The cream of the classical music crop, as chosen by Limelight readers in 2012.

What a year! In 2012, a glittering host of artists toured our shores, with violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter making her Australian debut, our national string quartet winning new plaudits, an emotional homecoming tour for our greatest conductor and much, much more.

This year, more than 4,000 music lovers voted for the recitals, operas, recordings and music personalities with the most stellar impact on classical music. Presenting the winners for 2012…

Music Personality of the year


Simone Young, conductor


Whenever Simone Young takes time out of her busy European schedule to take the podium in Australia, you know it’s going to be a monumental occasion. In 2011, the Hamburg-based conductor was at the helm in the inaugural concerts of the Australian World Orchestra, that ambitious mass homecoming of Australian instrumentalists that won the 2011 Limelight Award in the Orchestral category. This year, she returned with her own band, the Hamburg Philharmonic, in tow. 
In their triumphant series at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Young’s remarkable vision for Wagner’s Das Rheingold in concert and Mahler’s immense Resurrection Symphony was brought to life in spectacular fashion. There was a sense of history coming full circle, the latter work having been composed for the same orchestra when Mahler was in the same post that Young holds today. After experiencing the concerts, Limelight’s reviewer Martin Buzacott wrote that the homegrown maestra who started her career working for Daniel Barenboim “must surely now be ranked among the ten best living conductors”.  

From Simone:

“My deepest thanks to all the readers who voted for me! Each one of my fellow nominees is a great Australian musician and I am greatly honoured and humbled to achieve this recognition. I very much enjoy performing at home in Australia, and the loyalty and appreciation of the Australian public always carries a very special significance for me. My thanks also to all the wonderful musicians in the orchestras who give of their exceptional talents so that together we can create memorable musical experiences.”

Also nominated:

Emma Matthews, soprano
Richard Tognetti, violinist
Paul Dyer, conductor/harpsichordist
Elena Kats-Chernin, composer

Best orchestral concert


The Australian Chamber Orchestra
Beethoven: Symphony No 9, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage
Brahms: Geistliches Lied
Messiaen: Prayer of Christ ascending towards his Father (national tour)

How does a chamber orchestra of strings dare to take on Beethoven’s colossal Choral Symphony? With the help of 30 singers from England’s Clare College, Cambridge, stellar soloists including British soprano Lucy Crowe and Australian mezzo Fiona Campbell, and an expanded period-instrument orchestra led by Richard Tognetti on violin and conducting, bringing the body count to 84. The result was a crisp, refreshing and uplifting Ninth, with Ode to Joy the rousing culmination of the ACO’s Beethoven cycle.

Also nominated:

Adelaide Symphony & Festival Chorus/Kristian Järvi
Bernstein: Mass (Adelaide Festival Centre)
Vienna Philharmonic/Christoph Eschenbach Schubert Symphony No 8 Unfinished; Mahler Des Knaben Wunderhorn (Matthias Goerne bar)
Queensland Symphony Orchestra/Johannes Fritzsch
Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade
Bartók: Bluebeard’s Castle (Lisa Gasteen s, Daniel Sumegi b (QPAC)
Hamburg Philharmonic/Simone Young
Mahler: Symphony No 2 Resurrection (QPAC)

Best chamber music concert

The Australian String Quartet/Brett Dean: Legacy

When violinist Kristian Winther and former ACO violist Stephen King replaced departing members of the Australian String Quartet at the start of the 2012 season, all ears were on the Adelaide-based ensemble as they developed their new sound. Almost a year later, their signature warm, focused and unified tone is not only a result of the new recruits’ attuned musical chemistry with violinist Anne Horton and cellist Rachel Johnston, but must also be attributed to the acquisition of a set of four rare Italian Guadagninis, to the tune of $6m. Sure enough, the ASQ sounded like a million bucks when they debuted the instruments in a program featuring Brahms and Beethoven, alongside Brett Dean’s deeply moving Epitaphs, with the composer on viola.

Also nominated:

Tafelmusik: Music of the Spheres (Musica Viva)  
Ensemble Offspring: New Radicals (Utzon Room)
Steve Reich with Synergy et al: Reich Music for 18 Musicians, Variations for Vibes, Pianos and Strings etc (Sydney Opera House)
AmarcordThe Singing Club (Musica Viva)

Best solo performance

Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin

Iconic German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter made her long-awaited Australian debut with the Beethoven concerto she first performed with maestro von Karajan at the tender age of 16. It’s “the crown of the repertoire,” she told Limelight, and “very much a partnership where sometimes the violin does also accompany”. Sydney Symphony and Vladimir Ashkenazy were powerful, superlative partners as Mutter’s Stradivarius resonated through the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall. A highlight of the orchestra’s 80th anniversary season.

Also nominated:

Evgeny Kissin (piano): Liszt Sonata in B Minor, Vallée d’Obermann, Venezia e Napoli, Ricordanza (Sydney Opera House)
Susan Graham (mezzo): Songs by Purcell, Schubert, Berlioz et al with Malcolm Martineau p (Melbourne Recital Centre)
Lisa Batiashvili (violin): Brahms Violin Concerto in D with SSO/Ashkenazy (Sydney Opera House)
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano): Ravel Piano Concerto in G with Melbourne Symphony/Otaka (Melbourne Town Hall)

Best opera production

La Traviata, Opera Australia

In the wrong hands, Sydney Harbour’s night of nights and one of the most talked about operatic events on the world stage easily could have turned into La Travesty. The waterborne stage might have sunk; the fireworks could have gone off at the wrong time; the chorus’s water taxi could have taken a wrong turn; the 9m-wide Swarovski-studded chandelier suspended in mid-air could have crashed to the ground, Phantom of the Opera style. Anyone who thought that all these ostentatious elements combined would result in a tacky blingfest was proved spectacularly wrong: Francesca Zambello’s direction commanded the unique environment, and amplification of her superb cast was pristine. The perfect night out at the opera.

Also nominated:

Double Bill: Master Peter’s Puppet Show & What Next? Victorian Opera
Griselda Pinchgut Opera
Elektra Perth Festival
The Marriage of Figaro Opera Australia

Best Performance in an opera (new category)

Emma Matthews, soprano
Violetta in La Traviata

A red-headed scarlet woman in a pink party-dress hoisted into the air on a crystal chandelier to raise a glass to the stunning Sydney Harbour skyline. The vocals were every bit as stunning as the visuals: if Emma Matthews is scared of heights, she didn’t let on. Soaring above the stage, the soprano tossed off Sempre Libera’s coloratura acrobatics with a coquettish shrug, building with bell-like clarity to the high E-Flat (thankfully without shattering her champagne flute). Her stage presence was as bubbly as the drink in her hand. But there was depth, too, in intimate duets with Italian tenor Gianluca Terranova, and in her tour-de-force death scene. An unforgettable role debut.

Also nominated:

Eva Johanssen (soprano), Elektra
David Hansen (countertenor), Ottone in Griselda
Gianluca Terranova (tenor), Alfredo in La traviata
Taryn Fiebig (soprano), Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro

Best classical recording

Sydney Symphony / Ashkenazy
SSO Live 201201

This live recording captures the crowning achievement of Vladimir Ashkenazy’s sprawling, two-year Mahler cycle with Sydney Symphony. It’s a performance remarkable for its noble breadth, enlivened by sheer energy and bite in the bold, vivid orchestration. Limelight critic Greg Keane praised the Rondo Burleske as a “manic, virtuoso showpiece for the Sydney Symphony players”, and declared the disc his “pick of the crop in the SSO cycle. I find it absolutely stunning from first note to last… The string playing is some of the best I’ve ever heard from the SSO”.

Also nominated:

The Greater Sea
Joseph Tawadros with the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ABC Classics)
The Good, the Bad and the Awkward…
Sally Whitwell (ABC Classics)
A Lotus Blossoming: Messiaen Quartet for the End of Time, Zemlinsky Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano Ensemble Liaison (Melba) 
Dances to a Black Pipe
Martin Fröst, Richard Tognetti, Australian Chamber Orchestra (BIS)

Best new composition

Elena Kats-Chernin
Symphonia Eluvium

Elena Kats-Chernin had already begun work on a 2011 Brisbane Festival commission when the Queensland floods struck. She immediately started from scratch to create Symphonia Eluvium (Symphony of the Floods), a heartfelt work for large orchestra, choir, organ and piano. “I took everything the orchestra has to offer, because nothing is big enough to fully express the magnitude of the floods,” said the composer. The music stands as a testimony to great loss and destruction, the bravery of ordinary folk and the determination to rebuild. Many of the members of Queensland Symphony Orchestra were affected by the floods, and played passionately to their community in the world premiere conducted by Asher Fisch.

Also nominated:

Gordon KerryMidnight Son
Carl VineTree of Man
Ross EdwardsFull Moon Dances
Andrew FordWaiting for the Barbarians

Best event/festival

Australian Festival of Chamber Music

This is the third Limelight Award for this nine-day, all-you-can-eat buffet of chamber music, which sees local and international performers take over sunny Townsville in July and August (though in 2013 the AFCM heads north to Cairns). Directed by London-based Australian pianist Piers Lane, the festival this year gathered together musicians as diverse as Composer-in-Residence Nigel Westlake, singer Katie Noonan, stalwarts the Goldner String Quartet, classical guitarist Karin Schaupp, UK pianists Jonathan Plowright and frequent Yo-Yo Ma duo partner Kathryn Stott, and Holland’s Storioni Trio, with Adelaide’s Natsuko Yoshimoto stepping in for their injured violinist.

Also nominated:

Perth Festival 2012
Adelaide Festival 2012
Sydney International Piano Competition 2012

Best newcomer

Emily Sun, violinist

This young violinist first came to our attention in the acclaimed music documentary Mrs Carey’s Concert, with the then 16-year-old Emily as a shy but brilliant soloist. Five years on, she has grown into a poised performer, with Richard Tognetti inviting her to lead high-school string players in the inaugural ACO Academy. In January this year she returned from London, where she is on scholarship at the Royal College of Music, to play for 6,000 people at Symphony in the Domain. She chose Bruch’s Violin Concerto, the same work that made her the darling of the film, and dedicated the performance to her father Daniel Sun, a composer who died when she was five years old. “I feel as though I am carrying on his legacy as an Australian-Chinese musician,” she told Limelight.

Also nominated:

Daniel Smith, conductor
Kiandra Howarth, soprano
Daniel Carter, conductor
Nicholas Russoniello, saxophonist