THE BEST OF 2017
RAFAEL DE ACHA – No doubt about it, for an urban area of its size, Southern Ohio has an extraordinary number of musical organizations that keep us all happily attending concerts and operas all year long. Here are my memorable musical events of the year 2017.
Cincinnati’s Music Hall reopened after an extensive renovation and much improved acoustics with a gala concert that featured the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, led by Louis Langrée, who, in a heartfelt curtain speech before Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to Candide echoed the words of that opera’s finale by expressing his and our hope ‘that this newly-built home will be a similar garden, where great music will thrive and flourish.’
Summermusik, now in its second-year summer line-up of evening concerts, chamber music afternoons and evening ‘Pub Crawls’ evidenced the talent and versatility of the musicians who make up the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra and its dynamic new conductor, Eckart Preu. In one of the concerts Ran Dank gave a bravura performance of the Saint-Saëns Second Piano Concerto, mining this leviathan’s every note for clarity rather than speed, and for quality rather than quantity of sound.
The CCM Philharmonia opened the 2017-2018 Concert Season at the University of Cincinnati’s College Conservatory of Music in the recently-renovated Patricia Corbett Theatre with a tour de force program that included Mozart’s Overture to The Magic Flute, Brahms’ Symphony No.3 in F, and Mendelssohn’s ‘Reformation’ Symphony. Many a professional orchestra would envy how this top-notch student ensemble sounds, under Mark Gibson’s magisterial leadership.
The story of the fatally flawed love between two giants of 20th-century art was brought to life in the Cincinnati Opera production of Frida, in which powerhouse soprano Catalina Cuervo, delivered a memorable career-defining performance. Later on, in the Dayton Opera’s impeccably staged Gary Briggle production of Menotti’s The Consul, Kara Shay Thomson sang up a storm as the best Magda Sorel in this writer’s memory.
Stewart Goodyear played a recital as part of The Art of the Piano Festival that featured music by Bach, Gibbons, Beethoven, Ravel, and Liszt. Goodyear was awesome in technical dexterity, unfailingly musical and stylish, balancing the impulses of a warm heart with the counsel of a cool brain. The audience would not let him leave, not even after a marathon two-hour recital.
MARK BERRY – No musical experience has meant more to this year than following the progress of Berlin’s new Pierre Boulez Saal. From the opening concert in early March, to which I was privileged to be invited, until the end of December, its ‘music for the thinking ear’ was delighted, provoked, challenged. I have praised Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in Mozart’s final three symphonies before; if anything, their Berlin performance was even greater than what I heard from them in Salzburg. Barenboim’s ‘other’ band, the Staatskapelle Berlin, gave Schubert’s first three, in a concert of such quality that I was all the sadder not to be able to hear the rest of the cycle. The Boulez Ensemble, drawn from both those orchestras, gave a wonderful concert, conducted where necessary by François-Xavier Roth, of Mozart, Boulez, and Schoenberg: very much the heart of Barenboim’s vision for the new hall. Pierre-Laurent Aimard performing music dedicated to him from Ligeti to George Benjamin, with an additional ‘Rousserolle effarvatte’ from Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux, is one of those recitals never likely to be forgotten.
Aimard also gave a sensational performance of Ligeti’s Piano Concerto with the Philharmonia under Esa-Pekka Salonen. The concert also included magnificent performances of Stravinsky (a British premiere!) and Ravel. Perhaps the finest performance I heard all year from the Berlin Philharmonic – what a home team to have had! – was of Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler and Brahms’s Second Symphony. Daniele Gatti, not for the first time, truly made me think – and enabled me to learn a work I thought I knew almost too well. Frank Peter Zimmermann, the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, and Jakub Hrůša, a conductor from whom I have yet to hear anything but an outstanding performance, gave me the best Beethoven Violin Concerto I have heard in the concert hall; I was almost convinced by the Franck Symphony too.
Returning to pianists, Maurizio Pollini’s Salzburg Chopin and Debussy were as brilliant, as questioning, as awe-inspiring as anyone – save for Pollini’s increasingly deranged detractors – could have asked for. Daniil Trifonov shone at least as brightly as Matthias Goerne in a Salzburg programme of Berg, Schumann, Wolf, Shostakovich, and Brahms. Leaving London for a while meant that, alas, I missed the final two Beethoven recitals in Igor Levit’s Wigmore Hall series; the last one I heard, though, had me once again reaching for superlatives.
New music features heavily at the Boulez Saal, of course, but also in the programming of the Musikfest Berlin, held every year in September. Choosing but a single performance is almost impossible, but works by Rebecca Saunders, Harrison Birtwistle, and John Dowland (arr. Birtwistle) from Ensemble Musikfabrik made an extraordinary impression. Saunders’s YES, receiving its world premiere, struck me instantly as a masterpiece. I can hardly wait to make further acquaintance with it.
Barrie Kosky’s productions I tend to love or loathe; it is almost impossible to be indifferent to them, and I am sure the Intendant of the Komische Oper would not want it any other way. His new Pelléas et Mélisande for home forces in Berlin proved a company tour de force, a searing denunciation of abusive patriarchy that yet did not lose Debussy’s elusive mystery. Jordan de Souza’s conducting marked him out as someone from whom I look forward to hearing much more. The same house invited back the 1927 theatre group for a sparkling and moving double-bill of Petrushka and L’Enfant et les Sortilèges. A final outing for Götz Friedrich’s Ring at the Deutsche Oper was always going to prove a special occasion – and so it did. Dmitri Tcherniakov, surely one of the outstanding opera directors alive, offered by far the most searching – cynics might say that would not be difficult – production of Carmen I have ever seen; Michael Fabiano truly stole the show with his 110% committed portrayal of Don José. That was matched by another Aix-en-Provence operatic delight: The Rake’s Progress from Simon McBurney, splendidly conducted by Eivind Gullberg Jensen. Tcherniakov’s Parsifal, under Barenboim, continues to do everything Wagnerian music drama should – and yet so rarely does. The Dresden Semperoper offered a brilliant new Doktor Faust, directed by Keith Warner, in as fine a performance as I have heard in one of Germany’s ‘other’ most highly esteemed houses. Quite a year, then, both in the opera house and in the concert hall – and I could have chosen many more performances to join those here.
PHILIP R BUTTALL – [Philip chooses a concert of music by Falconieri, Telemann, Fasch, Torelli, Biber by Devon Baroque in the Great Hall, Dartington on 29th October 2017 as his ‘Best of 2017’ and his review is reprinted below.]
The clever little wordplay in the title of this concert, ‘Musical Battles, and the Trumpet, Naturally …’ of course hinted that, somewhere along the line, the natural trumpet was to play an important part in the afternoon’s proceedings. But even before the instrument made its first appearance, there was a veritable embarrassment of riches for the large audience to savour.
Since Devon Baroque’s formation, the ensemble – who specialise in contemporary performance practices on baroque instruments – has garnered an enviable reputation for the sheer quality, and now real exuberance of its playing, unique to the South West of England, and indeed beyond. During that time, I have been privileged to review them on a number of occasions for Seen and Heard International, where, for want of a better cliché, they just seem to get better and better each time. Now this is in no way intended to suggest that, at the outset, their performances were not always first-rate. Indeed, under the initial direction of such an eminent baroque specialist and violinist as Margaret Faultless, this was never going to be an option. Over the years they have been able to bring a fresh exuberance and freedom of expression to the mix, which, to borrow a phrase from the world of business, is now fast becoming their USP, or unique selling point.
This has partly developed as a natural outcome of playing together more often, but it is essentially down to the person at the helm. That now involves an unrivalled musical partnership (or, to reuse my previous description, a ‘musical marriage made in baroque heaven’), between violinist Persephone Gibbs and harpsichordist Andrew Wilson-Dickson. These two eminent musicians and baroque specialists exude great scholarship, and are highly-accomplished performers in their own right. But, and perhaps this is even more important, they display such a seemingly natural and laid-back manner, whether communicating with their players, or simply engaging the audience. It is no surprise, then, that this ultimately has rubbed off onto the ensemble as a whole.
Another area to witness some change is that of repertoire. Again, this is something which the Gibbs/Wilson-Dickson partnership would seem largely to have brought to the table. This concert provided, in fact, a good example. It not only managed to include another of Bach’s Brandenburgs – which Devon Baroque has been featuring, one at a time, in its programmes for a year or so – but also has some other familiar, as well as lesser-known repertoire. It is chosen both for impact on the day, but also to derive the fullest use of the combination of instruments present.
With the battle theme very much in mind, the afternoon got off to a flying start with the bizarrely-named Battaglia de Barabaso yerno de Satanas, or Battle of Barabaso, son-in-law of Satan. The piece gave the strings a real opportunity to shine, with some highly-accomplished assistance from recorder player Olwen Foulkes and violinist Emily White, here swapping to sackbut. It also provided a fascinating glimpse even further back in time. The Neapolitan Andrea Falconieri (1585-1656) predates the rest of today’s composers by some sixty years. It is good to see a baroque outfit looking in this direction for new repertoire, rather than forward into the pre-classical domain, which is already well provided for.
Telemann rarely, if ever, disappoints, but his suite for strings based on Don Quixote proved an absolute revelation – for a number of reasons, and some not probably envisaged before the concert began. Rather than merely play the Ouverture, and then the separate movements, Wilson-Dickson accompanied the music with readings of short passages from the book itself. That really added to the effect, and showed yet another facet of the harpsichordist’s many talents, as he seamlessly assigned individual accents to each character in the plot.
Things were going swimmingly until the audience began to notice an odd sound in the glorious medieval banqueting hall. But Wilson-Dickson, in his most informative and interesting programme notes had already written that Quixote’s ‘tilting at windmills’ is portrayed by Telemann in the musical score, along with some of the animals and humans …’ so perhaps this odd sound was, in fact, intentional. Clearly, though, it was not, and once everyone had checked that theirs was not the offending mobile phone, it transpired that this was the fire-alarm. It caused the orchestra to stop in its tracks, and, even though there had been more than enough pyrotechnics in some of the playing so far, that was not what had triggered any alarm. Before a genuine need to evacuate came, Gibbs was able to confirm that it was a false alarm, apparently occasioned by the malicious overuse of the system by a wedding party the day before. Here again, though, the players were completely unfazed, and just picked up where they had left off, even if it did somewhat disturb the flow of music (and interspersed readings, on which Wilson-Dickson had obviously lavished great care on in its preparation).
Fasch’s Quadro Sonata saw the majority of the players withdraw to the green room, while the pithy four-movement work provided the opportunity for the audience to preview the soloists who would ultimately feature in the concert’s final Brandenburg, but here without the trumpet. Gibbs (violin) and Foulkes (recorder) were now joined by oboist Hannah McLaughlin in a finely-balanced and articulate reading, where the trimmed-down continuo accompaniment afforded each soloist the perfect platform on which to perform, whether singly or in combination.
Torelli is usually known more as a string player, but he was also instrumental in taking the trumpet from the battlefield to the concert hall, writing more than thirty concertos for the instrument. In practice, though, this new environment is probably just as dangerous… While fatality is unlikely, there is the likelihood of being ‘shot down’ and fluffing a note on an instrument which must play with the agility of an oboe, but which relies almost exclusively on the player’s ability to find each note with the lip. That is certainly not for the faint-hearted. Even the contemporary addition of a few venting holes, allowing the player to correct the instrument’s intonation more easily and accurately, is probably no more than the equivalent of wearing the scantiest of body armour in battle. Not to worry, even before soloist Russell Gilmour had blown his first note, he emanated such quiet confidence that everyone present knew he would emerge completely unscathed at the end of a tremendous performance, in which the strings provided exactly the right amount of sympathetic support throughout.
It is a sign of the times that most artists and ensembles are looking for ongoing financial support, and that this is sometimes alluded to during a performance, or in the programme. Here the task fell to Wilson-Dickson, who made a most compelling case for continuing support, even if the playing so far had more than reinforced musically every point he made verbally.
As it happened, though, Biber’s Battaglia, which followed, is an example of musica rappresentativa. It seeks to imitate and incorporate the sounds and environments of the real world. In the second movement, for example, the composer evokes some drunken soldiers. He has nine different melodies played simultaneously in different keys and time-signatures, and with a variety of playing techniques, from using the wood of the bow, plucking strings with the left hand, slapping them on the fingerboard to conjure up the sound of gunfire, and threading paper through the strings to imitate drumming. The players combined in a most entertaining, yet still musically-assured fashion, so that anyone who was considering a substantial donation beforehand did not now feel the need to hide their cheque-book.
Of course, after all this merry-making, this might have been a very hard act to follow. But the sheer quality of Bach’s music in his Brandenburg Concerto No.2, and the superb performance – especially from Gilmour as he despatched the frighteningly-high notes of the trumpet part on little more than a flared metal tube with a few holes with great panache and scarcely a fluffed note throughout – ensured that this was a most fitting finale to a great afternoon,
For here was music-making that could appeal just as much to the highly-informed listener as to someone experiencing baroque music for the first time. That is a duality of purpose that some other ensembles might aspire to, but few rarely can achieve.
MICHAEL COOKSON – This year serious illness has curtailed two of my three annual European reporting trips, nevertheless, I have managed to review several performances with my Munich trip in March exceeding my expectations.
The standout opera was the Bayerische Staatsoper production of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio) a boldly colourful staging, a creative collaboration between director Martin Duncan and his designer Ultz. When this Duncan production was first given by the Bayerische Staatsoper in 2003 there was controversy generated mainly by the portrayal of Muslim women, but for this revival the hullabaloo had died down and I’m glad the company persevered with this amusing production. A masterstroke was Duncan’s treatment of the opera’s libretto containing considerable, off-putting recitative which was condensed and communicated at various points most successfully by rich, dark toned narrator Charlotte Schwab; dressed in a black burqa. Most striking in the set of the seraglio were the six large vibrantly coloured settees suspended by wires to overheard runners that were regularly moved to and fro across the stage. The cast was uniformly excellent, melding together with aplomb. Undoubtedly the packed Nationaltheater audience was delighted with both staging and performance of this often-overlooked masterpiece. In truth this production left a considerable impression on me (review click here).
For its acclaimed series of Akademiekonzert at Nationaltheater the Bayerisches Staatsorchester left the pit for the concert stage. This series of orchestral concerts draws capacity audiences which is not surprising as the combination of an elite orchestra, attractive programming and glorious surroundings is a mouth-watering proposition for the Munich audience. Valery Gergiev – music director of the neighbouring Münchner Philharmoniker – clearly knows the reputation of the Akademiekonzert and took his seat in the audience. The highlight of the evening Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra is a challenging showpiece that tests the quality of even the finest orchestras. Undoubtedly one of the glories of classical music, the remarkable opening passage – a depiction of sunrise – was performed as outstandingly as I have heard it with the organ pedal reverberating impressively around the auditorium. The assured direction of Cornelius Meister and clearly excellently prepared orchestra gave a masterclass of excellence, playing with an uncommon clarity and polish, which didn’t come at the expense of colour and excitement. In quite stunning form the world-class Bayerisches Staatsorchester passed this taxing examination with flying colours. I’ve never heard Strauss’s orchestral masterwork played better (review click here).
In Munich over the years there must have been many concerts of J.S. Bach’s St. John Passion and many will remember Karl Richter directing concerts with his Münchener Bach-Chor und Orchester in the 1960s and 70s. Notwithstanding the substantial performance tradition in the city it was hard to imagine a better concert than this conducted by veteran Herbert Blomstedt. Such was the elevated level of the performance from the cast – ten soloists, Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks and Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks – giving an inspirationally intense and exceptional performance this sacred masterwork in Munich’s Herkulessaal. Telling the story in the crucial and demanding role of the Evangelist, tenor Mark Padmore was totally assured and remarkably consistent. In the part of Jesus, baritone Peter Harvey excelled all evening displaying lucidity and impeccable control. With his usual unruffled assurance, conductor Blomstedt pulled his choral and orchestral forces together flawlessly to reveal plenty of fine detail as well as the often-dramatic emotions of the liturgical texts (review click here).
It was a real treat to attend the Münchner Philharmoniker under its music director Valery Gergiev playing Mahler Fourth Symphony at Philharmonie, Munich. No orchestra has a closer connection to the symphony than the Münchner Philharmoniker. It was premièred in Munich in 1901 under the composer’s own baton by the Kaim Orchestra (the former name of the Münchner Philharmoniker). Soprano soloist Genia Kühmeier was in delightful form with endearingly fresh and expressive singing of the child’s innocent vision of heaven. Well-judged speeds were impressive throughout and in such a classy performance Gergiev never resorted to emotional excess. Gergiev’s compelling interpretation of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony was entirely convincing and the performance will stay lodged in the memory (review click here).
As a regular reviewer of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra Series at Guild Hall, Preston what has stood out so far this season has been the distinct rise in excellence of the orchestral playing under both its chief conductor Vasily Petrenko and its roster of guest conductors. A perfect example of this was the October concert with Jacek Kaspszyk taking the baton for the Brahms Fourth Symphony demonstrating the improvement by a significant margin with added finesse and a closeness of unity that has created additional sweetness and improved tone colour. This orchestra is a treat to hear in concert (review click here).
BRUCE HODGES – Of this year’s indelible contenders, one of the top spots must go to the Time Spans Festival (at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music), curated by the Earle Brown Music Foundation. Mollena Williams-Haas floored the audience with Hyena by her husband, Georg Friedrich Haas, with the indispensable Talea Ensemble, which also presented two nights of premieres from students and their mentors at the EBMF International Summer Academy for Young Composers. In between, the JACK Quartet breathed life into John Luther Adams’s Everything That Rises, and the Quatuor Bozzini offered two magnificent, softly contemplative utterances by Jürg Frey.
Fall in New York wouldn’t be the same these days without the Resonant Bodies Festival, founded by vocalist Lucy Dhegrae, and this year held at Roulette. For contemporary vocal music, RBF has become an essential destination.
At the Park Avenue Armory, I would like to have experienced both nights of Boulez’s Répons—which would have meant four performances, since the group performed it twice each night, with the audience switching seats at the interval. The gorgeous, minimal staging by Pierre Audi made an elegant cathedral for Matthias Pintscher and the Ensemble Intercontemporain, all in cool, incandescent form.
The avant-garde vocal group Ekmeles showed stunning microtonal expertise at the Crypt (an actual crypt at a church in upper Manhattan), with a program orbiting around a daring experiment from James Weeks, director of EXAUDI in London. In December, Yannick Nézet-Séguin led the Philadelphia Orchestra in Thomas Adès’ cunningly devised suite from Powder Her Face, followed by Bernstein’s Serenade, with Hilary Hahn at her most virtuosic and uninhibited, and a Sibelius First Symphony that made one imagine it the best symphony ever written.
And just under the wire, to mark the winter solstice on 21 December, the JACK Quartet appeared at National Sawdust in two astounding readings of Haas’ String Quartet no.9—performed in total darkness. And by “total darkness,” I mean “can’t-see-your-hand-two-inches-in-front-of-your-face” darkness. How the musicians were able to communicate with each other is a wonder.
But one event has burned like a quiet flame: Daniel Barenboim’s complete Bruckner symphony cycle with the Staatskapelle Berlin, in January at Carnegie Hall. It is hard to overstate the achievement, both of the celebrated conductor and the equally renowned ensemble: All nine symphonies performed in order, with only two breaks over roughly two weeks, dividing the run into three groups of three. (Sorry, fans of Nos. 0 and 00, your purgatory continues.)
And yes, the final three symphonies were as transcendent as one could imagine. But Barenboim and the ensemble were able to make the first three memorable, and found pacing, purpose, and meaning in all of them.
The orchestral execution was mightily impressive—even in the later symphonies, when one might expect fatigue. Brass chorales appeared like supernovas, but among a galaxy of planets and stars. Every section—every player—seemed inspired beyond measure, and the results spoke with depth and eloquence. The cycle was a feat that I felt lucky to experience—and it won’t be repeated any time soon.
Links to the Bruckner reviews are below. (Two were done for New York Classical Review.)
BERNARD JACOBSON – Thanks – or, rather, no thanks! – to two medical issues whose resolution took up a lot of my time and concentration, there was a huge hole in the middle of my 2017 concert-going schedule. I shall limit myself here to just three especially notable memories. All three involve pianists, two of them established masters at the peak of their powers.
On 18 February, Garrick Ohlsson’s collaboration with Herbert Blomstedt and the Philadelphia Orchestra on Mozart’s C-major Concerto, K.503, reawakened – not competitively but convivially – recollections of the magic Malcolm Frager and Ivan Moravec used in their different ways to work in this, my favorite among all piano concertos. This was indeed as fine a performance of it as any I heard by the great Moravec, and there is in my book no higher compliment than that. Ohlsson produced pearly tone at all dynamic levels, caressing the keyboard in piano and avoiding any trace of harshness in the biggest forte, as at that wonderful exchange of tutti and solo responsibilities at the beginning of the first movement’s recapitulation.
Two months later, for the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society on 19 April, Emanuel Ax offered a program built around the genre of the impromptu. It may seem perverse, in the face of that evening’s many passages of breathtaking virtuosity, to say that the movement retaining the most tenacious hold on my mind ever since the recital ended has been the second of Schubert’s Four Impromptus D.935. The idea that there can be only one absolutely correct performance for any given piece is purely chimerical – great music admits of a wide variety of equally convincing interpretations, and I have heard this A-flat-major piece played superbly any number of times by great pianists. But such was the quiet assurance Ax brought to this enchanting music, and so inevitable did his realization of it in tempo, phrasing, and expression seem, that I felt for once as if no other view could be possible.
Closer to the end of the year, this time not in the concert hall but on disc, an outstanding Supraphon Mozart recording had me thinking forwards rather than back. Jan Bartoš is not yet a name to be reckoned with in the way Moravec and Frager are, but his live performance of the D-minor Concerto with the late-lamented Jiři Bělohlávek and the Czech Philharmonic is evidence of a talent surely destined to achieve comparably vivid inspirations and illuminations many times in the years to come. From the very first notes of the solo part, Bartoš offers playing that might be characterized as ‘full of thinking’ – reminiscent, perhaps, of what we used to hear in the speech of Sir John Gielgud or the singing of Sir Peter Pears. It is no more than appropriate that two such masters of the voice should come to mind, for Bartoš’s pianism spans the gamut from speaking eloquence to singing grace with the utmost naturalness.
JONATHAN SPENCER JONES – With time running out for a full review and in a year in which no work particularly stood out above any other, I am giving the Teatro Colón’s ‘Opera of the Year’ accolade to its final production, Giordano’s Andrea Chénier.
Its gestation wasn’t straightforward. Early on, the production lost Marcelo Álvarez in the title role but in his place gained José Cura. It lost the other two leads, Roberto Frontali and Anna Pirozzi, gaining respectively Fabián Veloz as the revolutionary Gérard and María Pía Piscitelli as Chénier’s lover Madeleine. It lost conductor Donato Renzetti whose place was filled by Christian Badea. And just a month before opening night it lost director Lucrecia Martel who pulled out following an accident with local director Matías Cambiasso stepping in.
Who knows how different it could have been but what counts is the production that resulted, which was a fine one – period in style, with good singing all round including the many supporting roles, a chorus on top form and tasteful choreography. And the bonus – Cura in one of his signature roles which until now he hasn’t sung in his home country.
After its first chamber type production in 2016, Buenos Aires Lírica continued with two further such productions in 2017, of which one was Offenbach’s one-act operetta Ba-Ta-Clan. Hopefully not the company’s swansong – no season is being offered in 2018 – it was a worthy and entertaining production by a small group of upcoming singers who clearly had as much fun putting it on as did the audience watching.
Of the two of the three productions that I saw from Juventus Lyrica, the choice must fall to Rossini’s Le comte Ory. Not least for the infrequency of its production – a first for this reviewer in 40 years of opera going – but effective direction against a simple backdrop gave it humour and energy without becoming banal. A co-production with the Dutch Opera2Day, it was presented with instruments replicating the sound of the day.
ANTOINE LEVY-LEBOYER – 2017 was a year where I was privileged to interview three great pianists (in alphabetical order): Igor Levit, Gabriela Montero, Sir Andras Schiff. Each of these are of course wonderful artists. Gabriela Montero’s improvisations make for mesmerising stories. Igor Levit challenges and makes you think. Sir Andras Schiff is peerless in his mastery of the classical style.
But each in their own way have used their reputation as classical musicians to express political views and use their reputations to raise their voices: Gabriela Montero has described the situation in her native country of Venezuela before a high-profile conductor expressed his own reservations, and a long time before people generally were aware of the gravity of the situation in that country. Igor Levit has prefaced his concerts with declarations of value on Europe. His Salzburg recital was a series of musical protestations mixing Schoenberg’s ‘Ode to Napoleon’, Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Variations and Rwezki’s (amazing) ‘The People United Will Never Be Defeated!’. Sir Andras Schiff has been very critical of the situation in his native country, Hungary.
Each of them expressed the need to express their thoughts as closely linked to their art: Gabriela Montero said that ‘I cannot simply stop and play Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin… say that I am speaking for the best of humanity and at the same time not be involved with humanity’. Igor Levit expressed a similar thought: ‘we cannot close our eyes just because we play Mozart and Beethoven. It is up to us to decide in which direction to go’. And finally, Sir Andras Schiff said that ‘arts owe so much to society. Politics and arts have so much in common. We cannot simply look away.’
So for me, the best in 2017 was to hear these great musicians speak up and inspire us beyond their art.
PETER MECHEN – [Peter chooses a previously unpublished review of a concert of music by Vaughan Williams and Mendelssohn by Vivanti Ensemble at St. Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace, Wellington, NZ, on 29 November 2017 as his ‘Best of 2017’ and his review is below.]
All things considered, the concert which, in terms of moments per minute, gave me the most concentrated pleasure in Wellington during 2017 was one of those from the weekly series of ‘Lunchtime Concerts’ organized under the auspices of the Church of St. Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace, in the central city. The musicians – collectively known as the Vivanti Ensemble – were all from various orchestras and ensembles in the Wellington region, coming together for the fun and the joy of making music – which quality was, for me, the most abiding and transcendent of all the occasion’s considerable virtues.
Two works were on the programme, each one of a distinctive character wholly identifiable with its particular era, yet able to encircle our sensibilities and attune them to its specific qualities, so that we felt ‘connected’ in a rare and exhilarating way with both pieces and their separate evocations.
Opening the concert was Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Phantasy Quintet, a work which appeared in 1912, its strongly-flavoured home-grown character epitomizing the 20th-century ‘coming of age’ of English music stemming from a re-awakened interest in and identification with native folk-song. It was all given here with full-blooded gusto, a kind of earthiness which underlined the kinship to Bartók’s similar identification with Hungarian and Roumanian folk melodies and their influence on his art-music.
Right from the opening viola phrases, what playing we heard! – full, rich tones that evoked a magnificent melancholy, and which other instruments enhanced most gorgeously, the effect not unlike a group of folksingers with stringed instruments for voices. Rhythms and melodies readily combined stringent harmonies with rumbustious energies, the players’ focused sonorities producing for we listeners almost visceral emotional intensities, involving and satisfying.
For the Mendelssohn work three additional players appeared, including a new leader, violinist Yuka Eguchi, the NZSO’s Assistant Concertmaster, taking over from another NZSO violinist, Anna van der Zee, who had led the Quintet. The playing’s expressive range gave the music’s dynamic qualities full voice, in places throughout the first movement, excitingly, almost alarmingly, orchestral; while the second movement’s opening beautifully caught the vein of the music’s melancholy, and relished the contrasts between powerfully throbbing rhythms and lyrical interludes. We hugely enjoyed the famous Scherzo, with the music weaving its gossamer magic at great speed as the ensemble’s leader performed wondrous feats of prestidigitation during the ‘trio’.
The climax of the performance came with the finale – beginning ‘attacca’ – as the cellos literally threw themselves at their music, with the lighter-voiced instruments following suit in a kind of fugato, and the excitement never really stopping as the music clicked excitingly over the points! The players then plunged into the music’s attenuated crescendi with such joyous, exhilarating energies, all was swept along in a shared torrent of life-enhancing outpourings, which left us at the end simultaneously limp with astonishment and uplifted by the brilliance of the composer’s genius.
So, a feast of a different order for lunchtime – a truly treasurable occasion, and a precursor, one hopes, of many more concerts from a gifted Vivanti Ensemble.
GEOFFREY NEWMAN – I employ something like the Gramophone’s ‘Awards by Category’ format again this year, which identifies the ‘most memorable’ Vancouver performances, relative to genre. More than one performance will typically be nominated for each given category. The review link is off the title.
Best Orchestral/Concerto: Sterling Korngold and Mahler from Baiba Skride and Bramwell Tovey (June); A Stunning Debut for Conductor Constantin Trinks (February); A Concert of Exciting Variety from Henning Kraggerud and James Gaffigan (April); Splendid Valedictory Strauss from Bramwell Tovey and Adrianne Pieczonka (January): Kirill Gerstein and Garrick Ohlsson Revel in Different Approaches to Brahms’ Concertos (March)
Best Chamber Music: Gerhardt and Osborne Fight Adversity to Mine Musical Riches (November); The Borodin Quartet Reveals the Art of Intimate Conversation (October); Jean-Guihen Queyras and Alexander Melnikov Put On a Ravishing ‘Winterlude’(January);
Best Piano Recital: A Revealing Recital from Murray Perahia (May); Another Supreme Recital from Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (April); Impressive Variety and Artistry in Recitals by Perianes and Grosvenor (May)
Best Early Music: An Elizabethan Outing Finds Stile Antico at their Finest (March); Cinquecento and Jenny Högström Elevate the Early Music Festival’s First Week (August); A Rare and Fulfilling Concert from The Choir of King’s College Cambridge (March)
Best Young Artist: Young Sheku Kanneh-Mason Lives up to His Billing (December); Gold Medalist Seong-Jin Cho Reveals Beauty and Command – and Innocence Too (November)
Best Canadian Artist: An Intriguing Spring Festival with James Ehnes as Violist and Conductor (May); A Celebration of the Banff Competition-Winning Rolston Quartet and R. Murray Schafer (November)
(Each review has been published in a slightly different form on www.vanclassicalmusic.com.)
RICK PERDIAN – For the first half of the year, I was living and working in Shanghai and had the opportunity to explore China’s fascinating and burgeoning music scene. Since then, I was mostly traveling in Europe, and as the year draws to a close I am again residing in New Jersey within easy striking distance of NYC, after 14 years abroad.
This list favors the new, the rare or the unexpected. I have omitted the obvious, as one would expect nothing less than wonderful from established world-class soloists, orchestras and opera companies. And truth be told, that is generally the case.
- The year began in Harbin, in the far northeast of China. The Italian touring production of Turandot was enjoyable, but the Harbin Grand Theatre is unforgettable. Designed by the Beijing-based MAD Architects ‘in response to the force and spirit of the northern city’s untamed wilderness and frigid climate,’ it is one of the architectural wonders of modern China. The theater, whose interior is seemingly carved out of a massive Manchurian ash tree, is an astoundingly beautiful space.
- Tenor Shi Yijie triumphed as Edgardo in the National Centre for the Performing Arts’ Lucia di Lammermoor with his voice of gold and swashbuckling good looks. He is one of the most exciting young lyric tenors that I have heard anywhere.
- Meyerbeer’s Le prophète may be losing its status as a rarity as this past year it was staged in Berlin, Toulouse and Essen. I only saw the latter, but the Aalto-Musik Theater’s production would be hard to top. The excellent cast, led by John Osborn (who also sang the title role in Toulouse), Marianne Cornetti and Lynette Tapia, sang gloriously, doing full justice to the music and the drama in this truly grand opera.
- New Opera NYC’s creative team let their imaginations run wild in this fantastic, witty, over-the-top production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Golden Cockerel at the Sheen Center’s Loreto Theater in the NoHo/East Village section of Manhattan. Mikhail Svetlov’s portrayal of King Dodon was a performance to be treasured. His hapless tsar was world-weary, narcissistic and delusional, but full of humanity. Svetlov’s twinkling eyes telegraphed his emotions as effectively as did his rich, resonant voice.
- Discovering Xilin Wang and his music was for me the history of twentieth-century China writ large. The 80-year-old composer’s view is that the world is black and white and ultimately evil will triumph over good. Muhai Tang led the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra in a powerful performance of his Symphony No.3, which has been hailed as his Declaration of Human Rights that embodies his character and aesthetic ideals.
- Tang Jianping’s Jianzhen Goes East, seen in Tokyo, tells the story of the Chinese monk who was pivotal in introducing Buddhism to Japan in the mid-eighth century. Tang Jianping’s eclectic score is infused with the exotic sounds of the Japanese koto, the Chinese guzheng, temple blocks, Buddhist chants and Japanese song. The excellent cast assembled by the Jiangsu Performing Arts Group was anchored by bass Tian Hao Jiang, resonant of voice and as commanding in stature as the monk.
- Every production of Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock carries the weight of its opening night in 1937 when the US government tried to shut it down. Opera Saratoga presented Blitzstein’s full orchestration, not heard since 1960, in a taut, searing production that should tour the country, just as John Housman’s revival did in the early 1980s. This was powerful opera, just as incendiary today as it was 80 years ago.
- A true delight was encountering classical guitarist Finbarr Malafronte aboard RMS Queen Mary 2 while crossing the Atlantic. Malafronte transfixes an audience with his musicianship, ease on stage and the sheer beauty of the music that he performs. He also possesses a rare skill: in just a few words he can bring to life the composers and their music, as well as his instrument’s rich lore. Malafronte is a born communicator, whether playing his guitar or speaking.
- The 2011 nuclear catastrophe in Japan inspired the Austrian Nobel Prize laureate Elfriede Jelinek to write the post-apocalypse theater piece that is at the core of Kein Licht. Composer Philppe Manoury and director Nicolas Stamina worked it and two others of Jelinek’s texts into what they have termed a ‘Thinkspiel’. Nuclear energy policy, our addiction to technology and politics get skewered in this uncompromising, fatalistic, but surprisingly light-hearted production that opened the Opéra national du Rhin’s season in Strasbourg.
- As the curtain fell on the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma’s Fra Diavolo, a voice behind me sighed ‘deliziosa’ and so it was. John Osborn caressed Auber’s phrases and tossed out ringing high notes, while Sonia Ganassi in bright pink and platinum blond hair was vivacious, lusty and funny in Giorgio Barberio Corset’s witty, attractive production that travels to Palermo’s Teatro Massimo in early 2018.
JIM PRITCHARD – So much to choose from and sorry to some wonderful performances that didn’t make the cut!
January English National Ballet’s Giselle (review)
February The Royal Ballet’s Sleeping Beauty (review)
March A Vienna State Opera Tristan und Isolde (review)
April A Drury Lane musical (review)
May English National Ballet’s Emerging Dancer (review)
June Semyon Bychkov’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony (review)
July The Royal Opera’s Turandot (review)
August Tristan und Isolde at the Bayreuth Festival (review)
September Natalie Lowe’s Rip it Up (review)
October Rick Wakeman’s Piano Portraits (review)
November Tristan und Isolde at St. John’s, Waterloo (review)
December The Nutcracker and I, by Alexandra Dariescu (review)
JOHN RHODES – Looking back on Zurich’s musical year, it was yet again a very good year for Bruckner and Mahler lovers.
Luisi’s Bruckner’s powerful Fourth Symphony with the opera orchestra, the Philharmonia Zurich, was very good indeed, but Bruckner’s towering Eighth Symphony with the Tonhalle Orchester under Welser-Möst was higher quality all round.
Shostakovich 5 with Teodor Currentzis was memorable for a host of reasons – even if it is his eclectic choice of footwear that might well stick in my memory.
In Lucerne, at Easter, I recall the medium-scale reverential St John Passion with Hengelbrock and the accomplished Balthasar-Neumann-Choir and a team of fine soloists; at the Lucerne Summer Festival Harding made a fine impression with Mahler’s Sixth Symphony and the Vienna Philharmonic. In Zurich earlier in the year, Zinman returned to the Tonhalle for another splendid Mahler 6.
Visiting orchestras that impressed included the Orchestra of the Academia di Santa Cecilia under Pappano, Harding with the Swedish National Orchestra and perhaps pick of the bunch Iván Fischer with the very refined Budapest Festival Orchestra.
Opera in Zurich: I particularly recall two revivals, two Macbeths, Verdi’s produced by Barrie Kosky, a black doom-laden Macbeth, and a gripping, witty and colourful Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk from Intendant Andreas Homoki. Vocally best of all, a recent Madama Butterfly with Svetlana Aksenova, Samir Pirgu and Brian Mulligan.
Also of interest, a powerful Fiery Angel, a light Land of Smiles, and my first Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, the latter principally for its magnificent video contributions.
Heras-Casado started and (almost) finished the year for me, Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, and in December La Mer and Brahms 4. An inevitable highlight – and highly anticipated – just a few days before Christmas, was when Bernard Haitink conducted the Tonhalle Orchestra in, what else, but his beloved Bruckner, and the Fourth Symphony.
A personal highlight: the 100-strong choir with which I sing, the Gemischter Chor Zürich, sang Mendelssohn’s Paulus, or St. Paul; I did not know the work beforehand and now place it alongside Elijah without any hesitation.
JANE ROSENBERG – Of all the performances that linger in the mind after a robust year of dance and opera in Los Angeles, one in particular stands out: Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s Lost in the Stars at UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance. It is noteworthy that the most gripping production of the year was a musical created in reaction to the nightmarish conditions of apartheid in South Africa. With the force of its music and sentiment, the combined talents of Anne Bogart, Jeffrey Kahane and the LA Chamber Orchestra, and a marvelous roster of singers, this beautifully staged production was acutely relevant to our own troubling times.
Other opera productions of note included three from Los Angeles Opera. With powerhouse performances by Liudmyla Monastyrska, Plácido Domingo and Morris Robinson, Nabucco was a high point for the company. Conductor James Conlon, Chorus Director Grant Gershon and General Director Domingo continue to fashion LA Opera into the top tier arts institution it has become. A reimagined staging of The Pearl Fishers offered Bizet’s exquisite melodies, and LAO’s charming version of The Tales of Hoffmann presented the effervescent Vittorio Grigolo singing the title role, along with Diana Damrau as Antonia. So Young Park was outstanding in 2017 both as Olympia in Hoffmann and Blonde in Abduction from the Seraglio.
Perhaps the quirkiest operatic event of the year, aside from Yuval Sharon and Annie Gosfield’s War of the Worlds, was South African artist William Kentridge’s Refuse the Hour, a multimedia chamber opera with music by Philip Miller and choreography by Dada Masilo. The stage, alive with Kentridge’s vivid animation, drawing and sculpture, became a gleeful, absurdist cabaret with Kentridge himself as master of ceremonies.
In dance, the most dramatic production of the year was Akram Kahn’s mythic Until the Lions, danced in the round on a Culver City soundstage, while the most subtle and poetic performance was Trisha Brown’s company dancing a program of her works entitled In Plain Site at Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Other highlights included the spirited Malpaso Dance Company from Havana with their abundantly gifted performers; Tiler Peck and Marcelo Gomes in Balanchine’s Allegro Brillante, part of BalletNOW at the Dorothy Chandler; Daniel Ezralow’s Foreign Tales and crowd-pleasing Chroma; and lastly, Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre with Hope Boykin’s r-Evolution, Dream and Robert Battle’s delightful Ella. And, of course, Ailey’s own Revelations, because it’s an American classic and never grows old.
JOHN QUINN – I’ve not attended as many concerts as usual this year but, by compensation, there hasn’t been a dud amongst those I have heard.
As usual, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s concerts in Symphony Hall have produced a number of excellent experiences. I had hoped to hear the orchestra’s charismatic MD, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conduct Rachmaninov’s Third Symphony in April but illness compelled her to withdraw. At short notice Andrew Gourlay stepped in and led a fine account of the symphony (review). More Rachmaninov was on the menu a few weeks later when the young American conductor, Karina Canellakis made her CBSO debut. Her fascinating programme culminated in a spectacular performance of the masterly Symphonic Dances (review). In September Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla opened the CBSO’s 2017/18 season with a wonderfully engaging and fresh account of Haydn’s great masterpiece, Creation. This hugely enjoyable evening was particularly notable for a very fine contribution from the CBSO Chorus (review).
In May I went to the lovely Cotswold market town of Chipping Campden to hear Roderick Williams and Iain Burnside in a fine and insightful traversal of Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin (review).
Otherwise, my concert-going was confined to the Three Choirs Festival, held this year in Worcester. I greatly enjoyed hearing Jonathan Dove’s There was a Child performed by the Three Choirs Festival Youth Choir and the Three Cathedral Choir Choristers. These young singers made a fine job of this piece, which will have been new to them all, I’m sure (review). I heard some other good concerts at the Festival but the most revelatory performance I heard was of a work that until few years ago would have been unlikely Three Choirs repertoire. In keeping with the Festival’s theme of ‘1917’ Adrian Partington and the Philharmonia played Shostakovich’s 12th Symphony, ‘The Year 1917’. Though I am a great admirer of Shostakovich I have never rated this work particularly highly. However, the gripping, exciting and highly committed performance that I heard in Worcester Cathedral caused me to admire this symphony much more (review).