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Dmitri Shostakovich

Tuesday, May 23, 2017


Norman Lebrecht - Slipped disc

May 18

How the Berlin Philharmonic sounds from the inside

Norman Lebrecht - Slipped disc Our diarist Anthea Kreston made her debut last week in the viola section of the Berlin Philharmonc Orchestra. Here’s how it felt from her seat. I am waiting to board my flight to Krakow – one of the many quartet concerts which sprinkle throughout this loose six-month sabbatical. And it does feel like a sabbatical of sorts – the flexibility of schedule allows for a great variety of activities – musical and other. This week we got the keys to our new home – a newly refurbished home built in the 30’s, nestled among a lush green landscape – apple trees in the backyard, a line of raspberry bushes bordering the side of the property. In the back, down a small path, is a little lake, a wooded park, a horse farm. We can travel together by bike through this park to school, or to the S Bahn station which can get us to the heart of the city in 20 minutes. This may be the little link to our bucolic past which will allow us to breath fully, expand into endless hours of magical play in the woods. My week with the Berlin Philharmonic is at an end, and I am still riding the high of the performances, the happiness of meeting new people and finding inspiration from that undulating, breathing organism made up of 120 of the most talented musicians from every corner of the planet. Although I have been kindly asked from not commenting on my time within the orchestra, they have allowed me to give a reaction to the performances – a kind of internal concert review. To look around the orchestra during performance – to see the concentration, delight, and passion on the faces and in the movements of the musicians was a thing to behold. I have seen many great orchestras perform before, but the freedom of movement, the dedication to line and nuance, far surpassed any experience I have had. Under the baton of Semyon Bychkov, the orchestra was in turn tightly controlled, as well as allowed to roam free – with the internal hierarchy of concertmaster/leaders of sections communicating with one another to create a flow which was generated from within. People’s eyes were trained on the concertmaster (the American Noah Bendix-Balgley, pictured below), the leaders of their sections, the constant weavings of solos coming from every corner of the orchestra. They breathed together, allowed for breath to happen. The soloist in the Shostakovich Cello Concerto was Gautier Capuçon, a cellist with remarkable strength – both of character and physical control. He is a regular Schubert Quintet partner of my quartet, but my first meeting with him was thwarted this season because of upheavals in Istanbul, where our concert was scheduled. His encore – Casals’ Song of the Birds, played together with the cello section of the Philharmonic, was ethereal and transportive – the sounds of cellos working as one was felt deeply in our chests, as we sympathetically resonated together. Heldenleben was the meat of the meal, ingested with hungry ears and hearts after a generous intermission. Again – a freedom of line prevailed – and the ensuing passion driven by the orchestra, supported by our director firmly yet with a large degree of trust, allowed the orchestra to soar. To feel the trust of the conductor – to know they believe in you, and not only allow but encourage individual expression – this is what laid the groundwork for a living, breathing interpretation of this tone poem – the semi-autobiographical “Hero’s Life” – gargantuan in scope as well as the demands on every member of the orchestra. At the end of Ein Heldenleben, with the final chord by the brass and winds coming to a stop, there was a silence, a long silence, in which the conductor seemed as if unable to return to this world – he had taken us, or rather we had gone together, to a magical place, and no one was ready to come back. The audience was with us – every seat filled and rows of standing listeners. We stayed, all together, slowly returning to this world, and a thunderous and sustained applause brought us all back – here we are, in Berlin, 2017, and we have indeed all gone together to a different place, and have experienced something that could not have been experienced anywhere else. What a glorious time. The concert can be seen in full on the Digital Concerthall.

Royal Opera House

Yesterday

How do you complete an opera when its composer has died before finishing it?

Marco Berti as Calaf in Turandot © ROH/Tristram Kenton, 2013 Operas left unfinished by their composers present a fascinating conundrum. Can anyone else bring them to a satisfactory conclusion? For David Murphy , the completer of Ravi Shankar ’s unfinished opera Sukanya , the answer is ‘yes’ – Shankar had completed his opera in outline, so, as his long-term collaborator, Murphy primarily needed to ‘fill in the gaps’. But it’s rarely so straightforward… Both Schoenberg ’s Moses und Aron and Debussy ’s Rodrigue et Chimène have proved unfinishable. Schoenberg created a three-act libretto for Moses und Aron, but only wrote music for Acts I and II. His sketches for Act III are too slight to convey any sense of his intentions, so the Act III text is usually left unperformed. Debussy’s messy sketches for Acts I to III of Rodrigue et Chimène have been reconstructed, orchestrated and performed, but nothing can be done about Act IV, for which text and music are lost. The only solution in such cases is for new music to be added – as Robert Orledge did for Debussy’s La Chute de la maison Usher , composing from scratch more than half the score. Critics praised Orledge for capturing Debussy’s idiom – but others have been less fortunate. Philipp Jarnach ’s conclusion to his teacher Busoni ’s Doktor Faust was criticized for its brevity, and has periodically been replaced by Antony Beaumont ’s more expansive one. When Rimsky-Korsakov completed his friend Musorgsky ’s Khovanshchina , his fellow musicians criticized him for over-lush orchestration and for softening Musorgsky’s distinctive harmonic style. Shostakovich ’s bleaker 1959 completion, based on Musorgsky’s vocal score, has now become the standard version. Fortunately, Rimsky-Korsakov and his pupil Glazunov had greater success completing and orchestrating Borodin ’s epic Prince Igor – perhaps because they found his idiom easier to imitate. Turandot must have been a particularly terrifying project, as Puccini had invested so much in the Act III finale left unfinished at his death – he intended it to have the intensity of Tristan und Isolde ’s love duet. No wonder Franco Alfano found finishing Turandot a struggle! His version is more than competent, but lacks Puccini’s striking harmonic language. By contrast, Luciano Berio ’s longer alternative ending experiments with daring modernist harmonies and colourful scoring, and has a pensive rather than festive conclusion. Time will tell if audiences come to prefer one version over another. Operas left closer to completion can also cause headaches. Offenbach had finished most of Les Contes d’Hoffmann (bar sections of the ‘Giulietta’ act) at his death four months before the premiere. But he left no definite performing instructions, so Hoffmann has been performed in various versions, particularly since missing manuscript sources have been re-discovered. Friedrich Cerha had a relatively easy task to complete Berg ’s Lulu – Berg had finished Acts I and II, and most of Act III in short score – but Berg’s widow remained adamant that it was unfinishable, even claiming her dead husband had told her so from beyond the grave. The completed three-act Lulu was only performed in 1979, after her death. And although it was much praised, the fact that two recent productions (Welsh National Opera’s in 2013; Hamburg State Opera’s in 2017) use new versions of Act III suggests that Cerha’s expert completion has still not been universally accepted. Even a completed score doesn’t mean the end of the story. Bizet ’s Carmen exists in several versions, as Bizet died too soon after the premiere to make a clear performing edition. And Janáček ’s pupils Břetislav Bakala and Osvald Chlubna filled out the stark, chamber-like orchestration of From the House of the Dead and even tacked on an up-beat choral finale, as they believed these would have been Janáček’s intentions had he survived to rehearse the opera’s premiere. In this case, however, musicians found they preferred Janáček’s original, which was definitively restored through Charles Mackerras and John Tyrrell ’s 1980 edition and recording. In the contentious history of incomplete – and allegedly incomplete – operas, this is a rare example where a composer’s intentions can (almost) definitely be said to have been honoured. Turandot runs 5–16 July 2017. Tickets are still available.




Royal Opera House

April 28

10 of opera's greatest bass roles

René Papa as Méphistophélès in Faust, The Royal Opera © ROH/Catherine Ashmore, 2011 Opera’s lowest male voice type is used to explore the best and worst in human nature, from murderous villainy to benign wisdom. Here are some of our favourite examples of bass roles from more than two centuries of opera and what makes them so impressive: Zoroastro – Handel ’s Orlando Zoroastro – whom Handel’s anonymous librettist loosely modelled on the Persian sage Zoroaster – is the voice of reason in this opera of insanity and unruly passions. From his commanding opening aria ‘Lascia amor’ onwards, Zoroastro attempts to persuade the unstable hero Orlando to give up his unreciprocated passion for Angelica and return to deeds of valour. Being a wise magician, he eventually succeeds, and in Act III expresses his joy in one of the most jubilantly virtuoso arias in the bass repertory, ‘Sorge infausta’. Osmin – Mozart ’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail Inspired by Handel, Mozart created his own Zoroaster-inspired sage in Sarastro (Die Zauberflöte /The Magic Flute), whose arias ‘O Isis und Osiris’ and ‘In diesen heil’gen Hallen’ are among opera’s noblest. The bullying harem-keeper Osmin is altogether different: his blustering aria ‘Solche hergelauf’ne Laffen’ and drunken duet ‘Vivat Bacchus!’ (both using ‘Turkish’ percussion), his futile attempts to control the spirited character Blonde and his bravura Act III rondo ‘O, wie will ich triumphieren’ (which is a must-hear due to its use of one of the lowest notes in the bass register) make him one of opera’s greatest comic villains. Méphistophélès – Gounod ’s Faust Méphistophélès’s charm, wit, and chocolate-rich bass voice – shown to best advantage in such episodes as his demure Act I entrance, zestful Act II aria ‘Le veau d’or’ and dapper seduction of Marthe Schwertlein in the Act III quartet – give him a demonic appeal. His underlying viciousness comes to the fore in his sardonic Act IV serenade to Marguerite and in the terrifying Act V trio – but this doesn’t stop us feeling that in Faust the devil has the best tunes! Philip II – Verdi ’s Don Carlo Philip II’s evolution from authoritarian ruler to suffering husband makes him perhaps Don Carlo’s most interesting character. Until the end of Act III we are inclined to dislike Philip for his tyrannical behaviour towards his wife and son. However, in his aria ‘Ella giammai m’amò!’, with its haunting introduction for solo cello, Philip laments his loneliness and his loveless marriage with a dignity, sorrow and resignation that arouse our sympathies, and that the bass voice’s rich, dark timbre makes all the more poignant. Gurnemanz – Wagner ’s Parsifal Wagner uses the sonorous richness of the bass voice to convey the wisdom and benign nature of the veteran Grail Knight Gurnemanz. This part requires tremendous stamina – Gurnemanz is on stage for the whole of the two-hour Act I and 90-minute Act III, and has several lengthy monologues. But the beauty of his music, particularly the sublime ‘Good Friday’ monologue, makes the effort more than worthwhile. Baron Ochs – Richard Strauss ’s Der Rosenkavalier Strauss pulls off a near-impossible feat in his first great comedy, and creates a character who is as appealing as he is comically repellent. Ochs’s loutish entrance in Act I, boorish behaviour towards Sophie in Act II and sleazy seduction scene in Act III make us thoroughly glad when he gets his comeuppance. And yet, his warm bass voice, exuberance and the lilt of his favourite waltz in Act II give him a certain charm. Bluebeard – Bartók ’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle Bartók offers an unconventional reading of the Bluebeard story, presenting Bluebeard not as a murdering psychopath, but as a fiercely private man, who appears to love his new wife Judith but hesitates to reveal his secrets to her. Bluebeard’s mysterious vocal style – predominantly plain declamation, but with passages of tender lyricism, particularly in the heartrending final scene – makes him one of opera’s most fascinating enigmas. It is up to each singer of the role to decide how villainous, or how noble, he might be. Boris Ismailov – Shostakovich ’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk There’s no doubting the villainy of Boris Ismailov, who scolds his daughter-in-law Katerina in growling tirades, dreams of seducing her to the sounds of a sleazy waltz, brutally attacks her lover Sergey and terrifyingly returns after his death to haunt Katerina. And yet, one can’t wholly despise Boris Ismailov. As John Tomlinson , one of the role’s greatest interpreters, has remarked: ‘Boris… is completely unredeemable…  but there’s something admirable about the sheer energy of the guy’. Claggart – Britten ’s Billy Budd Claggart is another great bass villain – the low, hollow sound of his voice make his mixture of brutality and Machiavellian cunning particularly terrifying. He’s not one-dimensionally evil though: his great Act I monologue ‘O beauty, handsomeness, goodness’ – which Britten’s librettist E.M. Forster considered the most ‘important piece of writing’ in the libretto – conveys emotional confusion and loneliness as well as a nihilistic compulsion to destroy what is good. Moses – Schoenberg ’s Moses und Aron Schoenberg movingly portrays Moses’s inarticulacy by writing his part entirely in growling, halting Sprechstimme (half-song, half-speech), while casting his articulate but untrustworthy brother Aron as a mellifluous lyric tenor. But the dramatic intensity and psychological complexity of Moses’s part more than compensates for its limited melodic content, particularly in the final soliloquy, which ends with the heart-breaking words ‘O Wort, du Wort, das mir fehlt!’ (O Word, you Word that I lack!). Don Carlo runs 12–29 May 2017. Tickets are still available. The production is a co-production with Norwegian National Opera and the Metropolitan Opera, New York and is sponsored by Coutts with generous philanthropic support from Ian and Tina Taylor and The Taylor Family Foundation, Aud Jebsen, Simon and Virginia Robertson, the Patrons of Covent Garden , The Royal Opera House Endowment Fund and The Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation Cover awards .



On An Overgrown Path

April 26

What is a music festival?

Iraqi visual artist Riyadh Neam supplies the three accompanying graphics which are used in the booklet for Rahim AlHaj's new CD Letters from Iraq. Riyadh Neam explains that in his paintings depicting the children of post-invasion Iraq in the streets of devastated Baghdad “I’m always trying to show the relationship between stasis and movement, between a still life and a moving life.” He uses color to symbolise the dynamics of his war-torn country, with the dominant grey, black and white symbolising destruction, bright green indicating grief, and red signifying inextinguishable hope. This use of colours to symbolise emotions is a form of the cross-talk between different sensory channels known as synesthesia . Music appreciation involves cross-talk between hearing and emotion, and many celebrated musicians have experienced synesthesia in various forms, including Alexander Scriabin, Amy Beach, Olivier Messiaen and György Ligeti, while the word raga from the Indian classical tradition translates from Sanskrit as 'tone' or 'colour'. Synesthesia is an example of how key creative building blocks are shared across global cultures. We live in an age of globalisation and multi-culturalism, yet classical music festivals are retreating further and further into retrospective mono-culturalism. For instance the 2017 BBC Proms season is programmatically themed around two anniversaries - the Russian Revolution which took place 100 years ago and the Protestant Reformation of 500 years ago. The Russian Revolution strand conveniently allows three Shostakovich symphonies to be programmed including the warhorse Fifth, which will be its ninth performance in seventeen years. Elsewhere in London the SouthBank Centre has been celebrating Belief and Beyond Belief with a festival that does not include even a single piece of non-Western music, but which managed to squeeze in a Shostakovich symphony. Nowhere at the two festivals is there the searing relevance of Rahim AlHaj music and Riyadh Neam's graphics. Classical music festivals should be wide-ranging, joyous and relevant celebrations of the rich variety of the great music traditions. Instead they have become po-faced rituals which plough their way laboriously through the output of Mahler, Shostakovich and a few other favoured composers. Mixing music traditions in a single concert is a notoriously difficult and sensitive task; the Western masterpieces must never be neglected, and fusion projects such as sitar and oud concertos have, rightly in most cases, been greeted with derision. But mixing traditions within a festival - kudos to this year's Aldeburgh Festival for its ragas in Orford Church - or between the two halves of a concert is a realistic proposition. The Salzburg Summer Festival's Ouverture Spirituelle was an outstanding example of the broadening of the festival vision, and Salzburg bravely commissioned programme essays from me for their forays into Sufi and Hindustani music. However this year's Ouverture Spirituelle has drifted back towards the tokenism of the other major festivals and includes the obligatory Mahler symphony. If the reason for this drift is commercial pressures - which I suspect it is - that reason needs examining. Defendants of the classical status quo - and they are many and vocal - will plead that programming is unadventurous because adventurous programming is not commercially viable. Which I do not disagree with; but I do disagree with the view that we have to accept the current stifling business model which dictates that status quo. Classical music festivals are dictated to and dominated by touring celebrity orchestras. The infamous Mahler One at this year's Proms is part of a Pittsburgh Symphony touring programme, and the Shostakovich Five comes from a peripatetic Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra. And financial reality means you can't pay the Pittsburgh Symphony to play Mahler in the second half of a concert with musicians from a non-Western tradition in the first half. Celebrity touring orchestras may fill halls, but they have forced classical music into a repetitive holding pattern whereby festivals have become commercially viable but increasingly irrelevant museums of sound. The stranglehold of the 'London today Edinburgh' celebrity bands - Gergiev and the Mariinsky also play the 2017 Edinburgh Festival - needs to be broken to inject freshness and relevance to the major festivals. Ironically the BBC is perfectly placed to do this with their roster of house orchestras. The BBC orchestras should be differentiating themselves by pioneering adventurous and diverse programming both by widening the repertoire within the Western tradition and by partnering in split programmes with ensembles from diverse backgrounds. But instead all the BBC orchestras aspire to is lucrative overseas tours, preferably to the Gulf States or China. Steve Jobs told us that "A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them". There is a surprising appetite for music from outside the Western tradition. On An Overgrown Path may not represent a statistically significant measure, but it does provide a useful guide. Recent posts here about music from outside the Western tradition and from the Islamicate world in particular - e.g. Bab Assalam from Syria, Rahim AlHaj from Iraq, and the culturally-diverse Haz'art Trio - have attracted very large audiences. Broadening the repertoire at festivals is almost certainly not financially viable within the current top heavy financial structure. But if classical music itself wants to defend its position as an important cultural institution it needs to become more relevant and diverse, and that means changing the current highly restrictive business model. Also on Facebook and Twitter. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Dmitri Shostakovich
(1906 – 1975)

Dmitri Shostakovich (25 September 1906 - 9 August 1975) was a Soviet Russian composer and one of the most celebrated composers of the 20th century. Shostakovich achieved fame in the Soviet Union under the patronage of Leon Trotsky's chief of staff, but later had a complex and difficult relationship with the Stalinist bureaucracy. In 1936, the government, most probably under orders from Stalin, harshly criticized his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, causing him to withdraw the Fourth Symphony during its rehearsal stages. Shostakovich's music was officially denounced twice, in 1936 and 1948, and was periodically banned. After a period influenced by Sergei Prokofiev and Igor Stravinsky, Shostakovich developed a hybrid style, as exemplified by Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (1934). This single work juxtaposed a wide variety of trends, including the neo-classical style (showing the influence of Stravinsky) and post-Romanticism (after Gustav Mahler). Shostakovich's orchestral works include 15 symphonies and six concerti. His symphonic work is typically complex and requires large scale orchestras. Music for chamber ensembles includes 15 string quartets, a piano quintet, two pieces for a string octet, and two piano trios. For the piano he composed two solo sonatas, an early set of preludes, and a later set of 24 preludes and fugues. Other works include two operas, and a substantial quantity of film music.



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