The best of 2011: Classical music
Time Out's Classical editor, Jonathan Lennie, picks his favourite musical moments of 2011
We have been truly spoiled in London this year: a wealth of talented performers in every discipline; several orchestras taking risks with ‘difficult’ works, the big art centres continuing to dream up music-themed series, and as much music by anniversary boys Mahler and Liszt as one could possibly hope for. Meanwhile, the local churches kept lunchtime music-making alive and well. And with a thriving fringe scene in north London and two major world premieres of truly modern operas, the future is looking bright for the art form. This year’s Classical pick celebrates the great, the good and the truly original.
The best of 2011...
Berlin Philharmonic OrchestraFebruary 20-23, Barbican Hall/Royal Festival Hall
February 20-23 Sir Simon Rattle brought his mighty orchestra to town for a four-concert joint residency north and south of the river. Bursting with virtuosic talent, the Phil still boasts 'that sound’, but was no fusty band here, as Rattle applied himself to investigating even the smallest corners of the music. The focus was on the heart of the BPO repertoire – Mahler, Schubert, Haydn, Schoenberg and Brahms. What a treat!
Leipzig Gewandhaus OrchestraOct 25-Nov 3, Barbican Hall
The Beethoven Symphonies have been well represented over the years, so it would take something special to mark out any particular cycle. But with Leipzig’s finest stepping up to the task this was something notable. Conducting the scores at the original marked tempi, Riccardo Chailly injected life into pieces often rendered dirge-like through received practice – the second movement of the Seventh Symphony a revelation, making sense of Wagner’s declaration that it is ‘the apotheosis of the dance’.
The Gothic SymphonyJuly 17, Royal Albert Hall
Perhaps it was more the ambition than the outcome that renders Havergal Brian’s enormous First Symphony as a highlight. Martyn Brabbins gave a heroic performance conducting nearly a thousand performers – not only the massed BBC Concert Orchestra and BBC National Orchestra of Wales, but the vast 800-strong choir, comprised of both professional and amateurs in a score that at one point divides into 38 parts! If there were muddy textures it was surely due to the fact that Brian, who lived to be 96, did not hear it performed for 40 years, and it is a tribute to him that he his longevity was put to the creation of a further of 31 symphonies. As Brian notated (from Goethe’s ‘Faust’) in the score: ‘Whoever strives with all his might. That man we can redeem.’
Two BoysJune / July, English National Opera
This world premiere was unfairly overshadowed by its proximity to the sensationalist ‘Anna Nicole’ at Covent Garden. The 30-year-old American composer Nico Muhly managed a good trick – his minimalist piece looked and sounded new, while retaining the essence of traditional opera. In a plot worthy of a television detective drama, it featured gay teenagers, online grooming, and cyber sex, and saw a splendid turn from young tenor Nicky Spence as a teenager inveigled by the virtual online world and soprano Susan Bickley as the middle-aged detective investigating a stabbing. The abiding image is of the chorus illuminated by the light of their laptops singing in aleaotoric babble.
Infernal Dance: Inside the World of Béla BartókJanuary-November, Royal Festival Hall
The conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen was the architect of this exploration of Hungary’s great modernist. And with such quality performers the influential composer’s works were heard at their best – the Philharmonia Orchestra was the backbone for most events, with the Takács Quartet playing all six quartets; pianist Yefim Bronfman the soloist in the two Piano Concertos, and singers Sir John Tomlinson and Measha Brueggergosman stealing the show in Bartók’s one-act opera ‘Duke Bluebeard’s Castle’.
...and the worst of 2011
Israel Philharmonic OrchestraSeptember 1, Royal Albert Hall
The accolade this year goes not to performers but rather to a small section of an audience. Pro-Palestinian protesters disrupted a BBC Proms concert by the Israel Philharmonic under its director Zubin Mehta, and violinist Gil Shaham, to such an extent that the BBC pulled its live coverage. Why pick on the orchestra? They are not politicians but rather musicians who happen to be from Israel. Art seeks to rise above nationality, as the orchestra’s programme that evening reflected in works by Austrian, German, Spanish and Russian composers. As such this target was wholly inappropriate.