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18.12.08

Top 10 Live Performances of 2008

We hear so much good music every year, which makes this annual post difficult to compile, but here is the list of the ten best Washington-area concerts we heard in 2008 (Jens will have a separate list of the best heard by Ionarts at Large). It is pointless to try to rank them from best to least best, so they are listed in chronological order, with an excerpt from my review. As always, your comments about the year in review are welcome.


Christine Schäfer, soprano
Christine Schäfer, Winterreise (Vocal Arts Society, January 18):
What makes the best performances of this cycle is that they capture the gloom of the narrator's sadness (Nun ist die Welt so trübe, he announces in the first song). Rejected in love, he leaves behind his beloved's house and village, trudging through the snow, haunted by memories that come back as snatches of major-mode melody, shunning society and hoping to find the signpost that leads him toward death. Schäfer drained her voice of most of its chaleur, not making her tone so icy as to be uninteresting or brittle but so that it glistened in an introspective way, like the whispering of the narrator through his chattering teeth. Schäfer's recording clocked in at a brisk 68:32, and many of the tempi in this performance were faster than those one might expect, a choice announced immediately with the first of the twenty-four poems by Wilhelm Müller. The rushed tempo of Gute Nacht set the scene, giving the impression of the dejected man hurrying away with quickened steps in the freezing air.
Tobias and the Angel (Opera Vivente, March 3):
What Opera Vivente does in Baltimore is a minor miracle, seemingly on a wing and a prayer. Every season, this little chamber opera company, based in Charm City's Emmanuel Episcopal Church, produces at least one exciting opera (and usually more). Its daring programming generally shames the wealthier, larger companies in the area, and General Director John Bowen puts together productions that are beautiful and inventive. After a successful updating of Handel's Alcina in the fall, Opera Vivente has mounted the North American premiere of Jonathan Dove's Tobias and the Angel. Dove created the opera in 1999, at Christ Church Highbury Fields in London, occupied by the Young Vic theater company during its renovation. The reduced orchestration (of the original production), made necessary by the limited performance space, also suited the demands of Opera Vivente's situation perfectly.
Pierre-Laurent Aimard (Shriver Hall, March 18):
The chromatic excesses of Contrapunctus XI, during which one often wonders what key Bach will land in, led Aimard directly to his next selection after intermission, Schoenberg's Fünf Klavierstücke, op. 23. While there is much to admire about Aimard's pianism, it is his shrewd programming that is his real virtuosity. Aimard brought the same sense of contrapuntal layering to the Schoenberg pieces, which are an exercise in organization that likely would have fascinated Bach. For all their atonal innovation, the composers of the Second Viennese School are extraordinarily formalist, so connected to musical traditions other than tonality. There are few more convincing champions of this kind of music (perhaps Maurizio Pollini), and Aimard made as much as he could of connections between Schoenberg and his predecessors, casting the Langsam movement as a sort of intermezzo and the Walzer as a dance of graceful pirouettes, finally twisting out of sight.
Alfred Brendel Farewell Recital (WPAS, March 19):
As a way of contemplating one's own end, few statements could be more significant than Brendel concluding this recital with Schubert's final sonata (B-flat major, D. 960), composed "in the proximity of death," as Claudio Arrau once put it. In the first movement, the rumbling trill that undermines each statement of the peaceful first theme was no more than a passing, nervous clutching of the heart, while the repeated notes that tick by steadily had a restless sound, not drawing attention to the motif but always there like an anxious heartbeat. That main theme, a balm to soothe a fearful heart, sounded with ethereal yearning toward the end of the development, always troubled by the ominous trills, as we waited for the recapitulation.

Schubert, opening of D. 960, Alfred Brendel, 1988

Leif Ove Andsnes (WPAS, April 24):
The high point of this program was at the end of the second half, a set of lesser-known Scandinavian works, introduced with brief and entertaining comments by Andsnes. Four short pieces by Sibelius, left off the official program, gave glimpses into the Finnish composer's sound world, known primarily for orchestral works and less for the piano. The final piece of Kyllikki (op. 41, based on an episode from the Kalevala) was a flighty account of the inveterate party girl's late night adventures, with a murky ballad in the middle. A waltz marked Elegiaco (op. 76, no. 10) recalled a tragic memory, leading into The Birch (op. 75, no. 4), a folk-inspired evocation of Finland's national tree. Oscillating chords seemed to recall quivering leaves, and the pentatonic melodic snippets were redolent of the mythic north. A gloomy Barcarola (op. 24, no. 10) was more appropriate to a skiff among icy floes than to a gondola, Venice by way of Finland.
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (with Thomas Adès, May 19):
Adès' precise, jumpy style of gesture is part of how he uses his body as an expressive device, sometimes lunging, twisting, hunching down. With a careful control of the relative weight of each section, Adès allowed the wind solos or accents to be heard and marshaled those reserve resources for booming crescendi. If the first [Beethoven symphony] was welcome, the fourth symphony, reserved for the second half, is my personal favorite of the less-played corners of the Beethoven corpus. After a gloomy Adagio introduction, the first movement was fleetly paced, with that same control of dynamics underscored by the reinforcing tone of the trumpet. Adès torqued up a sense of tension leading to the recapitulation by extending the muted rolls on the timpani.

Anne Vinnitskaya, pianist
Anna Vinnitskaya (WPAS, September 29):
Even more impressive than the booming sound of Vinnitskaya's power playing was the lacy, dewy soft passages [of Rachmaninov's second sonata] which were poignant yet contained. A large part of my aversion to Rachmaninov's music is the way that so many overplay it, wallowing in its syrupy harmony. In both the demanding technical parts and the painfully sweet, Vinnitskaya did not drag anything out. It was simply what it was, virtuosic or tender, and Vinnitskaya could say more by understatement than by exaggeration. Liszt's B minor sonata followed, in one of the more enigmatic, subdued, and yet astonishing performances of the work in my experience. Again it was the gossamer touch in the rhapsodic sections that stood out as distinctive, with rubato used with sparing efficacy in both fast and slow sections. Even when large-chord sections reached a manic howl, the voicing of the melody within was etched and shaped.
Alexandre Tharaud (La Maison Française, October 27):
Tharaud performed two signature works from his critically acclaimed discography, beginning with Ravel's "Miroirs." It was the thoughtfulness of his playing and the careful creation of vivid soundscapes that impressed, like the quicksilver fluttering of "Noctuelles," the rainbow plumage of the "Oiseaux Tristes" and the sere, guitar-like serenade of "L'Alborada del Gracioso." Chopin's op. 28 Preludes followed, a work Tharaud has described as "shot through with violence and death." Even in the most serene movements, a restless fear loomed, bursting out in a deathly shudder in No. 14, booming pedal-point sforzandos in No. 17, and the hollow wallop of the three final notes of No. 24, a low D that resonated like a slammed sarcophagus lid.
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir (Clarice Smith Center, November 11):
"Requiem," Erkki-Sven Tüür's memorial to conductor Peeter Lilje, offered an eclectic mix of sound worlds: ascetic chant, the repeated rhythmic cells of minimalism, the atonal shrieks of Messiaen-like birds. There was even the occasional unclassifiable din, like the opening of the "Dies Irae" movement, with its gonglike tintinnabulation produced by mallets and a steel brush applied to the piano strings. The choral intonation was so true that it made the most dissonant harmonies, such as those stacked up in the "Lacrimosa" movement, glisten.

Ruth Ann Swenson (Adalgisa) and Hasmik Papian (Norma) in Norma (photo courtesy of Baltimore Opera)
Bellini, Norma (Baltimore Opera, November 21):
Armenian soprano Hasmik Papian sang with remarkable fortitude, scaling her voice to the moment in a range from velvety pianissimo to searing forte. Not every run or trill was in place, but she has earned the reputation she has as one of the few sopranos today who can sing Norma well. True, her voice can tilt toward the acidic here and there, but that is well suited to the vengeful, mercurial disposition of the Druid priestess. If anything, the Adalgisa of Ruth Ann Swenson was more astounding, the voice having blossomed in its lower range since her recent battle with cancer. It was still as golden and smooth, all around with much more bel in the bel canto than Papian. The duet of the two women in Act II merged the two voices seamlessly, making it the high point of this top-notch musical evening. Swenson may not be welcome at the Met anymore, but that theater's loss is our gain.
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