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Classical music | The Guardian
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Wilton’s Music Hall, London
Issues with sound levels marred the singer’s trip through the Porter songbook with a Czech big band, which would have benefited from more provocative wit

In an interview published last year, Magdalena Kožená described listening to Cole Porter’s songs as one of her “musical guilty pleasures”. The Czech mezzo has, however, now embarked on a European tour with a Cole Porter programme of her own in the company of Ondrej Havelka and his Melody Makers, a Prague-based big band specialising in music of the 1920s and 30s. Though her two London concerts formed the closing instalment of her Wigmore Hall residency, they took place at Wilton’s Music Hall in the east end.

This was an evening of problems as well as pleasures, in truth. Massive and unnecessary amplification resulted in the Melody Makers threatening to drown Kožená out in places. Looking at times ill at ease on the platform, she sang cleanly and straightforwardly, leaving the improvisations, many of them stunning, to Havelka’s players.

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17 days ago | |
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The opera singer played the jealous general opposite Imogen Stubbs and Ian McKellen in a 1989 RSC version. He remembers the play as a crushing experience

Over the years, people have asked me whether I’d ever sing Verdi’s Otello. But of course it’s a tenor role, and I’m a bass, so I just smiled. I’d thought about Shakespeare’s play, of course, but always assumed I was in the wrong genre. Then I was working with director Trevor Nunn on a production of Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess at Glyndebourne in 1987, and he suggested it. Part of me never expected it to happen. But then a few years later he came back, and introduced me to Ian McKellen, who was going to play Iago. I cancelled the operas I’d been planning to do and made time for this instead.

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17 days ago | |
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The violinist and artistic director of the Australian Chamber Orchestra on Strauss, Seattle-era grunge, and the Swingle Singers

What’s been your most memorable live music experience as an audience member?

R Strauss’s Elektra in Vienna and his Die Frau Ohne Schatten in Melbourne. Both of them conducted by an Australian woman, Simone Young. In Vienna a lady next to me asked who the conductor was, and I was proud to answer: “Eine Australische Frau”.

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17 days ago | |
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Cheltenham festival
Nicola Benedetti and her proficient trio give their Mark-Anthony Turnage ‘love duet’ a solid airing, while Australian pianist Zubin Kanga took us in new musical directions

As well as playing a concerto with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and working with the festival’s young musicians academy, Nicola Benedetti’s brief residency at this year’s Cheltenham festival included a Town Hall recital with the trio she’s formed with her cellist partner Leonard Elschenbroich and the pianist Alexei Grynyuk.

Their programme was framed by two of the most substantial works in the piano trio literature, Schubert’s B flat Trio D898, and Brahms’s Trio in B major, Op 8. In between, Benedetti and Elschenbroich played the piece that Mark-Anthony Turnage wrote for them last year. Duetti d’Amore proves to be a more than useful addition to the scant repertory of works for violin and cello – a set of five miniatures, the longest of which lasts barely five minutes. The pieces are predominantly lyrical in tone. There’s the occasional moment when the emotional temperature is allowed to rise, but the expressive centre of gravity seems to be the penultimate piece in the set, with its high-lying violin lines that unfurl over pedal notes in the cello.

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18 days ago | |
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The geneticist on the joys of Alexander Calder and Nordic noir, plus virtuoso performances from Simon McBurney and András Schiff

The new Francis Crick Institute in London’s King’s Cross opens this summer, and by the time it reaches its full capacity later in the year will house 1,400 researchers and 400 support staff. Sir Paul Nurse, director and chief executive, describes it as “probably the biggest biomedical research laboratory building in the world”; others have affectionately dubbed it “Sir Paul’s Cathedral”. Nurse, who was president of the Royal Society until last year, has become one of the most celebrated scientists in Britain. Born to a working-class family in Norfolk, his career has led him from a Harrow grammar school to some of the world’s most prestigious biology and genetics laboratories and, in 2001, to the Nobel prize for medicine, for his work discovering “key regulators in the cell cycle”.

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18 days ago | |
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Phantasm, Elizabeth Kenny (lute)
(Linn)

“The most sensuously tuneful hour of music ever written”, is Phantasm director Laurence Dreyfus’s wittily provocative description of Dowland’s Lachrimae; you might expect it to be said of Puccini or Gershwin, but of Dowland in 1604? Yet it’s apt, because several of the lively dances that follow the sad pavans are versions of Dowland’s wonderful songs. Can She Excuse My Wrongs works better as The Earl of Essex Galliard, with its repeated notes and syncopated rhythms. At the heart of this disc are the seven variants of the utterly memorable Lachrimae theme, played by Phantasm with their expressive warmth and exquisite subtlety. Perhaps Elizabeth Kenny’s lute is underbalanced, but this is otherwise perfect.

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18 days ago | |
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Maximilian Hornung (cello), Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Serebrier
(Linn)

Don’t play this if you have a hangover. The American composer Samuel Adler’s sixth symphony is so loud, frantic and brilliantly exciting it will blow you across the room. In three movements it crackles with electric energy, with only the central section offering a brief respite. Yet for all the clamour it is tightly organised, with a clarity of purpose and sense of direction that sends it hurtling to a dramatic conclusion. The cello concerto is initially far more introspective, offering long, singing lines for the soloist, beautifully realised here by Maximilian Hornung. But Adler can’t resist moving things along in the finale, the terrific strings of the RSNO throwing up great thickets of chords for the soloist to cut through and emerge triumphant.

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18 days ago | |
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Royal Opera House, London; Glyndebourne, east Sussex; Hampstead parish church, London
Verdi’s troublesome Trovatore gets a Bösch job, Figaro wigs out, and small pleasures abound in church…

Corrosive vengeance. Bitter loss. Love between enemies. Maternal devotion. Verdi explores all these rich themes in Il trovatore – and yet it is so often written off as the problem opera of a golden period that also produced Rigoletto and La traviata. The crazily melodramatic plot and the two-dimensional nature of the characters make it difficult to stage convincingly and easy to mock: no wonder the Marx Brothers chose it as the backdrop to their lampooning A Night at the Opera.

Director David Bösch, making his Royal Opera debut in this new joint production with Frankfurt Opera, attempts to tackle at least some of these problems head on by placing the action in a modern civil war, pointing up the desperate situation of each side in the conflict and emphasising that war simultaneously sharpens the knife of vendetta and dulls any sense of decency.

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18 days ago | |
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Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Jansons
(RCO)

In 1906 Rachmaninov was in his early 30s, busy as a celebrity pianist and conductor of the Bolshoi theatre but with no time for composition. He moved temporarily from Moscow to Dresden, writing several major works including his Symphony No 2, an hour-long romantic epic now among his most popular works. Mariss Jansons shapes its sumptuous melodies with restraint and detail, making the climaxes more than usually explosive. There’s great clarity in the playing, especially in the long slow movement with its huge clarinet solo. Woodwind and strings sound luxurious and expansive, brass vigorous and savage. There’s no indulgence and plenty of excitement in this live recording from 2010.

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18 days ago | |
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The Cultural Revolution had catastrophic consequences for musicians in China, where listening to Beethoven became a political crime. Fifty years on, how have attitudes changed?

In an out-of-the-way room in the grounds of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, I came across a memorial: photographs, papers and objects in memory of the 20 people – professors, spouses and students – who lost their lives during the 10-year Chinese Cultural Revolution. This catastrophe officially ended in 1976, the year of Mao Zedong’s death. When, a short time later, violinist Isaac Stern arrived for a series of high-profile concerts, he found that Shanghai – home for nearly a century to one of the first orchestras in Asia – could not find him one playable piano. The instruments, including an estimated 500 owned by the Shanghai Conservatory, had been destroyed.

Related: The Cultural Revolution: all you need to know about China's political convulsion

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20 days ago | |
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