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Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh
The nimble ensemble delivered pithy Mendelssohn and Pärt, while the commanding Ibragimova added ferocious Hartmann and exuberant Bach


The Scottish Ensembles’s default setting is flux and dynamism: that’s the mission of this string orchestra, and it makes for nimble conversations within the group. So it was a thrill to hear what happened when they were joined by Alina Ibragimova – a violinist of uncompromising focus and intensity who made the sparring go deeper, quieter, fiercer. Ibragimova is a chamber musician as well as a soloist, acutely attentive to group texture and counterpoint, but there was no question who was in control. She didn’t so much invite as command their attention, and ours.

The programme was billed as “Music is Power”, a loose theme through works variously banned, self-censored, emphatically spiritual or plain joyous. A pair of early Mendelssohn string symphonies (the sixth and 10th) were delivered as pithy, boisterous dramas, full of light, shade and bravado. Arvo Pärt’s Silouan’s Song and Peteris Vasks’s Viatore sounded flinty and serene: the holy minimalism thing can feel tokenistic when plonked into a concert as if to provide a quick hit of transcendence, but this performance didn’t overstoke the meaningfulness.

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He is renowned for writing politically controversial operas, so what will Adams make of the new US president? On his 70th-birthday tour, the composer talks beatniks, bombs and Trumping Nixon

On the evening of Donald Trump’s inauguration as 45th president of the United States in Washington DC, one of his predecessors – the 37th, Richard Milhous Nixon – was featuring in his own show elsewhere. His historic 1972 handshake with Chairman Mao was being replayed yet again, at Houston Grand Opera, Texas, courtesy of the composer John Adams. With its pounding rhythms, lyricism and poetry, Nixon in China (1987) remains one of the most successful operas of the past half century. Whoever decided to fix its 30th-anniversary revival for inauguration night had a sharp sense of irony, or of doom. Two years after his visit to China, Nixon was impeached.

Related: A guide to John Adams's music

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Millennium Centre, Cardiff
Life, love and death unfold monumentally in Welsh National Opera’s spellbinding version of Frank Martin’s little-known oratorio

Swiss composer Frank Martin’s music is nowadays little heard, and his secular oratorio Le Vin Herbé even more rarely. Polly Graham’s stark but brilliant new staging of the work for Welsh National Opera might just change all that.

Related: Le Vin herbé: It's Tristan and Isolde, but not as you know it

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Ahead of the world premiere of The Crimson Bird, a concertante about war and parenthood, the composer writes about how her new work took shape

Composing for orchestra is an enthralling experience. To live for months with its sound world inside my head, my inner ear constantly preoccupied with how I am shaping that world. How am I using the energies and skill of the 70 or so musicians who create the range and depth and wholeness of an orchestra? It’s a medium that should be an anachronism – in economic terms, it is – yet it continues to be a magnetic force.

I have never forgotten the thrill of the first rehearsal, 45 years ago, of The Hidden Landscape, which I wrote for the Proms. Everything I’d imagined had come to life, and it led me directly to my next big orchestral piece, Columbia Falls, for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. With two symphonic works under my belt as well as a good deal of chamber music, I turned in 1977 to opera and it soon became addictive.

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Plus: Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts in Philharmonia premieres and David McVicar directs Pelléas Et Mélisande

There’s never a shortage of works by Wolfgang Rihm that are still to be heard in Britain. Few composers working today can match his rate of productivity, and his list of pieces now stands around the 400 mark. The latest to get its first UK airing is Rihm’s Second Piano Concerto, which was first performed in 2014. Nicolas Hodges is the soloist.
Barbican Hall, EC2, 22 February

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Frank Martin’s chamber opera about the tragic lovers is the polar opposite of Wagner’s opulent extravaganza. The director of a new production explains how less is becoming more

Frank Martin’s opera about Tristan and Iseult - the tragic couple of Celtic legend whose love for each other is awakened when they drink a potion – is, in many respects, the polar opposite of Wagner’s celebrated version of the same myth. Wagner’s work is famous for being one of the most influential and ground-breaking operas of all time. His five-hour, opulent extravaganza exalts erotic love to a transcendental, epic level, and extensively explores the metaphysics of love. Commanding the forces of super human singers and an enormous orchestra, it is a huge undertaking for any opera company.

Swiss composer Frank Martin was born in 1890 – 25 years after the première of Wagner’s Tristan. His treatment of the medieval legend is for eight instruments and 12 singers, written between 1938 and 1941. Though he admitted to being influenced by the German composer (and you can hear echoes of Wagner’s Tristan quoted at moments in Le Vin herbé), it was Bach, not Wagner, whom he described as his greatest artistic influence “yesterday, today, forever”.

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Ehnes/Armstrong
(Onyx)

Violinist James Ehnes and pianist Andrew Armstrong play together with an easy spark and suppleness that only old friends really can. In the past they’ve done excellent things with Franck, Strauss, Debussy and Elgar; now they turn to Beethoven with the same combination of light touch and searing focus. There’s a clarity of ideas that means they never have to overstate – take the initial phrase of the Kreutzer Sonata, the impeccably eloquent way the opening chord clouds from radiance to shade so decisively. Flashes of white heat in that sonata subside into a graceful reading of the Sixth. For some listeners, the featherweight diction won’t be brawny or volatile enough for mid-period Beethoven, but it would be wrong to mistake cleanliness for lack of emotional heft. The uncluttered, conversational generosity of this duo speaks volumes.

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Cédric Tiberghien
(Hyperion)

Cédric Tiberghien’s Bartók series has been an ear-opener – expressive and sharp-witted performances that clinch the music’s essence in original terms. The French pianist has saved some of Bartók’s most straight-up tuneful material for last, and this instalment includes the Three Hungarian Folksongs from the Csík District (melodies Bartók learned in summer 1907 from a Transylvanian flute player), the Three Rondos on Slovak Folk Tunes and the slight, blithe Sonatina. Tiberghien balances these with the knotty Études and the thick-set Sonata – and through it all, the angular and the earthy, he has a way of making Bartók’s rhythms sound simultaneously stretchy, precise and personal. He’s joined by fellow pianist François-Frédéric Guy and percussionists Colin Currie and Sam Walton for the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion from 1926 – jostling, gracious, deft playing to round off the disc.

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Choir of Jesus College Cambridge/Williams
(Signum)

William Byrd was a Catholic in the service of an Anglican monarch; Benjamin Britten was a gay pacifist in second world war England. It never hurts to remember how many of the artists we end up deifying faced some kind of bigotry in their day. This album presents the two composers as a pair of outsiders, alternating works by each in a programme that illuminates but doesn’t force the parallels. Conductor Mark Williams opens with a Byrd anthem (O Lord, Make thy Servant, Elizabeth Our Queen) and closes with Britten’s youthful Te Deum. In between we get a considered performance of Britten’s Missa Brevis and Byrd’s sublimely introspective Quomodo Cantibimus. Though 350 years separated their careers, Byrd’s scraping harmonies often sound no older than Britten’s. The singing of Jesus Cambridge isn’t always sharply defined but it is warm and breathy, topped by excellent boy choristers and best in stately slow music such as Byrd’s Ave Verum Corpus.

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Nicholls/Ellicott/France/Shaw/Hallé Choir and Orchestra/Elder
(Hallé)

The latest addition to Mark Elder’s British music series continues his exploration of Elgar with a couple of the works composed during the first world war. A Voice in the Wilderness is one of a triptych of small-scale pieces with narrator that Elgar composed between 1914 and 1917 (all of them recently recorded by Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Scottish Symphony, while the settings of Laurence Binyon in The Spirit of England was his last major choral work. Perhaps the first number revisits the music of The Dream of Gerontius rather too blatantly; but in the latter piece, the impressionist world of its second movement, To Women, is unlike anything else Elgar wrote, except, perhaps, parts of what survive of his third symphony.

Three pieces of incidental music composed in 1901 for George Moore and WB Yeats’s play Grania and Diarmid make a neat connection with the rarity by Arnold Bax that Elder also includes. In Memoriam carries the subtitle An Irish Elegy; it was written in response to the 1916 Easter Rising and the execution of its leaders by the British government. Originally scored for sextet, Bax’s orchestration was lost for many years, but it makes a brooding tone poem which deserves to be much better known. Both versions have been recorded before (on Chandos), but Elder’s performance has a special, spacious inevitability about it.

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