Seen and Heard’s Best of 2018
Rafael de Acha
Here is, in random order, my list of musical favorites for 2018.
In the Cincinnati Opera’s As One, an intriguing chamber work about the journey of a transgender person, by Laura Kaminsky, Mark Campbell, and Kimberly Reed, an impressive pair of singing actors, Matthew Worth and Amber Frasquelle played the before and after Hannah. Robin Guarino handled the material sensitively and intelligently, helping to craft a straightforward and elegant production.
In the Cincinnati Opera’s La traviata, Norah Amsellem, a stunning French soprano, would have made Verdi very happy. Her film star looks and her dramatic and vocal gifts made her utterly convincing as the high-class toast of tout Paris in the elegant production designed by Desmond Heeley.
Cello virtuoso Coleman Itzkoff mined the profound sadness of Elgar’s Cello Concerto with utmost intensity. Eckart Preu provided top-notch leadership at the helm of the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra which continues to surprise with its ever more cohesive sound.
The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra gave the world premiere of Mexican composer Enrico Chapela’s Radioaxial, a massively scored work that alternates moments of aural density pockets of streamlined lyricism and crystal clarity.
Daniel Weeks and Donna Loewy made magic happen on the stage of Werner Recital Hall in a recital of songs in German, Spanish and English. The two artists pulled this off not through sleight of hand but by means of musicality, technique and artistry, mercifully breaking free of the tired formality of the concert platform and spicing up the evening with humor and theatricality.
Immaculata Church in Mt. Adams opened its inaugural Chamber Music Series with a nameless group of string players assembled into what we hope will be a permanent ensemble, playing a vigorously vibrant Octet by Mendelssohn. In a city rich in chamber music offerings, it is difficult for an ensemble of young players to establish an identity and make a mark. This one did.
In a concert that paid homage to Leonard Bernstein and several of his friends, the CCM Concert Orchestra opened with the single-movement Sinfonia India, by Carlos Chavez. Led by Aik Khai Pung, the ensemble gave an inspired reading of the 12-minute work, ending with a jarabe tapatio dance taken at warp speed that all but raised the roof of Corbett Auditorium.
Anniversaries too often prove a lazy way to programme. Sometimes, though, especially in the case of composers in need of rediscovery, they afford excellent opportunities. Such has been in the case of Karlheinz Stockhausen, latterly overlooked in favour of other post-war avant gardists. His ninetieth birthday has brought forth a number of outstanding performances. (One excellent thing about Stockhausen’s music in performance is the consistently high quality of performance. Either you can do it well, it seems, or you do not do it at all.) A standing rebuke to those who would fashionably claim that the later Stockhausen, the Stockhausen of the Licht operas, had gone off the boil – usually one discovers that they do not even know the later music – was provided by Paris’s Opéra Comique and Le Balcon, in a truly unforgettable staging of Donnerstag. Two concerts in particular from this year’s Musikfest Berlin had the composer from Sirius shine almost as brightly as his star itself: Mantra from Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich, and a truly once-in-a-lifetime – I hope I am wrong – performance from Aimard of the first eleven Klaverstücke.
Another anniversary composer, Bernd Alois Zimmermann, in this case celebrating his hundredth birthday, featured in an altogether magnificent concert from Håkan Hardenberger, the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, and John Storgårds in Vienna, Gunther Schuller and Dvořak the other composers. Debussy may be less in need of special exposure, but the centenary of his death brought a good number of excellent performances, from which I shall choose a January concert from the LSO and François-Xavier Roth. Jeux in as comprehending an account as that is never something to be taken for granted.
Returning to opera, the Festival d’Aix en Provence offered a splendid staging, broadly what one might call ‘modern conventional’, yet excellent of its kind, of Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel. Katie Mitchell had gone one further the previous night, with a long overdue feminist reassessment of Ariadne auf Naxos, also notable for a superlative performance of the title role from Lise Davidsen. Over to Salzburg and Hans Neuenfels showed that he very much still has ‘it’ in his new production of The Queen of Spades, Mariss Jansons and the Vienna Philharmonic in the pit, a fine cast to boot. Indeed, this proved a vintage year for Salzburg opera – an appalling Magic Flute notwithstanding – with excellent new stagings of Henze (The Bassarids, Krzysztof Warlikowski) and Monteverdi (L’incoronazione di Poppea, Jan Lauwers).
Earlier in the year, the Royal Opera House’s world premiere performances of George Benjamin’s Lessons in Love and Violence revealed another towering operatic masterpiece from the composer. Fashionable voices said otherwise; they are no more to be heeded than in Stockhausen’s case. The Royal Opera’s new From the House of the Dead (Warlikowski again, in a long awaited house premiere) also shone, not least on account of Mark Wigglesworth’s typically first-rate conducting. Daniel Barenboim conducted Tristan und Isolde in a new, truly thought-provoking production – sad to say, much misunderstood – by Dmitri Tcherniakov. Also at the Berlin Staatsoper, now rightly returned to its home on Unter den Linden, came a further Neuenfels hit: Salome that announced to all the world in neon lights: ‘Wilde is Coming’.
I always look out for Schoenberg performances. This year, the Dresden Semperoper offered perhaps the finest staging I have yet seen of Moses und Aron, directed by Calixto Bieito. What a joy, moreover, to hear the great Staatskapelle Dresden in such music! Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Philharmonia in Gurrelieder brought shivers to the spine and (many) tears to the eyes: another outstanding performance from a consistently excellent team.
The Wigmore Hall is reliably the best concert venue in London, arguably the greatest chamber music venue in the world. Highlights included a wonderful evening of string quartet music by Schubert, Webern, and Haydn from the Hagen Quartet, and more than one evening of Bach from Mahan Esfahani. From the latter, I shall somewhat arbitrarily choose this concert in June. Esfahani’s survey of the complete Bach harpsichord works continues next year. Igor Levit’s concert for Frederic Rzewski’s eightieth birthday, including a Rzewski premiere, cannot fail to be included in any such survey. Pavel Kolesnikov’s wonderfully imaginative – and coherent! – programme of piano works from Louis Couperin to Lachenmann also lingers long in the mind. So too does an evening of Haydn from the Jerusalem Quartet.
Other instrumental and chamber highlights included hearing the Alban Berg Ensemble Wien (drawn from the Vienna Philharmonic) at the inaugural BERGfrühling festival by Carinthia’s Lake Ossiach. From that, I shall opt for a concert of Debussy, Webern, and Mozart. Quite a year then: onwards and upwards…
Another pair of fine Philadelphia seasons gave us great singing in both opera and recital, excellent performances of English chamber music by the youthful Heath Quartet in its local debut, and some superb piano playing, including not just one but two outstanding performances of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto. Here, cannibalizing copiously from my original reviews, is an account of my top choices for the year.
As a distinguished conductor who happened to occupy the seat next to mine at a Carnegie Hall recital by Ivan Moravec some years ago justly observed during the intermission, one of the most salient features of the great Czech master’s playing was the attention it bestowed on the harmonic pulse of the music. A comparable quality made Imogen Cooper’s Philadelphia Chamber Music Society recital (click here) one of the most riveting and illuminating in my recent experience. She managed, without resorting to interpretative idiosyncracy, to shine on the three classical works on her program, including Schubert’s late C minor Sonata – works I thought I knew well – a light that revealed aspects of them I had not previously been conscious of.
The 20th century, meanwhile, contributed Darknesse Visible, Thomas Adès’s response to a lute song by John Dowland, his forerunner by more than four centuries. This 1992 composition is deeply thoughtful yet enlivened at various points by rhetorical single notes that Ms. Cooper projected with striking force and accuracy. She then segued directly into Beethoven’s A-flat major Sonata, with subtle dramatic effect.
Whereas in Mozart I had found Daniil Trifonov ‘seemingly content merely to play the notes without contributing much in the way of personal insight into their meaning as music,’ Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto drew from him (click here) an abundance of involvement in the composer’s emotional and often passionately dramatic intensity. This was a performance that fully matched the quality of the two finest among previous accounts of the work that I have encountered in concert – by Alexis Weissenberg back around 1970, and just a couple of years ago by Barry Douglas.
Everything conspired to make this Curtis Symphony Orchestra concert in Verizon (click here) at once a worthy celebration of Gary Graffman’s 90th birthday and a musical experience worthy of the much loved former Curtis Institute president’s lofty standards. And it featured another performance of Rachmaninoff 3 that immediately joins those mentioned above in my pantheon of classic interpretations. Now 28-years-old, Haochen Zhang–a native of Shanghai, and a former student of Gary Graffman – had already carried off the gold medal at the 2009 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition when he graduated three years later from Curtis. Happily, he is not one of those keyboard lions that feel obliged to constantly roar.
Possessed of a no less intense seriousness (leavened by disarming flashes of humor), conductor Giancarlo Guerrero, whose manner on the podium is at once authoritative and at the same time warmly collaborative, seems to be at home in a wide range of styles. When the music wants to dance, he dances with it, though never overdoing body language to the point of distraction. The exceptional clarity of balance he brought to the Rachmaninoff, allowing woodwinds and brass to sing through the texture, quickly established the concerto’s unexpected aptness as a sympathetic program partner to Augusta Scott Thomas’s aptly titled Brio. Opening the afternoon’s proceedings under the direction of conducting fellow Yue Bao, who led it with impressive panache and much technical skill, this lithe and sparkling piece had provided 11 minutes of effervescence to set the festive ball rolling.
If this Philadelphia Chamber Music Society recital (click here) had merely presented us with an outpouring from a gorgeous bass-baritone voice, the evening would have been delight enough. The same would have been the case even if the artistic impetus had come exclusively from a superb partner at the keyboard. Not only, however, is Gerald Finley a great singer, and not only is Julius Drake a great pianist, but the two of them constitute a partnership whose rare vitality, subtlety, technical audacity, and profound musical understanding all blend in a combination that might not inappropriately be described as ‘greatness-squared’.
From the beginning, in four Goethe settings by Beethoven and the eight by Schubert that followed, I was astonished by the apparent (but doubtless meticulously prepared) spontaneity with which singer and pianist tossed ideas at each other, each profiting from what he had been offered and taking it in a new and often surprising direction of his own.
I am no judge of Russian pronunciation, but the Beethoven and Schubert half of the program demonstrated also the singer’s masterful diction in German texts. Governing everything the partners did was an expressive and dynamic range encompassing the utmost quietude and fortissimos of equally extraordinary force, with Finley summoning up seemingly inexhaustible power and Drake alternating between pianissimos that verged on inaudibility without crossing that line and explosions of fortissimo that took this listener’s – if fortunately not the singer’s – breath away.
Returning to the stage after intermission, Finley urbanely observed ‘and now for something completely different’. The Monty Pythonesque tag-line was certainly justified by the Russian songs’ shift of method from the verbal emphases of Schubert to the more smoothly continuous textural effects of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. The last four songs on the official program were described in the program book as ‘favorite folksongs – to be announced from the stage’. In reality, they turned out to be not folksongs in the pure sense of the word, but thoroughly art-song-like arrangements by four eminent composers, Copland, Barber, Britten, and the too long underrated Respighi. After this segment of the program, which amounted to a sequence of semi-encores, the real encore followed, Britten returning with ‘Bird-Scarer’s Song,’ whose abrupt ending confirmed Finley’s and Drake’s shared gift for comedy. It served as a suitably light-hearted go-home instruction to the highly satisfied audience.
The Heath Quartet’s debut Philadelphia Chamber Music Society appearance in November (click here) offered exemplary performances of three important and purely English works, prefaced by an informative spoken introduction by Thomas Schuttenhelm. In the 16 years since the group’s formation, first violinist Oliver Heath, violist Gary Pomeroy, and cellist Chris Murray have achieved an immaculate balance of lustrous individual tone with a cohesive ensemble sound, and on this occasion, standing in for second violinist Sara Wolstenholme (who was on maternity leave), Natalie Klouda blended impeccably with the various talents of her three colleagues.
Michael Tippett’s Fifth (and last) String Quartet, a tautly argued and searchingly lyrical work, opened the program, and I was immediately impressed by Chris Murray’s cello tone. At once richly resonant and subtly inflected, it reminded me that Tippett wrote the quartet (in his mid-80s) for the now sadly disbanded Lindsay String Quartet, and I wondered whether the similarly sumptuous tone of that ensemble’s superb cellist, Bernard Gregor-Smith, might have provided a model for Murray’s contribution to this powerful performance.
Tippett’s friend and colleague Benjamin Britten had what might be called one and a half spots on the program, his arrangement of Purcell’s monumental Chacony being followed by the second of his own three string quartets, which ends with an equally ambitious Chacony. Essentially identical with the passacaglia, this was a form especially dear to Britten’s heart, as it was also for Shostakovich, and their shared preoccupation with it was perhaps partly to be credited for the close personal and professional sympathy that burgeoned in the two men’s late years. The Heath Quartet had the measure both of this movement’s profound eloquence and of the more mercurial qualities of the two movements that precede it.
What the Philadelphia Orchestra offered with this Tosca (click here) stood somewhere between a pure concert performance and a semi-staging. There were appropriate costumes, modest lighting effects, and a fairly rudimentary set, centered on a walkway complete with handrail behind and above the orchestra.
Director James Alexander deployed his cast skillfully. Admittedly the various characters’ understandable hanging onto the handrail every time they traversed the flimsy-looking walkway created a rather repetitive visual effect; and it was equally understandable that, faced with the impossible challenge, in the concert-hall setting, of staging Tosca’s story-ending leap from the battlements to her death, the director clearly decided that discretion was the better part of valor, and allowed her instead a dignified retreat up the long staircase on stage right. We were left, perhaps, to picture her for the rest of her life lighting commemorative candles and shedding a silent tear on each anniversary of her beloved’s demise. Nevertheless, the support of a cast of which every member–the comprimari as well as the front-line principals–was tirelessly faithful to the character of his or her role and to its function in the plot – sadly topical with its focus on an egregious act of sexual harassment – enabled Alexander to realize successfully a conception of the opera that was lucid and refreshingly uneccentric.
I was probably not alone in wondering how Ambrogio Maestri, admired by many for his unrivaled Falstaff – a portrayal rich in humor, lovable humanity, and, in the denouement, compelling pathos – would fare in a role of so radically different a character as Scarpia. We need not have worried. I would not dream for a moment, in these days of the #MeToo movement, of suggesting that the police chief’s lecherous villainy was forgivable, but Maestri masterfully rendered it at least understandable, and he sang the part with a voice as regally sumptuous as ever. Jennifer Rowley, a late replacement for the indisposed Sonya Yoncheva as Tosca, gave us a spellbinding and ravishingly lovely account of ‘Vissi d’arte,’ which I would unhesitatingly call the greatest aria Puccini ever wrote, if it were not for the rival claim of ‘E lucevan le stelle’–and (let me be fair to operas of his that I love much less) the claims also of ‘Un bel di’ in Madama Butterfly and ‘Che gelida manina’ in La bohème. Yuzif Eyvazov was a Cavaradossi of similar quality both dramatically and vocally.
Featuring the comparably fine voices of Richard Bernstein as Angelotti and Kevin Burdette as the Sacristan, and enhanced by the phenomenal power and beauty Yannick Nézet-Séguin drew from his orchestral and choral forces, this amounted to the best-sung Tosca I can remember hearing (though Maria Callas’s Tosca remains unforgettable, and having once heard her bloodcurdling ‘Quanto? Il prezzo?’ I find it hard to listen to any other soprano’s delivery of that line).
In his thought-provoking and brilliantly aphoristic book Piano Pieces, Russell Sherman insists that taking risks is a vital element in any worthwhile musical performance. When I interviewed Hélène Grimaud for Fanfare Magazine in the autumn of 2000 and sought her views on the emotional side of music-making, I was delighted to find her asserting the same principle: ‘If that isn’t there, then . . . then I’m not sure what the justification is for doing it. And risk-taking, and putting everything on the line–otherwise who needs to get out there?’
Not quite 30 years old, the French-born, US-domiciled pianist struck me then as someone who had a clearer idea of who she was and what she was about than anyone else of comparable youth I had ever encountered. Now, 18 years later, though refreshingly free from any trace of pretentiousness or arrogance, she has established herself as one of the world’s preeminent pianists while solidifying her reputation as a musician with an unusually firm grasp of style and content in the music she performs.
Her two-week residency in May, featuring performances of Brahms’s First Piano Concerto and Beethoven’s Fourth, served as a mouth-watering foretaste of the Philadelphia tour that duly followed (click here). I had already loved Grimaud’s recording of the Beethoven, but as I frankly confessed during our conversation back in 2000, I had my reservations about the Brahms D minor: with an unusually slow tempo for the opening Maestoso (though not as slow as Glenn Gould’s in his controversial recording with Leonard Bernstein), it seemed to present two slow movements in a row, the first of them lacking a sense of forward motion.
Grimaud’s playing of the Beethoven Fourth had all the verve and color she and Kurt Masur brought to their 1997 collaboration. Possessed of a perfectly magisterial technique, she can make warm and beautiful sounds at the very top of the keyboard, where all too many pianists merely tinkle; her way with emphatic notes in the bass is at once formidable in its power yet never harsh in tone; in the middle register, everything she touches she renders with beguiling grace and expressivity; and she commands a positively awesome crescendo when that is called for.
Speaking of awesome crescendos, timpanist Don Liuzzi produced some that were among the highlights of consistently superb orchestral playing in the Brahms D minor work. Grimaud’s first movement this time was truly majestic, where all those years ago I had found it sluggish under her hands. It is worth noting that the tempo was not very different from that of her 1997 recording, yet it did indeed move, thus interestingly demonstrating that mere tempo is less of a determining factor in the success of a performance than subtle nuances of pulse. The central Adagio, contrasting more strongly with the Maestoso, was thereby set free to make a much more touching impression than before, and Grimaud’s tigerish attack in the finale was as riveting as it already was when it made that movement the most compelling part of the older performance. Altogether Grimaud must surely now be counted among the very finest exponents of the work.
Among the many performances of Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto I have heard since the great Solomon gave me my first overwhelming taste of the work about 60 years ago, one that stands out with the highest vividness in my memory, given in Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw some three decades later with Emanuel Ax as soloist and Esa-Pekka Salonen on the podium found soloist and conductor united in a shared commitment to the interpretative tone of Olympian calm and grandeur that I had found in Solomon’s magisterial reading all those years earlier.
In strong and fascinating contrast, Ax’s performance in December (click here) was one of those concerto performances notable for the enlivening difference between the soloist’s and the conductor’s views of the work. Ax played with all the virtues we expect from one of the finest musicians of our time, ranging from honeyed sweetness in the quieter passages to granitic strength when the music demanded it, and enhanced throughout by unfailing clarity of articulation, grace of phrasing, and discretion in the use of the pedal. Nézet-Séguin, on the other hand, took a strikingly unusual approach to the concerto. In place of the sumptuous sonorities we habitually associate with it, he drew from the orchestra a lean, almost ascetic sound, replacing much of the music’s element of expansive warmth with an often-slashing impetus.
Unity of conception is often cited as an argument for concerto performances in which soloist and conductor are one person, and that is a valid argument. But where great music is concerned, no single approach can cover all expressive bases. One of the most stimulating performances I have ever experienced brought a revealing contrast between Murray Perahia’s conception of Mozart’s D minor Concerto and Riccardo Muti’s very different understanding of it, and their contrasting tempos helped me to focus on two different but mutually illuminating aspects of the work.
My late Uncle Marky is said to have remarked to his wife, ‘You remind me of Marilyn Monroe — you’re so different!’ In life in general, coming to grips with the dominant characteristics of someone’s personality can certainly help us to understand those in another person’s make-up better, and the same principle holds true with music. This concert’s friendly interplay between soloist and conductor brought out for me the line of Brahmsian descent that links the composer’s two piano concertos together in a way I had not previously considered. No.2, with its familiar quality of sumptuous tranquility, and No.1, which evokes something like the atmosphere of Sturm und Drang, are yet, despite those differences, clearly the work of the same many-faceted man, and conductor and orchestra did their own part in underlining the fertile reciprocity of these characteristics.
The second half of the concert began with the United States premiere of an attractive piece titled Perspectives by the 42-year-old British Columbia native Stacey Brown. Written in an idiom partly tonal and freely chromatic, it moves convincingly from one musical idea to the next and uses the orchestra with a light and frequently imaginative hand, while its more emphatic moments provide satisfying contrast without going to dynamic extremes.
Coupling Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto on a program with his protégé Dvorák’s Seventh Symphony was a clever idea: as far as its ninth note, the second subject of the symphony’s first movement shares exactly the melodic shape of the solo cello theme that opens the concerto’s Andante, though without any parallel to that marvelous creation’s subtle rhythmic complexity. And as for that absorbing performance of the Brahms — well, it wasn’t the way I would wish always to hear the work played, but it was irresistibly thought-provoking, and thus cherishable in its own right.
Jonathan Spencer Jones
What with personal travel and a curtailment and changes in some press allocations at the Teatro Colón, Seen and Heard’s coverage of the 2018 Buenos Aires opera scene has not been as comprehensive as would have been liked.
Nevertheless, out of the works seen, there was one very clear highlight, and from what appears to be the last of the annual ‘festivals’ presided over by Daniel Barenboim, which have taken place over the past five years. In the first in 2014, the operatic contribution was a concert production of extracts from Tristan und Isolde, and finally in 2018 we were rewarded with the full work.
The Harry Kupfer production from the Staatsoper in Berlin with its central, giant fallen angel imagery included the Staatskapelle orchestra and an impressive cast including Peter Seiffert as an ‘older’ Tristan, Iréne Theorin as a commanding Isolde, Angela Denoke an intense Brangäne and Kwangchul Youn a noble King Marke. Though dating it appears from the late-1990s, the production didn’t appear dated and from the opening notes it was clear that we were in for an outstanding presentation from a scoreless Barenboim and a top orchestra, as I put it in the review: ‘Neither too fast nor too slow, the command was absolute, building up and drawing out the ebb and flow of the drama from first note to last.’
Of the independents, I managed to catch only the first of Juventus Lyrica’s three offerings, a new production of Die Fledermaus. Masterful direction, period dress, thoughtful lighting and an energetic cast of young singers brought all the sparkle and fun that the work requires.
Although outside the formal opera circuit, mention also should be made of the achievement of the 10th anniversary of the private Opera para Todos (Opera for All) in 2018. Constituted by pianist, musicologist, broadcaster and author of the ‘[composer] es para todos’ series of books, Carlos Alberto Alonso, monthly recitals with local singers are offered to a select audience in their home and in other venues around the city. Among other notable events, the latest book ‘Puccini es para todos’ was presented at the Puccini Museum in Torre del Lago at the invitation of the late Simonetta Puccini shortly before her death in December 2017.
Mark Sebastian Jordan
Northeast Ohio saw some tremendous musical performances in 2018 as two major ensembles came off major anniversary years: the Cleveland Orchestra at 100, and Apollo’s Fire at 25.
For sheer creative brilliance, Apollo’s Fire triumphed. From a haunting semi-staged version of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, to vital Mozart both rare and familiar (Idomeneo ballet music and the Fortieth Symphony, respectively), Jeannette Sorrell’s period-instrument ensemble continues to grow to new heights with performances of startling commitment. This is a group that makes standing up for the Hallelujah Chorus in Handel’s Messiah not merely a tradition, but an irresistible urge. Most important of all was Sorrell’s new program, ‘O, Jerusalem!’, juxtaposing music from the cultural and religious crossroads of the Middle East. Many artists talk about fostering understanding to create a better world; Sorrell and company actually do something about it.
The Cleveland Orchestra debuted in November of 1918, so throughout this year, they’ve been celebrating their centennial. Music director Franz Welser-Möst has engineered creative programming throughout the period, including vivid U.S. premieres of works by Johannes Maria Staud (Stromab, a scary horror story for orchestra) and Hans Abrahemsen (Left Alone, an aphoristic piano concerto featuring Alexandre Tharaud). Welser-Möst’s most impressive moment in traditional repertory was a bold interpretation of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony that threw emphasis on to the middle movements and closed with an unusually warm approach to the Adagio finale.
The most impressive Cleveland Orchestra concerts of the year, though, came from two separate appearances by guest conductor Jakub Hrůša. In April, he brought Josef Suk’s Asrael Symphony to Severance Hall for only the third time in its history, the most recent occasion being almost thirty years ago. The dark but astonishingly creative work came to life in Hrůša’s hands. In November, he returned to lead an electric rendition of Shostakovich’s Fifth, with the considerable bonus of a rare work by Shostakovich’s Czech contemporary Miloslav Kabelač, Mystery of Time, a dark passacaglia. The Hrůša concerts suggest he could have a substantial future with this orchestra.
Other vivid guest conducting moments came from John Adams, leading the local premiere of his frightening and compelling Scheherazade.2 with Leila Josefowicz as violin soloist; seasoned master Herbert Blomstedt with an easily authoritative Brahms Fourth (the highlight of the summer season at Blossom Music Center); and Nikolai Szeps-Znaider, in his conducting debut, giving Elgar’s Second Symphony a movingly heroic outing.
Notable guest soloist appearances with the Cleveland Orchestra also included Christian Tetzlaff’s very personal Berg Violin Concerto with Ingo Metzmacher conducting, Simon Trpčeski’s wickedly witty Rachmaninoff Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with Vasily Petrenko conducting, and Sergey Khachatryan’s laser-like intensity in Brahms’s Violin Concerto with Hrůša. The unaccompanied solo concert of the year was at Blossom, with Yo-Yo Ma’s masterful marathon concert of Bach’s complete cello suites.
Last, but by no means least, I must mention a concert by the Canton Symphony, a hidden gem that has been polished to a gleam by Gerhardt Zimmermann over the last 38 years. Canton is a small rust belt city, but under Zimmermann, they hit far above their weight class. I was privileged to hear them in a tribute to Leonard Bernstein, including a semi-staged performance of Trouble in Tahiti, and the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. Tom Wachunas regularly covers their concerts for S&H.
My submission is my review of a milestone in the history of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra celebrated this year with this magnificent concert (review click here) in which the premiere of a new Turnage work was the culmination of a close collaboration between the composer and the conductor of Testament’s premiere, Kirill Karabits.
Through discussions between composer and conductor, it was decided that Testament should be related to Karabits’s homeland, the Ukraine. Turnage remarked, ‘I decided to write a score focused on themes of displacement, conflict and the particular political history of Ukraine which has often suffered oppression under the Russians…’
The dedicatees, the BSO, gave a totally committed and fervent performance and soprano, Natalya Romaniw, sang with grace and conviction, colouring her voice according to the sentiments of each movement.
The concert also included the Symphonic Suite from Prokofiev’s opera, War and Peace, composed during and just after World War II and under the strict communist artistic strictures of the time. Much of the music consists of that for the dances in the famous ball scene. The ‘Intermezzo-May Night’, beautifully, passionately romantic but tinged with restraint and a sense of impending catastrophe, was played by more than one lady in the orchestra’s string section with exceptional feeling. The ‘Battle’ music and ‘Victory’ music were inspirational and again performed with the utmost zeal,
Sokolov came on stage of Salzburg’ Grosses Festspielhaus to play a series of wonderful Haydn Sonatas. As per his usual habits, Sokolov played all movements of all works without any pause. The hall lights were dimmed. Phrasing, velvety tone, balance, pulsation and the audience was in rapture. Then, my wife and I heard an unusual noise which we at first thought was someone unwrapping some confectionery. We gazed at each with a look that summarized our outrage at philistines being everywhere even in Salzburg for a Sokolov recital. But the noise continued, and it felt more like water falling and a few minutes, yes minutes after, members of the audience in the first half of the parterre stood from their center seats and walked into the aisle. Everyone understood then that the particularly heavy storm had caused water to leak from the roof. But Sokolov kept playing as if nothing was happening. The music was flowing as naturally as the water from the roof. Was he even aware of the unusual circumstances? Sokolov’s playing was short of miraculous and yes, artists are not normal people.
My ‘day-work’ took me to Munich and allowed me to attend the last historical Schenck–Rose production of the Der Rosenkavalier. Plato would have called it the ‘idea’ of Rosenkavalier as it was so close to what Strauss and Hofmannsthal might have had in mind. I first saw it in 1981 at the standing seats under the baton of Carlos Kleiber. Jones, Fassbaender, Popp, Moll sang and in March, their worthy successors were Piezoncka, Brower, Müller and Rose with Kirill Petrenko conducting: his swift tempi in Act I was a revelation. Jürgen Rose flew in to be in the audience. A page was turned.
I cannot however avoid making a reference to our troubled world. I was last month in Boston the week after the shooting in the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue. It was also the week before the midterm’s election. The aggressivity between the various divisions was striking to the peaceful consensual Swiss which I am. I went to hear Mahler’s Second Symphony with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Andris Nelsons. Before starting the work, Nelsons addressed the audience and dedicated this performance to the victims of the shooting. There was a minute of silence after which Mahler’s music resonated with a special sense of purpose and unity.
So yes, in 2018, music proved to be able to overcome storms, make history but above all soothe the most harrowing circumstances.
I employ something like the Gramophone’s ‘Awards by Category’ format again this year, which identifies the ‘most memorable’ Vancouver performances in 2018, relative to genre. More than one performance will typically be nominated for each given category. The review link is off the title; each review has been published in a slightly different form on www.vanclassicalmusic.com.
In addition to several very fine orchestral concerts and three new music festivals, it was the piano recitals and the early music events that particularly stood out this year.
Best Orchestral/Concerto: Wonderful Strength and Cohesion in Yefim Bronfman’s Brahms (December); Scintillating Tchaikovsky from Xian Zhang (November); Striking Coherence in Karen Gomyo’s Brahms (October); Karina Canellakis and Esther Yoo Combine for a Concert of Warmth and Beauty (April); Constantin Trinks Brings Strength and Spirit to Schubert and Wagner (April); A Glowing Bruckner Third Symphony from Michael Sanderling (March)
Best Chamber Music: Delightful Sextets from the Jerusalem Quartet and Friends (October); A Very Satisfying Debut for the Benedetti Elschenbroich Grynyuk Trio (April)
Best Piano Recital: Angela Hewitt Takes The Well-Tempered Clavier Another Step Forward (July); Sir András Schiff’s Enrichening Private World Reaches to Brahms (April); A Riveting Festival of Pianism from Rafal Blechacz (April); A Revealing Distillation of ‘Life’ from Igor Levitt (November); The Intense Delights of ‘The Gavrylyuk Experience’ (May); More Exalted Pianism from Marc-André Hamelin (March)
Best Lieder Recital: Vocal Splendour and Charm from Soprano Tara Erraught (January); Keenlyside and Martineau on Top Form in German and French Repertoire (November)
Best Early Music: Reverence and Distilled Beauty from Masaaki Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan (December); Inspiring and Memorable Vivaldi from Enrico Onofri and Pacific Baroque (September); An Uplifting ‘War and Peace’ Commemoration from the Tallis Scholars (April); Gli Angeli Genève Finds Strength and Colour in Bach’s Cantatas (August)
Best New Music: A New Music Festival Distinguished by its Premieres and Soloists (January); Vancouver New Music’s ‘Quartetti’ Festival: Recharging the Contemporary String Quartet (October)
Best Canadian: Jan Lisiecki Finds Pianistic Splendour in the Morning (January); Choral Soundscapes Celebrate R. Murray Schafer’s 85th Birthday (July)
2018 was the Bernstein centenary year and I was fortunate to hear performances of his works in locations that were important to him both personally and artistically. At Carnegie Hall, Paul Appleby was an ideal Candide, the Philadelphia Orchestra performed Chichester Psalms and the Boston Symphony Orchestra presented Symphony No.2 The Age of Anxiety. The Mostly Mozart Festival presented a semi-stage version of Mass while the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he studied, staged A Quiet Place. Topping it off was Tanglewood’s star-studded celebration on his actual birthday, August 25, where I had also heard Songfest earlier in the summer. The festivities could go on for another year as far as I am concerned. There is still much ground to cover.
One of the most exciting spaces in the American musical scene is new opera and these three, as different as can be, merit inclusion on the list. Kamal Sankaram and David Johnston’s Monkey and Francine in the City of Tigers that I heard in a presented in concert by the American Lyric Theater was just a riot. Opera Philadelphia’s Festival O18 saw the premiere of Lembit Beecher’s Alzheimer’s Sky on Swings with Frederica von Stade and Marietta Simpson tackling one of the challenges of our day: living with Alzheimer’s Disease. While David Herzberg’s The Rose Elf opera presented by The Angel’s Share in conjunction with New York Opera Fest in the Catacombs of Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Symphony was remarkable on many levels musically and dramatically.
For voice recitals, two tenors in recital at Carnegie Hall were tops: Jonas Kaufmann singing Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin and the Juan Diego Flórez hitting one high C after another and ending with seventh encore.
I don’t see that much of the standard opera repertoire in the US, but the phenomenal young mezzo-soprano Emily D’Angelo made Glimmerglass Opera’s The Barber of Seville especially memorable, while Meghan Kasanders as Magda Sorel singing ‘To this we’ve come’ in Opera Saratoga’s The Consul is indelibly imprinted in my mind.
How do you choose from the great orchestras of the world that perform at Carnegie Hall? The winner is Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique in a macabre and magnificent performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. At Washington DC’s 2018 SHIFT Festival, just as revolutionary was the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra conducted by its music director Krzysztof Urbański performing Lutosławski’s Concerto for Cello and Orchestra with the phenomenal cellist Alisa Weilerstein.
On my foreign travels there were two standouts. Neither production was new, but it was my first time for both. Mariusz Treliński’s well-traveled Madama Butterfly at the National Theatre in Warsaw was the most powerful performance of the Puccini opera that I have ever seen, while Jenůfa in Prague at the National Opera with Alžběta Poláčková in the title role was as authentic as it gets.
And keeping with the spirit of the season, On Site Opera’s Amahl and the Night Visitors was the best of all Christmas gifts.
With my eclectic interests there is so much to choose from and sorry to some wonderful performances that didn’t make the cut!
January – Angela Gheorghiu as Tosca at Covent Garden click here
February – Semyon Bychkov conducts the ‘Resurrection’ Symphony click here
March – Anna Netrebko as Lady Macbeth at Covent Garden click here
April – Aljaž Škorjanec and Janette Manrara in Remembering Fred click here
May – Anna Netrebko (again) and Yusif Eyvazov at the Royal Albert Hall click here
June – English National Ballet’s wonderful The Sleeping Beauty click here
July – Petra Lang is magnificent as Isolde at Bayreuth click here
August – Remarkable Wagner in the heart of Essex click here
September – Seeing and hearing Camelot again after a long time click here
October – A first visit to see the Musikverein and hear the VPO click here
November – Jonathan Miller’s classic La bohème for ENO click here
December – A musical version of A Christmas Carol click here
It was only when I came to look back over 2018 that I realised that my concert-going had been fairly limited during the year. In the first few months of the year I paid some visits to Symphony Hall in Birmingham. On one of those occasions I was very glad to have my first opportunity to experience in person the relatively new partnership of Sir Simon Rattle and the LSO. I’ve enjoyed quite a number of their broadcasts and their recordings on the LSO Live label but hearing them in the pristine acoustics of Symphony Hall was a rare treat – as, I suspect, it may well have been for the players. Their account of Mahler’s Ninth was, as I wrote in my review, ‘a performance of rare distinction and utterly compelling’. Rattle conducted marvellously and the LSO’s playing was a thing of wonder, especially in the last movement.
A few months later I was back in Birmingham, this time to hear the CBSO and guest conductor Ludovic Morlot in action. Their French programme had all the hallmarks of having been designed by and for their Music Director, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla before it was known that she would be on maternity leave by the time the concert took place. Ludovic Morlot proved to be a very fine deputy and I greatly enjoyed the performances he led of Debussy’s Nocturnes and Ravel’s complete Daphnis et Chloé ballet. Morlot also conducted Lili Boulanger’s Psalm 130: Du fond de l’abîme. This was, in fact, the third live performance of this musical cri de coeur that I’d heard in the space of three months. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla included it in an all-Boulanger first half of a CBSO concert in May. All the Boulanger performances, marking the centenary of her untimely death, were very fine but a poorly-judged account of the Fauré Requiem just disqualifies that concert from ranking as one of my Performances of the Year. Morlot was just as successful in his account of Boulanger’s dramatic and highly individual psalm setting as Miss Gražinytė-Tyla had been.
The Three Choirs Festival was held in Hereford this year. Festival Director Geraint Bowen laid on an enterprising programme. There were two intriguing rarities, both of them receiving their first performances at Three Choirs. Geraint Bowen conducted Dame Ethel Smyth’s Mass in D, which proved to be an uneven work but one that it was interesting to hear live. Guest conductor Sir Andrew Davis led a sterling performance of Elgar’s Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf. Sir Andrew was also on the podium for an all-Parry concert in honour of that composer’s centenary; the best work on that programme was the Fifth Symphony, a fine piece that deserves to be better known. I attended two stand-out concerts. A memorable and marvellously constructed afternoon concert by Nigel Short and Tenebrae included what was quite simply the finest live performance of Parry’s masterly Songs of Farewell that I have ever heard. The Festival also paid a centenary homage to Lili Boulanger, giving me another chance to hear her Du fond de l’abîme. This Three Choirs performance of Boulanger’s psalm setting was compelling, intense and dramatic and the imaginatively conceived programme also included a very fine performance by Timothy Ridout of Walton’s Viola Concerto.
The autumn brought two important, if very different, choral premieres. I hope I’ll be forgiven for cheating just once by referring to a concert which I didn’t actually attend. As the major work in an Armistice commemoration concert, the BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales gave the first complete performance of Stanford’s Mass Via Victrix. Astonishingly, the score was completed 99 years ago but only now has it achieved a full performance. I was unable to attend but I heard the subsequent broadcast relay. My colleague, Paul Corfield Godfrey was in the audience and his review gives an excellent flavour of what I thought was a fine and wholly committed performance. The Mass is an important work and it’s excellent news that this same performance is to be issued on CD by Lyrita in the near future.
The Stanford premiere was conducted by Adrian Partington, Artistic Director of the BBC National Chorus of Wales. A few days later Mr Partington was in Gloucester Cathedral, where he is Director of Music, to conduct, in a liturgical context, the first performance of Ian Venables’ Requiem. The work is for choir and organ. At the time of this performance it was incomplete: the last two movements remained to be written. (I understand that has now happened.) The Requiem strongly impressed me as an eloquent and beautifully crafted piece and it was expertly performed by the Gloucester Cathedral choir and organist Jonathan Hope. I look forward keenly to hearing the complete work as part of what I hope will be a fuller listening schedule in 2019.
Zurich’s musical year started, for me, with a most enjoyable revival of La fanciulla del West in a Barry Kosky production (click here). The concert season opened and almost closed with John Eliot Gardiner, not with Bach or Monteverdi, but Verdi’s Requiem, two high quality performances with different forces (click here and here).
In the first weeks of the year I watched a ‘Livestream’ from Munich Opera: Simon O’Neill (Siegmund), Anja Kampe (Sieglinde), Ain Anger (Hunding), Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde) and John Lundgren (Wotan). Kirill Petrenko conducted. I was not always convinced by the production but vocally it was all utterly splendid. Petrenko was a magician in the pit; the orchestra was astounding.
In January the concert highlight was Bychkov’s Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, breath-taking (click here). Paavo Järvi, soon to be Chief Conductor at the Tonhalle Zurich, also treated us to a rare performance of Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony, with the excellent Estonian Festival Orchestra (click here) and returned later in the year to conduct the Tonhalle in Brahms’ Second Symphony and Mahler’s Fifth (click here). Gatti (pre #MeToo scandal) brought us an uplifting ‘Rhenish’ (Schumann 3) with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (click here). Though he has been rehabilitated in Rome, will I ever see Gatti conduct again?
We had a surfeit of Brahms this year. Honeck stepped in for an ailing Haitink and impressed greatly with a performance of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony (click here) – surely, he must be a candidate to take over at the Concertgebouw and Thielemann then gave us the same symphony at the KKL Lucerne with the Dresdner Staatskapelle (click here), equally thrilling.
Lucerne’s Summer Festival also had highlights – the impeccable Boston Symphony Orchestra with Nelsons and Mahler’s Third Symphony (click here) and Shostakovich’s striking Fourth (click here). The LSO came twice to Switzerland with Sir Simon Rattle, to Zurich for a cogent Mahler’s Ninth (click here), to Lucerne for Janáček’s strident Sinfonietta (click here). It was my first experience of Kirill Petrenko and the Berliners, and memorable it was (click here). Exquisite Richard Strauss and a first-class Beethoven’s Seventh. Another British Orchestra came to town, the BBC SO with Oramo and another fine Mahler’s Ninth (click here).
On the choral front, I enjoyed an Elijah from Fabio Luisi and his Zurich opera house forces (click here) and a fine Bruckner Mass from the Zürcher Sing-Akademie (click here). At the International Bach-Fest I enjoyed an excellent St John Passion from the Chorus and Orchestra of the J.S. Bach-Stiftung (click here).
At the opera, the unexpected highlight turned out to be a spectacular production by Calixto Bieito of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea (click here).
On the keyboard, Igor Levit (click here) made a fine impression in Brahms’s First Piano Concerto.
I recently heard Sir Roger Norrington (and the Zurich Chamber Orchestra) bring to life Mendelssohn’s First Symphony; a remarkable work given the composer was 15 when he wrote it. Norrington, seated on a swivel chair throughout, turned round after almost each movement to encourage applause and gave a fascinating 10-minute introduction to the work.
And finally, just weeks ago, my personal highlight: with my amateur choir, the Gemischter Chor Zürich, I had the pleasure of singing Puccini’s Messa di Gloria with the Musikkollegium Winterthur at the Tonhalle in Zurich (click here). I did not know the Puccini before and got to know it as an excellent early work of Puccini’s. The Gloria section is particularly inventive and joyous: perfect Christmas fare.
2018 marked the hundredth birthday of Leonard Bernstein, and venues in Los Angeles were celebrating. At Disney Hall, Gustavo Dudamel marshaled the forces of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Master Chorale, Los Angeles Children’s Chorus and UCLA Wind Ensemble to tame the rousing beast called Mass, while Los Angeles Opera paid tribute to Bernstein with a glittering production of Candide.
In a year of strong opera productions from LAO, Satyagraha was unique for its staging by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch. In many ways, this production achieved what Robert Wilson did for Einstein on the Beach – music and meaning became inextricably linked to visual interpretation. Breathtaking sets and huge puppets created from humble materials brought Gandhi’s world to life, as did Sean Panikkar in the lead tenor role and Grant Gershon at the helm of the LAO Orchestra.
Ferruccio Furlanetto’s performance as King Philip II in LAO’s stirring Don Carlo was one of those operatic portraits that remain indelibly in the heart and mind. Plácido Domingo proved he was still a vital force in the baritone role of Rodrigo, while Anna Smirnova turned in a searing performance as Princess Eboli. Under James Conlon, a renowned interpreter of Verdi’s music, the orchestra was marvelous.
Other highlights at LAO included a powerfully staged and sung Rigoletto with Lisette Oropesa as Gilda who was also a luminous Eurydice in Gluck’s Orphée and Eurydice. Maxim Mironov was transporting in the high tenor role of Orphée in the production designed by John Neumeier.
Also in multiple operas this past year, Morris Robinson never failed to deliver his lush and textured bass in roles such as Sparafucile in Rigoletto or the Grand Inquisitor in Don Carlo. Soprano Liv Redpath – a talent to watch – delighted as Gretel in Humperdinck’s opera and shone as Amour in Orphée and Eurydice.
Thoroughly involving, the late Renaissance masterpiece, Lagrime di San Pietro, was staged by Peter Sellars and performed by the Los Angeles Master Chorale in a reprisal of the 2016 production. Grant Gershon and the Master Chorale gave a riveting performance at Disney Hall, before embarking on a worldwide tour of the production.
In dance, highlights of the year included Alonzo King’s poetic Sutra, performed by his accomplished company, Alonzo King LINES Ballet; and Isabella Boylston’s touching lyricism as Nikiya, the temple dancer, in American Ballet Theatre’s La Bayadère. The world premiere of Matthew Neenan’s A Million Voices by BODYTRAFFIC proved to be an intoxicating exploration of life, love and war, danced to the shimmering voice of Peggy Lee. With hints of Twyla Tharp, Jerome Robbins and Pina Bausch, Neenan achieved a very unique creation.
I find it hard to choose a Performance of the Year, largely because I am not exactly spoilt for choice. The reason has a lot to do with location. Although it is a very nice place to live in, Whangarei in New Zealand is not what you would call awash with live music, not if we are talking about live Music-with-a-capital-M. In many respects, Whangarei still hasn’t quite shaken off the trappings of a ‘frontier town’. Its culture is almost entirely ‘popular’. The most prevalent of ‘the’ Arts is fine art (painting, sculpture). Classical Music – which I would consider to be the very cornerstone of civilized culture – is pretty well at the bottom of the list. Locally, classical music-oriented organisations are, more or less: Whangarei Youth Music, a Choral Society, a small amateur orchestra and Whangarei Music Society. Opera North, in spite of its name, is concerned primarily with musical theatre.
Whangarei, not a town but a city, mark you well, does not even have a concert hall. I am told that, like its English counterparts, the town hall once had a reasonable performing space, but this was demolished to make way for a car park. Then again, the design for the Forum North complex included a full-size concert hall – indeed, it was built, but instead of being a temple to St Cecilia’s art it houses the city’s library. The lack of a suitable venue means that concerts by visiting orchestras are exceedingly rare, coming a poor second to hens’ teeth – the NZSO, part of whose remit is to take symphonic music the length and breadth of the land, hasn’t been near for three years.
Thus, effectively, the only music featuring professional/international performers that we do get, comes courtesy of the Music Society, usually in collaboration with Chamber Music NZ. Typically, each season features four or five recitals which, ironically, are held in the building that used to house the city’s library!
In the ten years I have been here, I have not heard any recital that was anything less than excellently played. Consequently, I chose the plum that I’ve pulled from the 2018 pie not because its performance was outstanding, but because it was a fair way off the beaten track. Klezmer, of course, is folk music, but this recital given by the Kugels mixed items of original Klezmer with Klezmer-style compositions by the group’s accordionist, Ross Harris. Not only is Ross Harris better known as one of NZ’s foremost pukka composers, but also the other three players are established classical performers. To my mind these facts, allied to the fact that whilst Klezmer is folk music, it is also thoroughly outstanding Music, are sufficient to make this a bona fide albeit rather off-beat – and thrilling – chamber recital, as you can see from my full review of the event.
I would also like to tell you about a performance which was not reported on S&H, simply because it lay outside S&H’s scope. This performance was part of a concert given on 11 November by the Northland Sinfonia – that aforementioned ‘small amateur orchestra’. Whilst we cannot expect them to compete technically with the ‘big boys’, such groups, having compensating qualities that professionals may lack, provide a sterling service and are often a pleasure to hear. Lately, the long-established Northland Sinfonia has been struggling a bit as regards its complement, but nevertheless has continued to come up with some performances to enliven even the most jaded or ears.
In this concert, with only 17 string players, they played Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.20 K466, with soloist Ben Booker. His approach to this work was – not to put too fine a point on it – gob-smacking. Consider: it is one thing to know that the youthful Beethoven very much admired this concerto; it is another to be aware that Beethoven himself played it often; but it is something else entirely to hear Ben play it, as it were, how that young firebrand might have played it.
Other performances that I have heard of this music, the Romanze’s ‘stormy’ episode apart, sound just as you would expect Mozart to be played. Without obscuring this essential quality Ben, so to speak, injected bags of Beethovenian steroids into the whole work. This not only made everything except the ‘stormy’ episode ‘step up’, effectively making that particular episode ‘step back’ into the ranks, giving the music a more direct trajectory from darkness to light, but also set the whole work in a completely new and unexpected perspective.
It struck me as something of a revelation. Never – as someone I spoke to in the interval also remarked – have I been made so acutely aware of the evolutionary progression from Mozart to Beethoven: usually we hear only about Beethoven as a revolutionary, yet on this showing Mozart, if only he had been blessed with a reasonable lifespan, could easily have become a participant in Beethoven’s revolution – and that’s something to wonder at.
What a concerto debut this was for guest conductor Ginny Hill, who entered wholeheartedly into the spirit of this unusual interpretation, firing up the Sinfonia to match Ben note for note, phrase for phrase – and on occasions decibel for decibel. It says much that the only ‘grumble’ I noted was that the first movement’s ‘ending was not quite soft enough’. Oh, faults there must have been, but believe me, nobody was counting, or even noticing any, because the thoughtful yet dynamic Ben and the intensely focused orchestra swept all before them. To paraphrase Star Trek’s Scotty, ‘It was Mozart, Jim, but not Mozart as we know him’.
2018 was a banner year for excellent opera performances, so I will limit my ‘best of’ to operas that I have reviewed for Seen and Heard even though that excludes some memorable experiences in Gothenburg, Dresden and Salzburg.
The discovery of the year was the opera Der Vampyr by Heinrich Marschner performed at Läckö Castle in western Sweden. Music director Simon Phipps and managing director Catarina Gnosspelius have over many years made interesting programming choices, inventive productions and fine choices of soloists (often talented young singers), and 2018 was no exception. Marschner’s romantic opera sets a tightly plotted story to inventive and dramatic music influenced by Weber. The cast and direction were compelling, with a standout performance by Hannes Öberg as the murderous vampire Lord Ruthven. I left wondering why this opera is not more often performed.
One singer whose talents I first discovered at Läckö is soprano Sofie Asplund who is nowadays in demand at Sweden’s major opera stages. Her unforgettable performance as Zerbinetta in Gothenburg Opera’s Ariadne auf Naxos early this year shows why. Her heavenly coloratura was paired with convincing and complex acting. Other key soloists also excelled: Ann Kristin Jones’s warm, overtone-rich voice was a perfect choice for the Composer; Daniel Frank brought lyricism to the difficult role of Bacchus. Patrik Ringborg conducted beautifully and Rodula Gaitanou directed a beautifully conceived and executed production.
Gothenburg Opera’s 2018-2019 season opened with a revival of another visually beautiful production, Yoshi Oïda’s Madama Butterfly. As with Ariadne the visual magic of the production was matched with sensitive conducting (by Henrik Schaefer) and superb casting to make an unmissable experience. The supporting roles were well cast and, in this (Brescia) version of the opera had more to sing. Aaron Cawley perfectly captured Pinkerton’s character well and Karah Son was breathtakingly moving as Cio-Cio-San. She acted with tremendous poise and dignity, and her soprano had lyrical colours as well as dramatic high notes. I couldn’t possibly see how this production could be improved!
Stephen Langridge – soon sadly leaving as artistic director of the Gothenburg Opera to go to Glyndebourne – has started Gothenburg’s first Ring cycle with a revelatory Das Rheingold. His interpretation links the violence against humanity described in Wagner’s libretto with violence against nature, and uses the visual aspects of the production to communicate Wagner’s story to great effect. The vocal cast was strong and does not suffer from its high proportion of local singers: Katerina Karnéus was a compelling Fricka, and Gothenburg Opera veteran Anders Lorentzon’s multifaceted Wotan was impressive and moving. The production also made great use of seven dancers, most of whom are regulars, including Sara Suneson who movingly portrayed the Golden Child that represents the Rhinegold.
Some excellent outside singers were also chosen, in particular Brenden Gunnell who made a fascinating Loge and the magnificent Olafur Sigurdarson, whose Alberich has no equal that I have heard. Evan Rogister, who will be conducting the whole cycle, was also an inspired choice, conducting with great sensitivity to both the singers and Wagner’s music. I eagerly await the continuation of Langridge’s Ring cycle in the coming three seasons.