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Classical music | The Guardian
Latest classical music news, reviews, comment and analysis from the Guardian
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The German port has a new concert hall. London may have a garden bridge. Hull, city of culture, fights for resources

Fertig” announced the lighting on the glass walls of Hamburg’s astonishing new concert hall when the keys were finally handed over. Done, ready, finished, six years late and, at €789m, 10 times over budget, the Elbphilharmonie – one of Europe’s biggest ever regeneration-through-cultural-renewal projects – formally opened today.

It has overcome some seemingly insuperable obstacles. One of Hamburg’s most famous sons, the late chancellor Helmut Schmidt, once said the project reminded him of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s desire to make “as big an impression as possible”. It nearly broke its Swiss architects, Herzog and De Meuron; its developer’s initial ambition to underwrite the costs with apartments and a hotel turned out to be an unrealistic dream. But now, after disputes, lawsuits and a row over its €291.97 toilet brushes, Hamburg has a dazzling new concert hall and, reflecting the city’s large refugee population, a programme that includes a celebration of Syrian culture.

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8 days ago | |
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Fleming/Royal Stockholm PO/Oramo
(Decca)

Renée Fleming gave the first performance of the song cycle that Anders Hillborg wrote for her in New York in 2013, and brought it to London as part of her Barbican residency last year. The “Strand” of these Strand Settings is Canadian-US poet Mark Strand, and the cycle uses five of his texts, with the 2006 poem Black Sea serving as a prelude to three sections of his book-length Dark Harbor, published in 1993.

The poems generally inhabit nocturnal worlds, and concern themselves with loss and dreams and unfulfilled expectations. Hillborg often presents them in a recitative-like way, so that Fleming’s voice floats over subtly tinted cushions of more or less static orchestral chords. It’s only really in the third of the four songs that he allows himself more freedom in his orchestral writing, and the wilder textures that are more typical of his orchestral music assert themselves. But as a vehicle for the soaring purity of Fleming’s voice, and as an evocation of Strand’s very finely etched sensibility, Hillborg’s settings are genuinely beautiful and their cumulative effect is powerful. The four songs never stray far from tonality, but only really settle unambiguously into a key at the end of the final one, when an E flat major triad seems to symbolise the safe harbour for which Strand’s poems apparently yearn.

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8 days ago | |
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Wigmore Hall, London
The Barcelona-based string quartet brought momentum and surprises to Mozart’s ‘Haydn’ quartets

Mozart’s great half-dozen string quartets dedicated to Haydn were spread over two concerts by the Barcelona-based Cuarteto Casals. If the second was occasionally infuriating, it was genuinely refreshing, too.

From the ringing opening of K458 through to the hurtling close of the Dissonance quartet, K465, there was the sense that the players had polished the pivotal moments until they shone, but had kept passages in between free to be interpreted by each individual. It was mainly first violinist Abel Tomàs who threw out the surprises, one moment shaping melodies with impeccable poise, the next seemingly experimenting – a soupy slide here, an extreme contrast of vibrato and non-vibrato there. In the central section of the encore, the scherzo from Haydn’s Op 33 No 2, Tomàs made a woozy slide a feature of each and every bar.

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10 days ago | |
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From Schubert to Mahler, and Kurtág to the Dead Kennedys, the Greek-Russian conductor reveals his musical inspirations

Vinyl or digital?

Vinyl. Definitely.

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10 days ago | |
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Did deafness liberate him? Was his African ancestry suppressed? Did he write a musical communist manifesto? A new show in Paris revels in – and debunks – the many myths surrounding Beethoven

In the summer of 1812, Goethe and Beethoven were walking arm in arm through the streets of the Bohemian spa resort of Teplitz when their path was blocked by a gaggle of oncoming dukes and duchesses. “They must make way for us, not the other way around,” composer told poet. But Goethe, 21 years his senior and a seasoned courtier, removed his hat, stepped aside and bowed. “I have waited for you,” said Beethoven when Goethe finally caught up, “because I respect you and I admire your work, but you have shown too much esteem to those people.” For Beethoven, the only true royalty were artists.

The incident was described 20 years later by the writer Bettina von Arnim, a friend of both. Her account inspired Carl Rohling’s 1887 painting The Incident at Teplitz. On the left is Goethe, hand on heart, bowing deeply. In the foreground is Beethoven, barrelling towards us grumpily. The image dramatises various positions: age hobbled by compromise; youth fearlessly challenging old values; the artist as proto-hipster at odds with society and civility.

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10 days ago | |
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Barbican, London
Edward Gardner dug deeper into Janácek, while violinist Tasmin Little explored the languid lyricism of Szymanowski

In the concert hall and on disc Edward Gardner has been working his way through Janácek’s orchestral works, and his latest concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, which focused on music from central Europe, was framed by two of them. The miniature tone poem Jealousy was originally intended as the overture to the opera Jenufa, but works well as a fierce concert opener; meanwhile, the rhapsody Taras Bulba may not have very explicit programmatic connections with the Gogol short story that inspired it, but it’s unmistakably mature Janácek, terse and economical, with not a note wasted.

The thrilling feistiness that Gardner and the BBCSO brought to both pieces seemed to carry over into the pair of tone poems from Smetana’s cycle Ma Vlast, too – Vltava was a distinctly turbulent river portrait, while Šárka never relaxed its dramatic grip. Szymanowski’s Second Violin Concerto was more relaxed, with generous orchestral cushions for Tasmin Little’s solo playing, which made as much of the languid low-register lyricism as it did of the forays into the highest reaches of the violin’s range.

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11 days ago | |
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Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Under John Wilson’s precise control, the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain brought its massive forces to bear on Szymanowski and Rachmaninov

One thing that concerts by the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain unfailingly deliver is a big sound. More than 150 young instrumentalists were assembled on stage for the orchestra’s latest programme, which was conducted by John Wilson, and as usual they offered a thrilling display of teenage talent. But, while it’s easy to understand why NYOGB is always keen to give as many as possible of the musicians it auditions the chance to appear in its concerts, whether such massive forces suit everything the orchestra plays is another matter.

In some works such a weight of focused sound can be genuinely exciting. But neither Szymanowski’s Fourth Symphony, his Symphonie Concertante for piano and orchestra, nor Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony really needs the seven-fold woodwind that lined up for it here.

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11 days ago | |
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The actor on filming Fortitude, Culture Club comebacks and haute cuisine in Iceland

Leicester-born Parminder Nagra got her breakthrough alongside Keira Knightley in the 2002 comedy film Bend It Like Beckham. She started her career in the theatre and branched out into television and radio in the mid-1990s. In 2003, she moved to Los Angeles to star in the long-running NBC series ER, playing the reticent Dr Neela Rasgotra for six seasons until 2009. She went on to play another doctor, Lucy Banerjee, in the sci-fi series Alcatraz and appeared in the first season of NBC’s The Blacklist in 2013. Nagra, who still lives in Los Angeles, has now joined the cast of the Arctic-bound crime drama Fortitude for its second season, which starts on Sky Atlantic at 9pm on Thursday 26 January.

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Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Arcangelo/Cohen
(Hyperion)

Director/harpsichordist Jonathan Cohen and his elite period ensemble Arcangelo have shaped this engrossing disc, of three Bach cantatas and two instrumental Sinfonias, around the British countertenor Iestyn Davies. Two of the cantatas (BWV 170, Vergnügte Ruh’, beliebte Seelenlust, with its tender, lullaby-like opening, and BWV 54, Widerstehe doch der Sünde, a spicy, energetic challenge to the devil and all his works) were written for alto voice. The best known of the three, BWV 82, Ich habe genug, was originally for bass voice, reworked for soprano. Davies’s singular gifts of open-hearted expression, reined in to perfection and with no excess or indulgence, are expertly balanced by Arcangelo’s prominent solo musicians. Early in the year, a favourite disc already.

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11 days ago | |
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Doric String Quartet
(Chandos)

The feverish unease that pervades these late Schubert works, with their ambiguous shifts from major to minor, tremolo triplets and searing outbursts, is perfectly captured by the excellent Doric String Quartet in this latest in their series for Chandos. They attack the 1820 “Quartettsatz” in C minor with alarming intensity, flashing through its single movement with fiery determination, and maintain the same tension throughout the 50 minutes of the massive quartet in G major from 1826 (observing the often-cut repeat in the first movement). Their headlong rush through the dizzying key changes of the final allegro is a breathless treat. A standout recording of 2017 – and it’s still only January.

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11 days ago | |
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