Monday 24 December 2012

Performances of the Year, 2012

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.

3.      Sir Colin Davis, the London Symphony Orchestra, and the London Symphony Chorus in the Berlioz Requiem. Somehow this managed to exceed stratospheric expectations. This St Paul’s Cathedral performance was a more than worthy successor to the previous year’s Proms Missa Solemnis from the same forces. If pushed to opt for just one performance, I might opt for this.

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.

6.      Bernd 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.

8.      Bernard Haitink could, like Pollini and Barenboim, readily have offered more than one performance in the present list. A truly gorgeous Proms performance of Haydn’s final symphony and Strauss’s Alpine Symphony just pips others to the post, as much for the golden tone of the Vienna Philhamonic and the repertoire as anything else.

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 theatre.

10.   Alice 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 intellectually provocative.