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Posted: September 29, 2020, 7:00 am

Music is an act of communication. Without anyone listening it doesn't exist

Perhaps we have all taken privilege of music for granted, writes the conductor. Only by taking it away do we realise how essential it is.

After seven months of musical silence, I feel very fortunate to be giving a public concert this week with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. The auditorium in Glasgow’s City Halls will be empty, but people can still listen to the performance live thanks to a simultaneous broadcast on Radio 3. Invisible listeners are not ideal, but in the context of this year a live orchestral experience of any sort is much appreciated. A musician’s need to be heard is not just psychological inspiration, needy approbation, or box office compensation. We need audiences because without anyone listening, the music doesn’t exist – merely proverbial trees falling unheard in the distant forest.

Early humans didn’t start to play music because they liked the noise it made. They sang, hit, bowed or blew to communicate with each other. There was no significant difference between player and listener. I recently came across the word “music” used as a verb. In The Power of Music, Roger Kennedy writes that “to music” unites all involved in the experience of music, whether writing, organising, playing or listening to it. It isn’t possible “to music” alone. Though listening to a piece privately can bring great solace or joy, the original purpose of music is to be connected by sharing something together as a community.

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Posted: September 26, 2020, 11:30 am

ENO's drive-in La bohème review – honk your horn for Mimi and Rodolfo

Alexandra Palace, London
ENO’s bravura car park production overcame all kinds of logistical and artistic challenges, though couldn’t quite convey Puccini’s raw immediacy

Mimi’s sickbed is the floor of her transit van. Rodolfo sits hunched against a wheel outside, the closest he dare get to his dying lover. Musetta makes her showy arrival in a convertible Merc, and an old ice-cream van serves as the Cafe Momus. Trailer-trash stagings are nothing new – many an old camper van has been rolled on to an operatic stage – but here we’re in a proper car park, this unparalleled season’s venue of choice for high art.

From soloists to musicians to conductor to stage crew to car park attendants, all involved in English National Opera’s drive-in La bohème deserve bravery awards. Surely this was the most physically exhausting and technically challenging production anyone has struggled to mount, made incalculably harder by social distancing. Man of the match goes to Ian Dearden, the sound design wizard who has a long history with ENO, and who found a way to bring the whole enterprise alive. The orchestra played wonderfully, harp and woodwind sounding close enough to be sitting in your lap, which is certainly a first.

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Posted: September 26, 2020, 11:00 am

Classical home listening: from Tabea Zimmermann to Walter Kaufmann

The German violist Tabea Zimmermann pairs Bach with Kurtág, while the ARC Ensemble showcase a forgotten émigré composer

• If you’ve queried the point of listening to a Bach cello suite played on the viola, Tabea Zimmermann’s Solo II (Myrios Classics; released 16 October) renders the question unnecessary. Her new album comes a decade after Solo, in which she recorded the first two suites. Now she tackles, with supreme elegance, No 3 in C and No 4 in E flat, her performance buoyant, lithe, with a flexible attention to ornament and phrasing. Using a classical bow, light and swift for clear articulation, she nevertheless plays a modern viola, her 1980 instrument made by the celebrated French luthier Étienne Vatelot. Its rich, even sound is given maximum bloom in this spacious recording.

The Bach is paired with Signs, Games and Messages for solo viola by György Kurtág (b1926): six movements, rhythmically free and dramatic, gathered together by Zimmermann. She is the dedicatee of … eine Blume für Tabea…, a shard of Kurtág enchantment.

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Posted: September 25, 2020, 12:42 pm

Classical highlights for the week ahead: 25 September to 2 October

Five of the best concerts and operas - live and streamed - for the coming week

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra

The RLPO returns to its home in the Philharmonic Hall for an autumn season of live and streamed concerts. The season opens with its music director Vasily Petrenko conducting a (streamed) all 20th-century programme of Hindemith, Stravinsky and Shostakovich; the following evening Thomas Jung takes over for concert (in front of a live audience) featuring Mozart, Pärt and Beethoven.
• Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, 30 September, live streamed and then on demand (£); 1 and 4 October live performances only

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Posted: September 24, 2020, 2:00 pm

Novák: Toman and the Wood Nymph, etc review | Andrew Clements's classical album of the week

Jan Bartoš/Prague Radio SO/Jakub Hrůša
(Supraphon)
‘Vítězslav Novák is worth knowing about and we must play his music,’ says Hrůša, and the later works have a pictorial energy that is vividly realised here

‘I will be standing up for Novák from now on,” writes conductor Jakub Hrůša. “Novák is worth knowing about, and we must play his music.” This is Vítězslav Novák (1870-1949), who was a pupil of Dvořák in Prague, and one of the young composers, alongside Suk and Janáček, who joined a group of artists and writers to publish a “Czech manifesto of modernism” in 1895.

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Posted: September 24, 2020, 12:07 pm

LPO/Gardner review - defiant and exultant Beethoven opens new season

Royal Festival Hall, London
A magnificent, edgy Fifth Symphony was paired with Jörg Widmann’s energetic Con Brio and complemented by a haunting group of Sibelius songs

The London Philharmonic’s autumn season moves online this year, though the opening concert was filmed before a small invited audience ahead of next Wednesday’s streaming on Marquee TV. Edward Gardner conducted, and the programme reverted to the format of the orchestra’s 2020 Vision series, which places works by Beethoven alongside music written two centuries later. So the Fifth Symphony, premiered in 1808, was paired with Jörg Widmann’s concert overture Con Brio, written in 2008, originally to precede performances of Beethoven’s Seventh and Eighth Symphonies. In between came In the Stream of Life, a group of Sibelius songs orchestrated by Einojuhani Rautavaara for Gerald Finley, who gave the premiere with Gardner and the Bergen Philharmonic in 2014, and also sang them here.

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Posted: September 23, 2020, 11:00 am

Shostakovich: where to start with his music

In the eye of Russia’s revolutionary storm, he wrote some of the most powerful – and cryptic – music of the 20th century. Whether he is judged a Soviet lackey or heroic dissident, the wealth of his musical legacy is beyond doubt

Right from the start there were arguments about the music of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75). Even now, some of them still continue. Was he a radical or a conservative composer? An original or a derivative? A communist or a dissident? One thing, though, has become much clearer. The music of Shostakovich has never been more widely played or more consistently popular than it is today.

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Posted: September 22, 2020, 5:01 am

Third of British musicians may quit industry amid pandemic

Musicians’ Union, whose survey also finds one-third of professional musicians can’t access emergency support, criticises DCMS and Treasury over ‘lack of understanding’

One-third of professional British musicians are considering giving up their careers amid the coronavirus pandemic.

A survey of 2,000 members of the Musicians’ Union found that 34% “are considering abandoning the industry completely”, because of the financial difficulties they face during the pandemic, as performance opportunities are severely curtailed.

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Posted: September 21, 2020, 1:02 pm

Madrid opera halted by audience protest over lack of social distancing

Spectators at Teatro Real say they were crammed into seats without space between them

A performance of Verdi’s A Masked Ball was abandoned in Madrid on Sunday night after audience members protested over the lack of social distancing measures – especially for those in cheaper seats.

One member of the audience at the Teatro Real opera house said there were rows of more than a dozen people without any gaps between them.

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Posted: September 21, 2020, 12:14 pm

Apartment House review – Julius Eastman's elusive music gets its due

Wigmore Hall, London
The British ensemble projected the unexpected intensity of Femenine and Joy Boy in the first evening of contemporary music in the hall’s autumn live-streamed season

Until about five years ago, few on this side of the Atlantic knew much about Julius Eastman’s music. He would have been remembered as a vocalist, especially for his astonishing performance as George III in the first recording of Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King, but his work as a composer, music that blurred the boundaries between early minimalism and improvisation and often carried politically provocative titles, went unperformed.

Eastman died in 1990 at the age of 49, homeless and ignored. He’d been destitute for several years, and the scores of many works had disappeared. Much of the music that survives has had to be painstakingly reconstructed or transcribed from recordings since his death, but in 2016 it finally began to appear on disc, and a number of performers began to take up its challenges. One of the British groups to have explored Eastman’s music is Apartment House, and their Wigmore concert, the first evening of contemporary music in the hall’s new socially distanced, live-streamed season, brought together two of their realisations of his ensemble pieces, Femenineand Joy Boy, both composed in 1974.

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Posted: September 20, 2020, 2:05 pm

Orchestral manoeuvres in a car park: does ENO's drive-in opera hit the high notes?

With the action updated to a London car park and the audience in cars, ENO’s La Bohème is Europe’s first live drive-in opera. Our writer hops on his bike to watch the action from a socially distanced concrete square

Sweaty, hyperventilating and with frozen hands, I arrive at Europe’s first live drive-in opera like Mimi in La Bohème’s last act. Unlike the opera’s heroine, I can barely make myself understood by security staff, still less sing a showstopper that would have them sobbing in their Ford Focuses. Have you ever cycled up the hill to London’s Alexandra Palace?

The unintended genius of English National Opera’s modern-day, 90-minute staging of Puccini’s opera is to spread the class politics from stage to audience. The VIPs are ushered to the best seats in the house – that’s to say cars parked near the stage. These are called “uber boxes”, though, as far as I can see, they are Toyota Priuses in which up to four people can sit. (There’s no need for a driver since these cars aren’t going anywhere.) Behind are the middle classes who’ve come in their own vehicles (£100 per car). Hotel Chocolat servers take orders for ice cream, chocolates and drinks. Surtitles above the stage tell drivers to tune their radios to 87.7FM to get the best audio, though quite a few have their windows open to hear the music from speakers placed around the car park. All the singers are miked.

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Posted: September 19, 2020, 11:00 am

The week in classical: A Feast in the Time of Plague; Fidelio; Alban Gerhardt and Markus Becker – review

Grange Park Opera, Surrey; Garsington Opera, Oxfordshire; Wigmore Hall, London
Grange Park Opera serves up a delicious cast for the world premiere of Alex Woolf and David Pountney’s timely new opera, commissioned and written in lockdown

“One thing you can say about the arts,” begins a truism uttered on an almost daily basis during this pandemic, mostly by those not trying to do “arts” themselves, is that they flourish in the face of adversity. This kind of tired thinking is dangerous. It’s an excuse to ignore the growing crisis for those artists, especially musicians, who cannot work in isolation, who need an audience, a place to perform. If there is work, most have to cover their own living and travel expenses. Ingenuity wears thin when your savings are spent and the outlook is bleak. The government has fallen silent. Creativity certainly hasn’t been the byword at our biggest performing venues. Whatever their promises for later in the season, they remain all but inactive, some under threat of permanent closure – even the Royal Albert Hall.

For this reason, the events under review here, presented by smaller, more flexible organisations, are vital and should never be taken for granted. Last weekend, Grange Park Opera staged the world premiere of an opera commissioned and written in lockdown: a feat that will enter the annals of this pandemic. The enterprise gave paid work to 20 people: a dozen singers, a conductor (Toby Purser) and a small stage crew. With music by Alex Woolf to a libretto by David Pountney, A Feast in the Time of Plague is based on one of Pushkin’s “little tragedies”. Twelve archetypes – from cook to policeman to dewy newlyweds – gather for a last supper, each offering their own thoughts on risk, life and death. “I went where it was forbidden and lay down with the damned and drank with the gasping and smoked with the terminal and survived,” sings Antoine, the biker playboy, biked (on his own vehicle) and played by Simon Keenlyside, in magnificent voice and done away with far too soon.

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Posted: September 17, 2020, 2:00 pm

Stille Liebe: Lieder by Robert Schumann review | Andrew Clements's classical album of the week

Samuel Hasselhorn/Joseph Middleton
(Harmonia Mundi)
Hasselhorn’s rich, dark baritone captures Schumann’s extraordinary extremes of light and darkness and Middleton is a discerning accompanist

In 1840, Schumann was finally able to marry Clara Wieck, and he celebrated his happiness in his songs, composing at least 138 of them, including his four great cycles, Dichterliebe, Frauenliebe und -leben, and the two Liederkreis. This carefully planned recital disc from the German baritone Samuel Hasselhorn, with Joseph Middleton as his unfailingly perceptive pianist, concentrates however on some of the other products of that extraordinary Liederjahre – settings of Heine, Kerner, Chamisso and Hans Christian Andersen.

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Posted: September 17, 2020, 5:00 am

Richard and the revolutionaries: why did lefties love Wagner?

His antisemitism made him a far-right icon. So what attracted reds and radicals from Lenin to George Bernard-Shaw to the tumultuous sounds of Hitler’s favourite composer?

In 1883, the year of Richard Wagner’s death, the theatre critic William Archer noticed a red-haired, bearded youth who was sitting day after day in the British Library with two volumes open on his desk: the French edition of Das Kapital, which Karl Marx had written in the same library decades earlier, and the full score of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. The young man was George Bernard Shaw, a staunch leftist who saw no conflict between the composer’s Romantic mythology and Marx’s historical materialism. In The Perfect Wagnerite, his anticapitalist reading of The Ring of the Nibelung cycle, Shaw wrote that the descent into Nibelheim, the realm of the enslaved dwarves, is “frightfully real, frightfully present, frightfully modern”. Both Wagner and Marx bear witness to the “predestined end of our capitalistic-theocratic epoch”.

Related: Wagner: where to start with his music

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Posted: September 12, 2020, 11:00 am

Classical home listening: Joshua Bell and a Mahler must-have

Bell and friends are on relaxed, impeccable form, while Iván Fischer’s Mahler cycle draws to a blazing close

• In a 30-year career bristling with awards and success as a soloist on the world’s most illustrious stages, the American violinist Joshua Bell has always kept time for intimate music-making. On his latest album, companion to a PBS broadcast in the US, he performs with friends – Jeremy Denk, Peter Dugan and Kamal Khan – and his wife, the soprano Larisa Martínez. Joshua Bell: At Home With Music (Sony) contains eight short tracks, from Dvořák (arr Kreisler) to Gershwin (arr Heifetz), via Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Wieniawski and Bernstein. The choice is personal and idiosyncratic, the mood salon-style music of the highest quality, impeccably performed by Bell on his 1713 “Huberman” Stradivarius.

He and pianist Jeremy Denk play only the opening movement of Beethoven’s “Spring” sonata, but it’s enough to hint at the work’s serenity, drama and scale. You might wish for the whole sonata, but that thought is banished by the quick shift into Dvořák’s wistful Slavonic Fantasy in B minor (with Peter Dugan). Martinez is properly coquettish in Musetta’s aria from Puccini’s La bohème (arr. Kohn), with Bell revelling in the violin line’s twists and meanders. His virtuosity is on display in Wieniawski’s showpiece Polonaise de Concert, Op 4, every harmonic and trill lovingly placed.

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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 12, 2020, 5:00 am

Mahler, Michaela Coel and me: the conductor who spurned Covid to scoop a £30,000 prize

He was conducting a ballet in Düsseldorf when lockdown struck. But rising star Finnegan Downie Dear still made it his year, blazing to victory in the Mahler Conducting Competition - and creating a groundbreaking opera

Finnegan Downie Dear is speaking with the faraway look of a man in love. Which he is: with an orchestra. At the end of June he travelled to Bavaria, climbed on to a podium, removed his face mask and conducted the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra. Several days and four rounds later, he was the winner of the €30,000 Mahler Conducting Competition, which, in its first year, 2004, was awarded to Gustavo Dudamel, now the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

If the whole episode has the quality of a dream that is hardly surprising, particularly given how shattered professional music-making has been in the UK since March. In the semi-final of the contest, Downie Dear got to conduct a particular passage of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony – the end of the third movement as it slips into the fourth. It is some of the most transcendentally beautiful music ever written: the strings hover in such airy stillness that you almost forget to breathe. “As soon as I knew I’d be able to do that bit with them once, I didn’t give a fuck what else happened,” he says, when we meet after the end of his fortnight’s quarantine. “Because just to do it once is a joy. Especially in the quiet playing: to feel like you have some magical sense of what the sound means to you and you try to show that, and the musicians try to respond – that was enough. There are sounds they made at the end of the third movement I will never forget.” It is indeed true love. And requited, it seems: the orchestra has already invited him back to conduct them. “That means more than any prize could,” he says.

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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: July 21, 2020, 12:09 pm

'Nature was etched in Britten's music': the birdwatching composer

Mixing Britten’s folksongs with poetry and soundscapes, soprano Marci Meth took inspiration from the composer himself to create an album inspired by and embedded in the countryside that he loved

There’s no place like home, and no one knew that better than Benjamin Britten. He began composing folksong arrangements in 1941, when he was homesick in the US. Those songs brought him back to Suffolk – to the people and landscape he loved. Accepting the inaugural Aspen award in 1964, Britten said: “I belong at home – there – in Aldeburgh … and all the music I write comes from it.”

I had been studying Britten’s folksong arrangements for a year when I read that. I knew intuitively that his songs were rooted in the land, and I decided I needed to go to Aldeburgh to hear the music of that place for myself.

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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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