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Classical music | The Guardian
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Falvai/Hungarian National PO/Kocsis
(Celestial Harmonies)

The release of these studio recordings, made in Hungary this summer, must have been planned well before Zoltan Kocsis’s death in November. Their appearance now, though, provides a fine memorial to a musician who was much better known, in Britain at least, as a superlative pianist than as a conductor.

The pairing of works is a curious one. The sleeve notes – more on which later – offer no explanation as to why one of Brahms’s best known scores should be yoked in a two-disc set with three orchestral laments by Liszt from 1866 that are rarely heard in concerts. The two composers were hardly stylistic soul mates, and the works have little in common.

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St John’s Smith Square, London
The Sinfonietta blended rigour with expressive depth in Hans Abrahamsen’s Schnee, plus gave striking premieres of works by Morgan Hayes and Simon Holt

The fragile, crystalline sound world of Hans Abrahamsen’s recent music is as distinctive as any in contemporary music. It’s the world inhabited by his Ophelia-inspired song cycle Let Me Tell You, which has brought the composer many new admirers since it was first performed in 2013, but is one that he first explored five years earlier, in the hour-long ensemble piece, Schnee.

These “10 canons for nine instruments”, conducted meticulously by Geoffrey Paterson, were the main work in the London Sinfonietta’s concert. It’s a piece whose exquisite “white polyphony” (Abrahmsen’s phrase) wears very well, conjuring a quiet intensity out of five pairs of canons which get progressively shorter as the work goes on. The rigour and symmetries of the music belie its expressive depths.

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Shoreditch Church (St Leonard’s), London
The pianist’s very fine recital featured a set of variations written for the festival’s former director, a birthday tribute to Tan himself, and Liszt’s Three Concert Études

Melvyn Tan opened his Spitalfields Music recital with Variations for Judith, a set of variations on Bach’s Bist Du Bei Mir, each written by a different composer for Judith Serota, the Spitalfields festivals’ inspirational executive director from 1988 to 2007. Originally consisting of seven pieces, the set has grown over time to 12, with Tan giving the world premiere, on this occasion, of Rolf Hind’s new variation – a sombre, intense meditation on mortality, placed at the work’s centre.

Despite the variety of styles – which range from Thea Musgrave’s linear elegance to Anthony Payne’s hard-edged assertiveness, via Stephen Johns’s baroque grandeur and Judith Weir’s glittering wit – the sequence has a wonderful cogency. It admirably suits Tan, whose playing combines intelligence, refinement and understated dexterity.

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Agency working conditions | South African political parties | Zac Goldsmith’s legacy | Time man of the year | Arts sponsorship | The new Keith Flett

The exploitation of agency workers (Agency workers ‘exploited and forgotten’, 5 December) has even spread to the Ministry of Justice which employs court interpreters through an agency. The MoJ can book me for a full day’s work but should the case be adjourned or cancelled when I show up, I will only be paid little more than an hour’s pay, putting the cost of cancellation or curtailment on me, the interpreter. What hope is there for agency workers’ conditions if even the MoJ colludes in this bad practice?
Name and address supplied

• Your obituary of the admirable anti-apartheid activist Walter Hain (5 December) is marred by the assertion the Liberal party was the only non-race-based political grouping in South Africa. Our sister party, the South African Communist party, has a powerful claim to be the political party that forged the strongest multi-racial unity.
Nick Wright
Communist party media office, London

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Small retailers everywhere are struggling to compete with online competition. But one classical music store in north London is surviving - and even thriving

Three years ago Ian Rosenblatt went into his local music shop in Muswell Hill, north London. He came out having bought a couple of CDs and, to his own surprise, the shop. Rosenblatt, a city lawyer and classical music lover, had been chatting with the owner and learned he was planning to close it down.

In the 60s this shop sold the Davies bothers - Ray and Dave, of the Kinks, who lived nearby – their first guitars

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Huelgas Ensemble/Van Nevel
(Deutsche Harmonia Mundi)

What’s the term for when parody surpasses the material it parodies? Musicologists have described Monteverdi’s Missa in Illo Tempero as a “parody mass” because it’s built around archaic material and techniques. But when he wrote it at the dawn of the 1600s, Monteverdi was already looking back from some distance at the previous century – already inventing a kind of neo-Renaissance gloss that simultaneous confirmed him as a master of the old polyphony and blazed into new baroque sounds and styles. This robust, bold-sculpted recording from Paul van Nevel and his Belgian early music group Huelgas splits up the mass’s movements with four earlier madrigals, so the Kyrie segues into the chromatic thicket of Nicola Vicentino’s Laura Che’l Verde Lauro, then the stately, pliant Credo sinks into Giaches de Wert’s Mia Benigna Fortuna, and so on. As if Monteverdi’s meta-mass wasn’t enough for anachronisms, the extra chronological disjunct here is enjoyably disorienting. And the performance is excellent: vibrant, shapely, sensitive singing.

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Countertenor who became a leading light in the early music movement

Two countertenors, one British, one American, were at the centre of the early music movement as it gathered momentum in the middle of the 20th century: Alfred Deller and Russell Oberlin. While Deller was firmly rooted in the Anglican choral tradition, the voice and stylistic address of the Ohio-born Oberlin, who has died at the age of 88, were conspicuously more secular – early professional assignments included the advertising of a brand of toilet paper.

Eschewing falsetto, Oberlin’s tone, seamless through a range of over two octaves, had a more incisive quality than Deller’s pure sound, though he arguably lacked the expressive mastery of the greatest of the legions of countertenors that followed him on both sides of the Atlantic.

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St David’s Hall, Cardiff
Harry Christophers’ choral group celebrated the feast of the Epiphany and the Magi with a programme that moved from plainsong and Palestrina to Herbert Howells

The Sixteen’s Christmas tour has established itself as an unmissable date on the Advent calendar. This year’s programme celebrates the feast of the Epiphany: plainsong and Renaissance motets featured alongside traditional and more recent carols, all loosely interwoven to create what felt like a time-travelling set of variations on the theme of the Magi’s visit to the infant Jesus. As always, it was the Sixteen’s clarity of diction and the shades of expressive colour that director Harry Christophers brought to the interpretations that beguiled the ear. JH Hopkins Jr’s We Three Kings may have been an obvious choice, but the words “sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in the stone-cold tomb” are rarely delivered with such pianissimo chill.

Of the Latin motets, Palestrina’s Videntes Stellam Magi stood out for the sense of wonder realised in the central passage when the wise men first see the infant with Mary. The music seeming to linger magically here and again at the end as they offer their gifts, aurum, thus et myrrhum. Sheppard’s Reges Tharsis had biting dissonances that contrasted sharply with Palestrina’s setting of the same text; that of Lassus – the second part of his Omnes de Saba – gained a joyous lightness in its melismatic Alleluias.

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Royal Opera House, London
Anita Rachvelishvili is a thrilling Azucena and Richard Farnes brings emotional subtlety to the score, but David Bösch’s production is patchy

Now in its first revival, David Bösch’s production of Il Trovatore relocates Verdi’s great examination of factionalism and infanticide to a modern, if unspecified, war zone. The transposition suggests an intention to take the work seriously rather than treat it as melodrama, and there are, indeed, unsettling scenes involving the humiliation of prisoners by soldiers that resonate with events in recent conflicts.

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It’s 225 years since Mozart’s death, and there’s a giant CD collection to mark it featuring many of the biggest names in classical music. We asked some of them to reveal which of his works they love best

The year’s biggest music release is surely a 200-CD box set containing everything – or as near as possible – Mozart wrote, released 225 years after the composer’s death on 5 December 1791. We asked a handful of the 600 stars who feature on the recordings to pick their desert-island pieces.

Renée Fleming (soprano)

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