Saturday, 2 January 2010
Highs and Lows of 2009
Happy New from OrpheusComplex! How was 2009 for you? My attentions were diverted from blogging for most of the year (sorry about that) as I was putting all my spare hours into concert and CD reviews for the website MusicWeb International. So I’ve been to plenty of concerts and got a good flavour of the London classical scene over the year. Without further ado then, here is a whistle-stop tour of London concert life in 2009.
It started on a low note for me with Vladimir Martynov’s Vita Nuova played by the LPO. I won’t go on at length about the failings of the piece (there was plenty of that in my review), but I will say in retrospect that the Jurowski’s bravery in programming it is all too rare. He may have been banking on Mark Padmore’s star qualities to appease critics and audiences. If so it didn’t work. However, all was forgiven come November when Jurowski headed a Schnittke festival with same forces. I was involved in that myself so I’m probably biased, but the phenomenal standard of the orchestra’s playing put Schnittke’s music in a new light for me. It was the festival that the BBC SO ‘Seeking the Soul’ event in 2001 should have been.
The Philharmonia had some grand plans in 2009 as well. Like the LPO (and just about every other orchestra) they have a young(ish) Eastern European conductor who has raised their game considerably over the last year or two. In fact Esa-Pekka Salonen has had more than enough time to settle in with the orchestra, although we don’t see as much of him in London as many of us would like. But when he is here, he makes his presence felt. In 2008 he brought us a spectacular (and almost year-long) Messiaen festival, while in 2009 he followed it up with a spectacular (and almost year-long) festival of Viennese music from 1900-1935. I missed the Gurrelieder that opened the season in February (and I’m still kicking myself), but got to the Wozzeck with which it closed. What a show! Intense, passionate singing and playing throughout, a strong cast headed by the peerless Simon Keenlyside, and an abstract video projected visual installation, which divided the critics, but which I thought was great. All in all, probably the best show I’ve seen in London since, well, the Tanagalîla with which they opened their Messiaen festival in 2008.
Mark Padmore returned to the RFH in Holy Week to bring us his take on the Matthew Passion. He has taken Joshua Rifkin’s one-to-a-part approach to a new extreme and done away with the conductor too. Instead he takes a workshop approach, doing everything in his power to get the performers to feel the emotion and interpret the work both individually and collectively. How strange then that the results seemed so conventional to me. Not in a bad way, but he was really just playing out the internal logic of today’s period performance conventions to their absurd extremes. There wasn’t much press interest either, perhaps because he has done the same thing with the John Passion a few times in the past, or more likely because all the critics bypassed the performance and made a beeline for the Barbican, where the Gewandhaus were giving an old-school Matthew Passion, with modern instruments boys choir, and most significantly of all, Thomas Quasthoff.
I got to a few good recitals at the Wigmore. The Seven Last Words interspersed with the Gesualdo Tenebrae Responsaries was an interesting one. Or it seemed like pretty radical programming to me, until I heard from a contact in Cologne that the singers who performed the Gesualdo, the Hilliard Ensemble, cooked up a similar ruse for a concert over there the following week, but that time mixing up their Gesualdo motets with the movements of Mahler 7. A little more than London audiences could stomach I suspect. Of the other star-studded recitals I got to at the Wigmore, my favourite by a good stretch was the Wolf Italianisches Liederbuch performed by Mojca Erdmann and Christian Gerhaher, both young, phenomenally attractive and superhumanly talented. No wonder the TV cameras were there. And imagine my joy on putting my hand into my stocking on Christmas Day and pulling out the new Harnoncourt recording of Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust, which features them both, and which doesn’t disappoint.
Where else? A mixed bag from the Barbican I thought. The LSO played magnificently under Haitink, ok under Colin Davis and dreadfully under Daniel Harding. I didn’t get too much by the BBC SO, but their George Crumb day was a treat. Just a shame they couldn’t have stretched it to a whole weekend.
And speaking of the BBC, what a dismal Proms programme. Roger Wright has sensibly dropped the ‘themes’ that his predecessor had running through the season, but he hasn’t come up with much to replace them with. For all that though, I got along to two, the Dresden Staatskapelle and the Leipzig Gewandhaus (I see a pattern emerging), both orchestras putting the local sides firmly in their place.
There were one or two treats at Cadogan Hall for anyone willing to venture into the wilds of Chelsea. The Norwegian Chamber Orchestra performed with Lief Ove Andsnes, an elegant little concert framed by Mozart’s 14th Concerto and Beethoven’s Third. The Tallis Scholars brought us some Reformation era choral music, conclusively demonstrating that Catholics know how to have a good time in a way that Protestants do not. The Stratford-based Orchestra of the Swan performed a new work that they had commissioned, a clarinet concerto by Joe Phibbs, the soloist Sarah Williamson. A fabulous piece and a fabulous player, but where was the audience? Oh well, their loss.
Lastly, and by no means leastly, there was an impressively varied programme at Kings Place in 2009. An evening of Haydn opera arias from the Classical Opera Company was well received, in IRCAM ‘residency’ intrigued and satisfied in equal measure, the Endymion’s excellent performance of Morton Feldman’s Crippled Symmetry was a small but significant step towards proper recognition on the London stage for one of the 20th Centuries most distinctive voices. And then there was ‘Collage-Montage’, a reconstruction by Pierre-Laurent Aimard of a concert he had staged at this year’s Aldeburgh Festival. An experimental effort at best, I would have to say, but an all-too-rare opportunity to hear performances of Boulez and Ligeti from the greatest pianist ever to have tackled their works.
All in all, then, a good year for classical music in London. Most promoters continue to schedule diverse and often challenging works, with little apparent concession to the financial climate. And orchestral standards continue their exponential rise, the Philharmonia and the LPO the stars of the year as far as I am concerned. And to look forward to? Well, Gergiev is conducting a concert Elektra in the second week of January and then there is the BBC SO Wolfgang Rihm weekend in March. And how about an evening with the New York Philharmonic with their new conductor Alan Gilbert and their new commission, EXPO by Magnus Lindberg. A packed couple of months, and that’s just at the Barbican. Bring it on!