Top 10 classical music events of 2019

A great conductor took his leave at the Proms, Britten’s music triumphed on and off stage, and Simon Rattle continued to take the LSO to new heights

Everybody has their favourites among the operas and concerts they heard in the past year. But how do you compare a staging of The Turn of the Screw with a marathon piano recital or a concert of Adams and Birtwistle? No one critic can go to everything, and though all of us agree that the final British appearance by one of the greatest conductors of our time deserves pride of place in a list like this, the other positions in our top ten are inevitably much more arbitrary. The absence of any major premieres on it, though, is a surprise; if it was not a great year for new productions at the major opera houses (though the Royal Opera’s Kát’a Kabanová only just missed the cut) it was an even thinner one for significant new work. We can only hope for better among the deluge of Beethoven to come in 2020. Andrew Clements


Jack Quartet: Elliott Carter day

Wigmore Hall, London
We said: “Breathtakingly authoritative performances … the music emerged with fabulous clarity…. Perfect ensemble and textural transparency; still not easy music, but devastatingly effective.” AC Read the full review.


Donnerstag aus Licht (Stockhausen)

Royal Festival Hall, London
We said: “The music was persuasively performed, with Le Balcon’s Maxime Pascal conducting massed forces drawn from the London Sinfonietta, the Royal Academy of Music and the New London Chamber Choir. Benjamin Lazar’s staging was brilliantly effective. Walking away from the hall as four trumpeters sounded a long Farewell out over the Thames, it was possible for even the previously doubtful to feel that some sort of cosmic order had been realigned.” EJ Read the full review.


Brundibár (Krása), Welsh National Opera

Rousing … the young cast of WNO’s Brundibar.
Rousing … the young cast of WNO’s Brundibar. Photograph: Johan Persson

Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff
We said: “Krása’s music is uncomplicatedly tuneful, direct and appealing. Hanus conducted with passion, his own children joining in a reprise of the final rousing chorus. There was a colourful immediacy to David Pountney’s staging, but this was no cocooned-in-cotton-wool affair. The audience had filed in past metal railings wound with barbed wire, each member given a yellow scarf by a Nazi guard.” RE Read the full review.


The Turn of the Screw

Sophie Bevan, rear, with Adrianna Forbes-Dorant.
Extraordinary ... Sophie Bevan, rear, with Adrianna Forbes-Dorant. Photograph: John Snelling

Garsington Opera at Wormsley, Stokenchurch
We said: “Sophie Bevan gives an extraordinary performance, sung with an almost radiant assertiveness that makes the Governess’s self-deception all the more disquieting … In the pit, Richard Farnes inexorably ratchets up the tension while exploring every detail of Britten’s remarkable instrumentation. A truly great achievement, devastating and unforgettable.” TA Read the full review.


Alban Gerhardt

St George’s, Bristol/Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh
We said: [With Steven Osborne, at St George’s Bristol] “The sounds they conjured were playful, exotic and raw, with exhilarating immediacy, rhythmic exactitude and fire. It is hard to imagine a better partnership.” RE Read the full review.
We said: [at Snape Maltings, part of the Britten and Russia weekend] “Gerhardt played with an almost casual brilliance, wearing his virtuosity as lightly as anyone could; it’s hard to think of a better cellist around today.” AC Read the full review.


Berlioz at the Proms

Exuberance … the semi-staged Benvenuto Cellini.
Exuberance … the semi-staged Benvenuto Cellini. Photograph: Chris Christodoulou/BBC

Royal Albert Hall, London
We said: [of Prom 59: Benvenuto Cellini semi-staged by Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique/John Eliot Gardiner] “The technical challenges [of the semi-staging] were all formidably met in playing and singing of tremendous precision and often hair-raising exuberance. Gardiner conducted with almost ferocious energy … It was impossible not to be swept away by it all.” TA Read the full review.
We said: [of Prom 72: Symphonie Fantastique (Aurora Orchestra/Nicholas Collon)] “There were many memorable visual moments … Yet nothing upstaged the music, with Collon driving the tempos and encouraging characterful playing from wind and brass. The performance was as vivid to the ear as it was to the eye. EJ Read the full review.


Simon Rattle conducts the LSO: Stravinsky, Birtwistle and Adams

Barbican, London
We said: “Adams’s … score perfectly suits Rattle’s ability to focus musical energy with pinpoint accuracy, and the LSO responded with a performance of irresistible immediacy, just as they had laid out the intricacies of [Birtwistle’s] The Shadow of Night with astonishing clarity.” AC Read the full review.


Tamara Stefanovich’s Art of the Etude

Tamara Stefanovich.
Magnificent … Tamara Stefanovich. Photograph: Olja Radmanovich

Milton Court, London
We said: “Her mastery of the technical challenges one quickly took for granted, but the textural imagination she brought to every piece was a constant delight. Conceptually, musically and technically, the whole recital was a magnificent achievement.” AC Read the full review.


Peter Grimes (Britten), Bergen Philharmonic / Edward Gardner

Stuart Skelton as Peter Grimes.
Lyricism … Stuart Skelton as Peter Grimes. Photograph: Mark Allan

Royal Festival Hall, London
We said: “The Bergen orchestra’s playing combines richness with precision, and Britten’s seascapes glittered balefully even in moments of uneasy calm. The omnipresence of the chorus – observers of the drama in which they also participate – lends the work something of the inexorability of classical tragedy. Skelton combines lyricism with vocal weight – Now the Great Bear and Pleiades was pure poetry, ravishingly done – while Wall made a lovely Ellen, vulnerable yet principled. Roderick Williams was the thoughtful, empathetic Balstrode, and the denizens of the Borough, all sharply characterised, included Marcus Farnsworth’s raffish Ned Keene, Susan Bickley’s knowing, world-weary Auntie and Catherine Wyn-Rogers’ hypocritical, drug-ridden Mrs Sedley. The choral singing – from the combined forces of the Bergen Philharmonic and Royal Northern College of Music Opera Choirs, the Edvard Grieg Kor and the Colligeûm Mûsicûm – was electrifying.” TA Read the full review.


Bernard Haitink conducts the Vienna Philharmonic at the BBC Proms

Royal Albert Hall, London
We said: “Bernard Haitink’s final UK concert was always going to be a big event. Outside the Albert Hall, the day began with a queue for tickets forming before most people had eaten breakfast. It ended inside with the audience on its feet, the arena full of glowing smartphone screens as people took the pictures that would prove they had been there. Here was evidence that some conductors’ powers don’t diminish with age: Haitink’s pacing was masterful, and the special yet contained sound at that moment was characteristic of it. It’s a cliche to talk of Bruckner’s vast symphonies as cathedrals in sound: it suggests you can see the whole edifice from the start, which is a forbidding and limiting way to think about music that is so beautiful in the moment. Perhaps it would be better to think of a journey on a dark underground river, with the conductor holding the lantern – you can see each rock formation as you pass, but only towards the end does someone turn on a light and make you realise you have been passing through every inch of a vast and spectacular cavern.” EJ Read the full review.


Andrew Clements, Erica Jeal, Rian Evans and Tim Ashley

The GuardianTramp

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