Classical Music in 2008: Did no one else think Barenboim's Beethoven Cycle was overrated?

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The Independent Culture

Among the operatic high notes of 2008 was the notion that small is beautiful. Netia Jones's thrifty multi-media Acis and Galatea, sung to single strings under Christian Curnyn in Wilton's Music Hall, was beguiling, and Jo Davies directed an enchanting Cunning Little Vixen for the Royal College of Music.

Down in the conspicuously monied surroundings of Hampshire's Grange Park, director-designer Antony McDonald's Rusalka was as beautiful as it was unsettling. At Garsington, Olivia Fuchs's 1980s re-imagining of The Rake's Progress proved far cleverer than Robert Lepage's high-budget American morality tale at Covent Garden, while Opera Holland Park enjoyed an incendiary 1960s Tosca from Stephen Barlow, and a compelling Iolanta from conductor Stuart Stratford and director Annilese Miskimmon.

In the Lillian Baylis Studio, Independent Opera's swansong production of Pelléas et Mélisande featured an extraordinary performance from Andrew Foster-Williams as Golaud, imaginative designs from Madeleine Boyd and a revelatory new orchestration by Stephen McNeff. Scottish Opera made a smart investment with David McVicar's sumptuously detailed La Traviata, while Tim Albery's Boris Godunov showed how far ENO's orchestra has come under its dynamic young conductor, Edward Gardner. Christopher Alden's Partenope (ENO) was brilliantly executed but conceptually baffling, while Stephen Langridge's stark choreography of Harrison Birtwistle's violent tragedy The Minotaur (Royal Opera House) and David Alden's harrowing Lucia di Lammermoor (ENO), complete with glass harmonica and a Carrie-style mad scene, were outstanding.

The Messiaen centenary brought exquisite performances from the Nash Ensemble; Susanna Mälkki and Pierre-Laurent Aimard and the Ensemble Intercontemporain at the South Bank; and Olivier Latry, Ingo Metzmacher and Netherlands Opera at the Proms. But none so explicitly and ecstatically sexual as Simon Rattle's Turangalîla with the Berliner Philharmoniker. Rattle's Schumann Cycle with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was as exciting as John Eliot Gardiner's Brahms with Orchestre Romantique et Révolutionnaire and more coherent, too. Recorder virtuoso Maurice Steger delivered an audaciously decorated series of Telemann concertos and suites with The English Concert at the Wigmore Hall; while Gianandrea Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic and Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic demonstrated what subtle accompanists they are.

On television, BBC2's Maestro unpacked the mystique around conducting, while the Doctor Who Prom brought several thousand shrieking children to the Royal Albert Hall. Filed somewhere between art, theatre and music, Heiner Goebbels's Stifter's Dinge at P3 was unforgettable.

Low notes

At the Royal Festival Hall, Daniel Barenboim's Beethoven Cycle left most listeners scrabbling for superlatives while I thought the pianist-conductor had been too ambitious. An over-stretched Valery Gergiev parked the LSO on the hard shoulder while Vladimir Jurowski sped ahead with the LPO. It wasn't all champagne and strawberries on the picnic circuit: Grange Park's 007-ised travesty of Offenbach's Bluebeard was followed by a funereal Magic Flute at Holland Park. The belated premiere by Music Theatre Wales of novellist Ian McEwan and composer Michael Berkeley's opera, For You, offered postwar musical clichés with a side-dish of pre-war sexual politics, while Welsh National Opera's new productions became ever more conservative.


October saw the opening of Kings Place and Wexford Opera House. With the former clad in blond German oak and the latter in black Canadian walnut, both venues are as easy on the eye as they are on the ear, though Wexford secured the more spectacular opening with John Fulljames's sour-sweet production of Snegurochka. Flesh-and-blood newcomer of the year was Andris Nelsons, music director of the CBSO. Young, personable, and blessed with phenomenal stick-technique.

Face of the year

Those eyes! That presence! That voice! Face smeared with blood, metal wings raking the stage, South African soprano Amanda Echalaz terrified as the harpy in The Minotaur, then blazed her way through Holland Park's Tosca in a Callas wig and white patent boots. Easily the most persuasive, committed and intelligent performance of this role I have seen in any opera house, and an artist who lives every thought, note and breath.


Composers Mauricio Kagel and Alan Hoddinott; singers Giuseppe Di Stefano, Sergei Larin, Bernadette Greevy, Richard Van Allen, Inga Nielsen, Yma Sumac, Leyla Gencer and Marjorie Thomas; violinist Siegmund Nissel; harpsichord-maker William Dowd; musicologists Mary Berry and Wilfrid Mellers; conductors Richard Hickox and Vernon "Tod" Handley.