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Usher Hall, Edinburgh
The eastern European youth orchestra brought subtlety, restraint and unadorned eloquence to a brace of anti-war symphonies

I, Culture is the new youth orchestra of eastern Europe, four years old and politically charged. Its players come from the former Soviet states of the Eastern partnership a pro-European initiative comprising Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine and Poland, which funds and runs the orchestra. They rehearse in English, although Russian would be a common language for many. Some arrive with no orchestral experience; others are already professional musicians at home.

Comparisons with Europe's long-standing youth orchestras would be unfair. The Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester and European Union Youth Orchestra have had decades to hone their standards, and their players come from stable countries with developed music education provision. Yet I, Culture's remarkable Edinburgh debut showed this ensemble to be on the same playing field. Certainly it is worth listening to for reasons beyond political tokenism.

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14 days ago | |
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Melbourne Ring Cycle and King and I win big, while Sweet Charity beats out Baz Lurhmanns Strictly Ballroom and Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh take main acting awards

A $20m production of Richard Wagners 20 hour Ring of the Nibelung, by Opera Australia, was the biggest winner at the 2014 Helpmann awards for live entertainment on Monday evening.

The Melbourne Ring Cycle swept the opera category awards, including the best opera award, with Warwick Fyfe picking up best male performer and Finnish conductor Pietari Inkinen winning for best music direction. Both were last minute replacements and named among the real successes of this Rheingold by Guardian critic Andrew Clements.

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14 days ago | |
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Though contracts with 2,500 singers, musicians and crew have expired, opera company continues to negotiate with 10 unions to avert lockout

New Yorks Metropolitan Opera reached tentative labor deals with two of its largest unions early Monday while negotiations continued with 10 more unions in hopes of averting a lockout.

The federal Mediation and Conciliation Service announced the agreements with Local 802 of the musicians union and with the American Guild of Musical Artists, its orchestra and chorus. Details of the agreements were not released.

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14 days ago | |
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Usher Hall, Edinburgh
The period ensemble performed Bach's Mass in B Minor gracefully, but their detailed sound was swallowed up by the hall

Philippe Herreweghe's approach to the Mass in B Minor can be breathtaking in the right context. The Belgian baroque specialist makes Bach's masterpiece into a platform for quiet self-reflection; the drama he builds is intricate and interior, and Collegium Vocale Gent the revered period instrument ensemble and choir he founded in 1970 typically plays and sings with a finespun, unpushy kind of poise. Even the way they tune reveals something of their ethos for careful listening: in painstaking slow unison, one note at a time.

That all works beautifully in an intimate venue or on record, but in the Usher Hall most of the subtlest details were wasted. This space needs something bigger and beefier than the Collegium's sweet, hushed opening Kyrie. The soprano soloists spun their Christe eleison in sighing, questioning phrases at least I think they did, but I couldn't hear the lower voice so I can't be quite sure. The woodwinds were particularly elegant in the Gloria's Domine Deus, but only the upper register of the delicate baroque flute carried, so the line was frustratingly broken up. The 18-strong choir sang gracefully and included the soloists (sopranos Dorothee Mields and Hana Blazikova, countertenor Damien Guillon, tenor Thomas Hobbs and bass Peter Kooij), all of them fine voices but none particularly memorable.

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15 days ago | |
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Bernard Haitink found fascinating detail in Mahler's Fourth Symphony, while Schubert's Fifth seemed almost effortless

Bernard Haitink is not only celebrating his 85th birthday this year, but also the 60th anniversary of his debut as a conductor. Through much of those six decades Mahler has been a central part of his music-making, and the Fourth Symphony was the focus of his concert with the London Symphony Orchestra; it was his 86th appearance at the Proms.

Haitink's Mahler may be an utterly familiar quantity by now, but that in no way diminishes its power and effectiveness. With the LSO audibly relishing the chance of playing with a conductor who cares about getting everything right and about making fine distinctions in the dynamics and attacks, this was a performance of fascinating detail. It was most notable in the opening movement, with its Mozartean echoes, and in the slow movement, in which the equivalent Adagio in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony seems to be hovering in the background, especially when the opening theme is unfolded with the poise and quiet intensity with which Haitink invested it.

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15 days ago | |
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Royal Albert Hall, London
Bernard Rands's Concerto for Piano and Orchestra seemed perfectly tailored to Jonathan Biss's pianism amid a curious programme of Mozart, Rameau and Richard Strauss

Though he was born in Sheffield and went to Bangor University before studying in Italy with Berio and Dallapiccola, Bernard Rands has lived in the US since 1975. Once a regular part of the UK's new-music scene, performances of his works are now increasingly rare on this side of the Atlantic. But Rands is 80 this year, and the Proms marked his milestone with the UK premiere of his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. It was written for Jonathan Biss, who gave the world premiere earlier this year in Boston; he was the soloist here, too, playing with the BBC Scottish Symphony under Markus Stenz.

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15 days ago | |
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Pioneer of the early music revival, virtuoso recorder player and authoritative conductor

One of the great pioneers of the early music revival, Frans Brüggen, who had died aged 79, was celebrated equally for his virtuoso recorder playing and his stylistically authoritative conducting. It was as a player of the recorder and baroque flute that he made his reputation, winning accolades for his astonishing variety of tone colour, rhythmic flexibility and the sheer brilliance of his technique.

At the age of 21 he was appointed professor at the Royal Conservatory in the Hague, later holding the position of Erasmus professor at Harvard University. As a close associate of the harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt, he appeared as a recorder player on more than 50 releases on Telefunken's Das Alte Werk label. But in 1981 he entered a new phase in this career when he founded the period-instrument Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century, remaining in charge of them for the rest of his life, exploring repertoire that ranged from Bach and Rameau through Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven to Schubert and Mendelssohn.

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15 days ago | |
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Review: Hespèrion XXI, The Sixteen, Collegium Vocale Gent, Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake, Alban Gerhardt and Steven Osborne

From the plains of Troy to the fields of Flanders, war is the theme of this year's Edinburgh international festival. The prompt was the centenary of August 1914. The pertinence of the array of works being performed is timeless. "To battle, to battle," urges the song of L'homme armé, the armed man of medieval Europe whose jaunty tune has inspired music through the ages, from Josquin to Karl Jenkins. "I go to war on the green heath where the beautiful trumpets blow," runs a line in a Mahler song about a young soldier leaving his lover at the bugle's call. Kurt Weill, in a tender setting of Walt Whitman, expresses the worst truth: "The only son is dead."

Three days, six concerts and enough visions of warfare to last several lifetimes: the opening week of Edinburgh, however uplifting the music-making, offered a meditation of unblinking severity. In programmes by the Sixteen, Collegium Vocale Gent, Hespèrion XXI, Ian Bostridge and more, there was no sweet respite, no cheery interlude or fond farewell. In these early weeks of commemorating the first world war, no one would want it any other way. As the fatigue of remembering sets in, in pale mirroring of the weariness of war itself, we may feel differently. That challenge will face programme planners for the next four years, but not Edinburgh's Jonathan Mills. This year is the composer's last as EIF director. He leaves having marshalled, for 2014, some of the best concerts yet.

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16 days ago | |
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Mark Stone (baritone), Stephen Barlow (piano)
(Stone Records)

This second of four discs will be the first complete recording of the songs of Roger Quilter (1877-1953). As well as setting Blake, Byron, Keats, Binyon and the Earl of Rochester, the Sussex-born composer also wrote some of his own texts, sometimes using a pseudonym. The mood of these songs is wistful, fairly conventional and often with intricate piano parts, elegantly played by Stephen Barlow. Mark Stone's performances are assured and persuasive. A sensitive Old Etonian, of frail physical and mental health, Quilter's talent tends to be dismissed as "English Edwardian", though he lived until 1953. You'd have to be a serious devotee to need the full collection, but this Volume 2 is full of pleasures, not least the song cycle To Julia, to poems of Robert Herrick.

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16 days ago | |
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Choir of Westminster Cathedral/Baker
(Hyperion)

Byrd's double life, in public a member of Queen Elizabeth I's Chapel Royal in a newly Protestant England, in private a covert Catholic, directly shaped his music. Grand works such as the Great Service are among the glories of the English choral tradition. In contrast, the three Latin masses set here, long neglected, were for amateur, chamber performance in hidden Catholic communities. Westminster Cathedral Choir may sing them with more splendour and finesse than Byrd himself would have expected, yet the results are uplifting and moving. It's no slight to these musicians to say the disc is worth buying for the Byrd scholar John Milsom's incomparable notes: a masterly encapsulation of Tudor church music history in a few dense pages.

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16 days ago | |
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