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Posted: September 26, 2021, 1:10 pm

LPO/Gardner The Midsummer Marriage review – Tippett’s opera thrills in stupendous performance

Royal Festival Hall, London
In his opening concert as the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s principal conductor, Edward Gardner brought home the heady, almost narcotic quality of Tippett’s music

Edward Gardner chose Tippett for his opening concert as the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s principal conductor, with a performance of The Midsummer Marriage, the composer’s first opera, premiered in 1955. Marking both the start of an already assured artistic collaboration that promises much, and the vindication, by and large, of a work that can still divide opinion, this was in many ways a great occasion.

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Posted: September 25, 2021, 11:30 am

The week in classical: RPO/ Petrenko; Esther Woo and Yekwon Sunwoo – review

Royal Albert Hall; Wigmore Hall, London
Vasily Petrenko takes over at the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – and pumps up the volume. And a new violin-piano duo make their mark

From this autumn, the musical landscape of the UK will experience a seismic shift. Beginning now and stretching over the next two years, six of England’s leading orchestras will see their chief conductors move on. Whether for personal, professional or philosophical reasons, clearly some big names don’t see a future in Brexit Britain.

One who does (while judiciously keeping one foot in Bergen) is Edward Gardner, who tonight will open his first season as principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. He takes over from Vladimir Jurowski, who has moved to the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, a city that will also be welcoming Simon Rattle when he moves to the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra after leaving the London Symphony Orchestra in 2023. Rattle has taken German citizenship.

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Posted: September 23, 2021, 4:22 pm

Schumann (Gerhaher Huber) Alle Lieder review - Schumann lovers will find it irresistible

Christian Gerhaher/Gerold Huber
(Sony Classical, 11 CDs)
Christian Gerhaher is front and centre of this impressive complete song project, to which he brings precision and attention to detail

There have been more or less complete surveys of Robert Schumann’s songs on disc before – in the late 1970s the peerless Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau recorded all the songs he thought suitable for a baritone, while Hyperion’s Schumann edition, planned by Graham Johnson and completed in 2009, used a whole range of soloists. But Christian Gerhaher’s project with his regular pianist Gerold Huber, which began in 2018 with a disc that included the Op 35 Kerner-Lieder, is the first attempt at comprehensiveness by just a single singer.

It’s undoubtedly a fine, constantly rewarding set, with every song delivered with the fastidious attention to detail and to the individual colouring of each phrase that has always been a feature of Gerhaer’s lieder singing. Strictly speaking, though, it’s not the one-man achievement that the packaging and publicity suggest. Though Gerhaher does sing the bulk of the solo songs, some are assigned to others: for instance, he shares the Op 25 collection Myrthen with Camilla Tilling, while the song cycle Frauenliebe und -leben is taken by another soprano, Julia Kleiter, with further singers recruited for the duets and part-songs with piano.

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Posted: September 23, 2021, 3:58 pm

Cenčić/Orkiestra Historyczna review – a countertenor of intelligence and flair

Wigmore Hall, London
Max Emanuel Cenčić’s exemplary breath control and dazzling coloratura made this recital with Polish period ensemble Orkiestra Historyczna an outstanding one

Countertenor Max Emanuel Cenčić’s concert with the Polish period ensemble Orkiestra Historyczna juxtaposed arias by Handel with music by composers he regarded as rivals: from Porpora, who directly challenged Handel’s dominance on his effective home turf by travelling to London, to Vinci and Hasse, who did so at a more discreet distance from the continental mainland.

Cenčić has long been an outstanding recitalist, and everything was done with the combination of intelligence and flair that we have come to expect from him. His voice, warm, even and velvety, remains exceptionally beautiful, with little sense of pressure in his upper registers. Exemplary breath control allows him to spin out the long lines of Se dolce m’era gia from Handel’s Floridante with exquisite ease, while his coloratura was dazzling in such bravura showstoppers as Non sempre oprar da forte from Hasse’s Cajo Fabricio, with which he brought his programme to a close. Allowing sound and line rather than textual intervention to carry emotional meaning, he can often be remarkably intense: Deggio morire, o stelle, from Handel’s Siroe, fluctuating between sadness and resentment and preceded by a sorrowing, wonderfully phrased recitative, was one of the evening’s high points.

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Posted: September 23, 2021, 3:10 pm

A twinkly-eyed genius: why I love composer Michael Tippett | Edward Gardner

Jailed for being a conscientious objector, Tippett came up with his opera The Midsummer Marriage, an expression of hope and reconciliation that resonates louder than ever

You have to love Michael Tippett’s music if you are going to conduct it. His music is exasperating to bring to performance – it is impractically written, often on the edge of possibility, and frustrating for musicians to realise. The first performance of his Second Symphony fell apart, and, later, under the direction of the composer, a recording session of the same piece had Tippett on the podium, utterly lost, swishing pages back and forwards, giggling.

I have a slight fetish for those composers for whom the narrow bandwidth of five neat lines on paper seems hopelessly inadequate – Berlioz, Janáček and Lutosławski (try his third and fourth symphonies) are all in this group, as is Tippett. Their fantasy and lack of boundaries can make rehearsals feel career-shortening, but make performances transcendental. When you listen to their music you are in awe at how it could ever be reduced to paper. There is something of the essence of Tippett’s sound world here. He made music that is otherworldly, luminous and elemental, which strikes right from his inspiration to a listener’s heart.

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Posted: September 20, 2021, 11:12 am

LSO/Rattle review – a Brucknerian labour of love

Barbican, London
Simon Rattle has become a very fine and authentic Brucknerian, as this fascinating concert – offering insights into the composer’s fourth symphony – revealed

Bruckner is not the only composer whose music exists in several revisions. But he has few rivals as music’s most compulsive tinkerman. Bruckner’s fourth symphony, in particular, underwent multiple and substantial alterations between its first incarnation in 1874 and its more or less final version in 1881 that is among his most popular works. Some of the most important examples provided the inspiration for this highly imaginative LSO concert under Sir Simon Rattle.

In the first half, Rattle directed the LSO in discarded movements from earlier versions of the symphony: a scherzo that was later dumped in favour of the more familiar “hunting” alternative, and the composer’s second shot at writing the finale, a movement that continued to trouble Bruckner for years. In part two, Rattle then gave the world premiere of a new reworking of the symphony’s final version by Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs for the Vienna-based Bruckner complete edition and published this year.

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Posted: September 19, 2021, 11:29 am

Leeds piano competition finals review – Alim Beisembayev a worthy winner

Leeds Town Hall
The 23-year-old Kazakh’s personality shone through in his dashing and extrovert Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini by Rachmaninov

Whatever one thinks of the enduring value of musical competitions, there’s no denying that they continue to thrive and even proliferate. This year’s Leeds piano competition, the 20th in its history and the first to be held since the death of its founder Fanny Waterman, fell in the middle of an autumn run of well-established events; it was preceded by the Busoni competition in Bolzano and will be followed next month by the latest edition of the most prestigious of them all, the Warsaw Chopin competition.

But the status of any musical competition depends on the calibre of its previous winners, and what they go on to achieve, and it’s many years since a pianist of genuine world class emerged as a result of winning in Leeds. At least this time there should be no arguments over whether the right person was awarded first prize. To judge by the final round of concertos at least, the 23-year-old Kazakhstan-born Alim Beisembayev was a worthy winner, with a polish and maturity to his playing that marked him among the all-male quintet of finalists.

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Posted: September 17, 2021, 3:22 pm

That way madness lies: why the obsession about diagnosing Robert Schumann?

The Romantic composer died in an asylum in 1856, since when musicians, doctors - and even the Nazis – have sought to name the illness that brought his early death. It tells us as much as about the story of modern psychiatry as it does about the man and his music.

Of all the things, one of Robert and Clara Schumann’s grandchildren, Felix, ended up working as a door-to-door lingerie salesman in a New York suburb. On the morning of 25 October 1941, he was found slumped behind the wheel of his car, parked in a garage behind his house. Carbon monoxide poisoning. According to the New York Times, he had been “despondent because of poor health and financial reserves”. The death was recorded as a suicide.

In the Schumann family, suffering as a consequence of psychiatric illness stretched back generations. It is thought that Robert’s father had a nervous breakdown; his mother endured bouts of depression and would recover at what is now the Karlovy Vary spas in the Czech Republic; his sister Emilie took her own life. As for Schumann himself, he was troubled by severe psychotic episodes for his entire adult life, and attempted suicide in 1854, aged 44. At his own request he was admitted to the Endenich asylum near Bonn, where he died two years later. Furthermore, a son of Robert and Clara’s spent 31 years in an asylum.

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Posted: September 16, 2021, 5:31 pm

Il Vologeso review | Erica Jeal's classical album of the week

The Mozartists/Page
(Signum)
Ian Page’s live recording is a lively introduction to the music of Niccolò Jommelli, who, like the Bee Gees two centuries later, had an ear for a striking harmony

Niccolò Jommelli, as none but the most committed 18th-century opera nerd will be able to tell you, wrote Il Vologeso in 1766, when the 10-year-old Mozart was a year into his own composing career. That’s how come Il Vologeso qualified for Ian Page’s ongoing Mozart 250 project, putting the great composer’s work into the context of what was going on musically around him. This recording is of its belated UK premiere, an upbeat performance given in April 2016 by Page, his ensemble the Mozartists and an up-and-coming cast.

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Posted: September 16, 2021, 3:17 pm

Opera librettist Amanda Holden obituary

Scholar of opera who translated librettos into English, wrote ones of her own and edited guides to encourage new listeners

In 1985 two professional developments defined the path of Amanda Holden’s work until her sudden and unexpected death at the age of 73. She worked on her first opera translation, Don Giovanni, for Jonathan Miller at English National Opera (ENO), which made her realise that, in addition to her profound musical understanding and knowledge, she had the wordsmith’s talent required to craft opera translations. This opened up a fruitful avenue that eventually led to her creating more than 60 opera translations.

At almost the same moment, she conceived the idea of a reference work on opera that was to be an enormous scholarly enterprise. Together with Stephen Walsh and Nicholas Kenyon, and Rodney Milnes as consultant editor, she put together a proposal for a substantial operatic reference based on composers that would sit between the rather limited selection of the Kobbé opera guide and the rather prolix New Grove Opera. Peter Mayer at Penguin decided to go with the idea, and so Amanda faced the daunting task of recruiting and monitoring more than 100 contributors from all over the world.

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Posted: September 15, 2021, 2:24 pm

Diversity, dialogue – and a prankster bassoon: how Mozart speaks for us all

The piano concertos, like his operas, are where you get to meet Mozart himself. And what you find is a man who sought to disrupt privilege and let us see the world through the eyes of others

When I was 12, my piano teacher gave me a great gift. For my first piano concerto, he assigned me Mozart’s 23rd, in A major, one of the most perfect pieces ever written. “Kiddo,” he said, “you have to understand that this piece is a privilege.” I begged my father to take me to the music store right away; on the ride home, I caressed the happy yellow cover, adorned with laurels. For weeks, my parents didn’t need to force me to practice. I loved even those first four bars – how they folded in, all intimate lyricism. And then the next bars, how they piped up, as if laughing off the first.

My teacher’s use of the word “privilege” came back to me recently — he probably wouldn’t phrase it that way now. The word hangs heavily in the air these days. It has lost what positive connotations it had. But privilege and Mozart have a fascinating, fraught relationship. Just look at his two most famous operas: The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. Both plots are centred (not loosely, but obsessively) on the privileges of terrible people, and derive most of their momentum from destroying their outdated senses of entitlement. Count Almaviva asserts the right to deflower his servants; the Don claims the right to sleep with anyone and anything that moves, whether they consent or not.

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Posted: September 14, 2021, 10:58 am

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra names Kazuki Yamada as new chief conductor

Japanese musician, currently the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s principal guest conductor, will succeed Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla in April 2023

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra today announces that its next chief conductor is to be Kazuki Yamada. The Japanese musician, born in 1979, has been CBSO’s principal guest conductor for the past three years, but in April 2023 will succeed Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, who has led the orchestra since 2016.

“On his debut with the orchestra back in 2012 he made a very strong impression” said CBSO’s chief executive Stephen Maddock. “His technique is fabulous, he’s incredibly clear, he has a tremendously wide repertoire. He’s a really, really fine musician.”

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Posted: September 11, 2021, 11:00 am

Classical home listening: Anna Lapwood, Jeremy Denk and the best of Edinburgh

The organ of Ely Cathedral is put through its paces in Lapwood’s solo debut; and a new Mozart recording from Denk is not to be missed

• For her debut solo album, Images (Signum), Anna Lapwood, organist, conductor, broadcaster, has devised an organ recital as unexpected as it is absorbing. Several of the works are transcriptions – Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, the Andantino from Debussy’s String Quartet and, most arresting, Lapwood’s own version of Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, which take on a magical, unearthly quality. The “Storm” becomes even more maniacal and uneasy, but “Dawn”, misty and ethereal, might have been written for the instrument. Owain Park’s Images, inspired by a passage from Walt Whitman, sends multiple fanfares echoing in space. The third of Nadia Boulanger’s Trois Improvisations and works by Olivier Messiaen, Patrick Gowers, Kerensa Briggs and Cheryl Frances-Hoad complete this eclectic programme.

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Posted: September 9, 2021, 1:42 pm

On DSCH: Shostakovich and Stevenson/Igor Levit | Andrew Clements's classical album of the week

Igor Levit
(Sony Classical, three CDs)
Pairing Stevenson’s Passacaglia on DSCH with Shostakovich’s equally epic 24 Preludes is a unique combination of rarity and virtuosity

Two years ago, Igor Levit devoted a recital at the Wigmore Hall to Ronald Stevenson’s massive Passacaglia on DSCH. It was an extraordinary, unforgettable performance of one of the most singular works in the 20th-century piano repertoire, an 80-minute span of music, composed between 1960 and 1963, which contains a whole range of smaller forms within it, using the DSCH motto, a musical “spelling” ( D, E flat, C, B natural) of Dmitri Shostakovich’s initials, as the basis of the 13-note theme over which it seamlessly unfolds.

Levit’s recording of the Passacaglia, just as magnificent as it was live, is paired with Shostakovich’s equally epic set of 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op 87. That isn’t exactly an everyday work, especially in a complete performance, but Stevenson’s quirky masterpiece is the real rarity here. It’s conceived in the grand virtuoso tradition of Liszt, Alkan and Busoni, rarely heard in concert and recorded just five times previously, including one by the composer himself and another from the 1960s by John Ogdon that never seems to have been transferred to CD. As Levit shows so spectacularly, it takes a wild ride through a cornucopia of musical forms, quotations and allusions, with references ranging from Bach to 20th-century revolutionary songs – one passage is marked to be played “with an almost Gagarinesque sense of space”, a reference to the Soviet cosmonaut – and of course to Shostakovich, to whom Stevenson dedicated the work.

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Posted: September 9, 2021, 11:00 am

Pavel Kolesnikov, the pianist making ‘a palace of sound built by your own imagination’

The Russian star brings his take on Bach’s Goldberg Variations to the Proms, having recently torn the piece apart with choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. He explains his new, ‘tree-like’ twist

“Like climbing an infinite stairway, one step at a time.” That is how Pavel Kolesnikov describes working on JS Bach’s Goldberg Variations, one of the outstanding releases of last year. On Friday 10 September, he will perform them at the penultimate night of the Proms.

“I’ve never had the chance to dedicate so much quality time to a piece before,” he says when we meet in a tiny cafe in central London. The city has been home since the Siberia-born Kolesnikov, now in his early 30s, came to study at the Royal College of Music. He had grown up listening to recordings of the Goldbergs by Glenn Gould and Rosalyn Tureck, but had never considered performing them himself – “I did not feel I had anything to add”.

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Posted: September 4, 2021, 11:00 am

Classical home listening: Schubert Symphonies 4 & 5; Zacara da Teramo

René Jacobs and the B’Rock Orchestra fizz in youthful Schubert. Plus, the complete works of a Renaissance eccentric

Schubert wrote his first five symphonies in his teens, youthful works without the poignancy and majesty of the Unfinished (No 8) or the “Great” C Major (No 9) yet hinting at what might come. René Jacobs and his B’Rock Orchestra have reached Symphonies 4 & 5 in their cycle for Pentatone (following pairings of 1 & 6, and 2 & 3), and they maximise the potential of these works with raw, restless performances.

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Posted: August 20, 2021, 9:00 am

‘Come on this journey with me’: Elaine Mitchener, Britain’s boldest vocalist

Classically trained with a three-octave range, the genre-exploding performer dissolves her voice into astonishing gasps and stutters to confront the horror of colonial history

Performing her piece Sweet Tooth, Elaine Mitchener’s hands become someone else’s. Flesh is poked, buttocks are slapped, breasts are grabbed. Her fingers reach inside her mouth, fish-hooking her cheeks into a grimace, and she is dragged about the stage by invisible others. Her breath becomes shallow and panicked, in a natural, unperformed response. It is extremely difficult to watch and to hear, and it’s supposed to be: she is evoking a slave inspection. “It’s about: I want you to experience this with me, because we are equal, we are human beings,” she says. “It’s too simplistic for people to say: oh, it’s just provocative work, or she’s just angry and hammering it home. No, we’re talking about humanity and our existence.”

Mitchener is a vocalist (arguably the UK’s boldest operatic voice), movement artist (“dancer” isn’t quite right) and composer whose work cuts across music, theatre, dance, art and research. Her power is in her ability to generate intense collective empathy in a room. “Coming to see what I do, you don’t sit back,” she says. “People are exhausted afterwards. I ask you to come with me on this journey and we’re in it together. It’s about trust, and I take that trust really seriously.”

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Posted: August 17, 2021, 5:00 am

Thomas Quasthoff: ‘From birth, my mum felt guilty. I had to show her I made the best of my life’

Born disabled due to the effects of Thalidomide, the exuberant star rose to classical music’s pinnacle – then quit at the peak of his powers. Now he’s back – singing jazz

Thomas Quasthoff has been retired from classical music for nearly a decade now. The German bass-baritone was in his early 50s when he made the shock announcement – an age when singers of his type are still in their prime. His elder brother Michael had been diagnosed with lung cancer in 2010, and that diagnosis and his brother’s subsequent death had left Quasthoff temporarily physically incapable of singing.


“Three days after being told that my brother would not live longer than nine months I lost my voice,” he recalls. “Doctors looked at my throat and said: ‘Everything is fine.’ But my heart was broken, and if the heart is broken ...” he pauses. “The voice is the mirror of the soul.”


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Posted: July 26, 2021, 11:01 pm

Simon Rattle: I always avoided ‘jingoistic’ Last Night of the Proms

Conductor admits elements of event known for its flag-waving and patriotic anthems made him uneasy

Simon Rattle has said he avoided conducting at the Last Night of the Proms throughout his career because of his discomfort at its “jingoistic elements”.

In an interview with Radio Times, the conductor – who announced earlier this year he would be leaving the London Symphony Orchestra and relocating to Germany – said nationalistic aspects of the event left him “uneasy”.

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Posted: December 2, 2020, 1:24 pm

Without Ethel Smyth and classical music's forgotten women, we only tell half the story

Expanding the classical canon brings us incredible music and extraordinary stories, not least that of Ethel Smyth, whose compositions and pioneering energy filled England in the interwar years

In 1934, all of musical England gathered to celebrate the 75th birthday of one the country’s most famous composers – Dame Ethel Smyth. During a festival spanning several months, audiences crowded into the Queen’s Hall, London, to hear her symphonic cantata The Prison, or settled in at home to listen to the BBC broadcasts of her work. At the festival’s final concert in the Royal Albert Hall, the composer sat beside Queen Mary to watch Sir Thomas Beecham conduct her Mass. By this point, Smyth was nearly completely deaf, and could barely hear a note of her own music. But she could understand the uproarious applause that surrounded her when the concert ended, acknowledging the lifetime she had given to music.

After her death in 1944, Smyth spent several decades out of the limelight, but she is now coming back on to concert programmes and recording schedules. The CD release that blew me away this year was Chandos’s world premiere recording of The Prison, delivering stellar performances from Dashon Burton, Sarah Brailey, James Blachly and the Experiential Orchestra and Chorus. And Smyth is not alone in enjoying a resurgence of interest. Thanks to decades of work by campaigners, performers, and musicologists, diversity is now firmly on musicians’ agendas. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but it feels as if we might be reaching a turning point. The BBC and Classic FM have been running programmes about composers of colour, publishers are turning their attention to figures currently absent from their catalogues, and both #MeToo and Black Lives Matter have led to institutions being held to account on their commitments to gender and racial equality.

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Posted: September 12, 2019, 4:20 pm

The best classical music works of the 21st century

Over the coming week, the Guardian will select the greatest culture since 2000, carefully compiled by critics and editors. We begin with a countdown of defining classical music compositions, from X-rated opera to high-tech string quartets

Read an interview with our No1 choice

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Posted: November 24, 2016, 3:42 pm

A musical tour of Europe's great cities: Berlin

Our series ends in the German capital with Berg, Busoni, Bowie and Bernstein.

Also in this series: London | Paris | Venice | Helsinki | Prague | Hamburg | Rome | Vienna | Amsterdam

In putting Berlin under the microscope in the last of our post-Brexit tours of the great cities of Europe, it seems that all roads lead to Kurt Weill. “Berlin will forever be associated with the turbulent times of the 20th century,” says @abkquan, whose suggestions have been a mainstay of these surveys. “The Weimar period produced the definitive Berlin work – Weill’s Threepenny Opera with its many familiar tunes, especially with Lotte Lenya singing Jenny.”

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