Review of the Year 2008

The ups and downs of classical music in the last twelve months

21 December 2008

Anna Nebtrebko as Violetta at Covent Garden, with Jonas Kaufmann (photo © Catherine Ashmore)Money makes the world go around, and as we approach 2009 the big question is whether the arts can survive at a time when many people are forced to prioritise their spending. Music, and art in general, is a key method of personal expression, and its importance in our lives goes far beyond mere entertainment. As much as it won't be lost, of course, it's inevitable that companies, orchestras and venues on smaller budgets, or those which rely on niche audiences, will be under threat.

Yet as we look back on 2008, there's plenty to celebrate. For London music enthusiasts, there have been extraordinary events such as the opening of King's Place, commemorative events about the lives of Stockhausen, Carter and Messiaen, and some sensational individual performances such as Barenboim's Beethoven Sonata cycle, Anna Netrebko's Covent Garden Violetta and the UK premiere of Gérard Grisey's Les espaces acoustiques.

I must say that for me, the UK opera seasons haven't been quite as enthralling as in 2007: in spite of some excellent individual performances – Finley's Onegin, Florez's Corradino, Schwanewilms' Chrysothemis, DiDonato's Elvira, Cura's Dick Johnson, Andrew Shore's ENO Bartolo, Gavanelli's Scarpia, Rebecca Evans' WNO Pamina and Terfel's WNO Falstaff, amongst others – I can't honestly say that any individual opera performance has completely blown me away. It was good to see Opera North in good health during a recent visit, but the number of empty seats worried me. The two WNO performances I saw earlier in the year were much better attended, but I found the Welsh company less artistically ambitious (production-wise) than Opera North, even if the musical performances were finer.

The Royal Opera had a safe year, but there were a couple of major disappointments in the new productions of Salome and Don Carlo, and rather too many revivals of recently-seen productions such as Magic Flute, Tosca, Boheme and Don Giovanni. ENO failed to reach the heights of its December 2007 Turn of the Screw with frustrating new stagings of Cav and Pag, Partenope, Rosenkavalier and Lucia and less than enthralling reruns of The Mikado, Barber of Seville, Butterfly and Aida.

By far the highlight of the year for me was the Metropolitan Opera's revival of Ernani, in which all four soloists, but especially Thomas Hampson, gave thrilling performances; Susan Graham's performance in the Met's La clemenza di Tito was also very fine, leaving me longing for that kind of star power a little more often on our side of the Atlantic (though on the negative side, both productions were long outdated).

Richard HickoxNeither of the Proms I attended this year gave me much inspiration, but there have been some fine concerts through the year, not least the Classical Opera Company's Mozart evening at the Barbican, numerous outings of London's five main bands, and the Halle in Manchester. I've also enjoyed pursuing my enthusiasm for musical theatre at various points in the year, with highlights including Topol and Linda Thorson in Gigi, the Menier's new A Little Night Music and The Music Man at the Chichester Festival.

Having reviewed so many recordings in 2008 – overall we've covered over 220 releases – it 's impossible for me to choose a favourite, but those that have stuck with me include the new Florez/Bartoli Sonnambula, Gardiner's ongoing Bach Cantatas series and new Brahms release, Fleming's new Four Last Songs (controversially received elsewhere), Solti's Beethoven and Wagner on BBC Legends, the Royal Opera's Figaro, Fleming again in Eugene Onegin on DVD from the Met, the appendix of the 2008 Broadway Cast recording of Gypsy, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in Handel and Bach, La Cour de Celimene on Opera Rara, the LSO's Benvenuto Cellini, Janet Baker in Alceste, Johan Reuter's Verdi CD, Assassinio nella cattedrale on Decca DVD, Donizetti on period instruments with Mark Elder on Opera Rara, Poulenc on Hyperion and James MacMillan on LSO Live. There have been one or two flops, too: I'm afraid that Naxos' recording of Vivaldi's Griselda, Natalie Dessay in Manon, Kennedy's Mozart and Beethoven recording, Netrebko's Souvenirs, Petibon's Amoureuses, Macbeth and Manon Lescaut on DVD from the Met and Erwin Schrott's debut recital disc all proved disappointments, to lesser or greater degrees. The flip side of these lists, though, is that the industry is clearly in a healthier state than some would have us believe.

The year has seen a number of losses in the music industry, most recently Richard van Allan and Richard Hickox, both of them in tragic circumstances but most especially poignant in the case of the conductor. Though I always had mixed experiences of him in concerts and opera, and his time at Opera Australia was troubled to say the least, Hickox was a champion of various repertoires. One of my favourite memories of him was at the Proms in Dvorak's Dmitrij, an extraordinary piece which he brought to life with vigour. Van Allan's long service on the British opera stage also deserves praise, and both of them will be missed.

In 2008, we've written over 400 articles on MusicalCriticism.com. Below is a list of the highlights by a selection of our regular writers.

By Dominic McHugh

Hugo Shirley, Deputy Editor

Lucio Gallo (left) and Ferruccio Furlanetto in the Royal Opera's Simon Boccanegra (Photo © Catherine Ashmore)My highlights of the year in the opera house have to include the Royal Opera's Don Carlo, primarily for the chance it afforded London finally to hear the great Italian bass, Ferruccio Furlanetto, in one of the meaty Verdi roles he's made his own. And a few weeks before his Filippo, we'd had the bonus of hearing him as Fiesco in Simon Boccanegra, which also featured the outstanding, belated Covent Garden debut of Anja Harteros.

There seems to have been a lot of Richard Strauss around this year: most recently Susan Bullock and Mark Elder were hugely impressive in the Royal Opera's Elektra. David McVicar's ENO Rosenkavalier and ROH Salome were both slightly disappointing, though, and Deborah Voigt's highly publicised Ariadne was impressive enough but showed that her voice has lost much of its lustre and security. In terms of straightforward enjoyment, my highlight has to be a rip-roaring Iford performance of Verdi's neglected Un giorno di regno.

Tinged with sadness, the final two concerts of the Alban Berg Quartet were moving occasions; each was rounded off with a sublime performance of Schubert, the G major Quartet and C major Quintet. There were some special concerts at the Proms, too, but the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra again left a lasting impression. Quite apart from the orchestra's back-story, they provided performances of Brahms, Schoenberg and Haydn under Daniel Barenboim that showed what a top-flight band they are. In disappointing contrast, the New York Philharmonic under Lorin Maazel went through the motions in their second concert with a depressing lack of passion and engagement.

Some excellent recordings have come my way this year, but I don't think any has been as totally impressive as the final volume of Jean-Efflam Bavouzet's Debussy on Chandos. And anyone looking for a last-minute Christmas gift that's a little off the beaten track could do worse than Diabolicus' À nos amours (Ambroisie): a delightful disc that's fascinating, amusing and quietly moving in equal measure.

Stephen Graham, Contemporary Music Editor

Ingo MetzmacherMy two concert highlights of the year had to Prometeo at the RFH in May, and St. François d'Assise at the Proms in September. The first of these, Luigi Nono's late masterpiece of infra-dramatic non-opera, was given an absolutely transcendent performance by Diego Masson and Patrick Bailey, with the London Sinfonietta, the Royal Academy of Music's Manson Ensemble, Synergy Vocals and Nono's preferred sound designer Andre Richard. It wasn't to everyone's tastes, but the stillness and humility of the work shone through profoundly for me.

Messiaen's own late operatic masterpiece, his St. Francis, is a more concentional offering than the Nono, though its five hour celestial duration and atmosphere needs skilled advocates, and Ingo Metzmacher with the Hague Philharmonic Orchestra gave a subtle concert performance that transfigured the Albert Hall. Birtwistle's Minotaur at the ROH, his Punch and Judy at the Young Vic and the Linbury, Olga Neuwirth's Lost Highway at the Young Vic, and Michael Berkeley's For You at the Linbury all added up to a good year for contemporary opera in London.

The many celebrations of the Messiaen centenary, Carter's hundreth birthday, and commemorations of Stockhausen's death around the UK provided many wonderful hours of music, whilst festivals such as the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, Cut and Splice, and Supersonic in Birmingham all flew the flag for vibrant contemporary music.

It was quite a good year for contemporary recordings too. MODE records, Emanem, NMC (in particular the Harvey and Dillon releases), hathut, and Kairos (who deserve special commendation for their impressive maintenance of high frequency and standards of the best in new notated music, this year for example releasing fabulous recordings of the music of Mark Andre and Rebecca Saunders), all contributing to the vitality of releases of new experimental music from across the spectrum, from improvised to composed.

Agnes Kory, Co-Founder

Radu LupuWithout doubt, in 2008 my most exciting and rewarding moments in the concert hall were provided by violinist Vadim Gluzman (29th October) and pianist Radu Lupu (6th November). Gluzman's performance of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto was mesmerizing for its beauty and technical perfection.

The violinist's seemingly endless energy is also of note. After the notoriously demanding violin concerto he concluded with a perfectly executed virtuoso encore that is with the first movement of Ysaye's Sonata No.2 (Obsession). Radu Lupu never ceases to search for the multitude layers of musical meaning. He is relatively new to Bartok's third piano concerto but his performance suggested both a deep knowledge of the composition and the creative process of organic interpretation. To put it simply: Lupu played beautifully.

Liam Cagney

Gerard GriseyMy concert of the year was the long-anticipated UK premiere of Gérard Grisey's Les espaces acoustiques cycle at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall, which was given by the London Sinfonietta and the Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble, helmed by George Benjamin.

The combination of Benjamin's sure, punctilious approach to the music along with the Sinfonietta's pedigree in the field meant that this complex and idiosyncratic work was realized to the height of its potential. It was satisfying to finally witness this work in concert after having previously only heard recordings, and indeed it exceeded expectations; a really astounding work, as visceral as cerebral, and going some way towards recovering the originality of the compositional impulse that has tended to be covered over by outworn ideas and gesture.

The Sinfonietta continues to be outstanding and were ubiquitous this year in concerts of contemporary music in Britain, their programme displaying a broad palette. It is testament to the service they provide concert-goers that one looks forward to them bringing more outstanding contemporary work to the public ear in 2009.

In recent years the Sinfonietta has collaborated with artists from the Warp records label, a label specialising in experimental electronic music. Autechre's Quaristice, released this year on that label, is an album likely to have been missed by most and won't have registered on the radar of any classical music publications. Nevertheless, it is a vast display of compositional prowess in the recorded medium, a sprawling album of miniatures that explores and circuits the extent of what's harmonically, timbrally and rhythmically possible at the moment in the electronic medium. Anyone with an interest in the state of composition should give it a look: as manifold and rich as any compositional work currently coming from the classical tradition, it also grows with repeated listens.

Claudine Nightingale

Nigel Kennedy (Photo © Philip Ryalis)Highlights from 2008 would have to include the rare appearance of Nigel Kennedy at Prom 2. As if his lightning-speed interpretation of Elgar's Violin Concerto wasn't enough to stun the audience, his extravagant outfit and chummy repartee certainly made for a unique Proms experience.

The Gabrielli Consort and Players' Dido and Aeneas at Wigmore Hall was also noteworthy: Sarah Connolly as Dido gave a captivating performance, full of passion and anguish – by far the highlight of the opera. One to watch out for is Jakub Hrusa, a Czech-born conductor about to take up the post of Music Director and Chief Conductor of the Prague Philharmonia. He was exceptionally well-received at the Barbican in November, conducting Carmina Burana with the command and precision far in advance of his tender 27 years.

William Norris

Julia Fischer2008 was an enthralling, sometimes even surprising year on record. I'd never thought I would hear Schubert's 'Arpeggione' Sonata played on the instrument for which it was intended! n's revealing performance, with Paul Badura-Skoda at the keyboard, is coupled with a tender account of the same composer's epic String Quintet in C major, D956. Nikolai Demidenko's fiery 1996 performances of Schumann's Piano Sonatas Nos. 1 and 3 – re-released on the Helios label – and the Florestan Trio's resplendent return to Dvorák (Piano Trios Opp. 21 and 26) for Hyperion also spring readily to mind. Valery Gergiev's breathtaking direction of the first movement of Mahler's Third Symphony, at the helm of the London Symphony Orchestra, warrants a mention for luxurious musicianship and sheer gravity.

For concert highlights I need to look no further than the BBC Proms. Julia Fischer's sumptuous, scintillating account of the Brahms Violin Concerto with Yakov Kreizberg's Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra was easily the most riveting live performance I witnessed this year. The Opening Night, hosted by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Jiri Belohlávek, was a remarkable celebration of classical music, with an eclectic yet cohesive programme of works by Mozart, Beethoven, Scriabin, Richard Strauss, Messiaen and Elliot Carter. Nicholas Daniel's captivating display in Mozart's C-major Oboe Concerto, K.314 that evening was marvelously uplifting.

Mike Reynolds

Sarah Connolly and Sarah Tynan in ENO's Rosenkavalier (Photo: Clive Barda) Simple really. 2008 gave me three reminders of the extraordinary operatic legacy of the one twentieth century British composer to have strutted the world stage – Benjamin Britten. In May I saw Martin Duncan's new Opera North production of A Midsummer Night's Dream and marvelled again at the extraordinary sonorities and ethereal transparency of this breathtaking score.

The production was a delight – attractive to look at, clever in the way it worked and a visual treat throughout. The singing and playing by a young cast of principals were exemplary and I don't think I have ever seen the final scene with the mechanicals better done. Then to The Rape of Lucretia at Snape Maltings, where David Parry conducted and Edward Dick directed a visionary production of this problematic opera set to some of the most beautiful music that Britten ever wrote. And in-between, a return to Peter Hall's wonderful Albert Herring at Glyndebourne, which seems to get fresher and younger each time it is revived. Those were my opera highlights of the year.

Covent Garden, ENO, Glyndebourne and Grange Park were more patchy overall than some years, but there were moments during the ROH Don Carlo that convinced me it really is the grandest and most ambitious opera Verdi ever wrote, and moments during Matilde di Shabran that convinced me that Rossini never wrote anything sillier. The ENO Rosenkavalier was a lovely experience and I would highlight the Sophie of Sarah Tynan as a glorious sing. To my ears, Emmanuelle Haim was the real star (in the pit) for Glyndebourne's Coronation of Poppea but I hardly had any ears left after hearing Cynthia Makris sing Minnie in Grange Park's Fanciulla del West! She was powerful.

On CD, I am immersed in the 1968 Reginald Goodall Mastersingers that Chandos has at last released and I am thanking my lucky stars that I actually saw something this good – twice – in its original run at Sadlers Wells. Digitally remastered, the sound is gorgeous and the performances a revelation.

Marina Romani

Dmitri HvorostovskyTwo events stood out for me in 2008. First, Elektra at the ROH: desperate vitality, delirious charm, dangerous torment: this is what I saw when Susan Bullock's Elektra was on stage. Despite the supporting roles not being always adequate to her performance, the hallucinated Agamemnon's daughter was a catalyst for the most extreme feelings displayed in Strauss' opera and made of this production one of the most engaging of this operatic season in London. Her musical and acting brightness even managed to cast a shadow over Charles Edwards' mise-en-scène, perhaps unsatisfactory or simply unaccomplished. Sir Mark Elder's conduction formed, together with Bullock's rendition, a marriage of minds whose musical result was overwhelming. This opera brought to Covent Garden glimmers of delirium that had the potentials to engage us all.

Then, Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Evgeny Kissin at Barbican Hall, Russian songs. Last October at the Barbican, once enfant prodige and virtuoso Evgeny Kissin offered the audience a performance up to his standards and demonstrated he can be a terrific accompanist. And as for the vocal delivery, hardly can one resist to Hvorostovky's seductive warmth of sound. If we add to this a stimulating, consistent and touching repertoire, the equation cannot fail - especially if the two performers seem to communicate at an artistically intimate level. The rationality of technical perfection and the intensity of visceral captivation made of this recital one of the best of 2008.

Francis Shelton

Claudio AbbadoTo cover the season at the Baden-Baden Festspielhaus is like having booked a yearlong cruise on the most modern and luxurious superboat, which stops only at peaceful, prosperous and beautiful ports. This incomplete list will give an impression of what events a small town of just 50,000 inhabitants, somnolently nesting in the foothills of the Black Forest, can support with mostly packed houses: Anne-Sophie Mutter - Brahms Sonatas and Beethoven String Trios, Bamberger Symphoniker, Sonnambula - Cecilia Bartoli singing the role for the first time on stage, Fidelio with Abbado, Maazel and the New York Philharmonic, Hengelbrock, Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Orchestra, Gergiev, Mariinsky Orchestra, St.Petersburg, Volodin's Tchaikovsky, Gidon Kremer's Sibelius, Pletnev and the Moscow State Orchestra, Ivan Fischer's Mahler, Charles Dutoit and the Philharmonia in Mahler, Metzmacher and the German Symphony Orchestra, the Labeque sisters, Barbiere from the Met, Waltraud Meier in the 'Wesendonck' Lieder and the 'Liebestod', Juan Diego Florez's Gala Concert, and Alfred Brendel's peniultimate public concert.

There was not one single run-of-the-mill performance in this extraordinary, albeit only incomplete list. I was looking forward mostly to' Abbado's Fidelio', because I felt that this performance will come nearest to 'Beethoven's Fidelio'. Fidelio is one of those operas, which has so often become the plaything of 'conceptual' charlatanery in direction. I was hoping that Abbado would not tolerate meddling on the stage with the basic concept, so clearly and passionately defined by Beethoven himself. But I was hoping in vain. Even a master of such overwhelming affinity with the great is not any longer a safe heaven for presenting operas, as its composers conceived them. The abyss between what went on in the pit under the passionately compulsive direction by Abbado, and the parody that was presented on the stage, could not have been more striking, and, to me, offensive. That Abbado chose the producer and co-operated with him, was hard for me to understand or justify. I could only resort to my usual enforced humility, when asked to comment on the performances of the great, about which I am uneasy: 'Who am I to judge an Abbado?' Perhaps being so firmly rooted in the first half of the last century disqualifies me from being an unbiased observer.

When I complained a few years ago about an abysmally produced Parsifal in Covent Garden, under the beatiful and compassionate direction of Simon Rattle, I was informed in writing by the Intendant , that the production was taken over from Amsterdam on the personal wish of Sir Simon, who found it brilliant. Nevertheless, I'm looking forward to another starstudded season in the FESTSPIELHAUS, which will offer such delicacies in January as a Salzburg Rosenkavalier with the inimitable Fleming as a Marschallin, as dreamed about by Strauss and Hofmannsthal.

John Woods

Natalie Dessay as Lucia at the Met (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)For me, the standout performance of the year out of those which I was lucky enough to attend was Natalie Dessay's assumption of the title role in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor at the Metropolitan Opera, New York. Dessay is not a singer who has ever appealed to me on record and, in purely vocal terms, she betrayed quite a lot of the wear and tear which her instrument has sustained during her career to date.

But on stage, she was utterly riveting, and gave the most convincing dramatic portrayal of any operatic heroine that I have so far experienced, particularly in her astonishing account of the famous mad scene. I had mixed feelings about some of Mary Zimmerman's stage direction during the evening, but I was bowled over by this section. I have never seen such close, effective, imaginative correlation between music and stage action, and it was evident that Dessay and her director must have spent many long, intense hours in rehearsal. It was too bad that other characters, and the chorus, appeared to have been somewhat neglected from the scenic point of view, but the prima donna could not have been more compelling. It was a revelatory night in the opera house.

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