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Classical music | The Guardian
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Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff
BBCNOW under Edwin Outwater explored the relationship between soloist and orchestra in works by Peteris Vasks and John Metcalf

Latvian Peteris Vasks and John Metcalf are this year celebrating their 70th birthdays and, together with octogenarian Steve Reich, they were featured composers in the Vale of Glamorgan festival. The final concert, given by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Edwin Outwater, put the focus on Vasks’ and Metcalf’s different approaches to works for soloist and orchestra, neither following the traditional path.

Vasks’ concerto for viola and string orchestra, premiered by Maxim Rysanov for whom it was conceived, represented the composer’s characteristically direct, modal, style. Tension was built, broken and rebuilt, the effect serene, with the viola’s searing tone verging on the ecstatic. Prevailingly slow across its four movements, the score was perhaps overlong as a result, but Rysanov’s grappling with the almost Bachian rigour and virtuosity of the two cadenzas commanded the attention, before the music’s return to a more meditative, hopeful vein.

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7 days ago | |
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From Joni Mitchell, Steve Reich, Svetlanov and Mackerras to John McEnroe and the Mr Men – the pianist on the people in his musical life, past and present

What was the first ever record you bought?

How embarrassing is this? I think it was the novelty song Chalk Dust –­ The Umpire Strikes Back by The Brat (AKA Roger Kitter). In my defence, I was 11 and a John McEnroe fan.

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8 days ago | |
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Barbican Hall, London
Joseph Phibbs morphs Bach into a witty tango under Oramo’s baton, with Vaughan Williams and Béla Bartók proving the Chorus’s power

Joseph Phibbs’s new work for the BBC Symphony Orchestra is called Partita – and yes, it has six movements whose names broadly fit with the old-style dance suite, perfected by JS Bach, that it’s named after. But those movements run together with only one break to form a substantial, 25-minute work. The whole thing feels more like a concerto for orchestra in the way it revels in the orchestra’s sonorities and gives solo instruments – clarinet, trumpet, cello, cor anglais – their moment in the sun.

The tugging string harmonies of the opening section, titled Notturno, give way to a scurrying Courante, lightly dispatched here by the BBCSO violins under the sure direction of Sakari Oramo. But it’s the Sarabande that follows on from this that finds Phibbs at his most distinctive: the stately old-style dance is made to morph into a kind of tango, punctuated by woody percussion, with an acerbic sound halfway between Britten-esque eeriness and a cabaret band. Under Oramo’s baton it sounded almost witty, and it certainly leavened the lushness and forcefulness found elsewhere in the work – but it was perhaps gone too soon.

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8 days ago | |
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Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
Mark Elder conducts an archaic oratorio about a Bohemian martyr for an exultant end to the Hallé’s Dvorák festival


In October 1886 the committee of the Leeds festival secured the services of Antonín Dvorák to present a major new choral work. What they asked for was a grand oratorio on a familiar Biblical theme. What they got was an arcane, three-part study of the development of Christianity in ninth century Bohemia.

Nonetheless the people of Leeds seemed to like it. “They were so enthusiastic, in that truly English way” Dvorák reported to a correspondent. Yet those initial waves of enthusiasm subsided into deafening silence. The last significant performance heard in Britain was given by Jirí Belohlávek at the Edinburgh Festival 14 years ago. Mark Elder does not believe that the piece has been performed by the Hallé since it was presented a month after the Leeds premiere.

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8 days ago | |
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Coliseum; St John’s Smith Square, London
ENO’s Madam Butterfly looks stunning, but what are they singing? As the company enters a new phase, there’s work to be done

Hard though it is to measure impressions, the mood seemed brighter at English National Opera last week – and it has been fairly morgue-like of late – before curtain-up on Puccini’s Madam Butterfly. The previous evening at the Savoy theatre, ENO’s chorus, whose work has continued to dazzle despite months of darkness over its future, won its category in the fourth International Opera awards, outsinging choruses from the New York Met, Berlin and elsewhere. The cheers at the announcement were loud and unanimous. (Having once sat on the judging panel for the IOA, headed by a tough bunch of international opera cognoscenti who have seen all and been everywhere, one thing is sure: the discussion would not have been a kindly “who deserves to win?” but a ruthless “who is best?”).

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9 days ago | |
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Sebastian Bohren (violin), Chaarts Chamber Artists
(RCA Red Seal)

Youth to the fore here, with the stylish Sebastian Bohren giving a silky account of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, accompanied by the conductorless Chaarts Chamber Artists, founded by former members of the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra in 2010 and since embellished by instrumentalists from leading orchestras and chamber ensembles. Their deliciously forthright reading of the Beethoven makes the Schumann Phantasie for violin and orchestra in C Major feel a bit thin in comparison, but Bohren and the players sparkle in Jean Jean Françaix’s Nonetto from 1995, an arrangement of Mozart’s E flat major quintet, K452. Françaix takes the piano part and redistributes it for string quartet and double bass, while retaining the wind parts of the original. The result is refreshingly rich in colour and nuance. Recommended.

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9 days ago | |
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John Williams (guitar)
(Sony) (2 CDs)

John Williams has been a five-star artist for me since I heard him play the massive Bach D minor Chaconne on the guitar with total mastery, 40 years ago. The celebrations of Williams’s 75th birthday have had us nostalgically recalling the optimistic time when through his advocacy classical music was everywhere, feeding into film scores, and a natural part of light entertainment television. This soft-edged compilation gathers his biggest film hits from The Deer Hunter, The Mission and Schindler’s List, but they are woven in with brilliant arrangements of Falla, Albeniz, Satie and Bach – the E major Violin Partita’s Prelude, done with exquisite good taste. A true master.

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9 days ago | |
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Takács Quartet, Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
(Hyperion)

Of all the music César Franck wrote, four works made his name: the Symphonic Variations, the Violin Sonata, the Symphony in D minor and this Piano Quintet. The quintet (1879) shares that same big, romantic sound and emotional intensity of the violin sonata, beautifully brought out here by Marc-André Hamelin and the Takács in a stirring, virtuosic recording - an ideal way to encounter a still unfamiliar work. This is, however, a CD of two uneven parts: there’s no questioning the Takács’s ability to play the Debussy String Quartet wonderfully. Something less corporeal, a little more elusive and vaporous, would have made it even better.

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9 days ago | |
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Exciting, innovative concerts abound this season – and not just at established giants such as Edinburgh and the Proms

The opera festival celebrates Shakespeare400 with a new production of Berlioz rarity Béatrice et Bénédict and a return of Peter Hall’s glorious vision of Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. David McVicar’s acclaimed 2011 production of Wagner’s epic Die Meistersinger kicks off the season in grand style. Three of this year’s offerings (two live, one prerecorded) will be screened in cinemas and streamed online. East Sussex

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10 days ago | |
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Kane’s final play is being adapted for the first time, 17 years after she killed herself. Composer Philip Venables talks about the rare musical quality of her work

Before her death in 1999, aged just 28, the playwright Sarah Kane had made it known that she did not want her work to be adapted into other mediums. So when composer Philip Venables approached her estate with a view to writing an opera version of her last play, 4.48 Psychosis, for a joint project between the Royal Opera House and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, he says it was more in a sense of hope than expectation.

“We thought it was unlikely we would get the rights to adapt it, because so many requests had been turned down in the past,” he says. “But our timing was good. While Kane did say she didn’t want any adaptations, she also said she didn’t want her work to become museum pieces. Really, those requests are contradictory, and after 15 years her estate was looking to open up the work to a dialogue with the contemporary. I think our production is therefore a bit of a test case, they are dipping their toe into the water.”

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10 days ago | |
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