Friday, 2 January 2015

Retrospecstive 2014: classical/opera

I've had such a fantastic cultural year that I've had to split my highlights round-up into two this time round, so this post focuses on the more classical end of the spectrum, with the rockier stuff to follow, as soon as I can!

I tried to keep the list to 15, unless I've miscounted (it's not easy when you have to use both hands and a foot). Caveat lector: I'm a London-based punter - rather than a critic, say - so you will see the same venues keep cropping up, and I obviously try and go primarily to things I expect to enjoy. As a result, it gives me the chills to think of some of the marvellous concerts or releases that I had to leave out - with a special honorary mention to Wigmore Hall: that magnificent chamber venue where, as well as those mentioned below, I was privileged to hear Alice Coote, Simon Keenlyside, Steven Isserlis, Mahan Esfahani... it really is a jewel in the capital's musical crown.

Still, dry those tears, Specs. Onwards! (By the way - where I've written more abut a selection, I've included a link to that post for ease of reference...)

Adams: 'The Gospel According to the Other Mary' - English National Opera
John Adams reached new heights of beauty and power with this sort-of sequel to 'El Nino' - this time tackling the Passion instead of the Nativity. My extract below is from the CD, which came out earlier in the year - but for the staged premiere at ENO, Peter Sellars introduced austere sets and once-seen, never-forgotten displays of dance and movement, as each character's emotions were brought out further by an eloquent shadow.

Anderson: 'Thebans' - English National Opera
Another new opera at the Coliseum: Julian Anderson enlisted playwright Frank McGuinness to condense all three 'Theban' plays by Sophocles into one libretto. As a result, the English text still carried the weight and foreboding of poetic drama. The original tragedies were never presented as one trilogy in their own time - they were written apart - but nonetheless they cover the key events in the Oedipus story in spite of themselves. Anderson and McGuinness reflect this by playing with the time sequence and structure, fragmenting the events as the family collapses. Peter Hoare channelled his tenor voice into chilling callousness as Creon, and fittingly, there was magnificent writing for the chorus.

Beethoven: 'Missa solemnis' - 2014 Proms
John Eliot Gardiner re-assembled his crack 'Missa' team with only one personnel change from the Barbican recording: the Monteverdi Choir, Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, and four stellar soloists, soprano Lucy Crowe, mezzo Jennifer Johnston, bass Matthew Rose, and tenor Michael Spyres (although it's James Gilchrist you hear on the CD). This was for me one of the stand-out concerts of the Proms season - as you can see and hear from the video (the performance in full!), everyone involved is on top form, and in particular the Fantastic Four are never less than brilliant - you'll be hooked from the moment early on when their voices are drawn out from the throng. (I was lucky enough to see the versatile Lucy Crowe in very different guise as Adina in Donizetti's 'L'elisir d'amore' at the Royal Opera - if that production/cast resurfaces, please try and see it. And if you're blown away as I was by Matthew Rose's voice, luxuriate in his two Schubert song cycle discs, 'Winterreise' and 'Schwanengesang'.)

Ian Bostridge & Julius Drake: 'Songs by Schubert' (Wigmore Hall Live)
Bostridge has plenty of Schubert releases out there, but currently he's in the midst of programming a series of recitals with JD at the Wigmore Hall exploring various corners of Franz's vast canon. Wigmore has its own terrific label devoted to recordings of concerts at the Hall and hopefully, in the wake of this one, the whole IB/JD series will be released. This has all the urgency you could want from any 'live album' - it hooks you in immediately with a turbulent 'Der Strom', then builds in intensity through the glorious 'Nachtstuck' (studio version below), the epic 'Viola' (five or six times the length of many lieder with even the refrain returning differently each time) and then, at last, a release of tension with 'Auflösung' ('Dissolution'). This breakneck performance echoes some of the earlier moments (agitated piano beneath stately voice) but in a rush of kinetic energy that knocks the audience sideways: the song lasts two minutes, the applause a full minute. And that's just the first half.

Chamber Proms at Cadogan Hall
For me, two of the finest concerts at the Proms season didn't take place in the Royal Albert Hall. The Monday lunchtime chamber series included a joyous CPE Bach recital by Rachel Podger and a brilliant shape-shifting band including renowned fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout. (This hasn't been released commercially as such, but a recording of the concert was on the free CD with BBC Music Magazine, and back issues are still available!)

There was also an unexpected treat - due to hear an Alice Coote recital, we heard shortly in advance that sadly AC was unwell, and that Anne Schwanewilms, with Malcolm Martineau accompanying, would step in with a performance of Strauss and Debussy. (The clip below has AS singing one of the Debussy songs - sadly not MM playing but you get to hear him later.) I was just enthralled by their rapport, the beautiful balance of their programme, and how - while they sounded spectacular throughout - they visibly relaxed as the surprise gig went on. A sumptuous pleasure, all the sweeter for being out of nowhere.

The Hilliard Ensemble say goodbye
This most cherished of small vocal groups decided to do what any of us are supposed to do after 40 years' loyal service: retire. (Although I believe that 'new boy' Steven Harrold has been part of the line-up for a mere decade and a half.) I caught one their final concerts with saxophonist Jan Garbarek at Temple Church - their trio of albums starting with best-seller 'Officium' chart an extraordinary collaboration that kept nudging at what could be done with improvisation in a seemingly alien, early-music context. But I suspect no other recital will feel quite the same as their actual Farewell Concert at Wigmore Hall. Programming a tight 75 minutes, they avoided some of the big hitters of their repertoire (no Victoria, Palestrina, Gesualdo) and instead veered happily between particular musical causes they had championed, both old (Perotin) and new, especially Arvo Pärt. Visibly moved but unsentimental - I guess they'd been getting used to the idea for more than a year - they gave light-hearted introductions to the material before re-summoning their otherworldly voices. We sent them backstage, for good, with a standing ovation.

Stephen Hough - live and on disc
Two highlights in one go from Stephen Hough, who as well as being a fine pianist and writer is a fascinating composer and has a real genius for programming. His 'In the Night' disc finds the disquiet and restlessness in the darkness. It features his own 2nd sonata (a single long movement that references - as the liner note points out - the 'brightness of a brash city', as well as 'irrational fears or...disturbing dreams') alongside Schumann's 'Carnaval' and a version of Beethoven's 'Moonlight' sonata that might make you think again about that famous opening movement and how it can warily, edgily prepare you for what's to come. (A live performance is below.) In summer, SH's recital at Wigmore Hall to a certain extent promoted 'In the Night' - with 'Carnaval' taking up the second half - but before that we heard more unusual fare, including some Schoenberg miniatures. I was interested to hear solo piano works that seemed to bring together composers famed for making statements with much larger forces: Strauss, Wagner and - best of all - something resembling a solo symphony from Bruckner, called 'Erinnerung'. (I've only seen this appear on one CD and I really hope SH records it.) I'm in awe at how Hough has the delicacy to glide across the keys yet strike with such a controlled and robust sound: gossamer and grit. We even heard a generous four encores: a masterclass.

Poulenc: 'Dialogues des Carmelites' - Royal Opera
Not much to say here except that this is one of the most affecting and devastating of all operas, in a production that laid the horror open with its subtlety and restraint. The Carmelite nuns go to the guillotine one by one at the end, with the slice of the blade cutting through their final hymn. In this staging (in the video) - which I know has polarised people - the nuns perform choreographed movements and simply fall in turn with each strike. I can think of no better way of uniting them as they are transfigured by their act - even we, the audience, are excluded as it is hard to tell for some time who is dropping out and when. It's totally in keeping with the beautiful visual ideas elsewhere in the production - the nuns lying face down around their dying Mother Superior (a searing performance from Deborah Polaski), or forming a human wall for the monastery.

Puccini: 'The Girl of the Golden West' - English National Opera
Puccini's Western came to the ENO for the first time in 50 years, in an absolutely stunning production. Susan Bullock as heroine Minnie gave a brave, mature performance that brought out longing as well as desire - and the idiomatic translation, rendered with a knack for 'cowboy movie' turns of phrase, worked a treat. Puccini's proto-cinematic score (if your pulse doesn't race during the pared-down soundtrack for the card game, I can't help you) couldn't have been championed more lovingly and effectively.

Jo Quail: 'Caldera'
Contemporary classical brilliance didn't restrict itself to the opera house this year. Composer/performer Jo Quail (regular Specs perusers will know the name by now, I'm sure) writes pieces and suites which she can play solo, live, on her electric cello and loop station. As a result, you are as likely to find her on the bill in a dark folk or neoclassical gig as you are at a church or hall recital. There's no question, though, that latest album 'Caldera' contains some of the most beautiful music of 2014, from any genre. And while you can simply close your eyes and abandon yourself to it, close listening brings greater rewards: the chattering beat of 'Laurus' created with the back of the bow (as in the live performance here, from the album launch); the dovetailing picked and bowed notes combining the sensual and sinister in 'Jhanoem the Witch'; and the evocative 'Hidden Forest', performed acoustically but with an initial repeating note suggesting a loop that isn't there. To me, this is the kind of music that NMC or ECM New Series could be releasing: a composer of quiet genius working at the edge of what strings and electronics can do... then packing it all up in a couple of cases and taking it out to the world. Support! - albums and concert news here.

Dorothea Röschmann and Malcolm Martineau: 'Portraits'
This disc came out very late in the year, but it's clearly something rather special. DR - as far as I can tell - is not as recorded as she should be, but I hope this album changes all that. A labour of love to a certain extent, the programme is all-German (Schubert, Schumann, Strauss and Wolf) and based around female characters in lieder. While this is a showcase for DR's sublime voice, it's remarkable how intimate they both sound, with each other (MM's playing is as expressive and responsive as ever) and with the listener. The dynamics - as much in the performance as production - are stunning. In this example, the way the piano (mimicking the distracted turn of a spinning wheel) is literally running rings around the vocal, to breathtaking effect.

Carolyn Sampson and Julius Drake at the Wigmore Hall
Carolyn Sampson has sung in a wide range of repertoire but I think it's safe to say that most of her recorded output focuses on her exquisite Baroque performances. However, there's been some recent wandering. A beautiful recording of Poulenc's 'Stabat Mater' (the clip), and the late-night Tavener 'Requiem Fragments' Prom rang the changes. And then this particular concert, apparently her first ever 'art song' recital. With JD on typical chameleonic form, CS gave one glorious rendition after another: Brahms, Debussy, Faure, Grieg and Poulenc. I can't remember when I was last so disappointed to realise that there were no recording microphones in the auditorium. I hope Hyperion, Harmonia Mundi (or any label with any sense) let her loose on this music so we can have a disc. It would come with me to my desert island for sure.

Strauss: 'Die Frau ohne Schatten' - Royal Opera
'Strauss 150' featured plenty of treats - not least the 'Salome'/'Elektra' weekend at the Proms - but the one that haunted and transported me the most was this truly imaginative and otherwordly production of this peculiar but affecting dark fantasy. Animal heads and gliding sets all played their unsettling part; but most complelling were the performances: Johan Reuter shone as Barak the Dyer, but Emily Magee was extraordinary as the Empress. She was triumphant vocally but also acted physically with real grace, as her character, trapped between the two worlds, mirrored the movements of both spirits and humans.

Wagner: 'Tristan und Isolde' - Royal Opera
Finally - the latest entry of all. This run has only just finished, to great acclaim. Nina Stemme is widely regarded as an essentially matchless Isolde (the clip shows her performing the 'Liebestod' - Isolde's final 'aria' sung over Tristan's body - in a concert setting but her face still acts every word). In this sparse monochrome staging, one could lose oneself in Wagner's almost queasily beautiful score (which, however gorgeous, famously never truly comes to rest until the very end) and lap up the performance masterclass, not just from Stemme: Stephen Gould was an impressive Tristan, John Tomlinson charismatically broken as Marke. Special mentions too for the companion characters: Sarah Connolly and Iain Paterson both sang as if their lives depended on it and fully deserve their share of all the plaudits showered upon the leads. A great work, given by a brilliant ensemble.

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