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Posted: March 4, 2021, 6:54 pm

Violin Sonatas: Montgeroult, Viotti, etc review | Erica Jeal's classical album of the week

Rosa/Buckle
(Rubicon)
On an intriguing disc of finely-played sonatas, the first ever recording of 18th-century French composer Hélène de Montgeroult’s A minor Sonata is a highlight

When men wrote the accepted history of classical music, some important women were left out. In the case of Hélène de Montgeroult (1764-1836), whose Sonata in A minor Op 2 No 3 gets its first recording on this intriguing new disc from violinist Sophie Rosa and pianist Ian Buckle, the omission is especially shameless: elements in the piano music of Chopin and Schumann that have long been taken as evidence of those composers’ originality can be found in the studies that make up Montgeroult’s Complete Method for Teaching Fortepiano – a collection they probably encountered as students, written by a contemporary of their grandmothers.

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Posted: March 4, 2021, 5:45 pm

BSO/Gardolińska review – a young conductor to be reckoned with

Live-streamed from the Lighthouse, Poole
The carefully structured programme – of Shostakovich, Liadov and Schubert –made for a focused and engaging evening

The most recent concert in the Bournemouth Symphony’s livestreamed series from the Lighthouse in Poole marked the return to the orchestra of Polish-born Marta Gardolińska, the BSO’s former Young Conductor in Association (from 2018 to 2020). And, on this showing she is very much an artist to be reckoned with. Her programme, carefully structured, flanked Liadov’s tone poem The Enchanted Lake with Schubert’s Third Symphony and Shostakovich’s Ninth, bringing the two symphonies into telling proximity – each is to some extent driven by a sequence of woodwind solos that effectively dictates its thematic content.

Both were superbly done. Gardolińska’s understanding of the balance between grace and energy in Schubert’s Third was wonderfully acute, as she propelled the first movement, with its gleeful clarinet solos, excitedly forward and brought out the nostalgic undertow of the slow Allegretto and the elan of the scherzo-cum-waltz. The tarantella finale, with its whirling, almost obsessive rhythmic figurations, was thrilling in its precision, really sweeping you away.

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Posted: March 3, 2021, 4:05 pm

Gweneth Ann Rand/Simon Lepper review – authoritative and polished

Livestreamed at Wigmore Hall, London; available online
Soprano Rand and pianist Lepper brought intensity, passion and nuance to this songs by Wagner, Barber and Messiaen

In autumn, the soprano Gweneth Ann Rand and pianist Simon Lepper performed Messiaen’s mammoth song cycle Harawi in the Wigmore Hall, with a small, spread-out audience physically present in front of them. This week they returned with more Messiaen, his Poèmes pour Mi. The nine movements of this 1936 song cycle – named for Messiaen’s wife Claire Delbos, whose nickname was Mi and who is personified in the central song, The Bride – were framed by two works of five songs each: Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder and Barber’s Despite and Still. Messiaen would have loved the symmetry.

It was a meaty programme that would ideally have been heard with Rand’s substantial soprano making the floor vibrate beneath your feet – but this time it was for livestream audiences only. The pandemic has meant that singers have had to learn how to deliver meaningful sung texts to row upon row of empty seats. Rand met that challenge, colouring her words with vivid changes of tone, and Lepper’s piano lines inked in further light and shade, his melodies singing as surely as Rand’s.

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Posted: February 28, 2021, 3:41 pm

Classical highlights: concerts and opera to watch in March

From witches to Weber, and Andriessen to Zimmermann – our pick of this month’s streamed music

• NB events are liable to be cancelled at short notice. Please check websites for latest details

Scottish Opera’s filmed staging of Humperdinck’s masterpiece, directed by Daisy Evans, with David Parry conducting a reduced version of the score by Derek Clark. Kitty Whately and Rhian Lois are the errant children; Nadine Benjamin is their mother and the witch, and Charlie Drummond the Sandman and the Dew Fairy.
Available on demand.

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Posted: February 27, 2021, 12:30 pm

Bath BachFest review – the brilliant master and his assorted cousins

Wiltshire Music Centre, Bradford-on-Avon; live stream
The Cardinall’s Musick, Rachel Podger, Adrian Brendel and more shone in this year’s dynamic online programme of all things Bach

Sound trumpets, bang drums. Concerts and festivals, the real thing, are promised from mid-May – a prospect so remote these past months that every live online musical offering has been freighted with extra worth. Take Bath’s annual Mozart and Bach weekends, highlights of the low point of a low year. When November’s Mozart event was hastily, but skilfully, scrambled online, it seemed inconceivable we’d be in the same position when Bach’s turn came this month. Yet we were. Last weekend, four small-scale programmes by leading musicians had all the intimacy we expect from this expertly honed series. Concerts took place nearby at Wiltshire Music Centre – not as glamorous as the Bath Assembly Rooms but handsome, and equipped for broadcast.

The named composer is the centre point, but others get a look-in. Here the focus was on Bach “and his baroque contemporaries”, from the familiar Tartini and Frescobaldi to the more distant, including members of the Bach clan. In the rich a cappella programme offered by exemplary vocal ensemble the Cardinall’s Musick, we met Johann Sebastian’s rarely encountered first cousin once removed, Johann Christoph, and his third cousin, Johann Ludwig, known as JL Bach, as well as JS himself. This is the simplified version. You’re allowed, as director Andrew Carwood agreed, in conversation with presenter Katy Hamilton, to be confused. Do not press me on who Johann Bach was (JB, not JSB), but his motet Unser Leben ist ein Schatten – Our Life Is a Shadow – is a corker.

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Posted: February 27, 2021, 12:00 pm

Classical home listening: Rachmaninov comes full circle; and an ear-bending piano recital

The Philadelphia Orchestra and Yannick Nézet-Séguin shine in the composer’s first symphony. Plus, ear-bending variations from Clare Hammond

• The 1897 premiere of Rachmaninov’s Symphony No 1 is always described as “a fiasco”. Whatever the reason – one explanation is that the conductor was drunk – Rachmaninov hid it away. He quoted it at the end of his life in the Symphonic Dances (1940), dedicated to the Philadelphia Orchestra, who gave the first performance. The orchestra’s new album, Rachmaninov: Symphony No 1 and Symphonic Dances (Deutsche Grammophon), from live concerts in 2018 and 2019, pairs the two works.

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Posted: February 26, 2021, 12:46 pm

LSO/Ward review – from fierce dynamism to gorgeous indulgence

Recorded at LSO St Luke’s London, available online
Works by Bacewicz and Schreker bookended Strauss’s Oboe Concerto with Juliana Koch the exemplary soloist

The London Symphony Orchestra’s online series continues with a concert conducted by Duncan Ward and pre-recorded earlier this month at LSO St Lukes. It opened with Music for Strings, Trumpets and Percussion by the Polish composer Grażyna Bacewicz. Introducing it himself, Ward described the 1958 work – an edgy, angry concerto grosso – as “ruthless in its vitality and power”. Revealing the influence on more than one occasion of Bartók, it contrasts a queasy, penumbral central adagio with motoric, violently syncopated outer movements. Ward’s superbly controlled performance was marvellous in its fierce dynamism and electrifying precision.

The centrepiece, in sharp contrast, was Strauss’s great Oboe Concerto, written in 1945 at the suggestion of an American oboist serving in the allied forces, who visited the elderly composer at his Bavarian villa shortly after the close of the second world war. An ecstatic outpouring of continuous melody, it’s the work of a man who had just emerged from a nightmare of conflict and Nazi intimidation. Its extraordinary mix of joy, nostalgia and tears, so characteristic of late Strauss, was superbly captured by Ward and the LSO’s principal oboist Juliana Koch: her playing was exemplary both in technical finesse and emotional depth, its beauty belying the fearsome demands Strauss places on his soloist.

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Posted: February 25, 2021, 3:00 pm

Elgar: Violin Concerto; Violin Sonata review – sheer beauty and subtle playing

Renaud Capuçon/Stephen Hough/LSO/Simon Rattle (Warner Classics)
Simon Rattle takes the concerto back to the 19th century and Renaud Capuçon’s partnership with Stephen Hough for the sonata is a meeting of equals

The Violin Concerto is not only one of Elgar’s greatest achievements, but also one of the finest of all 20th-century violin concertos. But the orchestral opening of Renaud Capuçon’s account, as moulded by Simon Rattle, takes the concerto firmly back into the 19th century, and when the soloist eventually enters, the generous space he allows himself for his initial phrases suggests that he shares that view of the work, too.

The recording was made in LSO St Luke’s, London, last September, and it’s the third studio version of the concerto that Rattle has conducted; Ida Haendel and Nigel Kennedy were the earlier soloists, both with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. He certainly sees his role in the concerto as more interventionist than many conductors do, especially when compared with, say, Adrian Boult on Yehudi Menuhin’s celebrated second recording, or Vernon Handley on Kennedy’s earlier one, and that, it seems to me, is not always to the advantage of this performance.

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Posted: February 24, 2021, 7:01 am

ENO announces bold plan to stage Ring Cycle from the autumn

Richard Wagner’s four-part opera epic will play at London’s Coliseum over several years

It is the Mount Everest of opera, with about 16 hours of music and an epic story of power, love and destruction which collectively represents the ultimate challenge for any company willing to take it on.

Some might say tackling Richard Wagner’s four-part Ring Cycle during a pandemic is folly. English National Opera, announcing the plan on Wednesday, believes the opposite and wants to return to live performance with a bang.

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Posted: February 21, 2021, 3:51 pm

Steuart Bedford obituary

Conductor acclaimed for his insightful interpretations of Benjamin Britten’s work

Though most closely associated with the works of Benjamin Britten, the conductor Steuart Bedford, who has died aged 81 after complications from Parkinson’s disease, was able to turn his professionalism and interpretative talents to great advantage in a range of other repertory too. The operas of Mozart elicited from him an authoritative response over a number of years at Garsington Opera while it was based in Oxfordshire.

Having launched his professional career with The Beggar’s Opera at Sadler’s Wells theatre in 1967, he went on to conduct his own edition of Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea at the Royal Academy of Music (1969), following that with the first modern British performances of Donizetti’s Belisario, also at the RAM (1972). During the years of Britten’s final illness in the early 1970s, Bedford came to the fore as a reliable and insightful interpreter of his works. Having already assisted on the 1966 Decca recording of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he was asked in 1970 to take over rehearsals for the filming of the TV opera Owen Wingrave while the composer recovered from a hernia operation.

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Posted: February 20, 2021, 12:00 pm

The week in classical: Brahms Liebeslieder Waltzes; Live from London: Spring – review

Available online
Less is more in an enchanted evening of lovelorn Brahms with Nicky Spence and co; and Voces8’s latest virtual festival opens in style with Jonathan Dove

Brahms was unlucky in love but poured his feelings into vocal music of fearsome range, writing more than 200 songs as well as that masterly depiction of a wounded heart, the Alto Rhapsody. The Liebeslieder Waltzes (1868), Op 52 and Op 65, are a different matter. Cheerful, short, full of wit, anger, joy, rejection, these part-songs are breezy and predominantly extrovert, all in waltz time and accompanied by one piano, four hands. Any number of voices can perform any selection. Too many at once can set nerves jangling. At Blackheath Halls last Sunday, the tenor Nicky Spence, in collaboration with pianist Joseph Middleton and the Leeds Lieder festival, chose ideal restraint: a brilliant quartet sang, live, for an hour, each song offering enchantment.

Spence, Middleton and the soprano Mary Bevan were joined by a trio of fast-rising artists: the mezzo-soprano Fleur Barron, bass William Thomas and pianist Dylan Perez. These last performed as part of Barbara Hannigan’s Momentum initiative, set up in 2020: established artists invite younger colleagues to join them on stage, invaluable at this crucial phase of their careers. Barron’s sumptuous voice and natural vivacity and Thomas’s smouldering, rich-toned reserve blended perfectly with Spence’s acuity and Bevan’s passion. This welcome meeting of West Yorkshire and south-east London, warmly introduced by Natasha Loges, was worth every penny of the £10 ticket price.

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Posted: February 19, 2021, 8:55 am

Few will mourn the passing of London's great concert hall that never was | Martin Kettle

The scrapping of ambitious plans for the Centre for Music lays bare the place of the arts in austerity-torn Brexit Britain

There always was an artistic case for London to have a 21st-century concert hall. Both the Royal Festival Hall (built in the late 1940s) and the Barbican Hall (1960s-70s) have fundamental problems in matching the best halls in the world. London is – or was – one of the world’s cultural capitals. It could undoubtedly have made rich use of a better venue – a venue that was in the works until ambitious plans for the £288m Centre for Music were scrapped on Thursday.

In a perfect world – in which money was no object, the arts were more celebrated and politicians felt under pressure to treat cultural value seriously – the Centre for Music would have been a marked improvement. Simon Rattle’s 2017 appointment as head of the London Symphony Orchestra, based in the Barbican, gave the project a star power it otherwise lacked.

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Posted: February 18, 2021, 5:00 pm

Mahler: Symphonies 1-10 review | Andrew Clements's classical album of the week

Berlin Philharmonic/Harding/Nelsons/ Dudamel/Nézet-Séguin/Petrenko/Rattle/ Haitink/Abbado
(Berliner Philharmoniker, 10 CDs & 4 Blu-ray Discs, or download)
This mammoth undertaking, of all of Mahler’s symphonies with different conductors over the last decade, brings variable musical results

Ten symphonies, eight conductors, but just one orchestra: there’s no doubt that the Berlin Philharmonic is the star of the show in this cycle of Mahler performances, taken from concerts given in the Berlin Philharmonie over the last 10 years. The earliest recordings – Claudio Abbado conducting the opening movement of the unfinished 10th Symphony on the exact centenary of Mahler’s death, and Simon Rattle’s performance of the Eighth – date from 2011; the most recent, the Sixth Symphony under their successor as chief conductor, Kirill Petrenko, comes from the beginning of last year. As usual with releases on the orchestra’s own label, alongside the audio recordings the lavishly packaged set also includes high-definition videos of all the performances.

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Posted: February 13, 2021, 12:00 pm

Classical home listening: English Music for Strings; David Matthews; Hansel and Gretel

John Wilson and his crack Sinfonia of London irradiate works by Britten, Berkeley and Bliss, while Matthews and the BBC Philharmonic make waves

• Forget any notions of wistful pastoral this title might suggest: English Music for Strings, performed by the Sinfonia of London, conducted by John Wilson (Chandos), is a collection of works from the 1930s, with a sharp, modernist energy to match. Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (1937), with its poise, angularity and gleam, receives a virtuosic performance from this ace ensemble. The influence of Britten spills lightly into Lennox Berkeley’s lovely Serenade for Strings (1938-39), a work that travels from vivacity to urgent sorrow.

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Posted: February 2, 2021, 6:00 am

Caroline Shaw: what next for the Pulitzer-winner who toured with Kanye? Opera – and Abba

She has scored films, played with rappers, starred in a TV comedy, and performed for the dying. As the classical sensation releases three new works, she talks about the shock of playing arenas – and making the leap into opera

When Caroline Shaw became, at the age of 30, the youngest ever winner of the Pulitzer prize for music, she described herself as “a musician who wrote music” rather than as “a composer”. Partita, her winning score, is a joyful rollercoaster of a work, encompassing song, speech and virtually every vocal technique you can imagine. It was written for Shaw’s own group, Roomful of Teeth.

Eight years on, she’s still wary of defining herself too narrowly. “Composer, for some people, can mean something very particular,” she says, “and I’m trying to make sure I don’t get swallowed up into only one community.” Not that Shaw’s range shows any sign of narrowing: even a small sample of her work over the past few years throws up an array of names not often seen together: rappers Kanye West and Nas, soprano Renée Fleming, mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry, pianist Jonathan Biss. She has written film scores, sung on others, was the soloist in her own violin concerto, and even managed a cameo appearance as herself in Amazon Studio’s comedy drama Mozart in the Jungle. A year ago, Orange, a recording of her string quartets, won the Attacca Quartet a Grammy.

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Posted: February 1, 2021, 3:45 pm

Berlin Philharmonic/Petrenko review – Thorvaldsdottir's utterly convincing musical world

Filmed in the Philharmonie, Berlin and streamed
Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s impressive new work was detailed and powerful, while Trifonov dazzled in showy Prokofiev and a Suk rarity didn’t quite cohere

Audiences are still not allowed in the Philharmonie, but otherwise the Berlin Philharmonic seems to be continuing with its season, streaming each concert on its online platform, the Digital Concert Hall. The latest, under chief conductor Kirill Petrenko, included a significant world premiere, while providing another clue into the musical sympathies of a conductor who remains an unknown quantity as far as concert audiences outside Germany are concerned.

The new work, a joint commission between the Berliner Philharmoniker, the City of Birmingham Symphony and Iceland Symphony orchestras, came from Anna Thorvaldsdottir. She describes the core inspiration behind Catamorphosis as the “fragile relationship we have to our planet … the core of the work revolves around a distinct sense of urgency, driven by the shift and pull between various polar forces – power and fragility, hope and despair, preservation and destruction”.

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Posted: January 16, 2021, 9:34 am

Simon Rattle decries Brexit as he applies for German citizenship

Conductor laments impact on UK musicians’ careers and describes application as ‘absolute necessity’

The conductor Simon Rattle, who announced this week that he was cutting short his tenure at Britain’s leading orchestra to return to Germany, has applied for German citizenship after Brexit.

The Liverpool-born musician lamented the barriers thrown up by Britain’s departure from the European Union to the careers of young musicians who had grown used to performing freely to the continent’s music-hungry public.

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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: August 14, 2020, 10:19 am

Julian Bream, British classical guitarist, dies aged 87

Bream helped cement the guitar in the classical tradition with composers including Britten and Arnold writing for him

Julian Bream, the British guitarist regarded as one of the finest exponents of the classical style, has died aged 87. The news was confirmed by his management company, who said he died “peacefully at home”. No cause of death was given.

Bream was born in Battersea in 1933, the son of a father who played piano and jazz guitar – a self-built electric version – and taught Julian the rudiments of each instrument. Bream’s talent earned him a scholarship at the Royal College of Music, where he studied piano and cello. But he was largely self-taught on his primary instrument, the guitar. He played his first public guitar recital in Cheltenham in 1947, aged 13.

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Posted: August 9, 2020, 5:45 am

Sunday with Max Richter: ‘I treasure the time for recuperation’

The composer spends a restful day cooking, walking the dogs and playing Bach on the piano

How does Sunday start? With the alarm clock not going off, which is spectacular. I’ve had a lifelong obsession with sleep: I love how ideas are clarified overnight, that fresh start in the morning. On Sundays I can indulge myself completely. Breakfast consists of fresh eggs from our chickens cooked a variety of ways. It’s my favourite meal of the day, without question.

Do you have a busy schedule? With a bit of luck there’s nothing in the diary. Dogs need walking, chickens need attention, and there’s food to pick in the garden. But in lockdown, with more time, I’m finding myself at the piano. After wading through the piles of Bach sheet music (the best ever written), I sit and play. Connecting to a younger version of myself, who did this all the time, has become a medicinal experience.

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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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