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Best (and Worst) of 2011

It is time to take stock of the year that was, beginning with the best concerts we heard here in the Washington area. (Jens will tell us about the best performances he heard in Europe this past year.) These are in no particular order of preference, listed simply from most recent to least. A few honorable (and dishonorable) mentions, in various categories, and a remembrance of some of the artists we mourned in 2011 are added at the end.

available at Amazon
Echoes of Paris (Poulenc, Stravinsky, Debussy, Prokofiev),
A. Hadelich, R. Kulek
1. Augustin Hadelich, Kennedy Center Terrace, December 7
It is an unfortunate result of the music recording industry's obsession with photogenic marketability that second-rate violinists receive major contracts, while a far superior player like Augustin Hadelich does not. As shown again in a Wednesday night recital in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, with pianist Rohan de Silva, the Italian-born violinist, now in his late 20s, is an extraordinary musician. [Read Review]

2. Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, WPAS, November 19
Far from resting on his laurels as he nears his 70th birthday, Gardiner continues to innovate and rethink his approach to Beethoven, as heard in this extraordinary concert. The overture to Egmont was supremely expressive, with curvaceous woodwind lines in the slow introduction and violent brass underpinning the full sections. A restless, tragic, windswept feeling hovered over this performance, and the small ensemble, huddled together at the center of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, sounded crisp and unified. The third symphony, focused on a similar theme of revolutionary heroism, was an ingenious counterweight—both works were created around the time of the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte as emperor and the subsequent French assault on Vienna. [Read Review]

3. National Symphony Orchestra, Lorin Maazel, October 28
Lorin Maazel, one of the world’s most accomplished and most senior conductors, has entered a glowing, autumnal phase in his career. In rather active semi-retirement since stepping down two years ago from a sometimes rocky tenure at the New York Philharmonic, Maazel has been giving performances characterized by warm, lovingly crafted mentorship — not descriptions one could always apply to this most imperious of leaders. [Read review]

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Liszt, Années de pèlerinage,
Louis Lortie

(released on March 29, 2011)
CHAN 10662(2) | 161'20"
4. Louis Lortie, Library of Congress, October 19
This recital reestablished Lortie in my estimation as one of the most gifted colorists at the piano and placed him at the top of my list of the best interpreters of Liszt’s keyboard music. He took Liszt’s often over-the-top romanticism at face value, giving the music its full drama without letting it descend into vulgarity. Each vignette received its own carefully calibrated soundscape of colors, from the ringing bells and nuptial hymn of the Sposalizio to the obsessive knell-like dotted-rhythm ostinato of Il Penseroso to the Mephistophelian snatches of impish motifs and fiercely virtuosic chaos of the Dante sonata movement. Lortie differentiated many voicings within each texture, creating luxuriantly paced, multilayered portraits of scenes or ideas inspired by the paintings of Raphael or the poetry of Petrarch and Dante. [Read review]

5. Hugo Wolf Quartett, Dumbarton Concerts, October 15
Unlike some other string quartets, these four musicians did not feel the need to scrape every last ounce of sound from the strings. Beginning with a glowing rendition of Schubert’s one-movement “Quartettsatz” in C minor, D. 703, they played with a mellow amber tone that was carefully balanced and rarified. The cello did not growl, the viola did not bark and the violins did not wail over the top of the ensemble. The intensity of the performance came from the fleet tempo and the rise and fall of expressive phrasing. [Read review]

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Liszt Project, Pierre-Laurent Aimard

(released on October 4, 2011)
6. Pierre-Laurent Aimard, WPAS, May 5
The program, combining four one-movement re-imaginings of the piano sonata form (by Wagner, Berg, Scriabin, and Liszt), was ingenious. Three short Liszt pieces, all experiments with the dissolution of tonality and traditional musical forms from Liszt's final years, prefaced each of the first three, shorter sonatas. In every case, the ambiguous ending of the Liszt piece obscured the aural boundary with the piece that followed it, an effect enhanced by Aimard's insistence on silence throughout the entire first half, his hands held intentionally on the keyboard as if the piece had not yet ended. [Read review]

7. Christine Brewer, Vocal Arts D.C., March 23
Composer Alan Louis Smith set words taken from letters by First Lieutenant George W. Honts, who went to fight in World War II a year after he was married to his wife, Evelyn Honts. The harmonic idiom is mostly tonal and quite nostalgic, with a broad range of vocal styles that played to Brewer's strengths as a storyteller, although some songs take a more dissonant turn, like the clustered death-knell ostinato in the fifth song, as the first signs of battle are looming. The climax of the cycle, a heart-rending setting of the telegram notifying Evelyn of George's death, was devastating, especially the high-soaring shrieks at the core of the message ("THE SECRETARY OF WAR . . . DESIRES TO EXPRESS"), where each fortissimo high note sets the piano strings, thanks to a depressed pedal, shimmering with overtones. [Read review]

8. National Symphony Orchestra, Turangalîla-Symphonie, March 11
The sprawling Turangalîla-Symphonie is a dazzling, even stultifying piece that merits all of the epithets, kind and unkind, leveled at it over the years: most famously, Boulez dismissed it as "bordello music" for its obvious orgasmic moments (inspired by Messiaen's love for Yvonne Loriod, who would become his second wife) and Stravinsky said the work contained more embarrassment than riches ("plus d'embarras que de richesses") adding that "little more is needed to write such music than a copious supply of ink." Like so much of Messiaen's music, it binds together an impossible number of references and influences -- Indian rhythmic patterns, bird song, Tristan and Isolde, and much more -- with a vast orchestral palette, almost too large, too loud to absorb with the human ear. To hear it in live performance, even a less than perfect one like that led by Eschenbach, is an unforgettable experience. [Read review]

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Kissin Plays Liszt
Live recordings, 1987-2003
(released on April 4, 2011)
9. Evgeny Kissin, WPAS, March 6
Kissin's program was limited in chronological scope, but Liszt's music sounded tenderly poetic, as in "Ricordanza" (the ninth Transcendental Etude), and far less saccharine. Even in "Venezia e Napoli," Liszt's Italianate reworking of Italian composers' themes, Kissin steered clear of the potentially treacly sentimentality of this kind of paraphrase. To no one's surprise, he also played Liszt's Piano Sonata, a work that unites many elements of his musical style: the almost keyless ambiguity of the opening theme; the metamorphosis of that theme through variation; extraordinary technical demands, and a seemingly programmatic narrative, in the manner of his tone poems for orchestra. No one knows for certain if Liszt intended the sonata to have a story, although both the Faust legend and the passion of Christ have been suggested, among many others. Kissin gave the work a driven urgency, taking no rhythmic freedom, even in the many astonishing passages in octaves, and achieving a glowing, glossy performance, alternating between sinister and angelic. [Read review]

10. Gluck, Iphigénie en Tauride, Washington National Opera, May 7
Without any daringly ornamented arias or anything extraneous that might divert attention from the story's dramatic continuity, a Gluck opera will succeed only with talented singing actors and compelling direction. There are almost none of the tried-and-true operatic clichés to fall back on, not even a romantic intrigue: the central relationship here is of brother and sister, who do not even recognize one another until the end. In the title role, soprano Patricia Racette was riveting, the searing strength of her voice underscoring the still intensity of her stage presence. Racette hit her stride, singing with lyrical abandon in the Act IV aria "Je t'implore et je tremble." [Read review]

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Puer Natus Est: Tudor Music for Advent and Christmas, Stile Antico
Best Local Debut:
Stile Antico, Folger Library, April 2

Worst Concert:
Paul Appleby, Vocal Arts D.C., May 15

Best Opera Production:
Donizetti, Lucia di Lammermoor, Washington National Opera, November 10 and 12 (directed by David Alden)

Worst Opera Production:
Vivaldi, Griselda, Santa Fe Opera (directed by Peter Sellars)

Best Contemporary Program:
JACK Quartet, Mansion at Strathmore, November 5

Best Early Music Program:
Le Poème Harmonique, La Maison Française, February 19

Best Christmas Concert:
Folger Consort and guests, Music of Spanish Renaissance, December 10

Lux perpetua luceat eis:
The list of beloved artistic figures we lost this year includes playwright Václav Havel; singers Cesária Évora, Montserrat Figueras, Salvatore Licitra, and Margaret Price; writer Christopher Hitchens; composers John Gardner, Daniel Catán, John Barry, Peter Lieberson, Lee Hoiby, and Milton Babbitt; film directors Ken Russell and Sidney Lumet; actors John Wood, Elizabeth Taylor, and Pete Postelthwaite; violinist Josef Suk; painter Cy Twombly; and conductor Yakov Kreizberg. We also note the passing of Denis Dutton, the founder of Arts and Letters Daily; Roman Catholic Cardinal John Foley, the voice of American broadcasts from the Vatican; and musicologists Charles Hamm, Piero Weiss, and László Dobszay.

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