THE BEST OF 2016 FROM REVIEWERS OF SEEN AND HEARD INTERNATIONAL
The concerts I attend are driven by my preferences for exploring rare repertoire. To the extent I have developed a following for a particular musician it has been because of the works they have championed. I think of Jess Gillam the young saxophonist whose future promises great things for all music-lovers; no wonder she figured in this year’s BBC Young Musician of the Year competition in one of Nyman’s finest compositions. Then again there are conductors such as Michael Seal and Andrew Gourlay who have been not only open-minded in their choice of music but also gifted in presenting it to us.
Towering above all my nominations this year is the piano duo: Flora Tzanetaki and Edyta Mydlowska who played the Malcolm Arnold Concerto for piano duet and strings at the 2016 Arnold Festival in Northampton. They played this disregarded masterwork with storming zest, relentless accuracy and touching poetry; with springy optimism, bonhommie and tricksy exuberance. This was a world-class performance and it caught me completely by surprise. If there is any justice they will record the Concerto with the very same Janus Ensemble conducted by Ben Palmer. Watch out for these two indomitable pianists. They are players of international standing and should be signed up by the great concert agencies without delay. The applause was thunderous. I count myself very fortunate indeed to have been there. Paul Harris – also a composer – is the mover and shaker behind these Arnold Festivals of which this was the eleventh. Would that there were such festivals for Bax and Rubbra – the latter also a Northampton man.
There were many other fine concerts throughout 2016. The conductor John Gibbons is always worth following and he gave us a rare Malcolm Arnold Sixth Symphony at the Arnold Festival. He is a most engaging communicator who knows how to grip his audience with words as well as the music itself. His account of the William Alwyn Third Symphony at the Aldeburgh Maltings as part of the annual Alwyn Festival was searing – possessed. Remarkable to think that in the last couple of years I have been able to hear live both the First Symphony and the now the Third. I have high hopes that I might yet hear Alwyn’s Fifth.
Among singers of operatic span and emotional intelligence I would ask you to look out for the name of soprano April Fredrick. Her acting and vocal flights in the title role of John Joubert’s opera Jane Eyre were nothing short of remarkable. Her skills transcended the often dead-pan sing-and-deliver concert performance format.
I have been fortunate to attend quite a few of the BBC Phil concerts at MediaCity Salford Quays. They are strong on unusual repertoire and will appeal to the exploring soul. Among the many memorable afternoons there I would single out the immaculately poignant and word-attentive Robin Tritschler in Finzi’s A Farewell to Arms, Lawrence Power for opening my ears for the first time to York Bowen’s Korngold-lush Viola Concerto and Michael Seal for an intoxicating April-England by that still largely unsung genius John Foulds.
I have seen people lamenting the passing of such champions of British repertoire as Vernon Handley, Edward Downes and Norman Del Mar. Their absence is sad but a new generation is stepping forward including John Wilson, John Gibbons, Michael Seal, Andrew Gourlay and John Longstaff. All these conductors have shown dazzling mettle in this part of the repertoire – many of them over the last twelve months.
2016 may have been a dreadful year in every other respect, but musically, it proved at least as strong as ever for me. The act of narrowing down verges upon the impossible, but here is a selection of my Performances of the Year.
Beethoven and Bartók from the Jerusalem Quartet made for an outstanding contribution to the group’s twentieth anniversary celebrations. Piotr Anderszewski offered superlative Bach, Schumann, and Szymanowski. I was fortunate to hear Benjamin Appl, very much the young baritone of the moment, more than once; a Schubert recital will be my choice of his, but it was far from the only possibility.
Igor Levit’s Beethoven sonata series, also, like those three concerts mentioned above, at the Wigmore Hall, has offered us something for the ages. I hardly know which of the four (so far) to nominate, so shall arbitrarily choose the most recent, but it could (and probably should) have been all of them. Levit’s partnership with Julia Fischer proved just as memorable, again in Beethoven. Cédric Tiberghien’s pairing of Bartók and Kurtág proved full of insight too, also – yes, you’ve guessed it – at the Wigmore Hall. Kurtág’s Kafka Fragments received a compelling performance indeed at the Royal Festival Hall, from Anu Komski and Patricia Kopatchinskaja.
Let us not, moreover, forget the piano’s sibling instrument, the harpsichord. Back to Wigmore Street, Mahan Esfahani’s typically stimulating mixture of old and new fully worthy of mention. Not that the Wigmore Hall quite had a monopoly on outstanding keyboard recitals. At St John’s, Smith Square, Tamara Stefanovich’s Copland, Carter, and Ives programme was unforgettable – in the very best way. Also at St John’s, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s Beethoven (opp.109-11) took the most shockingly, convincingly modernist line I have encountered in these imperishable masterpieces.
Staying with great pianists, Martha Argerich was unwell for the Salzburg Festival performance at which I was due to hear her. Her conductor, Daniel Barenboim (no mean pianist himself), nobly covered for her at short notice. However, the same forces (West-Eastern Divan Orchestra too) came to the Proms, so I was able to hear her Liszt First Piano Concerto after all, together with works by Jörg Widmann and Wagner. A splendid evening indeed! In Salzburg itself, Barenboim and the WEDO in Mozart’s final three symphonies gave one of those performances for which I had been waiting all my life. The same conductor’s – yes, I know – Elgar First Symphony proved a magnificent reassessment; I shall never hear the work in quite the same way again. To return to great piano concerto playing: Radu Lupu in two (!) Mozart concertos reminded us why his name continues to be uttered in hushed tones.
I have been fortunate to see (and hear) a great deal of excellent opera, across Europe. Most recently, Krzysztof Warlikowski’s Iphigénie en Tauride returned to Paris: the first time I have been able to catch one of his productions in the flesh. A searing portrayal of women in war: more than worth the wait. Stefan Herheim’s Meistersinger made its way from Salzburg (2013) to Paris. I still need to see it many more times to begin to pick up on all it has to offer, but I hope that my review – a long one, even by Wagnerian standards – will make a useful start. The previous evening, Dmitri Tcherniakov’s brilliant double-bill of Iolanta and The Nutcracker had proved not the least of the feathers in the crown of Stéphane Lissner’s new intendancy.
In a less than vintage season at Covent Garden, its staging of Enescu’s Oedipe stood out: a twentieth-century classic, known to far too few of us. No one would say that of Berg’s operas, beloved by all but the silliest of canary-fanciers. William Kentridge’s Lulu came to London and made just as strong an impression as it seems to have done in New York. Also at ENO, Jenůfa, in David Alden’s uncompromising production, hit home perhaps even more strongly than it ever has – which is to say very strongly indeed (and not just because first night was the night of the infernal referendum.) Earlier in the year, the Royal Opera, albeit at the Barbican, revived Gerald Barry’s The Importance of Being Earnest. It is that rare thing indeed: a great contemporary operatic comedy, splendidly staged by Ramin Gray.
The benefits of a true company system, sadly lost to both of our London houses, were shown to great advantage in Berlin’s moving Komische Oper Rusalka. The same city’s Deutsche Oper revived Götz Friedrich’s Rosenkavalier, again showing that a repertory system still has much to offer. That was the first offering in the company’s Strauss week; Claus Guth’s Salome was the first, the most challenging, provocative, perhaps even the most successful, staging I have yet to see. A few yards down the road at the Staatsoper (in its Schillertheater exile), Patrice Chéreau’s Elektra reclaimed – or perhaps better, claimed – the work before our eyes and ears for feminism. Conducted by Barenboim, perhaps not quite so much at home as in Wagner, it provided a splendid pendant to a Staatsoper year which, for me, had reached its summit with the revival of Dmitri Tcherniakov’s outstanding Parsifal.
I seem to say every year that much of the very best London opera is to be seen from our conservatoires. 2016 was no exception. Handelian opera seria will never be my first choice for an evening’s drama, but the Royal Academy of Music’s Alcina made by far the strongest case I have seen. I remain ambivalent to most of Britten’s œuvre, but the very best case was likewise made in the Guildhall’s Rape of Lucretia. Over in South Kensington, the Royal College’s Hänsel und Gretel offered much the best staging (Liam Steel’s fiercely intelligent production) I have seen; two strong alternating casts did it proud. Those who claim that opera is dying are simply not paying attention; I doubt that it has ever been in ruder health. And the only reason I have not mentioned Munich and Bayreuth was that I was not on duty for us there…
RAFAEL DE ACHA
Here, in random order are our 2016 favourite Cincinnati arts events.
In January, in the latest creation by MamLuft&Co. Dance, nine dancers riveted attention during the two halves of Double/Sided, an evening-long exploration of the chaotic nature of human relationships.
In a concert performance of Strauss’ Salome, soprano Amy Johnson took on this volcanic assignment brilliantly, conquering its perils with an impressive command of the role’s vocal and dramatic complexities. In the same performance bass-baritone Kenneth Shaw sang the role of John the Baptist with stentorian authority, portraying the part of the doomed prophet with his usual attention to the subtleties of text.
Tenor Rodrick Dixon sang a 30-minute pre-concert (Otello) recital at the May Festival with the superb pianist Michael Chertok. Dixon’s singing was glorious and his artistic instincts precise and tasteful.
Nadine Sierra sang the closing concert of Matinee Musicale with radiant tone and acute sensibility in a wide-ranging program, with the support of the superb pianist Bryan Wagorn
The Cincinnati Opera featured a very fine Fidelio and one of the best productions of Tosca in memory. But it was the astounding Fellow Travelers the one event that proved truly remarkable with an all-American cast of veteran pros and young singers announcing to the unbelievers that contemporary opera is alive and well.
The Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra came back in the summer with a four-concert season The level of the work reassured us that the CCO is here to stay. Add to that the appointment of Eckard Preu as its musical director and rest assured that the future looks bright for our ‘second’ orchestra.
List of Rafael’s reviews here.
The performance that remains foremost in my memory is Lohengrin from the Semperoper, Dresden a revival of the acclaimed Christine Mielitz traditional staging with Piotr Beczala and Anna Netrebko in the starring roles of Lohengrin and Else; both succeeded wonderfully in their Wagner debuts. One of the loudest cheers was given to dramatic soprano Evelyn Herlitzius as Ortrud in a powerful dramatic performance full of hatred and malice towards Elsa and Lohengrin which was palpable. (Click for review.)
In the magnificent surroundings of the Frauenkirche, Dresden Marek Janowski conducting the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln gave an awe-inspiring interpretation of the Bruckner Ninth Symphony. Earlier soloist Arabella Steinbacher had given emaculate performances of the Vaughan Williams rhapsody The Lark Ascending and Chausson Poème. (Click for review.)
Next is Tosca from the Staatsoper im Schiller Theater, Berlin in September. Under Alvis Hermanis’ stage direction this fine production welcomed back to Berlin Angela Gheorghiu revelling in the title role. Teodor Ilincăi her tenor of choice as love struck Cavaradossi and Michael Volle the evil Scarpia both excelled. (Click for review.)
The reputation of its series of chamber recitals at the Semperoper is sufficient for Dresden audiences to buy tickets long before the programme is known and attracts an audience the size of an opera or orchestra concert. The Dresdner Oktett all members of the Staatskapelle Dresden performed the Schubert Octet and Beethoven Septet. Impeccably played music making of unadulterated joy from the Dresdner Oktett made this a Kammerabend to treasure. (Click for review.)
In Mathis der Maler at Semperoper, Dresden Jochen Biganzoli’s captivating staging brought the action forward to what I took to be 1990s central Europe and felt mainly sympathetic to Hindemith’s vision despite some avoidable attempts at titillation. Markus Marquardt took the part of Mathis the painter and was able to present an endearing, laid-back character to the audience. (Click for review.)
Special too was John Adams conducting two of his own works with the great Berliner Philharmoniker at the Philharmonie Berlin. First was one of Adam’s most celebrated works Harmonielehre for orchestra. Receiving its German première was Scheherazade.2 (subtitled a Dramatic Symphony for violin and orchestra) with violin soloist Leila Josefowicz. (Click for review.)
Finally a much smaller, more intimate production from Lowther Pavilion, Lytham where professional touring company Heritage Opera had a veritable triumph with its moving performance of La bohème. Directed by Sarah Helsby Hughes this traditional production with piano and string quartet accompaniment, sung in English, flowed seamlessly and was full of sincerity and atmosphere. As Mimi, Helsby Hughes was in prime form with a captivating portrayal of the dying heroine and benefited from a fine supporting cast. (Click for review.)
It was good to hear the Emerson Quartet again providing performances of distinction. It was an absorbing programme, a mix of progressive and traditional works for string quartet (three of the four with vocalist) from Vienna based composers Beethoven, Webern, Berg and Schoenberg. The reputation of the Emerson with soprano Barbara Hannigan was enough to virtually fill the Kammermusiksaal, Berlin with its 1,100 capacity. (Click for review.)
Vladimir Jurowski’s concerts with the London Philharmonic Orchestra are becoming, or are, ‘special’ events. His choice of repertoire is always stimulating in that it usually includes a modern (or with Schittke) a ‘post-modern’ work. Also Jurowski finds connections between disparate works, as here, when Shostakovich and Bruckner seem to complement each other (a kind of Hegelian identity in opposites!) Here he accompanied Natalia Gutmann in the Shostakovich Cello Concerto No.2 with a total empathy/dialogue. In his current traversal of all the Bruckner symphonies he is playing the ‘original’ versions, which with No.3 means a far longer symphony than the usually played 1889 version. But Jurowski made every note compelling. And I have rarely heard the LPO play with such commitment and overall unity.
There were some very fine 2016 Proms, but I must make a special mention of Prom 59 with the 89-year-old Herbert Blomstedt and the great Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in an all-Beethoven Prom. I have rarely heard such a ‘musical’ Beethoven 7. Blomstedt gave us all repeats and conveyed a wonderful sense of rhythmic diversity, he never found it necessary to underline a particular detail. This was a wonderful example of interpretation which conceals interpretation! The same applied to the ‘Emperor’ Concerto, although András Schiff did not quite match Blomstedt in lucidity and integrity. The opening Leonore Overture No.2 was a model of structural coherence and dynamic/lyric contrast.
The London Symphony Orchestra were in top form for a Barbican concert with Noseda. Every subtle nuance shone through in Debussy’s wonderful La mer. And I have not such coherence, within the three ‘movements’, since the late great Pierre Boulez, and earlier the almost super-human ear of Arturo Toscanini. Noseda gave a most powerful and convincing rendition of the Shostakovich 5. In its dynamic/rhythmic integrity it was equal to the fabled Kondrashin recording and almost matched Mravinsky in terms of intensity. Thankfully Noseda ignored the nonsense about the coda being a musical equivalent of a Stalinistic military parade, propounded by Solomon Volkov.
I have not always favoured Valery Gergiev, but his Prokofiev series at the Cadogan Hall revealed a total musician and a superbly skilled conductor, with great playing from his own Marinsky Orchestra. Hungarian violinist Kristof Barati turned in a virtuoso, but trenchant, rendition of the Second Violin Concerto. This was the second concert which included the little performed Fourth Symphony in its original, much more compact, version. But the real gem here was the familiar Symphony No.5. In the west this is often played as a kind of orchestral show-piece at slow tempi. But Gergiev revealed the works very terse structure. He played it at a more forward moving tempo, and it sounded absolutely convincing, with those gorgeous Russian sounding horns and brass. The generous and open Cadogan Hall acoustic allowed myriad symphonic detail which I had not previously registered.
Next, an absolutely fascinating recital for violin/viola duo, and solo violin, with Thomas Zehetmair and Ruth Killius from the Wigmore Hall. Gideon Klein’s little known duo for violin and viola shows a composer of real potential. Tragically he was killed at a Nazi slave labour camp, after surviving Auschwitz, age 25, Zimmerman’s two sonata works for solo violin and violin and viola, complimented and extended the Klein work including bi-tonal and atonal elements. A selection from Bartók’s 44 duos for violin, fascinatingly transposed for violin and viola made a fitting prelude to Mozart’s little played but superb Duo for violin and viola K 424. Almost needless to say throughout Zehetmair and Killius playing was of the highest standard, showing a complete empathy with each idiom.
Last, but certainly not least, an absolutely enchanting concert by ‘ Les Siècles’ with their inspiring conductor François-Xavier Roth. This was a quintessentially ‘French’ programme, with Debussy’s exquisite Jeux, his last orchestral work. Here it shone with all shades of light, and chiaroscuro levels of half-light. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet gave a performance of Ravel’s Piano Concerto for left hand which even surpassed Paul Wittgenstein who played the premiere performance. The Mother Goose complete ballet sounded as fresh and illuminating as it must have done at its first performance. Debussy’s La mer had the same power and aural finesse as masters of the score like Toscanini and Boulez.
Daniel Börtz’s new Medea at the Stockholm Royal Opera powerfully contradicted the regularly heard statements that opera is a dying form of art. The often sparse textures of the orchestration – reserving the full orchestra’s outbursts for the emotional climaxes – and the likewise sparse sets highlighted the central drama and with impressive singing from Emma Vetter and Karl-Magnus Fredriksson in the leading parts this was an auspicious start of 2016.
The Wermland Opera in Karlstad offered two winners in a row. In February Korngold’s Die tote Stadt was presented in a slightly scaled down version – the lavish orchestration somewhat reduced to suit the limited space in the pit. But in the small theatre the effect was still striking and Lars-Åke Thessman’s sets were ingeniously adjusted to the small stage – a kind of pocket-sized Brügge. AnnLouice Lögdlund’s Marietta was one of the great role assumptions of the year and Daniel Frank was a Paul of tremendous power.
Already twenty years ago Wermland Opera staged Les Misérables and was then the first theatre in the world that was permitted to make its own concept. The playing of the orchestra – a band of 26 members – was truly impressive and even more so was the quality of the singing and acting of the ensemble. Christer Nerfont made his professional debut back in 1996 in a small role in Les Misérables but he was also cover for the central role of Valjean, so this was in a way a return to where it all started for him. He is a charismatic actor and inspired no doubt the rest of the ensemble. When writing this in mid-December the production is still running.
In the concert barn in Vattnäs, Anna Larsson and Göran Eliasson produced a play about fashion icon Coco Chanel interspersed with songs and arias from the time in question, i.e. roughly the first half of the 20th century. It was a chamber play with only four characters where Hanna Husáhr and Tobias Westman admirably supplemented Larsson/Eliasson. In particular, I remember Hanna Husáhr’s hilarious rendition of an old cabaret song.
During the second half of 2016 I saw no less than three different productions of Der fliegende Holländer. In Tallinn and Helsinki they had transported the story to the present time – well sung and acted but not very convincing as concepts. At Opera på Skäret in Kopparberg I felt more at home in a sturdy but attractive production, where the predicaments of the Dutchman and Senta were graphically illuminated. Elisabeth Teige was a sensational Senta and Thomas Hall a strong Dutchman, but the entire cast was admirable.
In August I saw two Carmen productions. Dala Floda Opera Festival offered a local variant, taking place in Dala Floda during WWII and incorporating local fiddlers and folk dancers. The opening was somewhat tentative but when the central characters arrived a full-blooded drama unfolded. In the little rotunda with the audience sitting at arm’s length from the actors, one was deeply involved in the proceedings. Paulina Pfeiffer was the Carmen of one’s dreams and Mathias Zachariassen as Jona (Don José) has seldom been better. But the whole cast was phenomenal and when the production is reprised next summer no one should miss the opportunity to see it then. The Dalhalla production pales a bit on comparison, not least due to the closeness of the Dala Floda stage.
Patrice Chéreau’s last opera production was Elektra at Aix-en-Provence in 2013 and the Production was then seen at the Met, La Scala, Berlin Staatsoper and Liceu in Barcelona, before it arrived in Helsinki in September 2016. Esa-Pekka Salonen in the pit, Evelyn Herlitzius as Elektra and Waltraud Meier as Klytämnestra had all taken part in several of the earlier productions. This certainly contributed to the intensity of the performance. The praise heaped on the production at earlier incarnations is fully understandable. It is hair-raising and the singing so superb.
The Stockholm Opera has really gone through its paces this year with one world premiere (Medea) and two Scandinavian premieres: Nixon in China and Fedora. The former, premiered almost 30 years ago, has become a modern classic, the latter has not really got a foothold in the standard repertoire, but occasionally it is dusted off, revealing that it is a lot more than the tenor aria ‘Amor ti vieta’ that everyone knows. Nixon in China has had two complete recordings, which I believe is unique among modern operas, and even though some people find John Adams’s minimalism too repetitive, there is a freshness and inventiveness that is wholly disarming, especially when it is presented in such an imaginative staging as in this production, originally mounted in Vancouver in 2010. It is a magnificent performance with outstanding singers, among whom Hanna Husáhr’s Pat Nixon is truly enthralling. But, as I ended my review: ‘An aural and visual spectacular that with some margin is my performance of the year!’
According to Operabase there have been only four productions during the last five years of Fedora. It may not be a masterwork but it is a wonderful opera for first class dramatic sopranos – and also for a good tenor (Caruso sang Loris at the world premiere). As it happens Stockholm have both. Asmik Grigorian, who was a sensational Butterfly two years ago, is even more formidable in a role that was originally written for Sarah Bernhardt In the play that Giordano based his opera on. And Andrea Carè has fine voice, a little Domingo like at times. Christof Loy’s production is wholly admirable.
The first big treat of the year came to Philadelphia from Vienna: HK Gruber’s Charivari shared a Philadelphia Orchestra program with Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, in a fine performance by 20-year old Jan Lisiecki and Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and on the next day Curtis presented Brahms’s Vier Ernste Gesänge and Liebeslieder-Walzer, delectably done by ‘Eric Owens and friends’ (review)
Augustin Hadelich made an impact twice in the year: he gave a nobly authoritative account of the Brahms Violin Concerto in February (review), and joined forces a few months later with Pablo Sáinz Villegas in a delightful violin-and-guitar recital full of unfamiliar pleasures (review).
Among the front-rank string ensembles that the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society brings to town, the Belcea and Modigliani quartets stand at the very peak of artistic insight and technical polish. The Belcea concert this year (review) featured two magisterial Schumann performances; we heard the Modiglianis twice (review), and one of the most memorable moments the second time round was their revelatory encore (review): Webern’s Slow Movement, which I have never heard so magically played.
Emanuel Ax and Pamela Frank, in an all-Mozart program, were masterful in K 454, yet contrived to make three less familiar sonatas sound like very nearly as great music (review).
Yannick Nézet-Séguin transformed my experience of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony with a reading that made the second part no longer sound like a comedown after the usually overwhelming impact of the ‘Veni, creator spiritus’ setting that opens the work (review).
It’s wonderful to observe the way Mendelssohn has risen in critical appreciation in recent years. (Audiences have always loved him). But even the high esteem in which I have long held the ‘Scottish’ Symphony paled by comparison with the sheer majesty that Ignat Solzhenitsyn’s performance with the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia revealed in the work (review).
I still vividly recall how bowled over I was when I first became acquainted with Elgar’s Piano Quintet in the recording that the great John Ogdon made with the Allegri Quartet in the early 1970s. But even that superb achievement was outshone by Garrick Ohlsson’s collaboration with the Takács Quartet in April. It made unmistakably clear that this is a work that stands on at least equal terms alongside the few other masterpieces in the piano-quintet genre, such as those of Schumann, Brahms, and Dvořák (review).
A week back in Chicago brought Shakespeare commemorations including a surpassingly brilliant Muti concert performance of Falstaff with the role’s incomparable champion, Ambrogio Maestri, and an incandescent Strauss Alpine Symphony conducted by Bernard Haitink, still at the peak of his musicianship and cool command (review).
Two highly talented Philadelphia composers, Richard Wernick and his former pupil Philip Maneval, provided a program that worthilyly celebrated the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society’s 30 years of enlightened and illuminating concert-giving (review).
In advance, I didn’t think Lars von Trier’s 1996 film Breaking the Waves a very suitable candidate for operatic treatment, but Missy Mazzoli has made it into a deeply moving and often wondrously beautiful contemplation of the power of love,as well as an indictment of the societal pressures that too often prevent its course from running smoothly.
You might not think of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 as a perfect season-opener for the Philadelphia Orchestra, but that is just what it was in the elegant interpretation it received from Yuja Wang and Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The latter was equally in his element in Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, whose integral craziness he brought to life without ever losing control (review) .
English music brings my list to a close: cellist Colin Carr offered superb playing in two well-contrasted works each by Britten and Thomas Adès, with pianist Thomas Sauer in strong support (review).
ANTOINE LEVY LEBOYER
When I was younger, Puccini was the target of radicals who mocked his sweetness and ridiculed his sentimental librettos. Listening this summer in Salzburg to Manon Lescaut in Salzburg with superlative singing from Anna Netrebko, I could not but marvel at the quality of Puccini’s orchestration and his daring harmonics. Yes, this is lyrical but the way the composer generates expressiveness from his music is forward-looking.
A few days after, I heard Thomas Ades’s new opera The Exterminating Angel (review) based on Luis Buñuel’s movie. The composer himself led the performance, including more than twenty principals. The music was varied and gripping, the drama smart and entertaining. The production kept us at the edge of our seats. This is what opera should be about.
Hans Abrahamsen’s let me tell you (review) is a song cycle written for and in cooperation with Barbara Hannigan. It is a brilliant and haunting setting based on Ophelia’s texts in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I heard it in Boston with Andris Nelsons conducting. The evocative ending stayed with me for a long time. The composer uses the high tessitura of the soprano and inventive orchestration to probe depth of feelings.
John Adams came to Geneva and conducted an evening of his works with the Swiss Romande Orchestra. Meeting and interviewing him was a privilege. He is knowledgeable, open, friendly, and thought-provoking, a reminder in unusual times of the best America can produce. He insisted on the fact that his music is typically American, thus continuing the tradition of artists such as Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, Elvis Presley and Billy Holliday. And his Scheherazade (review), beautifully played and lived by Leila Josefowicz, is topical and provocative.
All these works exude expressiveness and daring. They are simple masterpieces, which will last and are as modern as Puccini.
Of three performances by The Royal Ballet of Frederick Ashton’s The Two Pigeons (1961) that I saw between 2015 and 2016, a Saturday matinée in January stands out. Yuhui Choe was ‘The Young Girl’; Alexander Campbell, then a First Soloist, now a Principal, was ‘The Young Man’. While Itziar Mendizabal was thought ‘too aristocratic’ by one critic to be ‘A Gypsy Girl’, I never doubted her ‘gypsiness’ for a moment. The question never arose. She was stunning in everything that she did. ‘Her Lover’ was Tomas Mock, a dancer whose body is always somehow in a pleasing position on the stage.
Ashton’s reworking of a late-nineteenth-century French ballet, with music by André Messager, looks like light comedy at first. The girl fidgets on a chair as her artist lover tries to paint her portrait. But by a worried frown that the Young Man does not see, Yuhui Choe shows the audience early on the Young Girl’s awareness that what could simply be a playful quarrel represents a more serious rift. An older neighbour (Elizabeth McGorian), paying a visit along with the Young Girl’s friends, realizes it, too.
It is no surprise, then, that when the friends invite a passing band of gypsies up to the couple’s rooftop apartment to dance for them, the Young Man is smitten by the Gypsy Girl’s obvious charms. Striking one hand across the palm of the other, Her Lover makes it clear that he and the other gypsies will only dance for money. That should give the Young Man a clue. Instead he sketches the Gypsy Girl, and dances with her, and his fascination grows.
If comedy returns as Choe and Mendizabal show the two women compete for the Young Man’s attention, the first act ends on a note of undiluted sadness. The gypsies leave. The Young Man throws a cloak over his shoulders and follows them. The Young Girl is left with her friends, who are now women of the corps de ballet. Their movements take up, intensify and make universal her feelings of abandonment.
What struck me about the gypsy camp scene of Act II, this time, was its theatrical detail, its dramatic logic and force. Through the solo he performs, the Young Man shows himself worthy of being the Gypsy Girl’s lover. They run off to have sex. The gypsies appear to celebrate in a circle of increasingly hectic dance. When they come back, Campbell spins a horizontal Mendizabal around his standing body. Here are two people who have just had sex.
The pas de trois that follows, for the Gypsy Girl, Her Lover and the Young Man, has elements of Ashton’s later, abstract, Monotones II. Tomas Mock shows the Lover’s disbelief at losing a test of strength that the girl sets up, and his cowardice afterwards. It is only with the help of the other gypsy men that the Young Man is bound with ropes. Before seeing this ballet a third time, I had read Secret Muses, Julie Kavanagh’s biography of Ashton. So it did not seem an exaggeration at all when the Young Man is symbolically crucified. Alexander Campbell made it not seem an exaggeration.
Beaten and robbed, the Young Man lies on the ground outside the camp. The Gypsy Girl and Her Lover laugh as they pass. But other passing gypsies act out their own scenes of rejection and abandonment. For the gypsies, too, it is not all about money and sex. They, too, suffer for love.
With the white pigeon that flies down to him as a sign of redemption, the Young Man goes back to the Young Girl. Sad, alone, changed, she has sunk to the floor like a Dying Swan. She smiles at his return, but Alexander Campbell shows the Young Man weeping throughout a subsequent duet that has nothing comic about it at all.
And then there is the coup de théâtre to end all coups de théâtre.
JONATHAN SPENCER JONES
Deadlines demand that this be submitted before the end of the opera season so I am unable to qualify Cape Town Opera’s Porgy & Bess, which, currently on at the Teatro Colón, I have to see (review).
With that caveat, my choice for the Colón’s ‘Opera of the year’ must be Tosca. A grand and sumptuous production, originally by the late distinguished Roberto Oswald, in whose memory it was given. It also marked the return of the renowned tenor Marcelo Álvarez to his home country stage after a 19-year absence as well as the debut of Eva-María Westbroek along with Carlos Álvarez to make up a rare top level cast.
With every one of its productions a lesser performed work, Buenos Aires Lírica’s 2016 season was notable in more ways than one (its ‘fusion’ Agrippina likely a local ‘first’). Narrowing down the selection my choice is Ernani. It happened to be the most ‘traditional’ of the productions, well-conceived and executed, and there were some interesting ‘new’ voices, among them the Paraguayan soprano Monserrat Maldonado and Brazilian bass Sávio Sperandio.
From Juventus Lyrica’s season, my choice is the most novel of its three productions, Orfeo ed Euridice – and for that reason. While it certainly wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea and was controversial – the dances were replaced by spoken ‘Orphic’ texts, for example – it was provocative and musically was well done.
With the Teatro Argentino’s continuing woes and a limited season, I only got to one production, Così fan tutte. But it was a lot of fun and demonstrates once again the potential for this house. With the first major renovations since the opening of the theatre in 2000 now under way and the prospect of a limited season for at least the next year, if not longer, the hope is that with its ‘reopening’ the Argentino will once again take its place as the country’s top provincial opera house.
List of Jonathan’s reviews here.
I employ something like the Gramophone’s ‘Awards by Category’ format this year, which identifies the ‘best’ Vancouver performances, relative to genre. I will sometimes nominate more than one performance for a given category. The review link is on the title. Each review has also been published in a slightly different form on https://www.vanclassicalmusic.com/.
Best Spectacle: Joyce DiDonato’s In War and Peace Brings Rejuvenation to a Troubled World (December)
Best Celebrity: Bryn Terfel: Master of the Celebrity Concert (May)
Best Orchestral: A Celebration of Mahler’s 6th from Bramwell Tovey and Edward Gregson (June)
Best Concerto: Alexander Gavrylyuk Probes and Enriches the Tchaikovsky Concerto in the Season Opener (September); Authentic and Scintillating Bartók from Isabelle Faust (May); New-look Tchaikovsky and Zemlinsky from John Storgårds and Augustin Hadelich (January)
Best Piano Recital: Sir András Schiff’s ‘Last Sonatas’: A Triumph of Distinction (February)
Best Chamber Music: Magnificent Shostakovich from the Takács Quartet (March)
Best Lieder Recital: More Silver-Etched Excellence from Mark Padmore and Paul Lewis (April)
Best Historically Informed: A ‘Breathtaking’ Concert from Hana Blažíková and Bruce Dickey (November); The Bach Suites Receive an Impressive Facelift from Monica Huggett and Gonzalo Ruiz (August); Patrician Excellence from Herreweghe and Collegium Vocale Gent in Lagrime di Saint Pietro (April)
Best Canadian Artist: Charles Richard-Hamelin Brings Rare Strength and Feeling to an All-Chopin Recital (November); James Ehnes Celebrates his 40th Birthday (May)
Best Farewell: Dale Barltrop Stunning in Herculean Farewell Concert (May)
Most Exotic: Ksenija Sidorova Continues to Push the Accordion Enticingly Forward (September)
2016 was a year of transition for me, which provided the opportunity to attend operas and concerts in China, Europe and the USA. Top talent has always been a global commodity in the classical music world, and an international perspective only re-enforces that present-day reality. The same performers and creative teams circle the globe. It is hard to predict where or when magic will strike, but thankfully it does. This year, Switzerland and China share equal pride of place for memorable musical experiences that still resonate as 2016 comes to an end.
Zurich Opera has very high standards, but productions can sometimes fall short of the excellent casts, world-class conductors, and the routinely fine work of the chorus and orchestra. It rose to and met a real challenge in mounting Wolfgang Rihm’s overwhelming and incomprehensible Die Hamletmaschine. Twentieth-century opera of this sort will never be everyone’s operatic cup of tea, but this production was a brave, wonderful and rewarding endeavour.
Zurich Opera’s song recital series was particularly rewarding this past year. It is almost impossible to reconcile in my aural memory that the same soprano produced the creamy, rich tones of the Marschallin in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier for La Scala in June and the guttural, dark, earthy primeval sounds in Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death just a few months earlier. It was however, one-in-the same singer – Krassimira Stoyanova. Her Marschallin was lovely; the Mussorgsky songs were astounding.
A current feature article in Opera News poses the question ‘Is baritone Christian Gerhaher the world’s best lieder singer?’ I will dodge the bullet on that one, but Gerhaher has everything required in a lieder singer’s toolbox – impeccable musicianship, sensitivity to text, and a burnished, lyric baritone. He has the perfect partner in pianist Gerold Huber. Their performance of Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin was a cathartic experience.
There is hope for the future in the world of song. The fine young Swiss lyric tenor Mauro Peter’s January recital was everything an evening of song should be. More the pity that so few ventured out on a cold, wet winter’s night to hear it. Fairer weather favored Anna Stéphany and the Labyrinth Ensemble’s in April, when they performed a program of seldom-heard works for voice and instrumental ensembles that was absolutely beautiful. If fact it was pure bliss, as I wrote at the time.
In China there were three, truly unforgettable performances this past year. Plácido Domingo is a miracle. He was phenomenal in the title role in Hugo de Ana’s new production of Verdi’s Macbeth for Beijing’s National Center for the Performing Arts. The scope and breadth of de Ana’s concept, which combined enormous stage elements, projections, video, choreography and deft staging, was as grand and memorable as its seemingly ageless star.
The Shanghai Oriental Arts Center (SHOAC) sets it sights high with the goal of being ‘the home of symphony’ by presenting the world’s leading orchestras. The Orchestra of Teatro alla Scala under the baton of Myung-Whun Chung played splendidly in both a concert version of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, but it was the La Scala chorus prepared by its chorus master, Bruno Casoni that astounded in the latter. Approximately 100 in number, the chorus sang with richness of tone, assured musicianship and supreme artistry: the mark of true professionals making music.
Shanghai was the first stop on the San Francisco Symphony’s Asian tour under the baton of its musical director Michael Tilson Thomas with the pianist Yuja Wang. All the stars were aligned for their opening concert on 15 November 2016 at SHOAC, but a wonderful concert turned into a transcendent experience in its final minutes. When Principal Hornist Robert Ward began playing the simple Russian folk tune that announces the joyful arrival of sunlight and swells into the glorious, triumphal finale of Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite, it was the emotional and musical apex of my musical year.
Time to reflect on a busy year and look through the diary and pick out one special memory for each month.
January Saffron Opera’s Das Rheingold
February Die Walküre in Dresden
March Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
April English National Ballet’s She Said
May English National Ballet’s Emerging Dancer
June Nabucco with Plácido Domingo at Covent Garden
July Grange Park Opera’s Tristan und Isolde
August Tristan und Isolde at Bayreuth
September Nicola Benedetti at the Roman River Music Festival
October Carlos Acosta’s Farewell at the Royal Albert Hall
November Akram Khan’s Giselle for English National Ballet
December René Pape at the Wigmore Hall
The year started and ended with two Senior Musical Citizens, now residents of Lucerne: Haitink in an all-Beethoven programme ably aided by the phenomenal Igor Levit in the Third Piano Concerto, and a blistering Eroica. Then some weeks later a sensational concert under the baton of Herbert Blomstedt, Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite, a cheeky piece from the 1960s called Poesis by fellow Swede Ingvar Lidholm and a most impressive New World Symphony. Both were with the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich. In December Haitink brought us Sir Andras Schiff with a wondrous ‘Emperor’ Concerto and a moving Bruckner’s Ninth.
It was a really good year for Bruckner lovers like me: Zinman returned to conduct his old orchestra and gave us a towering Fifth and Haitink in Lucerne showed off the Lucerne Festival Orchestra with Bruckner’s Eighth. Michael Sanderling at the Tonhalle was a fine interpreter of Bruckner’s Fourth and he remains my first choice and top tip to become Lionel Bringuier’s successor at the Tonhalle Orchestra. Gatti also showed off the qualities of the Concertgebouw in Lucerne with Bruckner’s Fourth.
Franz Welser-Möst returned to the Tonhalle’s podium for an Alpine Symphony of supreme grandeur and many a musical insight.
John Eliot Gardiner’s Schubert 5 was memorable for having his whole orchestra (the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique) stand throughout the symphony, to great effect.
In Lucerne at Easter there was a glorious and moving St. Matthew Passion with Sir John Eliot Gardiner, the immaculate Monteverdi Choir (with Mark Padmore as the Evangelist) and the accomplished English Baroque Soloists; a few days later the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Mariss Jansons thrilled with a gripping performance of Shostakovich’s mighty Seventh Symphony.
This was year I discovered, in fairly late age, that the Matthew Passion really is a great masterpiece, as I sang it at the Tonhalle with my amateur choir, Zurich’s oldest (the Gemischter Chor Zürich); there is no better way to get to know a piece inside out than singing (or playing) it yourself. A month ago we sang Handel’s Jephtha, not a patch on the Messiah but with some splendid choruses. Another choral highlight during the year was at the International Bach Festival in Schaffhausen, the Matthew Passion with Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort and Players. Nicholas Mulroy was the equal of Mark Padmore as an absolutely convincing Evangelist.
At Zurich’s opera house, revivals will stick in my memory more than new productions: the always enjoyable coupling of Cav and Pag, the highly amusing Comte d’Ory and the ever impressive Don Carlos (though this time round more for the opera itself than the singers).
In Winterthur it was a delight to see and hear Ian Bostridge in slightly unfamiliar territory; the orchestrated version by Hans Zender of Die Winterreise did not please all.
Although politics cast a pall over the country this year, the opera and dance season in Los Angeles remained vibrant. LA Opera’s favorite tenor turned baritone, Plácido Domingo, commanded the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, inhabiting the role of Macbeth with superb singing and an uncanny ability to portray a man in his prime. By his side, riding the wave of blood lust, was the Russian mezzo-soprano, Ekaterina Semenchuk. Endowed with a wide range, she sang the soprano role of Lady Macbeth with expressive power, chilling in her single-minded determination to put her husband on the throne of Scotland.
In a new production of Madame Butterfly, we had a Butterfly that transcended the domestic and became epic in scope, casting its own pall of late colonialism over the tale. Everything in this production, from the sets of Jean-Marc Puissant to the direction of Lee Blakeley to the splendid cast to the orchestra under James Conlon, made this a Butterfly that lingered in the mind and heart.
Despite the Halloween party campiness of the staging, Philip Glass’s Akhnaten was a welcome addition to LA Opera’s repertory. Anthony Roth Costanzo as Akhnaten had the classic countertenor’s eerie celestial sound, and with her rich mezzo, J’Nai Bridges’s Nefertiti, was his perfect match.
Los Angeles Ballet performed a rarity: Frederick Ashton’s intimate Romeo and Juliet, staged by Peter Schaufuss, the renowned Danish dancer and choreographer, who inherited the rights from Ashton in 1988. Never before staged by an American company, it gave audiences a chance to experience the elegance and poetry of Ashton’s choreography. Also at UCLA’s Royce Hall, Deborah Hay’s Figure a Sea was unique for its quiet, minimalist aesthetic.
In a similar contemplative mode, the superb dancers of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan performed, Rice, a dance-drama of life, death, and rebirth. Combining the idioms of ballet, modern dance, Qi Gong, and internal martial arts, Lin Hwai-min, artistic director of Cloud Gate, created a dance vocabulary that was both primal and refined.
In an all Ratmansky program, American Ballet Theatre shone brightest in Serenade after Plato’s Symposium. Here we find Ratmansky at one with the music – elegant, inventive, exuberant, and contemporary. In graceful costumes by Jérôme Kaplan that hint at the togas and robes of ancient Greece, seven superb male dancers illuminated this masterful composition by Leonard Bernstein. Hints of Stravinsky’s neoclassical music mingled with quintessentially Bernstein-esque urban rhythms to create a beautifully danceable score conducted by Ormsby Wilkins and performed by an orchestra largely composed of LA Opera musicians.
In a celebration of choreographer William Forsythe, three dance companies – San Francisco Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, and Houston Ballet – came together at the Dorothy Chandler to present three different Forsythe pieces. It was an evening, which offered the rare opportunity to compare companies and performances and bask in the prodigious talent on display.
Mourad Merzouki’s company of Brazilian dancers, Compagnie Käfig, turned street dance into an ebullient theatrical performance, and in the process made an artistic, political, and social statement concerning one of the planet’s most needed and dwindling resource, water. The evening became a celebration of the very human urge to create joy amid turmoil by dancing your heart out.
My most compelling concert experience this year took place at the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado. I review nearly 70 events there every summer, and in August pianist Jeremy Denk and violinist Stefan Jackiw delivered a stunning program of all four of Charles Ives’ violin sonatas. The sonatas are built around hymns and other ‘people’s music’ of early twentieth century New England. Before each one a quartet of four singers from the festival’s voice program sang the original music, providing a bridge for 21st-century ears to find the strands in Ives’ sometimes thorny but always emotional music. The sonatas poured out with thrill-of-life resonance.
I usually end up populating my best-of-the-year lists with San Francisco Symphony concerts and standard repertoire from San Francisco Opera. Though the symphony performed at its usual high level, it was the opera that put together its most solid line up in several years.
Leoš Janáček’s The Makropulos Case at San Francisco Opera in October took off with turbojets. An incendiary performance by Nadja Michael as the 300-year-old femme fatale Emilia Marty teetered between overt sexuality and the sort of boredom than comes with centuries of liaisons. Her soprano never flagged, capped by a final scene for the ages, underlined magnificently by the vigorous conducting of Mikhail Tatarnikov and pulsing work by the S.F. Opera orchestra. The cast was impeccable, right down the line. The highlight of the fall opera season, though, came in September with the world premiere of Bright Sheng’s stunning new work, The Dream of the Red Chamber, its story extracted from a sprawling novel popular for more than a century in China. A strong young cast, led by soprano Pureum Jo and tenor Yijie Shi as the central lovers, caressed Sheng’s lyrical lines with much beauty and humanity, and the story unfolded before breathtaking sets by designer Tim Yip. This is a new opera worth hearing and seeing again and again. Two chamber music concerts presented by Cal Performances at the University of California Berkeley round out my picks. Though both married the music with film projections, the Kronos Quartet’s revival of Terry Riley’s 2002 Sun Rings in May was more successful at that aspect. In the evening-long piece, written for NASA, the visuals used aspects of astronomy and space exploration to enhance Riley’s expansion of actual sounds of space. The final glorious summation, ‘One Earth, One People, One Love’, made a thrilling exclamation point. David Michael’s artsy ultra-slow-motion films served as backdrop to Gil Shaham’s gold-standard traversal of J.S. Bach’s sonatas and partitas for unaccompanied violin in April. Shaham offered his usual precision leavened with warmth, zillions of tiny nuances moulding the music seamlessly, splitting the difference between modern and strictly historical performance. It felt fresh and alive, in contrast to the slow-moving film. Maybe that was the point. It was, quite simply, my musical highlight of the year.
When the year began the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was still searching for a new Music Director to succeed Andris Nelsons. Rightly, the selection process was kept very confidential but an inevitable consequence of this was that every appearance by a guest conductor prompted speculation: is this the one?
I saw several highly talented young conductors at the helm of the CBSO in the early months of the year but, like many others, I was particularly excited by the concert in January at which a young Lithuanian conductor, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla led the orchestra in Debussy, Schumann and Sibelius. She made a strong impression and seemed to have a fine rapport with the players (review). So, though there were surely other contenders it was not a great surprise when she was unveiled as the CBSO’s Osborn Music Director a few weeks later. In August she returned to make her debut in the post with a sweeping performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth and partnering Barbara Hannigan in Hans Abrahamsen’s mesmerising let me tell you (review).
In March the CBSO’s then-Assistant Conductor, Alpesh Chauhan led a fine performance of Shostakovich’s Fifteenth Symphony and the UK premiere of Osvaldo Golijov’s intriguing Azul for cello and orchestra (review) Mr Chauhan’s time with the CBSO has now come to an end, though he’ll surely be back as a guest. I also admired and enjoyed Nicholas Collon’s account of Mahler’s Tenth in the Cooke version in March (review) and Lahav Shani’s Romeo and Juliet-inspired programme the following month (review).
There was a Birmingham connection to one of the stand-out concerts at the Cheltenham Music Festival. Jeffrey Skidmore and Ex Cathedra put on an inspiring programme which included Sir James MacMillan’s hugely impressive Seven Angels. I’d heard them give the world premiere of the piece in Birmingham Town Hall in January 2015 but hearing the music in the glorious surroundings and resonant acoustic of Tewkesbury Abbey was an even richer experience (review).
Equally memorable, but in a very different way and on a much smaller scale, was the recital by tenor Joshua Ellicott and pianist Simon Lepper, entitled From your ever-loving son, Jack. Ellicott read extracts from letters from the trenches in France written by his great uncle, Jack Ellicott (1896-1916) who perished in the early days of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916. He and Lepper interwove a selection of songs and piano pieces around the letters, each piece of music unerringly chosen. What made Jack Ellicott’s letters home so affecting was the sheer ordinariness of them – and the knowledge that their author, scarcely out of his teens, would soon be cut down in the carnage of war. I have rarely been so moved at a musical event (review).
The Three Choirs Festival was held at Gloucester this year and Artistic Director Adrian Partington had devised a splendid and varied programme. Highlights for me included the enthralling performance of Berlioz’s Grande messe des morts, superbly conducted by Edward Gardner (review), and a concert of music mainly by Vaughan Williams. This was memorable for an inspired account of The Lark Ascending by the Philharmonia’s leader, Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay. At the start of the evening Mr Visontay led the strings of the orchestra in a conductor-less account of the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis that will also live long in the memory (review). The Festival Chorus was, by common consent, the finest assembled for many years and at the end of a taxing week they signed off triumphantly in Adrian Partington’s daring and exhilarating reading of Mahler’s Eighth (review).
I went off piste just once this year: I went to Berlin where I heard Daniel Barenboim conduct The Dream of Gerontius. There were several withdrawals of soloists in the days leading up to the concert but all these difficulties were surmounted. The soloists and Berlin choirs all impressed but the performance was unforgettable on two counts. The playing of the Staatskapelle Berlin was simply magnificent and Daniel Barenboim conducted with great distinction and evident empathy for Elgar’s music (review).