Andrew Clements' top 10 classical music of 2016

Birds sang for Messiaen, there was a 3D requiem for a drowned son, and John Luther Adams won a Pulitzer – here are our classical music critic’s picks of 2016

1 Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim
BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London

Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra are now almost annual visitors to the Proms, with every appearance seeming to mark a further stage in the development of this remarkable musical partnership. But their visit to the Royal Albert Hall this summer was even more memorable than usual, for they brought with them a very special guest soloist.

Martha Argerich may have celebrated her 75th birthday in June, but age shows no signs of dulling the edge of her brilliance; she remains unique – the most thrilling pianist of our time. Her performance of Liszt’s First Piano Concerto had all the wit, sparkle and grandeur anyone could possibly want and with every keyboard run and arpeggio etched with diamond precision, her technical command was breathtaking. Barenboim ensured that the orchestra provided the perfect platform for such exceptional playing, before joining Argerich for an encore – Schubert’s A major Rondo for piano duet. Here were two great musicians, friends since they were both child prodigies in Buenos Aires, delighting in each other’s astonishing talent.

There were more treats to come after the interval, for the Wagner sequence that Barenboim conducted not only provided further evidence of what a refined and responsive ensemble the WEDO has become under his guidance, but also a reminder that he has very few peers as a Wagner interpreter today. Whether encapsulating the whole drama of Tannhäuser in a thrilling and spacious account of its overture, or conjuring up the fierce, dark sound world of Götterdämmerung in Siegfried’s Rhine Journey and Funeral March, it was unforgettable. Read the full review

2 Oedipe
Royal Opera House, London

Alan Oke and Johan Reuter in Oedipe by George Enescu.
Triumph … Alan Oke and Johan Reuter in Oedipe by George Enescu. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Eighty years after its premiere, one of the 20th century’s most singular operatic masterpieces finally reached a British stage. George Enescu’s work sometimes shuttles between opera and oratorio, but the best of the sinewy score is unmistakably dramatic, and the Royal Opera’s production, staged by the Fura dels Baus team led by Alex Ollé, with Johan Reuter in the title role, was musically and theatrically an unmissable triumph for the company. Read a full review

3 Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla
Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla.
Affirmation … Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla. Photograph: Chris Christodoulou/BBC

In what effectively had been her audition for the job in January, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s new music director had already demonstrated what an immense talent she is. After that Gražinytė-Tyla’s first concert in her new role, which was repeated the following evening at the Proms in London, was a thrilling affirmation that the orchestra had – once again – got its appointment exactly right. Read a full review.

4 Kevin Volans
CBSO Centre, Birmingham

Birmingham Contemporary Music Group.
Volans verve … Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. Photograph: BCMG/Clive Barda

Birmingham Contemporary Music Group devoted its last concert of the year to two major Volans premieres. One was his latest piano concerto, the fourth, written for soloist Barry Douglas, the other was his 12th String Quartet, a 35-minute journey through a musical landscape of irregular pulsings, pizzicatos and sudden glassy chords, in which the two parallel strands in Volans’ music, the folk traditions of his native South Africa and the post-1945 experimental tradition, are magically interwoven. Read a full review.

5 Catalogue d’Oiseaux
Aldeburgh festival

Sunrise … Pierre-Laurent Aimard performing Catalogue d’Oiseaux at the RSPB nature reserve at Minsmere, Suffolk.
Sunrise … Pierre-Laurent Aimard performing Catalogue d’Oiseaux at the RSPB nature reserve at Minsmere, Suffolk. Photograph: Matt Jolly

Pierre-Laurent Aimard marked the end of his tenure as Aldeburgh festival’s artistic director with a day-long performance of the biggest solo-piano work by his former teacher Olivier Messiaen. Beginning as the sun rose over the Suffolk marshes, and ending at Snape Maltings just before midnight, Aimard presented the 13 pieces as a dawn-to-dusk tour de force, which included an evening recital at the RSPB Minsmere reserve, where real birdsong vied with Messiaen’s transcriptions. Read a full review.

6 Myths and Rituals
Royal Festival Hall, London

Philharmonia at the Royal Festival Hall.
Freshness … Philharmonia at the Royal Festival Hall. Photograph: Camilla Greenwell

In what was generally a rather lacklustre year for London’s orchestras, the Philharmonia’s Stravinsky series, curated by chief conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, stood out for its freshness and originality. Some of Stravinsky’s greatest and most neglected masterpieces were included, often in ingenious concert stagings, and if some of those did not work quite as convincingly as they might have done, the musical performances under Salonen were always of the highest quality. Read a full review.

7 Blank Out
Muziekgebouw, Amsterdam

Virtuoso demonstration … Miah Persson and Roderick Williams performing Blank Out by Michel van der Aa.
Astonishing … Miah Persson and Roderick Williams performing Blank Out by Michel van der Aa. Photograph: Marco Borggreve

Michel van der Aa’s theatre pieces have steadily increased in their theatrical ambition, and this latest, another of his explorations of the nature and limitations of memory, is easily his most sophisticated so far, a virtuoso demonstration of his mastery of audio and video techniques. Live and prerecorded 3D images interact as the protagonist, in an astonishing performance from Miah Persson, tries to come to terms with the drowning of her son years before. Read a full review.

8 Become Ocean
Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Pulitzer winner … John Luther Adams.
Pulitzer winner … John Luther Adams. Photograph: Pete Woodhead

By the time Ludovic Morlot and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra gave its UK premiere, John Luther Adams’s 40-minute orchestral piece had already won a Pulitzer prize, firmly establishing Adams among the leading US composers working today. Become Ocean is built on an epic scale, a musical arch of steadily increasing intensity in which pulsing symmetries abound, but which never for a moment seems contrived. Read a full review.

9 La Commedia
Barbican, London

UK premiere of Louis Andriessen’s opera La Commedia.
Exuberant … UK premiere of Louis Andriessen’s opera La Commedia. Photograph: Mark Allan/BBC

A few months before Louis Andriessen’s latest opera, Theatre of the World, received its its stage premiere in Amsterdam, its predecessor from 2008 finally reached London. Performed without the Hal Hartley film that originally accompanied it, La Commedia, a gleefully allusive take on Dante, occupied that teasing borderland between concert hall and opera house. It was an exuberant, joyous musical experience. Read a full review.

10 The Golden Dragon
Opera House, Buxton

Andrew MacKenzie-Wicks in The Golden Dragon by Peter Eötvös.
Delight … Andrew MacKenzie-Wicks as the young man/cook/aunt/grandfather/cricket in The Golden Dragon by Peter Eötvös. Photograph: Clive Barda

The quality of Peter Eötvös’s stage works over the past two decades has been rather uneven. But The Golden Dragon, based on Roland Schimmelpfennig’s play, is a tragicomic delight, a chamber opera with just five singers taking on a host of gender-swapping roles, that is both genuinely funny, and searingly serious; Music Theatre Wales’s hugely accomplished production gets a full UK tour next spring. Read a full review.

Contributor

Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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