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The opera diva Maria Callas was considered one of the greatest singers of the twentieth century although she had her detractors

Maria Callas, the opera singer who put as much passion into her life as into her art, died in her Paris flat yesterday of a heart attack. She was 53. The divine Callas was the international symbol of prima donnas, as much for her incomparable voice as for her tantrums and her long love affair with the Greek ship owner Aristotle Onassis.

She had not appeared on stage in the last four years. Friends said her obsession with her weight and vigorous dieting have contributed to her sudden death. She was plagued by weight problems all her life. At 20, she weighed 15 stones. In the fifties she had to crash-diet, losing more than four stones in a few weeks, so that she could take leading romantic roles.

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3 hours ago | |
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Actor to play piemaker Mrs Lovett in Stephen Sondheim's work after Broadway run and after 25 years away from London stage

Playing Mrs Lovett in Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd on Broadway was the most terrifying experience of Emma Thompson's life, she revealed on Tuesday, so the actor's decision to reprise the role and return to the London stage for the first time in 25 years might seem a little surprising.

She hopes to cope better this time. "As in no nausea, no actual nausea," she said. "If I can manage the fear without the nausea, I'll be really happy."

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11 hours ago | |
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Royal Opera House, London
There is powerful chemistry between Simon Keenlyside and Aleksandra Kurzak, though the operas dramatic and musical climaxes are not always in sympathy

The Royal Operas latest revival of David McVicars production of Rigoletto primarily forms a vehicle for Simon Keenlyside, who plays Verdis tragic jester in a startling performance that is as much about physicality as it is about singing. Whirling around on crutches in the opening scene, he reminds us of Antony Shers Richard III. His gestures are obscene, and few Rigolettos have quite so forcefully brought home the fact that the loathing with which he satirises the Mantuan court is genuine rather than assumed.

Face to face, however, with Aleksandra Kurzaks Gilda, he (as he tells us), turns into another man. His stoop is such that he is forced to gaze upwards into her face in their duets, and he does so with the sad wonder of a man whose much-loved daughter is a constant reminder of the dead wife he adored.

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14 hours ago | |
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Wigmore Hall, London
Pianist Nicolas Hodges unveiled a mysterious set of Bach-inspired variations as part of Harrison Birtwistles on-going birthday bash

Concerts to mark Harrison Birtwistles 80th birthday are set to continue to the end of the year. The latest was pianist Nicolas Hodges tribute, which included a premiere a followup to the piece Birtwistle wrote for him two years ago. But where Gigue Machine, the earlier work, is predominantly fast, extrovert and rhythmically propulsive, the new one, Variations from the Golden Mountain, is much more introspective and essentially a slow movement, though one with flashes of virtuoso brilliance.

The title hints at the works starting point; the Golden Mountain is the Goldberg, and it was from Bachs monumental set of variations that Birtwistle got the idea of linking a series of short, self-contained episodes into a more substantial musical whole. Theres no apparent thematic link to Bach even the sense of Birtwistles work as a set of variations is hard to discern; if the musics precipitous changes of mood and manner have any historical antecedents they would seem to be in Beethovens late piano sonatas and final set of Bagatelles (Hodges emphasised that connection at the end of his recital by playing one of the Op 126 set as an encore).

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16 hours ago | |
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With Xerxes back at English National Opera, find out if you're up to speed on Handel's many, many operas Continue reading...
18 hours ago | |
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Coliseum, London
Alice Coote brings tremendous vocal swagger to this ENO revival of Handels comic opera

Quiz: How much do you know about Handels operas?

Who would even believe it? asks Elviro towards the end of Nicholas Hytners venerable staging of Handels comic opera, Xerxes. Its a rather loose translation, which could be inserted equally into any of Handels operas, but its particularly apt here in a work whose absurd plot twists even Handels contemporaries found hard to stomach. And yet, on an emotional level, there is something deeply credible about the way in which Handels Persian emperor slowly comes to accept that the bonds of love cannot be made and unmade at his command.

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19 hours ago | |
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Despite a music boom in schools many children have never even seen a musical instrument

It was the wooden blocks that got me worried. The orchestra had come on stage, looking like orchestras do. The conductor had joined them, in one of those Nehru jackets you only see at places like Wigmore Hall. And scattered around the stage, where you might expect a choir to be, were what looked like balsa-wood blocks.

Moments later they trooped on: men and women who had been told to wear black, and saw it as a chance to express their personality. Some had gone the whole hog, in slinky dresses or long, loose ones with chiffon wings. The man I thought was Jesus, but who I later found out was the Evangelist, was in skinny black trousers and brown shoes. It was only when we were walking into the Royal Albert Hall that the friend who had invited me to this performance of the St Matthew Passion told me it was semi-staged.

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1 day ago | |
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Amid huge tension and polarisation, the third year of this ambitious festival attempted to offer a statement of unity for all Jerusalemites

We will hear the muezzin in a few minutes, says the rabbi. They sing about love. Were sitting on a rooftop in Jerusalem overlooking the Judean hills as the sun sets. Next to the rabbi is a Muslim sheikh who explains the meaning of Allah u-Akbar: God is great ... There is no God but God. That monotheistic deity is just one of many beliefs shared by Jews, Muslims and Christians and why this city is holy for an estimated 4 billion people.

A few moments later, muezzins start their calls to prayer in mosques on all sides. One in the hills, then another close by, until theres an extraordinary polyphony from dozens of loudspeakers. Its a magical sound, hovering like a haze over the hills, the car horns and hubbub of the city until at 7pm a bell starts chiming at the abbey on nearby Mount Zion.

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1 day ago | |
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City Halls, Glasgow
The finale to Peter Maxwell Daviess long birthday season featured three touching tributes from fellow Scottish composers

Its been a long birthday season for Peter Maxwell Davies, from midsummer concerts in Orkney to a late-night Prom on the big day itself. This Glasgow finale felt like a homecoming among friends. There were solo, chamber and orchestral works performed by musicians who have known the composer for decades, and there were birthday presents: three surprise tributes by fellow Scottish composers. Sally Beamish, Alasdair Nicolson and James MacMillan each presented short pieces responding to aspects of Maxwell Daviess legacy. All three spoke fondly of Max as an inspiration and a generous source of encouragement.

Beamishs Fanfares and Fancies on a Popular Air is a spry piano duet (played here by Michael Bawtree and Beamish herself) following in the long tradition of variations on a theme by the dedicatee in this case Maxwell Daviess indelibly touching Farewell to Stromness. Nicolsons solo guitar piece Magnus is based on a 13th-century hymn to Orkneys patron saint. Played by Sean Shibe, it was a misty, rugged, restless evocation of the islands. MacMillan, meanwhile, paid tribute to Maxwell Daviess work for children with a sweet, eerie Burns setting. The Rising Moon was performed by solemn young singers and bell ringers from Cumnocks Greenmill primary and a full-voiced quartet from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

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1 day ago | |
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Italian prima donna with one of the longest careers in the history of opera

The Italian prima donna Magda Olivero, who has died aged 104, had one of the most remarkable careers of the 20th century, above all as a leading exponent of the often-derided art of the verismo soprano. The post-Romantic realism of the verismo movemement in Italian opera, notably in works by Giacomo Puccini, Francesco Cilea, Franco Alfano, Umberto Giordano and Pietro Mascagni, provided an ideal vehicle for her compelling presence, and brought her a great following.

She had sung the role of Adriana Lecouvreur in Cilea's opera opposite Beniamino Gigli before the second world war, but during the war she married and all but retired. It was Cilea who encouraged her to return to the stage, first as Mimì in La Bohème, then as Adriana at Brescia, (1951). Cilea died shortly before her performance, but he had coached Olivero in what was to become her most famous role.

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2 days ago | |
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