As the year is coming to its close, it is only natural to look back at some of its most memorable moments in music in more or less chronological order. As always, it is hard to pick just a few events of a musically rich and varied year. Anyway, here are some picks along the way.
In January, a semi-staged performance of Ligeti’s operatic pandaemonium, Le grand Macabre (1974-77/1996) by London Symphony Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle opened the year with a bang. Or, to be precise, with a honk. The Car Horn Prelude by the LSO percussion was such a riveting opening to Ligeti’s vision of a Judgment Day gone astray.
Ligeti’s score is a brilliant mix of effects and unifying structures combining elements of various earlier works into a most unique take on music theatre. Peter Sellars’ subtle staging relied wisely on the drama and comedy inherent in the score itself.
The marvellous cast and the splendidly multi-talented London Symphony Chorus carefully prepared by Simon Halsey perfected the evening.
Hearing a premiere of a Stravinsky piece so long lost that being turned into a myth was, quite frankly, one of those once in a lifetime events. Composed for the memorial concert of Rimsky-Korsakov, Funeral Song, Op. 5 (Pogrebal’naya pesnya, 1908) was given that solitary premiere performance in January 1909 at St. Petersburg Conservatory.
As years went by, all traces for the whereabouts of the score and parts of Funeral Song were lost until the orchestral parts were rediscovered by random chance in 2015. Stravinsky’s score was reconstructed from these materials and a somewhat belated second premiere was given by Mariinsky Orchestra with Valery Gergiev in December 2016 at St. Petersburg.
In the following February Funeral Song arrived in the west with the UK premiere by Philharmonia and Esa-Pekka Salonen at Royal Festival Hall, followed by an European tour. Rarely there has been such a thrill in the air as the dark opening line of Funeral Song emerged from the double basses gradually joined by winds and brass and upper strings with distant beats of a bass drum.
Lasting twelve minutes, Funeral Song is Stravinsky’s most substantial work for orchestra before The Firebird (1910). Not only the opening bars, but many other aspects of the Rimsky memorial are shared with the later ballet, which paved the way for the young composer to his journey into the most influential composer of the 20th century.
On that Sunday at Southbank Centre, Salonen and Philharmonia, a dream team for Stravinsky, gave Funeral Song an outstandinding UK premiere. A journey that will stay in the hearts of the Royal Festival Hall audience.
Ensemble InterContemporain celebrated its fortieth anniversary in March with a festival weekend at Philharmonie de Paris. First, there was retrospective evening with works and excerpts from every decade of the EiC history. Among the many delightful encounters there were unforgettable performances of Elliott Carter’s Gra (1993) for solo clarinet by Jérôme Comte and Mémoriale (1985/1993) for flute and ensemble by Sophie Cherrier and Emmanuelle Ophèle with Matthias Pintscher conducting.
The second EiC anniversary concert featured a very Boulezian programme opening with a breathtaking performance of the Schoenberg Kammersymphonie, Op. 9. Followed by a selection of Webern songs, those rarely heard gems beautifyully sung by soprano Yeree Suh. After these amazing performances with Pintscher, the EiC crowned the weekend with a performance of whirlwind virtuosity of Boulez’ sur Incises (1996/1998/2006), a fitting tribute to the Maître.
In April I was lucky to catch Herbert Blomstedt, who celebrated his 90th birthday later this year, rehearsing and performing Sibelius Fourth Symphony, Op 63 (1911) and Beethoven Fifth Symphony, Op. 67 (1804-08) with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra.
In his usual manner, Blomstedt made no fuss about himself, but simply put his lifelong experience and immense artistic vision in the service of the music. As a result, we had the most spirited performances of Sibelius and Beethoven with such admirable clarity and energy.
Twenty years younger than Blomstedt, John Adams had had his 70th birthday celebrations going on the whole season. A zenith was reached with a concert performance of Doctor Atomic at the Barbican. Following six days of recording sessions with the composer at the helm, the BBC Symphony Orchestra was on the top of their game with this remarkable operatic score revolving around J. Robert Oppenheimer and the crucial moments of the Manhattan project resulting in the detonation of the first atomic bomb.
Teamed with his fabulous soli, Gerald Finley, Julia Bullock, Andrew Staples, Jennifer Johnston et al. and the BBC Singers, Adams led an outstanding performance of Doctor Atomic which will be long remembered by those lucky ones present.
From June to September I had the chance to plunge into the unique world of La damnation de Faust with no less than three riveting productions of the Berlioz masterpiece.
First there was a staged performance at the Berlin Staatsoper’s refuge, the Schiller Theater. Conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, this was a musically superb production with the Staatskapelle Berlin sounding absolutely glorious. The cast featured Charles Castronovo, Magdalena Kožená and Florian Boesch all so very brilliant. Although Terry Gilliam’s staging was bizarre as a whole, there were moments in that too. But mostly, it was an evening about the music.
My second encounter with Berlioz’ Faust was at BBC Proms with Sir John Eliot Gradiner, Orchestra Révolutionnaire et Romantique and the Monteverdi Choir. A concert performance with the Royal Albert Hall well utilized for all the offstage effects in the score, this setup was probably closer to Berlioz’ ideal than a fully stage one.
As a most formidable Berliozian, Gardiner brought out all those ravishing colors of the score within an emotionally charged period instrument performance of skill and vigor. The splendid cast featured Michael Spyres, Ann Hallenberg and Laurent Naouri with Ashley Riches’ excellent take on Brander.
In September I was overjoyed to close my journey with La damnation de Faust with two days of electrifying rehearsals and a fabulous concert performance by Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Joined by Bryan Hymel, Caren Cargill and Christopher Purves, yet another great Faust cast, this was a smashing way to celebrate the genius of Berlioz for the third time. Luckily this one will ha an album release by the orchestra’s house label LSO Live.
My other Proms venture involved Arnold Schoenberg’s vast nocturnal panorama, Gurrelieder (1900-11). Hearing Schoenberg’s setting of the Jacobsen texts on a Danish legend is always something special, given the work’s scale and craft. Again, it was an evening with Rattle and the LSO with the choral forces from the London Symphony Chorus, CBSO Chorus and Orfeó Català all excellently coached by Simon Halsey.
A superb cast featuring Simon O’Neill, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Karen Cargill and Thomas Quasthoff completed the 450-strong stage setup. A sheer visual impact of these massed forces was quite overwhelming. Yet, what is striking with Gurrelieder, is Schoenberg’s imaginative use of all those various combinations of his forces from the most intimate chamber music to the full palette of the closing Seht, die Sonne. All these nuances were carried out in delightful detail by Rattle and his ensemble. A night to remember.
Is there a more perfect gem of the Age of Enlightenment than The Creation? A most splendid performance of Haydn’s magnum opus with the Berlin Philharmonic opened Simon Rattle’s farewell season as the orchestra’s music director.
The talents of the Rundfunkchor Berlin were in good use throughout the evening and the three soli, Elsa Dreisig, Mark Padmore and Florian Boesch were simply perfect. It should be noted, that for Elsa Dreisig this was her first take on The Creation. She stepped in for Genia Kühmeier on a last minute and sung the soprano part with overwhelming charm and skill.
During the Rattle years there has been a delightful share of the Haydn oeuvre in the Berlin repertoire. Hearing The Creation with these fine artists was a joy.
For Rattle the Berlin farewell coincides with the beginning of his tenure as London Symphony Orchestra’s music director. The official launch of the Rattle era on 14th September was a delightful journey into contemporary British music.
As a concert opener, there was the premiere of Helen Grime Fanfare, a work-in-progress to be premiered in its completed form in April, followed by Asyla (1997), a riveting Thomas Adès classic originally commissioned by Rattle and the CBSO.
Harrison Birtwistle’s Violin Concerto (2009-10) had a virtuosic performance by Christian Tetzlaff and the LSO. And Oliver Knussen’s Third Symphony (1973-79), a masterpiece all too rarely programmed, was heard before the evening closed with Elgar’s Enigma Variations, Op. 36 (1898-99).
Integrating contemporary music into the standard repertoire is not only about commissioning new works but maintaining them in concert programmes after their premieres. Therefore to was a profound pleasure to encounter all these works within one night. A most promising start for the LSO and Rattle relationship.
Among the many inspiring premieres of 2017, the two Finnish firsts by Kaija Saariaho, the opera Only the Sound Remains (2015) at Finnish National Opera in April and the song cycle True Fire (2014/2017) with Gerald Finley, the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Hannu Lintu.
Only the Sound Remains combines two Nôh drama inspired operas into a two act whole. Written for a small ensemble of string quartet, flute, kantele and percussion with two soloists, a vocal quartet and a dancer, Only the Sound Remains is a detailed study in subtle, chamber-like expression with utmost intensity and intimacy.
The Finnish National Opera production was staged by Peter Sellars and featured Davone Tines and Anthony Roth Costanzo in the roles of the Fisherman and the Spirit. The instrumental ensemble was conducted by André de Ridder.
Although written for a large orchestra, the same intense intimacy was carried into the song cycle True Fire, written for Gerald Finley. There are six movements based on the texts of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Seamus Heaney and Mahmoud Darwish as well as a lullaby of native American origin.
With its imaginatively sublime setting of the texts and vibrant orchestration, True Fire is one of the most impressive pieces by Saariaho.
In December there were two very special events with Sir John Eliot Gradiner and the Monteverdi, first a string worksop at Morley College with the Orchestre Rèvolutionnaire et Romantique featuring string orchestra arrangements of Webern, Debussy and Schubert quartets conducted by Gardiner with Alina Ibragimova leading the ORR.
It was a performance for friends, with all the formalities dropped off as the musicians and the audience enjoyed an afternoon together with Gardiner introducing the works with the most informative and informal manner followed by superb performances of the ORR strings features members of the Chiaroscuro Quartet and the Monteverdi Apprenticeship Programme.
And highlighting the 450th anniversary of Claudio Monteverdi there was a most spellbinding event at V & A Museum. Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists presented a series of pop-up numbers from the Monteverdi operas and Vespers in various galleries of the V & A followed by a concert proper at the Cartoon Gallery with key scenes from the operas.
After their long anniversary tour this was a great chance for the London audiences to catch the essence of Monteverdi. The free tickets were sold within a minute, so those of us present at the concert felt enormously fortunate.
A happy year in music altogether.
c Jari Kallio