Classical Music: Saxton, Haydn Mendelssohn Barbican Centre, London

Ever since the 18th century, the string quartet has proved the ultimate test for composers. The reason lies not just in the challenge of composing well for two violins, viola and cello playing alone. Context is equally crucial. Produce a dud overture, and a programme also featuring a featherweight ballet might save your reputation. But write a string quartet, even a good one, and works by a classical master are sure to be your revealing concert companions.

Classical Music: An aural dreamscape

Gyorgy Ligeti baffled his audience with the first performance of `Poeme Symphonique' - a work consisting of 100 metronomes. Bayan Northcott investigates the new meaning of the joker in the pack of modern music.

Music Review: Records


PROMS BBC Symphony Orchestra / Oliver Knussen Royal Albert Hall, London / Radio 3

Elliott Carter as cheer leader? The 91-year-old composer looked on last Tuesday as his youthful indiscretion enjoyed a rare action replay. His 1944 Holiday Overture was a cheer all right, a last hurrah for the "new deal", the new aesthetic of Aaron Copland, whose "simple gifts" had so eloquently restored pride in America's musical heritage. But, more than that, it was a celebration. Paris, city of Nadia Boulanger, mentor to both composers, had been liberated and Carter was going to kick some ass. Holiday Overture is Walton's Portsmouth Point with rim-shots. Sassy and syncopated. There's a fugue - a mark of respect, perhaps, for Boulanger's quiet classicism - but the pay-off is pure Charles Ives with each of Carter's themes jostling for pride of place in the victory parade. It sounded like something the Dallas Symphony might have left behind, except that Oliver Knussen and the BBC Symphony played it with the kind of muscle and true grit that, dare I say it, was more American than the Americans.

Obituary: Willoughby Pountney

If few countries can boast such a rich regional musical life as Britain, this is surely a legacy of the vision, skills and energy of figures like Willoughby Pountney who, first in Birmingham and Oxford, then later on in the West Country, played a pivotal role in bringing professional repertoire and standards to three generations of performers and listeners.

Proms: Britten weekend

Heralded as one of Europe's finest chamber orchestras and certainly a popular favourite with the Proms audience, to judge by a Royal Albert Hall filled to capacity on Saturday evening, the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, under their director Iona Brown, took some time to warm to their task in a programme of classic repertory items. Opening with Schubert's Fifth Symphony, they did not immediately achieve the rhythmic point and transparency of texture that has always been their director's principal aim. The bass lines seemed a little heavy in their marking and the wind section needed a more rounded sonority; at the same time there were ragged moments in the rhythmic ensemble. The expression was vigorous but a classical balance and precision were missing.


Odd place to instigate a music festival one might have thought when Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears decamped to deepest Suffolk and, together with Eric Crozier, launched the first Aldeburgh Festival. Yet, half a century later, the 50th festival (13-29 June) testifies to its enduring appeal. While the music of Benjamin Britten still forms a cornerstone, new works are also important and two premieres stand out. First, the opening event evinces a new operatic double-bill by ENO Contemporary Opera Studio from Mark-Anthony Turnage of Twice Through the Heart, and The Country of the Blind, to a libretto by Clare Venables, from the story by HG Wells. Then on 21 June, comes a new Viola Concerto by Alexander Goehr, subtitled Schlussgesang, with Tabea Zimmermann as soloist.

Classical: Haydn; Britten LPO / Norrington, RFH, London

Haydn's position in the musical pantheon is an odd one. He is universally canonised by the textbooks, admired by legions of eminent composers, and popularly celebrated as "The Father of the Symphony". But when was the last time you heard one of those 104 symphonies in a conventional orchestral concert? It has been claimed that the period-instrument lobby have somehow "hijacked" this repertoire. But, as I remember it, almost no one was playing the symphonies before Christopher Hogwood and Roy Goodman took them up - despite the efforts of such powerful crusaders as Sir William Glock.

Britten's War Requiem Royal Festival Hall, London

"My subject is war, and the pity of war... the pity war distilled." So said Wilfred Owen. So said Benjamin Britten. And Krzysztof Penderecki. And out of that pity came sound and fury. For Penderecki, the "eight minutes and 37 seconds" of his Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima were, one feels, an expression of shock and inadequacy - curt, ugly and somehow inappropriate, like a nervous laugh. Sound where there should be only silence. And a giddying array of sound. Strings bowed, plucked, scraped, slid in all manner of permutations. Threnody is like a parody of catastrophe. In the abstraction of its sounds, we seem to hear - we do hear - screaming, moaning, the expiration of countless thousands. If you could put a face on it, you'd see only contortion.

To thine own muse be true

Even Stravinsky admitted that he'd borrowed one too many of Britten's ideas. But then, imitation is not always the sincerest form of flattery.

'You'll be very surprised: I'm going to marry you'

The time: November 1948 The place: Buenos Aires The woman: Susana (now Lady) Walton; Revelations

Camera lens gives a face to the music

Portraits of Victorian composers will sit alongside large exhibition prints such as that of Benjamin Britten by Karsh and modern studies such as Annie Leibovitz's 1970 picture of John Lennon in a new exhibition celebrating 150 years of photographs of British composers, writes David Lister. The show, "Variations On A Theme", opens at the National Portrait Gallery in London today. Many of the exhibits come from the gallery's archives and are rarely on view. A series of concerts in the gallery will feature music by composers from the exhibition.

CLASSICAL MUSIC Breaking Chains Barbican, London

As reported on Monday, the three main orchestral concerts in the BBC's Lutoslawski weekend - all notably well played - focused on the composer's late works. With one exception, Saturday evening - when the BBC National Orchestra of Wales was conducted by Mark Wigglesworth - offered nothing earlier than the Piano Concerto (1988), in which Martin Roscoe, though stronger on drama than poetry, was a dependable soloist.

CLASSICAL MUSIC: Michael Chance Recital; Wigmore Hall, London

All countertenors sound alike. You only have to listen to the half-jokey The Three Countenors CD to realise that this is arrant nonsense. With over 50 recordings to his credit, Michael Chance's voice is prized for its evenness and beauty, most recently heard in the first of the latest season of Radio 3's Wednesday Rush Hour concerts, broadcast live from the Wigmore Hall. Wisely, he opened with Tippett's Three Songs for Ariel, derived from a production of The Tempest at the Old Vic in 1962. The songs were written with an actor rather than a trained singer in mind, giving himself the opportunity to warm up. These were followed by a group of three Purcell songs, two of which were arranged by Tippett, who was almost single-handedly responsible for the Purcell revival - and with it the appearance of the countertenor voice. Chance faltered on the third, a dark arrangement of "In the black dismal dungeon of despair" by Benjamin Britten, from what sounded like dryness, but was easily forgiven by an audience still basking in the glowing purity of his "Music for awhile". The song shows off his finest qualities, notably his limpid, floating tone when he bravely drains the vibrato from his voice, a beautifully languorous evocation of the words "Music for awhile/ Shall all your cares beguile."

How did he do it?

Robert Cowan reviews some of the many historical reissues planned for the Schubert bicentenary year
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