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Classical music | The Guardian
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Gloucester Cathedral
Conductor Edward Gardner balanced the vast colours vividly as Gloucester Cathedral’s acoustics added an extra dimension to Berlioz’s colossal work

Berlioz conceived his Grande Messe des Morts on such a colossal scale and requiring such huge forces that performances are relatively few and far between. This Three Choirs festival staging was a rather special occasion: Gloucester Cathedral’s architectural splendour is a match for Berlioz’s grand concept – the mass’s first performance was in the cathedral of St Louis des Invalides in Paris – and Gloucester’s famously reverberant acoustics added a dimension of its own.

While the notion of such a work had played in Berlioz’s mind for some time, it was eventually commissioned to commemorate the death in battle of a French general; here, the traditional bidding prayer remembered the recent tragedies in France, invoking a silence which in turn made the solemnity of the opening string passage and the responding voices’ plea for mercy all the more emotive. The festival chorus proved to be in splendid form, making the characteristic contrasts between pianissimo whispering and full-blooded fortissimo speak volumes, with the musicians of the Philharmonia – in residence at the festival – bringing their beautifully honed sound to Berlioz’s highly imaginative instrumentation.

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Christophe Honoré’s Così fan tutte has been described as a ‘provocative and sexually explicit’ adaptation Mozart’s opera

The Edinburgh international festival has been criticised for offering refunds for a new production of Così fan tutte before the opera has opened.

Christophe Honoré’s version of the Mozart opera opened the Aix-en-Provence festival in France last month and will play at the Festival theatre in the Scottish capital in late August.

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Fischer/Müller-Schott
(Orfeo)

The two instruments may be cornerstones of orchestral and chamber music, and both have such significant solo repertories of their own, but the music composed for violin and cello together remains inexplicably scanty.

Composers shy away from such an exposed medium, which gives them neither the option of writing a bravura showpiece for a solo instrument, or of taking refuge in the more complex textures that adding extra instruments would provide. Some are facing up to the challenge – both Jörg Widmann and Mark-Anthony Turnage have recently written duos, for instance – but when putting together programmes for a recital or a disc, the starting point remains the two 20th-century masterpieces for violin and cello, Zoltán Kodály’s Duo and Maurice Ravel’s Sonata.

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Royal Albert Hall, London
Anthony Payne’s 80th birthday commission is a substantial, beautifully crafted symphonic poem and choral work in the tradition of Bax and Bridge

Anthony Payne’s major orchestral works give the shape and direction to the whole of his career as a composer over the past 50 years. There have been four so far, and the Proms commission to mark his 80th birthday next week was intended to make it five, but what began as an idea for a symphonic poem transformed itself into a work for chorus and orchestra, the first that Payne has written.

In many ways, though, Of Land, Sea and Sky, which Andrew Davis introduced with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, is still very much a symphonic poem, though it is unmistakably a substantial choral piece, too. The texts that Payne sets – his own short poems – are never prescriptive but add an extra layer of commentary to what is already vividly depicted in the orchestra – a chain of six symphonic images, framed by a prelude and postlude, all drawing on Payne’s memories of natural illusions, whether taken from literature, painting or first-hand experience.

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The ‘ghost’ who sang for Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, for Deborah Kerr in The King and I and for Natalie Wood in West Side Story

Millions of filmgoers who enjoyed the singing of Deborah Kerr in The King and I (1956), Natalie Wood in West Side Story (1961) and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady (1964) were unaware that their voices were dubbed by Marni Nixon, who has died of breast cancer aged 86.

In order to keep the illusion a secret, the extraordinarily versatile American coloratura soprano was uncredited. It was only some years later, after the heyday of the Hollywood musical had passed, that the curtains were figuratively pulled back to reveal Nixon at a microphone behind the scenes. In film circles, this most unsung of singers was dubbed the “ghostess with the mostest”. However, in classical music circles, Nixon was well known for her wide range of recordings and opera performances, notably at the Los Angeles, Seattle and San Francisco opera companies, where she performed, among others, Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos, Susanna in Le Nozze di Figaro, both Blonde and Konstanze in Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Violetta in La Traviata.

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No vibrato, principal violinists facing each other, audiences encouraged to applaud between movements … the great conductor celebrates the unorthodox at the Proms this week

It is typical of Sir Roger Norrington that one of the greatest highlights of his long orchestral conducting career was when the audience burst into laughter in the middle of one of his performances.

As a rule, conductors stand on their dignity. They take themselves seriously. They like to be revered. In his own idiosyncratic way, Norrington himself is all three: dignified, serious and revered. But he is also a lot of fun. He wants to connect with his audience. So when his listeners laughed out loud at a musical joke during his performance of a Haydn symphony, he was not offended but delighted.

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Royal Albert Hall, London
Vladimir Jurowski oversaw a cerebral performance of the Ninth symphony, after the debut of Magnus Lindberg’s prequel Two Episodes

Who would dare write a prequel to Beethoven’s Ninth symphony? Magnus Lindberg, that’s who. Two Episodes, a BBC co-commission, is a 15-minute work intended to lead up to the symphony, to complement it and to reflect some of its details: if you like, it’s a musical Louvre pyramid.

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From the classical archive, 22 October 1928: a review of a performance in London by the composer and pianist who ‘transcends his limitations’

London, Sunday
Mr Gordon Bryan was fortunate in having induced Monsieur Maurice Ravel, who is in England to receive the degree of Mus.Doc from Oxford on Tuesday, to appear in person at a concert entirely devoted to his work, the first of an interesting series to be given by Mr Bryan during the winter. Ravel is now clearly one of London’s pets, for not only was the Aeolian Hall entirely sold out, but so many people were turned away at the door that a repetition of the concert was arranged on the spot for next January.

The programme was representative of various phases of the composer’s art, and showed his qualities and defects in a way that was fair both to him, and the audience. With him, indeed, merits and demerits are almost one. They unite with a singular felicity into the distinctive features of one of the most strongly marked personalities in contemporary music. His limitations are such that they would be irritating but for the nearly always surpassing mastery with which they are – one must almost say ­– turned to account. As it is, they so nearly amount to advantages that they may be discussed without the risk of undue disparagement.

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Barbican, London
The Indian musician matched rapid-fire playing with power chords in a set that occasionally demonstrated technique at the expense of emotion

Ravi Shankar brought the sitar to a global audience and his death in 2012 left a gap that has been understandably difficult to fill. One obvious contender for the role of new sitar hero is his daughter Anoushka, with whom he gave a memorable concert on this stage eight years ago. And then there’s Nishat Khan, another sitar maestro with an impressive history. He comes from a family of distinguished north Indian classical musicians; his father and late uncle were both celebrated sitar players. And he has been happy to experiment, working with John McLaughlin, Philip Glass and Paco Peña. In 2013, his sitar concerto Gate of the Moon premiered at the BBC Proms.

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Cirencester Parish Church
Philip Lancaster’s intimate War Passion, commissioned for the Three Choirs festival, avoids grand gestures but suffered from poor acoustics

Gloucester is the host city for this year’s Three Choirs festival. As usual, the cathedral is the hub of everything, but there are concerts around the county, too, and the premiere of the first festival commission of the week, Philip Lancaster’s War Passion, took place 20 miles away in Cirencester, at a concert given by the St Cecilia Singers and the Bristol Ensemble, conducted by Jonathan Hope.

As well as being a composer, Lancaster is well known for his research on early 20th-century British music and poetry, especially the work of the Gloucester-born Ivor Gurney. It was while he was studying Isaac Rosenberg’s poem The Tower of Skulls that he conceived the idea for a choral piece in which poems from the first world war became a commentary on a retelling of the New Testament passion story.

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