Classical album review: Benjamin Britten, War Requiem – Antonio Pappano (Warner)

Of all the many great works by Britten revisited live and on disc for the centenary of the composer’s birth this month, perhaps none packs the punch of his War Requiem, the words of the Latin Mass for the dead punctuated by the frank front-line poetry of Wilfred Owen.

A scene from The Magic Flute

Opera review: The Magic Flute

Simon McBurney successfully conveys this work's evanescent mystery

The Mariinsky Stradivarius Ensemble

Review: Mariinsky Stradivarius Ensemble, Milton Court Concert Hall, London

The Berlin Phil, the Gewandhaus, and the CBSO have long done it, and now the Mariinsky are doing it too: sending a posse of top instrumentalists as chamber-music outriders to their main orchestral push. Making their British debut under Valery Gergiev in the Guildhall's new Milton Court auditorium, the Stradivarius Ensemble went through their paces with three works which showcased their instruments as much as their talent. For these were no ordinary instruments: Strads and Guarneris, Guandinis and Amatis, all from the golden age of string manufacture.

Classical review: Zehetmair Quartet, Beethoven/Bruckner/Hartmann/Holliger (ECM)

Four mighty landmarks in 180 years of string quartet writing start with Beethoven’s late Op 135 of 1826 followed by a Bruckner rarity, his C minor “student” composition written in 1862 at the age of 38 when the master of choral and organ music was learning orchestration.

Simon Keenlyside in Wozzeck at the Royal Opera House

Opera review: Wozzeck, Royal Opera House

Driven mad by a disastrous love-life and the horrors of war, the German soldier Johann Christian Woyzeck was publicly beheaded in 1824 for the murder of his unfaithful lover after medical tests 'disproved' his defence of temporary insanity. His story gave rise to a play by Georg Buchner, a radical young medic who presented him as 'rationally' paranoid, ie the world really was out to get him. The opera which Alban Berg created from the story a hundred years later was predicated on the same assumption: for his Wozzeck, all encounters with his social superiors are humiliating beyond endurance.

Opera review: La Traviata, King's Head Theatre, London

Since carrying off an Olivier for their pocket Boheme, OperaUpClose have certainly fulfilled their initial promise. Their setting of Verdi's A Masked Ball in an IKEA store worked surprisingly well, as did their relocation of Tosca to Communist East Germany. After such exploits, shoe-horning a Twenties Traviata into the King's Head looked like a doddle. Director Robin Norton-Hale had placed the action in something resembling a railway carriage in Tsarist-Russia, but the costumes announced the flapper period loud and clear; the adaptation and translation was her own. 

Frank Zappa's 200 Motels at London's Royal Festival Hall

Classical review: 200 Motels, Royal Festival Hall, London

Among the things Frank Zappa had in common with his coeval Lou Reed was an interest in the music of the classical avant garde. But Zappa's involvement went deeper: echoes of Stravinsky and Schoenberg permeated many of his compositions, underpinned by the credo of the scientist-composer Edgard Varese, who enlisted ambient noise as part of his compositional armoury. Zappa followed suit, and into his 200 Motels he poured everything from his rackety life with his spaced-out rock band The Mothers of Invention.

Review: Andras Schiff, Diabelli Variations (ECM)

Something of a beauty contest is likely to ensue when the same work is played on two different instruments, and there is a surprising overall winner when Andras Schiff performs Beethoven’s Diabelli variations on both a 1921 Bechstein and an 1820 Austrian fortepiano.

Classical review: The Killing Flower/Greek, Linbury Theatre, London

As a celebrated multiple murderer, compulsive masochist, and creator of futuristically ear-challenging polyphony, Don Carlo Gesualdo (1560-1613) has fascinated composers from Stravinsky onwards, and they keep on coming. Salvatore Sciarrino’s Gesualdo opera The Killing Flower, now getting its UK premiere from Music Theatre Wales, focuses on the lurid climax of his life in which he murders his wife and her lover, on catching them in flagrante; Sciarrino’s libretto dramatizes the steamy events in cinematically terse, if over-literary, dialogue. 

Classical review: Volodos, Kavakos, Dindo, Gewandhausorchester, Chailly

Pushed by his singer parents, Arcadi Volodos was initially a very reluctant pianist, and only decided to give the instrument a proper go in his teens. But then there was no stopping this single-minded Russian, and by his early twenties he was world-famed for his preternatural virtuosity. As an artist, however, he went for the slow burn, letting his Beethoven and Schubert privately marinate for years before playing them in public to acclaim.

Classical album review: Lang Lang/Simon Rattle, Prokofiev 3 Bartok 2 (Sony)

Sir Simon Rattle has done nothing to scotch rumours that he is to take the top job with the London Symphony Orchestra when Valery Gergiev steps down in 2017, possibly leaving the Berlin Philharmonic earlier than planned: he went to Berlin in 1999 and was due to stay until 2018. (Years go by like bar-lines in the heady world of haute conducting.)

Classical review: Les vepres Siciliennes, Royal Opera House, London

Verdi’s first Parisian grand opera, Les vepres Siciliennes, enjoyed a brief vogue before disappearing from the repertory. Astonishingly, Covent Garden’s crowning contribution to Verdi’s centenary year represents this work’s UK premiere in its original French form. Its historical basis in 13th century French-occupied Sicily was creatively doctored by its librettist Eugene Scribe to tread a careful path round Franco-Italian sensibilities in 1855, but the real attraction for its original audience lay in the staging, which Verdi had demanded should match his "grandiose, impassioned" subject.

Album review: Brahms/John Axelrod, Brahms Beloved Telarc

Unfulfilled passion for Clara Schumann underpinned Brahms’s four symphonies, believes conductor and also, here, piano accompanist Axelrod.

Classical review: Agrippina, English Touring Opera

“Agrippina” was Handel’s first masterpiece, and its satirical tone and pervasive sexual innuendo were calculated to please Venetians at carnival-time, rather than to cater for the sober tastes of Hanoverian London. Labyrinthine is too mild a word for the complexity of its plot, which turns on the machinations by Agrippina, wife of the Roman emperor Claudius, to ensure her son Nero’s accession to the throne. Engineering (as she imagines) her husband’s demise,  playing two enemies off against each other while gunning for a third and laying traps for a fourth, the intrigue she weaves makes the brain reel. Meanwhile young Poppea, the love-interest for every male in sight, sets up a manipulative web of her own. Heroic Ottone, who finally gets his girl when everyone else has been neutralised, is the only character who doesn’t get mocked for duplicity and general bad behaviour.

Classical review: Hodges, Currie, Summers, Aurora Orchestra, Ollu / Tamara Stefanovich

How far has ‘new music’ progressed since the Fifties? On the evidence of two magisterial Southbank concerts, scarcely at all. John Lennon’s borrowing (for “Strawberry Fields”) from Stockhausen’s “Gesang der Junglinge” was an indication of how deeply that pioneering electronic work had penetrated mid-century culture, and to listen to it now is to experience anew the freshness of its invention. This is best done with eyes shut, because what Stockhausen’s collage does is create a landscape bursting with events of an almost tactile nature. One’s initial impression is of being painlessly dive-bombed from all angles by flocks of excited birds, but that is just one of many evanescent effects emerging from the speakers round the auditorium.

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