Critics' Awards 1999 - Classical: Courage of their convictions

If 1999 has any claim on British music history, it will be for something we did not have rather than something we did: namely, the Royal Opera, which went to sleep at the start of the year and didn't wake up until the end. That it woke up at all was a miracle of Disneyesque proportions: kissed into life by the Prince Charming of the American arts establishment, Michael Kaiser, and handed the keys of a glittering new palace on Bow Street. And though the company didn't have too much to say for itself at the opening celebrations, these are early days. It's good to have you back. Keep at it.

In the absence of the Royal Opera, other organisations stepped nobly into the breach, including the Barbican which housed a run of concert- operas so vividly realised that you barely missed the element of full, staged theatre. Alceste with Anne Sophie von Otter, Billy Budd with John Tomlinson, Rinaldo with Cecilia Bartoli, and the recent Benvenuto Cellini magisterially conducted by Sir Colin Davis were the kind of world-class events that make London the focus of international music-making. They were proof of visionary planning in the Barbican these days. But they were also proof that in the arts as anywhere else, money talks. The Barbican can call on the resources of the City. That makes a difference.

In less privileged circumstances, the visit of the National Opera of Chisinau to the Hackney Empire was a priceless piece of honest kitsch: breast-clutching, half-indifferent, half-pantomime and yet, in its grotesque way, oddly wonderful. That the Scarpia bore an unnerving resemblance to Danny La Rue and that the Tosca's chief dramatic motive seemed to be the preservation of her wig was neither here nor there. I loved it. And the cast could sing - more than you could say for the all-Japanese Turandot at the Edinburgh Festival, which boasted a lead soprano with the build of a Sumo wrestler and the voice of Florence Foster Jenkins.

Discoveries of the year included Faure's Penelope - a piece that's not supposed to work but did, surprisingly well, in a student show at the Guildhall School - and Strauss's Liebe der Danae camped up for the banking audience at Garsington. There was also a venue discovery in Wilton's Music Hall near Tower Hill, the intriguing though still semi-derelict new home of Broomhill Opera.

But the year's overall accolade in opera goes to ENO, who rose to the challenge of being London's sole supplier of staged work with a string of magnificent achievements, from the Parsifal handsomely conducted by Mark Elder in February to the Alcina brilliantly directed by David McVicar in November. In between came Robert Carsen's stylish Semele; a revival of Tom Cairns' tough but beautiful King Priam; and - my choice for opera of the year - the harrowing Phyllida Lloyd production of The Carmelites for Poulenc's centenary year. With big, gutsy performances and absolute conviction from participants such as Joan Rodgers, it was the most powerful music-theatre I saw in 1999, and the show I'd most like to see again.

On the concert circuit it has been a bad year for Ivo Pogorelich, whose perverse performances have singlehandedly revived the art of concert booing; and for Nigel Kennedy, whose garden gnome impersonation was in overdrive at the "Experience" he brought to the Festival Hall. Yehudi Menuhin died.

A good year, though, for Dame Gillian Weir whose epic Messiaen series at Westminster Cathedral drew the sort of audiences no one thought ever to see again at organ recitals, and whose sequinned shoes were the stars of the Last Night of the Proms - telecast to households far and wide as they negotiated 32ft pedal stops on the mighty monster of the Albert Hall. It was also a good year for the extremely English eloquence of tenor Ian Bostridge (but then, every year is good for Ian Bostridge); for the American countertenor David Daniels, whose unforgettable Edinburgh Festival recital confirmed his status at the top of the falsettists' league; and for Jose Cura who, of all the candidates for the job of "Fourth Tenor", seems to be the one most likely to get it. The concerts where he sings and conducts at the same time - back to the orchestra, arms waving vaguely up and down like a bird in flight - are silly. But the voice is there. So are the rows of women tremulantly dabbing tissues to their eyes with every top C.

Of the UK festivals this year, the most heroic was Wardour, which unflinchingly sold large quantities of Harrison Birtwistle and Richard Rodney Bennett to villages in rural Wiltshire. The oddest was the Northlands up in Scotland, where the programme included Eskimo ululation on a train from Thurso to Inverness (much to the surprise of local commuters).

And musician of the year? It has to be Sir Simon Rattle, who hasn't been idle since his departure from Birmingham. His Vienna Philharmonic concerts in the Proms were highlights of the season. His Beethoven 9 earlier this month with the Age of Enlightenment Orchestra was an exhilarating tour de force. And his appointment to the Berlin Philharmonic was the best music news of 1999. With Rattle in that key position, the whole world of music will pick up a new energy, new optimism. And that it comes out of Britain is no bad thing for us.

Previous winners

Concerts

1991 Roger Norrington

1992 Michael Tilson Thomas

1993 Sir Peter Maxwell Davies

1994 Valery Gergiev

1995 Simon Rattle

1996 Simon Rattle

1997 Sir Colin Davis

1998 Anthony Payne's completion of

Elgar's Third Symphony

Opera

1991 King Priam (Opera North)

1992 The Duenna (Opera North)

1993 Der Meistersinger

(Royal Opera House)

1994 The Turn of the Screw

(Scottish Opera)

1995 The Makropulos Case

(Glyndebourne)

1996 Theodora (Glyndebourne)

1997 Pilgrim's Progress

(St Endellion Festival, Cornwall)

1998 Sarlatan (Wexford Festival)

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