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Posted: December 8, 2022, 3:30 pm

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Op 101 & Op 106, ‘Hammerklavier’ review – the power of Pollini | Andrew Clements's classical album of the week

Maurizio Pollini
(Deutsche Grammophon)

The pianist’s severe, analytical style engages with two of the most challenging works in the repertoire to produce a disc of compelling, muscular authority

It took Maurizio Pollini more than 30 years to complete his recordings of the Beethoven piano sonatas for Deutsche Grammophon. The first instalment of that series, which appeared in 1977, was devoted to the last five sonatas, including magisterial performances of the two paired on this new release, which was recorded in Munich’s Herkulessaal in June 2021 and April this year. In the 1970s Pollini was at the height of his powers, a level that he maintained well into this century, and which has assured him a place among the greatest pianists of our time. But in the past 10 years or so his live appearances have become more erratic, with nondescript, uninvolved performances outweighing those evenings when he recaptured his old mastery.

The relatively few studio recordings Pollini has made over the past decade have proved much more consistent. His approach, whether to Beethoven or Chopin, Debussy or Schoenberg, always tended towards the analytical, and he has never been a great keyboard colourist. In his later years his playing has become even more severe, but his intellectual grip on the music has remained as secure as ever. His discs of Chopin, with the pieces grouped chronologically, for instance, were often revelatory.

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Posted: December 8, 2022, 2:55 pm

A Winter’s Journey review – vivid colours, of voice and visuals, enrich Schubert’s song cycle

Barbican, London
Animating Winterreise with works by Australian painter Fred Williams created striking moments, but Allan Clayton’s voice brought power and drama enough of its own

What is it about Schubert’s Winterreise that persuades stage directors that this greatest of song cycles needs a bit of help visually to enhance its extraordinary power? Compared with the excesses of some of the earlier stagings, Lindy Hume’s version for tenor Allan Clayton and pianist Kate Golla, which toured Australia this summer under the auspices of Musica Viva Australia, may be a relatively restrained affair, using images from the paintings of Fred Williams to mirror the thoughts of Schubert’s traveller as he moves through the frozen landscape, but ultimately it still seems a rather unnecessary exercise.

Video projections of Williams’s paintings are on two screens placed behind the piano, sometimes moving frieze-like from left to right, sometimes assembled layer by layer. Never intrusive or distracting, they are sometimes strikingly beautiful. Meanwhile, as the protagonist, Clayton moves circumspectly around the piano between numbers, though he begins and ends the cycle isolated in semi-darkness at the side of the platform, lit by a low-level spot that creates menacing expressionist shadows. At one point he lies down to sleep, using his jacket as a pillow, but for much of the cycle his gestures and movements are no more theatrical than they might be in a “straight” concert performance.

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Posted: December 7, 2022, 4:00 pm

The Woolf pack: Renée Fleming and Joyce DiDonato on turning The Hours into opera

The Pulitzer-prize-winning, Mrs Dalloway-influenced novel about three generations of women, has finally hit the stage. Its stars tell us how they pulled it off

Renée Fleming is rarely seen on an opera house stage today. The star soprano announced five years ago that she was retiring – not from opera, but from performing many of the roles, the Desdemonas, Violettas and Marguerites, that she had made her own on the world’s greatest stages. “I said I can’t play ingénues any more. Characters who are supposed to be very youthful. Women who are victims of circumstance.” Unfortunately for operagoers, that excised most of the 18th- and 19th-century soprano repertoire. “I wanted to be able to say words that a woman of my age and experience could say,” she adds. “Which is why my focus is on new work.”

The Hours, which will be streamed live in cinemas across Europe and the US this weekend, is a new opera by US composer Kevin Puts adapted from Michael Cunningham’s 1999 Pulitzer prize-winning novel about a single day in the lives of three generations of women: Virginia Woolf in 1920s Richmond, who will be played in this premiere staging at New York’s Metropolitan Opera by Joyce DiDonato; Laura Brown in postwar suburban Los Angeles (Kelli O’Hara); and Clarissa Vaughan – nicknamed “Mrs Dalloway” – in the New York of 2001 (Fleming). Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway is the thread that connects the three, who struggle to find shape in the lives and roles allotted them, and contemplate creativity, love, regret, family, friendship and sexuality. Stephen Daldry’s 2002 film was garlanded with awards, including an Oscar for Nicole Kidman as Woolf.

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Posted: December 7, 2022, 10:00 am

As Ukraine’s culture minister, I’m asking you to boycott Tchaikovsky until this war is over | Oleksandr Tkachenko

Russia is trying to destroy our nation’s history. Alongside sanctions, let’s pause performances of Kremlin-favoured works

Ukraine calls on western allies to boycott Russian culture

Russia isn’t just physically attacking Ukraine; it is also trying to destroy our culture and memory. In the occupied territories, Ukrainian libraries have been liquidated, the word “Ukraine” has been erased, and Ukrainian museums have been destroyed. Our ministry of culture and information policy has recorded more than 800 cases of destruction: monuments and works of art, museums, valuable historical buildings.

This war is a civilisational battle over culture and history. On 5 September this year, Vladimir Putin signed a decree that refers to the “Russian peace”. The Kremlin made clear in the document that culture was a tool and even a weapon in the hands of the government, and that it would actively use all the opportunities available to it, from promoting Russian ballet to protecting the rights of Russian speakers abroad, in order to advance its interests.

Oleksandr Tkachenko is Ukraine’s minister of culture

Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a response of up to 300 words by email to be considered for publication in our letters section, please click here.

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Posted: December 6, 2022, 4:05 pm

Romanian National Philharmonic Orch/Smbatyan review – Vengerov’s virtuoisty raises the temperature

Cadogan Hall, London
The contemporary works were unengaging, but the Romanian Orchestra’s Tchaikovsky enthralled, and Vengerov’s bravura reading of Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto closed the concert in spectacular style

Billed as a Maxim Vengerov gala, this programme of popular classics was also a showcase for the Romanian National Philharmonic Orchestra, the somewhat grandiose touring name for the Brașov Philharmonic. A fine, disciplined ensemble, they hail from Romania’s seventh most populous city, located slap bang in the middle of Transylvania. Under Armenian conductor Sergey Smbatyan, their robust performance grew in stature as the evening progressed.

The first half got off to a spirited start with Sibelius’s perennial Karelia Suite. The central Ballade brought out the burnished earthiness of the RNPO’s lower strings, though the Intermezzo could have been lighter on its feet. Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture was more enthralling, with Smbatyan part urgent, part cajoling, crafting the kind of imaginative and dynamic phrasing the Sibelius somehow lacked.

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Posted: December 6, 2022, 2:57 pm

Voice of Black Opera 2022 review – worthy winner brings drama and technique

Town Hall, Birmingham
Despite the narrow choice of material, there were some very strong individual performances, with well-deserved honours going to Rachel Duckett

Three lyric sopranos, a dramatic mezzo and a tenor made up the finalists for this year’s Voice of Black Opera competition, organised by the Black British Classical Foundation, and open to singers from the Commonwealth. Britain, Canada, South Africa and Jamaica were represented in the final, in which each of the contestants sang a group of arias including a duet with one of three professional singers, with the Welsh National Opera Orchestra, conducted by Matthew Kofi Waldren, as well as a contemporary song with piano accompaniment by a black or south Asian composer.

The programme booklet for the evening failed however to explain any of the competition’s conditions – the age limits for entrants, or what had to be included in their choice of repertoire – though it was at pains to list who was responsible for their hair and makeup. Nor did it give the ages of the finalists, which surely matters when young singers are being assessed, especially when as here their range of experience seemed to vary quite widely, from some who had only just graduated from music school, to those who had already had taken solo roles with companies around Europe.

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Posted: December 5, 2022, 4:36 pm

Caroline Shaw/Sō Percussion review – fresh and inventive, from Abba to chopsticks and thimbles

Milton Court, London
Gleefully trampling across genre boundaries, the composer-vocalist and the percussion group deliver a nimble range of styles

In her spectacularly successful career to date, the composer and vocalist Caroline Shaw has already collaborated with an astonishingly wide range of performers, from Kanye West to Anne Sofie von Otter. And in 2021 she released two albums with Sō Percussion, the four-piece ensemble who, like Shaw, gleefully trample across the boundaries of musical genres, and who constantly provoke reassessments of what a percussion group can do.

Together they have been touring a set drawn from those two albums, Narrow Sea and Let the Soil Play Its Simple Part; Milton Court was the final date on that tour. Narrow Sea takes texts from a 19th-century hymnal, but this selection was dominated by numbers from Let the Soil, for which Shaw culled her words from sources including James Joyce’s Ulysses, Anne Carson’s poetry, 18th-century spirituals, even the chorus of an Abba song, as well as using lyrics of her own, to create settings that have clear links with US singer-songwriters – Suzanne Vega came to mind at one point – but with the much wider American folk tradition too.

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Posted: December 5, 2022, 3:59 pm

Leonidas Kavakos/Yuja Wang review – shared detail and purpose

Wigmore Hall, London
The two virtuosic soloists have a longstanding musical partnership that here produced a wonderful and generous evening of music by Brahms, Janáček and Schumann

If ever two musicians seemed to be in their own separate worlds when playing together, it’s the violinist Leonidas Kavakos and pianist Yuja Wang. And yet the level of shared detail and purpose in this recital – a generous programme of three meaty sonatas and three encores – was proof of the ongoing strength of the longstanding occasional partnership between these star soloists.

Much of the music’s sense of propulsion came from Wang, though she rarely signposted it. In Brahms’s Sonata No 1 it was Kavakos who was in the foreground, playing with irresistible warmth and with his trademark clean articulation of each note even within a single bow stroke. But behind him, Wang’s deceptively unassuming, almost out-of-focus playing worked with those melodies to capture this music’s quality of elusiveness, if such a thing can be done.

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Posted: December 1, 2022, 3:49 pm

A Shropshire Lad: English Songs Orchestrated by Roderick Williams | classical album of the week

Baritone Williams has orchestrated this wide selection of songs by British and Irish composers and illuminates each one with moving personal touches

As well as being one of Britain’s leading baritones, Roderick Williams is also a composer, mainly of much admired choral music. The twin tracks of his career come together in this collection, in which Williams is the soloist in 21 songs by British composers that, at the suggestion of the conductor Mark Elder, he has orchestrated for the Hallé himself.

At the heart of the disc are two song cycles, George Butterworth’s six Songs from AE Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, and Ralph Vaughan Williams’s The House of Life. But otherwise Williams’s selection ranges widely. There are a couple of songs by John Ireland (one of them his well known Masefield setting, Sea Fever), and single settings from seven other composers, ranging from Rebecca Clarke, Ernest Farrar, William Denis Browne and Ina Boyle (who was emphatically Irish, despite the title of this collection) to Ruth Gipps, Madeleine Dring and James Burton.

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Posted: November 29, 2022, 3:29 pm

Tom Phillips obituary

Painter, printmaker and collagist known for his extraordinary breadth of involvement in the arts

In 1966, the artist Tom Phillips, who has died aged 85 after a long illness, walked into a junk shop on Peckham Rye in south London and bought a novel called A Human Document by the Victorian writer William Hurrell Mallock.

The choice of book was random. “I’d decided it should be the first one I picked up that cost thruppence, and this one did,” Phillips recalled in an interview to mark his 75th birthday in 2012. “It also had the most striking title – it leapt out at me. There was a witness, [the painter] Ron Kitaj, but sadly he has died. He said: ‘Well, this one costs thruppence, Tom. Here it is. You’d better get it.’” Phillips paused. “He didn’t live to see the end, alas.”

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Posted: November 27, 2022, 3:54 pm

A fight at the opera: could forcing ENO up north work out?

The ultimatum to English National Opera was attacked as ‘cultural vandalism’, but raised some hopes nearer Manchester

When the Arts Council halved English National Opera’s funding earlier this month and made its new £17m grant contingent on the company leaving London – possibly for Manchester – the diktat was greeted as “madness” by the Evening Standard, “cultural vandalism” by Melvyn Bragg and an order that would kill off the institution by April by the company’s chair, Harry Brünjes.

The battle over ENO’s future soon became the latest frontline in the culture wars as debate raged over what it meant to level up culture.

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Posted: November 27, 2022, 12:58 pm

It’s a Wonderful Life review – operatic adaptation is on the side of the angels

Coliseum, London
Jake Heggie’s take on the heartwarming Christmas classic has a glittering, melodic score with a gift of a role for soprano Danielle de Niese as goofy guardian angel Clara

George Bailey dreams of brushing the small-town dust of Bedford Falls off his feet and seeing the Parthenon and the Colosseum. Now Jake Heggie’s opera of It’s a Wonderful Life, premiered in Houston in 2016, has made it across the pond to the Coliseum, where its story of Christmas hope amid thwarted dreams seems pertinent as English National Opera fights for survival.

Heggie has been a mainstay of new opera in the US for the past two decades. Some will wish for more teeth in his music – after all, there’s plenty of bitterness in the beloved 1946 film on which the opera is based. Indeed his glittery, melodic score is at its best when its default sweetness gets an unsettling spanner in the harmonic works: when the wedding music admits the low rumble that means the bank run has started, for example. Aletta Collins’s staging for ENO tells the story clearly under a canopy of stars; video effects make the angels’ galactic home morph into an earthly blizzard and back again.

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Posted: November 26, 2022, 12:00 pm

Classical home listening: Julia Bullock’s Walking in the Dark; the Dudok Quartet’s Reflections

The American soprano Julia Bullock ranges from John Adams to Sandy Denny on her lyrical debut, while the Dudoks pair Shostakovich and Bacewicz

• In her first solo album, Walking in the Dark (Nonesuch), Julia Bullock – a memorable Theodora in Handel’s opera, staged at the Royal Opera House earlier this year – is described not by voice type but as a “classical singer”, influenced early on by Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. If this hints at range and versatility, as well as emotional power, a Bullock hallmark, her choice of repertoire confirms that impression. An American, now based in Germany, Bullock is joined by the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Christian Reif, in Samuel Barber’s wistful James Agee setting, Knoxville: Summer of 1915, and an aria from John Adams’s El Niño.

Reif (also Bullock’s husband) is her pianist in a traditional spiritual as well as songs by Oscar Brown Jr and Billy Taylor. The album’s title comes from the haunting opening line of One By One by Connie Converse, a singer-songwriter who disappeared in 1974, her fate never known. Sandy Denny‘s Who Knows Where the Time Goes? ends this stirring and lyrical debut.

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Posted: November 24, 2022, 5:39 pm

Saunders: Skin; Void; Unbreathed review | Andrew Clements's classical album of the week

Dierstein/Rothbrust/Berlin RSO/Poppe/Quatuor Diotima/Fraser/Klangforum Wien/Wiegers

Brilliantly sculpted textures, sometimes intensely fragile, sometimes furiously wrought, show Rebecca Saunders to be one of the leading figures of European music today

For more than 30 years, NMC has steadfastly championed a wide range of contemporary British composers, but until now it has never released a disc devoted to the works of Rebecca Saunders. Over the past two decades she has emerged as one of the leading figures of European music of our time. But perhaps because the London-born Saunders lives in Berlin, she still receives far too few performances in Britain. There has been just one of her works, for instance, in the main series of the BBC Proms, and that was in 2009 – though her music has been regularly programmed at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music festival.

This superb disc ought to gain Saunders many more admirers, for it includes one of her finest achievements: Skin for soprano and ensemble, which was composed in 2016 for Juliet Fraser, who is the outstanding singer here with Klangforum Wien. The text is Saunders’ own, incorporating an extract from Molly Bloom’s final monologue in Ulysses. (James Joyce, along with Samuel Beckett, has been a regular ingredient in Saunders’ music.) Identifiable words and phrases emerge only fitfully, yet acquire even more expressive power through their infrequency alongside passages in which voice and instruments create webs of brilliantly sculpted textures, sometimes intensely fragile, sometimes furiously wrought.

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Posted: November 19, 2022, 12:00 pm

Classical home listening: Tine Thing Helseth’s Seraph; Lost in Venice with Infermi d’Amore

From Satie to MacMillan, the trumpeter embraces past and present with panache, while Infermi d’Amore transport us to Vivaldi’s Venice

• The Norwegian trumpet star Tine Thing Helseth resists boundaries in music, as long as any given work has a potential for lyricism, a hallmark of her playing. Her new album, Seraph (Lawo), with the Norwegian string group Ensemble Allegria, embraces the past – Erik Satie’s Je te veux and Francis Poulenc’s Les chemins de l’amour – and a less familiar, predominantly tonal present: the American Eric Ewazen, her fellow countryman Rolf Wallin and the Armenian Alexander Arutiunian. The Scottish composer James MacMillan’s three-movement concertino Seraph (2010) – written originally for Alison Balsom – gives the album its title, its muscularity and vigour offsetting the more immediate appeal of most of the other works.

Helseth recorded the album before a cancer diagnosis that forced her to stop playing for a time. This pause, about which she has spoken openly, made her reconsider many aspects of her career. We must watch attentively to see where this engaging performer takes us next.

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Posted: October 18, 2022, 5:00 am

Royal Opera House announces Jakub Hrůša as its new music director

The Czech-born conductor will take over from Antonio Pappano in 2025. He talks exclusively to the Guardian about what shape the opera house will take under his musical leadership

The Royal Opera House today announces the appointment of Jakub Hrůša as its music director. Hrůša, 41, will begin his tenure in September 2025. He succeeds Antonio Pappano, who steps down from the post at the end of the 2023-24 season after 22 years in the role – making him the Royal Opera’s longest serving music director. In the 2024-25 season, Hrůša and Pappano will share house responsibilities, and both will appear as special guest conductors.

Hrůša was born in the Czech Republic and studied conducting at Prague’s Academy of Performing Arts, where his teachers included Jiří Bělohlávek. He is currently chief conductor of the Bamberg Symphony, a position he has held since 2016, and principal guest conductor of the Czech Philharmonic and the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. Between 2010 and 2012 he was music director of Glyndebourne on Tour, and he has led opera productions for the Salzburg festival, Vienna State Opera, Opéra National de Paris, Zurich Opera and Frankfurt Opera.

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Posted: October 17, 2022, 2:55 pm

‘I’m not saying we won’t make mistakes’ – violin sensation Nicola Benedetti on becoming EIF’s first female director

She was leading an orchestra at the age of eight and won Young Musician of the Year at 16. What is the virtuoso’s vision for Edinburgh international festival? Audiences moved to tears and bagpipes going global

Seventy-five years since it was founded, the Edinburgh international festival finally has its first female director – and its first Scot. In March, it was announced that the concert violinist Nicola Benedetti would be taking over from Fergus Linehan, who had held the position for eight years. Benedetti was born in West Kilbride, Ayrshire. Now 35, she has spent her life at the pinnacle of British classical music, leading the National Children’s Orchestra of Great Britain aged eight; studying at the Yehudi Menuhin school for young musicians under the maestro from 10; and winning the BBC Young Musician of the Year award at 16.

Benedetti is confident that this total immersion in the highest of high culture has given her the vision and expertise to lead Scotland’s foremost arts festival. “I’ve watched an average of 90 to 100 concerts a year since I was 16 years old,” she tells me over mint tea in the lobby of a fancy hotel in London’s West End. “I can’t tell you how much I’d like champagne and salmon,” she says, “but I’m not going to have that.” Her next stop is at Classic FM round the corner.

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Posted: October 5, 2022, 7:42 am

Daniel Barenboim steps back from performing for health reasons

The conductor and pianist made the announcement on social media the evening he was honoured with the Gramophone lifetime achievement award

Conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim, a towering cultural figure of our time, has announced that he is stepping back from performing for health reasons.

The 79-year-old, who is the music director of the Berlin State Opera and the Staatskapelle Berlin, and founder of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, has cancelled several concerts and tours in recent months due to health problems. He made the latest announcement on social media on the evening he was honoured with the Gramophone lifetime achievement award.

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Posted: September 21, 2022, 3:43 pm

‘It’s my age that’s the talking point’: Toks Dada the Southbank’s head of classical music

With its new season opening this weekend, the Southbank Centre’s 32-year-old leader talks about how he’s shaping the venue to reflect classical music today, the magic of live music, and the challenge of keeping the lights – and the heating – on

Toks Dada is reeling off the concerts that make up the opening weekend of the Southbank Centre’s season, starting tomorrow, and as he starts to run out of fingers he looks more and more like a child in a sweet shop. Who would begrudge him the excitement? It is, after all, the first proper season he has programmed in his role as the Southbank Centre’s head of classical music.

Dada started at the Southbank in December 2020. Days later, Christmas was cancelled and the performing arts sector once again found that any glimmers of hope regarding the lifting of Covid-induced closure were extinguished. “It was a challenging time,” says Dada, talking in the foyer of the Queen Elizabeth Hall as the Queen’s lying-in-state queue begins to form by the river outside. “But it gave us an opportunity to ask ourselves difficult questions about what classical music is today and how we could best support and reflect that.”

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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.”

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).

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