Wigmore Hall, LondonBritten's 100th birthday celebration includes two new worthy commissions from Cheryl Frances-Hoad and Gwilym Simcock
Wigmore Hall celebrated the 100th anniversary of Benjamin Britten's birth with a programme of the composer's five canticles – a series of vocal pieces written between 1947 and 1974, each of them effectively a small cantata for one, two or three voices. In a worthwhile creative initiative, the venue and The Prince Consort also jointly commissioned two new works to intersperse between the canticles.
Cheryl Frances-Hoad and Gwilym Simcock, who composed the new pieces, each emulated Britten's technical skills in writing for particular combinations of voices with piano. Frances-Hoad's setting of Invoke Now the Angels, by the Jamaican poet Kei Miller, brought together three voices – those of the vibrant soprano Anna Leese, dramatic mezzo Jennifer Johnston and mellifluous countertenor Tim Mead – in a direct, if occasionally strident, response to Britten's first two canticles, the cutting edge of the vocal lines increased by their density and the bold gestures of the piano writing, here forcefully presented by Alisdair Hogarth.
Simcock's The Wayside Sermon, a setting of the once-popular US poet Mary Dow Brine, reunited Leese and Johnston in a harmonically richer, more lyrical duet, its immediacy exemplified in its initial bell-like pianistic sonorities.
With his contributions to the Britten works, tenor Nicholas Mulroy focused his acute interpretative gaze with particularly cogent results on the setting of Edith Sitwell's Still Falls the Rain (in which Nicolas Fleury provided the wide-ranging horn obbligato) and in the TS Eliot poem The Death of Saint Narcissus (with Tanya Houghton adeptly unfolding the intricate harp accompaniment). Baritone Mark Stone joined Mead and Mulroy for a world-weary account of a second Eliot canticle, Journey of the Magi – another of the night's highlights.
Wigmore Hall, LondonSchiff imbued The Well-Tempered Clavier's 24 preludes and fugues with a formidable sense of direction
Sixty next month, András Schiff is marking the event with six Bach recitals at the London hall in which his playing is so often heard at its best. As ever, Schiff seems to preside over his recitals with seriousness and yet a twinkle in the eye – and in his playing, too. And so it was in this first in the Bach series, in which Schiff, playing the Wigmore's house Steinway rather than the specially imported instruments he sometimes favours, explored the first 24 preludes and fugues of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier.
If nothing else, this recital was a formidable feat of concentration for both the soloist and a rapt audience. With the hall lights darkened, Schiff played from memory, without an interval, for nearly two hours. But neither the pianist's grasp nor the audience's concentration appeared to falter in what felt like a collective as much as a personal communing with Bach's systematic exploration of major and minor keys.
From the point of view of performance, however, Schiff's great achievement was to imbue the 24 preludes and fugues with an overall sense of direction which is not always heard, even when it is intellectually understood, in performances of the complete collection. Under Schiff's fingers there was, as there should be, a real sense of the 24 being a cycle, starting with deceptive lightness in C major before working its way to the hard-won insights of the closing B minor. On the journey to that great piece, there were the anticipated emotional high points, such as the severe, grief-laden E flat minor and B flat minor pairs, where the keyboard line is almost vocal in its eloquence and which Schiff played with spare solemnity. On every page, though, Schiff had a point to make, a light to shine, and a chord, a figuration or a piece of technique to illuminate and examine, yet never at the expense of the larger picture.
This review was corrected on 27/11/13 to make clear that the performance featured the first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier
A kind of musical autobiography, this book is the former prime minister's most revealing portrait yet
Music: A joy for life, by Edward Heath. Sidgwick & Jackson, £5.95
A cold man, they always said of Edward Heath. The first big lie to that view came from him. I felt, not in a political statement, but rather when he conducted the LSO in Elgar's Cockaigne. Could anyone listening to that performance with even half an ear fail to appreciate the intensity of the man's emotions? I confess that even knowing Heath's devotion to music from close at hand, I had not expected so warm an experience.
As a Guardian lobby man in the early sixties I had often had musical discussions with him (far more than political discussions, I might say) and usually I was disconcerted by what seemed a grudging tone of voice. He sounded like a rival interpreter, a would-be musician who has not quite made it rather than a would-be enjoyer. Yes, Heath was cold, I said to myself, or at least securely armour-plated. I remember greeting him at the Festival Hall, when around 1960 Mravinsky and the Leningrad Orchestra performed Mozart and Shostakovich. Alone, he seemed far too stiff to let anything like enjoyment flood over him.
Yet how wrong I was. Following up the evidence from the Cockaigne performance and musical exploits since, here is a book that makes music, and enjoyment of music, into nothing less than a crusade. In music at least he can bare his heart. The form is of a musical autobiography. As his love of music, unlike his devotion to sailing, started in his earliest years, this is in effect a commentary on his whole private life, arguably the most revealing portrait of him we have yet had.
Even before he knew what politics was, the boy Heath had begun to love music. We learn of the purchase of a Thornton Bobby piano on HP for £42 (young Edward's ninth birthday present), of family singsongs when his father would perform Roses of Picardy or a Verdi aria in translation, of his early taste in food (surprisingly for a child, pig's chitterlings, liver, brains and trotters – cue for another book?) with Sunday morning breakfasts of "round pats of Mr Creasy's sausage meat," better value than sausages already in their skins, said his mother.
Fortified for church, young Heath sang in the choir, and had his first serious musical training, firmly rooted in the Anglican tradition. From local music-making in Thanet he progressed to Sir Henry Wood's promenade concerts, and when he reached Oxford he spent a high proportion of his minimal allowance on hiring a piano and occasionally buying 78 r.p.m. records to play on his wind-up portable. Bruckner's Fourth Symphony and Elgar's First – both long and awkward to play in those days – were two of his important purchases.
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Arts Centre, Melbourne
Three quarters of the way through the Melbourne Ring, and the rationale of Neil Armfield's production gets no clearer. Through most of Siegfried, in fact, there seem to be at least three different approaches intertwined; all of them introduced at various points in Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, but with no suggestion that they might fuse into a dramatic unity.
There is the reductive naturalism of the first act, which translates the action into contemporary stereotypes and commonplaces without any sense of a mythic dimension – Stefan Vinke's Struwelpeter-haired, rugby-shirted Siegfried in a scruffy teenager's bedroom, while Mime (Graeme Macfarlane) heats up meals in a microwave, and attempts to forge swords on the kitchen table. The following acts then hark back to Rheingold's post-modern flirtations with music hall.
Not dancing girls this time but video close-ups of Jud Arthur's Fafner making up his face as a clown for his encounter with Siegfried, only to emerge from his lair naked and bloodied after his fatal wounding, and a false proscenium complete with gold lamé curtain through which Siegfried must pass to discover the sleeping Brünnhilde. She is now confined to one of the display cases in which Wotan kept his animals in Rheingold, with her horse Grane as a stuffed model close by, though the allegorical significance of those allusions still escapes me.
If it was all more vividly theatrical, then the disjunctions and the puzzles might not matter. But what seemed fresh in Rheingold, now seems just laboured, and nothing in the conducting or the individual performances, despite the energy of some of them, provides enough of that missing ingredient.
Vinke is a robust Heldentenor, tireless if not very subtle, who more than holds his own with Susan Bullock's rather tremulous Brünnhilde and goes at the forging scene with great purpose, only to have it undermined by Pietari Inkinen's persistently slow tempi; the conductor is still apparently more concerned with clarity than with sustaining dramatic momentum. But Terje Stensvold seems more convincing, more vocally assertive as the Wanderer than he was as Wotan, despite being got up like a superannuated member of a heavy metal band with long grey hair, bare chest and shades. His confrontations, first with Warwick Fyfe's still raging Alberich, then with Deborah Humble's wheelchair-bound Erda, have an intensity that only emphasises the lack of anything like it elsewhere.
• Further performances 2 and 11 December. Box office 03 9685 3700.
From the Nutcracker to American Psycho, from Mary Poppins to Kurt Vile, our critics pick their must-sees of the festive season
Nutcrackers, various You know it's Christmas in the ballet world by the number of Nutcrackers touring the world's stages. In the UK alone, there are close to a dozen doing the rounds, but the top three remain the Royal Ballet's exquisitely traditional version, the sparky family friendly production by Birmingham Royal Ballet, and English National Ballet's – with the best snow scene of them all. Royal Opera House, London (020-7304 4000), 4 December to 16 January; Birmingham Hippodrome (0844 338 5000), to 12 December; London Coliseum (020-7845 9300), 11 December to 5 January.
Father Christmas Does Father Christmas use the loo? Does he secretly long for summer? Does he have strong views on the size of chimneys? You bet he does. Raymond Briggs's gorgeous picture book gets a heartwarming makeover for under-sixes. Lyric Hammersmith, London (020-8741 6850), to 4 January and West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds (0113-213 7700), 6 December to 11 January.
Messiah The Dunedin Consort's annual performances of Handel's oratorio have become a Christmas tradition. John Butt's choir and orchestra manage to combine scholarly stylishness with wonderfully communicative singing and playing – the best possible kind of historically aware performance. Queen's Hall, Edinburgh (0131-668 2019), 20 December; Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow (0141-353 8000), 21 December.
The Nutcracker Not the ballet, but the play based on the ETA Hoffman story. So there's no lush Tchaikovsky, but instead plenty of action and emotion as Clara tries to break the enchantment on the Nutcracker and defeat the dastardly King of the Mice in an age before pest control. Nuffield, Southampton (023-8067 1771), 5 December to 12 January.
El Niño With texts from the gnostic gospels and Latin American women poets, John Adams's Nativity Oratorio was originally designed for both concert hall and opera house, but it works best as a concert piece. Vladimir Jurowski's performance with the London Philharmonic is the final, climactic event in the Southbank Centre's year-long The Rest is Noise festival. Royal Festival Hall, London (0845 875 0073), 14 December.
Henning Wehn's Authentic German Christmas Do Henning Wehn bring his festive show to the West End over three consecutive weekends. Expect much gloating about how good the Germans are at Christmas, plus singalong Stille Nacht and lots of jokes about "ruthless efficiency". Leicester Square theatre, London (08448 733433), 1, 8 & 15 December.
Gone with the Wind Its history and politics look bizarre now, but this extravagant melodrama of America's old south destroyed by the civil war has a potent storytelling force and the performances are something to savour. Clark Gable is the devilishly handsome and uncaring Rhett Butler, Vivien Leigh is the kittenish belle he loves, Scarlett O'Hara. On general release.
Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake It's 18 years since Bourne premiered his reimagined Swan Lake, with its male corps of swans, witty contemporary design and lost prince. And with some new dancers added to this season's revival, including Liam Mower – the original West End Billy Elliot – its humour and imagination are reasserting themselves for a new generation. Sadler's Wells, London (0844 412 4300), 4 December to 26 January.
Hansel and Gretel Christopher Hampson's first Christmas ballet for Scottish Ballet is a Hansel and Gretel relocated to 1950s Scotland and mixed with other fairytales to create a new story about lost children battling a cast of magical and sinister dancing characters. Music is extracted from the Humperdinck opera. Theatre Royal, Glasgow, (0844 871 7673), 10 to 28 December.
Emil and the Detectives Not a book that's much in fashion any more, but Erich Kästner's tale, set in 1920s Berlin, about a boy who sets out on an adventure on his own, should transpose to the stage very well. Olivier, London (020-7452 3000), to 18 March.
The Wind in the Willows William Tuckett's delicious version of the Kenneth Grahame classic sets the action in the attic of the writer's imagination, using old clothes and props to drive the storytelling mix of dance, music, puppetry and text. Grahame's words are narrated by Tony Robinson, with a fabulous dancing cast that includes Will Kemp as Ratty. Great for over-fives. Duchess theatre, London (020-7304 4000), 11 December to 1 February.
Matilda Witty, warm and wise, Tim Minchin and Dennis Kelly actually improve on Roald Dahl's novel. A show every family should see, to remind them that it's never too late to be the hero of your own story. Cambridge theatre, London (020-7494 5080), booking until May.
Saving Mr Bankss For lovers of Mary Poppins – which celebrates its 50th anniversary next year – this film is a treat. It's the story of how Walt Disney finally persuaded Poppins creator PL Travers to let him adapt her masterwork for the screen. Tom Hanks plays wily Walt and Emma Thompson the schoolmarmish author determined not to be impressed by flashy Hollywood types. On general release.
Oliver! Foot-stamping songs, winsome urchins and one of the great stage antiheroes in the reprehensible yet somehow lovable Fagin. Crucible, Sheffield (0114-249 6000), 29 November to 25 January.
Mr and Mrs Moon The latest for very young from Oily Cart who always deliver the moon when comes to kid's theatre. Stratford Circus theatre, London (0844 357 2625), 7 December to 5 January.
Stonehenge Visitor Centre Britain's most famous prehistoric monument opens its new visitor centre and an exhibition on the origins of this enigmatic site in time for the winter solstice. The mystery of Stonehenge is only equalled by the controversy surrounding its mistreatment by the modern world. Will this new presentation save it? Stonehenge, Salisbury Plain (0870 333 1181), from 18 December.
The Hundred and One Dalmatians The New Vic always do a great festive show – although quite how they are going to put 101 dogs on stage is a mystery. New Vic theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme (01782 717962), to 1 February.
Antarctica The fabulous Little Bulb theatre company are leading intrepid little explorers on a journey into a winter wonderland. It may just be an excuse for the company to dress up as penguins, but it should be great for the under-sevens. Bristol Old Vic (0117-987 7877), to 4 January.
The Good Neighbour The return of BAC's brilliant maze show which takes children and their families on a thrilling interactive journey around the Old Town Hall as they unravel the memories of George, a man who lived nearby a century ago. Part treasure hunt, part like falling down a rabbit hole. Battersea Arts Centre, London (020-7223 2223), 6 December to 4 January.
Silly Kings A new show for children and adults who haven't lost their sense of fun, inspired by the fairytale flights of fancy of Monty Python's Terry Jones. The setting will include a Spiegeltent in the grounds of Cardiff Castle, the adventures should be madcap, the humour slapstick, and the sound of the horses' hooves will definitely be made by coconut shells. Cardiff Castle (029-2063 6464), 19 December to 4 January.
Wendy and Peter Pan Why are there no lost girls in Neverland? The gender focus is shifted to Wendy (often portrayed as horribly soppy) in Ella Hickson's new adaptation of JM Barrie's masterpiece. Peter's refusal to grow up is contrasted with her realisation of the need to do so, in a production that promises ticking crocodiles and a murderous Captain Hook. Royal Shakespeare theatre, Stradford-upon-Avon (0844 800 1110), 10 December to 2 March.
Let the Right One In Bullied boy meets vampire girl in this flesh-creeper based on a Swedish novel and horror movie. Royal Court, London (020-7565 5000), until 21 December.
Coriolanus Shakespeare's greatest Roman tragedy gets a rare outing with Tom Hiddleston as the uncompromising warrior who turns his back on his native city. Mark Gatiss and Deborah Findlay co-star as Coriolanus's wise counsellor and his militant mum in an ever-topical play that warns of the dangers to democracy of strong men. Donmar Warehouse, London (0844 871 7624), 6 December to 14 February.
Parsifal The Royal Opera's new production is also its belated contribution to the Wagner bicentenary celebrations – his last and most enigmatic opera, with Simon O'Neill in the title role and the wonderful René Pape as Gurnemanz. Royal Opera House, London (020-7304 4000), 30 November to 18 December.
Ciara If Christmas is all about families, Ciara's Glasgow gangland clan is one you wouldn't want to meet. The magnificent Blythe Duff reprises her role in David Harrower's award-winning solo about an art dealer who realises she has been traded all her life. Traverse, Edinburgh (0131-228 1404), 3 to 21 December.
Shobana Jeyasingh: Strange Blooms Jeyasingh's rich, inventive spin on her classical past is showcased in this double bill that ranges from her 1988 collaboration with Michael Nyman, Configurations, through to her stylish take on cities, flowers and the baroque, set to music by Gabriel Prokofiev. Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, (020-7960 4200), 3 and 4 December.
American Psycho Doctor Whos are everywhere this Christmas. While David Tennant is installed at the Barbican as Richard II, Matt Smith stars in this musical thriller based on the notorious Bret Easton Ellis novel about a serial killer at large in 1980s Wall Street. Expect plenty of shock and schlock. Almeida, London (020 -7359 4404), 3 December to 25 January.
Jordi Savall If the viola da gamba is your thing, then a solo appearance by Savall on the instrument that established his international reputation is a must. St George's, Bristol (0845 4024001), 6 December.
Nebraska Veteran actor Bruce Dern is terrific in this bittersweet American road movie about a grumpy, bewildered old man who journeys to Nebraska in search of a lottery payout. On general release.
Protest Song Rhys Ifans plays Danny, a homeless man living rough by St Paul's, who wakes up one morning to find himself at the heart of the Occupy movement. Tim Price's monologue promises to be funny and savage, while offering a reminder of the thousands who will be homeless this Christmas. The Shed, London (020-7452 3000), 16 December to 11 January.
Festival of Fairytales for Grown-ups Dare you venture into this Victorian warehouse by the Thames to meet the devil, fly with fairies, and encounter the dead? The Crick Crack Club's annual festival of bawdy performance storytelling also features live music and rum-laced hot chocolate. Barge House, London, 11 to 15 December.
X Marks the Spot The London jazz underground gets into the festive spirit with a semi-improvised production from Pop-Up Circus and the Chaos Collective. Christmas has gone missing. Can a crack team from Edinburgh-fringe favourites Clout Theatre and the Xmas Big Band including rising-star jazz pianist Elliott Galvin and drummer Mark Sanders save it? Vortex, London (020-7254 4097), 18 December.
Trevor Noah South African standup Noah made a big impact at the 2012 Edinburgh Fringe with his set about growing up mixed-race under apartheid. Warwick Arts Centre (024 7652 4524), Tuesday, then touring.
Brian and Robin's Christmas Compendium of Reason Last year, their End of the World Show featured contributions from Steve Coogan, Eric Idle and Simon Singh. This year, TV physics heart-throb Brian Cox and rationalist comic Robin Ince return with another comedy-and-science floorshow. Hammersmith Apollo, London (0844 249 4300), 12 to 14 December.
Jonzi D – Lyrikal Fearta When hip-hop choreographer and impresario Jonzi D was offered an MBE, the conflicting emotions he experienced inspired him to choreograph The Letter. It returns to the stage alongside a new work that examines old and new school generations of hip-hop artists. Lilian Baylis Studio, London (0844 412 4300), 9 to 11 December.
Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art For childless adults who plan to spend the holidays in a metropolitan setting safe from cosy family gatherings, this superb exhibition offers fun that's far from Christmassy. Best not to get a print for your grandparents. British Museum, London (020-7323 8181), to 5 January.
Frozen Disney's animated musical is a new twist on Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen. Elsa is a princess with the power to control snow and ice. When an evil duke exiles her to a freezing wasteland, her gutsy sister Anna must rescue her. With songs by the Book of Mormon writing duo Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez. On general release.
The Sixteen at Christmas A beautifully devised touring programme, interleaving early carols with seasonal choral pieces to mark two anniversaries, Britten's centenary and the 50th anniversary of Poulenc's death, including the former's Ceremony of Carols and the latter's Quatre Motets. St John the Evangelist, Oxford, 7 December; then touring).
Meet Me in St Louis Have yourself a very merry Christmas with UK stage premiere of the 1944 Judy Garland vehicle. This tiny venue should burst with festive goodwill. Landor, London (020-7737 7276), 11 December to 18 January.
That Day We Sang Lives unfulfilled and missed opportunities are the subject of this play with songs about a middle-aged insurance clerk in 1960s Manchester who thinks that life might have peaked for him 40 years previously when he sang at the Free Trade Hall. Victoria Wood's 2011 charmer is reinvented for a new space. Royal Exchange, Manchester (0161 833 9833), 5 December to 18 January.
Chicago Murder just got musical with this new revival of Kander and Ebb's tale of 1920s Chicago and femmes who prove pretty fatal to the men in their lives. Paul Kerryson's revival should give rein to the mix of comedy and corruption that exposes this adult musical's dark heart. Curve, Leicester (0116 242 3595), 29 November to 11 January.
Michael Clark Clark has always claimed rock music as his most formative influence, alongside his Royal Ballet training – and this triple bill is set to Scritti Politti, Relaxed Muscle, Sex Pistols and Pulp. Barbican, London (020-7638 8891), 22 to 30 November.
Kurt Vile and the Violators Celebrate the end of 2013 with the maker of one of the albums of the year. Wakin' on A Pretty Daze by Philadelphia singer-songwriter Kurt Vile (his real name) is hypnotic and beautiful, packed with long, slowly unfurling songs and surprisingly witty lyrics. Various venues, (kurtvile.com/live), 11 to 17 December.
Warp x Tate Collaboration between the UK indie label (famed for techno, but far more eclectic than that) and artist Jeremy Deller, Warp x Tate features sound installations by Rustie, Oneohtrix Point Never and Hudson Mohawke, and a performance by Deller's Acid Brass: a brass band performing old rave hits. Tate Britain, London (020-7887 8888), 6 December.
Calvin Harris and Tiësto Giant EDM festive jamboree: the sheer size of the venues visited by the two DJs showing the commercial impact of this strain of dance music. Various venues , 18 to 23 December.
Aladdin and Twanky Great excitement atBig news from the Royal: tThis year's panto will have an exciting addition – a plot. One of the great annual shindigs with a great dame in Berwick Kaler, spectacular sets and groan-inducing jokes. Theatre Royal, York (01904 623568), 12 December to 1 February.
A Gay in a Manger The nativity story gets a queer makeover, with lifestyle gurus Tranny and Roseannah giving tips on manger decoration. Should be outrageous trashy fun for adults only. The Arches, Glasgow (0141 565 1000), 12 to 21 December.
Jack and the Beanstalk Its 30 years since Kenneth Alan Taylor first donned his frock to play Dame Daisy. This will be his last panto, but it's less of swansong than a melodious moo. Nottingham Playhouse (0115 941 9419), 29 November to 18 January.
Peter Pan and the Incredible Stinkerbell Terrible Tink has always been a tearaway, but now she's got flatulence too. JM Barrie's story remade as a wild romp that will make us all clap our hands and say we believe in fairies. Tron, Glasgow (0141 552 4267), 29 November to 4 January.
Dick Whittington Will the streets be paved with Olympic gold? Will the cat get the cream? We can't answer those questions, but we're confident this will be one of London's finest pantos in a theatre that lends itself to the art form. Theatre Royal Stratford East, London (020-8534 0310), to 11 January.
Moonfleet A sumptuous new adaptation of J Meade Falkner's 1898 novel of diamonds and smuggling. Sky's Christmas dramas have faltered in the past, but this – starring Ray Winstone, Phil Daniels and Aneurin Barnard – looks like perfect family fare. Sky 1.
Death Comes to Pemberley Having run out of books by Jane Austen, BBC1 gets as close as possible to a new Pride and Prejudice in an adaptation of PD James's crime-fiction sequel. BBC1, TV timings not yet finalised.
Still Open All Hours The ghosts of Christmas schedules past haunt some of the BBC's most-anticipated offerings. In the absence of Ronnie Barker, David Jason takes over Arkwright's grocer's shop in a revival of Roy Clarke's sitcom Open All Hours. BBC1.
Nan Despite repeated suggestions that she had hung up the cardigan of her highest-profile character, Catherine Tate has been persuaded to return in a special edition of Nan, with commissioners hoping it can repeat the success of Nan's Christmas Carol some years back. BBC1.
12 Drinks of Christmas Christmas is all about two things: alcohol and worrying that Alexander Armstrong lacks the ability to say no. This show – where he and his brother-in-law Giles Coren attempt to assemble the perfect selection pack of Christmas booze – has both. BBC2.
Man Down Traditionally, sitcoms have to be established and beloved to warrant a Christmas special. Man Down – Greg Davies's brilliant new offering – is neither. How will the show's funniest scenes, usually the ones where Rik Mayall attacks Davies while dressed as a bear, translate to the festive season? Channel 4.
Sherlock Sherlock finally returns after delays caused by writer Steven Moffat's Doctor Who commitments and Benedict Cumberbatch's soaring movie career. BBC1.
Iggy Pop's Christmas show Christmas lunchtime wouldn't be the same without a screaming topless man. Mr Pop will present a two-hour radio show about "joy and compulsion". And then, because there's nothing more festive than cognitive dissonance, you'll watch the Queen's speech. BBC 6 Music.
Desert Island Discs Would Miranda Hart actually listen to any music if she was on a desert island? Surely she'd be too busy tripping over the gramophone again and again. Nevertheless, the Sunday before Christmas we hear her choices, redundant as they obviously are. Radio 4, 11.15am, 22 December.
National Velvet This new adaptation of Enid Bagnold's classic starring Alison Steadman and John Sessions sounds like precisely the thing to tune into. Radio 4, 2.15pm, Christmas Day and Boxing Day.
Friday Night is Music Night Ken Bruce presents a star-studded Christmas concert by the BBC Concert Orchestra. If you've ever wanted to hear what the West End's biggest names sound like doing Christmas standards, this is for you. Radio 2, 20 December.
The Radio 4 Comedy Advent Calendar Throughout December, acts like Mitchell and Webb, Lenny Henry, Sue Perkins and Johnny Vegas will pop up all over the place – from Today to Woman's Hour – to deliver their politely skewed take on the world. All the fun of a real advent calendar, without the disappointing sliver of chocolate that tastes like cardboard.
Selections by Lyn Gardner, Michael Billington, Andrew Clements, Alexis Petridis, Judith Mackrell, John Fordham, Brian Logan, Stuart Heritage, Mark Lawson, Jonathan Jones
Snape Maltings, AldeburghBritten's debt to Purcell – and Purcell's to Matthew Locke – came to the fore in this inspired programme of old and new works
once remarked of Henry Purcell that there seemed to be nothing he could not do. The same could be said of Britten. On the centenary of his birth, Aldeburgh celebrated both the genius of the composer and the remarkable legacy he created with his partner Peter Pears.
In the Benyounes Quartet's recital, Britten's Second String Quartet, written for the 250th anniversary of Purcell's death, was prefaced by Purcell fantasias and a brilliantly worked Chacony. The programme showed how indebted Britten was to the baroque composer. Philip Higham's eloquent playing of the Second Cello Suite, with Ciaccona variations, was further evidence of Britten's source of inspiration.
In his new work, Locke's Theatre, for the main centenary concert, Ryan Wigglesworth invoked the spirit of Matthew Locke, a composer who was key to the creation of Purcell's musical language. The three movements lent a contemporary perspective to Locke's harmonies, while Wigglesworth's debt to Britten could be heard in its timbres, resonating with the Four Sea Interludes that had preceded it.
Britten's Cantata Academica, setting a text extolling the virtues of Basel, was given a rare outing; with a stellar cast of soloists, it emerged surprisingly fresh and rich – its fanfares were glorious. Yet the commitment to Britten's heritage was heard most clearly in the joyous performance of his Spring Symphony. Directing the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, together with young voices from Norwich Cathedral and Schools, the incisive Oliver Knussen made the music ring out. It's hard to imagine a tribute with more integrity.
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Huddersfield contemporary music festivalZorn's 60th-birthday celebrations featured strong performances from the Arditti Quartet alongside soprano Sarah Maria Sun
He may be saxophonist, klezmer musician, thrash-punk enthusiast and downtown New York's high priest of hip, but John Zorn regards himself first and foremost as a composer. Though the Huddersfield contemporary music festival's day of concerts to mark Zorn's 60th birthday couldn't match the Barbican's summer tribute for scope, it made a clear case for pieces that had been conventionally notated.
His necromantic string quartet, The Alchemist, has quickly become established as a contemporary classic, and the Arditti Quartet delivered it with such hypnotic intensity, it seemed as if they were conjuring spirits. But it was overshadowed by the UK premiere of Pandora's Box, a piece written for the Arditti and the extraordinarily expressive soprano Sarah Maria Sun. Zorn's German text was not always easy to decipher, though Sun's voice ranged from a stratospheric pianissimo to a guttural growl that sounded as if all the evils in the universe were pouring from her throat.
A late-evening concert devoted to Zorn's sacred vocal music was presented by an a cappella ensemble of female singers whose pulsing close harmony seemed to reference Hildegard of Bingen and the Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy. The solo clarinet blowout Steppenwolf comes with the composer's warning that it is: "For madmen only! Price of admission: your mind", though Joshua Rubin showed admirable willingness to sacrifice his sanity for the task.
James Moore brought similar dedication to the Book of Heads, a sequence of 35 etudes for solo guitar, one of which necessitated agitating a vintage Gibson electric with a balloon. Moore apologised that the guitar's single-coil pickups were causing his amp to buzz. Perhaps he could have tried hum-buckers, or a differently coloured balloon.
Choir of King's College, Cambridge, Andrew Kennedy (tenor), Britten Sinfonia/Cleobury(King's College, Cambridge)
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Benjamin Britten, whose anniversary celebrations reach their climax this weekend, had long associations with King's College, Cambridge through his friendship with the novelist EM Forster and, too, with a sequence of music directors of the college's celebrated choir – the current incumbent Stephen Cleobury's predecessors Philip Ledger, Sir David Willococks and Boris Ord. The choir honours that association with a fresh, beautifully clean and perfectly enunciated account of the cantata Saint Nicolas – patron saint of children and mariners. Andrew Kennedy sings the title role, written for Britten's partner Peter Pears. Also included are Rejoice in the Lamb and the ever popular Hymn to St Cecilia – the patron saint of music whose feast day happens to fall on the same day as Britten's birthday.
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Brabbins(Hyperion)
We've been reading recently of a hidden haul of valuable art found in a modest Munich apartment, all of it deemed "degenerate" by the Nazis. Composers suffered similar condemnation in 1930s Germany, among them Paul Hindemith, named "the standard-bearer of musical decay" and driven into exile. This fine disc from Martyn Brabbins and the BBCSSO makes an eloquent riposte to all that nonsense, illustrating in the Symphonic Metamorphosis and the Konzertmusik for brass and strings that Hindemith could be both warmly entertaining and bracingly intellectual at the same time.
Coliseum, London; Barbican, LondonWith humanity permanently locked in conflict, it seems Philip Glass's meditation on nonviolence will bear endless repetition
In this weary world there will always be a time when it will be appropriate to stage Philip Glass's Satyagraha, his meditation on nonviolence. When first seen at the Coliseum in 2007, British troops were still in Iraq; when it returned in 2010, Libya was about to go up in flames. Today, Syria is in agony. How we long for a day when this opera's message would seem anachronistic.
And yet how should one approach a piece that, on paper, seems so forbidding, so austere? The libretto is in Sanskrit, the music repetitive, the action slower than a reptile's pulse. The answer lies in the characters' response to the idea of satyagraha: you must surrender to its will. Those who like their opera straight will find this hard to achieve; those who are prepared to go with the flow will begin to see why it has become the most popular contemporary work ever staged at English National Opera.
Glass takes a period in Mahatma Gandhi's life that is often overlooked – the time he spent in South Africa in the early 20th century leading a nonviolent revolt by Indian immigrants against brutally racist repression. But far from merely portraying it, he sees it through different embodiments of the "truth force" that is satyagraha: Tolstoy, Tagore and Martin Luther King – a past, a present and a future. Thus he has three distinct acts to tell a story and drive home a message.
But how do you make a piece of action work over more than three hours of Glass's endlessly repetitive, linear music? ENO's collaboration with the richly imaginative theatre company Improbable presents a solution: you dazzle your audience. Stiltwalkers and acrobats improvise extraordinary stage effects: simple baskets become towering giants, paper transforms into birds, yards of sticky tape present first an impenetrable barrier, then an enormous figure and finally simply fly away. Lanterns of hope hang like stars in the night sky, while a newspaper moon rises up to meet them. We are in a captivating, fantastical dream world.
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But for all the enchanting effects, the undoubted success of this welcome revival relies completely on tenor Alan Oke's portrayal of Gandhi. He sings with such beauty and humility that although we can't understand his words (there are no surtitles) he convinces us that we do, so total is his sincerity. We feel the terrible vulnerability of the frail man with a will of iron; his torments at the hands of grotesque oppressors hurt us too.
Glass's music may be repetitious but that doesn't make it easy to sing. While the orchestral writing is often highly ornate, the vocal lines contain immensely long phrases where intonation can sometimes slip. Oke coped well with this danger but others, notably Janis Kelly as Mrs Naidoo, slid below the note too often for comfort. Stuart Stratford, who conducted Glass's subtly shifting figurations with mathematical precision, seemed not to notice.
Sarah Pring is splendid as the battling Mrs Alexander; Nicholas Folwell staunch and secure as Mr Kallenbach and Clare Eggington bright and engaging in the vocally stratospheric role of Miss Schlesen, Gandhi's secretary.
The chorus works its socks off throughout this production, consistently superb, whether as passive resisters or hateful oppressors. Kevin Pollard's imaginative costumes, particularly for the "devilish folk" of Durban, look stunning under the warm reds and ochres of Paule Constable's lighting design, revived here by Kevin Sleep.
Satyagraha runs in repertoire until 8 December. It's an almost sacramental event. Give it a go: it's like nothing you've ever experienced.
After the recent protests that met Valery Gergiev at the Barbican, it was a welcome change to see unalloyed adulation greet another Russian on the same platform last week. The violinist Maxim Vengerov, who used a three-year "sabbatical" with a shoulder injury to immerse himself in conducting, directed the Polish Chamber Orchestra in the first of his Barbican Artist Spotlight series.
Not that an enormous amount of conducting went on. His programme of Mozart concertos and Tchaikovsky miniatures required only minimum direction in performance; this was very much a showcase for Vengerov's supernatural command of the violin, his technique never less than faultless, his golden tone consistently sweet and mellifluous, even in the chattering brilliance of Tchaikovsky's Valse-Scherzo.
But while this and the Sérénade mélancolique and Souvenir d'un lieu cher thrilled the capacity audience (whose ecstatic applause drew two Saint-Saëns showpieces as encores), the gems of the evening were the understated Mozart concertos 4 and 5. Here, there was abundant evidence of Vengerov's careful work in rehearsal, instilling in his players an elegant restraint that let the works almost float away on gossamer wings.
Vengerov returns in January and February with programmes of chamber music and large-scale concertos. Expect more adulation.
Star ratings (out of 5):Satyagraha ????Vengerov/Polish Chamber Orchestra ????
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