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Polyphony/Layton
(Hyperion)

Stephen Layton’s Polyphony are an always impressive choir of startling purity and clarity. This collection of 20th-century US material encompasses familiar pieces from Randall Thompson alongside Barber’s declamatory and shifting Reincarnations and several motets, concluding with his great Let down the bars, O death. Bernstein’s acerbic Missa brevis benefits from fine solo work from countertenors David Allsopp and Christopher Lowrey, and we hear a curiosity from Bernstein’s teacher, Aaron Copland: four motets written when he was a student of Nadia Boulanger in Paris, each infused with the influences of the French choral tradition and a long way from the style we associate with the mature Copland.

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13 days ago | |
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Vox Luminis/Meunier
(Ricercar)

The Bach family was one of the most musically active dynasties of the 17th and 18th centuries, with many musicians and composers around the courts and churches of what is now Germany. Johann Sebastian took a great interest in the music of his ancestors: he collected and performed it, but much of it was mislaid in the second world war. It surfaced quite recently in Kiev, so this collection includes some serious discoveries, beautifully performed. Unity is provided by the way that chorale melodies are threaded through all these sober, often funereal motets. More cheerful numbers celebrate the new year; especially touching is a JC Bach Advent motet, which JS Bach copied out in his last months.

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13 days ago | |
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Stile Antico
(Harmonia Mundi)

Stile Antico, the still youthful (they began as students) vocal ensemble now enjoying international success, is 10 years old. This compilation disc is an ideal introduction to their work: both to their refreshing approach to programming and to the refined but vigorous quality of their sound. Democracy rules in this conductor-less group. Each of the 12 singers has chosen a favourite track, dominated by the Renaissance repertoire at which they excel – Tomkins, Byrd, Tallis, Gombert, Victoria – but including one contemporary work, Woefully Arrayed by John McCabe (1939-2015). While treasures still remain to be discovered from the Renaissance era, they sing the McCabe so brilliantly one hopes that in their next decade they embrace more of the new too.

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13 days ago | |
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Does pianist Paul Lewis’s seagull-based injury augur something more sinister?

Paul Lewis’s seagull-based accident this week - the pianist injured his hand after tripping thanks to a nesting seagull attacking him in Liverpool - should of course give us pause to consider what to do with those aerial vermin. It’s not enough that they nick our sandwiches and fish and chips on the prom, but apparently seagulls are now ganging up on virtuoso pianists in a concerted attempt to stop that infernal racket of all those piano concertos from happening anywhere near the sea.

“On leaving rehearsals with the orchestra earlier this week, Paul sustained an injury, spraining one of the fingers on his right hand, after a seagull swooped close to his head, causing him to stumble,” explains the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic’s spokeswoman.

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15 days ago | |
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(BIS)

American bass-baritone Nicholas Isherwood says it took him a long time to appreciate the music of John Cage, but you’d never guess. Spanning 43 years of Cage vocal works not included in his Song Books, this collection is affectionate and forthright, meticulous when it matters and generally great fun. Isherwood’s voice is rich, clear and lyrical; the same delivery would suit a disc of American folk ballads. Recorded up close to catch all its fragile edges, the set opens with the slip-sliding Aria, written for the fearless circus that was Cathy Berberian’s voice and here accompanied by Gianluca Verlingieri’s 2009 reconstruction of the bonkers tape-piece Fontana Mix, cow moos and all. The unpublished A Chant with Claps is daft, catchy and joyful. Isherwood accompanies himself on Joyce settings The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs and a violent, claustrophobic little work called Nowth Upon Nacht. Wordplay abounds in the spry Sonnekus and Eight Whiskus, but his treatment is amusingly dry. The longest work is Ryoanji (1985), named after a Zen garden. Isherwood’s performance is intense and serene, potently atmospheric and never studious.

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15 days ago | |
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Janina Fialkowska
(Atma)

There’s been a spate of Lyric Pieces recently: Stephen Hough’s no-nonsense collection on Hyperion, Javier Perianes’s sunny accounts for Harmonia Mundi, and this – an uncluttered, intimate, sweetly solemn offering from Canadian pianist Janina Fialkowska. She doesn’t quite match the other two for colour or flare, but the elegant poise of her playing is all the explanation you’d need for why so many great pianists are seduced by the seemingly simple pieces. Grieg wrote 66 of them; Fialkowska begins and ends with the same selection as Hough – Arietta Op 12 and Remembrances Op 71 — and includes luminous, spacious performances of Berceuse, Album Leaf, Notturno and Evening in the Mountains. Her Butterfly and Little Bird flutter weightlessly, her Wedding Day at Troldhaugen is chipper and joyous, but there’s a touching melancholy that lingers through all of it. I was a bit put off by the sound of the piano, a twangy thing recorded in Quebec’s Palais Montcalm. But Fialkowska is a Chopin interpreter at heart, and she could make these melodies sing on anything.

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15 days ago | |
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(Les Arts Florissants)

What was it with Cremona? The great luthiers Amati, Guarnari and Stradivari all had shops in the sleepy Lombardy town. Claudio Monteverdi was born there in 1567, and although he was eventually lured away by the brighter lights of Mantua, Rome and Venice, his auspicious early works were all crafted at home. Paul Agnew and his stylish baroque ensemble Les Arts Florissants are currently performing Monteverdi’s complete madrigals – eight miraculous books spanning the composer’s career – Agnew calls them Monteverdi’s musical autobiography. They’re recording them, too, though not comprehensively or chronologically. More interestingly, they’re grouping them according to city. Volume 2, a lens into Monteverdi’s Mantua years, was released last year. Now Cremona dips into Books 1-3 to show a ballsy young composer flexing his muscles, breathlessly setting love poems and brimming with clever tricks. Les Arts capture all the exuberant invention. Their delivery is fresh and colloquial, like animated conversation between friends. The vocal blend isn’t smooth – the character of each singer shines through, and the result is all the more colourful for it.

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15 days ago | |
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François-Xavier Poizat
(Piano Classics)

Alongside his one-time pupil Astor Piazzolla, Albert Ginastera is the most significant composer from Argentina to date. The centenary of Ginastera’s birth next year may prompt more interest in the whole range of his music, which includes three operas, a couple of ballets and six concertos, but it’s the piano music that François-Xavier Poizat samples in his recital. The first of the three piano sonatas, composed in 1952 and full of motorik, Bartókian energy and angular, sometimes 12-note, melodic lines, is the centrepiece. If the strenuous piano writing often seems more like bluster and posturing than genuinely felt music, it’s in the early sets of smaller pieces around the sonata that Poizat’s stylish playing reveals more of Ginastera’s real musical character. The use of folk melodies in the Danzas Argentinas, the Suite de Danzas Criollas and the Three Pieces Op 6 seems affectionate and totally unselfconscious; every one is a perfectly pitched miniature, even if a few occasionally topple over the edge into sentimentality.

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16 days ago | |
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Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Andris Nelsons’s farewell concerts as CBSO music director are devoted to Mahler, whose Third Symphony bristled here with combative energy

Andris Nelsons was hardly known internationally when he arrived in Birmingham in 2008; he leaves now as one of the most exciting and sought-after conductors working today. Over his seven seasons at Symphony Hall, Nelsons has methodically expanded his repertory. Mahler’s symphonies have been very much part of that process, and his final pair of concerts as the CBSO’s music director were devoted to another of them, the Third, with the CBSO Chorus and Youth and Children’s Choruses, and Michaela Schuster as the mezzo soloist.

Some conductors ease their way into what is the longest of all Mahler’s symphonies, but that is not Nelsons’s approach. The CBSO horns delivered the opening theme like a challenge, setting the stage for a performance that bristled with combative energy, and the kind of vivid incident that Nelsons finds in everything he conducts. There was some tendency to compartmentalise things, to micro-manage detail at the expense of the overall symphonic scheme, which mattered more in the 30-minute opening movement than it did in the later ones where Nelsons regularly sought out the sinister undertow to the music, whether in the faster sections of the second, or the nature imagery of the third, despite the escapist dream offered by its offstage posthorn solos.

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16 days ago | |
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Ahead of the Cardiff Singer of the World final on 21 June, Andrew Clements looks at some of the competition’s finest winners and asks if 2015 will produce a star with the wattage of years past

The prestige of any music competition depends entirely on the calibre of the performers who walk away with the prizes. If a competition is lucky enough to come up with an outstanding winner in its early years, its reputation is secured – the Leeds Piano competition had that good fortune when Radu Lupu came through in 1969 and Murray Perahia won three years later. In 1975, Mitsuko Uchida came second and András Schiff placed third.

Like Leeds, the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World has sometimes found it hard to replicate the success and high profile it enjoyed in its early days. It struck straightaway, when the winner of the first competition, in 1983, was a 22-year-old Finnish soprano named Karita Mattila. Her demure appearance in the final performance, singing Weber, may seem worlds away from the larger-than-life persona she projects on stage and in concert nowadays, but that success was the launchpad for Mattila’s steady rise through the ranks of international diva-dom.

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16 days ago | |
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