Wigmore Hall, London The Borodins can take Shostakovich’s notes and make them sound more right than almost any other ensemble
There is a story that when the Borodin Quartet was formed, in 1945, its original members signed an oath of allegiance in their own blood. The lineup has undergone many changes in the 70 years since, but the current quartet still plays as if the same stuff is running through all their veins. There is next to no visible communication between players – something that can reinforce the impression of a certain coolness in the performance. But generally, no sooner is that impression formed than it is blown apart: the Borodins can be fiery even while looking efficient.
Each concert in this anniversary series is devoted to Beethoven and Shostakovich. Here they opened with Beethoven’s “Harp” Quartet, Op 74, and after a tender start brought out a dense, rich tone that flourished in the inner lines in the slow movement, and that made the middle section of the third movement, a Bach-like fugue, sound as if it were being played on a huge, clangorous organ. They finished with Op 18, No 1: crisp and springy in the fast movements, and with an old-school weightiness in the slow movement, and lots of variety of colour, even if they almost never play truly softly.
Aldeburgh festivalOliver Knussen gave a persuasive reading of Britten’s only ballet music
This year’s Aldeburgh festival ended on a high, with Oliver Knussen conducting the excellent Britten-Pears Orchestra in a rare concert performance of Benjamin Britten’s only ballet music, The Prince of the Pagodas. It was the only work still unpublished at the time of his death and, as such, is not generally regarded as top-drawer Britten. Knussen has nevertheless always been a strong advocate.
This was a persuasive reading, brilliantly articulated, and the extended solos were delivered by the orchestra’s young principals with considerable accomplishment. Already something of an occasion, it was given an even more dynamic context by being prefaced by a Balinese gamelan-inspired piece written by Colin McPhee, the composer/musicologist responsible for introducing Britten to this exotic soundworld. Tabuh-Tabuhan, subtitled Toccata for Orchestra and Two Pianos, dates from 1936: McPhee’s faithful reproduction of the gamelan sound in his core concertino lineup of two pianos, celeste, xylophone, marimba and glockenspiel felt radical; their timbres exotic, the pounding ostinati astonishingly vibrant and modern. Inevitably, it drew attention to the moments when the Pagodas score sounded a bit English: the brass and string writing sometimes typically Britten, and the alto saxophone sounding as if it had crept in from somewhere else again. Yet the theatricality of his intentions was finely realised.
As the grass-court tournament gets underway, here’s a volley of compositions inspired by racket play, including a Milhaud ballet and a Sibelius song
Wilhelm Peterson-Berger: Lawn Tennis (1896)
With the rise in popularity of the sport in the late-19th century, tennis and music soon began to make a match. Johann Strauss II, for example, included a “Lawn-Tennis Chorus” in his penultimate operetta, Waldmeister (1895). If you didn’t know the title of Swedish composer Wilhelm Peterson-Berger’s Lawn Tennis, you might be hard pressed to make any connection to the game, though does the busy interplay between the two hands suggest an exchange of strokes?
He loves Sondheim, Beethoven and Bach, and he’s a sucker for 80s pop. Composer Eric Whitacre on the music that inspires him
How do you mostly listen to music?
Almost always on headphones. Streaming is the future: it’s great to see so much high quality streaming coming through, and with such a huge breadth of music and related content it’s a whole new world to explore.
Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
With the charisma of an Old Testament prophet, the composer brought a spiritual intensity to the first UK performance of his Seventh Symphony
Krzysztof Penderecki wrote his monumental Seventh Symphony, Seven Gates of Jerusalem, to mark the third millennium of the holy city in 1996. Incredibly, it’s never been performed in Britain until now. Or maybe that’s not so incredible, since it calls for a huge orchestra with off-stage woodwind and brass, three choirs, five soloists and a narrator. Not to mention a pair of tubaphones – vast tuned percussion instruments of Penderecki’s own invention that look like the plastic tubing shelves at B&Q and are struck with table tennis bats.
Related: Krzysztof Pendercki: horror film directors' favourite composer
St Paul’s Cathedral, London
Too much of Haydn’s best-known oratorio, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and its chorus, was dwarfed by the sheer scale of the surroundings
Concerts in St Paul’s Cathedral, especially large-scale choral concerts of the kind that the London Symphony Orchestra and its chorus give there regularly as their contribution to the City of London festival, are inevitably triumphs of hope over experience. Few performances survive immersion in that exuberantly resonant space, in which only the largest-scale gestures retain their integrity (Berlioz’s Requiem sounded magnificent there a few years ago) and fine detail just evaporates into the cathedral’s vast dome.
What hope then for The Creation, which the LSO brought to this year’s festival conducted by Edward Gardner? Haydn’s best-known oratorio, sung here using the original English version of the text, may be full of pictorial moments, but few of them are big and bold enough to cut through the acoustic haze of St Paul’s. The one that is, the representation of chaos in the prelude, and the arrival of light in a fortissimo shaft of choral C major, sounded suitably imposing, and Gardner and his forces delivered it impeccably, but after that too much was rendered approximate or blurred.
White billowing curtains concealing and revealing a painted backdrop of lagoon, sands and distant campanile: how better to conjure the fetid atmosphere of the Venetian Lido in high summer under the shadow of cholera. With canny thrift, Garsington Opera has created a staging of Britten’s Death in Venice (1973) free from that usual whiff of stale cologne, alive with zest and intensity. A top cast, full of promising young talent, and excellent orchestra show Britten’s final opera in its sharpest light.
Based on Thomas Mann’s novella to a libretto by Myfanwy Piper, the work has taken time to establish itself. Odd, stifling, discomfiting, it is also emotionally draining: an ageing novelist, Aschenbach, travels to Venice to confront his writer’s block only to become infatuated with a young boy he sees but never meets. It can feel both the best and worst of Britten, a mixture of repressive, oppressive and dazzlingly expressive. The score is sensuous and spiky, coloured by tuned percussion and harp, but can drag. Coming so soon after Visconti’s 1971 film classic starring Dirk Bogarde, with the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony as the unforgettable soundtrack, it had an awkward birth.
The fascinating find here is an unfinished Sonata for Violin and Piano by Shostakovich, never before recorded: five and a half minutes in which a wistful waltz transforms itself into a brittle pre-echo of the Tenth Symphony. It dates from 1945; Linus Roth brings to it an intense, deep sonority. Also new is Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes in its orchestral version – a gloomy meditation that suddenly acquires vivid virtuosic strength. Weinberg’s attractive Concertino is overshadowed by the disc’s masterpiece, the wartime Concerto funebre of Karl Amadeus Hartmann, with its mournful final Russian chorale. Fine playing, but you can’t find many wartime consolations in this music.
Six singers, 11 instrumentalists and pianist Malcolm Martineau, the guiding force on this project, have united for the final volume of the 150-plus Poulenc songs, written over 44 years. The works here are for voice and various mixed ensembles. The opening Rapsodie Nègre (1917) reflects the young composer’s keen if naive fascination with the “exotic”. Le Bestiaire (the piano-only version appeared on Vol 4) sets poems by Apollinaire depicting among other things the “melancholy” carp, the crayfish and the grasshopper. There are more settings by Apollinaire and Max Jacob, including Banalités and Le Bal Masqué. Thomas Allen, Thomas Oliemans, Joshua Ellicott, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Ann Murray and Sarah Fox are all secure and idiomatic Poulenc connoisseurs.
The renowned countertenor on finding those high notes, battling acid reflux and emulating the castrato Farinelli on stage
Iestyn Davies is one of the world’s leading countertenors. A choral scholar at St John’s College, Cambridge, where he read archaeology and anthropology, he studied at the Royal College of Music, making his operatic debut in 2005. This summer he will sing the role of David in Handel’s Saul at Glyndebourne; in the autumn he will again star alongside Mark Rylance in Claire van Kampen’s Farinelli and the King when it transfers to the West End. He can currently be heard on Radio 3’s In Tune special series Singers on Singing, broadcast daily until 3 July as part of its Classical Voice season. The conversations are also available as podcasts.
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