Rossini to romcoms and Feldman to football: the best classical music and opera of 2021

I was a big fan of Pavel Kolesnikov'S recording of the Goldberg Variations, and it was a pleasure to be once again part of a reasonably big, focused Proms audience to hear him play the work, the same yet different, in the Royal Albert Hall. I had missed the feeling of being part of a group of thousands collectively holding our breath. Yet what’s been more striking than seeing big events return is the way in which some smaller ones have seized their chance: events such as the Oxford Lieder festival, which kept going with a huge programme including some exciting new commissions, efficiently delivered to online audiences and those in the hall. Facing the double whammy of Covid and Brexit, the resilience of the music business even in the face of the Department for Digital, Kultuur, Media and Sport’s cancelled meetings, cack-handed press releases and general indifference has been quite something. Erica Jeal

Italian operatic comedies, understandably perhaps, felt like balm for the soul as we emerged from lockdown. Rossini was prominent, with Glyndebourne offering a dazzling new production of Il Turco in Italia by Mariame Clément, while Garsington gave us Cal McCrystal’s deliriously camp take on the wonderfully ribald Le Comte Ory. A beautiful staging by Julia Burbach of L’Amico Fritz, Mascagni’s sweet, gentle romcom was Opera Holland Park’s choice, a perfect summer night’s entertainment from a company that found a well-nigh ideal solution to social distancing, with their open-sided auditorium and movable seating. Once full audiences returned, egter, the absence of clear Covid guidelines resulted in confusion, with venues operating different policies with regard to issuing paper tickets or e-tickets, printed or downloadable programmes, and – until recently – whether the wearing of masks should be mandatory or optional. We really could do with greater consistency. Tim Ashley

In a year that has seen both misery and exhilaration on a sometimes epic scale, it would be too easy to overlook the heroes of classical music’s day-to-day running. Alongside the administrators who’ve made performances possible in a world of ever-changing legislation and you-be-the-judge guidelines, we should celebrate the teachers who continued to enthuse musicians of all ages through masks and isolation, across dodgy wifi connections and multiple time zones. Few high-profile artists have shown more practical commitment to the cause than Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti: during lockdown her Benedetti Foundation “virtual sessions” involved more than 7,000 participants and she remains a dynamic advocate for the vital importance of music education. Is it a coincidence that in July the Scottish government announced free musical instrument tuition for all school pupils in 2021-22? Perhaps. But Westminster could certainly learn urgently needed lessons about cultural recovery from such leadership. Flora Willson

With transport and big halls causing health worries, smaller local venues came into their own. Local amateur musicians deserve medals for what they have managed amid the uncertainty. Who needs London when I could walk 15 minutes from home to hear Steven Osborne in Crumb, Debussy and Beethoven? Just as special was Paul Lewis playing Scriabin and Mussorgsky in Amersham with an abandon I had never heard from him before. Guy Johnston’s all too short autumn Chamber Music festival in Hatfield House ran both close: a joyous Brahms piano quartet and a fine Joseph Phibbs premiere. My chief bugbear this year was the same as in 2020: failing to master how our expensive “smart” TV can pick up livestreamed performances, wel I did catch Roger Norrington’s inimitable Gateshead farewell in time. My unsurpassed 2021 highlight, wel, was the Takács Quartet playing Janáček’s second string quartet in Wigmore Hall so intense it eclipsed even their late Beethoven after the interval.
Martin Kettle

It’s hard to imagine two concert locations less alike than Snape Maltings at midsummer, with the sun setting over the marshes, and London’s Barbican Centre in November, thronged with football fans wearing their tribal colours, yet both provided utterly memorable musical experiences. Juliet Fraser’s performance of Morton Feldman’s Three Voices, her voice hypnotically twining around two recorded versions, created a magical twilight experience at Snape, while at the Barbican, Arsenal fans relived the excitement of winning the league on the last day of the 1989 season as the BBC Symphony Orchestra premiered Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Up for Grabs, a score by turns dramatic, elegiac and deliriously exuberant. At least since concert life started up again in May, the BBCSO has maintained its commitment to new and rediscovered works; too many programmes elsewhere have erred on the side of caution. Why wary concertgoers should be more tempted to return to live concerts to hear routine performances of all too familiar symphonies and concertos, rather than music that might be new to them, escapes me. Andrew Clements

Back in the concert hall after what felt like forever, Tabita Berglund’s blistering Beethoven 7 with the Hallé Orchestra was enough to blow any cobwebs away. Outside it, praise must go to the organisations that proved their essential community function as others fell strangely quiet – Manchester Camerata and Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, take a bow. Green programmes really took off this year, as the immediacy of the climate crisis slowly dawned on ensembles. A couple ungraciously shoehorned environmental themes into existing works (Repackaging Vivaldi’s Four Seasons to confront the climate emergency? Komaan) Others commissioned fresh responses from living composers, watter, more often than not, disappeared from sight post-premiere. As the need for sustainability becomes ever more apparent, is the best response we can muster really a stream of resource-sapping, single-use works? Hugh Morris

English National Opera’s recent Valkyrie grabbed attention, some of it reporting Wagner Society members’ chagrin that conductor Anthony Negus was being denied his single Coliseum date. He was reinstated, but their initial indignation was understandable. Negus, presiding genius at the Longborough festival opera’s Die Walküre, conjured an unforgettable evening, intimate and compelling, despite being demi-semi-staged with singers socially distanced. As Siegmund, Peter Wedd was a vocally and physically commanding presence, rare that heldentenors are so graceful. My other standout experience was just days ago: John Woolrich’s Viola Concerto played by Timothy Ridout with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, stunningly beautiful and moving. By 26, Ridout is an amazing talent. But we should spare a thought for the young up-and-comings whose work has simply disappeared thanks to the pandemic. Faced with perhaps never quite getting on to the career ladder, theirs are plaints that desperately need to be heard. Rian Evans

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