Recycled: The Ring. Photo: Jeff Busby
A musical culture that endlessly turns over dead composers' anniversaries risks atrophy, but this year the focus prompted artistic renewal. There has been some superb Wagner, Verdi and Britten, as each composer reached a birthday with zeros at the end.
It began with an Orwellian production of Verdi's A Masked Ball by Alex Olle and La Fura dels Baus, continued with Tama Matheson's gaunt staging of Verdi's Force of Destiny (with Svetla Vassileva as a powerful Leonora) and ended with Neil Armfield's playful, insightful and utterly original take on Wagner's Ring cycle in Melbourne.
It was Opera Australia's first Ring and Melbourne's second. Lucky them. Sydney has not seen The Ring since 1913. For Opera Australia, Verdi is a staple and the anniversary prompted revivals of Elke Neidhardt's grim Il Trovatore , Falstaff and a slightly tired La Traviata. Opera Australia has done some superb Britten in the past but limited its birthday offering to an amiable revival of his comic opera Albert Herring, both opera and production showing their age a little.
Dynamic duo: Katia and Marielle Labeque. Photo: Debbie Cuthbertson
The gap was filled by Sydney Chamber Opera, which mounted a haunting realisation of Britten's work for television, Owen Wingrave, and by the Sydney Symphony's richly intense reading of the War Requiem, one of the magnificent closing performances of Vladimir Ashkenazy's farewell season as the orchestra's chief conductor and artistic adviser. His genius has been to show the orchestra how well it can play.
Few international musicians have made such an enduring and outstanding contribution to Sydney's musical life and the years leading the SSO have been a gloriously rewarding paradox. His baton approach revels in technical ungainliness, yet his musicianship, judgment and insight have created some of the orchestra's most memorable performances of recent history. None more so than the performance in November of Mahler's Fifth Symphony, which followed a golden-toned reading of Bruch's Violin Concerto with Pinchas Zukerman, returning after many years.
Also returning was the still youthful, dynamic piano duo, Katia and Marielle Labeque. A thankfully more frequent visitor is Charles Dutoit, who can balance the SSO's forces better than anyone and who marked the centenary of the riotous first performance of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring rivetingly. For an unforgettable and distinctively smooth orchestral balance, Holland's Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, under an ailing Mariss Jansons, crowned a superb 40th birthday year for the Opera House.
As well as the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, with imaginatively quiet violinist Christian Tetzlaff and dynamic cellist Alisa Weilerstein, we also heard the magnificent Tallis Scholars, Bryn Terfel, Louis Lortie and others. The Australian Chamber Orchestra presented an intoxicating glimpse of Weimar republic decadence with Barry Humphries, limpidly clear Vivaldi with Andreas Scholl and (so I gather from reports) some fine Brahms and Dvorak with Jeremy Denk and Steven Isserlis. The SSO's Verdi and Wagner contributions (the Requiem and a concert performance of The Flying Dutchman respectively) under its chief conductor-elect David Robertson were auspicious, as were impressive concerts under young assistant conductor Jessica Cottis. Violinist Arabella Steinbacher, pianists Ingrid Fliter, Murray Perahia and Jonathan Biss, and Chinese pipa player Wu Man all leavened a year of varied musical perspectives.
Musica Viva farewelled another group of vintage contributors over more than 40 years, the Tokyo String Quartet, which tapped the core of chamber music's greatness with Beethoven's Opus 131 and Bartok's Sixth Quartet. Music's greatest leave taking, however, is Bach's The Art of Fugue, which Angela Hewitt completed over two recitals of concentrated musical focus. Musica Viva drew justified criticism for neglecting women in its otherwise worthy championship of Australian composers.
The closing highlight of its season, however, was the joyously sophisticated erudition of the Academy of Ancient Music under Richard Egarr preparing the ear for comparably imaginative and informed baroque playing in Pinchgut Opera's December discovery, Cavalli's forgotten Giasone under Erin Helyard.
It was welcome to see the Australian String Quartet find a distinctive artistic voice with imaginative programming of today's chamber music.
Sadly, the Conservatorium lost former directors Rex Hobcroft and John Hopkins. Neidhardt, producer of the 2004 Adelaide Ring, also left us, just before the curtain was about to rise on Opera Australia's Gotterdammerung.