We have reviewed our last concert of 2013, which means it is time to take stock of the year that was. The following is a list of the Top Ten live performances I reviewed this year, listed in chronological order. We conclude with a few other year-end honors (and dishonors) in several categories, as well as a remembrance of the notable people we lost this year.
Chopin, Sonata No. 3 (inter alia), D. Trifonov
Trifonov began Liszt's B minor piano sonata with an air of mystery, a murky opening with the initial notes of the descending motif made to ring, with the following notes slipping underneath it. When the piece took off, Trifonov raced through it, giving the sense of a soul tormented, wracked by terror, driven toward the exalted major-mode rising theme, played with relieved abandon. The slow passages were lost in rhapsody, with no need to rush through them, as Trifonov explored each whorl and curl of thought, while the fugue, which came out of nowhere, was drenched in sweat.2. Anne Sofie von Otter (Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, March 4)
Once in a very rare while, I hear a concert that attains that crucial combination of diverting programming performed to an impeccable standard by musicians who seem perfectly matched to the music they are performing. This recital by mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter and pianist Bengt Forsberg, offered by the Fortas Chamber Music series in the context of the Kennedy Center's Nordic Cool festival in the Terrace Theater (both artists are Swedish), was in that category.3. Bellini, Norma (Washington National Opera, March 9 to 24)
Soprano Angela Meade was a knockout in the title role, which she is singing on stage for the first time. It was not a standout because she was the most powerful Norma or the one with the strongest high notes, nor did she give the character the same kind of dramatic edge as some other more famous Normas. Meade deployed her velvety voice to give a truly beautiful finish to this mother of all bel canto roles, with a suave, hypnotic Casta diva, for example. There was power in Meade's voice, too, allowing her to soar over the orchestra and to stand her ground with the much more experienced and frankly just louder Adalgisa of Dolora Zajick, but it was the elegance of the performance that remains with me, both in Meade's calm presence and in the cleanness and warmth of her tone.
J. Duphly, Pièces de clavecin, C. Rousset
The three suites that filled out the program, played without intermission, each ended with a “tombeau,” a musical tribute by one composer to another composer who has just died, like a sculpted portrait placed upon a tomb. To the dances of Johann Jakob Froberger’s 19th suite, Rousset appended Froberger’s tombeau for the lutenist Charles Fleury de Blancrocher. This cerebral piece ended with a crashing minor scale down the bass keys, a reference to Blancrocher’s death after falling down a flight of stairs, where he died in the arms of his best friend, Froberger.5. Staatskapelle Dresden (Strathmore, April 16)
The Brahms fourth symphony, opening with that distinctive main theme, had a gentle tidal pull, no heaving, nothing overwrought, some surges -- especially at the end of the first movement -- but also real delicacy of emotion. The violin section's beautiful sound was meted out carefully, never allowed to overwhelm other parts that were more important. The second movement did not become overly sentimental, emotional pain buried deep inside, followed by a boisterous third movement, enlivened by a somewhat unpredictable approach to the tempo at the podium. The finale had serious zip to it, with Thielemann not giving us a chance to breathe until the section with that lovely flute solo, slowing down to an even more solemn pace for the trombone-heavy section, after which the performance exploded into action again.
6. Evgeny Kissin (Kennedy Center Concert Hall, April 24)
In one of the most memorable Kissin performances to date, this concert was centered on an extraordinary reading of Beethoven's final sonata, op. 111, a piece that for me can be ruined by an average or even merely good performance. Kissin's first take on this most daunting vision of a sonata not only utterly convinced me, bringing me to an emotional brink by Kissin's desperate grasp for infinity in the variations, but made me think again about a piece about which I thought I had fixed opinions.7. Emerson Quartet, Farewell to David Finckel (National Museum of Natural History, May 11)
It was ingenious to end the Finckel era with Schubert's glorious C major quintet (D. 956), a piece that allowed Finckel and Watkins to be seated next to each other, in identical chairs on the same platform, playing the twin cello parts. The piece opens with the first cello (Finckel) alone, with the second (Watkins) waiting in the wings in silence. Thinking about this performance last week, I looked forward most to the first movement's B theme, where the two cellos begin together on a high G, then gradually split to sing that gorgeous melody in thirds. It was indeed the high point of the entire concert, a bittersweet moment that you know cannot be sustained -- both Finckel and Watkins as cellists in the Emerson Quartet -- so soft and seeming stretched out, although there is no tempo change marked in the score, the other three instruments receding into the background, as if to savor it.
Re-Joyce (compilation of previous recordings), J. DiDonato
Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, who has made the title role one of her signature pieces, was innocent and affecting as the virtuous Elena. Her technical mastery of the many gnarled fioriture was astounding, and her rendition of Tanti affetti, in which Elena marvels at the miraculous resolution of all her troubles, showed why that aria is one of the great climaxes of opera history, a gorgeous moment of benediction frozen in time. The vocal revelation of the evening, however, was the company debut of Sicilian mezzo-soprano Marianna Pizzolato, who brought a smoky, velvety contralto to the trouser role of Malcom. She sang the most expressively of the cast, with a native understanding of both Italian diction and bel canto technique in Malcom’s luscious slow arias.9. Tristan und Isolde (Washington National Opera, September 15 to 27)
As in most of the music dramas of Wagner, though, it all comes down to the orchestra, which is the principal narrator of all of the action. In Wagner's system of Leitmotifs, found and analyzed to death in Tristan as in other works, the orchestra creates the psychological backdrop of the story, the love and desire theme, for example, telling us that Tristan and Isolde pine for one another long before either is quite willing to admit it -- and before the love potion seals the deal. All sections in the pit sounded at their best, with fine balances giving both loud and soft dynamics maximum efficacy. Particular praise goes to Phil Snedecor, who played the shepherd's pipe solos in the third act on an actual Holztrompete. A trumpet made of wood, something like an Alpenhorn, it was designed by Wagner for those iconic solos, usually played now on English horn (and even indicated as such in most scores of the opera).10. Stephanie Blythe and Les Violons du Roy (Strathmore, October 15)
The Quebec-based chamber orchestra played two baroque suites with stylistic panache, near-perfect intonation and laser-precise ensemble. Bach’s fourth orchestral suite was no less poised, the three oboes again admirably in the spotlight — a gold standard for Bach against which some local ensembles would be found wanting. Genial conductor Bernard Labadie led with ease, helping to give contour and variety of dynamics and articulation to each carefully turned phrase. Mezzo-soprano Blythe filled the hall with a clarion voice, first in Haydn’s cantata “Arianna a Naxos,” in a lovely, anonymous arrangement for strings. One never had the feeling that she was compressing her large sound, and the emotional climaxes of the piece had a searing quality.BEST NEW RECORDINGS
Charles's picks | Alex Ross
BEST NEW OPERA
Ana Sokolović, Svadba (Opera Philadelphia, November 2)
BEST NEW SHORTER PIECE
Marc-André Dalbavie, Three Melodies on a Poem of Ezra Pound (Magdalena Kožená, Shriver Hall, February 17)
BEST NEW GROUP
Dover Quartet (Candlelight Concert Society, October 5)
BEST DANCE PERFORMANCE
Mark Morris, Socrate (GMU Center for the Arts, February 9)
BEST EARLY MUSIC PERFORMANCE
Stile Antico (Library of Congress, April 17)
THE SUGAR PLUM (Best Christmas Concert)
Christmas in New Spain (Folger Consort, December 13)
WORST NEW WORK
Jeanine Tesori, The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me (Washington National Opera, December 14)
WORST MUSICAL EXPERIENCE
China National Symphony Orchestra (Strathmore, February 1)
LUX PERPETUA LUCEAT EIS
In 2013 we said farewell to actors Peter O'Toole (December 14) and Jean Stapleton (May 31); director Patrice Chéreau (October 7); composers John Tavener (November 12), Henri Dutilleux (May 22), Robert Ward (April 3), and Conrad Susa (November 21); pianist Van Cliburn (February 27); translator William Weaver (November 12); writers Elmore Leonard (August 20), Seamus Heaney (August 30), Chinua Achebe (March 21), and Doris Lessing (November 17); beloved critic Marion Lignana Rosenberg (November 28) and music historian Mary Jane Phillips-Matz (January 19). Among the inanimate, in 2013 we bid adieu to Google Reader (June 30) and, with it, the blog (December 19), as well as to the New York City Opera and the last hopes of the expiring Minnesota Orchestra.