Contributors look back on events Seen and Heard in 2021

Reflecting on the past year – and perhaps with their hopes for the future – are …

MARK BERRY: It has, for reasons all too obvious, been another strange musical year. Whereas in 2020 we had just over two months of ‘normality’, an apparently auspicious beginning to Beethoven Year, followed by the Great Deafness, intermittently interrupted, only to lapse into further misery, 2021 continued the lengthiest period of my life without live musical performance, followed by tentative resumption that found itself often frustrated yet never quite defeated. Two planned visits, to Salzburg for the Festival and to Berlin for a weekend in January, had to be cancelled, though a visit to Berlin in late August and early September did go ahead. Otherwise, it was London all the way, from the High Barnet Chamber Music Festival right at the far end of the Northern Line to more familiar venues. It would be nice to report that this all had me value live performance more greatly than ever, but the truth was as ever more complex. In a way, of course, I did, just as I valued other liberties I had long taken for granted when resumed. The trauma of what had gone before seemed at least as often to make me fearful that all was about to be reversed as glad for what was actually taking place. Such was the background to this selection of highlights.

Given the circumstances, I am a little surprised opera looms as large as it does. It is heartening, though, to report on a year that included the absurdly overdue London staged premiere of Strauss’s Die ägyptische Helena, vividly brought to life by the reduced (in number, not in impact) forces of Fulham Opera; two mesmerising concert performances from the LPO and Edward Gardner, of Tippett’s Midsummer Marriage and Bluebeard’s Castle; a major new production of Enescu’s Œdipe from Berlin’s Komische Oper, Leigh Melrose unforgettable in the title role; a fascinating world premiere, part of the annual Tête-à-Tête festival of new work, in the guise of Alastair White’s latest ‘fashion opera’, RUNE; and, last yet anything but least, no fewer than two Mozart stagings that helped restore my battered faith and morale. The Royal College of Music presented a richly feminist reassessment of Die Zauberflöte with an outstanding young cast, directed by Polly Graham. The Royal Opera, as early as July, offered one of the best conducted (Konstantin Trinks) and sung performances of Don Giovanni I have ever heard, in Kasper Holten’s continually provocative, perennially misunderstood production.

Anthony Friend’s series of Spotlight Chamber Concerts offered several desperately needed rays of hope both before and after the lengthiest of all Britain’s lockdowns. Each I attended was enjoyable and enlightening, true balm for the soul. My choice here is indicative rather than definitive: a fine evening of string trios by Schubert and Mozart, from Anthony Marwood, Hélène Clément, and Tim Posner. Another standard-bearer throughout the darkness, reaching audiences across the world through its online streaming, was the Wigmore Hall. No praise can be high enough for the efforts and achievements of its artists and staff, admirably and determinedly led by John Gilhooly. Two outstanding concerts (in person) are my choices here: string quartets by Haydn, Janáček, and Schumann from the Quatuor Ebène, and a searching Brahms song recital from Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber. The Academy of St Martin in the Fields returned to the church from which it took its name for a series of equally valuable concerts, some with a maximum of thirty in the audience. Sophie Bevan and Ryan Wigglesworth had a larger audience than that, augmented by a good number of listeners at home; their programme of Mozart, Ravel, and Wigglesworth proved a delight from beginning to end.

Finally come four outstanding orchestral concerts. In June, Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia were at last able to come together again in front of an audience, to celebrate the culmination of Salonen’s thirteen years as Artistic Director. This programme of Bach, Salonen (world premiere), and Beethoven (with Mitsuko Uchida) would have been memorable at any time; it was all the more so in the shadow of lockdown. George Benjamin, Tamara Stefanovich, and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra offered a typically searching and satisfying programme of connections between Knussen, Purcell, Benjamin, and Stravinsky. Any chance to hear Stravinsky’s Movements is to be grabbed; here, it was but one gleaming jewel in a full crown extending over a pair of evenings. In the second, Stefanovich returned, for the same composer’s Piano Concerto, with Vladimir Jurowski and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra. More Stravinsky, much of it late, and a model performance of Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler Symphony offered equal measure of enjoyment and enlightenment. Daniel Barenboim and Martha Argerich is never a partnership to be missed. An all-Schumann programme with the Staatskapelle Berlin, of two symphonies and the Piano Concerto, quite simply offered some of the finest music-making any of us will have the good fortune to hear. As for 2022, let us hope, pray, and, most important of all, work together to do whatever it takes.

ANTOINE LÉVY-LEBOYER: One of the rules of being a music critic is to use the dreaded ‘I’ word as little as possible, i.e., try not to speak about yourself but about the music. As this is an unusual ‘best of’ at the end of another unusual year, may I ask the Seen and Heard editors the liberty to break this rule.

This last year was a significant one for me, personally and musically. I turned 60, closed one big part of my professional life and moved from Geneva – where my family and I spent more than fourteen years – to Munich where I am now helping Software and Artificial Intelligence start-ups at the Munich Technical University TUM. (Those interested in the topic can listen to me at IDE Award2021 Keynote Nov 25 2021).

The expected cherry on the cake of this move has been to be able to access the Munich musical life. The situation is still unstable from a health standpoint. Performances are still at a reduced capacity at the time of writing. You are asked to produce your vaccination certificate and photo ID to enter opera and concert halls. Performances are given in front of masked audiences.

But the level is really of the highest order: world famous ensembles at the Staatsoper, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Munich Philharmonic are truly fabulous. Less visible ensembles like the Jewish Chamber Orchestra Munich are no less amazing.

While the Gasteig concert hall is closed for renovation, Munich has been able to transform a former car park into an easy to access hall (Gasteig HP8) with quite an amazing sound. And as Serge Dorny, Intendant of the Staatsoper has said, audiences are really good and, I should add, made up of all generations.

So let us celebrate what is happening in Bavaria: here, classical music is very much a live art form enjoyed by the many, not an elite genre for a small number.

And if I may add, please get vaccinated and boosted …

JOHN QUINN: 2021 has been a strange year for live music-making in the UK. Covid-related restrictions largely prevented live performances in front of an audience in the first half of the year, but the second half brought a revival of concerts and operas in which musicians and the public were reunited. As I write this, however, in mid-December, there are worrying signs that further restrictions on our lives, including, perhaps, on live music-making may be imminent. No matter how temporary these might be they would be very damaging to a sector which is just starting to get back on its feet. Our hearts go out to all the professional musicians whose livelihoods have been severely compromised in the last twenty-one months and who face further uncertainties now.

The Covid restrictions meant that musicians and promoters became ever more inventive in making performances available online through streaming, often free of charge. One wonders what future role steaming will have to play in musical life. Whilst I greatly regretted the inability to attend concerts in person, there was an unexpected bonus in that streaming enabled me to ‘attend’ and review events in one or two locations which in normal times would have been outside my geographical limits. So, in April I was able to ‘visit’ Gateshead’s Sage, a venue new to me. There I enjoyed a concert by the Royal Northern Sinfonia and their exciting new chief conductor, Dinis Sousa. This was a most impressive concert, the highlight of which was Dame Sarah Connolly’s account of Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été. If I may be allowed to cheat slightly, right at the end of 2020 thanks to streaming I had the opportunity to ‘attend’ for the first time a concert in Manchester by the Hallé and Sir Mark Elder. This was another example of orchestral players triumphing over the practical difficulties of social distancing. In a rewarding programme I especially relished hearing baritone Roderick Williams singing in the first performance of his new orchestration of Georg Butterworth’s Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad. The orchestral scoring seemed to me to be wholly successful, allowing us to hear Butterworth’s lovely songs in a new way. I hope to hear this version again soon.

The English Symphony Orchestra and their conductor Kenneth Woods have been especially active in streaming concerts in both 2020 and 2021. I reported on several of them, though only two this year. The concerts I experienced were all very successful, not least because the programmes were imaginatively planned. It is particularly pertinent to mention a concert (review here) in May this year in which Woods and the ESO performed the 2010 arrangement for string orchestra by David Matthews of Elgar’s String Quartet, Op.83. Matthews’s reimagining of Elgar’s music struck me as conspicuously successful. I believe I am right in saying that a CD including this orchestration is to be released imminently on the Lyrita label.

I tend to do most of my concert reviewing either in Symphony Hall, Birmingham or at the Three Choirs Festival. A variety of factors conspired to keep me away from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s resumed concert-giving in their home city, though I hope to be back there in 2022. The Three Choirs Festival was scheduled to be held in Worcester in late July but right up to the last minute Covid restrictions meant that there was great uncertainty as to whether the festival could proceed or, if it did, what the form might be. In the end, Three Choirs pulled off a highly successful week of events and, praise be, we heard the full Three Choirs Festival Chorus and the Philharmonia Orchestra. What a joy it was to be able to attend full-blown choral/orchestral concerts once again. I attended some fine events but three stood out, which I will mention in. chronological order. I was enthralled by a performance of Colin Matthews’s The Great Journey (review here). Marcus Farnsworth gave a magnificent account of the hugely demanding solo baritone role and Adrian Partington guided the members of The Goldfield Ensemble through a challenging score with great assurance. The world premiere of Gabriel Jackson’s choral/orchestra work The World Imagined should have taken place at the 2020 Festival. It was worth waiting a year to hear a thrilling premiere by Nick Pritchard (review here), the Festival Chorus and the Philharmonia. David Hill was the ideal conductor for this assignment. On the very last day of the Festival, I heard a life-enhancing event: Under the title ‘Re-Creation’ Paul McCreesh, the Gabrieli Consort and Players and a stellar trio of soloists treated us to a performance of Haydn’s Creation. I mean no disrespect to the aforementioned musicians, though, when I say that the real stars of the show were the young singers of Gabrieli Roar, who made this a very special experience. Read my full review (here) to get an idea of how this remarkable project, the first of several in the UK in the second half of 2021, came about. After all the musical tribulations caused by Covid, this concert gave me, to use Elgar’s phrase, ‘a massive hope for the future’.

JOHN RHODES: We can consider ourselves to have been extremely fortunate in Zurich that both the Federal Swiss and Zurich Cantonal governments were as kind as possible to the arts. They tried not to shut them down, gave them generous cash subsidies, and allowed as much access to the public as possible. Consequently, in the first half of the year, the concert hall (the temporary Tonhalle Maag) and opera house remained open, with limited audiences; the second half of the year then saw a return to near normality. We dutifully wore masks, of course; occasionally, a foreign soloist had to be replaced because of travel restrictions; and often there was no bar or even no interval – but the main thing was that the music continued to sound.

In the first half of the year, I recall a fine Mahler Fifth with Teodor Currentzis and his MusicAeterna at the KKL in Lucerne; and Lionel Bringuier returned to his old orchestra, the Tonhalle, to perform a stirring Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony.

The beautifully renovated ‘old’ Tonhalle (by the lake) re-opened in the autumn with Paavo Järvi conducting a tremendous performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony to a capacity audience. Fabio Luisi bade farewell at the opera with an impressive Bruckner Seventh; and Gianandrea Noseda presented his credentials to the city as new Music Director at the opera with a fine Dvořák Eighth. Ian Bostridge in the War Requiem (under Kent Nagano’s direction) was a vocal highlight; Matthias Goerne in the Winterreise was, however, a disappointment. A work I did not previously know, but greatly appreciated, was Berlioz’s L’enfance du Christ, with Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir. Jess Gillam’s recent saxophone recital was infectious, as expected. The prize for the most impressive voice went to Ludovic Tézier, as Simon Boccanegra, eclipsing Christian Gerhaher who sang the role earlier in the year. And last not least, just before Christmas, an uplifting Messiah from Paul McCreesh and his Gabrieli Consort.

Despite Omicron, we look forward to more good music in Zurich in 2022. Järvi starts on a Bruckner cycle with the Tonhalle Orchestra, and Andreas Homoki and Gianandrea Noseda present Das Rheingold, the first part of their new Ring cycle.  Happy New Year!

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