Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London John Findon is brilliantly larger than life as Chaucer’s ageing knight in a well-made take on The Merchant’s Tale that’s even fruitier than the original
“The first opera to be written in Middle English” is a lot more fun than the description sounds. This new full-scale work by the Guildhall’s staff team of composer Julian Philips and librettist Stephen Plaice is based on Chaucer’s The Merchant’s Tale – one of the fruitier Canterbury Tales already, made more so by Plaice and director Martin Lloyd-Evans’s Carry-On-Up-the-Tabard approach. Dick Bird’s set, a blossoming tree in the centre of a medieval calendar, may be beautiful, but the real tone is set by the narrator, Priapus, who wears a pinkly obscene hat and carries his cock in a wheelbarrow.
Related: Chaucer, the opera: how to make Middle English sing
Coliseum, LondonRory Kinnear debuts as director for English National Opera in Ryan Wigglesworth’s accomplished first opera, but the inventive music fails to take charge of the story
Ryan Wigglesworth says he has been obsessed with Shakespeare’s late play for 20 years, and that made The Winter’s Tale the obvious choice of subject for his first opera. It’s the product of his four years as English National Opera’s composer-in-residence, and he conducted the premiere himself, in a production by Rory Kinnear, making his debut as a director.
Related: Rory Kinnear on his opera debut: 'If it’s a disaster, I apologise'
Wigmore Hall, LondonFrom stomping chords to squabbling glissandos, the quartet delivered a thrilling survey of the late composer’s chamber works for strings
Not so long ago, the Wigmore Hall was a bit of a contemporary music desert. Now it’s a pleasingly regular feature of the schedules, and so a day of concerts was devoted to the abrasive, uncompromising music of the late composer Iannis Xenakis. Two programmes from the Jack Quartet surveyed almost all of Xenakis’s chamber works for strings. A lunchtime concert included a number of solos and duos as well as the first of his string quartets, ST4-1, 080262, from 1962 (one of the first pieces composed with the help of a computer). In the evening, the quartet concentrated on the fiercely intense music from the late 1970s onwards.
Xenakis’s unflinching string writing makes as few concessions to those playing it as it does to its audience, and these performances maintained an astonishingly high standard of execution and concentration. Xenakis’s music always establishes its own expressive parameters; it assumes nothing, and in the quartets Tetras (1983) and Tetora (1990) the Jack Quartet thrillingly conveyed that sense of starting from scratch, of bypassing eight centuries of the western music tradition and instead tapping into something much more untamably ancient.
Barbican, LondonA programme celebrating John Adams’ 70th birthday was well-played, but sadly lacking in subversiveness and wit
The Britten Sinfonia’s programming is usually so inspired that it’s a surprise to question it. This was a 70th birthday tribute to John Adams, the most exuberant and successful standard-bearer of what, like it or not, is known as the minimalist school. But was it a celebration, or an indication that the school is hitting a dead end?
Admittedly, the Sinfonia is limited by its size in terms of which Adams’s works it can play. The pieces chosen were 1992’s Chamber Symphony and 1982’s Grand Pianola Music. In between, it was joined by the highly professional teenage trainees of the Britten Sinfonia Academy, for Philip Glass’s Music in Similar Motion, a 1969 piece that doggedly defines minimalist techniques.
The young violinist on her musical inspirations – Busoni, soprano Anita Rachvelishvili, solo Bach under the fake stars and Rossini under the real ones
Vinyl or digital?
I’m addicted to the limitless access that online streaming and download platforms provide, but nothing gives me goosebumps like witnessing the actual moment music happens.
Bussey Building; Milton Court; Royal Festival Hall, LondonThe newly formed Opera Story made a dramatic entrance with its fairytale triple bill. Plus, rising stars and a famous sunset…
The siren words “new opera company” and “world premiere” have lured this susceptible sailor to many a rocky shore. Dank tunnels, leaky tents, rainswept terrain. Late starts, late finishes and the assumption that sitting on the floor adds authenticity. Don’t even mention promenading. On the whole I’m up for it. That said, the idea of an operatic update of Snow White told by three different composers wasn’t altogether enticing. Such collaborations can lead to artistic timidity, or an inevitable preference for one element above another.
For its inaugural event, and with evident skill and professionalism, the Opera Story – co-founded and run by two volunteers who also have day jobs – has avoided these pitfalls. Their triple bill, entitled Snow, proved a strong and absorbing evening. Each short opera takes place on a different floor of Peckham’s Bussey Building. (No hanging around. The show began and ended on time. Bravo for that.) A gifted young cast of five and orchestra of 12 performed throughout, with Christopher Stark conducting and James Hurley directing.Rachel Szmukler’s designs, relying on simple props for the in-the-round setting, are given canny atmosphere by Ben Pickersgill’s lighting. With a text by the poet JL Williams, the operas overhaul the original fairytale, introducing violent contemporary attitudes and mercifully bypassing Disney.
Kremerata Baltica, Gidon Kremer/ Gražinyte-Tyla (ECM) (2 CDs)
The prolific Polish-born Soviet composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-96), who suffered oppression in Stalin’s regime, is only now being widely appreciated. His output includes 26 symphonies, 17 string quartets and seven operas (The Passenger got a mixed reception when ENO performed it in 2011). This album features the four chamber symphonies written near the end of Weinberg’s life: tonal, restless, sharing his friend Shostakovich’s eclectic taste for folk, Russian and Jewish idiom. The early Piano Quintet (1944), arranged for piano, string orchestra and percussion by Gidon Kremer and Andrei Pushkarev, stands out for its bold colours, lyrical intensity and refreshing detail. Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla, pianist Yulianna Avdeeva and Kremerata Baltica put the strongest case for this unfamiliar music.
Prina, Invernizzi, Hammarström, Novaro, Cirillo, Auser Musici/Ipata (Glossa) (2 CDs)
A lost Handel opera? Not quite: during his London years, Handel quite often arranged the music of other composers and compiled them into pasticcio operas. In this case, arias from Leonardo Leo’s Catone are woven with Vivaldi, Porpora and Hasse numbers and short bursts of recitative to create a lively two-act drama. What this shows vividly is how baroque opera really worked: the choices are determined by the star singers, and the adaptations are to suit their talents. Here, Sonia Prina seems to struggle with the arias written for the celebrated castrato Senesino, but Riccardo Novaro is an impressive bass as Cesare, and the drama moves at a cracking pace under Carlo Ipata.
With impeccable timing, the Villiers Quartet have captured the current mood of edgy, querulous uncertainty with their release of the three magnificently bracing string quartets of Peter Racine Fricker (1920-90). Though separated by several years, each is distinctly in Fricker’s unique voice, never quite atonal; always charged with a vital, questing energy. No 3 from 1976 is the most spectacular, with a tautly syncopated allegro feroce, a Shostakovich-like adagio and a disquieting allegro inquieto. The playing of this highly talented quartet, champions of British music, is superb throughout and augurs well for their forthcoming release of Delius and Elgar.
British music scholar claims composer’s sorrow at separation inspired masterpieces including his ninth symphony
Towards the end of his life, in the depths of introspective melancholy, Ludwig van Beethoven created some of the world’s most intensely emotional music. The ninth symphony, the Missa Solemnis and some of his greatest piano sonatas are works that still communicate a uniquely concentrated darkness of thought. Now a British Beethoven scholar believes she can explain the German composer’s motivations – and help solve a puzzle that has troubled musicologists and biographers for almost two centuries.
The pieces, Susan Lund believes, were written in response to the grief of separation from a secret, stricken son, and as consolation for the boy’s beloved mother.
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