The Critics' Awards 1998: Concerts - The Elgar statesman of English music

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The Independent Culture
Easing into fin-de-siecle mode, this was a year of retrospectives and farewells - the most touching being Marilyn Horne's farewell at the Barbican, because it came as a surprise. No pre-advertisement, no fuss. She simply sang her programme, prompting quiet thoughts that maybe this once-glorious voice was in the home straits. Then, during the encores, she announced that this would be the last we'd hear from her. "It's been a great life; now I teach," she said. And not a dry eye in the auditorium.

The big farewell was Simon Rattle's to the CBSO, marked by a brilliantly impressive Mahler 2 in Birmingham. Then there was what you might call a constructive farewell from Kathleen Battle, who sang, and behaved, so grotesquely at her Barbican recital in April that I can't believe she'll ever be asked back. Screwing up her songs was one thing; humiliating her pianist was quite another.

By contrast, there were some amazing nights during the Barbican's epic Shostakovich series, courtesy of the LSO, Rostropovich, and the awesome Maxim Vengerov. The Barbican's other big retrospective, of Americana, was less quality-controlled and sank to the depths (a scruffy night of music by John Cage) as readily as it scaled the heights (John Adams conducting his Nixon in China).

Meanwhile, up in Glasgow, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra gave a very creditable cycle of the Nielsen symphonies under Osmo Vanska. And Westminster Cathedral drew packed houses for the complete Messiaen organ works, magnificently played by Gillian Weir.

It was a good year for Westminster Cathedral all round in fact, setting standards for church music that the neighbouring Abbey was too distracted by internal wranglings to emulate. The Cathedral Choir under James O'Donnell won the supreme Gramophone Award for overall Best Disc of 1998; and by common consent, there is now no finer church-music establishment in the world - a rare achievement for Roman Catholicism, which has squandered so much of its musical heritage in favour of singalongs with optional guitar.

It hasn't been as good a year for new work. But there was an engaging new Cello Sonata by Lowell Liebermann, which drew the warmest reception for any premiere I've witnessed at the Wigmore Hall. And my choice for highlight of the year was also a new work, of sorts: the completion of Elgar's 3rd Symphony by Anthony Payne. The premiere at the South Bank was electrifying, with a real buzz in the hall, and, afterwards, the longest queues imaginable for a record-signing. The BBC SO under Andrew Davis gave it their best. And it's about time someone in government gave Payne some recognition. He at least deserves an OBE. If New Labour really wanted to send a message of love to the music world, they might think of something more.

t Premiere of 1998: Anthony Payne's completion of Elgar's 3rd Symphony