Daily Classical Music News
Did the iconic three-note sequence come from Stravinsky, the Muppets or somewhere else? Our writer set out to – dun, dun duuuun! – reveal the mystery
There’s surely only one thing that unites Russian composer Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, the 1974 comedy horror Young Frankenstein and The Muppets’ most recent special on Disney+. Regrettably, it is not Kermit the Frog. The thing that appears in all of these works has no easily recognisable familiar name, although it is perhaps one of the most recognisable three-beat musical phrases in history. It starts with a dun; it continues with a dun; it ends with a duuun!
On screen, a dramatic “dun, dun duuun” has appeared in everything from Disney’s Fantasia to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to The IT Crowd. In 2007, a YouTuber scored a video of a melodramatic prairie dog with the three beats, earning over 43m views and a solid place in internet history. Yet though many of us are familiar with the sound, no one seems to know exactly where it came from. Try to Google it and … dun, dun, duuun! Its origins are a mystery.Continue reading...
As the €866m Elbphilharmonie celebrates its fifth anniversary, what could have been a costly mistake has become a symbol of the German city. London, take note
Five years ago the world felt a very different place. Pandemics belonged to disaster movies, the UK was reeling from the divisive Brexit vote but, with Theresa May newly installed as prime minister, the hope was that she might succeed in a soft Brexit and, in London, Simon Rattle’s imminent arrival as the London Symphony Orchestra’s chief conductor was eagerly anticipated and along with it the city’s transformative new Centre for Music.
Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie opened in January 2017 with a glittering gala attended by celebrities and dignitaries. The spectacular concert hall was praised for its bold design, its superb acoustics and its “exceptionally exceptional exceptionalness”. But in London the hope – back then – was that the city’s own new concert hall would one day also be a world-leading arts venue to compete with Hamburg’s.Continue reading...
Barbican, London; online
Exile is the potent theme of a stirring performance of Julian Anderson’s new work. And Grange Park Opera put the glee in Puccini
Composers dream of a big commission from a world-class chorus and orchestra. With the delight comes terror: infinite choices, decisions, expectations. Will the work say anything new? Will the quixotic array of options be used to most expressive effect? The British composer Julian Anderson (b.1967) has had more than a few such opportunities. His latest, Exiles, direct, atmospheric, powerful, was commissioned by an elite trio: the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Boston Symphony Orchestra and Bayerischer Rundfunk.
For a work in part about the enforced “exile” of Covid, it has been tripped up rudely, like much else, by the pandemic itself. Two of its projected five movements were premiered by the LSO and Simon Rattle last September, with a third, for unaccompanied double chorus, added last week, the soprano Siobhan Stagg a gleaming soloist. Anderson seemingly carries an entire solar system of orchestral sound in his head. (He’s the one you want on your team in a music quiz – having once sat gratefully by while he hoovered up every point – capable of identifying music in a split second, like knowing a painter from a speck of pigment.) His compositions may fall generally within the conventions of the concert hall but his voice is intense and incisive, combining and dividing instruments to create fresh timbres and textures.
The LSO concert will be available online on Medici TV from Thursday 3 February, 7pm
Gianni Schicchi is free to watch on YouTubeContinue reading...
Williams and Roger Vignoles are on exquisite form on Mirages. Plus a fitting testament to the late, great film composer
• The album Mirages: The Art of French Song (Champs Hill), with the baritone Roderick Williams and pianist Roger Vignoles, grew out of a Wigmore Hall recital, recreating the intimacy and shape of a concert programme to delicious effect. In no area of repertoire, it seems, is Williams not at ease as well as expert. Recent Schubert song cycles (with pianist Iain Burnside) and English repertoire stand out in his varied discography. Now, with Vignoles as an ever idiomatic and responsive partner, he has turned to French song.
Opening with the sensual mystery of late Fauré – four songs, including Reflets dans l’eau and Danseuse – the duo steer gracefully to atmospheric ballads by Debussy’s friend André Caplet, spiky Arthur Honegger miniatures and Ravel in Spanish mood (Don Quichotte à Dulcinée). Williams’s own idiomatic, semi-declamatory Verlaine settings, Les ténèbres de l’amour (1994), form an effective bridge to more Honegger, Poulenc and, in perfect conclusion, Debussy’s Beau Soir.Continue reading...
The Norwegian singer was paired with her compatriot for this magnificent and thoughtful recital of songs by Wagner, Strauss and Grieg
This lovely concert marked the start of Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen’s Artist Spotlight series at the Barbican, which runs until the end of the season. Guildhall masterclasses, a programme of arias and duets with tenor Freddie de Tommaso (they share the same record label), and a concert with the Oslo Philharmonic can be heard in the spring. First, however, came this recital of songs by Grieg, Strauss and Wagner with her compatriot Leif Ove Andsnes, a starry pairing, and a really effective one on this showing.
Davidsen’s voice is notable for its amplitude, power and fullness of tone, remarkable for a singer still only in her early 30s, and already defining her as a major Wagnerian. What immediately impressed in this instance, however, was her wide dynamic range, subtly deployed and often beautifully controlled. When unleashed, as at the climax of Strauss’s Befreit, the sound is oceanic and thrilling. Most striking here, though, was the comparative restraint of much of her singing, and the intimate sense of light and shade that came with it.Continue reading...
Brahms: Complete Songs Vol 1 – Opp 32, 43, 86 and 105 review | Andrew Clements's classical album of the week
Christoph Prégardien/Ulrich Eisenlohr
Tenor Christoph Prégardien gives an intelligent and perfectly weighted performance with pianist Ulrich Eisenlohr
Over the last decade and more, no Lieder recitals have given me more intense pleasure than those by the tenor Christoph Prégardien. Though he is now in his mid 60s, and his voice has inevitably lost some of its former bloom and flexibility with age, this Brahms disc, recorded in 2020, confirms that the sheer intelligence of Prégardien’s performances, his immaculate diction and the perfect weight and colour he gives to each phrase, still conjure revelatory interpretations from everything he sings. The collection sees the start of what Naxos plans to be a complete survey of Brahms’s songs. How much of the series will be allotted to Prégardien isn’t clear, but with Ulrich Eisenlohr as his partner, the communicative power and mastery of every nuance of this opening instalment make one hope that the pair will be regularly involved.
The four groups of songs cover almost a quarter of a century in Brahms’s development, from the nine songs of Op 32, completed in 1864, to the five of Op 105, which date to 1888. As Eisenlohr points out in his very thorough sleeve notes, the poems that Brahms set are rarely of the highest class – in that respect he differed in his approach to Lieder writing from his 19th-century predecessors, such as Schubert and Schumann; Gottfried Keller and Theodor Storm are probably the best known of the writers represented here. But each of these sets mixes and matches material from a variety of sources: Op 32, for instance, juxtaposes German translations of the 14th-century Persian lyric poet Hafez with poems by the early Romantic August von Platen-Hallermünde, while Op 43 includes a text from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the folk collection that Mahler would later explore so extensively.Continue reading...
A new digital station plays only music written by women. Stephen Moss finds treasures as well as tedium, but wishes Scala’s classical channel could be bolder
At 10am last Thursday, Women Composers came on air and Hit the Dancefloor bit the dust. This new arrival among Scala Radio’s 20-strong family of digital niche stations is devoted entirely to classical music composed by women. Things began, however, not with a great fanfare (what a wonderful commission for a female composer that would have been) but with a bit of technical jiggery-pokery that meant knocking out one of Scala’s existing stations – farewell Hit the Dancefloor, a peculiar mixture of waltzes, ballets and galops (even a clog dance in its final hour) – and replacing it with the new Women Composers icon.
The changeover took a few minutes, and the first piece to be played – the opening movement of Fanny Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in E Flat Major – was sadly not available to this listener, whose computer kept displaying an error message. But the second piece – Hildegard von Bingen’s Spiritus Sanctus Vivificans – was extremely uplifting, and the third, even better: a movement of Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Minor played by Isata Kanneh-Mason and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.Continue reading...
Chin’s new work, receiving its world premiere, was brought to vivid life by Leonidas Kavakos and the London Symphony Orchestra
Unsuk Chin’s first violin concerto was premiered 20 years ago. It won her the prestigious Grawemeyer award in 2004, and brought her music to an international audience. Chin had decided not to write another violin concerto, preferring to explore other instrumental combinations, but then encountered the playing of Leonidas Kavakos, which suggested to her an entirely fresh way of approaching the form. The result is her new work for violin and orchestra, subtitled Scherben der Stille (Shards of Silence); it was co-commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra, which got to give the first performance; Kavakos naturally was the soloist, with Simon Rattle conducting.
Chin describes the new concerto as “a subjective portrait of and a dialogue with Leonidas Kavakos’s musicianship”. It’s a single movement lasting around 25 minutes, and cast as a series of often roughly juxtaposed episodes (the “shards” of the subtitle) which develop from the thematic kernel of repeated string-crossing harmonics with which the unaccompanied violin begins the work. The solo writing is strenuously demanding – Kavakos seemed totally at ease with every one of its challenges – while the LSO relished all the usual glitter and playful fizz of Chin’s sound world. But this time there seems to be an undertow of deep seriousness to the brilliance too, which sometimes takes the music in unexpectedly dark directions.Continue reading...
(Sony Classical, four CDs)
Webern’s music was revolutionary, but did not become widely accessible until Craft directed this series of recordings
In the decades after the second world war it was the music of Anton Webern, rather than that of his teacher Arnold Schoenberg, that provided the starting point for the revolution launched by the composers of the European avant garde. Yet despite its influence, Webern’s slender output was rarely performed then, and even more rarely recorded. It did not become more widely accessible until the American conductor Robert Craft directed this series of recordings, made in Los Angeles between 1954 and 1956, using an unidentified orchestra made up, presumably, of Hollywood session musicians, and west coast-based soloists, including the soprano Marni Nixon and pianist Leonard Stein.
Craft now is best remembered as Igor Stravinsky’s assistant, author of the books of their conversations and credited with encouraging the composer to adopt serial techniques in his later years. But his Webern recordings proved hugely influential; for those of us growing up in the 1960s and 70s, Craft’s LPs provided almost the only way of getting to know these jewel-like works, until in 1979 Pierre Boulez released the first of what would be his two complete surveys.Continue reading...
Beginning with a devised piece so discreet that it was easy to miss its start, the National Youth Orchestra under Sian Edwards impressed in a programme that included Ravel and Rachmaninoff
As openings go, it was at the subtler end of the bang-whimper spectrum. So subtle, in fact, that the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain’s first concert of 2022 began before most of the packed auditorium noticed. What sounded like pre-performance doodlings among the double basses and percussion suddenly cohered into a heavy tread of repeated notes and rhythmic filigree. As the rest of the orchestra filed on stage, the standard-issue minimalism (shades of Terry Riley’s In C) blossomed into more colourful textures. And then it all dissipated as mysteriously as it had begun, leaving the principal oboe playing a sustained A for tuning.
There was no conductor and no music. Just, as we were told in one of multiple spoken cameos from players, the NYO’s trademark “unashamedly enthusiastic atmosphere”. Such devised pieces are now a regular feature: a reminder of how much the organisation provides for its members beyond high-level orchestral training. (Though nothing encapsulates the scale of Operation NYO better than their gargantuan pre-concert pizza order, which arrived as I did.)Continue reading...
Born in Lagos and raised in the US, she swapped medical training for arias – and has learned to embrace the pressure of being a leading voice
Francesca Chiejina began her year as a ghost, ended it as an enchantress, and took in a goddess, a princess, a pauper and an acclaimed Proms appearance along the way. Covid might have meant an enforced pause for many musicians, but it certainly doesn’t seem to have derailed this radiant and versatile soprano. “Yeah,” she smiles, “I’ve had a crazy year.”
The Nigerian/American singer, 30, has been based in London since 2014, studying at Guildhall and then winning a place on the Royal Opera House’s prestigious Jette Parker Young Artists programme. We talk over Zoom as she’s in Nigeria for her first visit in more than three years. “It’s lovely to be here,” she says. “Being on the same soil where I was born. I’ve been reflecting a lot, re-remembering and rediscovering who I was, who I am and who I want to be.”Continue reading...
Premiered in Cairo 150 years ago, set in an exoticised ancient Egypt and written by a man who refused to visit the country for fear of ‘being mummified’, the beloved opera has left a complex legacy in the country its drama is set
In the middle of downtown Cairo is an anonymous-looking concrete building that stretches along one side of a huge landscaped roundabout. If you peer upwards, you’ll see it labelled, between rows of air-con units, in Arabic and English: “Opera office building and garage.” As monuments to past cultural glories go, it’s not a thing of beauty. But this block marks the site of the Khedivial Opera House – a venue erected in 1869 – and which, on 24 December 1871, staged the first performance of a new opera by the world’s then most famous composer: Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida.
Today, Aida is one of the most regularly performed operas across the globe. Its just-add-pyramids ancient Egypt setting is as beloved by directors and audiences as Carmen’s Spain or Madama Butterfly’s Japan, almost always preserved as a spectacular backdrop for its conventional Italian-opera love story. Yet in recent decades Aida’s overt exoticism has attracted controversy. The Palestinian intellectual Edward Said argued that it was just another product of European imperialism – an opera that has had, he wrote in 1993, “an anaesthetic as well as informative effect on European audiences”.Continue reading...
From ambient bliss and Swedish pop zingers to Americana’s best-kept secret, the Observer’s critics pick some of this year’s releases that deserve a wider audience
A 39-minute immersive meditation, Nine Movements is the work of California-based Australian composer Matthew Liam Nicholson, based around the harmonic interplay of singing bowls, LA jazz outlier Miguel Atwood-Ferguson’s strings and babbling-brook percussion. Encounters with this work in the wild include venues as disparate as the Bargello National Museum in Florence, where the singing bowls received their first airing, and a session of the finished work in “full multichannel spatial audio at a massive outdoor temple at Burning Man”. Ambient music can often be theoretical or medicinal; this record is both. Kitty Empire
Royal Opera House; Kings Place, London
Half Italian, half Tunbridge Wells, Freddie De Tommaso is a sensational Cavaradossi. Elsewhere, there’s maximum Messiah uplift
An umpteenth revival of a popular work in a classic production – enjoyment guaranteed, revelation not expected. Puccini’s Tosca is back at the Royal Opera House, 10th time round for Jonathan Kent’s staging in Paul Brown’s sumptuous designs (revival director Amy Lane), complete with cast changes too numerous to track. The only comfort for those trying to stage a show in current precarious circumstances is that many involved know how it goes. The bass Jeremy White has sung the character role of Sacristan, with deft geniality, since the production was new in 2006. No doubt by now he could dep for all the parts if required.
Familiarity is part of the pleasure. A devotee will know exactly when the hero Cavaradossi, more republican than artist, it would seem, will finally do something with that idle paintbrush; when the Royal Opera chorus (here in excellent voice), children too, will fill the double staircase to sing the grand Te Deum; and when Tosca will stab the evil Scarpia, while trying not to trip up on her awkwardly long gown. A telling moment in this staging is when the heavy red and gold front drapes fall slowly, softly, ominously, timed precisely with the velvety, menacing chords at the close of Act 2.Continue reading...
From an empty King’s College chapel to a treble duo with a cause, domestic Elizabethan music to the balm of vocals and kora, small-scale is beautiful
As surely as the first cuckoo arrives in spring, so the first festive CD lands around mid-August. By usual standards this year’s Christmas heap is small, but quality is high. The collegiate choir offerings, thwarted by not being able to practise in lockdown, are mostly absent. An exception is those Nine Lessons and Carols stalwarts, the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, directed by Daniel Hyde. Their In the Bleak Midwinter has a particular distinction: for once, the men and boys sing in a resonant empty chapel, without the acoustic muffle of a congregation. Grandeur is achieved by the organ, played by Matthew Martin. This is the choice for anyone who wants carols they recognise. A strong alternative is the recently formed adult Belfast Cathedral Choir in their debut album for Resonus, A Belfast Christmas: first-class singing, conducted by Matthew Owens, in choices by Philip Ledger, John Rutter, Elizabeth Poston and others. In addition, Owens has recorded Christmas Bells: Organ Music from Belfast Cathedral.
The Sixteen’s Carol of the Bells matches the group’s usual impeccable standards under its director, Harry Christophers, who has devised a clever recipe of music that sounds warmly festive but shuns the obvious. With five traditional carols interspersed (Wassail Song, All in the Morning), the disc opens and closes with Pilgrim Jesus and Advent Antiphons by one of the UK’s best living choral composers, Bob Chilcott. Other tracks from this largely contemporary collection include the popular title piece, Carol of the Bells (as heard in the film Home Alone), by Mykola Leontovych, Eric Whitacre’s Lux aurumque and Cecilia McDowall’s Of a Rose.Continue reading...
The pianist on playing to an empty Wigmore Hall, his novel about sex and priests, and being fingerprinted for working visas post-Brexit
Born in Cheshire, Stephen Hough is one of the world’s top pianists. He is also a composer, a published writer and a painter, with a passion for jazz, ballet, hats, perfume and puddings. His recording of Chopin’s Nocturnes is just out. On 1 December he will be the soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 3 with the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall, and his String Quartet No 1 for the Takács Quartet will receive its European premiere at Wigmore Hall in January. He is 60 tomorrow.
You made news in June 2020 when you played to an empty Wigmore Hall, the first live concert in the UK since lockdown. It must have been nerve-racking?
I always feel nervous, especially with a filmed live relay. But that day, above all, I felt vulnerable. Walking through London was strange and empty. There were still no vaccines, no obvious end to the situation. Everyone was guessing. To an extent we still are… Once I got on stage I let the music – opening with the Bach-Busoni Chaconne – do what it always does: put its arms, very safely, around everyone listening. It was a reminder of how important a cog music is in life. Don’t take it for granted. Tell our political leaders it’s not just entertainment. Not just icing on the cake. It’s the cake itself. It’s human life.
The conductor’s final ever concert was at Sage Gateshead with the Royal Northern Sinfonia playing an all-Haydn programme. He leaves classical music changed emphatically for the better – and with less of that ‘wobbly stuff’
Not for Roger Norrington a grand and glitzy farewell in the capital surrounded by the metropolitan elite. Instead – good for him – arguably the most important British conductor of the last half century travelled north to bow out. The 87-year-old’s farewell concert took place in Sage Gateshead, directing the Royal Northern Sinfonia in an all-Haydn concert that effortlessly rolled back the years. It reminded us that this is a man who has changed classical music emphatically for the better.
Everything about the event was quintessential Norrington: the choice of Haydn, whom the conductor has described as the composer he would most like to invite – “Joe’s the guy” – to his farewell party. Then the programme: not just two of Haydn’s London symphonies, Nos 101 and 103, but Haydn English language canzonettas sung by Susan Gritton with Steven Devine at the fortepiano, a wind band march, and one of the greatest of Haydn’s string quartets, Op 76 No 5.Continue reading...
Though the Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire, who has died aged 77, was a musician of the highest calibre, it took several decades before his talent was widely appreciated. He made his debut in London and other European capitals as early as 1968, and went on to record with leading orchestras under such conductors as Kurt Masur and David Zinman.
Those recordings culminated in the two Brahms piano concertos with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under Riccardo Chailly (2006) for Decca. His belated BBC Proms debut had come the previous year in the second concerto, with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Ilan Volkov.Continue reading...
He hunts all his own food, unwinds in the sauna, and yearns to play with the Rolling Stones. Meet the Philharmonia’s new principal conductor, a dynamic, 35-year-old Finn
It’s the day after Santtu-Matias Rouvali made his debut as the Philharmonia’s principal conductor and he is smiling, relaxed and chatty. Maybe the reviews explain his upbeat mood. The Guardian wrote: “Rouvali proved a fine Straussian, measured in his approach, and careful in his attention to detail and colour.” The Times went with: “Gleaming and full of promise … This was orchestral music at its biggest and boldest.” Did he read them?
“My mother sends me Finnish ones sometimes,” he says, “but I’m not on Facebook – I don’t do any kind of social media. So generally no, I don’t see what’s been written. But I know in my head and heart how things went. And yesterday I had so much fun with the musicians on stage that I knew it couldn’t be bad!”Continue reading...
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.Continue reading...
Our series ends in the German capital with Berg, Busoni, Bowie and Bernstein.
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.”
The Threepenny Opera, a collaboration between Weill and Bertolt Brecht based on 18th-century dramatist John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, was premiered at Berlin’s Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in 1928, and after some initial resistance was a great success, vindicating Weill’s ambition to reclaim opera as an art form for the people (though Berlin’s elite of course delighted in its scabrous tale of cutthroats and prostitutes).Continue reading...