The best classical music of Fiona Maddocks in 2021 | Classical music
WWe were hoping that this would be the year when everything went well: that concert halls would buzz with full crowds; that musicians would return to work full time; that soloists could travel again without fear of quarantine and testing (aside from the unresolved difficulties caused by Brexit) – most importantly, that Covid-19 would disappear. Instead, Omicron is galloping ahead and even optimists have to accept that we are not there yet.
Despite all the cancellations and the underlying chaotic vibe, countless musical events have touched lives. The BBC Proms, cautiously but definitely, were back, with premieres by Charlotte Bray, Shiva Feshareki, Britta Byström, Grace-Evangeline Mason, George Benjamin and more. Highlights included John Wilson and his nimble Sinfonia of London; the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, revealing of Mozart’s last symphonies; Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson wowed crowds on his Proms debut. Another pianist, Janeba Kanneh-Mason, performed Florence Price’s concerto in one movement at the Proms.
Coming out and arriving on the podium shaped the season: Domingo Hindoyan took over from Vasily Petrenko at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Petrenko himself breathed new life into his own “new” orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic. After five triumphant years, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla has announced her forthcoming departure from the Birmingham City Symphony Orchestra; Kazuki Yamada, from 2023, is his successor. Esa-Pekka Salonen said goodbye to the Philharmonia; Santtu-Matias Rouvali has already caused a sensation as a replacement. Succeeding Vladimir Jurowski, Edward Gardner kicked off his sleeves with the LPO, electrifying in Tippett’s The Midsummer Wedding. As some had regrettably anticipated, Simon Rattle shortened his stay with the London Symphony Orchestra to work more in Germany, now his home. Antonio Pappano will take over (from 2024); his successor at Covent Garden has yet to be announced.
Opera has struggled to return to the main stages, with Janáček at the Royal Opera and Glyndebourne, Wagner at the English National Opera, Puccini at the Welsh National Opera, Bizet at Opera North, Gilbert and Sullivan at the Scottish Opera, and at ENO Also. The smaller still adaptable “country house” rooms performed well. Longborough built a marquee for Monteverdi. Grange Park was strict with social distancing, with Bryn Terfel as Verdi’s Falstaff a featured attraction. Garsington’s airy clubhouse, with hitters Richard Strauss and Handel, could have been designed with a pandemic factored into its risk assessment. Opera Holland Park has intelligently reconfigured its entire hall for the benefit of the public.
Covid and its consequent bypass have kept me closer to home than usual, often at events in non-traditional locations: a reminder that quality of performance takes precedence over perfect acoustics. Grimeborn fascinated by the new urban “barn” of Arcola. Bold Tendencies, winner of this year’s Gamechanger Prize from the Royal Philharmonic Society, drew the Philharmonia to its parking lot for Brahms’ two piano concertos in one evening (Herculean soloist Samson Tsoy, conductor Maxim Emelyanychev). Waterperry Opera charmed in a rustic glade. The West Wycombe Chamber Music Festival was a discovery.
There were losses. Sweet and gracious Dutch conductor Bernard Haitink, mighty and fiery as he raised his wand, has passed away at the age of 92. The extraordinary opera director Graham Vick’s coronavirus death left us in shock. Composer Anthony Payne and singer Jane Manning, the husband-wife couple who illuminated musical life for more than half a century, have died within weeks of each other, gone like the brutal felling of great oaks. Composers Louis Andriessen, Simon Bainbridge and Frederic Rzewski, as well as the unmissable Stephen Sondheim, have all passed away, as have librettist Amanda Holden and mezzo-soprano Pamela Helen Stephen.
A performance that endures: in January, pianist András Schiff, between the incomparable interpretation of Bach in an online Wigmore Hall live recital, gave a comment of such obscure humor that I listened to four times to be sure to have understood. I don’t remember the jokes, but Schiff’s Bach shone in the mind throughout this troubled year.
The 10 best classical music performances of 2021
1. Monolith: I extend my arms
Rogue Maltings, Suffolk
Unforgettable premiere by Tansy Davies, performed by Britten Sinfonia.
2. Mahler / Benjamin chamber orchestra
Royal Albert Hall, London
The only foreign star-shaped Proms orchestra.
3. West Wycombe Chamber Music Festival
St. Lawrence Church, West Wycombe
Viola Lawrence Power and his friends in a church on top of a hill.
Arcola outside, London
Handel stripped and shiny, from the OrQuesta / Grimeborn Ensemble.
South Facing Festival, Crystal Palace, London
Natalya Romaniw in great shape in ENO’s Puccini with pizza.
6. Ragged Music Festival
Ragged School Museum, London
Where the soloists (Pavel Kolesnikov, Samson Tsoy) installed the chairs themselves.
7. Spanish time
Ravel at the Movies: Ticking in a clock store during the Grange Park Opera Pandemic Challenge Season.
8. Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Sol Gabetta
Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
A violinist, a cellist and a world of imagination.
9. LSO / Rattle and East London Academy
Trafalgar Square, London
Novices alongside professionals under Nelson’s gaze.
10. The Rosenkavalier
Garsington Opera House; available online until April 29
Sumptuous Strauss for the eyes and ears.
English Tour Operas Amadigi: excellent cast and group but a theatrical failure.