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Classical Concert Highlights of 2008
a Personal Top Ten from Julie Williams

2008 has been dominated by two major anniversaries, of very significant but very different 20th century composers: the 100th anniversary of Messiaen’s birth and the 50th anniversary of Vaughan Williams’ death.

I am taking this opportunity to look back and pick out my personal favourites from the year’s concert-going. In choosing my favourite Proms performances of the year, I am selecting one devoted to each of these composers, and this seems a convenient starting point:

BBC Proms 6 August; BBC Symphony Orchestra – conductor George Benjamin, Carolin Widmann – violin.
L’Ascension – Messiaen; Stravinsky – Violin Concerto; Benjamin – Ringed by the Bright Horizon; Ravel – Pavane pour en Enfante Defante, Bolero

The greatest revelation, and one of the greatest delights, for me was George Benjamin’s Prom. It opened with the orchestral version of L’Ascension, complementing the earlier performance of the organ version of that work at Westminster Abbey (which was comprised within the church service for that Day). This was a very smooth and polished performance and I was most impressed with it. There was also an early work (his first significant adult composition) from the conductor himself; and items of programming which despite being extremely well known, Benjamin brought a delightful freshness of touch to. He combines great precision with lightness and delicacy of touch and is very enjoyable as a conductor.

BBC Proms 26 August; BBC Symphony Orchestra – conductor Sir Andrew Davies
Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis, Job - A Masque for Dancing, Serenade to Music, Symphony No.9

An anniversary Prom for Vaughan Williams also saw a much-welcomed return visit to the Albert Hall for the ever-popular Sir Andrew Davies. A varied selection of works, including ‘Serenade for Music’ (which was created for the Proms) were performed in honour of the anniversary of the composer’s death. Very high quality performances of all the works, one of the finest of the numerous renditions of the Tallis fantasia heard during the anniversary year and also a thoughtful and distinguished performance of the ninth symphony. I had to return early from my holiday to hear this – but it was worth it !

BBC Proms 12 August; 10pm Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir – conductor Paul Hilliard
Rachmaninov Vespers
Staying with the Proms, I am picking out another performance I particularly enjoyed. This work sounds in a different league when sung with ‘Russian’ basses and worked magically well from the Gallery of the Albert Hall’s dome – perfect for its late night slot.

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London 14 October; London Sinfonietta – conductor George Benjamin, Paul Silverthorne – viola, Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble
Les Espaces Acoustiques – Gerard Grisey
After his excellent Proms performance, I was eager to see more of Benjamin, and he features in another of my selections – the UK Premiere of Gerard Grisey’s Espaces Acoustiques, with the London Sinfonietta and a very distinguished performance from Paul Silverthorne in the pivotal solo viola part of that distinctive and demanding work.
This music has a distinctive and almost meditative quality, interacting with the rhythms of the listener’s body, akin to their breathing. This quality serves to refresh the mind and the senses, meaning that one can leave an hour or more of what might be expected to be difficult avant garde music feeling energized and enlivened. It can truly be described as therapeutic.
Benjamin again excelled – as did the musicians of the London Sinfonietta – his precision being exactly what was needed here. It also brought a strong sense of occasion that the UK premiere was conducted by a close friend of the work’s composer, both of them taught by Messiaen. Its inclusion in the commemorative cycle was one of a number of initiatives which paid homage to Messiaen’s very significant role as a teacher as well as as composer and as performer – a contribution to the musical life of the twentieth century which has reached both far and wide.

The London Oratory
Monday 20th October 2008

Patrick Russill – organ
Messiaen 'Meditations sur la Mystere de la Sainte Trinite' (excerpts)
Charles Tournemire 'L'Orgue Mystique' (selections)
Jean Titelouze 'Hymn: Ave Maris Stella'
Satie 'Messe de Pauvres - Kyrie'

Monday 27th October
David Titterington - organ
London Oratory Choir
Messiaen 'Livre du Saint Sacrament' (excerpts)
Gregorian Chant for the Feast of Corpus Christi

There has been a great deal of fine organ music as one would expect from a commemoration of Messiaen who was both a great organist himself and who wrote extensively for this instrument. I would especially highlight the excellent organ recital series held on Monday evenings of the month of October at the Brompton Oratory. In particular, I would highlight Patrick Russill’s recital on October 20th for its beauty, passion and variety. Also another very fine performance – which concluded the series, this time by David Titterington, who played movements from the Livre du Saint Sacrament, a work on which he is a noted authority.
In these evenings, music written for the church was performed without liturgy but in a spiritual and respectful atmosphere, widening its appeal but without diminishing its numen. Throughout this series of Monday evening recitals, the beautiful church has been lit with candles and fragranced with incense. This created serenity in the midst of the capital’s weekday bustle and an insight into the spiritual as well as the musical beauty of the French organ tradition.

The Oratory is in my personal opinion a venue better suited to the French organ tradition – including Messiaen’s own music - than any of the other venues in London used in the retrospective, and that influences my choice to some extent. The recitals there have been a sheer delight.

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 13th February; Pierre-Laurent Aimard - piano
Vingt Regards sur L’Enfant Jesus - Messiaen

One of my other choices is also for the keyboard, this time for the piano rather than the organ: Aimard’s Vingt Regards sur L’Enfant Jesus. Aimard is a considerable authority on this work, not only having learned it from the composer’s second wife but also having made an acclaimed recording. Excellent though that recording remains, it was made when he was younger and this performance showed him at the height of his mature powers as a pianist. It was notable how many musicians and composers were in the audience and this star-studded evening contributed to launching the festival to the strong start from which it went on only to prosper still further.

Royal Festival Hall, London, 16th October; Philharmonia Orchestra – conductor Kent Nagano; Philharmonia Voices
La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jesus-Christ

Another of my selections also includes Aimard at the piano. At the South Bank, there was a fantastic performance of La Transfiguration conducted by Kent Nagano in October. This is a long and intense work, performed without any break and is demanding for both players and audience. Yet here attention was rapt throughout by the quality of the playing, bringing out the work’s dramatic and sensual as well as religious sensibilities.
I make no apology for selecting four out of ten performances associated with the Messiaen centenary; it has been a very major event of the year and particularly so for those with a special interest (like myself) in contemporary music. However, I am picking some other notable and enjoyable concerts too .........

Barbican St Lukes 20 February 10pm , BBC Singers – conductor David Hill
Judith Weir: Missa del Cid, The Consolations of Scholarship, King Harald’s Saga

After the Christmas festivities have subsided, a British music lover’s thoughts might well turn to the BBC Composer Weekend which used to be held annually in January at the Barbican Centre in London (It is now being replaced by a series of Composer Immersion Days in the early part of the year) . This year’s interesting and enjoyable weekend was devoted to the Scottish composer Judith Weir. Its title was ‘Telling the Tale’, linked to the composer’s strongly narrative work and her interest in a wide range of mythology and folklore. My selection reflects that interest: a late night show comprising semi-staged versions of three short (although intense) operas.
‘Missa del Cid’, uses the format of the Mass but is based on the bloodthirsty legend of El Cid. The text was compiled by the composer from the 13th century Spanish epic Poema de Mio Cid and from the liturgical Latin Mass. A narrator introduces each section and then a sung element based on the components of the Ordinary of the Mass follows. At times different sections of the choir sing, chant or recite different parts simultaneously - representing respectively the Moorish and Christian elements of the population. It is witty, effective and entertaining.
Two other musical dramas followed ‘The Consolation of Scholarship’ (1985) – from Weir’s ‘Chinese period’, and ‘King Harald’s Saga’ (1979), occasionally known irreverently as ‘1066 in 10 minutes’ and in which one soprano has to take ten different roles (including that of the entire Norwegian army) in this brief span of time ! Elin Manahan-Thomas particularly excelled in this, both musically and dramatically.

15 February, Barbican Hall
; LSO, conductor - Lionel Bringuier, Lisa Batiashvili - violin , François Leleux - oboe
Ravel Alborada del gracioso; Kancheli Concerto for Volin and Oboe (BBC co-commission: world premiere); Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition

My last selection also features a woman in a prominent role: this time commissioning a new work from a living composer (a most admirable thing for anyone to do !). The Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili commissioned a double concerto, premiered here by herself and her oboist husband at London’s barbican centre with the LSO. Also featured was the young French winner of a conducting competition, clearly a talented young man and clearly someone to watch. Despite being only 21 years of age, he was confident and assured as he conducted the LSO in an entirely new work.
Kancheli’s music (the subject of a retrospective at the Royal Northern College of Music marking his 70th birthday) is always very fascinating. It has a sense of space and timelessness, as it alternates between pp and ff, coming from a culture caught between Europe and Asia, from a composer who draws on his homeland but also his sense of the exile in which he lives.

2008 has been a varied interesting and dynamic year for the performance of 20th and 21st century music. 2009 has a lot to follow!

Julie Williams