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Classical music | The Guardian
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Why do politicians love the Ring cycle? Perhaps because it’s about the intimate relationship between love and power.

For as long as I can remember, politicians and my fellow political journalists have been conspicuously drawn to the astounding works of Richard Wagner. Many composers address political themes and confront the timeless dilemmas of political life. But none has the gravitational pull of the Wagnerian planet.

George Osborne and Michael Gove are passionate Wagnerites, as is Michael Portillo. So, indeed, was the late Frank Johnson – like me, a past Editor of The Spectator. My Guardian colleague, the brilliant political columnist Martin Kettle, travels far and wide to experience the best productions. Jim Naughtie, Paul Mason … the list goes on.

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7 days ago | |
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(Deutsche Grammophon)

One of the more unexpected tributes to Shakespeare on the 400th anniversary of his death is provided here by actor William Shatner, who hams up Sonnet 129 before soprano Anna Prohaska trills the poem to a nouveaux-classical accompaniment. Take All My Loves is an uneasy marriage of classical and pop, on which the sonnets are often overwhelmed by Wainwright’s extravagantly theatrical arrangements. It has come to something when Florence Welch, who sings the waltz-time When in Disgrace With Fortune and Men’s Eyes (Sonnet 29), is called upon to provide nuance and subtlety. Wainwright’s many guest stars include his sister Martha, who pops up on Unperfect Actor (Sonnet 23), while Shatner’s fellow thesps Siân Phillips, Helena Bonham Carter, Carrie Fisher and Peter Eyre also provide spoken word recitals. Bewilderingly, Sonnet 66 is translated into German (the genesis of the project was Wainwright’s collaboration with the Berliner Ensemble) and sounds like a Brecht/Weill composition.

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8 days ago | |
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Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Mariss Jansons
(RCO)

Prokofiev composed his Fifth Symphony in an artists’ retreat north of Moscow during the summer of 1944, while Soviet troops pushed west toward Berlin. He said he wanted the music to “sing of mankind free and happy” and in this performance, recorded live in Amsterdam in 2014, Mariss Jansons treats the score with a deep, exalted sort of heroism that speaks beyond any immediate politics of the piece.

We get beautiful playing from the great Dutch orchestra: lines unfolding graciously with that majestic Concertgebouw sound, which glowers and glows from the bottom up and in which Jansons takes plenty of time to wallow. Tempos are august but never drag, so long as you sit back and accept the pacing. There’s a grandeur to the architecture centring around a third movement that plays out like a noble collective confessional. Don’t expect quick thrills or biting wit; this is a Prokofiev Five built on gravitas and reflection, and for that it is glorious.

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8 days ago | |
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Royal Festival Hall, London
In a programme exploring the influence of the exotic, pianist Javier Perianes shone in Saint-Saëns, Jurowksi and the PO brought drama and poise to works by Dukas, Debussy and Honegger

Vladimir Jurowski’s programme with the London Philharmonic explored the influence of the exotic on composers around the turn of the 20th century. The centrepiece, and the evening’s high point, was Saint-Saëns’s Fifth Piano Concerto, inspired by a trip down the Nile in 1896 and nicknamed “The Egyptian”, though the score, which is among Saint-Saëns’ finest, also glances at Spain and embraces Javanese gamelan music, which the composer heard at the Paris Exposition of 1889.

Related: Facing the music: Javier Perianes

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8 days ago | |
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Montreal Symphony Orchestra/Nagano/Dumay
(Onyx)

There’s a thing that some classical musicians do when they see a folk tune, and French violinist Augustin Dumay does it here. Bartók marked the opening of his Second Violin Concerto “tempo di verbunkos”, which refers to a fiery Hungarian gypsy dance. The music needs big spirit, absolutely, but it doesn’t need to shout, and what I missed from this performance was a sense of mystique and storytelling and swing. There’s loads of swarthy vibrato in Dumay’s solo lines, as if a gypsy singer would only declaim her song in capital letters – but that sounds at odds with the rather placid backdrop set up by Kent Nagano. I wanted instant enchantment from those dispassionate harps at the start.

The Concerto for Orchestra gets an upright and straight ahead performance, flecked with the string suppleness and woodwind finesse of mighty Montreal recordings of yore. Incidentally, Emmanuel Krivine and the Luxembourg Phil released the same Bartók pairing last year with less orchestral heft but more personality.

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8 days ago | |
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Danish String Quartet
(ECM)

Among all the dauntingly good young string quartets currently doing the rounds, the Danish String Quartet stand out: not because they’re shinier or plusher or pushier than the rest, but because of their nimble charisma, stylish repertoire and the way their light and grainy shading can turn on a dime.

Their last album was a set of winsome Nordic folk tunes; now comes this classy ECM debut with three bold early works by contemporary composers. Hans Abrahamsen described the exploded landscapes of his 10 Preludes as “short stories”; Thomas Adès called his Arcadiana “images associated with ideas of the idyll”, while Per Nørgard’s Quartetto Breve is seven handsomely sculpted minutes of almost-tonality. It’s an exacting programme requiring grace, grit and clarity and the Danish players sound terrific – lithe and glassy in the Abrahamsen, richer in the Nørgard, able to capture the picturesque watery shimmer of the Adès but also the slime and murk below the surface. It’s a sophisticated performance.

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8 days ago | |
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Queyras/Faust/Melnikov/Freiburg Baroque O/Heras-Casado
(Harmonia Mundi)

Recording schemes that might seem inspired in theory sometimes come unstuck in practice. The idea of Isabelle Faust, Jean-Guihen Queyras and Alexander Melnikov recording Schumann’s three piano trios and pairing them with his concertos for violin, cello and piano, all performed on instruments of the mid-19th century, certainly promised well, but the results have been distinctly uneven.

This final disc, though, is easily the most convincing of the set. Queyras gives an intimately conversational account of the Cello Concerto, never turning it into a virtuoso vehicle for its own sake, and persuades the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra under Pablo Heras-Casado to give him equally gentle, refined support. In the D minor Trio, both his and Faust’s supplely expressive phrasing goes a long way towards mitigating Melnikov’s tendency to over-assertiveness, too, though the pianist’s playing is by no means one-dimensional and he conjures some delicate, silvery sonorities from the 1847 Streicher instrument that he has used throughout the series.

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8 days ago | |
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The Queen is celebrating her 90th with music from Andrea Bocelli, Alfie Boe and Katherine Jenkins. With what music have kings, queens and commoners past celebrated their birthdays?

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8 days ago | |
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Friday 22 April is the centenary of Yehudi Menuhin’s birth. His biographer has compiled for us a list of 100 facts about the great musician and his musical legacy.

1. Yehudi Menuhin, born in New York City on April 22, 1916, was a US violinist, later also a conductor, teacher, impresario and supporter of human rights.
2. For the first 22 years of his life, his father falsified his birth date by nine months, presumably with the intention of making him seem even younger and thus even more of a prodigy.
3. Menuhin also had a Swiss passport, linked to his family’s 40 year residence in Gstaad.
4. In his late 60s Menuhin was also granted UK citizenship which enabled him to become Sir Yehudi. (He had been made an honorary KBE in 1965.) In 1993 he was named a life peer and took the title Lord Menuhin of Stoke d’Abernon, thus honouring the Surrey village where his international school for young musicians is situated.
5. His parents Moshe and Marutha were both born in Czarist Russia and came to the US separately after spending their childhoods in Palestine.
6. When he was four Yehudi was given a cheap violin made of tin but smashed the toy to the ground when he couldn’t make a beautiful sound on it.
7. His grandmother in Palestine sent sufficient cash for his father to buy an automobile for the family (a Chevrolet) and a real violin for Yehudi.
8. He and his sisters Hephzibah and Yaltah were educated at home by their parents and tutors. The girls, four and five years younger respectively, were both fine pianists, prompting a French professor to the observation that Mrs Menuhin’s womb was “a veritable conservatoire”.

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8 days ago | |
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Bockstal/Vranckx/Royal Flemish PO/De Waart/Brabbins
(Royal Flemish Philharmonic)

Pierre Boulez once dismissed his teacher Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony as “bordello music”. His withering description came back to me on a first encounter with this collection of Wim Henderickx’s recent orchestral works, played by the Royal Flemish Philharmonic, where he has been artist-in-residence for 20 years. It’s not just that some of the gestures in Henderickx’s At the Edge of the World, his first symphony, completed in 2011, unmistakably echo Turangalîla; more the sense that it’s music of easy virtue, happy to be taken for whatever anyone wants it to be.

At his best, though, he can powerfully effective. Born in Belgium in 1962, Henderickx was part of that generation of European composers who learnt their craft without having to worry about conforming to a prevailing musical dogma, and who felt able to incorporate whatever they wanted into their own musical worlds. Though Henderickx cites the usual 20th-century modernists among his influences, the extra ingredients that give his music its rich stylistic variety have tended to come from outside the western tradition – from Indonesian gamelan, Indian ragas, west African drumming and so on.

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9 days ago | |
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