Any review of a concert in St Paul's Cathedral is a tale of a battle between a performance and the acoustic. One wishes it was otherwise, but discussion is inevitably dominated by the cathedral's 13-second reverberation, the musicians' ability to counter it and the suitability of particular works for the space. Music in which intricacy of detail is important is particularly likely to come unstuck.
The latest casualty in this regard was the London Symphony Orchestra's performance of Beethoven's Ninth conducted by Myung-Whun Chung as part of this year's City of London festival. Chung's interpretation grand in manner and articulation, and constraining Dionysian elation within careful consideration of form is admirably suited to the symphony. We just didn't hear enough of it for it to have its full impact.
The Berlin Philharmonic is arguably the most famous orchestral brand in the musical world today, but that, it seems, is no longer enough to ensure that it can enjoy a comfortable relationship with the classical recording industry. In order to issue recordings of what it and its conductors want to record, rather than being forced to follow the commercial diktats of established labels, the Berlin Phil has become the latest orchestra to market its own discs.
Simon Rattle's Schumann cycle, from concerts last year in the Berliner Philharmonie, launches the venture; later this year, it will be followed by Rattle's St John Passion as well as Nikolaus Harnoncourt's cycle of the Schubert symphonies. It's certainly a lavishly presented set, fussily designed to be eye-catching rather than practical, with a landscape-shaped, linen-bound hardcover book holding the discs two conventional CDs and a third Blu-Ray, which contains the performances in higher resolution (96kHz/24-bit) audio and HD video; the set also includes a code accessing studio-quality downloads (192 kHz/24-bit) of the performances.
My mother, Kay Hurwitz, who has died aged 94, was a viola player whose gift for sight-reading made her indispensable to the Hallé, Martha Graham's dance company, London Festival Ballet and many other orchestras. She also encouraged generations of new musicians.
During the second world war, stationed with the Royal Army Medical Corps at Church Crookham, Hampshire, at the weekly concerts there Kay especially enjoyed the exceptional playing of the distinguished violinist Emanuel Hurwitz. Meeting again later by chance, they married in 1948 and set up home in Maida Vale, north London, where a happy and busy musical life ensued.
Talking to the audience at encore time, the soprano Christiane Karg described her recital as a "journey", and she had indeed taken us on an extraordinary one, both musically and emotionally. The pleasures and sorrows of travel as metaphor for the restlessness of the human condition was her theme. Her programme, meanwhile, allowed her to traverse an exceptionally complex stylistic range, which she did in ways that often came close to perfection.
She began with Hugo Wolf's Kennst du das Land, with its nostalgia for an edenic lost Italy, and closed, two hours later, with Henri Duparc's setting of a French translation of the same text. In the first half, she followed Wolf from Italy to Spain, before tackling Manuel de Falla's Seven Popular Spanish Songs. After the interval came French composers abroad: Ravel and Hahn in Greece, modern and ancient respectively; Koechlin in the Middle East; and Poulenc in London.
Centuries of trade and conflict between the Christian and Arab-Islamic worlds brought textiles, spices and bowed stringed instruments to Europe. No one knows precisely when the violin's middle-eastern ancestors first infiltrated the Mediterranean; though there does not appear to be one of them that the great Catalan viol player Jordi Savall has not been able to master.
Since founding the early music ensemble Hespèrion XX in 1974 (the group gained an additional numeral at the turn of the millennium), Savall has been one of the world's greatest exponents of the viol de gamba and its variants. For this opening concert of the 2014 York early music festival, he focused on a family of instruments including the cello-like rubab and its smaller cousin the lira, that were first depicted in 10th-century manuscripts.
I hadn't come across Scotland's contemporary music group, the Red Note Ensemble, before hearing them in an excellent concert at last year's Huddersfield festival. Their latest appearance, with a conservative but interestingly chosen programme performed as part of the City of London festival, confirms that they are a very special group of musicians indeed. Performing John Adams's Shaker Loops (in its septet version) they displayed finesse, sensitivity, and most of all a level of concentrated energy which caused the music to rip through the air like a rocket burning its way through the Earth's atmosphere.
Which is not to say they crashed and burned: on the contrary, their path along the work's exhilarating emotional trajectory was superbly judged. The first movement's lightly ricocheting figures had a fleetness and joy that reminded me why the piece remains one of Adams's most successful, while the penultimate movement's great rollicking climax brought a sense of deep terror, flecked with knuckle-whitening exhilaration, such as I've never heard in the work before.
The Buskaid Soweto Strings Project bring to their live performances the wonder of music infused with the passions of those who play for their very lives, writes Candace Allen.
The 2007 Proms season is bannered for those intrigued by the notion of Western classical music beyond its familiar environs. On 19 August the combination of musical expertise emblazoned by Latin American fire and effervescent joy served up by Venezuelas Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra sowed the seeds of UK involvement in the global phenomenon that is the El Sistema approach to individual and community development via classical music instruction.
But one month before the SBYO blew the collective minds of all assembled, the Albert Hall had hosted an equally potent - if somewhat quieter - revolution when the Buskaid String Ensemble, the performing arm of the Buskaid Soweto String Project, injected the urgent punch of township kwela music into the lilt of Jean-Philippe Rameau in a joint concert with John Eliot Gardiners English Baroque Soloists. String players doubling as dancers integrated the polyrhythms of isicathulo, the miners gumboot dance, into the contre-dances of Rameaus Les Boreades. African djembe drums upon which the player sits replaced timpani. North with South, black with white. Eighteenth-century court divertissement with 21st-century protest percussion from a youthful ensemble then celebrating its 10th year of life and it, too, was a glorious revelation to all who witnessed it.
Harrison Birtwistle is 80 today. To celebrate, here are five pieces to celebrate his music, and to introduce you to his unique, elemental soundworld.
Happy birthday Harry! Harrison Birtwistle is 80 today. To celebrate yet another milestone in this essential composers transition from enfant terrible to rather older enfant terrible who is still capable, brilliantly, of offending, surprising and shocking the establishment of which he is a magnificently grudging part, I want to introduce you, through the magic of t internet, to a birthday bouquet of Birtwistlean delights, music that will thrill you, that may confound you, but which definitely introduce you to a musical force of nature that has the power to reshape how you hear and think about the world around you and its music.
In the first of 10 symphony guides to coincide with performances at this year's Proms, Tom Service looks at the triumphs, tragedies and controversies of Mahler's Sixth Symphony.
Mahlers A-minor Sixth Symphony is a mythical piece. Mahler may or may not have subtitled it Tragic at some stage of its composition, and it could, possibly, contain music that consecrates and depicts his wife Alma. It may be the first nihilist work in the history of music, as conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler described it. Conductor and friend of Mahlers Bruno Walter found the piece too expressively dark for him to conduct, since it ends in hopelessness and the dark night of the soul. Most significantly, its a work you are always told is dangerously, prophetically autobiographical, above all in its final fourth movement, that half-hour-long hallucinogenic, emotional nightmare-scape. When he revised the piece in 1906, Mahler deleted the third of the movements hammer-blows a literal thumping of a gigantic box with a wooden sledge-hammer, as you can see in the Vienna Philharmonic's performance! supposedly because he was trying to avoid a three-fold jinx of fate. His revisions were futile the next year in 1907, Mahler had to cope with the death of his daughter, the end of his relationship with the Vienna State Opera, and the diagnosis of the fatal heart condition that would kill him four years later.
Most notoriously of all, this work we are always told is the symphony that its composer couldnt make up his mind in which order to place the movements, whether the scherzo or slow movement should come second. The piece was initially published in one order, but first performed, with Mahler himself conducting, in another. The result has been confusion and consternation for conductors and for listeners about the meaning, structure, and function of the Sixth.
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