i Father Christmas, annual giftgiver

Not a regular in the public eye this one.

Alexander Pushkin, By Robert Chandler

Hesperus's "Brief Lives" series of short biographies offers a sound and accessible alternative to the blockbuster literary life.

Ballet and Opera - The odd couple

To many ballet fans, opera is all about melodrama and inappropriate vocalising. Yet, to opera aficionados, ballet can seem limited and dull. But, Jessica Duchen says, they do work together – and two companies aim to prove it

Opera sheds new light on Tchaikovsky's gay lifestyle

Tchaikovsky is thought of as a gloomy fatalist, but a rarely staged humorous opera and a book about his gay lifestyle will make us think again

Life in the fast lane: Steven McRae

Steven McRae grew up in the world of motor racing but now he is one of the Royal Ballet's brightest stars

'Every sperm is sacred': Terry Jones' favourite Monty Python sketches

40 years of Monty Python

Michael Church: This plan misses so many key points about education

So, Ed Balls is rethinking his plans to turn 11 million Britons into paedophile suspects: not much of a surprise, given the near-universal derision that greeted it. The plan may need "adjustments", he says, which we can take as code for a total retreat: yet another crack-brained New Labour notion is about to bite the dust – and so it should. The Vetting and Barring Scheme requires everyone having regular contact with children, in any context outside a family one, to be approved by the Government after registering on a state-run database.

Tchaikovsky, By Roland John

Why the Russian maestro Tchaikovsky attributed his remarkable musical voice to his proclivities

Prom 31: National Youth Orchestra/Petrenko, Royal Albert Hall, London

So disarmingly boyish-looking is the talented Vasily Petrenko that he might easily have been mistaken for one of the National Youth Orchestra's own stepping out to the podium to conduct them. But appearances, as we know, can be deceptive and the most striking aspects of this annual Prom jamboree was Petrenko's maturity in seeking out and refining the precious quietudes in three flashy blockbusting showpieces. Getting an orchestra this big (pretty much double everything) to sound shapely and diaphanous is quite an achievement.

Prom 31: National Youth Orchestra / Petrenko, Royal Albert Hall, London

So disarmingly boyish looking is the talented Vasily Petrenko that he might easily have been mistaken for one of the National Youth Orchestra’s own stepping out to the podium to conduct them.

Superstars of dance: The Mariinsky Ballet

The Mariinsky, formerly known as the Kirov, returns to Britain next week. The company that set the standard for classical ballet promises to live up to its glamorous history with a starry new line-up

Sir Edward Downes: Conductor celebrated as one of the finest Verdi interpreters of his generation

Edward Downes spent more than 50 years of his life at Covent Garden Opera House, as prompter, répétiteur, translater and, of course, conductor. He spent four years as the music director of Australian Opera, but returned at least once a season to Covent Garden where, in 1992, he was appointed assistant music director and principal conductor of the Royal Opera. He had been knighted the year before. He was one of the finest Verdi conductors of his generation, and in 1995 he launched an ambitious plan to perform all Verdi's operas at Covent Garden by 2001, the centenary of his death, a plan which unfortunately foundered from lack of funds. Downes's other great strengths were in Russian opera, especially Prokofiev and Shostakovich, though he did not neglect Tchaikovsky or Mussorgsky, and in 20th-century opera: he conducted several premieres and British premieres.

Dorian Gray, Sadler's Wells, London

Matthew Bourne's take on Oscar Wilde's story has strong performances but is hollow at the core

Album: Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 5 / Hamlet – Nelsons / CBSO (Orfeo)

The symphonic debut of a new conductor and orchestra partnership is always an event. Long associated with contemporary music, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra tears into the first of a cycle of Tchaikovsky's symphonies for the German label Orfeo under its young Latvian music director Andris Nelsons.

Album: Brahms/Korngold, Violin Concertos – Znaider/Gergiev/ Wiener Phil, (RCA)

Brahms tasteful, Korngold vulgar, right? Not in this recording. Soloist Nikolaj Znaider's meticulously judged vibrato glows through the poignant Romance of Korngold's Violin Concerto while Valéry Gergiev works his quivering magic with the Wiener Philharmoniker.

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Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us