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Deutsches Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz/Steffens
(Capriccio)

Pairs of works from the beginning and end of BA Zimmermann's all-too-short composing career are juxtaposed here. The early pieces the half-hour ballet Alagoana, whose Latin-Americanisms could make it easily mistaken for a score by Heitor Villa-Lobos, is a product of the late 1940s, while the Symphony in One Movement followed soon afterwards (although dating early Zimmermann scores precisely is not straightforward). The symphony is impressively taut and compact, though like passages in the ballet its fundamentally neoclassical style sometimes becomes overwrought and congested. It certainly seems far away from the much sparer, atonal world of the later music. The prelude for orchestra Photoptosis may be one of Zimmermann's most often performed scores, but laced with quotes from Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Scriabin it's also one of his most enigmatic. Meanwhile, Karl-Heinz Steffens's performance of Stille und Umkehr, Zimmermann's final orchestral work, reveals it to be a haunting and obsessive miniature masterpiece that is hard to forget.

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12 days ago | |
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Royal West of England Academy, Bristol
The Royal West of England Academy's war-themed exhibition provided an unusually potent setting for the Brodsky's Shostakovich recital, the first in a promising series

Shostakovich's string quartets have long been a cornerstone of the Brodksy Quartet's repertoire, but the Royal West of England Academy's exhibition Shock and Awe, a reflection on conflict, provided an unusually potent setting. Playing in the shadow of Tim Shaw RA's towering sculpture, Casting a Dark Democracy, even the benign Quartet No 1 in C major carried a tremor of foreboding, the inflections for once suggesting less the heritage of Borodin than the battles of Borodino. The muted string sound of the scherzo had a quiet menace, the hurtling finale a sinister energy.

This was the first in a series of five concerts taking place in the World Changed programme, a year-long examination of the first world war in venues across Bristol. Audience and players had a sense of embarking on a long journey together. It was in the recitative of the opening movement of the second quartet in A major, with the impassioned voice of first violin, Daniel Rowland, that the dramatic impact of Shostakovich hit with unexpected force. Rowland's is a highly physical presence, seemingly galvanising the responses of his fellow quartet-members so that the music was expressed with startling immediacy.

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12 days ago | |
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Beethoven's Eighth Symphony revealed Norrington at his most persuasive, but the theatrics in Dvoák's Ninth were jarring

Over the years, one learns to take Roger Norrington's rethinkings of the symphonic repertoire on a case-by-case basis rather than accept them as a world-view. His stripped-down, vibrato-free approach is sometimes revelatory, as it was here three years ago in Mahler's Ninth Symphony with his Stuttgart RSO players, and it's never less than highly interesting. Sometimes, though, it can all seem a bit too self-regarding, which was the problem with Norrington's approach to the main work this time, Dvoák's New World Symphony.

First, though, was Beethoven's Eighth, a Norrington speciality and favourite, wonderfully suited to his clean-off-the-barnacles approach and to his twinkly octogenarian naughtiness. The quick tempos and wide dynamics were exhilarating, with the gruff vigour of the basses, all in a line at the back, and the rasping horns helping to put the vibratoless higher strings in their place. The allegretto danced and the minuet had an infectious lilt, while the final allegro would have had Usain Bolt panting for breath.

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12 days ago | |
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Theatr Hafren, Newtown
Helen Sherman smouldered as the peroxide-blond heroine, but Jonathan Miller's production ultimately lacked fire

Mid Wales Opera may be small-scale but in terms of ambition they think big. To celebrate their 25th anniversary, they invited no less a figure than Jonathan Miller to direct this new staging of Bizet's Carmen.

Steering clear of touristy cliches, Miller sets the opera in the 1930s, before the Spanish civil war, underlining the world of poverty and hardship that Carmen and the soldiers inhabit. This, Miller says, is a working-class tragedy. Nicky Shaw's design is functional, stark, sun-baked brown: the only flash of red is provided by the flower that Carmen provocatively places in the barrel of Don José's gun. Rory Bremner's clever translation ratchets up the earthy, raunchy side of the libretto, as well as injecting some dark humour into the banter between soldiers and tobacco-factory girls. Dialogue and music seem well-balanced, even if the odd "you what?" or "whatever!" do feel out of place.

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12 days ago | |
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John Cages chaotic, joyful vision comes to life online - thanks to the Aldeburgh Festival.

It was one of those performances where everyone remembers something unforgettable, but unforgettably different; one of those rare experiences where everyone performers, listeners, perambulatory spectators, sunbathers, ice-cream-lickers, coffee-drinkers and pint-suppers was definitively part of the same atmosphere, but from which everybody will have taken a unique set of memories of what actually happened. Everyone was there, but everyone missed most of it.

Which riddle means that Im talking - of course! - about the Aldeburgh Festivals creation of a John Cage Musicircus in the town, on its beach, halls, huts, tents, galleries and boating lakes, on 22 June this year. One memory that sticks in my mind is of a flamboyantly topless and flagrantly hirsute trombonist performing his strange solo on top of the beach defences, just south of the shingle, while members of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe prepared their performance in a darkened gallery, and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra warmed up in a marquee next to the Moot Hall, before they played Ravels Mother Goose Suite, conducted by Thomas Adès.

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13 days ago | |
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(Decca, two CDs)

Nelson Freire is now firmly established as one of the great pianists of our age, but that recognition has been slow in coming. Until the past 10 years or so, the Brazilian pianist remained a bit of a secret. He has been hugely admired by colleagues, but reticent about publicity, and a slightly reluctant recording artist, so his early career he made his international debut in 1959 was never documented on discs as thoroughly as it might have been. This compilation of radio tapes, to mark Freire's 70th birthday next month, fills in some of those gaps.

The collection begins with Chopin's First Concerto from a 1968 concert in Kiel, with the NDR Symphony under Heinz Wallberg, and ends with Rachmaninov's Third, with David Zinman and the Rotterdam Philharmonic in Amsterdam's Concertgebouw in 1979. In between are performances of Schumann's Introduction and Concert Allegro Op 134, and Tchaikovsky's First, Prokofiev's First and Liszt's Second concertos. There's not a dud among them. Each bar is full of the vitality that Freire brings to everything he plays, though the recorded orchestral sound is a bit dry and bright and the orchestras aren't always immaculate. But Freire's fabulously clean phrasing and pearly tone are never compromised, and each concerto is special in one way or another.

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13 days ago | |
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Royal Albert Hall, London
The SSO's Proms debut showcased a sensational Zhou Long premiere and noble no-frills Rachmaninov

The centrepiece of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra's debut Prom, with its music director, Lan Shui, was the European premiere of Postures, a new concerto by Zhou Long, written for the versatile Swiss pianist Andreas Haefliger. Born in China, Zhou now lives in the US, and the east-west fusion that characterises his music is informed by the classical Chinese tradition that was suppressed when he was a teenager during the Cultural Revolution.

Postures is a big, three-movement work, cast in some respects along traditional lines, with overtones of Ravel and Stravinsky in the scoring. But the title derives from kung fu and the complex piano writing aligns western virtuosity with eastern ideas of the martial artist as a spiritually focused athlete. The piano's percussive qualities are stressed throughout. Haefliger's rapid-fire figurations are tracked and echoed by a huge array of orchestral percussion.

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13 days ago | |
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Royal Albert Hall, London
It was hard to imagine Respighi's Roman trilogy done better

Charles Dutoit, principal conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, has long been an advocate of Respighi's so-called Roman trilogy, his sequence of symphonic poems composed between 1915 and 1928, which obliquely survey the city's history and culture through depictions of its fountains, pines and festivals.

Individually, the three pieces are variably familiar: we hear Roman Festivals less frequently than its two companions. Dutoit and the RPO, however, gave us all three in a single evening. And what a treat it turned out to be.

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14 days ago | |
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Composers left disappointed by broadcaster's decision to cut works out of televised versions as BBC blames scheduling

Comment: Why does the BBC assume its audiences won't like new music?

Since 1927, when the BBC took over the Henry Wood promenade concerts, the Proms have been Britain's most important champion of new music, commissioning countless works from composers that have been experienced by an enthusiastic and open-minded audience that, in the words of Sir Harrison Birtwistle, is "in for anything".

But this year, those watching selected Proms on BBC2 and BBC4 have been confronted by a mystery: the case of the disappearing contemporary music.

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14 days ago | |
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Royal Albert Hall, London
The BBCSO was on vibrant form under Semyon Bychkov, while the five main principals struck sparks off one another

Salome one day, Elektra the next: the Proms' Strauss weekend was a heady pairing that will go down as a highlight of this season. The BBC Symphony Orchestra's Elektra, conducted by Semyon Bychkov, lived up to the Deutsche Oper's iridescent Salome the night before, and in at least one respect improved on it: this time each singer had his or her role securely by heart, and with no music stands for the cast to step around, director Justin Way could make the presentation less static than he had for Salome. The five main principals in concert dress struck sparks off one another within their narrow strip of platform.

They had space to sing as well, thanks to Bychkov's expansive, fluid conducting. The BBCSO was on vibrant form. Did they sound quite as confident and at ease with this seething score as an opera-house orchestra might have? Perhaps not, but this was still quite a performance: the brass were searing at the bloodthirsty close of Elektra's first monologue, the wind dark and evil at the start of her scene with Clytemnestra, the whole orchestra voluptuous when she finally recognises her long-lost brother, Orestes.

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14 days ago | |
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