2014 was the year which saw the beginning of Andris Nelsons’ final season as principal conductor and music director of the CBSO , and he has already given us some unforgettable leaving presents.
A colourful Petrushka found Andris as terpsichorean on the podium as any of the dancers would have been had this Stravinsky ballet been staged, preceded by a pellucidly otherworldly reading of Mozart’s last Piano Concerto, the B-flat K595 from long-time CBSO favourite Lars Vogt. The next January concert had Andris revisiting the work with which he had introduced himself to the Birmingham, a fizzing Strauss Don Juan, and following that with the glorious swansong from the opposite end of that composer’s long life, The Four Last Songs, engagingly delivered by soprano Erin Wall.
And there was more Strauss last spring with an absolutely tear-quickening concert-performance of his opera of regret and renunciation, Der Rosenkavalier, under Nelsons’ adept baton, Alice Coote a brilliant Octavian and Soile Isokoski as a heartbreakingly dignified Marschallin – and Franz Hawlata such an endearing (for a change) Baron Ochs.
Later in the year Nelsons made a rare foray into Elgar, with a securely-grasped, mature reading of the composer’s heavily Wagner-influenced Second
Other conductors of course are available, none more illustrious than Sir Simon Rattle, who returned to the orchestra he did so much to set on the world stage for the CBSO’s Benevolent Fund Concert, joined by Peter Donohoe for a searing Rachmaninov Third Piano Concerto.
Another CBSO principal conductor, Andrzej Panufnik, was remembered in a concert given in September on the exact centenary of his birth. His composer-daughter Roxanna was present to hear his highly congenial Piano Concerto (Donohoe the generous soloist) and deeply emotional Sinfonia Elegiaca, Michael Seal conducting. And CBSO Principal Guest Conductor Edward Gardner, also sadly now in his last season with the orchestra, gave us an affectionate, well-judged Elgar First Symphony among his many memorable offerings this year. Another favourite CBSO guest, the American Andrew Litton, conducted an all-British programme of Britten and Elgar, joined by the Canadian violinist James Ehnes in a melting account of the Walton Concerto. A dream programme featuring the CBSO and its Choruses brought three of my desert-island choral pieces together: Holst’s Hymn of Jesus, Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, John Storgards the brilliantly-attuned conductor.
The CBSO Youth Orchestra celebrated already its tenth anniversary with an all-British programme under Ben Gernon, one of its alumni conductors, including the premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Passchendaele, an angry and elegiac response to events on the Western Front of the Great War exactly a century ago.
And that war to end all wars gave rise to various other commissions during this centenary year, including Torsten Rasch’s A Foreign Field, similar in structure to Britten’s War Requiem, setting Dymock poets alongside the liturgy of the Latin Mass for the Dead, and premiered during Worcester’s Three Choirs Festival, and Paul Spicer’s strong, virile Unfinished Remembering, rising way above Euan Tait’s over-ambitious libretto, and premiered by Spicer’s own Birmingham Bach Choir and the adept Orchestra of the Swan. The Birmingham Conservatoire Symphony Orchestra gave an amazing account of Messiaen’s orgiastic Turangalila-Symphonie, Matthew Schellhorn stepping in at the eleventh hour to take over the immensely demanding concertante piano part. We in the Midlands were blessed with appearances by so many fine pianists this year, of whom these are just a few. Paul Lewis in a recital of Bach-Busoni, Beethoven, rare Liszt, and Mussorgsky’ s Pictures at an Exhibition; Stephen Hough in Malvern’s Yamaha International Piano Festival, combining a typically searching, esoteric first half with a second half consisting of all four Chopin Ballades; Ashley Fripp, former prizewinner in the Brant International Piano Competition, delivering an outstanding performance of Thomas Ades’ Concert Paraphrase on Powder Her Face, making light of all its eccentric notational nonsenses; and Peter Donohoe again, giving with the CBSO a witty and affectionate Dohnanyi Variations on a Nursery Song, cropping up later in the year in a variety of roles at the charming Fishguard International Music Festival in lovely Pembrokeshire.
Operatic highlights for me ranged from the pretty and resourceful Handel Acis and Galatea, a MidWales Opera production I caught at Hereford’s welcoming Courtyard, to the expressionistic, filmically gripping Boulevard Solitude by Hans Werner Henze from Welsh National Opera. There was also a heartening Magic Flute from Midland Opera, with Sara Whichelow as a formidable Queen of the Night, and Lorraine Payne a touching, well-phrased Pamina.
Bissett also brought more personality as one of the Three Norns that we usually look for in Gotterdammerung, getting what has been a wonderful semi-staged Ring cycle from Opera North at Symphony Hall to a splendid start.
But we can’t talk of the Wagner tetralogy without bowing down to the formidable complete Ring cycle the Mariinsky Theatre brought to an excited Birmingham Hippodrome from St Petersburg during a heady first week in November. A special bonus for me had been checking it out at their jaw-dropping home base as the end of the St Petersburg winter approached, with the mighty Neva river just beginning to crack in the thaw, hopeful anglers already fishing in it, and it was equally as thrilling to witness it back here.
Certainly there were some clumsy logistics in the production details, but the sets and lighting were mightily impressive, musical values couldn’t have been higher under Valery Gergiev’s gimlet-eyed conducting, and my best friend, whose first Ring this was, was gobsmacked. We conclude by approaching the other end of the vocal scale, Lieder recitals, and a select few where the compelling body-language of the singers demanded and deserved the full attention of an audience whose heads should never be earnestly stuck in programme-books perusing the texts.
Baritone Roderick Williams has long championed this approach, and soon after wowing the BBC Last Night of the Proms audience (Sakari Oramo the elegant, smiling conductor), he celebrated his appointment as President of Malvern Concert Club with a wonderful recital ranging from Schubert’s chilling Rellstab Schwanengesang settings to Britten’s visionary Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, Susie Allan accompanying. Not far down the road, Gloucester Music Society launched its 85th birthday celebrations with a powerful all-Schumann programme from baritone Benjamin Appl (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s last pupil) and accompanist James Cheung.
That recital concluded with the grim, ironic Dichterliebe. Earlier in the summer I had been harrowed by Mark Padmore’s almost unbearably intense performance of the song-cycle in the Pittville Pump Room during the Cheltenham International Festival, Huw Watkins accompanying. BBC Radio 3 listeners will have missed such an important dimension of this account, but those of us who were there emerged drained at the end. And this is my joint highlight of the year.
Sharing that accolade is, in general, Andris Nelsons and the CBSO performing all nine Beethoven symphonies over four nights at the Beethovenfest in the composer’s home city of Bonn (repeated a week later back at base in Birmingham). There were standing ovations already at the first interval of the first concert, and it was a privilege to be there.