Editor: Marc Bridle
Webmaster: Len Mullenger
Opera of the Year: Salome, Metropolitan Opera House, New York
Concert of the Year: Mahler’s Third, Berliner Philharmoniker and Bernard Haitink, London and Berlin
Recital of the Year: Ivan Moravec, Czech music recital, London
MARC BRIDLE, EDITOR
Last year I had considerable difficulty recommending any concert performance; opera triumphed. This year, the reverse has been the case, despite the fact that English National Opera’s misunderstood Ring cycle has at times impressed. With the notable exception of the LSO, who are widening the gap between themselves and other British orchestras with each concert, the most notable performances have been given by visiting orchestras.
Two ‘events’ lead this years concert choices: Bernard Haitink’s 75th birthday celebrations in London and the 100th anniversary of the London Symphony Orchestra. One concert featured both – Mahler’s Sixth, a performance of considerable freshness. In any standard year it would have been my first choice, but standing head and shoulders above anything else I have heard this year – and it is possibly the finest Mahler concert I have been to since Karajan did Mahler’s Ninth in Salzburg in 1982 – is Haitink’s performance of Mahler's Third with the Berliner Philharmoniker. This concert will become the stuff of legend.
Other notable events include Claudio Abbado’s electrifying Act II from Tristan at Lucerne and Daniel Barenboim with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in Tchaikovsky and Beethoven. A magnificent concert with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Myung-Whun Chung contained a revelatory performance of Brahms' Symphony No.1: the work doesn’t get many finer performances than this. For sheer bravura, Maris Jansons’ first Prom with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra will remain forever in the memory. When lights failed on the stage during the ‘Battle Scene’ of Ein Heldenleben both orchestra and conductor continued, note perfect and with even greater intensity, as if nothing had happened. The following night they gave an incandescent performance of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth symphony. Without question, the recital of the year was Ivan Moravec's incandescent lunchtime concert of Janácek, Smetana and Suk. Such magnetic playing is today a genuine rarity.
Even as we love going to concerts, we don’t expect every performance to be thrilling or even necessarily wonderful. We enjoy hearing pieces well played, with some spark of spontaneity, and in surroundings that bring people together for collective enjoyment. There were some duds this year that didn’t even manage to achieve this minimal standing, but there was also one that transcended all others. It went beyond spark to real combustatory glory. On what turned into a very unhappy election night in the U.S., I heard a 19-year-old pianist/composer at Yale University play American music of the 20th Century; Adams’s China Gates, Barbar’s Excursions, Rzewski’s Four North American Ballads, and the artists’ own Piano Sonata #1 (actually written in 2002). Firstly, the programming was both varied and brave. Nothing trite or expected for this imposing young man with a seemingly limitless range of technique. These are difficult works for both artist and audience, but they are also united by a theme of being very American works. Secondly, the depth of feeling brought to these works was clear to all. The pianist had obviously made these pieces his own and was able to communicate this without distracting from the music itself. Finally, the performances were riveting; colorful, deeply expressive, and full of contrasts from heartbreakingly lyrical to astoundingly wild. This is a powerhouse pianist whose performance stunned even me, his very circumspect father. I hope all readers will forgive me for what appears to be a very self-serving review, but Timothy has a combination of talents that makes him a stunning performer even to those who know him best and have been known to be most critical. And don’t just take my word for it. You can sample excerpts of his performances at http://www.andres.com/timo.
For sheer discovery, Donizetti's Pia took some beating and Boulez and the LSO renewed acquaintance with magnificent results. A Midsummer Night’s Dream showed ENO at its best and Birtwistle's Second Mrs Kong was a reminder of a modern masterpiece. Outstanding chamber music came from the Skampa Quartet at the Wigmore Hall and for sheer endeavour there was the Semley Music Festival.
I don’t think anyone who reads my reviews will be surprised at my choice of two recitals given at the Wigmore Hall on 8 and 10 November, by Matthias Goerne and Eric Schneider. I’m absolutely unapologetic about my opinion that Goerne is the greatest currently active singer of Lieder, and these recitals gave ample evidence for this. The first evening was made up of a brilliantly structured programme of Schubert and Eisler, intertwining the composers’ similarities and divergences in setting, emotion and style: the singing of Eisler’s ‘Hollywood Songbook’ extracts was absolutely masterly, and the programme’s conclusion, Schubert’s sublime ‘Frühlingsglaube’ was inspired.
The second recital was all Schubert, selected by William Lyne, and it fulfilled the chief obligation placed upon all great performance: the presentation of well loved material in such a way as to make the audience hear it as though it has never been heard before. The concluding ‘Abschied’ (D 475) was the epitome of the art of Lieder singing: a whole world in miniature, understated yet ardent emotion, and technical assurance of a rare kind in both piano and voice – the bittersweet nature of ‘Ach, wie wird das Herz betrübt’ can rarely have been so poignantly conveyed.
Richard Strauss seemed to get the job done this year. In New York, the incandescent Karita Mattila was the erotically charged lightning rod that ignited the Met’s new Salome (and here), with outstanding colleagues including Bryn Terfel, Larissa Diadkova, and Matthew Polenzani. The magnificent Met Orchestra did a riveting account of the score, with everything overheated to perverted perfection by Valery Gergiev. Pray for the DVD release soon. In Los Angeles, Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic unveiled the Walt Disney Concert Hall’s mind-blowing new pipe organ with two more Strauss blockbusters and a raucously entertaining world premiere by James MacMillan, all three with the sensational British organist Wayne Marshall of Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall.
But the year was packed to overflowing, including superb recitals by Pierre-Laurent Aimard (Carter and Ives) and Maurizio Pollini (Chopin and Debussy), the incomparable Arditti Quartet making Ligeti and Lachenmann look easy, Sir Colin Davis as commander-in-chief of the London Symphony Orchestra in a brilliantly played Peter Grimes, the New York New Music Ensemble with its steel-fingered pianist Stephen Gosling in a double-whammy of Feldman and Grisey, and Pierre Boulez with the Cleveland Orchestra in a dazzling evening of Dalbavie, Messiaen, Ravel and Bartók. And a work that continues to linger in the mind is Steve Heitzeg's ambitious Nobel Symphony, given the star treatment last spring in Minneapolis by VocalEssence and its celebrated conductor Philip Brunelle. With computer-generated graphics by the Minneapolis College of Art + Design, Heitzeg’s work had as its core an eloquent reimagining of Pablo Neruda: “Peace begins in a single chair.”
The claims of several Philadelphia Orchestra concerts conducted by Christoph Eschenbach (and one in which Jiri Belohlávek offered the best performance of Dvorák’s “New World” Symphony I can remember hearing); of a Riccardo Muti evening in New York with the Philharmonic that included a superb Brahms 2 and a group of Mozart concert arias masterfully sung by Thomas Quasthoff; of several performances by the German baritone Matthias Goerne; and of thrilling recitals by two pianists you have probably never heard of, Idil Biret in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Santiago Rodriguez in Charlottesville, Virginia, and by one whom you certainly will hear of, the young Brian Ciach, who gave an extraordinary graduation recital at Philadelphia’s Temple University–all of these must, with reluctance, be set aside. In almost any year, the performance of Schubert's Winterreise that Ian Bostridge and Leif Ove Andsnes gave at Carnegie Hall in October would have had to take first place on my list. The two have worked together often enough by now to have developed a collaborative relationship that sounds utterly instinctive. It was placed, on this occasion, in the service of a searingly dramatic and at the same time discriminatingly intelligent interpretation of what for many of us ranks as the greatest of all song cycles. Bostridge’s voice, moreover, which has been taking on added richness and strength over the last few years, was in resplendent estate. Equally impressive was the technical and musical command of Andsnes, who in my judgement ranks as the finest pianist to have emerged in the past two or three decades–along with Ignat Solzhenitsyn, who incidentally, in his other role as conductor, led a performance of Shostakovich’s Fourteenth Symphony with Elena Prokina, Sergei Leiferkus, and the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia that also clamored for inclusion.
Since a fair number of my reviews are from Scandinavia and more particularly from Finland, it should be no surprise to find that my choices have a strong Nordic bias. My reviewing year in Helsinki actually began in the last week of December 2003, with exceptional performances of Peter Grimes (conducted by Sakari Oramo) and with Mattila’s Katya Kabanova given on consecutive evenings by Finnish National Opera. Either of these would have been strong contenders for my choices of the year had it not been for the truly remarkable Ring that FNO staged this September, and a couple of other barnstormers.
First of these was the new Tristan und Isolde from Royal Swedish Opera in March. ‘Mortgage your Grandmother,’ I wrote at the time, ‘If only to hear Nina Stemme.’ I still think that those who couldn’t part with Grannie missed one of the great Wagner sopranos of all time and I do not say that lightly. Supported by a strong cast of other principals and by expert conducting from Leif Segerstam (another Finn) in Hans – Peter Lehmann’s new and textually faithful production, Nina Stemme gave an absolutely stunning performance as Isolde. ‘Wagner can’t come much better than this,’ I remember thinking at the time.
But it could; in the form of FNO’s Ring in September. Enter Ms Stemme once again as a fine Sieglinde partnered this time by Jyrki Anttila, a held in the making if ever there was, and another strong team including Salminen as both Hunding and Hagen. The real ear-opener though was Juha Uusitalo’s extraordinary Wotan. A capable Balstrode in Oramo’s Grimes, Uusitalo became positively majestic in this production in terms of both his effortless singing and his acting. Three great Wagner singers in the same production are rarities these days, but apart from its Brünnhilde, this production had pretty well everything. It was definitely world-class opera and abidingly memorable at that.
Three weeks after this and Uusitalo popped up again, this time as Scarpia in Oramo’s concert- performance Tosca in Birmingham. And yes, he did that magnificently too: this was another commanding characterisation with the same extraordinary voice, with the customary excellent diction and with the same quietly and assured and easy acting. There’s no end to this man’s talents apparently and equally little constraint on Oramo’s abilities as an opera conductor or so it seems. With Claire Rutter as an extremely competent Tosca and some lusty singing from the two CBSO choruses this was another thoroughly enjoyable evening of opera. The Finns (and one truly wonderful Swede) ruled in 2004 so far as I’m concerned.
The indisputable first position is occupied by Bernard Haitink’s performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony with the Berliner Philharmoniker in Berlin on 25th September. It was the concert of a lifetime with a finale that left everybody speechless. The involvement was total, an absolute achievement. I hope that Haitink will conduct it again (in an interview he gave the impression that these performances of the Mahler Third would be the last ones under his baton).
Very close behind comes the concert the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra gave during the Athens Festival at the ancient “Herodeion” theatre below the Acropolis on 23rd August. Herbert Blomstedt conducted an all Brahms concert featuring the Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos in a fabulous performance of the Violin concerto. But the revelation came with the First Symphony. One wondered what to admire: the velvet strings, the fabulous and so characteristic winds or Blomstedt’s perfectly balanced view of this over-played work? This was an unforgettable experience leaving me with the rare impression of “this is how it should be played”.
In a year of many fine concerts it is an invidious task to select a favourite. Having said that I vote for veteran Mstislav Rostropovich's shattering account of Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony with the LSO (Barbican Hall, 4th November, 2004). I wrote in my review: “Rostropovich's deeply moving account was one of the most violently intense I have ever heard…The central climax in the Allegro non troppo was pure terror, with the march-like timpani and brass savagely characterized and the bass drum thuds giving the sensation of decapitation.” The charismatic Rostropovich exuded total command over his players, securing highly concentrated playing that had the audience mesmerised from beginning to end: the hallmark of a great performance.
This was very closely followed by Myung-Whun Chung’s superlative account of Brahms' First Symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra (Barbican, 5th December 2004), which glowed from beginning to end; the finest I have heard live since Celibidache’s 1980 LSO account. Not only did the Korean conductor have a total grasp over the structure of the score unifying all movements as an organic whole; he also realised the powerful pathos, poetic lyricism and profound tragedy of the music often obscured by bombastic accounts; the LSO’s playing was warm and deeply expressive sounding more akin to a great German orchestra. As Marc Bridle wrote of the performance: “…it was the ending of the work that suggested Mr Chung is a master Brahms conductor. Put simply, the conductor – as he did throughout the performance – kept that sustained base line absolutely audible, and his timpanist firmly under control. A broadening at the final bar - rather than an accelerando dash during the bar – returned us to where we had begun: in to an atmosphere of true cataclysm. Brahms’ First doesn’t get much better than this.”
Also outstanding was Valery Gergiev’s impassioned account of Prokofiev's complete ballet Romeo & Juliet with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra (RFH, 6th June 2004). Gergiev’s reading was refreshingly raw and visceral, making the two and a half hours of ballet music sound like a symphonic score. The playing of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra was rugged and metallic with the brass and bass-drum in particular having nerve-shattering dramatic intensity. Marc Bridle wrote: “It is a tribute to this conductor’s talent for creating performances of searing intensity that this performance held the interest for its entirety…None of this would have been possible without the virtuosic playing of the Rotterdam Philharmonic who seamlessly negotiated Gergiev’s extremes of rubato with a polished consistency”.
Last but not least was Christoph Eschenbach’s deeply moving and sensitively sung and superbly played account of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde with Andreas Schmidt (bar) and Yvonne Naef (mezzo) with Orchestra de Paris, (Prom, Royal Albert Hall, 28th August, 2004). While the Orchestra de Paris is not usually associated with the music of this composer, Eschenbach achieved an authentic ‘Mahler sound’, notably with the poetically pointed woodwind. As I said in my review of the concert: “Christoph Eshenbach's reading of Das Lied was the finest performance I have heard of this work in concert: this was a paradigm Mahler performance with soloists, conductor and orchestra totally unified in their vision.”
It was 1984 and I was just beginning to get serious about opera when Jon Vickers' portrayal of Peter Grimes gobsmacked me. The Royal Opera Covent Garden was performing in Los Angeles as part of a cultural festival before the summer Olympic Games. I had never seen or heard an opera singer so completely inhabit a role, sing it and act it with such power and perfection. In the intervening years, in several hundred opera performances, nothing has surpassed that individual effort for me until Karita Mattila sashayed onto the stage at the Metropolitan Opera in New York last spring as Salome. She was mesmerizing.
Because my colleague Bruce Hodges reviewed this production twice here, I did not feel the need to chime with essentially the same take. Mattila managed the impossible, a woman past 40 convincing us she was a nasty little teenage sexpot, all the while singing Strauss' music the way you always wish you could hear it and seldom do, even in concerts. Bryn Terfel as Jokanaan (in four performances) led a powerful cast up and down the roster, and Valery Gergiev urged the Met Orchestra into some astounding music making. A DVD is in the works for 2005 release. Don't miss it.
Singers played a role in my other favorite concerts this year -- two wonderfully intimate recitals by the mezzo soprano Susanne Mentzer at the Aspen Music Festival last summer, Thomas Quasthoff's amazingly natural set of orchestrated Schubert songs with the San Francisco Symphony in September, the star-studded gala in October that Lyric Opera of Chicago threw itself to celebrate 50 years, and a beautifully realized Cunning Little Vixen starring Dawn Upshaw at San Francisco Opera in June.
One memorable instrumental concert among many by the San Francisco Symphony, which I am privileged to hear year round, involved second chances. In late spring, Michael Tilson Thomas conducted a second hearing of John Adams' My Father New Charles Ives and the world premiere of the English composer Robin Holloway's orchestration of Debussy's En Blanc et Noir. The Debussy/Holloway made a strong first impression, but in May I felt it lacked the clarity of Debussy's piano writing. A performance of a revised score this fall was truly magical. The Adams reinforced my feeling that this is his best work in years. That concert concluded with a riveting account of Rimsky's Scheherezade, but I left still immersed in Adams' very personal paean to an American original.
In the end, it is not the number of concerts or operas one attended in a single season, but the ones one chose to go to and it seems that I chose carefully and well. There were hardly any events I forgot instantly; most were fascinating, being for repertoire or interpretation or both, some were just plain awful. But in retrospect, the highlight has been a one-hour BBC lunchtime recital at LSO St Luke´s on May 13th. The Czech pianist Ivan Moravec played works by his compatriots Janácek, Smetana and Suk. The editor reviewed this concert and I entirely agree with him. Moravec is the last pianist of an era which sadly, now, belongs to the past. His tireless commitment to an ever more masterly interpretation and his total involvement into the complexities of each single work as well as his honesty are second to none. In this case, he also understood perfectly well how to balance the acoustical difficulties of this half empty hall – an hour to treasure forever. But I should also mention two further events, which had hardly any coverage in the national press. On May 17th Paul Crossley gave his 60th Birthday Concert at the Wigmore Hall. It had been a feast of great contemporary compositions starting with Takemitsu (Crossley’s deeply felt transcription of the movement `Visions´ from Takemitsu´s orchestral piece “Visions”,) followed by compositions specially written for this occasion by Esa-Pekka Salonen, Magnus Lindberg, George Benjamin, Hans Wener Henze and Oliver Knussen. After the interval, Paul Crossley gave another example of his lifelong refinement and understanding of Debussy’s works for piano with his interpretation of Préludes Book 2. Without Paul Crossley, the pianist, conductor and untiring champion of contemporary music, England would be much poorer. The other event also took place in the Wigmore Hall on June 8th, where Emily Pailthorpe (Oboe), Julian Milford (Piano) and James Gilchrist (Tenor) played rarely heard works by Bartók, Finzi, Vaughan-Williams, Patterson, Ravel, Korth and Britten. My most overwhelming opera experience happened at the Grange Park Opera with Tchaikovsky's Charodeika on June 13th.
PETER GRAHAME WOOLF, EMERITUS EDITOR
We draw attention here to a small selection of live events which particularly stick in the memory, many of them not covered elsewhere.
Leaving London's orchestral concerts aside for others to recall, we went often to the refurbished Wigmore Hall, where the Aviv String Quartet made a huge impact, confirmed later at South Bank. The variety of 'chamber music' (still avoided by many concert goers) is illustrated by just three unusual events which readers are likely to have missed; Tarleton's Jig at Blackheath, Alice & Martin Neary at St John's and O Duo in the Purcell Room.
Opera has been various indeed. The colleges have delighted us as ever; Thomas's Mignon (seen twice at the Guildhall) was an unexpected pleasure. We enjoyed Raymond Gubbay's ill-fated venture at the Savoy far more than the newspapers told us we ought to have. At Holland Park, Puccini's La Fanciulla was one of the best in a good season. Clockwork, at the Linbury, down below the Royal Opera House, stays in the memory better than anything upstairs. Family Matters, by six young composers, anticipated the greatly deplored demise of the Bridewell Theatre, that irreplaceable music theatre centre. I Fagiolini made Monteverdi madrigals into a virtual opera in Greenwich, where the annual Early Music Festival jamboree brought huge crowds from many countries.
Rewarding festivals abroad included contemporary music at Amsterdam and Lucerne (Boulez's Festival Academy and Ullmann's The Kaiser of Atlantis on the lakeside); early music in Antwerp and most notably of all, a unique coming together of nations and faiths singing Musica Sacra International in Bavaria.