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Classical music | The Guardian
Latest classical music news, reviews, comment and analysis from the Guardian
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Hackney Empire, London
Puccini’s political thriller needs greater visual impact but the vocal performances are strong and English Touring Opera’s orchestra, under Michael Rosewell, is alert to the melodrama

English Touring Opera takes to the road with novice opera director Blanche McIntyre’s staging of Puccini’s political thriller, set in Rome in June 1800, which designer Florence de Maré presents in a semi-abstract structure consisting of steps, ramps and a tower, but with period costumes.

Dramatically, the result is uneven, with all three of the central performances needing greater definition and the set getting in the way at least as frequently as it offers opportunities: the Te Deum that ends the first act in spectacular musical fashion deserves something with equivalent visual impact to accompany it.

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22 days ago | |
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Wigmore Hall, London
The composer-in-residence’s compact new piano concerto of glittering sonorities was premiered by Huw Watkins, Oliver Knussen and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group

The first work to come from Helen Grime’s composer residency at Wigmore Hall is a Piano Concerto for her husband, composer-pianist Huw Watkins, and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. It’s a compact work of glittering sonorities carefully applied, with a hectic finale that explodes and then vanishes into thin air. Another composer, looking back to Debussy, might have called it Fireworks.

Related: Facing the music: Helen Grime

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22 days ago | |
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Why are female composers not taken as seriously as their male counterparts? Sound and Music, the national development organisation for new music, are determined to do something about it

It’s hard to pinpoint cause and effect, but in conversations with other female leaders in the classical sector, I’ve found that a number of us have noticed a creeping negative shift in attitudes towards women. Somehow the current political climate seems to have given permission for behaviours and attitudes that we thought we had seen the back of. A lack of respect; not being taken seriously; a low-level but deeply wearing sniping, or worse, at women in positions of authority.

Back in the summer of 2014, when Donald Trump was just a joke and Brexit meant … well, nothing at all, we noticed at Sound and Music, the national charity for new music, that our composer application data was telling us something important. At every single stage of development, from GCSE onwards, the gap between male and female applications widened – from 50% at GCSE level, to the 35% female applicants to our summer school, to the 25% female applicants to Sound and Music’s various professional artist development programmes.

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22 days ago | |
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The young pianist and medallist in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition on Bach, Brahms and Ligeti, and letting her hair down to Queen

What was the first record you bought?

Glenn Gould playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations. I actually didn’t buy it, but it’s the first recording I remember listening to, when I was eight years old, and it was pretty shocking and revelatory.

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23 days ago | |
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Barbican, London
Works by Nielsen and Sibelius preceded Detlev Glanert’s beguiling Megaris, with its bursts of cartoonish fun and stretches of languor

Sakari Oramo has been the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s chief conductor for nearly four years – and the extraordinary intimacy of their rapport was showcased here. Switching between baton and bare hands, limbs constantly whirling, Oramo seemed to be physically sculpting the BBCSO’s sound. The orchestra was ultra-responsive and hyper-focused.

Such single-minded performance from vast forces can be powerful. But it also subjects everything on the music stand to considerable pressure. Nielsen’s oddly proportioned Rhapsodic Overture, A Fantasy Journey to the Faroe Isles, felt even more misshapen under Oramo’s intense expressive scrutiny. Sibelius’s four-part Lemminkäinen Suite, Op 22 fared better. There were exhilarating transformations of orchestral tone from sensuous gleaming to muted iciness, high-gloss big-tune string unisons, and almost recklessly forthright woodwind and cello solos. But the uncompromising density of sound was also oppressive and the persistent magnification of minutiae verged on fussy.

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23 days ago | |
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Sansara
(Convivium)

It’s not hard to find outstanding professional choral singing (we seem to be living through a golden age) so to stand out today a new choir has to have something else to offer in addition to perfect intonation and a clean, pure sound. Sansara, while possessing these qualities in abundance, marks itself out by having no single conductor. Instead, several individuals step out from the choir and direct according to their specialism, giving this impressive debut recording a real depth of insight. Careful narrative programming is also a plus, introducing us to several spectacular new pieces from Oliver Tarney, Marco Galvani and Malcolm Archer on a journey from darkness into light.

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24 days ago | |
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Coliseum, London; Theatre Royal, Glasgow
A top ENO cast and orchestra do justice to Ryan Wigglesworth’s The Winter’s Tale. Plus Debussy to die for at Scottish Opera

Paddling palms and pinching fingers… I’ll have thy beauty scratch’d with briers… When you do dance, I wish you a wave o’ the sea… The Winter’s Tale has so much music of its own, refined in the fire of Shakespeare’s strange late play, it is hard to think an operatic version could add more. Surely it would shrink instead of grow. Instead, Ryan Wigglesworth (b1979) has made a thoughtful and lyrical case, not smaller or bigger but different, in his first opera, commissioned by English National Opera and premiered at the Coliseum last Monday.

He also wrote the libretto and conducted the performance. No mad egoist – really not, though as it happens he is also a virtuoso pianist – Wigglesworth left the designing to Vicki Mortimer and, as a wild shot, invited the actor Rory Kinnear to make his debut as a stage director. In a clever set whose two halves split and reunite, the action has been updated to contrasting military regimes, two versions of fragile power. Leontes’s Sicilia is all medals and peaked caps, Polixenes’s Bohemia khaki, shades and black berets: you’ll have seen them before at the opera if not in life. ENO has gathered a wonderful cast of British singers. Led by Iain Paterson (Leontes), Leigh Melrose (Polixenes), Susan Bickley (Paulina) and Sophie Bevan (Hermione), who is also the work’s dedicatee, they honoured this new score.

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24 days ago | |
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Gävle Symphony Orchestra/Martín
(Ondine)

Anyone who champions Brahms’s gloriously eccentric, lyrical and capacious Serenades – No 1 in D with six movements, No 2 in A with five – deserves full attention. Here they get it. Jaime Martín was chiefly a flautist until switching careers to full-time conducting in 2013. He gets three big pictures on this CD – the first in a series of Brahms recording with the Gävle Symphony Orchestra – whereas Brahms has only one, scarcely bigger than a postage stamp. Despite occasional thickening of textures, there’s some lovely playing, with warm woodwind and horns and nice, crisp syncopations. Martín does not allow the tempi to drag: important in works that need to be kept agile and alert to reveal their special charm.

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24 days ago | |
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Végh Quartet
(Praga Digitals) (2 CDs)

The autobiographical story of Bartók’s six string quartets is as powerful as that of Beethoven’s quartets: a lifelong absorption in the form, which produced utterly compelling and completely distinctive pieces. From the meditative First of 1909, through the rhapsodic Second of 1918 and the acerbic Third of 1929, to the elegiac Sixth of 1939, these works reinvent the string quartet form. They have surely never found more idiomatic interpreters than the Végh Quartet, recorded in 1954, with a profound understanding of the idiom, finding the earthy folk roots in so much of this music, bringing it to life with a touch of old-fashioned portamento and restrained vibrato; supremely eloquent.

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24 days ago | |
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Modern operatic take on the near-300-year-old dramatic oratorio promises to sear itself upon the imaginations of audiences

The first reveal is of Goliath’s lonely, severed head. The next, grimy, shirtless David, cuts streaked across his back as if he’d been flaying himself with the slingshot now dangling limply by his side. Then yet another layer of the backdrop lifts away, revealing a pristine white table laden with a visual feast of boar, exotic birds, baskets of fruit, towering flower arrangements, and standing above it all a chorus of finery-clad nobles, gawping out at the crowd as dumbly as the dead one-eyed giant.

It is the first of dozens of breathtaking dreamscapes of stillness and sound in Barrie Kosky’s modern operatic take on the near-300-year-old dramatic oratorio Saul, which seared itself upon the imaginations of British audiences at the Glyndebourne Opera House in 2015, and promises to do the same to those fortunate enough to have snared tickets to the Adelaide festival’s sellout season.

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25 days ago | |
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