It’s been quite a year for classical music. While we have had to bid farewell to some of its greatest figures, the sheer variety of 2012’s concerts and recordings show a new generation coming up who clearly have a huge amount to offer. Interestingly, some of the best musical performances were of music by 20th-century composers once damned by many as difficult, and it seems audiences across the world are steadily opening their minds to the less hummable corners of the repertoire. And while few events made a real splash in the press, the media still proved addicted to claims about classical music’s healing powers, apparently worth using anywhere from operating theatres to kennels. Here are some notable highlights from the classical music year.
Best classical album releases
Berg, Beethoven Violin concertos: Isabelle Faust, Orchestra Mozart with Claudio Abbado.
Modernist music remains something of a hard sell, but this brilliant album cleverly combines spiky Alban Berg with Beethoven at his lushest. The winner of a Gramophone award, the recording shows the violinist Faust’s playing at its most sensitive and ethereal, unveiling the great romantic and the great modernist as an unlikely match made in heaven.
Bach, St Matthew Passion: Simon Rattle/ Berlin Philharmonic.
A recording of a semi-staged production of Bach’s great choral work, this massive, persuasive album is something you might give to a person who doubted the power of great music. Among the most awe--inspiring, humane pieces in the repertoire, this version is particularly distinguished by Mark Padmore’s flawless solo singing as the Evangelist.
French Impressions. Saint-Saëns, Franck, Ravel: Joshua Bell, Jeremy Denk.
Late 19th-century France produced some of the most sumptuous, sinuous music in the classical repertoire, and the violinist Bell and the pianist Denk really bring the music of this fascinating, elegant period to life with a perfect balance of passion and poise.
Best classical concerts
Audiences across Europe and the Americas seemed thrilled by the touring production of Philip Glass’s opera Einstein on the Beach. Despite an intermission-free four-and-a-half-hour length, the opera proved to be one of the hottest tickets of the year (perhaps because audience members were invited to come and go as they pleased), with Glass’s hypnotic but harmonious take on the great scientist’s life seeming surprisingly fresh more than 30 years after its premiere.
Meanwhile, in London, British Beethoven lovers had a bumper year when the veteran pianist/conductor/peace activist Daniel Barenboim performed all of his symphonies this July with his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Part of a European tour dubbed “Beethoven for All”, the orchestra, which includes both Arab and Israeli performers, managed the remarkable feat of providing beautiful music and also of doing something classical music often claims to do but rarely manages – promoting international understanding.
While the Emirates’ classical scene proved relatively quiet this year, Oman’s Royal Opera House Muscat went from strength to strength, staging its own blockbusting production of Verdi’s Aida and hosting stellar concerts from the likes of Jessye Norman and Roberto Alagna. Placing these events within a genuinely international choice of music and dance, it managed to create a programme that was both world-class and distinctively Middle Eastern.
This year we learnt that…
Classical music’s alleged healing powers have been much discussed, and for some reason media-friendly academic studies on the subject seem to be extremely popular. This year, new revelations came thick and fast. Surgeons at a hospital in the UK city of Oxford, for example, found that classical music relaxed patients under local anaesthetic for minor surgery. Apparently, it’s not just humans who are soothed by the classical greats – canines can also benefit from a little musical destressing. A study by staff at the University of Colorado came to the (perhaps not entirely surprising) conclusion that shelter pooches barked less and slept more when played classical music than they did when played heavy metal.
Just when this seemed to suggest that classical music might indeed be the panacea for all ills, human or otherwise, a study from New Zealand’s Massey University went and spoilt it all. It found that, among its sample group of classical orchestral musicians between 27 and 66 years old, 61 per cent suffered from hearing loss. It’s possible that these musicians all owned particularly unstressed dogs, but the study did puncture slightly the idea of classical music as the aural equivalent of a foot massage.
And we said goodbye to…
On a sadder note, we lost some of the world’s greatest musical figures this year. The ground-breaking American composer Elliot Carter died at the incredible age of 103, having composed music right up to the end of his extremely productive life.
The great tenor Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau also passed on shortly before his 87th birthday, ending a career where his stunning, rich-toned voice saw him recognised as one of the greatest singers who ever lived.