First, I should like to wish
my readers a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. I am deeply touched and
genuinely surprised by how many of you there are, and greatly value your
comments, discussion, and support. 2012 has brought a good number of fine
performances, many more than I can practically list here. (They may all of
course be found by consulting the archive on the right.) Last year I
experimented with division into categories, a principal motivation for doing so
having been that I felt opera tended otherwise to lose out, it being easier to
attain a consistently high level of performance in, say, a string quartet
recital than in an artwork involving a conductor, an orchestra, a host of
singers, various contributors to staging, etc. This year, however, I felt that
there was no need to do so, since operatic performances urged inclusion without
any favourable weighting; indeed, rather to my surprise, there is more opera
than anything else. The final number and thus selection are ultimately
arbitrary, but as in 2010, I thought that twelve, an average of one per month,
was selective enough. Here, then, in no order other than the chronological are
my dozen performances of 2012:
1. Two performances from Maurizio Pollini
really ought to have been included, but in order to keep myself to twelve overall,
I limited myself to this Royal
Festival Hall performance of Chopin and Liszt. Pollini’s Chopin is rightly
the stuff of legend; his Liszt should be so. Were I to be told that anyone had
ever heard a more coruscating performance of the B minor sonata, even from
Sviatoslav Richter, I should not believe it.
2. Mahler has had a tough few years.
Over-exposure and relegation of his œuvre to the status of orchestral showpieces
has meant that few performances have measured up, many of us having therefore
been led to abstain completely. Daniele Gatti’s blistering performance of the Fifth Symphony, along with
music from Parsifal, was quite the
finest live performance I have ever heard of the work. I am not sure that I
have heard the Philharmonia on better form either.
4. On the other hand, Daniel Barenboim’s Proms
Beethoven and Boulez cycle with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra was, as a
whole, every bit as memorable. I could happily have chosen every one of the
five concerts, but ‘tough choices’, as a war criminal once said... In a sense,
then, to select the
Ninth is merely indicative – and perhaps misleading, given that no Boulez
was performed in this grand finale. But
it is The Ninth, even more than the Fifth is The Fifth, despite the fact that
Barenboim’s Fifth was the only live performance I have heard worthy of the
work. The liberating experience of hearing symphonic Beethoven treated with the
seriousness of meaning it demands was matched by the still-extraordinary
testimony of Barenboim’s young orchestra.
5. Bayreuth brought a disappointing new Flying Dutchman, the final outing of Stefan Herheim’s legendary Parsifal, and Hans
Neuenfels’s now classic Lohengrin,
considerably stronger than last year, not least vocally and orchestrally.
Indeed, Andris Nelsons’s conducting was perhaps ultimately the reason to choose
this production, given the bitterly disappointing results of Gatti’s
replacement by Philippe Jordan for Wagner’s Bühnenweihfestspiel.
Alois Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten
was done proud by the Salzburg Festival. The general tenor of Alexander Pereira’s
programming had raised fears of a new populism, Carmen and La bohème
appearing in the same year (the latter infinitely preferable to a mindless
production, perversely conducted, of Bizet’s work). One could forgive almost
anything, however, for this performance from an outstanding cast headed by
Laura Aikin, with Ingo Metzmacher on the best form I have heard him at the helm
of an equally superlative Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. When that orchestra
puts its obstreperous collective mind to doing so, it can excel just as much in
‘difficult’ modernist repertoire as in Mozart.
7. The heroic Birmingham Opera Company
offered the simply astounding achievement – which might even have led me to
edge out Sir Colin’s Grande messe des
morts – by staging world
premiere performances of Stockhausen’s Mittwoch.
This is just the thing every prestigious company in the world should have been
fighting to present, yet sadly, as we know all too well, endless pandering revivals
of Verdi and worse tend to be their priority. Every person taking part in
Graham Vick’s production deserved a medal for an achievement far more meaningful,
far more daring, than anything to be seen at London’s Olympic Park.
9. Sometimes I feel as though I am the only
advocate for Haydn’s operas. How wrong I was. A performance such as that
presented by Royal
Academy Opera of La vera costanza
was worth many thousands of words. Trevor Pinnock’s fresh, lively conducting
and an excellent young cast combined to make for a wonderful evening in the
Coote and the Britten Sinfonia offered a splendid traversal of repertoire
from Purcell to Tippett at the Wigmore Hall. If Coote’s bravura Handel was
worth the price of admission alone, so was the Britten Sinfonia’s treatment of the
composer’s work as music rather than pseudo-archaeology. Ditto Purcell.
11. Much to my surprise, a second Mahler
performance makes the list, this time from the Tonkünstler-Orchester
Nieder Österreich and Andrés Oroczo-Estrada. In a case not entirely unlike that
of Barenboim’s Furtwänglerian restoration of meaning to Beethoven, if perhaps
without the degree of defiance necessary in that particular instance, ‘designer
Mahler’ gave way to a Second Symphony authentic in the only sense that matters.
Should one find oneself wondering anew
at Mahler’s ambition, imagination, and moral purpose, a performance will have
been successful. I wondered anew for quite some time and much look forward to
hearing orchestra and conductor again.
12. Finally, again from Vienna, the Theater
an der Wien’s new staging of Hindemith’s Mathis
der Maler. Bertrand de Billy and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra excelled
themselves; so did an excellent Slovak chorus and a fine cast headed
unforgettably by Wolfgang Koch in the title role. The contrast with the tired
repertoire and productions being regurgitated at the State Opera was telling;
still more so was the conviction on offer from all concerned, not least
director Keith Warner, whose staging proved both visually arresting and