Our Reviewers’ Choices for Best Concerts and Operas of 2011

United KingdomUnited Kingdom FranceFrance  Mark Berry (London, Paris):

My greatest musical experiences of 2011 would have to include Maurizio Pollini’s astounding five-concert London series ranging from Bach to Stockhausen, and Sir Colin Davis’s superlative Proms performance of the Missa Solemnis, but alas, none of those concerts fell to me to review here.

There remains a great deal to extol, both from London and elsewhere; at least I can include an equally fine Salzburg Festival recital of four Beethoven sonatas by Pollini, whose interpretations seem somehow to deepen further with every passing year.

Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria – Production Picture Courtesy of English National Opera

It is perhaps more difficult to satisfy completely in opera than in any other form, given the multitude of components, so it gives me great pleasure to mention two English National Opera productions, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria and A Midsummer Night’s Dream: both searing dramatic experiences in musical and theatrical terms.

Konstantin Lifschitz’s traversal of Bach’s Art of Fugue stands out from a fine Wigmore Hall season. Chamber music might seem bizarrely out of place in the cavernous Royal Albert Hall, yet somehow the Belcea Quartet and Valentin Erben managed to draw us in to a moving account of Schubert’s C major quintet.

New music has had a good year too: I shall single out both an outstanding concert at Paris’s Cité de la musique from the Ensemble Intercontemporain, the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart, and Susanna Mälkki presenting works by Johannes Maria Staud, Ivan Fedele, and Bruno Mantovani, and the Southbank Centre’s landmark weekend, ‘Exquisite Labyrinth: the Music of Pierre Boulez’. I attended all the concerts, reviewing all but one for this site. The whole must rank greater still than the sum of its parts, but the ultimate highlight would be a ravishing, labyrinthine Pli selon pli from the hands of the composer, the excellent Barbara Hannigan shining as soprano soloist, again with the Ensemble Intercontemporain.

ItalyItaly  Jack Buckley (Rome):

Rome’s Highs and Lows for 2011

Claudio Abbado conducted the two most outstanding concerts of the year, the first with Martha Argerich in the Ravel G major concerto (a rapport of great subtlety between conductor, soloist and the Orchestra Mozart (21 April).

Claudio Abbado greets Giorgio Napolitano, President of Italy. Photo courtesy of the Accademia Santa Cecilia in Rome

And second, the astonishingly inventive score of Shostakovich’s music accompanying Kozintsev’s film of King Learwith the combined orchestras of Santa Cecilia and the Orchestra Mozart (20 November).

Grigory Sokolov’s performance of the Bach Italian Concerto (11 May) will also live in my aural memory forever.

The Rome Opera have rarely staged anything so fine as their Elektra (2 October) most impressively conducted by Stefan Soltesz with Eva Johansson making the title role sound easy, though the real star of the evening was Felicity Palmer as Clytemnestra.

The year’s most astonishing newcomer was without doubt José Vilaplana (Sermoneta, 16 July) who opens a whole new world of sound with his double bass. And in composition it was Louise Farrenc’s virtuosity as a composer in her first quintet (Fossanova Abbey, 17 July, repeated at the Quirinale 20 November by the same excellent Bottesini Quintet).

From the summer opera festivals, Andrea Battistoni’s intelligent and highly insightful conducting of Rigoletto (Macerata, 23 July) stands out, as does the witty and spirited performance of La Scala di Seta (15 August at the Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro).

The booby prize for the year has to be divided between Ivo Pogorelich (4 November), who reduced Chopin to a rag doll and Gustavo Dudamel (23 November), who hacked to pieces the Eroica symphony (23 November).

FinlandFinland SwedenSweden Göran Forsling (Helsinki, Stockholm)

In spite of other assignments I have had some time to visit concerts and opera performances.

The earliest of these, that I want to single out, took place in late November last year. It was the Finnish National Opera’s production of Korngold’s Die tote Stadt. where sets, direction, singing and acting worked together to make this one of the finest performances I have seen there. The glowing conducting of Mikko Franck will linger in my memory for years to come and so will the singing of the two protagonists, Klaus Florian Vogt and Camilla Nylund.

Die Tote Stadt – Production Picture © Stefan Bremer

Back in Helsinki a couple of months later, but this time in the National Opera’s intimate Almi Hall and the reprise premiere of Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Aleksis Kivi. Mikko Franck again led the proceedings in the pit and Kivi was masterly sung and acted by Jorma Hynninen.

The Stockholm Opera’s production of Verdi’s Stiffelio, the very first in all Scandinavia, turned out to be a real hit. The sparse sets contributed to a concentration on the central characters, which was all to the good, and with Pier Giorgio Morandi conducting at white heat. Lars Cleveman’s assumption of the title role, intense but lyrical and the surrounding cast were equally responsive.

In mid-May the Helsinki Philharmonic gave their very last concert in the Finlandia Hall, which has been their home for four decades. The choice of repertoire was very apt: first Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde and Haydn’s ‘Farewell Symphony’. Conductor John Storgårds offered inward readings of both works and the Haydn symphony was played as the composer had conceived it: in the last movement the musicians one by one left the podium until the conductor was alone, the last candle went out and darkness reigned in the Finlandia Hall. End of an era!

United KingdomUnited Kingdom GermanyGermany  Michael Cookson (England, also Berlin and Munich)

My most memorable concert this year was one of Renaissance madrigals. As part of the Berlin Musikfest 2011 in September I attended a performance of Gesualdo madrigals at the Radialsystem V; a converted water pumping station on the banks of the River Spree. To a packed audience and a backdrop of subdued lighting the impeccably prepared Gesualdo Consort Amsterdamproved to be immaculately polished performers. The Consort’s wonderful singing enchanted the audience.

Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam © Allard Willemse

The visit of the Hallé Orchestra under Sir Mark Elder to the English market town of Kendal, Cumbria in February was another highlight. Both orchestra and conductor are stalwart champions of English music and to the delight of a packed Kendal audience gave dramatic and memorable performances of Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No. 2 A London Symphony’ and Elgar’s Cockaigne.

I relished Luc Bondy’s Bavarian State Opera production of Puccini’s Tosca at the National Theatre, Munich in May. Tatiana Serjan as Tosca and Carlo Ventre as Cavaradossi were in impressive voice with Juha Uusitalo a terrifying Baron Scarpia.

In September at the Musikfest Berlin 2011 at the Philharmonie a truly wonderful experience was Sir Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic and choruses in Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 Symphony of a Thousand. In addition I was completely captivated by the two unaccompanied sacred choral works that preceded the Mahler with Sir Simon conducting the Berlin Radio Choir in Lotti’s Crucifixus and Tallis’s Spem in alium.

Another Musikfest Berlin 2011 concert from the Philharmonie lives long in the memory. On the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the USA the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under Manfred Honeck performed the Mahler Symphony No.5. Clearly buoyed by the significance of the occasion this was awe-inspiring playing from a truly magnificent Pittsburgh orchestra. Stunning performances of Wagner’s Act I Prelude from Lohengrin and Wolfgang Rihm’s Time Chant played by violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter only served to add to the excitement satisfaction.

United StatesUnited States  Bernard Jacobson (Seattle)                       

The most conspicuous among the year’s several departures was that of Gerard Schwarz, who concluded his 26-year tenure as music director of the Seattle Symphony with an impassioned and exceptionally coherent performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony.  An even longer tenure ended when Toby Saks stepped down as artistic director of the Seattle Chamber Music Society, which she founded in 1982.

Ms Saks is succeeded by James Ehnes, and the baton-passing was celebrated with a notable evening of musical and spoken tribute . The Symphony’s new man is Ludovic Morlot, whose inaugural program ranged from Beethoven’s Coriolan overture by way of Gulda and Gershwin to a bravura reading of Ravel’s Boléro .

Other outstanding Seattle Symphony concerts featured a stylish performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons by associate concertmaster Emma McGrath ; an eloquent Sibelius Seventh under guest conductor Pietari Inkinen; a pair of programs bidding another farewell–this one to admired composer-in-residence Samuel Jones; and a guest appearance by Oliver Knussen, whose Violin Concerto was brilliantly played by Leila Josefowicz.

A blockbuster American Handel Festival brought a rare outing for Esther, expertly conducted by Stephen Stubbs, and many other good things to the city. The Seattle Opera offered splendid productions of The Barber of Seville, The Magic Flute, and Carmen Ian Bostridge sang beautifully with Les Violons du Roi in Seattle, and debutants at the marvelous Olympic Music Festival in Quilcene included a stunning young tenor and an equally exciting young pianist–Daniel Montenegro  and Di Wu.  Festival veteran Paul Hersh gave a gorgeous piano recital there.  Craig Sheppard’s Brahms program at the University of Seattle was of similar excellence. And farther afield the Vancouver Opera offered an illuminating Clemenza di Tito  and the Portland Opera a charming Nozze di Figaro.


ArgentinaArgentina  Jonathan Spencer Jones (Buenos Aires)

It’s like Christmas every day in Buenos Aires, a musician friend wrote after I had forwarded the Teatro Colón’s 2012 season booklet. And yes, the amount of music on in Buenos Aires is quite remarkable, and that is what one hears about, let alone what one doesn’t – suffice to say that even keeping up with just the opera, which this correspondent endeavours to do, is something of a challenge.

Covering regularly four different companies with different levels of resources and aims, it seems almost invidious to select one “best” production so instead let me offer one from each of the companies.

From the Teatro Colón, as it strives, at times controversially, towards its former greatness after a lengthy renovation, July’s Simon Boccanegra stands out. With a mix of international and local singers, the production, set on a ship-like deck, well reflected the varying emotions of this complex work.

From the Teatro Argentino in La Plata, frequently adventurous in its repertoire and tending to draw its guest artists from elsewhere within Latin America, Tristan und Isolde, to all intents and purposes its first major Wagner production was a milestone and in almost all aspects superbly performed. And, hopefully presaging the new Ring cycle from the same team planned over the next two seasons.

From Buenos Aires Lírica, which has set a “tradition” of bringing out some of the lesser performed works, this was continued with a brilliant production of Haydn’s Il mondo della luna. Not to be taken too literally, or going over the top, producer and singers let the humour and wonderful music speak for itself.

And last but by no means least from Juventus Lyrica, which gives young singers a platform to perform – and with this, is building an enthusiastic young audience – its production of Bizet’s Pearl Fishers. A simple setting, effective lighting, strong singing and easy flowing music all combined in a highly engaging production.

United StatesUnited States Stan Metzger (New York City, Boston)

I’m stretching the rule that all events in this year-end round-up must have taken  place in 2011 by giving my highest honors to a concert that occurred two weeks before the end of 2010. This was a concert of cantatas and sections from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio performed by the Clarion Music Society‘s Orchestra and Chorus led by conductor Steven Fox. What I said then still holds true: “When Bach is performed well, as it was tonight, one could almost think, ‘Why bother with any other music?’” Steven Fox’s conducting here and in his 2011 performance of Judas Maccabeus makes him a conductor to follow. The participation in the orchestra of faculty members of the Juilliard Historical Performance Department here and in the festival described below added a level of professionalism on par with the best Baroque music groups in the world.

Niobe, Regina di Tebe with Phillipe Jaroussky and Cast-Credit: André Costantini

Several performances from the Boston Early Music Festival also belong on this list: Steffani’s opera, Niobe, Regina di Tebe, with Phillipe Jarousky at the top of his form; Kristian Bezuidenhout, and members of the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra in the two Mozart Piano Quartets, K. 478 and K. 491; and Handel’s Acis and Galatea, directed by Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs with Robert Mealy as Musical Director.

Finally, Iván Fischer‘s imaginative re-creation of Mozart’s Don Giovanni at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater made the Metropolitan Opera’s new production seem like the work of hacks. Minimal staging aided by mimes from the University of Theatre and Film of Budapest, top notch singing and acting by Laura Aiken and Tassis Christoyannis, and the relatively intimate setting of the Rose Theater made this the highlight of the 2011 Mostly Mozart Festival.

United StatesUnited States  Jeffrey Edelstein (Philadelphia)

The experience of a live performance may have deep and abiding intellectual and emotional impact not easily encompassed by words. In the days following such a performance, descriptions feel inadequate and superlatives seem lifeless rather than sincere.  In this way, a remarkable production may confound an “overnight” reviewer while impressing itself upon memory as the musical highlight of the year. I was thus strongly affected by the Opera Company of Philadelphia’s presentation of the American premiere of Hans Werner Henze’s new chamber opera Phaedra. Unable to come to terms quickly with the daring, vision, and dedication of the production, I also could not stop thinking about the effectiveness of the spare staging to enrich a story at once readily intelligible and layered with ambiguity, mystery, and secrets. The conductor’s tempi and balances, the orchestra’s incisive playing, the suggestive lighting and projections, the evocative costumes, and the uniform excellence of the cast all enhanced the director’s intricate conception.

Henze’s opera is consuming and complex, but also modest and direct, which is typical of the many ambiguities and contradictions that breathe life into the composer’s modernist aesthetic sensibility. Henze has embodied in this opera the experience of a man standing in front of a mirror trying to witness, and perhaps assess, everything behind him—all of human myth and history, all of music, all of his own life while frustrated by his inability to get out of the way. The intensity and humane tolerance of the libretto and score have stayed with me.  And so have two performances.  As Phaedra, the superb mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford brought terror and compassion to her character, both modulating her voice and using her costumes and accessories to give nuance or irony to words and actions.  As Artemis, the astonishing countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo created a physically and psychologically complex character that focused many poignant aspects of the story.  It is not simply that his diction is clear and his voice beautiful and present throughout the hall; it is that he can also project the desire, doubt, and confusion suggesting the manifold meanings of the character he is portraying.  Operas have many moving parts, and rarely do they move as harmoniously together as they did in this production.

GreeceGreece Bettina Mara (Athens)

Could it be that the Liszt Year coinciding with the Hungarian EU Presidency conspired to bring forth the two best performances I had the privilege to attend in 2011? Sounds like an apt explanation, but it’s probably just that what happens off the beaten track is more often than not much more fascinating than events involving famous artists.

Gergely Bogány – Picture courtesy of the artist’s web site www.gergelyboganyi.com

That said, pianist Gergely Bogányi is hardly an unknown, and it’s a shame his Liszt recital in Athens at the beginning of this year wasn’t given more publicity or a larger venue.

He also played an incredible “Chopin Marathon” last year in Budapest. Read an interview with him.

And director László Marton is a well-known and well-loved public figure in his home town of Budapest, where I went to his production of The Magic Flute, with an all-Hungarian cast performing in their native language – the most captivating I have ever seen. He also directed Lohengrin this summer at the Budapest Wagner Days (read a review by Jim Pritchard), conducted by Ádám Fischer, an exceptional maestro not the least bit interested in being a celebrity (read an interview ).

GermanyGermany SloveniaSlovenia United KingdomUnited Kingdom PolandPoland  Laurence Vittes

The highlight of 2012 would definitely have to be Basque journalist Manuel Cabrera of El Diario Vasco fiddling with his mouse and laptop out where everybody could see at an early music concert in a convent church adjacent to a topless beach during the Quincena festival in San Sebastian. However, I didn’t review the concert for Seen & Heard International. The runners-up:

Dvorak’s Piano Quintet Opus 81 played by Benjamin Schmid, Mira Wang, Max Mandel, Julian Steckel and Andreas Haefliger at Jan Vogler’s Moritzburg Festival. With every stroke and key they played, with every rush of emotion, power and melodic significance, the ad hoc ensemble of stars took the music to higher heights and greater depths. The setting wasn’t bad, either: The dining hall at Moritzburg Castle, August the Strong’s modest hunting lodge. 09.08.2011

The Maribor Festival performance of Ligeti’s massive and somewhat scary Violin Concerto haunts me still. Festival director and violin virtuoso Richard Tognetti walks and talks an affable enough chap, but when it comes to ripping classical music, he’s a ratbagger’s darling. The effect was compounded by a raging thunderstorm pounding down on Union Hall. 02.09.11

Equally startling was Tognetti’s anarchistic Nothing concert a few days later in the Grand Hall of the Slovene National Theatre, where soprano Aleksandra Zamojska sang Handel nude in a neon on-the-Strand setting; it was just another of the Festival’s many events that brilliantly demonstrated one of the big reasons Maribor was named European Capital of Culture for 2012. 06.09.2011

In Scotland, the Lammermuir Festival put stunning force and clarity into their bold revival of Philip Glass’s 1,000 Airplanes on the Roof, performed in a hangar (housing one of the seven remaining Concordes, no less) for the first time since its premiere, proving the work’s prophesy about future technology while showing that the region of East Lothian, east of Edinburgh, is an outstanding classical music summer place to be.18.09.2011

The most moving experience was a concert in the Polish town of Konin, between Poznan and Warsaw, during Janusz Wawroski‘s Spaces of Music Chamber Music Festival. Set in the the deeply devotional if extravagant stylistic amalgam of Konin’s church, revealed the music of Zygmunt Noskowski, to whom the festival was dedicated, to be a national treasure, flourishing in the energy and beauty of its radiant gestures and stirring outbursts. After a dazzling rush of Boccherini (the two-cello quintet with the famous fandango), eleven Moniuszko songs, featuring Bogumiła Dziel-Wawrowska’s exquisite soprano, though assembled from disparate sources, had the feel of an incomparably sad cycle. The final song echoed Schubert’s forlorn hurdy-gurdy at the end of Die schöne Müllerin, before trailing away into a consoling cloudless night.


United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Christopher Gunning (London)

If I have to choose my most treasured concert experiences of 2011, first place has to go to the event at which several works by Nicholas Maw were presented.

Maw’s music is in danger of suffering from unjustified neglect, but if one ever had any doubts as to the importance of this composer, one should get hold of the recording of his Violin Concerto made by Joshua Bell, although the performance on the “Nicholas Maw” day showed Tasmin Little in fabulous form – it was a deeply moving experience.

Of this year’s Proms, I particularly warmed to Oliver Knussen‘s which was typically unusual and included supremely musical performances of Berg, Bridge, Honegger, Castiglioni and Debussy. It was also a revelation to hear Martin Brabbins conducting Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony in an astonishingly confident and persuasive performance of this gargantuan work.

There was a wonderful concert performance of Debussy’s Pélleas et Mélisande directed by Louis Langrée with an almost totally French cast and orchestra  and another highlight for me was Maazel’s reading of Mahler’s ninth symphony with the Philharmonia

In a year when some critics couldn’t stop eulogising about the Berlin Philharmonic, I was particularly impressed with our London orchestras. All are performing to an amazingly high standard at the moment, and deserve far more praise than they often get.


United KingdomUnited Kingdom  John Quinn  (London)

My own concert-reviewing activity has been rather limited this year and, as I look back, it seems to have been weighted significantly towards the music of Mahler. Perhaps that’s unsurprising as 2011 was the second of his two consecutive anniversary years. Among the highlights was a triumphant return to the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra by Sir Simon Rattle. He concluded the excellent Birmingham Mahler cycle with a wonderful performance of Das Lied von der Erde which he coupled, provocatively but fascinatingly, with the vastness of Messiaen’s Et Expecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum, which was stunning in Symphony Hall. Two other imposing Mahler performances were those of the Fifth Symphony by Lorin Maazel and of the Third by Susanna Mälkki. That latter performance was given in Worcester Cathedral as part of the 2011 Three Choirs Festival. It was that festival that also gave me the chance to experience for the first time in a live performance John Adams’s On the Transmigration of Souls as part of a moving and artistically satisfying commemoration of the terrible events of 9/11 ten years on from that awful day. This dignified and thoughtfully-planned Three Choirs concert was an important reminder not only that music cannot and must not exist in a vacuum but also that it can also raise our spirits despite the troubled times in which we live


United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Margarida Mota-Bull (London)

While I went to many concert and opera performances throughout the year on a private capacity, from a reviewing perspective and for personal reasons, 2011 was rather “thin” for me.

The artist that impressed me the most throughout the year was actually one I did not review. I am speaking of German tenor Jonas Kaufmann. His concert on 24th October 2011, at the Royal Festival Hall, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, led by Jochen Rieder, was simply outstanding and Kaufmann proved (if proof were needed) what a magnificent performer he is. Sadly, it appears that Seen & Heard missed this one completely!

The Dutch National Ballet - Photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy of The Saddler's Wells Theatre

From what I watched and actually reviewed, I was extremely impressed with two performances: The first from the Dutch National Ballet, at Sadler’s Wells on 14th May 2011, celebrating their 50th anniversary season and choreographer Hans van Manen’s artistry. The technical brilliance of the dancers was mesmerising and van Manen’s choreography of “non-dance” music was simply thrilling. Unforgettable!

And the second, Simon Keenlyside’s recital “Songs of War” with pianist Malcolm Martineau, on 5th November 2011, at Wigmore Hall. The concert was unusual, as it combined the works from Keenlyside’s recent CD of the same name with songs by Francis Poulenc. It was a treat and had everything that one could possibly wish for: brilliant singing, wonderful music, “food for thought”, serious songs alongside others that were purely heart-warming and rather humorous. Memorable!

United StatesUnited States Harvey Steiman (Aspen, San Francisco)

For sheer daring, phenomenal execution, intelligence and power, nothing could top violinist Gil Shaham’s foray through four concertos written in the 1930s over four concerts in two weeks in July at the Aspen Music Festival. Playing each with a different orchestra, some composed entirely of students, the violinist took on the Walton, Bartók No. 2, Stravinsky, and Hartmann’s Concerto funèbre.

For me, the idea behind the programming, to focus on concertos written in the pre-war musical foment of 1930s, was intriguing enough. Shaham, perhaps the violinist of our day, reveled in revealing each one’s unique musical language, message and power. The Hartmann was the most impressive, a heart-on-sleeve cry of despair, beautifully realized, and with an ad hoc orchestra to boot. For a lagniappe, Shaham added the lively Haydn Concerto in G on that same concert.

Another memorable moment at Aspen was Marc-André Hamelin’s July 7 recital, in which the pianist, for years pigeonholed as a modernist, triumphed over two of the toughest pieces in the piano literature: Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit and Liszt’s Sonata in B minor. The music emerged organically, naturally, flowingly.

Hamelin brought crystalline accuracy and seamless phrasing even in the fastest passages to Ravel’s Gaspard, making the piano surge, shrug, dance and dart like something alive and throbbing. The opening movement, Ondine, shimmered and splashed, the second movement, Le Gibet, created a model of quiet, sustained tension, and the finale, Scarbo, lunged and twisted with panache. Something similar happened in Liszt’s titanic Piano Sonata in B minor, with Hamelin creating one compelling moment after another, and investing the single movement in a sweep that took it from the hesitant opening scales to several thrilling climaxes, the final page a hushed coda of simple grace.

This was breathtaking pianism, as was his recital in San Francisco Nov. 2. In that one, he offered his own quirky, dazzling and well-crafted music, one a world premiere and another a North American premiere. He reprised the Liszt sonata, extraordinary again for its precision and depth.

Theme and Variations (Cathy’s Variations), a piece Hamelin wrote for his fiancée, channels a sentimental side into gorgeous music without devolving into anything saccharine. His Variations on a Theme of Paganini takes up the same tune from the violin Caprice No. 24 that Rachmaninov used for his famous rhapsody, revealing a naughty sense of humor that injects pungent dissonances and, like a jazz improvisor, pluck familiar tunes out of the air that fit with the proceedings. Thus, we hear snatches of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and, yes, another Paganini caprice, as the variations fly past. Filled with passages of technical brilliance, it’s a breathtaking 10 minutes that can make a music lover laugh out loud as we shake our heads in awe.

The program finished with three études from his set of 12, written over 23 years and only recently completed and recorded. The first, No. 8—Erlkönig, goes back to the original Goethe poem for its rhythmic style and overall shape, with no musical allusions at all to the famous Schubert song. It has an unsettling feel, a sort of rumble that threatens more than it frightens, and makes it all the more powerful for it. No. 11—Minuetto starts off innocently enough, with a lilting tune in minuet style, which keeps pushing into heavier climaxes, only to recede into the original, innocent theme. No. 12—Prélude and Fugue, which dates from 1986, uses a fugue theme that is more a series of offhanded gestures than a tune, but when everything starts piling up contrapuntally it coalesces into a grand statement, and it ended the evening on a triumphant note.

Finally, San Francisco Opera’s Ring cycle in June, notable primarily for the sensational work of Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde, caused something of a stir for a point of view that ennobled (as much as it could) the female characters in Wagner’s tetralogy. Some found director Francesca Zambello’s approach simplistic, especially when it focused on environmental concerns. (A trash-laden Rhine in the Gotterdämmerung may have gone a tad too far.) But it worked on the stage, helped to clarify the complex plot, and gave depth to the characters. At least this staging didn’t overwhelm the singers, as the big machine at the Met seems to be doing.

Czech RepublicCzech Republic United StatesUnited States  George Grella (Ostrava,New York City)

I’m fortunate in general to to say that most of the live music I saw this year was good, and the few things that weren’t satisfactory have been lost to the vicissitudes of selective short term memory. Overall, there were three events that stood out as exceptional in every way, not only were they presented at the highest level, but the fundamental quality of the music and the intelligence and taste of the presenters in choosing the pieces combined at a rare level.

The Ostrava Days festival is already one of the finest new and experimental music festivals, and two particular performances were astonishing, the kind of thing that cannot be matched even by the finest recording. One was Cornelius Cardew’s The Tiger’s Mind, shaped by John Tilbury’s experience but expressed by the students at the festival in some of the smartest, most sensitive and agile improvisation I’ve encountered. The other was JACK Quartets’s program that featured Xenakis, Elliott Sharp and Horatiu Radalescu, which reshaped some small part of the universe, and expanded on the very possibilities of writing and playing music.

In New York City, it was my great luck to be able to see Les Arts Florissants’s production of Atys at BAM. It fulfilled the absolute ideal of what opera can be on both paper and the stage, and was one of the finest experiences of my entire life.

United StatesUnited States   Bruce Hodges (New York)

In the last few years Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival has undergone a quietly radical transformation, finding unusually fresh takes on familiar works by the eponymous composer, and now and then placing him next to contemporary fare. Iván Fischer, the Budapest Festival Orchestra and a raft of fine singers triumphed with a spare yet effective Don Giovanni, and in four concerts (I heard three) the International Contemporary Ensemble showed decisively that the old and the new can reinvigorate each other. Earlier in the summer, at the Lincoln Center Festival, Franz Welser-Möst and the peerless Cleveland Orchestra placed John Adams next to Bruckner with mesmerizing results.

Winter’s unrelenting bite was offset by the warmth of some highly creative minds. Juilliard’s week-long Focus! Festival showcased Polish composers since 1945, and the final night, a tribute to Witold Lutoslawski, was riveting. At the Park Avenue Armory, the adventurous sextet eighth blackbird curated the Tune-In Festival, climaxing with a mammoth evening of Georg Friedrich Haas, Kurt Schwitters, Bach and Steve Reich that seemed not a minute too long. At Scandinavia House, the fast-moving, forward-thinking Talea Ensemble offered a pair of gems by Bent Sørensen as companions to Hans Abrahamsen’s extraordinary Schnee. And who could have imagined that we would be treated to not one, but two superb versions of Gérard Grisey’s Le Noir de l’Étoile – first by Timetable Percussion and Talujon, and then by Les Percussions de Strasbourg (the latter as part of the new Tully Scope festival). I would be hard-pressed to choose between them.

Isabel Bayrakdarian as Vixen (far left) with the hens . (Photo by Chris Lee)

To end its season, the New York Philharmonic brought back designer Doug Fitch (of 2010’s Le Grand Macabre) for Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen, with conductor Alan Gilbert deep inside the composer’s idiom. But last April was an operatic goldmine, starting with a bracing blast from New York City Opera with Monodramas, an insightfully conceived trio of John Zorn, Schoenberg and Morton Feldman. At Carnegie Hall, Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra gave what may have been the finest, most satisfying operatic evening of the year with a spellbinding concert version of Verdi’s Otello. And four performances of Wozzeck by the Metropolitan Opera – brought to blazing life by Alan Held, Waltraud Meier and the indomitable Met Orchestra – now make me feel lucky, and slightly sad. Given the recent turn of events, these magnificent readings of Berg’s masterpiece will probably be some of the last glimpses we’ll get – and for who-knows-how-long – of the great James Levine.

United KingdomUnited Kingdom FinlandFinland Bill Kenny (Cardiff, Helsinki)

My concert going this year was fairly restricted due to the work involved in setting up the new site and in forming the editorial organisation to maintain it. Even so, two of the events attended will stick in the memory for some time. The first was a Cheltenham Music Festival concert in which the Colin Currie Group played Steve Reich’s Drumming  and the second was the Final BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition 2011. Cardiff Singer Finals aren’t always especially memorable but this one was rather special because it featured the Song Prize Finalist – who didn’t quite manage a double success –  as well as the ultimate winner Valentina Naforniţä who did, since she was also awarded the Special Audience Prize in which viewers and listeners to the competition’s broadcasts can vote online for their favourite artist. An added dimension this year however was that the Korean Finalist soprano Hye Jung Lee although failing to match the standard of her staggering first round performance of ‘I am the wife of Chairman Mao Tse Tung’  from John Adam’s Nixon in China clearly showed that hers is an exceptional talent. She will sing the role in San Francisco in  2012 and I very much hope that Harvey Steiman will be able to review her performance for us.

If I may be allowed a small cheat, I should like to mention a children’s concert that I heard – but did not review –  in Helsinki during my visit for Finnish National Opera’s revival of Der Ring des Nibelungen in September. The concert took place in the city’s brand new concert hall, the Musiikitalo which had only opened the week before I arrived. Apart from a truly impressive sound from the Finnish Radio Symphony orchestra, the visit to the hall also brought my wife and I a wholly unexpected delight in the form of the concert’s conductor Professor Atso Almila whose work I had not discovered before.

Professor Almila divides his time between teaching conducting at Helsinki’s prestigious Sibelius Academy – where he has worked closely for many years with the Finnish doyen of conductor education Professor Jorma Panula –  and working with the Symphony Orchestra in Kuopio, North Savo in Eastern Finland. Both Professors are truly exceptional conductors themselves.

Atso Almila’s reading of  Sibelius’  incidental music to Pelléas et Mélisande was wholly engaging from beginning to end. What made the short concert so memorable however was an extraordinary performance of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No 1 which was literally revelatory.  Stripped of its usual BBC Promenade Concert setting, this music glowed with details usually lost in lesser performances and regained its true stature as a genuine masterpiece. Atso Almila is not particularly well known outside of Finland and that’s surely the international music world’s loss. See Google ‘Atso Almila conductor’ for more information.

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Robert J. Farr

Specialising in Opera and Vocal performances I operate from my home in the North West of England. In any year I mainly cover performances of Opera North at Salford’s Lowry Theatre, named after the famous artist, Welsh National Opera on Tour at the delightful North Wales resort of Llandudno, the Buxton Festival, the Royal Northern School of Music and any concert performances in Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall incorporating opera or Oratorio. Special invitations take me further a field to such venues as Garsington, albeit I missed that in 2011 due to my wife’s illness and hospitalisation on the day we were due to travel.

Whereas Oratorio depends wholly on the singers and musicians involved, opera performance is often complicated by a producer’s concept that in turn translates into some strange idiosyncratic staging which seriously compromises the whole performance. That has been the case this year. However, there have been some performances that stand out in my mind and which have been complemented by their productions. Two from Opera North include a new production, beautifully staged and well sung, of Léhar’s evergreen Merry Widow in March and their reprise of one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s rarely heard Ruddigore in November. The latter will feature again in the recently published spring season that the Company has put together following swinging budget cuts by the Arts Council in the current recession. Similar budget problems faced Welsh National Opera whose reduced touring seasons managed an outstanding new production of the popular Die Fledermaus by the veteran Director John Copley and whose clear view aided a distinguished cast to give a great evening.

On the Oratorio front an outstanding performance was given by the Manchester Camerata, St George’s Chorus and soloists of J S Bach’s St John’s Passion in Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall. The quality becomes even more commendable in considering that the Choir is amateur and is a comment on the dedication and commitment of the singers and chorus master, Neil Taylor, who give up many hours in preparation. That performance was notable also in the standard of the soloists and particularly of the tenor taking the role of the Evangelist.


Edited by Ben Eichler