Banks and oil giants should keep out of temples of culture, shouldn’t they? Andrew Dickson thought so – until he made a documentary about sponsorship and the increasingly desperate search for funding
Even if you didn’t glimpse the BP-branded sea monster that invaded the British Museum during a protest in September, and managed to avoid a naked man being slathered with oil at Tate Britain, you’re unlikely to have missed the bitter guerrilla war raging between Big Oil and sections of the art world.
For a while, it looked as if the protesters had the upper hand. In March, BP announced that, owing to an “extremely challenging business environment”, it wouldn’t be renewing a sponsorship deal with Tate that had been in place for 26 years. Activists promptly hailed this as a brilliant victory, and a parting of the ways with the Edinburgh international festival swiftly followed. But then in July, the company indicated that it wasn’t done yet, announcing that it would continue funding other leading institutions to the tune of £7.5m over the next five years. Tate’s loss appears to be the Royal Shakespeare Company’s gain (or, given the politics, possibly it’s the other way around).
Barbican, London; Stockholm, Sweden; Kings Place, LondonGerald Barry’s crazily virtuosic, seriously funny take on Lewis Carroll delights in its European premiere
Lewis Carroll’s day job was as an Oxford mathematician, if a conservative Victorian one. His enthusiasm for ridiculing the new abstract maths was evident in the knots and riddles, never explained, in Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. As the Hatter tells Alice, who complains she can’t have “more” tea since she hasn’t yet had any, “You mean you can’t take less… it’s very easy to take more than nothing.” It all fits with the theory that the Hatter was a satire on the Irish mathematician William Rowan Hamilton, whose work on imaginary numbers remains a cornerstone of modern science.
Related: Gerald Barry: 'There's nothing I'm not interested in'
Peter Donohoe (piano) (Somm) (2 CDs)
Scriabin (1872-1915) was a close contemporary of Rachmaninov but died nearly 30 years earlier. His 10 piano sonatas span the whole of his relatively short adulthood. Accordingly they range stylistically from straightforward, often Rachmaninov-like passion (sonatas 1 and 2) to the more fantastical landscapes familiar from Scriabin’s distinctive orchestral works such as The Poem of Ecstasy. Formal structures give way to organically shaped single movements, at once radiant, mysterious and improvisatory. Peter Donohoe is a masterly guide, his playing both unearthly and earthy. With his visionary notions of creation and the cosmos, Scriabin can feel like too much of a good thing. Donohoe reins him in just enough, and makes a powerful case.
From the first shimmering arpeggios across the strings, mirroring the waters of Venice, in Torelli’s previously unrecorded E minor sonata, it is clear that this is something special: a highly characterised, sharply imagined feast of baroque violin playing. Thibault Noally’s command of this improvisational style, whose flights of fancy are far removed from the regularity imposed by Corelli, is complete. Discoveries by Dall’Abaco and Bonporti sit next to more formal sonatas by Albinoni and Vivaldi, and Noally is perfectly matched in two glorious chaconnes by fellow violinist Claire Sottovia. Maybe a harpsichord piece or two would have been welcome for variety, but this is a compelling evocation of a vanished era.
Gražinyte-Tyla was the name of the year, Chineke! took off, Levit and Trifonov blazed a trail and ENO delivered opera of the highest standards
• Observer critics’ reviews of the year in full
First the highs: the Lithuanian conductor Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla raised spirits as new music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Chineke!, Europe’s first BME orchestra, really took off and witnessed the success of two younger members, both aged 17: cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason won BBC Young Musician 2016; Elodie Chousmer-Howells is the new leader of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. Radio 3 celebrated its 70th birthday with strong ratings. Vasily Petrenko, popular chief conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, was awarded honorary citizenship of the city. Pianists Igor Levit and Daniil Trifonov had a good year: contrasting in style but both virtuosos with, we hope, long futures. Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim, decades ahead in age and wisdom, played magical Schubert – four hands, one piano – at the Proms.
The painful saga of English National Opera, battling harsh Arts Council cuts and internal unrest, continued: the year began with a chorus pay dispute and the resignation of music director Mark Wigglesworth and ended with an outcry against next year’s Carousel, starring Katherine Jenkins and Alfie Boe. A promising new creative team is in place: Martyn Brabbins as music director and Daniel Kramer as artistic director. Ears and eyes will be on them. In performance, standards have remained consistently high: from Wigglesworth, in his short time as music director, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, The Magic Flute, Jenufa, Lulu, and from the entire company, not just those you see on stage, in Akhnaten, Tristan and Isolde and more.
Musical snobs can be sniffy about the classical guitar. It has its limitations in the concert hall, lacking the punch – and the repertoire – to become truly mainstream, but the recording studio emphasises the instrument’s intimate, subtle colours and when in the impressively expert hands of Greek-Albanian Jon Gjylaci, its versatility is immediately apparent. This relaxed, enjoyable compilation includes attractive enhancements of Albéniz and Leo Brouwer for soloist and string quartet by Gjylaci’s brother, Esen-Nikolas, and virtuosic arrangements of everything from Chopin waltzes to Jorge Morel’s hugely seductive Danza Brasilera.
He is the golden-voiced Italian tenor who overcame blindness and other extreme obstacles to find success on the world stage, selling more than 80 million albums. Now Andrea Bocelli, 58, has inspired one of Britain’s leading film directors to tell his extraordinary story on the big screen. The singer has asked only that his blindness not be portrayed as a disability.
The Music of Silence is being shot by Michael Radford, whose previous films include the critically acclaimed Il Postino – for which he received an Oscar nomination – and a version of The Merchant of Venice starring Al Pacino.
Electric atmosphere as Valery Gergiev conducts Funeral Song at Maryinsky concert hall in St Petersburg
Igor Stravinsky’s Funeral Song for orchestra has had to wait almost 108 years for a second performance. But the work has at last made it after the lost materials resurfaced in a St Petersburg Conservatoire house move last year, chiefly thanks to the tireless exertions of one of the Conservatoire professors, Natalya Braginskaya.
After protracted haggling over rights between the Conservatoire, the Stravinsky estate and his publisher, Boosey and Hawkes, a score was finally put together from the recovered orchestral parts. On Friday, Valery Gergiev conducted the first performance since January 1909, in a late-night concert in the Maryinsky concert hall here in St Petersburg.
Spitalfields winter festival | A Brazilian Christmas | El Niño | Schnee | Christmas Oratorio
This annual week-long splurge in London’s Spitalfields offers a mix of concerts and events, making full use of the vast range of East End venues. Included this year is choral music from groups including Siglo De Oro, and a piano recital by Melvyn Tan.Various venues, Sun to 11 Dec
Prism Quartet/The Crossing (ECM)
“In an ideal world,” says Gavin Bryars, “I would choose to write vocal music.” And though the Yorkshire minimalist only came to voices relatively late, his house style is an easy fit: those spacious progressions unfolding at what he describes as “a human rate”; that formula for evoking meaningful timelessness out of scrunchy new harmonies and tropes of old spirituality. The Fifth Century (2014) is a big piece for saxophone quartet and choir with words taken from the 17th-century English mystic Thomas Traherne. It’s sullen, cloying and a bit aimless; the saxes weave around like extra voices – think Garbarek and the Hilliards but with bigger forces – and the blended sound of The Crossing and Prism is creamy and pliable. This all-Bryars release also includes his Two Love Songs (2010), airy settings of Petrarch sonnets for a cappella female choir, sung with a grace so chilly it might freeze at any moment.
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