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From the archive: 14 May 1970: Edward Greenfield visits the rebuilt Maltings Concert Hall just before the Aldeburgh Festival opens

No one thinks they are going to sit the Queen on a packing-case when she opens the rebuilt Maltings Concert Hall less than a month from now, but completion of the work is touch and go. The workmen are already on overtime and a seven-day week, and to visit the empty auditorium – cork tiles still going down, the cane chairs unassembled ­– wood-shavings everywhere – is to realise just how much has to be done. Long before the Queen arrives for the ceremonial opening on June 5, the main hall at least will have to be ready for an invited audience and a programme of acoustic tests, including not only Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears playing and singing. but such items as “warble tone,” “theatre maroons,” “pistol shot,” “audience quiet,” and “audience shout.” The experts of Arup Associates – the firm which has supervised the work this time as during the original building – are confident that the now famed acoustics of this converted malthouse will be identical with those before.

It was not just accident that the acoustics were as good as they were. Arup Associates bring together specialists in civil engineering as well as architecture, and before the design of the wooden roof was devised, there was long consultation with recording engineers from the Decca Company and the BBC. This time all thought of changing the basic design of the roof was set aside. There were arguments after the fire against using wood again, but a comprehensive sprinkler system has this time been included with outlets everywhere and an enormous tank outside holding 5,000 gallons of water under pressure.

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15 days ago | |
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Longborough, Moreton-in-Marsh
Wagner’s opera of extremes is directed with striking simplicity, but John Treleaven’s tormented Tannhäuser grates on the ear

Pilgrimage to Rome is a central part of Wagner’s early opera Tannhäuser, so there is something emblematic about this new production at Longborough, which in the last decade has established a magnetic pull for Wagner followers. The medieval tradition of the Minnesingers and their song contests certainly gives the context for music in which this audience could luxuriate, with conductor Anthony Negus once again demonstrating both his authority and profound sensibilities as an interpreter of Wagner. The orchestral playing was unfailingly good.

Yet, for the uninitiated, this opera’s extreme fluctuations between orgiastically profane and sacred can be confusing. The anguish Wagner contrives for Tannhäuser, erstwhile doyen of troubadour Minnesingers and his vacillations between the sexual pleasure dome that is Venusberg, domain of his mistress, goddess of love, and a yearning for redemption through the influence of the saintly Elisabeth, is pretty much autobiographical. The volatile Tannhäuser is Wagner, a rampant hedonist aspiring to purity of conception in his art. That such apparently irreconcilable factors – over two versions of the opera, 16 years apart – come together gloriously in the score doesn’t lessen the difficulties of any staging.

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15 days ago | |
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Matthews’s fellow composers pay tribute to his music’s luminosity and teeming creative energy in this exclusive clip from a film made to celebrate his 70th birthday

The composer Colin Matthews celebrates his 70th birthday this year, an occasion which is marked by a new film from Barrie Gavin that’s screening at the Aldeburgh festival next week.

Matthews’s place at the centre of the UK’s contemporary musical life is assured thanks to his musical relationship with Benjamin Britten in the early 1970s, his invaluable work in preparing a performing edition of Mahler’s 10th Symphony, his founding of the NMC record label, that crucial champion of new British music, the generations of young composers he has mentored at Aldeburgh, and as part of the London Symphony Orchestra’s Panufnik Scheme - and much, much more.

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16 days ago | |
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CBSO Centre, Birmingham / Aldeburgh festival, Suffolk
New and old works by John Woolrich, Judith Weir and Howard Skempton helped bid an affectionate farewell to BCMG’s Stephen and Jackie Newbould, while Benedict Mason proved again what a singular writer he is

It’s almost 30 years since Birmingham Contemporary Music Group was launched as a specialist offshoot of the city’s superb symphony orchestra. Throughout that period Stephen and Jackie Newbould have been part of the ensemble’s administration, for half of that time as its artistic director and executive producer respectively. Now the couple are stepping down from their roles, and the last concert under their aegis was a special affair, with most of the great and good of British new music in attendance. It’s a long time surely since so many of Britain’s leading composers were gathered together under the same roof.

Related: Tales of the Unexpected: saying yes to today's composers

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16 days ago | |
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Opera Holland Park
A Shakespearean Rodolfo and gorgeous-sounding Mimi shine in a witty and moving production


Opera Holland Park is marking the Shakespeare anniversary not with an opera based on one of his plays, but with Stephen Barlow’s new production of La Bohème, which relocates Puccini’s masterpiece from 1840s Paris to Elizabethan London and its theatrical and intellectual milieu.

On a mock-up of a Tudor stage, we find Shaun Dixon’s Rodolfo, looking like Shakespeare himself, scribbling at his writing table, while Andrew Finden’s Marcello slaves away at some big Renaissance canvas. Schaunard (Frederick Long) is a lutenist, Colline (John Savournin) a severe, Francis Bacon-type philosopher. Anna Patalong’s self-assured Mimi has designs from the outset on becoming the young playwright’s mistress and perhaps muse. Elin Pritchard’s outlandishly got-up Musetta is a self-dramatising shrew, waiting, perhaps, to be tamed.

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16 days ago | |
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Verdi was 80 when he finished turning Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor into a comic opera. Gatti’s 2012 production aimed to draw out its tenderness

Giuseppe Verdi was in his late 70s and thinking about retirement when his librettist Arrigo Boito suggested they make an opera from The Merry Wives of Windsor. Verdi had set two plays by Shakespeare before – Macbeth, which was one of his first great successes in the 1840s, and Otello, which he completed in 1887, at the age of 74.

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From Tchaikovsky to Carlos Kleiber, and Beethoven to the Borodin Quartet - the young conductor on the music and music-makers who inspire him

What’s the most unusual place or venue you’ve ever performed?

The filming of BBC Ten Pieces Secondary took place in a huge warehouse in Salford. This was a challenging venue but allowed the camera crews and set crews (with their lights and smoke machines) to have great access around the orchestra, and provided a fantastic backdrop for the Ten Pieces film. I also remember an enormous arena - The Ziggo Dome - in Amsterdam where I conducted a live performance of Disney’s Fantasia two Christmases ago. It was by far the largest venue in which I have ever conducted - 17,000 seats - which meant it was something of a logistical nightmare.

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17 days ago | |
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Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh
Sarah Tynan hit the high notes on Britten’s song cycle with the help of circus troupe, while Les Siècles gave Rameau rhythmic punch

Les Siècles, the orchestra founded in 2003 by the conductor François-Xavier Roth, has shown itself to be much more than a narrowly specialised period-instrument band. Its repertoire ranges across five centuries, and the concerts in its residency with Roth during the first week of this year’s Aldeburgh festival showcase just how all-encompassing that repertoire is.

Related: How to make Britten fly: soprano Sarah Tynan on fusing Les Illuminations with circus

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17 days ago | |
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West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
The puppetry alone is enough to recommend this magical take on Stephen Sondheim’s musical, but Opera North choristers are the real ace up the sleeve

The West Yorkshire Playhouse and Opera North have stood at either end of the same slope for more than 25 years without ever entering into a significant collaboration. That Leeds’ flagship arts organisations have managed to do so now is largely down to Wagner. Opera North’s focus on its acclaimed, stripped-back Ring Cycle has freed up the chorus up to take part in Stephen Sondheim’s fairytale fantasia down the road.

The Wagner connection may be significant. The Ring, after all, is the story of a battle between giants and humans arising from the theft of some enchanted gold. Into the Woods is the story of psychological disturbance among giants and humans arising from the theft of some magic beans. There’s also something Wagnerian about Sondheim’s preference for interleaved motifs over individual melodies. And also, it has to be said, in its prodigious length.

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17 days ago | |
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RPO/Gunning
A warm celebration of the Brecon Beacons and a dark meditation on ageing and loss are added to the composer’s impressive canon

You could never accuse Christopher Gunning of low output: nine symphonies, chamber music, award-winning film and TV scores and concerti for piano, flute, oboe, clarinet and saxophone, now joined by works for violin and cello. Harriet Mackenzie’s expressive playing makes Gunning’s sinuous solo line sing like a bird in his unashamedly lyrical celebration of the landscape in the Brecon Beacons. It’s instantly accessible, warmly melodic yet never trite or cloying (the first movement is a gem, built around a single chord). The cello concerto is grittier, exploring dark themes of ageing and loss. Richard Harwood brings a stately gravity to the sombre nature of the work but Gunning can’t resist repeated harp glissandi that cheapen the serious intent of the music.

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17 days ago | |
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