2015 – Could do better.

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on January 31, 2016 at 10:14 am

This is more an observation of my own performance last year, than of the operas, concerts and recitals that I attended and missed.

Well, for the most part.

A change of job meant that I was unable to attend everything I had originally scheduled in the year and more often than not had to give up my tickets. The lack of time also severely curtailed not only my ability to write about music in general but also listening to music as often as I wanted to.

And this was a shame as there were a number of standout recital discs last year that gave me great when pleasure when I found did have the time. A special mention must go to John Elliott Gardiner’s new recording of the b minor mass. It was hard to imagine that a new recording could surpass his first, but I was wrong. In fact, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that there were moments that were as close to heaven as music can every get. Sadly, this incredible performance also made me realise that my own pilgrimage through the cantatas of Bach once again stalled in 2015, and I remained stuck in 1714. Progress must be made this year, or I shall have to admit defeat.

And there were other artists who gave me great pleasure. These included Elizabeth Watts in Alessandro Scarlatti; Max Cencic’s Arie Napoletane; Valer Sabadus in Caldara; Ann Hallenberg’s Agrippina and arias for Luigi Marchesi, Matthew Rose singing Mozart’s arias for Benucci and Evgeny Nikitin singing Wagner. If you haven’t had an opportunity to listen to these discs then I can’t recommend them strongly enough.

By the same token, there were some recitals that didn’t personally make much of an impact – surprisingly both Christian Gerhaher and Dorothea Roschmann’s Mozart recital discs left me slightly cold, as did Rattle’s Das Rheingold. And Diana Damrau’s Fiamma del bel canto misfired, as did Dagmar Peckova’s Sinful Women.

In terms of live performances, not all were strictly speaking concerts. The two that remain most vivid in my memory are Farinelli and the King and Joyce DiDonato’s Masterclass.

I was fortunate to bag tickets for Farinelli at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre. The combination of an excellent acting casting led by the masterful Mark Rylance and Iestyn Davies as the famous countertenor, made for a dramatic evening with ravishing music. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Ms DiDonato’s masterclass was as compelling. Listening to her talk through the music of those students lucky enough to be on stage with her, to literally feel her enthusiasm and to hear the difference that she made to their performances was incredible. And Francesca Chiejina’s performance of Ah, chi mi dice mai still brings a smile to my face. She is a name to watch out for.

The single most exciting project launched last year was Classical Opera’s Mozart 250. I’ve just attended the most recent concert in this series – a retrospective of 1766. It was, as you would expect, excellent but of all the music performed it was Benjamin Hullet’s performance of Et incarnatus est from Haydn’s Missa Cellensis in honorem that really stood out. In 2015, Classical Opera provided enthusiastic audiences with a canter through 1765 – a year very much focused on Mozart’s tour of London with some superlative performances by Anna Devin, John Mark Ainsley and Ben Johnson and a complete performance of JC Bach’s Adriano in Siria. This is a project both ambitious in its scale as well as superlative in terms of the quality of its music making. Ian Page must be heartily commended for his vision and passion, and I cannot wait for the next concert – Jomelli’s Il Vologeso.

I attended three other opera performance of note in 2015. First, a performance of Act Three of Die Walküre at the Millennium Centre Handel represented by Semele, Giove in Argo and Saul. Koenigs might be leaving Cardiff but he leaves an impressive legacy at WNO – the orchestra was well-honed and the cast led by Terfel and Theorin were incredible. The London Handel Festival opened with Semele, which offered mixed performances but it was a delight to hear both the chorus, Louise Innes and Robin Blaze. A performance of Giove in Argo followed and was exemplary not only for the standard of the singers but also the direction and stage design. I also trekked to Glyndebourne for Saul but sadly didn’t get a chance to write it up. It was in turns, exuberant, poignant, joyful and tragic. In short, it was a masterpiece, with an incredible cast led by Christopher Purves in the title role, Lucy Crowe, Sophie Bevan and Paul Appleby as his children and Iestyn Davies as David. Smartly directed by Barry Kosky and conduced by Ivor Bolton, it is a production I could see again, and again and again.

Sadly, both the opera houses in London had mixed years and in face, both could have ‘done better’ too.

ENO remains in trouble whether you believe it is because of mismanagement and misdirection or because there are ‘barbarians at the gate’. A revival of WNO’s Mastersinger of Nuremberg reminded everyone that at its best, ENO is a marvellous company with, at its heart, singers and players who fervently believe in the importance of ‘company’. But that success has since been eclipsed – or rather overrun – by a series of problems and no end seems in sight. It’s hard to believe at times that ENO can – or should in its current form – survive. I think that we might all find out this year.

2015 ended with Covent Garden announcing the departure of Kasper Holten as Artistic Director – and his departure almost felt like the end of a grand experiment. But is it one that has gone well? It’s hard to say. On the basis of productions such as Król Roger it would have to be a yes, but the same year witnessed productions such as Guillaume Tell and Rise and Fall of the City of Mahaganny which fell way short of many peoples’ expectations. And in some ways, the same can be said of Gluck’s Orphée et Euridice – save the excellent playing of the Monteverdi Orchestra and the singing of Lucy Crowe – and and Monteverdi’s Orfeo which was marred by being sung in English for no real reason.

2016 has started well with Mozart 250 and here’s hoping that I both make the time and find the discipline to improve on last year.

And there are things planned which I would rather resign over than miss – David Hansen in Giulio Cesare in Dresden, a suite of Richard Strauss operas in Berlin and ENO’s Tristan und Isolde – and that is before I have had a real chance to look at the new seasons that are being announced as I write.

So very belatedly, I wish you all a happy new year and hope that your year is filled with much music.


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