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Steven Osborne (piano)
(Hyperion)

Rachmaninov and Medtner, both late-romantic Russian composers, have fared differently since their deaths in 1943 and 1951. Rachmaninov's popularity grows apace, while Medtner is mostly loved only by pianophiles. A representative work is Medtner's Sonata Romantica Op 53 No 1, extravagant, expressive, packed with fistfuls of notes and tumultuous climaxes. It's not easy to love (unlike his short, charming Skazki which opens this disc) but Steven Osborne puts a persuasive case. In contrast, Rachmaninov's Piano Sonata No 2 in B flat minor, majestic and lyrical, is immediately rewarding. His Variations on a theme of Corelli a work the composer himself doubted, sometimes cutting variations in performance is complete here, and Osborne's imaginative playing makes it seem only too short.

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2 days ago | |
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Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir/Spicer
(Somm)

Hot on the heels of the Bach Choir's recent Howells Stabat Mater comes this collection from the ever-rewarding Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir. Paul Spicer was a pupil of Herbert Howells and here traces the creative development of Britain's supreme 20th-century composer for the liturgy, including three rarities never before recorded. Levavi oculos meos is a lovely anthem for soprano voices from 1959 that contains delightful Howellsian gestures familiar from his canticle settings, while the album takes its title from a dramatic setting of the Henry Vaughan poem When first thine eies unveil, which features a fine solo from Christopher Fitzgerald Lombard.

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2 days ago | |
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The pianist and composer came together to create a world premiere for the Proms. How did they get on?

Beethoven rarely comments on his work these days. Chopin is also frustratingly silent. To talk to them about playing their music would be fascinating (and absurdly intimidating) and it is tantalising to imagine the surprises that might emerge in the difference between what "tradition" dictates, and the composer's actual intentions and preferences. So as a performer making only his third foray into contemporary music I intended to take every advantage of finding myself able to sit and play a work for the composer who created it. The results will be heard on Monday when I give the first performance of Day Break Shadows Flee by Judith Weir, the new master of the Queen's music, at the Proms.

Talking with Weir, a few of the impressions I had gleaned from my early preparations were confirmed. She is a composer interested in particular colours and atmospheres, in the beauty of certain types of sound. This piece was written because she has long been fascinated by the special qualities of night and early morning, the velvet fingers of the first light of dawn. In terms of texture she says she has always been interested in the sounds of the extremities of the keyboard, in the pale quality of the highest notes when solitary, and the indistinct rumble of the lowest. She mentioned that she had once experienced a minor earthquake in Los Angeles. For 10 seconds she heard a low-pitched sound, as if "the wind were blowing with a melancholy roar", and, ever since, had been interested in intimating this transient moment.

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3 days ago | |
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Larsson/Het Gelders O/Manacorda
(Challenge Classics)

In 1830 Berlioz won the Prix de Rome at his fourth attempt, securing the coveted award, which offered him two years' study in the Italian capital, with La Mort de Sardanapale, easily the most conventional of the cantatas he had submitted to the judges over the years. That work is rarely heard now, but two of his earlier efforts Herminie, composed for the 1828 competition, and La Mort de Cléeopatre from the following year feature among Lisa Larsson's selection of early Berlioz works for soprano and orchestra with the Dutch Gelders orchestra under Antonello Manacorda; the third is La Captive, a setting of Victor Hugo, which began life as a song with piano, composed in Rome in 1832, and which Berlioz orchestrated two years later. It provides an uncomplicated interlude between the two more highly wrought scenas, though Larsson's performances of both tend to play down their histrionics; she handles the exhibitionist stuff that Berlioz includes with aplomb, but makes much more of the introspective music that so failed to impress the Prix de Rome judges.

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3 days ago | |
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Royal Albert Hall, London
Vladimir Jurowski made the most familiar of scores sound fresh, and Holst's The Planets was particularly exciting

The London Philharmonic's Prom with Vladimir Jurowski was nothing if not cosmic in scope and intention. The programme was structured around two early-20th-century works that aim to redefine spirituality in personal terms. The evening opened with Holst's The Planets, with its astrological survey of human experience, and closed with Scriabin's Prometheus: The Poem of Fire, which extravagantly envisions mankind's evolution from chaos to divine transcendence. In between them, Schoenberg's Five Orchestral Pieces, ushering in a new age of sound rather than spirit, seemed vaguely mundane in comparison.

The running order should perhaps have been reversed. Holst is a greater composer than Scriabin, and The Planets is a hard act to follow when done so well. This was Jurowski at his best, exciting yet thoughtful, and making this most familiar of scores sound marvellously fresh. A poised, multitextured Venus after the pulverising onslaught of Mars suggested the complexities of peace after the simplicities of war. The jubilation of Jupiter, hair-raising in its Dionysian elan, contrasted wonderfully with the controlled anguish of Saturn. The final fade to silence at the end of Neptune was breathtaking.

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3 days ago | |
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Festival theatre, Edinburgh
Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Opera make Berlioz's magnificent opera seem routine

Many of the productions that Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Opera have brought to Edinburgh over the last two decades have been truly memorable; sometimes, especially in the Russian repertory, they have proved to be real revelations. But the company's staging of Berlioz's epic, the highest profile operatic event at this year's festival, is in no sense revelatory, and is memorable only for managing to make the uneven magnificence of Les Troyens seem so uninvolving and routine.

Yannis Kokkos's production was first seen in St Petersburg in May, yet it already seems so tired and routine that it could be an age-old show that has been revived once too often. Kokkos's own designs commute between painterly naturalism, stylisation and something more abstract, with much use of a giant mirror, tricksy gauzes and the occasional video overlay. His costumes (a collaboration with Thibaut Welchlin) suggest Troy is a community perhaps in the Balkans today, and Carthage is somewhere prosperous in the Middle East.

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3 days ago | |
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Music and theatre directors are in a tug of war with hardliners who find women singing solo too provocative

A shabby downtown apartment, its air conditioner jutting out of a cracked front window, isnt where you would imagine Irans foremost sopranos to be honing their craft. But behind its storied walls their coach, Austrian-trained opera director Hadi Rosat, may well be rewriting the rules for women singing solo in Iran. Whats more, he began in the dog days of Mahmoud Ahmadinejads conservative presidency.

Since the Revolution of 1979, restrictions have been placed on women singing. These first prohibited all singing but evolved into a ban on women singing solo in front of men who are unrelated to them. Conservative clerics say womens voices have the potential to trigger immoral sensual - or kinetic - arousal.

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3 days ago | |
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US composer Harry Partch invented an entirely new musical language and created an orchestra of new instruments to play it on. Heiner Goebbels tells Kate Molleson about his production of Partchs most radical work, coming to Edinburgh this week.

American composer Harry Partch (1901-1974) had a musical vision for which 12-toned instruments were not enough. His objection to the standard western classical scale wasnt so much along the philosophical lines of Schoenberg and other early 20th-century atonalists; he was mainly frustrated by the musical limitations of the equal-tempered octave, so devised a system that split the octave into 43 notes instead.

Partchs masterpiece is the bizarre 1960s music drama Delusion of the Fury. It is outlandish and magnificent and it spits you out wanting to dive back in and experience the whole strange thing again. And if it is hardly ever staged thats because it cant be: it requires its very own orchestra of hand-built instruments, each one specially invented by Partch to play his unique microtonal music.

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4 days ago | |
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Pierre-Laurent Aimard
(Deutsche Grammophon)

Pierre-Laurent Aimard's first recording for Deutsche Grammophon six years ago was Bach's Art of Fugue. It was a disappointingly ordinary performance from a pianist who is such a dazzling interpreter of 20th-century repertoire, and though Bach obviously means a great deal to him, these performances of the first book of the 48 Preludes and Fugues suggest that he so far has not found a way of communicating that enthusiasm for the music in his performances. Technically, of course, his playing is immaculate; everything is clear, every rhythm precise, every texture perfectly balanced. What's missing is any character or warmth; there's certainly humour in some of the preludes, but none of that is evident in what become rather remorseless technical exercises, while the deliberate way in which Aimard defines each of the fugues, as though putting their subjects into quotation marks to make a didactic point, becomes rather wearing. When there are so many fine performances of this imperishable music of all vintages already available on disc, from Edwin Fischer right through to Peter Hill's recent Delphian set, this one can't be recommended.

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4 days ago | |
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Dukes/BBC Philharmonic/Davis
(Chandos)

All three of these rarely heard works come from the first half of Bax's career as a composer. The earliest is the lightweight but charming set of Four Orchestral Pieces from 1914, recorded here for the first time, and also known as the Four Orchestral Sketches or the Four Irish Pieces all three names are used on the manuscript. The latest is the far more substantial Overture, Elegy and Rondo, which was completed in 1927. Though stylistically the two works have their differences the wispy French influences on the four pieces, especially Ravel, were replaced by a more muscular, clearer-cut style by the mid-1920s both works reveal the same sure-footed handling of the orchestra, which these carefully manicured performances under conductor Andrew Davis show off beautifully. Between them comes the Phantasy for Viola and Orchestra of 1920, composed for the virtuoso Lionel Tertis, and Bax's reaction to the political turmoil in Ireland at the time, moving from lament to triumph and quoting the Sinn Fein marching song at its climax. Not a major work, but a very interesting one, as the soloist, Philip Dukes, makes the most of what he's given.

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4 days ago | |
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