Danger, daring, surprise, the works

Classical Music

THE CURSE of the music scene is its sheer predictability. I've developed a phobia for over-hyped stars, the lumbering orchestral merry- go-round, and all but the most inspired stabs at the exhausted core repertoire. I've heard some fine orchestral concerts, but none sticks in the mind; I've been to recitals by Alfred Brendel, Evgeny Kissin and Mitsuko Uchida, but each served only to send me back to their superlative recordings.

What I do vividly remember - apart from moments of old-fashioned excellence - is danger, daring and surprise. A big hand, then, for the Romanian buskers whose clarinet-and-accordion rendering of Viennese classics kept a Tube- full of passengers entranced between Leicester Square and King's Cross. Let this anonymous pair stand for the unappreciated army who routinely palliate drab city life.

An accolade, too, for the young cellist Richard Jenkinson, whose recent recital of Brahms, Kodaly and Piazzolla at Southwark Cathedral showed him to be on a par with the ubiquitous Steven Isserlis.

Jenkinson is earning his bread as principal cellist in the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra but stands at the head of another army of unsung heroes: professional musicians prepared to give top-notch concerts free.

Among the more kosher events, two left indelible memories. I never expect to hear a more wrenchingly vivid account of Bach's St John Passion than that by New College choir in their natural habitat under the baton of Edward Higginbottom and supported by a brilliant period ensemble. And the opening recital of Louis Lortie's Beethoven cycle - continuing next month at the Wigmore - was so fresh as to have us on the edge of our seats.

But concerts are constricted by their etiquette: the year's most intense experiences all involved the fusion of music, drama and visual invention, with the most magical being Shockheaded Peter. Based on cautionary tales for delinquent German tots, this Grand Guignol extravaganza depended for its frisson on the extraordinary presence of falsettist Martin Jacques. While the human marionettes on stage did unspeakable things to each other, Jacques gave each grotesque scene a diabolical musical spin. They'll be back at the Lyric Hammersmith in February, and so will I.

This year saw five sensational opera productions, of which three were at Glyndebourne. You couldn't wish for a more perfect Glyndebourne opera than Strauss's Capriccio, nor a more perfectly judged production of it than John Cox's 1973 version, back in a stunning revival with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa.

Nicholas Lehnhoff's revived production of Katya Kabanova - starring Amanda Roocroft - was no less stunning, visually and vocally.

And in a film-noir staging of Handel's Rodelinda (back in repertory next year) we at last got to hear the fabled counter-tenor Andreas Scholl live on stage, and breathtaking it was. Not merely through tonal purity or technical perfection, but through sheer artistry - the way he shaped his phrases, and the noble musicality of his presence. And this year I saw things done to Monteverdi which should have been disastrous but actually were miracles.

Minimalist choreographer Trisha Brown turned Orfeo into an all-dancing dream at the Barbican, while Welsh National Opera extracted raunchy comedy - plus sublime beauty - from the Tarantino horrors of L'Incoronazione di Poppea. If you don't believe me, watch it on BBC2 on 29 December.

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