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Classical music | The Guardian
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The veteran Russian pianist and conductor defends our common European culture

Vladimir Ashkenazy, one of the most revered figures in classical music, has called on musicians to strive to keep up British links with Europe in the face of Brexit. The great Russian conductor and pianist, who made his name as a soloist in the 1960s and 70s, spoke passionately to the Observer about his continued faith in European culture.

“Music will win in the end,” he said, speaking publicly on the subject for the first time. “After all, music is not just an exercise in making sounds. It is a reflection of our joint spiritual endeavours.”

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10 days ago | |
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Charlotte Bray’s new work incorporating Shostakovich and Schumann tops the list, while Laurence Cummings conducts Handel’s 1738 opera

Framed by Schumann’s Piano Quartet and Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet, Charlotte Bray’s new work is the centrepiece of the Schubert Ensemble’s programme. Each of the three movements of Zustände is inspired by a different form of ice, all photographed by Bray on a recent trip to Greenland.

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11 days ago | |
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After musical dramas featuring a serial killer and a notorious libertine, the actor returns to the stage as a tyrant. He talks about playing sociopaths and why he gave up voting

According to the cult film Being John Malkovich, the actor’s consciousness can be accessed via a portal hidden behind a filing cabinet in a Manhattan office. Meeting him in a restaurant behind the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, I mention that I still possess one of the promotional facemasks that were given out when the film was released in 1999. For years, Malkovich’s cardboard countenance hung in a corner of the spare room, until we took it down because it was freaking our visitors out.

“I don’t blame you,” he says politely, with the slightly fey, sing-song inflection that sounds so disconcerting when it emanates from the mouths of the seducers, murderers and psychopaths he is so good at portraying. “I would do the same.”

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11 days ago | |
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Duch/Tilbury/Davies
(+3DB)

In October 1981, the composer/Maoist activist Cornelius Cardew was evicted from the House of Commons gallery for shouting, during a speech by Enoch Powell, “this house stinks of racism”. He was killed in a hit-and-run two months later; who knows what mischief he would be making in our alarming times, but his music and its social message feel as pertinent as ever. Pianist John Tilbury worked with him a great deal and wrote an astute 1,000-page biography – nobody plays Cardew with more wit and empathy. Now Tilbury, harpist Rhodri Davies and bassist Michael Francis Duch have added a second disc to their excellent Cardew album, Works 1960-1970, comprising seven exploratory Schooltime Compositions. These pieces from 1967 were designed to rouse feelings of collective action and learning. They’re more about process than product, but this recording has both, delivered with abundant imagination and care.

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12 days ago | |
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Royal Academy of Music/Knussen
(Linn)

There’s an American tradition of asking venerable composers to take the speaking roles in Stravinsky’s 1918 Faustian music-theatre fable The Soldier’s Tale. Babbitt and Carter did it as nonagenarians; Copland played Narrator to the Devils of John Cage and Virgil Thomson. The custom is honoured here with Oliver Knussen conducting Harrison Birtwistle as a superbly laconic Soldier – it sounds as though he couldn’t care less when his luck is down; the despondency is glorious – and George Benjamin makes a deliciously supercilious Devil. The contrast is bizarre and joyous, perhaps tinged with a darker message akin to Yeats’s The Second Coming. Harriet Walter narrates adeptly; the playing of the Royal Academy’s Manson Ensemble is taut, fearless and detailed. In typical Knussen programming, the rest of the disc is a web of composers commemorating each other in tender miniatures, including the tributes to Stravinsky by Peter Maxwell Davies and Birtwistle.

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12 days ago | |
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West-Eastern Divan Orchestra/Barenboim/Boulez
(Deutsche Grammophon)

Since Pierre Boulez’s death at the beginning of 2016, Daniel Barenboim’s tribute to his friend and musical collaborator for more than half a century has been heartfelt and wide-ranging. Two weeks ago, the Pierre Boulez Saal, the chamber-music hall designed by Frank Gehry for the Barenboim-Said Akademie, was inaugurated in Berlin, with the first concert by the newly formed Boulez Ensemble, and this album of Boulez’s music has been released to coincide with the opening. The three works on the first disc – dominated by a fabulously lucid account of the tangled, challenging Dérive 2, for 11 instruments – are from the 2012 Proms in London, while the second disc includes recordings from the Berlin Staatsoper in 2010.

There’s Messagesquisses, for solo cello and six other cellos, and Anthèmes 2 for violin and live electronics, played by Michael Barenboim, thus echoing his recent solo disc, but the main work is Le Marteau Sans Maître, conducted by Boulez himself with Hilary Summers as the contralto soloist. By my reckoning, this is Boulez’s fifth recording of the work that defines his own music better than any other; it’s perhaps more expressively flexible than earlier ones, but just as precise, and Summers makes a compelling soloist.

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12 days ago | |
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Apartment House/Quatuor Bozzini
(Another Timbre)

“The experiment is always about whether something will hold,” says Toronto-based US composer Linda Catlin Smith, whose music tests how sounds can be longer or shorter, thicker or thinner, higher or lower, more distant or more intimate. The results are beautiful: poised and thoughtful, never forced. Often the music is soft but tactile – Catlin Smith lets us sit with the texture of the sounds, like feeling fabric between the fingers. This album of chamber music from the past two decades follows last year’s Dirt Road, also on Another Timbre. Drifter features Montreal’s Quatuor Bozzini playing the lilting Gondola, the Turner-inspired Folkestone and the Piano Quintet with Philip Thomas in graceful form; members of the ensemble Apartment House bring lonely elegance to Cantilena for viola and vibraphone and to the lissom title track for piano and guitar.

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12 days ago | |
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Royal Festival Hall, London
The London Philharmonic and Synergy Vocals made a strong, evocative impression with works by Steve Reich and Gavin Bryars

Like belief itself, it seems that the Southbank Centre’s year-long Belief and Beyond Belief festival can justify almost anything. Here, the label was attached to a concert by members of the London Philharmonic that included one of the greatest achievements of pure, entirely abstract minimalism, Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians.

It’s a piece that used to be the exclusive preserve of bespoke ensembles, following the template laid down by Reich’s own performances. But here, 14 LPO instrumentalists, together with the four members of Synergy Vocals, showed that it could become the repertory work it deserves to be. This was a performance of tremendous concentration and sustained energy, even if didn’t have quite the savage precision that specialist groups bring to it.

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12 days ago | |
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Coliseum, London
Despite the culottes and mustachios, ENO’s revival of its 2008 production retains enough substance to back up its arch styling

This is a welcome return to English National Opera for its 2008 production of Partenope – a reminder, while the company struggles to define its identity, that it can still be a home of stylish Handel opera.

And it is the style that matters in this production. The story itself is slight, and Christopher Alden’s staging doesn’t try to pretend otherwise; but this quasi-mythical tale of a threatened queen and her confused and confusing lineup of suitors doesn’t need to be set literally on a battlefield for its points about attraction, possessiveness and jealousy to strike home. Instead, we are in the sleek 1920s residence of Partenope the society hostess, around whose flame flap five moths in the form of her spiffing suitors, including Emilio, her antagonist, who is not an invading prince but a Man Ray-style photographer who slouches in unannounced.

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12 days ago | |
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Photographer Sarah Lee was granted unique access to the preparations for Sergei Polunin’s new triple bill, an ambitious collaboration with Ilan Eshkeri and David LaChapelle featuring Natalia Osipova

Project Polunin is a new initiative spearheaded by the maverick Ukrainian dancer Sergei Polunin in order to collaborate with contemporary artists, musicians and choreographers. At Sadler’s Wells in London this week he is presenting a triple bill of modern and classical pieces comprising the UK premiere of Vladimir Vasiliev’s Icarus; Tea or Coffee, choreographed by Andrey Kaydanovskiy; and the world premiere of Narcissus and Echo, co-created by Polunin, composer Ilan Eshkeri and the photographer and artist David LaChapelle.

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13 days ago | |
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