sat 20/07/2024

Best of 2023: Classical music concerts | reviews, news & interviews

Best of 2023: Classical music concerts

Best of 2023: Classical music concerts

No drop in orchestral high standards, and youth shines again

Masabane Cecilia Rangwanassha and the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain conducted by Carlos Miguel Prieto at the PromsMark Allan

However dark the future may seem for UK arts funding, each year begins with a beacon of light, passed on to shine twice more, in the Easter and summer holidays: the ever more resourceful and generous concertgiving of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, always among the highlights of the classical music scene.

Their first programme of 2023, under the fascinating French conductor Alexandre Bloch, brought razor-sharp Britten, melodic Anna Clyne and incandescent Richard Strauss (all technical hurdles supply overcome in Also sprach Zarathustra). Three months later they were pushing the boat out at the Royal Festival Hall, with sectional delights in the Clore Ballroom before the concert proper (those four harps in “Baroque Flamenco"!), NYO Associates’ welcome to the main auditorium, a first half of new works and another undulating showcase in Stravinsky’s complete Firebird ballet, masterfully conducted by Andrew Gourlay.

The eagerly-awaited Prom hit the heights with Hindemith’s exuberant Weber super-arrangements and Strauss’s Four Last Songs, ideal for Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha’s effortless long phrasing and radiant high notes. She then went on to lead the now-familiar NYO singing in Errolyn Wallen’s combination of South African song and “The Whole World in His Hands".. NYOS, Larsen Maguire, ShibeCopland’s Third doesn’t add up for me. It was splendidly done under Carlos Miguel Prieto, but how I’d love to have heard the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland in Mahler’s Seventh Symphony – a total revelation for Christopher Lambton. Good news that the vibrant conductor who got such results from a difficult start, Catherine Larsen Maguire, has been made the NYOS’s Music Director (rehearsal pictured above by Ryan Buchanan with Sean Shibe). Bernard Hughes’ favourite event of the year – “and I would call it an event rather than “just” a concert” - was the National Youth Choir’s 40th anniversary jamboree at the Albert Hall in April. It was slickly stage managed (often a problem at large scale events), with a brilliant range of repertoire and a heart-lifting celebration by singers from 9 to 25”.

Should we feel guilty about musical joy and optimism given the overwhelming horrors around the world in 2023 (and ongoing)? Absolutely not – this is what we need, as Boyd Tonkin emphasised when “on a dark day, in a dark time for their region, Michael Barenboim brought to the South Bank the West-Eastern Divan Ensemble (pictured below by Pete Woodhead)– a chamber-sized spin-off from the bridge-building orchestra created by his father with Edward Said - and turned blissful Mendelssohn and Beethoven into a message of hope and joy”. West Eastern Divan EnsembleBoyd was also overjoyed by John Wilson’s Sinfonia of London super-band at the Aldeburgh Festival, “almost levitating Snape Maltings with magical Sally Beamish as well as scintillating Respighi and ravishing Rachmaninov”. My own time near the Suffolk Coast was marked out by a Ligeti day from the eponymous quartet which began in unusually sober, hardcore fashion, but culminated in a joyous celebration of no less than 14 new works homaging the great piano etudes in quartet form; this needs to be heard again with Rolf Hind, an all too brief participant, playing the originals.

All our established orchestras shone. Robert Beale was lucky to experience The Dream of Gerontius, The Apostles and The Kingdom, the last two on consecutive days, from Mark Elder and the Hallé at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall (pictured below by Tom Stephens): “a feast of Elgar and one of those landmarks in music making that will be long remembered.” Helle ElgarRachmaninov was feted in his anniversary year with numerous performances of the most famous concertos, but they’re canonical for a reason. Robert was deeply impressed by 75-year-old Garrick Ohlsson with the BBC Philharmonic and John Storgårds playing the Third Piano Concerto “with consummate skill, complete control of all its demands and creating something of great musical beauty”.

I was equally struck by the freshly-minted perfection of Nikolay Lugansky in the even more ubiquitous Second. He was partnered with exceptional sensitivity by Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, whose Elgar First Symphony was what I’d gone to hear – no disappointment there, and Lera Auerbach’s Icarus made for a dazzling start. I was also at the Cadogan Hall for the back-on-form RPO, nominally to support two musician proteges of my guest, but this was no B-grade event; it included the most ravishing Debussy Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune  I’ve ever heard, perfectly handled by conducting talent new to me, Elena Schwarz (pictured below). Elena SchwarzThe LSO's outgoing master Simon Rattle deserves our gratitude for highlighting "the proposed vandalism by the BBC, of which the closure of the BBC Singers was only the tip of the iceberg" in a speech to a packed Barbican Hall and inviting them to blaze after his Mahler 7 with Poulenc's Figure Humaine (it shows what public pressure can do - the Singers have been reprived. Rattle and the BBC Singers pictured below by Mark Allan). Antonio Pappano, the orchestra's principal conductor designate of the LSO, turned Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben into a hallucinogenic, often hilarious opera for orchestra only 10 days after the equally brilliant musician due to take over from him at the Royal Opera, Jakub Hrůša, conducted the Philharmonia in a Don Juan to die for. And while the NYO’s Zarathustra had been brilliant, Venezuelan Diego Matheuz made the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland sound like the Berlin Philharmonic under Karajan in it. This concert was also remarkable for reminding many of us who’d forgotten what a first-rate concerto is Bernstein’s Serenade ("after Plato’s Symposium"); Baiba Skride, long-term collaborator with an orchestra the UK doesn’t know enough about, brought every chameleonic, communicative skill to bear on it. Simon Rattle and the BBC SingersOf visiting orchestras, the Estonian National SO under live-wire principal conductor Olari Elts raised the roof of the Cadogan Hall in the right way with Sibelius 5 (and, for that matter, Thea Musgrave's Song of the Enchanter related to it), and top Prom for me alongside the NYO’s was the visit of the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra under Vladimir Jurowski , starting with the surprise of soloist Kirill Gerstein there as part of the ensemble in the opening Weill Little Threepenny Music (pictured below by Andy Paradise) before dazzling in Adès. The Budapest Festival Orchestra’s audience choice Prom didn’t quite work for me, but Sebastian Scotney was wowed by another, more straightforward concert: under master shaper Iván Fischer, he found, “the balance and ensemble are consistently jaw-dropping”.

Skride’s Bernsteinfest apart, violin concerto performance of the year must go to Janine Jansen in the Sibelius with the LSO and Gianandrea Noseda – I heard equal words of wonder about another occasion when she’d played it. Sebastian waxed superlative about her, and above all pianist Denis Kozhukhin, in one of the last Wigmore Hall performances of the year. Sebastian also loved a recital by Yevgeny Sudbin, one of the very first events at World Heart Beat Embassy Gardens, "an intimate space which is a great addition to the London scene". Berlin RSO PromForgive me if I stick to well-trod Wigmore paths, but Elisabeth Leonskaja’s Brahms this year never disappointed, and her trilogy of early piano sonatas joined earlier Schubert and Beethoven epics in the pantheon of great playing. Youthful daring came from the Castalian Quartet: the second instalment of their Britten series dared to follow the Second Quartet and its big Chaconne with Beethoven’s Op. 130, original Grosse Fuge finale included.

On the song recital front, programmes don’t get any more revelatory than the one I travelled to the Oxford International Song Festival to hear – Christine Rice, a mezzo of infinite resources, perfectly partnered by Julius Drake in a stunning Haydn mini-opera plus songs by the also underrated Rebecca Clarke interwoven with viola pieces played by the superb Timothy Ridout. What a lovely way to end, too, with the Brahms' "Geistliches Wiegenlied". Unexpected bonus was an earlier tribute to artist Tom Phillips, true Oxford spirit who died this year; as well as learning about his range with some amazement, I also heard perfect songs from young soprano Clara Barbier Serrano and pianist.Joanna Kacperek. A chance conversation on the tube home led me to Barbier Serrano’s beguiling tribute to Irish writers in Dublin with saxophonist Robert Finegan and pianist Tianqi Ling. Here’s another imaginative artist who deserves to go far. Sheffield Chamber Music FestivalThe context, that of the Bloomsbury Festival, was less than happy for those involved, and I never got the promised publicity photos. No such quibbles over Ensemble 360’s Sheffield Chamber Music Festival, my first experience of both the cornucopia (players in the round at the Crucible's second space pictured above) and the fascinating city. Engaging, natural communicator Kathryn Stott had curated brilliantly, and the opening concert was sheer joy from Martinů’s La revue de cuisine and trumpeter Tina Thing Helseth’s Weill transcriptions to Saint-Saëns’ bracing, healthy Septet.

Handel is like Wagner: without a uniformly world-class team of soloists, not to mention a lively orchestra, small choir and conducting, his works can drag for those of us outside the charmed circle. But there was no danger of that in the English Baroque Soloists/Monteverdi Choir performance of perhaps his most charming masterpiece of light and shade, L’Allegro, Il Penseroso ed il Moderato in lovely St Martin-in-the-Fields. Of the two superb main sopranos, Hilary Cronin and Samantha Clarke, Cronin had already been part of another unsurpassable team in the Irish Baroque Orchestra’s pocket Wigmore Messiah: even given conductor Peter Whelan’s expected inspirational touch, this had a very special incandescent flow, and there were regrets that microphones hadn’t been there to catch it; still, the recording due to be made next year will be well worth waiting for. Closer to an operatic experience was In the Realms of Sorrow, which, as a smitten Rachel Halliburton told us, "took four of the composer’s early cantatas about thwarted love and mined them for all their incandescent rage and poisoned wistfulness"..Selaocoe, Ward and the LSOA final happy note of revelations to come: this year I heard South African cellist, vocalist and composer Abel Selaocoe in concert for the first time, in a very varied programme with the LSO under Duncan Ward, and I can't wait to hear more. So we end as we began: sheer joy with a dash of reflection is what we still desperately need, and Selaocoe is musicality incarnate.

Should we feel guilty about musical joy and optimism given overwhelming horrors around the world? Absolutely not – this is what we need

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Aren't we lucky to hear such superb young talent!

We are indeed - the music colleges are something to be proud of, organisations like NYOGB, and then the enterprise in concert-giving of the younger generations.

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