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Warsaw Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra/Slowinski
(EDA)

Who holds the deeds to cultural identity? What constitutes a “national school”? Can composers fit these nebulous categories even from afar? That’s the line of inquiry behind EDA’s series on mid-20th century Polish diaspora composers whose music often fell between the gaps. Jerzy Fitelberg fled Warsaw to New York via Berlin, Paris and Buenos Aires; Tadeusz Zygfryd Kassern survived the Warsaw Uprising to become a UN cultural attaché, while Michal Spisak moved to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger and never went home.

Despite dating from the 1940s, two of the works on this disc were premieres when recorded live in 2011. And though they aren’t masterpieces, they are worth hearing: the impish neoclassical spark in Kassern’s Concerto for strings, the tuneful urgency in Spisak’s Concertino, the bright-eyed modernity in Fitelberg’s Concerto for trombone and piano — think Prokofiev at his sunniest. The Warsaw orchestra under Christoph Slowinski is spirited, a tad rough-edged and clearly invested in bringing this repertoire back to life.

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Stefan Hussong/Wu Wei
(Wergo)

Two3 is one of the chance-determined Number Pieces that Cage wrote at the end of his life. It was originally for water-filled conch shells and an ancient Japanese mouth organ called the sho, but Wu Wei and Stefan Hussong have gone a little off script here: Wei substitutes the sho for an even older Chinese mouth organ called the sheng, while Hussong adds accordion to his conch shells, with the idea that its metal reeds make it sonically sympathetic as a younger member of the sho-sheng family. Often it’s hard to tell which instrument is playing what, but it doesn’t particularly matter; the effect of the performance is fluid, airy and virtuosically unhurried. Chords drift in and out as weightless as a Calder mobile, constantly reframing the space around them, and 30 seconds of silence can pass without any sense of alarm. There are tiny storms of tension and release, but the Zen acceptance that underpins Cage’s late works is what really lingers.

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Blacher/Gürzenich Orchestra Köln/Stenz
(Oehms)

Markus Stenz’s recording of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, taken from his final concerts as the Gürzenich Orchestra’s music director, appeared last month on Hyperion. These studio recordings of Schoenberg’s first orchestral work, the symphonic poem Pelleas und Melisande and the Violin Concerto, the first he completed after emigrating to the US, underline Stenz’s credential as a conductor of the Second Viennese School. He’s equally at home in the romantic sweep of Pelleas as he is in the much more ambiguous world of the concerto, with its tensions between tradition and innovation, serialism and tonality, while never allowing the former to become too indulgent nor the latter to seem too dry and calculated. Kolja Blacher’s account of the solo part in the concerto doesn’t quite have the same intensity as Hilary Hahn generates on her Sony recording with Esa-Pekka Salonen, just as Stenz’s account of Pelleas isn’t quite as luxuriant as Herbert von Karajan’s famous Deutsche Grammophon recording, but together the two works make an attractive package.

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It’s all far from going Pete Tong as John Whittingdale gives thumbs up to club-themed classical special

Monkey knows John Whittingdale is heavy metal fan known to sing karaoke versions of Smoke on the Water and Bat out of Hell. But the culture secretary showed his musical tastes range far wider when he tweeted in appreciation of Wednesday night’s BBC Radio 1 Prom.

This is stunning! Insomnia at the #R1Ibiza20 proms. https://t.co/Qj0rpQ0uxh

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Many stamina-testing, technically demanding musical marathons could really work at the Royal Albert Hall. Here are five contenders – what would you choose?

Tuesday’s mammoth Proms concert saw all five of Prokofiev’s performed in a single night. The London Symphony Orchestra’s three-soloist, five-work, single-evening marathon has made me wonder about the other stamina-testing and virtuosity-pushing live box-sets we could dream up and put on at the Royal Albert Hall. The obvious ones are Beethoven’s nine symphonies in a single day, and Wagner’s Ring Cycle in 24 hours, but those have both been done (although never at the Proms in such a short space of time) and are mere foothills compared to the mountain ranges of potential musical cycles out there. Classical music completists of the world, unite!

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How this very English view of the apocalypse communicates to the player through music, sound and song

Silence is rare in Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture – which is strange because everybody is dead.

This elegiac adventure game, set in a rural area of Shropshire, imagines the end of humanity coming, not as a nuclear bang, but as a soft, almost seductive whimper. The player finds themselves in an abandoned village shortly after a devastating event of some kind, and by exploring the buildings, pathways and woodlands, must try to piece together what has happened.

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John Adams’s Grand Pianola Music succeeds in its referencing of Beethoven’s cascading arpeggios, but the Absolute Jest is limited by the shards of scherzos

It was moving out west in the early 1970s, swapping what he saw as the buttoned-up musical culture of Boston and New York for the much more open-minded artistic atmosphere of California, that liberated John Adams as a composer. It meant exchanging academic serialism for the freewheeling approach of John Cage and his followers, and set him on the musical path that he has followed ever since. The orchestra of what became Adams’ home town played a hugely important part in the early stages of that journey; between 1978 and 1985 Adams was respectively the San Francisco Symphony’s (SFS) new-music adviser and then its composer in residence, and his earliest orchestral works were all introduced and first recorded by them.

So there’s a nice symmetry in pairing one of those pieces with Adams’s most recent commission from the SFS. The orchestra gave the first performance of Grand Pianola Music in 1982, and of Absolute Jest 30 years later. What also links the two works is Beethoven. But where Grand Pianola Music’s references to the Emperor Concerto and its cascading arpeggios and celebrations of B flat and E flat major are only a starting point, the use of Beethoven’s music in Absolute Jest – the scherzos of the Op 131 and 135 quartets, Grosse Fuge, Ninth Symphony and Waldstein Sonata – seems both the raison d’etre and the limiting factor of the whole work.

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Hereford Cathedral
The Philharmonia’s Turangalîla under Jac van Steen, with Steven Osborne’s piano, had extraordinary impact: a tumult of sounds bouncing off stone pillars

Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie is not so obviously imbued with the Christianity of his later compositions, yet the composer saw the human love he celebrated within it as a reflection of divine love.

Related: Rufus Wainwright: Why I love composer Olivier Messiaen

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Royal Albert Hall, London
Daniil Trifonov, Sergei Babayan and Alexei Volodin’s treatments of all five works were fine individual achievements that made a less than ideal evening

Following immediately on from Leif Ove Andsnes’s remarkable Beethoven cycle, the Proms turned its attention to Prokofiev’s piano concertos, albeit according them very different treatment. Shared between three pianists, and with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev, all five were performed in chronological order in a single concert, which proved less than ideal, despite fine individual achievements.

The concertos are variable in quality. Except for the Fourth – for the left hand only, and commissioned in 1931 by the pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm as the result of a wartime injury – Prokofiev wrote them for himself as flamboyant showpieces. The atrociously difficult Second is arguably the greatest, the Third the most popular. The chronological approach meant that the introverted Fourth and flashy, aphoristic Fifth seemed anticlimactic. Many in the audience, drawn by the prospect of Daniil Trifonov playing the First and Third, left after the latter.

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He has played for eight presidents and jammed on Sesame Street. But Yo-Yo Ma is now facing his biggest challenge yet – a Bach marathon at the Proms

Something weird happens in Bach’s fifth suite for unaccompanied cello. The soloist, who has been bowing away for the past hour and 25 minutes on the previous four suites, tackling some of the most soulful and demanding music in the western classical canon, is suddenly confronted with a new challenge. And it’s still a good 40 minutes before he or she can get a well-deserved cup of tea.

“Bach decides he’s going to enrich the sound of the instrument by tuning it down, taking the A string down to a G,” explains cellist Yo-Yo Ma. “He’s saying, ‘If I do that, I can get more overtone, I can make the chords richer, make it more polyphonic.’ He’s trying to make a single-line instrument give the illusion of several voices.”

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7 days ago | |
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