wed 19/01/2022

Best of 2021: Classical music concerts | reviews, news & interviews

Best of 2021: Classical music concerts

Best of 2021: Classical music concerts

Big orchestral works returned with impressive panache, but for how long?

Full Mahler: Robin Ticciati conducting the LPO on the Glyndebourne stage in the most theatrical of concertsRichard Hubert Smith

As the catastrophe unfolded in 2020, it seemed reasonable to speculate that the biggest orchestral works – Mahler and Shostakovich symphonies, Strauss tone poems among them – probably wouldn’t be heard live in our concert halls for years.

Yet see how adaptable and uncrushable our great performing artists are. Following four and a half months of mostly scaled-down or middle-range opuses streamed online, the London orchestras adapted with alacrity. Simon Rattle welcomed an audience back into the Barbican, wondering at “that sound you make with your hands” for a nicely-tailored London Symphony Orchestra programme starting with the miracle of Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, aka Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell. Later we were stunned by the range of sounds viola player supreme Antoine Tamestit can make in Walton’s Violin Concerto, (the soloist pictured below by Mark Allen with some of the players) followed by a fascinating interpretation of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony (even better, I’m told, in the Barbican after a short tour than in LSO St Luke’s, where I heard this invigorating double bill). Antoine Tamestit with the LSOTicciati had the bold idea of making the London Philharmonic centre-stage at Glyndebourne, in very special programmes incorporating an element of theatricality: my first swoon of the year came in the performance there of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony after a first half of Purcell, Birtwistle and Vaughan Williams. Boyd Tonkin was lucky to be at the LPO’s end-of-year flourish on the South Bank, the revelation of James MacMilan’s new Christmas Oratorio. “I still don’t quite know how MacMillan – who scavenges so gleefully across six centuries of the musical past – avoids mere high-grade pastiche. But the Oratorio, gloriously performed by the LPO and its Choir under Mark Elder with soloists Lucy Crowe and Roderick Williams, made me deeply grateful for his own mysterious gifts.”

The biggest statement of all came at the start of the Philharmonia’s 2021-2 season in the Royal Festival Hall. It was crazy of the chief conductor the players seem to love, Finn Santtu-Matias Rouvali, to offer two Richard Strauss extravaganzas in one programme. The Also sprach Zarathustra only really sprang out of the impersonal with the duetting of the orchestra’s two leaders on the front desk, Zsolt-Tihamér Vistontay and Benjamin Marquise Gilmore, in the high jinks of the waltzing Superman. An Alpine Symphony was vivid from first to last, even with the horns across the valley actually accommodated within the hall; that brought the number of players in front of us and to one side to 134 (by no mens the full complement pictured below by Mark Allan). Philharmonia and Rouvali in StraussIan Julier, new to the roster of theartsdesk’s classical music/opera critics, also chose this as his highlight, while Jessica Duchen picked a second Philharmonia/Rouvali special we didn’t get to review here, praising a “fresh, ravishing, insightful performances of the Sibelius Violin Concerto [with another Finn, Pekka Kuusisto, which sounded like second nature to all concerned, and a Beethoven ‘Pastoral’ Symphony that went at quite a lickety-split but breathed new and wondrous life into its teeming sonic scenery.”

The end of what would have been the previous Philharmonia season saw a farewell to Rouvali’s questing predecessor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and two concerts emblematic of his original programming over the years; the first worked even better than the second.” For me, the most sumptuous and electrifying orchestral concert of the year came from John Wilson’s hand-picked Sinfonia of London at Snape Maltings, rising to two British masterpieces of international brilliance, Britten’s Piano Concerto (with the ever-unpredictable Pavel Kolesnikov) and Vaughan Williams’s A London Symphony. Richard Bratby loved their Prom, “the verve, the finesse, the endlessly expressive voicing and phrasing - all topped off with probably the greatest live performance of the Korngold Symphony that anyone present will ever have heard….it felt like being in love”. Kalena Bovell conducting the Chineke! Orchestra at the PromsI felt proud and happy that the first three Proms I attended all happened to be shaped by first-rate women conductors: the most vivid of Sibelius Second Symphonies in a fascinating interpretation by yet another Finn, Dalia Stasevska – don’t be surprised when the country’s training programme puts conductors in front of full orchestras from an early age; Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's deliciously individual Symphony sounding sleek and chameleonic from Chineke! Players under Panamian American Kalena Bovell (pictured above by Robert Allan); and the annual visit – it will be her last as chief conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra - from Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla. This, as it happened, culminated in the first disappointment I’ve experienced from this team live, an uncertain Brahms Third Symphony. I have to slip in a word of praise for Catherine Larsen-Maguire’s debut with the LPO down in Eastbourne with a translucent, supple Brahms Two, absolutely fresh and much praised by Ian.

For Sebastian Scotney, the joy of returning to live music making was best summed up by "Patricia Kopatchinskaja lunging towards BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra leader Laura Samuel to invite her to start an encore at the "Bartók Roots" Prom, Ligeti's violin duet Baladă și Joc (ballad and dance)". No surprise, perhaps, that another favourite Prom, this time Boyd’s second choice, happened to be Bach and Handel delivered by John Eliot Gardiner, his Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists. Alexandra Coghlan loved their Bach St John Passion, on film only from Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre. I had problems with the relative pallor of some of the soloists, especially alongside the lustre of a classy Stockholm line-up, but I agree totally with Alexandra about the vividness of the from-memory singing and the utterly original Evangelist of Nick Pritchard. Jess Gillam at Classical VauxhallAlexandra’s second choice is also a pre-liberation digital one, saxophonist Jess Gillam communicating across the board with style and verve as part of the excellent Classical Vauxhall Festival (Gillam pictured above by Neil Massey with pianist Zeynep Özsuca). We’re banking on the live experience in February 2022; the line-up is similarly good. Many of the smaller-scale festivals did manage to get off the ground; Miranda Heggie experienced some Ryedale Festival events live in Yorkshire but also praises the digital enterprise of RyeStream, “which comprises a range of filmed performances interspersed with visuals of Rydeale's stunning surroundings and is definitely in the upper tranche of digital output seen this year.”

For the first time in seven years, hospital visiting kept me from my favourite festival in the world, showcasing Paavo Järvi's superband the Estonian Festival Orchestra in the blissful seaside town of Pärnu, but all concerts are still available to view for free on the website, and still give a frisson, especially Lars Vogt's Mozart, Joshua Bell's Dvořák and the revelation of just how wonderful the Swedsh composer Berwald can be in the closing performance of his Fourth Symphony (Sinfonie naïve'). The encores are terrific, as always.

Bernard Hughes has chosen two events of deep significance. The first was again online, Re-wilding The Waste Land, Tamsin Greig performing extracts from The Waste Land alongside I Fagiolini’s beautifully judged programme of mainly contemporary pieces celebrating the natural world. Never to Forget, Howard Goodall’s tribute to care workers killed by Covid – “a choral setting of all their names, that was extremely moving and a suitable living monument to the dead”. A happier, and serendipitous, farewell came to the Estonian composer Ester Mägi in what turned out to be the week before her death at the age of 99. The Sea is a little masterpiece, performed superbly by the Northern Chords Festival Orchestra under Jonathan Bloxham – an army of young generals from quartets and orchestras all over the UK – in the annual Europe Day Concert in St John's Smith Square, reviewed for theartsdesk by Jessica. The film of the entire concert, a fine piece of work, is still online, but here’s just the Mägi.

Opening up in Scotland was much more cautious, but the artists at the superlative East Neuk Festival, all performing this year in the big, acoustically tricky space of the Bowhouse, which allows distancing of the audience, could not have been stronger. It all began with a bang as Samson Tsoy plunged into the dissonant parody of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto to launch a sequence of Kurtág’s Játékok (Games). The revelation for me was Fanny Mendelssohn’s E flat String Quartet, which the wonderful Castalian Quartet placed after Felix’s grief-stricken Sixth; it’s tough, but brilliant. The Mendelssohn sister has to be the best of all 19th century women composers; how shameful that her talent couldn’t thrive even more.

At the Two Moors Festival’s first (Dartmoor) weekend, I heard for the first time the pianist George Xiaoyuan Fu (pictured below by Clive Barda)  in a beautifully sequenced programme of bird music – for me young artist of the year, though the now well-estabilished Tsoy and Kolesnikov brought our their third cornucopia of great chamber-musical performances at the Ragged School in London’s East End as soon as such things were possible. Another quirky venue favoured by the two pianists and partners, the Peckham Multi-Storey Car Park performance space managed by Bold Tendencies, took on its biggest venture yet - the two Brahms piano concertos magisterially handled by Tsoy with Maxim Emelyanychev conducting a full (and first rate) Philharmonia Orchestra. Bold Tendencies' commitment to vital community epics yielded a magnificent performance of Kate Whitley's eco-cantata Our Future in Your Hands including a lusty chorus of 97 Peckham schoolchildren - another spectacular one didn't expect to witness in 2021.George Xiaoyuan Fu in WidecombeAs usual, it’s hard to choose from the wealth of great performances the Wigmore Hall has continued to support, but I was mesmerised as always by guitarist Sean Shibe in an enchanted May lunchtime hour and knocked sideways by the supremely cultured quick-change artistry of Czechia’s Smetana Piano Trio. We know from experience that this hall can exercise the finest caution in the face of rising infections; all measures have to be taken to make sure venues can carry on as before. They’re managing it in Spain and Italy, to name but two countries, so it can be done in the UK too – but it takes decisive leadership.

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