Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Cooking with classical gas


Best classical releases of the year 2010

Agneta Eichenholz in the title role of Christof Loy's Covent Garden production of Berg's Lulu. Photo: Opus Arte
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Composers' last operas yielded the best and most important classical discs of 2010. At the top of the list was Rene Jacobs' new recording of Mozart's Die Zauberfloete (Harmonia Mundi) that gave us, for the first time in the history of recorded music, a Magic Flute that resembled the Singspiel Mozart and his playwright-singer collaborator, Emanuel Schikaneder, unveiled in Vienna in 1791, the year of the composer's death (in poverty, let's remember, despite great fame). Besides restoring nearly every word of the play, it accomplished a music-word meld unprecedented for this opera, and in a brilliant ensemble effort, the musicians onstage and off- made genuine magic.

Falstaff, Verdi's crowning masterpiece, updated rather than backdated, sparkled with a similar brilliance and sense of life-affirming perfection in a live performance from Glyndebourne (Opus Arte DVD) conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. Richard Jones' mind-bogglingly ingenious production proved a deft match for Verdi's supremely nimble score, and a near-ideal ensemble cast whirled around the tirelessly resourceful singing-acting of Christopher Purves as Sir John.

Christof Loy's controversial Covent Garden production of Berg's last opera, Lulu (Opus Arte DVD), gave us Antonio Pappano's conducting at its most penetrating (the same year it gave us Pappano's equally astounding Il Barbiere di Siviglia, with wheelchair-bound Joyce DiDonato, on Virgin Classics). Despite a hundred individual touches I found gratuitous in Loy's work, no other Lulu in my experience (which goes back to Silja at the War Memorial before we had all three acts of the opera) has bored as deep into the core of this unfathomably mysterious, psychologically harrowing opera. Heading another great cast, Agneta Eichenholz's mesmerizing performance of the title role burned holes in the memory. For me, this Lulu was Recording of the Year – and like having heroin in the house.

Wagner's Parsifal, an opera of equal mystery and profundity, was captured in an astounding live performance from St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theatre (on its in-house label) led by Valery Gergiev, not the most reliable of Wagner conductors but here at his very best. It's slow, with an inward-turned intensity unusual for the fiery-tempered Gergiev, and it achieves and sustains the transcendence without which, why bother with the piece at all? At the head of another exemplary cast is Rene Pape's Guermanz, a model of noble sensitivity.

Wagner's first opera, the rarely performed Rienzi, was captured in a brilliant staging from the Deutsche Opera Berlin (Arthaus Musik) I'll review in detail soon. Richard Jones' misfire of a production of Lohengrin for Munich (Decca) was, in proper Wagner fashion, redeemed, and more than, by Jonas Kaufmann's ma

Jonas Kaufmann in Richard Jones' production of Lohengrin for Munich. Photo: Decca
sterful first outing in the title role (which he promptly took to Bayreuth). Goetterdaemmerung, last opera of The Ring, was revealed in all its glory in a concert performance by Mark Elder and his Halle Orchestra on its house label.

Every year is a big year for Bach on disc, and in 2010 John Eliot Gardiner's Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, arguably the most important recording project of our new century, saw its final issue on another "home" label, SDG, for Soli Deo Gloria (or, in the words of the naughty British press, "Sod Deutsche Gramophon"). But otherwise it was women who swept the Bach honors. The solo violin works got splendid outings with Alina Ibragimova (Hyperion), Isabelle Faust (Harmonia Mundi) and, best of the lot, the always searching Viktoria Mullova (Onyx). But Bach honors of the year go to Joanna MacGregor for the boldest, most imaginative, individual and involving recording of the Goldberg Variations this century (Sound Circus/Warner Classics).

The most important orchestral release of the year was of gay musical titan Thomas Ades' Tevot (EMI Classics), with the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle, with Ades conducting his own Violin Concerto and Three Studies from Couperin, and Paul Daniel filling it all out with a suite from Ades' infamous Powder Her Face. If Ades is indeed the new Benjamin Britten, the "old" one got the best vocal recording of the year, Gerald Finley's of his Songs and Proverbs of William Blake and assorted other songs (Hyperion), and best chamber recording by way of the Elias Quartet's achingly beautiful recording of the second and third string quartets (Sonimage). Choral CD of the year was Eric Whitacre's resplendent Light & Gold (Decca), with his own chorus.

Pianists took the prizes in the overwhelming Chopin and Schumann "Years," gay keyboard prestidigitator Stephen Hough for his imaginative Chopin recital on Hyperion, and Mitsuko Uchida for her luminous performances of Schumann's C Major Fantasie and Davidsbuendlertaenze (Decca).

Alex Ross' invaluable Listen to This (Farrar Straus Giroux) would have been a shoo-in for music book of the year if it hadn't been for Oliver Hilmes' towering, authoritative biography of Cosima Wagner, The Lady of Bayreuth (Yale University Press), the most compulsively readable book to have fallen into my hands this year.

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