CD Reviews | CTD (Briefly Noted) | JFL (Dip Your Ears) | DVD Reviews


Best (and Worst) of 2012

It is time to take stock of the year that was, with a list of the ten best concerts I heard here in the Washington area. These are in no particular order of preference, listed simply in chronological order. A few honorable (and dishonorable) mentions, in various categories, and a remembrance of some of the artists we mourned in 2012 are added at the end. Happy New Year to all our readers!

available at Amazon
Glass, Orphée, P. Cutlip, L. Saffer,
Portland Opera, A. Manson
1. Philip Glass, Orphée, Virginia Opera, February 10
Based on the 1949 film of the same name by Jean Cocteau (French libretto adapted by Glass and Robert Brustein), Orphée did not impress me (or others) that much on a recent recording on Glass's Orange Mountain Music label. It again became apparent to me how much Glass's repetitive music relies on a visual element -- true of both his operas and his film scores -- to bring it to life. In this staging, created for Glimmerglass Opera and taken to Portland Opera for the production from which the OMM live recording was made, the work became many times more hypnotic and alluring. [Read review]

2. Leif Ove Andsnes, Strathmore, February 12
Leif Ove Andsnes celebrated the 25th anniversary of his recital debut this year in Oslo, and this distinctive Norwegian pianist has made periodic visits to Washington for most of that remarkable career. The Washington Performing Arts Society brought him to the Music Center at Strathmore to play the same program he would perform in Oslo. Andsnes held audience members in rapt silence, controlling with hieratic authority even the impulse to applaud, hypnotizing us with his almost obsessive concern for the finest details of sound. [Read review]

3. Wolfgang Holzmair and Sonia Wieder-Atherton, Embassy of Austria, February 23
Baritone Wolfgang Holzmair remained seated next to cellist Sonia Wieder-Atherton for the Schubert songs, giving his usual careful attention to every facet of diction and meaning of the texts. Wer nie was particularly striking, with the cello reduced to a moaning lament, and a dry, all-pizzicato accompaniment in An die Türen, little more than a walking bass pattern. One had, even more than in the piano original, a sense of the harpist in the cello sound, as well as the oddness of this anxious character met by Wilhelm Meister on his journey. Another of Schubert's Goethe songs, Wonne der Wehmut (the second of the two songs of op. posth. 115), served as a brief but equally mordant postlude to the anguish of isolation. [Read review]

4. Bartók, Duke Bluebeard's Castle, National Symphony Orchestra, Michelle DeYoung, Matthias Goerne, March 8
Mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung sang with a smiling face, with perhaps just a hint of a perverse thrill at the horrors that unfolded before her. Her buttery legato and vocal power gave a surge of ecstasy to her expressions of love as she coaxed the keys to the doors from her new husband. Although her conservation of energy and the excess of orchestral sound meant she was covered at times, DeYoung unleashed a blazing high C at the opening of the fifth door, riding a huge blossoming wave of sound from the orchestra, all those planing parallel major triads, complete with a squad of heraldic brass players joining from an upper balcony. [Read review]

5. Anna Caterina Antonacci, Vocal Arts D.C., Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, April 11
So much about this recital gave her performance the most extraordinary punch: exquisite French and Italian diction that comes from a love of text, incarnating what the art song is supposed to be, a heightened form of poetic recitation; excellent dramatic sense, allowing Antonacci to lose herself in each song, each character; compelling presence; and vocal and interpretative chops that made the most of a program that featured many exquisite songs, but also some rather banal music. Antonacci made all of it better by the way she sang it. [Read review]

6. Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop, Shostakovich 7, May 3
This was a courageous bit of programming on Alsop's part, since the last time the BSO performed the work was in 2001, under her predecessor, Yuri Temirkanov. This is not a comparison one would expect to be advantageous to Alsop, but she came up with gold for the daring, leading a performance that was a measured, earth-shattering slow burn. [Read review]

available at Amazon
D. Scarlatti, Sonatas, A. Tharaud
7. Alexandre Tharaud, La Maison Française, October 26
Where some pianists thrill with fanfaronade, Alexandre Tharaud teases out the piano’s delicate side, weaving threads of sound into exquisite lace patterns. Tharaud’s program opened with five of the 18 sonatas on his superlative Domenico Scarlatti recording, released last year. The Scarlatti sonatas often show up on recitals as flashy encores, but Tharaud reads them more like expressive tableaux, landscapes traced with a few strokes of ink. He has written that he chose from more than 500 such sonatas by Scarlatti by “allowing myself to be guided by my fingers.” The zippier sonatas certainly sat easily under his agile hands, but it was the reclusive melancholy of K. 481 that stood out for its exquisitely shaded shyness. [Read review]

8. Takács Quartet and Marc-André Hamelin, Library of Congress, November 13
Take the Takács Quartet, one of our favorite string quartets, and Marc-André Hamelin, one of our favorite pianists, and put them together on one free concert at the Library of Congress, and you have our full attention. The evening reached its apogee with Shostakovich's piano quintet (op. 57), one of the most eloquent pieces written for that combination of instruments. It dates from the same year as Britten's first quartet, 1940, and rumbles with many of the same tensions but is more tragic in character where Britten was elegiac. Hamelin brought to the keyboard part both reticence, with the piano often trying to fit into the texture in minimal ways (trying to sneak in like a string instrument in the mournful fugue of the second movement), and overwhelming power, biting in tone as the engine that drives the cynical dance of the scherzo. [Read review]

9. La Risonanza, Library of Congress, November 29
George Frideric Handel wrote a lot more than a certain piece played to death in the month of December. During his stay in Rome, from 1707 to 1710, he composed many Italian cantatas and oratorios, mostly on secular subjects. These often exquisite, lesser-known works were the focus of the stellar American debut of the Italian early-music ensemble La Risonanza.[Read Review]

10. Piotr Anderszewski, Shriver Hall, December 2
For his debut at Shriver Hall in Baltimore, the Polish-Hungarian pianist paired two of the composers whose music he has recorded to critical acclaim, Bach and Schumann. Anderszewski is not a fastidious fine-tuner of sound at the keyboard, but he used a broad palette of articulation and voicing to put his mark on some familiar pieces. [Read Review]

available at Amazon
Beethoven / Berg, Violin Concertos, I. Faust, Orchestra Mozart, C. Abbado
BEST CDs OF 2012
Jens F. Laurson | Charles T. Downey
New York Times | Alex Ross (Addendum)
The Guardian

Rinde Eckert, And God Created Great Whales, October 16
Writing an opera is hard enough. Now imagine you are suffering from a degenerative disease that is destroying your ability to remember anything. This is the premise of And God Created Whales, a fascinating multimedia theater piece by singer and composer Rinde Eckert. In a revision that has been stripped down to its essentials — two singing actors, recorded sound, piano and ukulele — Eckert has done what might seem impossible, adapting the story of Melville's Moby-Dick. [Read review]

Harpsichordist Mitzi Meyerson, Smithsonian, August 4
What made this concert stand out was not only the degree of surety and polish in the execution, but the clarity of thought behind the interpretation, revealed also in Meyerson's droll and informative comments about the music. The unmeasured prelude that opened the D minor suite by Louis Couperin (1626-1661) had exactly the improvisatory feel that Meyerson said she wanted to capture, and in all of the dances, she used a careful regulation of articulation to draw out voicings, with brilliant trills and a perky rhythmic vitality to the Courantes and the Gavotte. [Read review]

Tanglewood, July 22
By various twists of fate, I had never visited Tanglewood until this summer, and my first trip to the Berkshires made me want to go back every summer -- the cool air, the lush green mountains, the clear streams and lakes, and of course the music. I made it in time for the festival's 75th anniversary, and one hopes it keeps going strong for at least another 75 years. [Read review]

available at Amazon
H. Meltzer, Brion (inter alia), Cygnus Ensemble
Harold Meltzer, Brion, February 2
This piece is actually a couple years old, having been edged out for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize by Steve Reich's Double Sextet (which seemed like an example of a desire to recognize a career's work through a not all that remarkable individual work), but this was its local premiere. Based on Meltzer’s visit to Carlo Scarpa’s postmodern mausoleum and garden for the Brion-Vega family, near Venice, the work is a haunting evocation of the site’s enveloping silence and architectural gestures to the meeting with infinity it commemorates. [Read review]

Anonymous 4, Folger Consort, Washington National Cathedral, January 6
The voices of Anonymous 4 are matched with no music quite as perfectly as they are with the complexities of the 13th-century motet. The esteemed quartet’s 1994 recording of selections from this body of music, transcribed from the Montpellier Codex, was one of its best, and more than a decade later, the group still dazzles in this repertory. To unravel the medieval motet’s tangle of voices, a knot of different texts and languages, these performances often began with just one texted voice’s part, with the others layered on gradually in repetition. Crystalline intonation and clarity of diction, without fussy exaggeration of the Latin, rarefied the pieces into limpid delicacies. Four instrumentalists offered much simpler, strikingly understated performances of contemporaneous melodies, often the catchy tenors that were the basis of the motets on the program — an ingenious programming decision. [Read review]

THE SUGAR PLUM (the new name for the coveted Ionarts Best Christmas Concert Award, with thanks to Friend of Ionarts Jason McFarland)
E. Humperdinck, Hansel and Gretel, Washington National Opera, December 21
When Washington National Opera inaugurated a new family opera tradition with a production of Engelbert Humperdinck's charming opera Hansel and Gretel at the Lincoln Theater in 2007, we were charmed. The tradition, it turned out, took a while to take root, but after a five-year hiatus, the company revived David Gately's fairy-tale production in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater (through the generosity of Jacqueline Badger Mars, which brought with it a tin of specially decorated M&Ms as you left the theater). [Read review]

Lully, Armide, Glimmerglass Opera, July 29
This staging by Marshall Pynkoski, premiered in 2005, gives this intensely appealing work a form that reveals to modern audiences what Lully accomplished at his best. The sets by Gerard Gauci, with designs based on the Sufic script and Arabesque decoration in Persian illuminated manuscripts, provide a gorgeous backdrop for Atelier Ballet’s handsome dancers, in diverting and well-executed choreography by Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg. Dora Rust D’Eye’s colorful costumes in a rainbow of bright hues for the Saracen court round out a feast for the eyes. [Read review]

Donizetti, Anna Bolena, directed by Stephen Lawless, Washington National Opera, September 15
A dull-as-dust staging from the Dallas Opera, directed by Stephen Lawless, with a truly ugly set of IKEA-style wood panels that moved around unhelpfully (sets by Benoit Dugardyn), providing a backdrop that reminded me too much of my childhood friend's wood-paneled den in the 1970s. Moving pieces did little to distract from the plainness: the odd choice of rolling display cases (for the royal ermines and, curiously, the executioner's sword and block) and a bizarre added choreography in the hunt scene (featuring two bare-chested men wearing deer skull masks fighting each other). [Read review]

John Cage, Freeman Etudes, Irvine Arditti, Phillips Collection, September 6
The best part of the series of concerts for the Cage centenary this fall was that it allowed me to articulate more precisely what I find so tiresome about the composer's later work. Cage followed a painstaking process to create the Freeman Etudes, beginning by tracing points on star charts to determine the initial pitch and duration. Cage assigned all other performance parameters with a series of chance determinations -- articulation, dynamics, unusual effects -- that also indicated the series of pitches that he would follow. James Pritchett, who studied this score in great detail and was the one who helped Cage reconstruct his long-forgotten method when he took the etudes back up, estimates that "each note of each etude is thus the product of hundreds of different chance operations." The result, lasting around ninety excruciating minutes without a break, is multifariously perverse, in the lovably eye-twinkling way that only Cage could muster. [Continue reading]

Plácido Domingo Celebrity Series, Washington National Opera
To this sucker for a good opera star recital, this series, inaugurated in response to the challenges of the economic crisis, seemed like a good idea, but it went badly awry this year. Angela Gheorghiu (March 3) had about half of an entertaining and well-prepared program. Deborah Voigt (March 13) had planned a throwaway Broadway program, which we had planned to skip and then learned she had canceled. Things got no better with Nathan Gunn (September 23), which was less than charming and plagued by technical issues with lighting.

That would be Ionarts, ranked as the No. 3 Classical Music Blog according to this list (whatever). Many thanks to all of our readers for reading Ionarts and for spreading the word about us to others who might be interested!

In 2012 we said farewell to singers Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (May 18), Evelyn Lear (July 1), Lisa della Casa (December 10), and Galina Vishnevskaya (December 11); harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt (January 16), conductor Paavo Berglund (January 25), pianist Brigitte Engerer (June 23), and sitar player Ravi Shankar (December 11); and composers Gerre Hancock (January 21), Elliott Carter (October 27), Hans Werner Henze (November 5), Jonathan Harvey (December 4), Dave Brubeck (December 5), and Richard Rodney Bennett (December 24). We also note the passing of writers Adrienne Rich (March 27), Maurice Sendak (May 8), Carlos Fuentes (May 15), Gore Vidal (July 31), and Charles Rosen (December 9), and filmmaker Chris Marker (July 29) and actor Charles Durning (December 24).


Armando Bayolo said...

Charles, Meltzer's Brion is indeed a terrific piece but it was actually given its DC premiere in the spring of 2010 by Great Noise Ensemble at the Catholic University of America.

MWnyc said...


Charles, please don't neglect to mention soprano Judith Nelson
(May 28).

Charles T. Downey said...

Thanks for both of these comments, which for some reason did not show up until today. Both noted!