finally arrived on stage at Covent Garden, and in style! Richard Jones's production looked good, indeed very good, and managed more or less to make sense of the drama's hectic comings and goings. A fine cast had no weak links, but Susan Bickley's Babulenka truly stole the show. As ever with opera, there are simply too many variables to have no cavils at all (why did it have to be sung in English?) but this was a wonderful evening, a true credit to a company which, when it puts its mind to it, can equal any in the world.

Matthias Goerne/Helmut Deutsch: Schubert Lieder, Wigmore Hall

These musicians seem so unerringly excellent that they could readily be taken for granted - that is until one hears a recital such as this, haunted by death yet also ravishingly beautiful. Dramatic power and subtlety were employed in equal measure.

Maurizio Pollini: Chopin, Debussy, and Boulez, Berlin Philharmonie

Pollini had impressed mightly in one of the Royal Festival Hall's two 'birthday' recitals for Chopin. (So had Krystian Zimerman in the other.) This Berlin recital was, if anything, still finer. The complete Chopin Preludes emerged in perfect balance both as a tonal cycle and as a sequence of characteristic pieces. A selection from Debussy's first book proved a sonorous and musical delight; would that Pollini's detractors could have heard such warmth. Finally, Boulez's Second Sonata, as part of the Berlin Staatsoper's celebrations for the composer's eighty-fifth birthday. The work can surely never have been better performed, even by Pollini.

Hommage à Pierre Boulez: Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin

Members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra performed under Barenboim and Boulez for this birthday tribute. Messagesquisse and Anthèmes 2 received excellent performances, Hassan Moatez El Molla an exceptionally fine cellist in the former, with Michael Barenboim bravely and convincingly essaying the violin part of the latter. Le Marteau sans maître from the hands of Boulez himself sounded more beautifully, almost Mozartian, than ever: quite mesmerising.

Jerusalem Quartet: Mozart and Janáček, Wigmore Hall

Mozart requires but one thing: perfection. This is what he received here, in as winning a performance of any of his quartets (this time the D minor, KV 521) as I can recall. Janáček's Intimate Letters quartet was equally fortunate, in a performance as intensely dramatic as any of the composer's operas. What an age this is for young (and other!) quartets...

Quatuor Ebène: Mozart and Bartók, Wigmore Hall

The Quatuor Ebène, in another of the Wigmore Hall's delightful Sunday morning coffee concerts, proved every inch the equal of the Jerusalem Quartet. More Mozart: this time the early Divertimento, KV 136/125a, by turns richly expansive and light as quicksilver, was followed by another intense performance of a twentieth-century masterpiece, Bartók’s Second Quartet. The frozen viol-like opening of the final Lento was but one highlight of many.

Trpčeski/RLPO/Petrenko: Schumann, Rachmaninov, and Tchaikovsky, BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall

Two young musicians proved that they are worth all the fuss - and more. Simon Trpčeski single-handedly - well, double handedly, with the orchestra and conductor - reignited my enthusiasm for a work I fancied I had heard too many times: Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto. In an outstanding performance of Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and Vasily Petrenko proved themselves at least a match for any metropolitan orchestra-and-conductor pairing.

Lewis/CBSO/Nelsons: Wagner, Beethoven, and Dvořák, BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall

My other Prom selection is strikingly similar in a number of respects: another outstanding combination of young pianist, young principal conductor, and rejuvenated 'regional' orchestra: Paul Lewis, Andris Nelsons, and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Moreover, this was another far-from-outmoded overture-concerto-symphony programme. Lewis and Nelsons provided a wonderful, musicianly account of Beethoven's second concerto, far superior to Lewis's recording in which he is unfortunately lumbered with a dull conductor. The New World Symphony received a performance both thoughtful and exciting, another 'warhorse' fashioned anew.

Elektra: Salzburg Festival, Grosses Festspielhaus

Opera, as I remarked above, is well-nigh impossible to get right in every respect. This performance of Elektra came very close indeed. No star shone more brightly than that of the world's greatest orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic; truly it had to be heard to be believed. Daniele Gatti revelled in the orchestral sound and Strauss's, holding in as fine a balance as I have heard the demands of modernity and sweetness, and never for one moment losing the long musico-dramatic line. Nikolaus Lehnhoff's production proved just as single-minded, devoid of gimmicks, strong on truth. And with a cast including Waltraud Meier, Janice Baird (excellent last-minute replacement for an ailing Iréne Theorin), Eva-Maria Westbroek, Robert Gambill, René Pape, the deal was sealed.

Dame Mitsuko Uchida: Beethoven, Schumann, and Chopin, Royal Festival Hall

Utterly different from Pollini's Chopin, Uchida's proved equally distinguished. The late-ish Beethoven E minor sonata received a vigorous and dramatic as well as typically thoughtful account, whilst Uchida captured ths shifting moods of Schumann's Davidsbündlertänze to perfection. Her recent recording clearly needs to be sought out.

Piotr Anderszewski: Bach and Schumann, Barbican Hall

Despite my earlier protestations of balance, here was another piano recital I simply could not omit. More Schumann in a fortunate anniversary year: Anderszewski's own arrangement of the Canonic Etudes for pedal piano and the late, disturbing Gesänge der Frühe. (We are, I hear, now blessed by a recording too.) Anderszewski's Bach - here the Fifth and Sixth English Suites - is truly second to none: fiercely Romantic and musically profound. Bach, as ever, emerged as the greatest Romantic and the greatest composer for piano of them all.