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St David’s Hall, Cardiff
Soloists Rebecca Evans and Matthew Brook were highlights in this festive performance of Handel’s oratorio

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It’s a Christmas fixture for many classical music fans, but what’s it like to sing it every single year? Countertenor Richard Whittall explains why Handel’s masterwork appeals to even the most cynical choristers

It is a gorgeous, contemplative moment in the centre of George Frideric Handel’s beloved oratorio Messiah. After a lively B section with dotted rhythms ends on the defiant phrase “He hid not his face from shame and spitting”, the audience hears once more in the two familiar drooping chords, like a head dropping in resignation, before the strings bow the sad, lonely introduction of the alto aria “He was despised”. It is a passage as beautiful as it is haunting.

Yet, if at that moment you look past the conductor and orchestra to the ranks of singers in the back row, you may catch several yawns, perhaps even an eye roll or two. For many of the professionals who sing some or all of the 20 choruses in Messiah, this could be their tenth listen of the season with perhaps their third or even fourth different orchestra. The long, brooding aria “He was despised” is for them a stark reminder of the work’s length – three hours without cuts – and the plodding da capo can elicit a feeling perhaps a little too close to the anguished subject matter. For professional choristers, Messiah is as much marathon as masterwork.

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The co-founder, chair and artistic director of the prestigious competition steps down from her position, aged 95.

Interview: Dame Fanny Waterman at 90

95. Too early to retire! Dame Fanny Waterman has just announced that she will stand down from her position as Chairman and Artistic Director of The Leeds International Piano Competition after next year’s competition, 54 years after she set up the foundation, in 1961, to produce the first event a couple of years later.

Dame Fanny is a living institution of British music, as tributes from Mark Elder, Peter Bazalgette, and Janet Baker make clear. I’m not sure, though, that she would appreciate all this backward-looking adulation. For a teacher who has sold more than two million copies of her piano-teaching books - copies of which haunt the memories of those millions around the world who have ever attempted to get their ill-tutored digits through the basics of a C major scale or the fumblings of a first tune, only to find salvation in Dame Fanny’s exemplary method - and for the founder of a competition that has helped launch the careers of the likes of Radu Lupu, Murray Perahia, Mitsuko Uchida and Andras Schiff, and who only retired from her position as head of the Advanced Performance Course at Leeds College of Music at the age of 81, it’s not the past that counts, but the future.

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In the third of Tim Ashley’s guide to the best opera productions on YouTube, he looks at five of the great operas that deal with the infinite variety of sexual experience

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Second in our Christmas playlist is pianist Stephen Hough, who moves from carols, through a seasonal helping of kitsch, to the glittering beauty of Tchaikovsky.

I love Christmas which takes me back to a childhood of cold playgrounds, holidays decorations and the expectation of a stuffed stocking on the morning itself. But the feast for me has importance, whether it’s seen as legend or history: greatness in unexpected places, human strength in the weak and defenceless, the ultimate underdog story. Music can illuminate Christmas’s cheer and grace and here is a list of pieces to listen to as we celebrate fun or faith.


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St Leonard’s, Shoreditch, London
The radical ensemble deployed slithering bows, explosive finger-plucking and a galloping pulse at the Spitalfields Music winter festival Continue reading...
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Barbican, London
Busoni’s gargantuan piano concerto was an irresistible draw in an adventurous programme of 20th-century rarities

Orchestral concert of the year? It would need to be outstanding to better this one. The evening brought together three important works from the early 20th century, culminating in Ferruccio Busoni’s gargantuan piano concerto of 1904 – an irresistible draw, as it’s a piece that seems to come around about as often as Halley’s comet. For Busoni anoraks, the fact that Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra were on blazing form all evening was simply a bonus.

But it wasn’t only the Busoni. Given the need for a chorus in the last movement of the concerto, the programmers took the opportunity to give a rare outing to Rachmaninov’s 1902 cantata, Spring. This mixes a bubbling evocation of nature with some heavily over-written brass and choral grandiloquence, setting a nasty Nekrasov poem in which the arrival of spring spares the writer the need to murder his unfaithful wife. Hmmm. Igor Golovatenko was the idiomatic baritone soloist.

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Festival theatre, Edinburgh
Tchaikovsky’s make-believe kingdoms shimmer with considerable fairy cool in a sophisticated and elegant production

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This Christmas, we’ve asked some of our favourite musicians to create a playlist for their Christmas morning. Each weekday between now and 24 December we’ll feature a different artist’s spotify playlist; the series kicks off with trumpeter Alison Balsom’s festive selection, from Bach to Drake to Disney.

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Welsh National Opera performing project puts the spotlight on the stagehands

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