An Olympian Year for Classical Music
The past 12 months have offered a plethora of exceptional recordings and live performances. In true Gramophone tradition, the editorial team pick their favourite musical moments of 2012
The role of Gramophone editor, which I've now been honoured to hold for a year, sees vast numbers of recordings pass across my desk. The year's richness has already been reflected across 12 months of reviews pages, and celebrated in the Awards and in last month's Critics' Choice selections. But, given the sheer breadth and depth of era and genre I've enjoyed exploring, perhaps I should defer to longevity of listening as a yardstick of excellence. The vivid playing of violinist Isabelle Faust in some of the great Bs--Bach, Beethoven and Berg--features highly. But it's another Harmonia Mundi disc to which she contributed that I'd like to highlight here: Alexander Melnikov's masterful recording of Shostakovich's Piano Concertos Nos land 2, which also includes the Violin Sonata. The whole disc is superb, but listening to the sublime slow movement of the Second Concerto happened to coincide with descending into Stockholm airport during late winter, the frozen fields beneath just beginning to emerge early from their hard covering. Our reviewer David Fanning wrote: 'Starting at a whisper, Melnikov fines his sound down to the threshold of audibility and extends phrase-endings until the world seems to stand still'--a description I can't better. I'm not sure why the fusion of music and moment should have felt quite so powerful, but it did, and I'm grateful for it.
Thinking back 12 months for the most memorable concert, it's all too easy to alight on a Big Musical Event--such as Nikolaus Harnoncourt's revelatory Missa solemnis with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra at the Barbican, or Riccardo Chailly's shattering Mahler Sixth with the Gewandhaus Orchestra at the Proms. But one concert stands out for its very opposite qualities. It's a harp recital given by Xavier de Maistre as part of the Engadin Festival in one of the loveliest regions of Switzerland. The magic started long before the concert, as the only way to reach the tiny church halfway up a mountain was by horse-drawn carriage. The church in Fex-Crasta--which seats no more than 50 people--has murals that date back to the 16th century and is in a spot where utter silence reigns. So when de Maistre took us through a programme of Handel, Tarrega, Granados, Caplet, Parish Alvars and Godefroid, there was nothing to disturb the delicacy of the music except the occasional Mahlerian bell-sound as a horse moved outside in the darkness. And as an encore, de Maistre gave us his own transcription of Smetana's Vltava--as enchanting as it was virtuoso!
As a self-confessed ballet nut, I've always enjoyed attending concerts of music from ballets I love. I visualise the dancing as the music is playing: it's the next best thing to seeing the ballet itself--or so I thought.
Cinderella is not a ballet I'm particularly familiar with, and so Prokofiev's music hasn't embedded itself into my psyche. But Valery Gergiev's belief in the music led him to perform the complete score with the LSO at this year's Proms. Respecting his ambition to raise the public's perception of ballet music, I went along for the ride.
It was the first time I'd heard ballet music as music for its own sake, and it was remarkably liberating. The music was by turns rhythmically exciting, melodically memorable and romantically charming. And the LSO fully embraced it--performing it with as much commitment and enthusiasm as they would a Mahler symphony. When the clock chimed midnight, percussion and string sections playing frantically, there was abuzz of excitement--not least from the two children sitting next me, who were mesmerised from start to finish. …