The trouble with calendar years is that they get bogged down with anniversaries, clogging up the programming schedules and perhaps doing those being celebrated no favours.
That was certainly the case with Benjamin Britten, born in 1913, and whose overkill of exposure proved counter-productive (of which more later). But there were two greater composers who have already stood the test of posterity’s scrutiny, and who jostled each other amicably as we celebrated the bicentenary of their births: Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner.
Wagner got most of the attention, nowhere more so than in Longborough, nestling snugly (if windily) in the Cotswolds, and venue for the only professional complete Ring cycle to be staged across the entire realm this year; shame upon the big boys (Royal Opera, English National), but plaudits for Longborough, punching gutsily above its weight and delivering knockouts every time.
What Martin and Lizzie Graham achieved in their jewel of a barn converted into one of the most resourceful opera-houses in the country was amazing, and the talent they drew to remotest Gloucestershire could easily bestride the world.
And the world in fact came to Gloucestershire, and went away marvelling at the sheer sound and expertise of the 70-piece orchestra under the wise and experienced baton of Anthony Negus, the resourcefulness of Anthony Privett’s direction in which every inch of the performing area was used to brilliant effect (and slithered – and clambered – over most hauntingly by three ever-present helpers and watchers), and the strengths of a wonderful cast.
Almost everyone deserves individual mention, but three singers in particular stood out: Adrian Thompson as such a characterful Mime (much more than just the traditionally snivelling whinger), Lee Bissett so touchingly human as the tetralogy’s three put-upon female victims (Freia, Sieglinde and Gutrune), and, most sensationally of all, Rachel Nicholls as a Brunnhilde of immense stature rising out of a pint-sized frame and with a voice which was hurling burnished spears from her very first utterances.
Other opera elsewhere included Midland Opera’s charming Elixir of Love by Donizetti, and Donizetti was the composer of a brave Tudor trilogy, musically outstanding but directorially flawed, from Welsh National Opera.
WNO won far more friends with its heartwarming Cunning Little Vixen, a Lohengrin which would have been sensational except for the disgraceful directorial indulgence of what should be its affirmative denouement, and above all its utterly absorbing Lulu, Berg’s opera of depraved amorality glistening and glittering with a lustrous sheen from Lothar Koenigs’ adept WNO Orchestra, stimulatingly directed (a lot of circus animals about) by David Pountney, and with a triumphant, totally selfless assumption of the title-role by Marie Arnet. If she hasn’t already played Salome, then she should surely do so.
There’s much to remember from the many valiant organisations around the region, ploughing a brave furrow in the face of spending cuts and grant depletions.
So thank goodness for generous benefactors, such as the Kay Trust, funding new work for premieres in our immediate area, but coming up with exciting compositions which will surely find hearings further afield. One such was Ian Venables’ The Song of the Severn, a celebration of that great river setting texts from local poets, hugely, engagingly communicative and memorable, and performed with distinction for Malvern Concert Club by prince among baritones Roderick Williams (himself based in our region), the Carducci String Quartet and pianist Tom Poster.
Meanwhile Birmingham Contemporary Music Group continues its quarter-century mission of providing listeners with the most vibrant offerings of where-it’s-at, thanks in great measure to its amazing Sound Investment scheme. Yet its most memorable concert for me this year was one exploring the work of American composers of the recent past, under the generous conducting of Oliver Knussen. It was good to hear music by Elliott Carter, Henry Cowell and John Cage, as well as a piece by a living limey interloper, Birmingham Conservatoire graduate Joanna Lee.
Music at Leasowes Bank, high in the remote Shropshire hills, has sadly called it a day after 33 years of promoting an eclectic festival which has inspired so many of us to brave the descent of the Long Mynd in the dark. John and Frances Williams’ final commission was a winner, Octavia for clarinet and string quartet by former King Edward’s Aston student Shabaka Hutchings, funky, pastoral, and full of surprises. Hutchings was himself clarinet soloist alongside the remarkable Ligeti Quartet.
Another memorable event, this time at the other end of our region, was the final concert of this year’s Bromsgrove Festival, when the actor Timothy West and the Pavao String Quartet joined forces for an evening of music and readings based around works by Dvorak and Janacek.
And then there were the visits to festivals in foreign fields. The most remarkable consisted of several days in Bonn, for the Beethovenfest held in the composer’s birthplace each autumn. Remarkably, I heard no Beethoven this time round, but what stood out a mile was a hastily-arranged set of big-band Latin-American jazz from an ace ensemble presided over by the so-personable Austrian percussionist Martin Grubinger. The announced programme of a new arrangement of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring for two pianos and percussion had been withdrawn at the last minute at the behest of the composer’s daughter (US copyright issues, so it is said).
Plenty of Beethoven back at base however, with the completion of the CBSO’s season-long symphony cycle under Andris Nelsons. We expected and received greatness from the Ninth, Simon Halsey’s CBSO Chorus thrilling in the finale, but what joys from the middle-period symphonies, especially the Fourth and a very special Pastoral, (first symphony I ever loved as a disgustingly precocious seven-year-old).
There was more memorable Beethoven when Leif Ove Andsnes, long a Birmingham favourite, delivered such a poetic reading of the Fourth Piano Concerto with the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester at Symphony Hall, Herbert Blomstedt completing the programme with a probing Bruckner Fourth Symphony.
We stepped outside the Symphony Hall comfort zone, crossing Centenary Square to enter the old TSB building for an amazing interactive Universe of Sound spectacle arranged under the auspices of the Philharmonia Orchestra. The focus was Holst’s Planets Suite, and as we navigated the carefully-arranged walkpaths we were able to
experience on video the perceptions of every instrument as it sat within the orchestra. And we could interactively conduct our own performance in tandem with that conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. I came out rather well. They should have sported a leader-board.
But of course we must return to the CBSO: wonderful performances of Mendelssohn symphonies and concertos conducted by principal guest conductor Edward Gardner in Birmingham Town Hall upon which the composer had set his mark so early on; an amazing account of the Rite of Spring, Andris Nelsons’ first-ever, preceded by an expressively nuanced account from Kristine Opolais (Nelsons’ missus, now a world-renowned soprano) which removed the frequently-encountered turgidity from Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder; a cogent, lyrical Mahler First Symphony under Nikolaj Znaider, coupled with Ingrid Fliter’s empathetic Chopin Second Piano Concerto; and back to Nelsons for a programme of two of Brahms’ greatest works, the First Piano Concerto (Dezan Lazic the discreetly collaborative soloist) and the Fourth Symphony in a reading where you couldn’t wish for more musicianly shaping and projection from conductor and players.
What we are going to lose! Every time Nelsons conducts the CBSO now there is the elephant in the room with the sad knowledge that he will be leaving the orchestra with which he shares such a rewarding relationship when his contract expires in 2015. Somehow I can’t help feeling that he won’t find quite the same special relationship when he commits his concentration to the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
And I wonder if they’ll build a framework such as that into which Nelsons and the CBSO recently slotted a perceptive reading of Britten’s rarely-heard Violin Concerto, now acerbic, now lyrical, Isabelle Faust the selfless soloist.
This was one of the final events in this A Boy Was Born Britten centenary year, following quickly upon an exhilarating programme from the CBSO Choruses on
the composer’s St Cecilia’s Day birthday, conducted by the inexhaustible Simon Halsey marking his 30 years as chorus director.
The Britten overkill had some unexpected results, focussing our attention on the imperfections of even this charmed composer. I certainly went right off Albert Herring with its maladroit writing for high female voices, and I even found some spun-out self-indulgence in the hallowed Peter Grimes, despite a searing performance at Symphony Hall from the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Vladimir Jurowski. Stuart Skelton broke the heart as the shambolically victimised Grimes, and from a largely excellent cast Alan Opie was a sorrowingly wise Captain Balstrode.
But there was one Britten offering which reminded us anew of this composer’s genius. For its first-ever venture into opera the Presteigne Festival, now nearly a third-of-a-century old, engaged Nova Music Opera to perform the church parable Curlew River in St Andrew’s Church. Everything gelled perfectly under the seamless and flexible conducting of George Vass, and as the Madwoman searching for her lost son Mark Milhofer was simply extraordinary in the subtle vividness of his body-language.
This was my highlight of the year, and a very special event in the quiet remoteness of the lovely Welsh Marches.