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  • Four of the best John Dowland recordings | Mon, 18 Feb 2019 10:00:58 +0000


    Dowland: The Collected Works

    The Consort of Musicke/Rooley
    Decca E452 5632

    A one-stop shop for Dowland’s major works in 12 authoritative discs.




    Complete Lute Music

    Nigel North (Lute)
    Naxos 8.504016

    Supple, sensitive and warmly recorded, North’s artful set is a steal at budget price.





    The Parley of Instruments
    Helios CDA55339

    The Parley of Instruments performs Lachrimae as a violin consort, giving the work a brighter edge.



    Lute Songs

    Mark Padmore (tenor), Elizabeth Kenny (lute), Craig Ogden (guitar)
    Hyperion CDA67648

    Mark Padmore’s judicious anthology comes with the added bonus of Britten’s guitar tribute to Dowland.


  • First-time concert-goers to get star treatment at the Southbank | Mon, 18 Feb 2019 09:00:00 +0000


    The Southbank Centre announced a new project today, in which newcomers to classical music will be able to attend a concert accompanied by a leading musician or composer, completely free of charge.

    Conductor Marin Alsop, percussionist Colin Currie, violinist Nicola Benedetti, pianist Stephen Hough and composers Mark-Anthony Turnage and Nico Muhly are among those who will be involved in this new ‘Encounters’ scheme.

    Hundreds of concert newcomers will be invited to attend one of the concerts at the Southbank Centre in its 2019/20 season. They will then, in turn, be asked to invite another concert newcomer with them to the next concert, also free of charge. And each of those second group of invitees will, it is hoped, then do likewise, thus opening the door to a whole new generation of concert 'first-timers'.

    The programme will initially be open to charities and local community groups, including Streetwise Opera, the Irene Taylor Trust and Coin Street Community Builders, as well as local businesses.

    ‘Classical music concerts so often seem like a close door (or several) to those who have never attended one,’ says pianist Stephen Hough. ‘A stuffy private club: elitist, pompous and inaccessible. Encounters is a brilliant, simple idea to destroy this perception and to fling those doors open.’ 



  • Five essential works by Chopin | Sun, 17 Feb 2019 10:14:12 +0000



    Poland’s national dance is a stately affair, but in Chopin’s hands, it become a passionate statement about his home country. Start with the A-major Polonaise.

    Recommended recording:
    Maurizio Pollini, Martha Argerich, Anatol Ugorski (piano) DG 477 5430



    Chopin’s two books of studies test and stretch a player’s advanced technique. But the music contains depth and feeling.

    Recommended recording:
    Murray Perahia (piano)
    Sony SK61885



    Singularly unimpressed with the Viennese ballroom scene, Chopin set about composing his own waltzes, published in 1819, which contain abandon, but a certain wistfulness too.

    Recommended recording:
    Ingrid Fliter (piano)
    EMI 698 3512


    Piano Concerto No. 1

    Composed shortly before he left Poland, Chopin shows his gift for long-arching melodic lines and filigree piano writing. The second movement, in particular, is ravishing.

    Recommended recording:
    Krystian Zimerman (piano), Polish Festival Orchestra
    DG 459 6842



    Chopin puts his heart and soul into these astonishingly powerful works. Don’t be fooled by the title ‘Ballade’ – all four of them contain music of extreme drama and energy, as well as tenderness and lyricism.

    Recommended recording:
    Evgeny Kissin (piano)
    RCA 09026632592

  • Work experience with BBC Music Magazine | Fri, 15 Feb 2019 11:32:59 +0000


    If you want to learn about the magazine industry and love classical music, why not apply for a work experience placement with us?

    We are looking for people interested in a career in music journalism. An in-depth knowledge of classical music and a flair for writing are essential for the role.

    During your placement in our Bristol office, you can expect to do research, write material for the website and undertake a host of other tasks. In return, you’ll get an invaluable insight into how a magazine is put together and a chance to see if magazine journalism is the career for you.*

    If you think a work experience placement with BBC Music Magazine is for you, please email with the following attachments:

    • A copy of your CV
    • A covering letter explaining why you are interested in the magazine and what you’d hope to gain from working with us. You should also highlight any relevant previous experience, and your availability in the coming months.

    *For legal reasons we are unable to accept applications from under 18s.

  • Glinka - A Life in Brief | Fri, 15 Feb 2019 10:47:42 +0000


    Best known today for his opera Ruslan and Lyudmila, and particularly its infectiously vivacious overture, Glinka is often dubbed 'The Father of Russian Music' – forging his own dinstinctively Russian style, he was a profound influence on composers such as Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov and Musorgsky. Here is a brief snapshot of the great man's life:


    Glinka is born on 20 May (Russian calendar; or 1 June in the Western calendar) in Novopasskoye (now called Glinka!), in the Smolensk district, where his family are landowning petty aristocracy. For the first six years of his life he is brought up by his overprotective grandmother who rarely allows him out; mostly he is trapped in a stifling, overheated room from where he hears the peal of church bells, and folksongs sung to him by his nurse (bells and folksongs later feature heavily in his music; he also suffers from hyperchondria all his life).

    His grandmother dies and now back in the charge of his parents Glinka hears more mainstream Western music, mostly via his Uncle Afanasy’s serf orchestra. One of the orchestra’s violinists gives Glinka lessons.



    Glinka is sent to boarding school in St Petersburg where he has piano and violin lessons, including three lessons with John Field (the Irish composer who invented the Nocturne for piano and who settled in St Petersburg in 1804), and starts to compose.

    The securing of an undemanding job at the Council of Communications in St Petersburg leaves Glinka free to spend much of his time immersed in music: in the capital he goes to hear Italian opera and takes singing lessons with a singer, Belloli, while at home in Novopasskoye he studies theory and orchestration, and conducts his Uncle’s serf orchestra. His finest pieces so far are songs: Razocharovaniye (‘Disenchantment’ [very Russian]) and Golos s tovo sveta (‘A voice from the other world’).



    Glinka and a friend take an extended trip to Europe. He spends three years based in Milan where he meets Bellini and Donizetti and composes, in 1832, a chamber piece based on themes from Bellini’s La sonnambula (see TIMES 1830). In the winter of 1833-4 he studies counterpoint with Siegfried Dehn in Berlin.

    A year after Glinka marries Mariya Petrovna Ivanova (1835), his opera A Life for the Tsar is a stunning success at its first performance, and Glinka is instantly hailed as Russia’s leading composer and given the post of Choirmaster of the imperial chapel. (Though essentially Italian, the opera includes many Russian folksong melodies and its subject matter is entirely Russian.) However the marriage soon founders and Glinka starts an affair with Ekaterina Kern; shortly afterwards he and his wife separate.

    Glinka’s next opera, Ruslan and Lyudmila, is not well received. (He conceived of setting Pushkin’s poem immediately after the success of A Life for the Tsar and sought the author’s collaboration but sadly Pushkin was killed in a duel in 1837; (see TIMES 1837). Ruslan falls into the gap between Italian lyric opera and German sung drama and is denigrated by both camps: it is soon dropped to make room for a fashionable Italian company and their repertory. Glinka is bitterly disappointed and depressed, and doesn’t write another opera for over a decade.



    After spending time in France (where he got on well with Berlioz), Spain and Smolensk he heads back to France but in Warsaw hears that his passport application has been rejected. Remaining in Warsaw he composes prolifically: the orchestral pieces Recuerdos de Castilla and Kamarinskaya and songs revealing the influence of Chopin.

    Now suffering from deteriorating health he manages to spend two years in France (1852-4) but in March 1854 war between France and Russia forces him to return to Russia. He puts together his Memoirs (1854) and a year later starts work on a third opera, Dvumuzhnitsa (‘The bigamist’). (In 1841 Glinka’s wife married bigamously prompting Glinka to arrange an official divorce.)

    Glinka visits Berlin in 1856 to study more counterpoint with Siegfried Dehn. He meets Meyerbeer who conducts the Trio from A Life for the Tsar at a concert in January. After the concert Glinka catches a cold and dies on 3 (or 15) February in Berlin. His body is buried there but later exhumed and carried back to St Petersburg.


  • Four of the best Rossini recordings | Fri, 15 Feb 2019 10:00:46 +0000


    The Barber of Seville

    Juan Diego Flórez, Joyce DiDonato et al; Royal Opera House/Antonio Pappano
    Erato 649 5819 (DVD)

    Joyce DiDonato leads a vintage cast in this supremely sung production.



    Le Comte Ory

    Javier Camarena, Cecilia Bartoli et al; Zurich Opera/Muhai Tang
    Decca 074 3467 (DVD)

    Two marvellous Rossini interpreters join forces in this sophisticated staging.



    William Tell

    Gabriel Bacquier, Montserrat Caballé et al; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Lamberto Gardelli
    Warner Classics 640 7632

    A classic account of Rossini’s final and most imposing opera, with a fine cast.



    Stabat Mater

    Anna Netrebko, Joyce DiDonato et al; Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia/Antonio Pappano
    Warner Classics 640 5292

    Outstanding singers bring emotional drama to Rossini’s moving choral work.


  • The BBC Music Magazine Awards 2019 | Thu, 14 Feb 2019 16:12:04 +0000


    Welcome to the 2019 BBC Music Magazine Awards. This is your chance to vote for the best classical recordings from the past year.

    Our expert jury has selected 21 of the finest recordings from a longlist of nearly 200 discs that our critics had awarded five stars in the last 12 months.

    Now it's your turn to vote for the best in each category.


    Click on the categories below to see the nominated discs and cast your vote.









    How to vote:

    Once you have entered the Awards site, you can move between the categories using the toolbar on the left.

    Click on the disc you would like to vote for. You will then be asked to log in or create an account. A confirmation email will then be sent to you, on which you will need to click the link.

    You can vote for one disc per category, and you cannot change or revoke your votes.

    Your votes will be saved automatically, so once you have voted all you need to do is log out.

    Voting for the BBC Music Magazine Awards opens on Thursday 17 January and will close on Tuesday 19 February at 11.59pm.



    To view previous winners of the BBC Music Magazine Awards, click here


    Terms and Conditions

    Voting for the BBC Music Awards 2019 is open until 11.59pm on Tuesday 19 February.

    One vote per person, per category. Bulk voting will not be permitted.

    The winners of the BBC Music Awards 2019 will be announced on 10 April.


  • Join us at the 2019 BBC Music Magazine Awards | Thu, 14 Feb 2019 16:11:29 +0000


    The BBC Music Magazine Awards are the biggest annual celebration of the best recordings from the world of classical music, and you can join us on the evening for only £20 a ticket.

    The evening takes place at London’s Kings Place on Wednesday 10 April 2019 and begins with a champagne reception, where you’ll have the chance to meet the magazine’s editorial team, music industry professionals, artists and celebrities.

    You’ll then move into Kings Place’s main hall for the awards ceremony, which will feature performances by award-winning artists from across the world. The Awards will be hosted by editor Oliver Condy, with a star-studded line-up of guest presenters. Previous guests have included Simon Callow, Gok Wan, Ed Balls and Anneka Rice.


    To buy tickets, click here.

    To vote in the 2019 BBC Music Magazine Awards, click here.


  • Six of the best sheet music covers inspired by love | Thu, 14 Feb 2019 11:02:46 +0000


    Shakespeare famously wrote: 'If music be the food of love, play on'. Music and love have long been companions, and the history of romantic songs and ballads stretches all the way from antiquity to the chart-toppers of the present day. 

    Before the advent of the gramophone, radio or Spotify, the piano was the primary means of domestic music making in Britain. In the nineteenth century, publishers produced a huge range of sheet music to cater for this domestic market – from dances, ballads and arrangements of operatic arias to music hall anthems, songs from popular plays and poems set to music.

    Much like today, love songs were always popular. A new exhibition of sheet music covers from the Royal College of Music Museum offers a tantalising glimpse into the musical world of Victorian and Edwardian romance.

    Sheet music covers were designed to catch the attention of buyers. Elaborate designs and stylish typography turned music into a fashionable commodity that could be proudly displayed in the drawing room. These covers became such a trend that, by the middle of the century, musical purists despaired that their vulgarity threatened to compromise the dignity of the music itself. Perhaps their fears were not unfounded – in some cases, the artists who designed these covers were paid four times as much as the composers!



    Scrolling through the Royal College of Music Museum’s exhibition of romantic designs reveals how changes in printing technology made it possible to produce increasingly detailed and colourful designs as the decades unfolded. It is also possible to track changing ideals of beauty, too – from the meek, mid-Victorian maidens with downcast eyes to the exposed ankles and direct smiles of Edwardian beauties.

    It is unlikely that the songs represented by these designs will be familiar to many today. They were popular romantic ballads that have been lost to time. We might get a few glimpses behind the titles pages, though, as the following examples demonstrate.




    Visit the Royal College of Music Museum's exhibition 'For the Love of Music' on Google Arts & Culture here

  • The 20 Greatest Operas of all time | Wed, 13 Feb 2019 13:39:53 +0000


    20) Wagner’s Die Walküre (1870)

    The second instalment of the colossal Ring tetralogy is packed full of musical wonders

    With the Ring, Wagner redefined the scope and scale of music drama. Composed over 26 years, the cycle embodies his ideal of the ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ (total art work) in which poetry, drama, music and staging unite with a common purpose. Wagner’s achievement is overwhelming, his ambition unsurpassed.

    Yet only one of the four Ring operas has made it into our top 20. So, why Die Walküre? For a start, it contains perhaps Wagner’s best-known music: the exhilarating ‘Ride of the Valkyries’, which opens Act III. And there are many other highlights – the visceral opening storm; Siegmund’s hymn to the spring; Wotan’s Farewell; the Magic Fire Music. Die Walküre also stands alone as a coherent, compelling opera, an emotional rollercoaster of love, incest, grief, sacrifice and betrayal.




    19) Handel’s Giulio Cesare (1724)

    A vast, rich score that displays the composer’s sharply honed instinct for dramatic pace

    At almost three-and-a-half hours, Giulio Cesare in Egitto is one of Handel’s longest and most elaborate creations (longer than Wagner’s Parsifal), and yet this seemingly unwieldy opera is actually delicately balanced, beautifully proportioned and always engaging. Da capo arias are exquisitely paced, with Handel’s understanding of the expressive power of the human voice unrivalled in Baroque music.

    The intricate plot, placing the relationship between Caesar and Cleopatra at its centre, never loses its focus, thanks partly to Nicola Francesco Haym’s brilliant libretto, but also to Handel’s dazzlingly original recitative work whose striking modulations constantly surprise and delight. In terms of orchestration, Handel is at the very height of his considerable powers.




    18) Verdi’s Falstaff (1893)

    Verdi at his most inventive, proving himself a genius of comedic characterisation

    Everything about Verdi’s late comic opera about a plump, arrogant, cowardly knight leaps from the stage: its ingenious libretto by the composer’s long-term collaborator, Arrigo Boito, combining elements of three Shakespeare plays, The Merry Wives of Windsor and both parts of Henry IV; the detail of the orchestrations over which Verdi laboured, changing and revising right up to the day of the premiere; and its sheer wit, often displayed through Verdi’s sudden and rapid changes of musical pace and direction.

    But it’s the craftsmanship of the music that most impresses – Verdi rarely uses instruments simply to double his singers, instead employing them for an extraordinarily wide colour palette. The demands on singers and players are considerable, but the result is a glorious work of unbridled joy.




    17) Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (1607)

    An extraordinary creation that sets its glittering music at the service of the text

    Orfeo was not the first opera to have been written, but it was the first great opera. Here, in this vivid retelling of the classical myth of Orpheus, is the first example of a drama throughout which music consistently heightens the text and fully expresses its emotions.

    Monteverdi draws on his rich compositional palette to superb effect: instruments group around bright strings to depict pastoral Thrace, while sombre brass, particularly trombones, colour the Underworld. In his vocal writing, Monteverdi gave his singers a new freedom. And if music is the servant of the text, it’s also its subject. For at its heart, this is an opera about music’s power to uplift our souls and heal our sorrows.




    16) Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1868)

    Wagner’s consummately beautiful comic opera explores the heart of the human soul

    Wagner’s description of his only comic opera as ‘something lighter’ belies the brilliance of the composer’s insights into the complications of life, love and tradition within the context of a singing competition in a medieval German town.

    At just over four hours, Wagner’s score was his longest yet, but unlike Tristan und Isolde’s musical and dramatic stases (see No. 10), the dynamic Meistersinger score constantly shifts with melodies in plentiful supply, the charming plot at once comic, romantic and philosophical.

    The glorious music, arresting from the start, mirrors the opera’s conceit of tradition’s renewal through innovation and acceptance of outside influence – Wagner’s use of Baroque counterpoint and Lutheran chorales are perfumed by judicious use of daring chromatic harmony.




    15) Verdi’s Don Carlos (1867)

    Verdi’s grandest opera combines spectacle with moments of exquisite intimacy

    Never let the facts get in the way of a good opera. In Verdi’s Don Carlos, based on a Schiller poem, the eponymous hero is an admirable, steadfast prince who champions the oppressed people of Flanders; in reality, the son of Philip II of Spain was an odious, unbalanced character with infamously sadistic tendencies.

    Nonetheless, this is Verdi’s grand opera par excellence, whether enjoyed in its original five-act French version or as Don Carlo, the later four-act Italian incarnation. Set against the sinister backdrop of the Spanish Inquisition, it is unmatched for spectacle and drama – not least in the auto da fe of Act III – while Verdi lets his musical imagination run riot with moments such as the monks’ haunting prayer early in Act II.




    14) Janáček’s Jenůfa (1904)

    A harrowing slice of realism told with impressive musical and dramatic imagination

    A rapidly repeated rhythm on the xylophone, representing a water wheel, sets Janáček’s masterpiece into motion, and so begins a devastatingly poignant tale of love, jealousy and misguided morality in rural Moravia. The stream that feeds the mill can be felt throughout a fast-flowing, chromatic score that sweeps the action along at pace – at just two hours, Jenůfa is a masterpiece of concision.

    And then there is the brilliantly drawn cast of complex characters. The stoic, self-effacing Jenůfa is as easy to admire as her dissolute lover, Steva, is to revile. But how do we judge her desperate would-be partner Laca and, above all, Jenůfa’s stepmother, the Kostelnicka? Both carry out appalling acts, but out of loyalty and love…




    13) Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin (1879)

    A Russian masterpiece that probes its tale’s characters with musical insight and nuance

    Eschewing a conventional through-narrative, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin is a series of ‘lyrical scenes’ from Pushkin’s iconic novel. At the heart of the story is the definitive arrogant aristocrat, Onegin, who rejects the un-bound adoration of country-girl Tatanya. His thoughtless behaviour leads to the death of Lensky, his greatest friend, though not before Lensky delivers the dark and despondent ‘Faint echo of my heart’.

    An opera of opposites, Tchaikovsky pits Tatyana’s rustic and open-hearted musical language against Onegin’s starkly cynical one. Later, when the tables are turned, Onegin’s change of heart is made plain in his sudden harmonic shift to the romantic figure he should always have been, while Tatyana is now stuck in a removed minor key. His realisation has come too late, and the damage he caused cannot be undone.




    12) Verdi’s La traviata (1853)

    Verdi reserves his greatest melodies and richest harmonies for this tale of love and duty

    Now the most-performed opera in the world, it’s hard to believe that during Verdi’s lifetime La traviata was seen as a bit of a disappointment after the epic historic operas of Il trovatore and Rigoletto. The secret of its longevity popularity is surely Verdi’s intricate, three-dimensional characters, whom he brings to life with soaring melodies and heart-rending swells of harmony.

    Most compelling of all is the ‘fallen woman’ of the title, Violetta, who is forced to choose between love and honour. Ultimately, she proves her goodness by sacrificing her own happiness for that of a woman she does not know. Succumbing to consumption, she bids life, her lover Alfredo and a usually weepy audience farewell with the achingly beautiful aria ‘Addio del passato’, ‘Farewell past happy dreams’.




    11) Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (1902)

    Debussy’s five-act masterpiece steers clear of Wagner’s dominant world

    Like many fin de siècle French composers, Debussy was at one point a fervent Wagnerian. But in his only complete opera he sought to realise his own rather different ideal of opera. Here, as in Monteverdi’s operas of 300 years before, music would serve the text. Pelléas et Melisande was the remarkable result: a subdued, mysterious exploration of a fated love triangle, the antithesis of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

    Debussy conjures a half-lit, atmospheric dream-world, in which the dynamics rarely go above mezzo-forte and silence is as powerful as music. Maurice Maeterlinck’s eponymous symbolist play of 1892 is set almost verbatim; and, like Musorgsky in his own opera Boris GodunovDebussy eschews melody and mimics speech patterns in the vocal lines. It’s one of the opera world’s strangest, most spellbinding and profound achievements.




    10) Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (1865)

    A revolutionary chord heralds the start of modern opera and a new way of thinking

    Around 1857 Wagner, reaching a creative block with the Ring, decided meanwhile to compose a popular, easily performable opera on the Tristan legend. Being Wagner, what he came up with was a vastly profound psychodrama whose very opening chord challenged traditional harmony, inspiring and liberating a subsequent generation of composers. So much so, that Tristan has been called ‘the first modern opera’, a unique watershed beyond which music changed for good.

    Very little actually happens onstage, in the manner of Wagner’s beloved Greek tragedies. But the score is vibrantly alive both with the lovers’ passion and a more transcendent yearning, for surcease, rest, escape from a cruel existence. Its score intertwines motives in darkly sensuous chromatic harmonies which find resolution only in death.

    It undoubtedly reflects Wagner’s personal unhappiness, and his affair (probably more idealised than real) with Mathilde Wesendonck, but also his interests in Buddhism and Schopenhauer’s philosophy. It’s never been his most popular work, but its power is enormous, even overwhelming – which for some devotees is the point – and its greatness undeniable.




    9) Verdi’s Otello (1887)

    The Italian composer as you’ve never heard him teams up with one of the opera world’s sharpest librettists

    There are storms in opera and there are storms. But there is no musical storm quite so shattering as the tidal wave of sound that Verdi unleashes at the start of Otello. Is this the end of the world, with those trumpets summoning the dead from their graves?

    Otello was written by a composer who was already into his seventies and who thought that he had retired. But, given the opportunity, he was also a composer who embraced the idea of renewing his musical style as confidently as a man half his age. And nowhere more so than in the Act I love duet for Otello and Desdemona.

    Verdi had a master librettist working with him who was also more than half in love with William Shakespeare. Arrigo Boito shaves off Act I of Shakespeare’s tragedy and concentrates the action in Cyprus, so that in a good production of Otello you never look at your watch. You’re on the edge of your seat as evil, in the shape of Iago, confronts flawed goodness, the Moor of Venice, and innocence is murdered. The death of Desdemona would make stones – and us – weep.




    8) Mozart’s Don Giovanni (1787)

    An opera of perfect proportions, both thematically and musically balanced

    It was ETA Hoffmann, whose own stories were to inspire many great musical masterworks, who called Don Giovanni ‘the opera of all operas’. Mozart’s art has often been compared with Shakespeare’s, above all perhaps for the composer’s complete and lifelike blend of the comic and tragic: their co-existence is actually the essence of all Mozart’s operatic masterpieces, and Don Giovanni – aptly labelled a dramma giocosa – is the work in which they are most intimately woven together. 

    People’s long fascination with the Don Juan legend, first made into a play by a Spanish poet-monk in the early 17th century, meant that by Mozart’s time there were countless Don Juan shows around. But Mozart – whose music would have been impossible without alchemy of Da Ponte’s words – gave life, as it were, to the supernatural, in the form of the Commendatore’s statue.

    In Leporello’s Catalogue Aria he created a piece unlike anything else in all opera. The work that Rossini claimed he would most liked to have composed himself is driven from start to finish with timeless power and brilliance.




    7) Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea (1643)

    Monteverdi gets to the hearts of his characters with music of spellbinding beauty and verve

    Much as Verdi’s Falstaff is a compendium of a lifetime’s musical interests, L’incoronazione di Poppea is a work in which a lifetime’s soundworlds contrast and collide. Musicologists have debated its authenticity: the overture has been attributed to Francesco Cavalli, and the final duet, ‘Pur ti miro’, has been claimed as the work of Benedetto Ferrari or Francesco Sacrati before being returned, as it were, to Claudio Monteverdi. 

    Premiered in 1643, Monteverdi’s last opera is Venetian to the core: a morally ambiguous, multi-layered drama of court intrigues, contract killings and broken promises among the high- and low-born subjects of a psychotic emperor. When modern listeners shudder at the triumph of Cupid as Poppea is crowned, they should remember that in the wake of this apparent happy ending comes yet more violence.

    From Poppea and Nero’s first smouldering, post-coital duet, ‘Signor, deh non partire’, to the astringent chromatics of ‘Non morir Seneca’, the hypnotic beauty of Arnalta’s ground bass lullaby, ‘Oblivion soave’, and the shattered desolation of Ottavia’s ‘Addio Roma’, the writing is unfailingly psychologically acute. 




    6) Puccini’s Tosca (1900)

    A rollercoaster opera of high emotions that features some of Puccini’s finest orchestrations

    First performed in Rome in 1900, Tosca was Giacomo Puccini’s fifth opera, composed at the beginning of his forties. He drew the subject from the play La Tosca by the admired French dramatist Victorien Sardou, who had written it as a vehicle for the great actress Sarah Bernhardt that quickly turned into a major theatrical success; the copious detail of the libretto’s real historical setting, meanwhile, pushed it in the direction of the prevailing verismo aesthetic.

    Musically, in Tosca Puccini broke new ground in representing the violent actions – torture, attempted rape, murder and execution – that pervade the drama, as well as in the darker emotions that these acts both engender and feed on. In portraying these dark situations and characters – notably the unforgettable evil police chief Scarpia – in his score, Puccini opened up novel areas of harmonic and orchestral expression.

    To its first audiences Tosca represented a new kind of opera – one that was fast moving, realistic and violent, as well as deliberately shocking. Long before the term was coined, Puccini here created an operatic genre: the political thriller.




    5) Britten’s Peter Grimes (1945)

    In this evocative, bleak work, Britten ratchets up the tension within a small coastal village

    Britten’s first full-scale opera premiered less than a month after Nazi Germany’s defeat. By the decade’s end it was a worldwide hit, and today remains one of the few English operas in the international repertory. Peter Grimes himself – an impractical dreamer with anger issues, whose bruised young apprentices have the unfortunate tendency of dying – is hardly the most sympathetic role.

    Yet Britten’s sympathetic skill in writing for voices, honed over 15 years of songwriting, brings a gallery of very English characters vividly to life. What haunts the listener above all, though, is his evocation of the ever-present sea, evident from the very opening inquest: staccato woodwind, brisk and business-like, dominate the scene at first; yet when Grimes steps into the dock, soft, long-breathed string cadences suggest not only his introspective nature but also the rise and fall of waves on the beach outside.

    Then, with the first Sea Interlude, we are outdoors and we hear the bright, keening sound of high strings, with the swell of low brass suggesting the power of the sea itself. This, and the chorus, forged from individuals at the village dance into an alarming, blood-lusting beast, are the ever-present ‘elemental forces’ which seal Grimes’s fate.




    4) Berg’s Wozzeck (1925)

    Serialism at its most expressive – a brutal tale told with mocking wit and extreme tenderness

    Alban Berg’s expressionist first opera is as viscerally wrenching today as the audience found the premiere in Berlin in 1925 – and it remains as socio-politically radical; one of most powerfully incisive, influential works in the entire repertoire, relating the tragedy of an ordinary soldier who is driven to madness and brutal murder by the grotesque cruelty of his supposed superiors.

    It was the erosion of humanity that Berg witnessed during and after World War I that drove him to adapt Georg Büchner’s seminal, unfinished 1837 play, Woyzeck, first staged in 1913. The resulting Wozzeck would prove to be one of the most searing portraits anywhere of a mind, a relationship and a society in harrowing collapse.

    Wozzeck’s hallucinations of apocalypse become more than just metaphors, propelled by a lush, atonal score that is at once exquisitely orchestrated and rigorously structured in a kind of homage to classical forms; all the better to give heartrending voice, through Wozzeck and his equally doomed Marie, to a nightmare reality in which the poor and vulnerable are tormented and abandoned.




    3) Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier (1911)

    Strauss’s opera may be stylistically old-school, but its music and vocal scoring are sublime

    Why do so many people regard Der Rosenkavalier as a guilty pleasure? Is it because the highlights, like the title character Octavian’s Presentation of the Rose to young Sophie and the famous Trio, are too beautiful to be true? Strauss intended them that way, with the characters stepping out of time, but his first wholly original collaboration with the Viennese poet and playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal is also shrewd and pointed.

    Its often acidic wit contrasts with meditations on transience using as mouthpiece the central character of the Marschallin, the 32-year-old woman with whom the public identifies, and lending this ‘comedy for music’ a depth to match its most obvious model, Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.

    The plot, featuring a ridiculous older suitor and the teenage girl to be married off to him, a stylish young buck with an older woman as lover who comes along to save the girl, is drawn from Molière and other French sources. But Hofmannsthal in 1911 was creating a mythical Vienna that stretched from the nominal setting of the opera, the 1740s, up to the brink of the First World War; and Strauss, incorporating waltzes as well as some of the dissonances familiar from the opera’s contrasting predecessor, Elektra, composed his most encyclopedic masterpiece of a score.  




    2) Puccini’s La bohème (1896)

    Close, but no cigar, though Puccini’s romantic opera is still a masterclass in story-telling

    La bohème is about as perfect as an opera can be. It’s concise, it’s packed with delicious melody and it’s about being young and in love. And even better, young love undone by death. Like Romeo and Juliet, James Dean, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain, the best die young, thus robbing age of its wrinkled victory. We weep for ourselves in the closing bars of the opera when Rodolfo suddenly realises that Mimì has gone. And woe betide the theatre that brings up the houselights too soon.

    If the drama is taut then the score is as expansive as anything Puccini composed. The duet for the young lovers that closes Act I is a masterclass in creating character through music and in manipulating an audience’s feelings. Musetta’s waltz at the Café Momus is as teasing as the woman herself. But almost better is the sequence of numbers in Act III at the Barrière d’Enfer, the farewell duet for Mimì and Rodolfo, then Musetta and Marcello quarrelling that effortlessly slips into the quartet, ‘Addio dolce svegliare alla mattina’.

    How does Puccini do it? With short musical themes that define each of his characters and their worlds and which – master orchestrator that he was – are conjured back into the score in a way that makes them sound the same but always different.




    1) Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro (1786)

    Brilliantly conceived characters and ensemble writing grab Mozart’s comedy the top slot

    Coming in at No. 1 is one of the supreme masterpieces of operatic comedy, whose rich sense of humanity shines out of Mozart’s miraculous score.

    The Marriage of Figaro’s intricate plot follows four of the principal characters from The Barber of Seville a few years down the line. Both operas are based on plays by the French dramatist Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais which quickly became classics despite their incendiary political content: these problems were particularly acute in Le Mariage de Figaro, which was widely banned due to its criticism of the nobility.

    Having relocated to Vienna from his native Salzburg in 1782 to further his career, Mozart was determined to show the Emperor Joseph II, his court and the entire Imperial capital what he could do with a comic Italian libretto, teaming up with the poet attached to the city’s opera house, Lorenzo da Ponte.

    According to Da Ponte, it was the composer’s idea to make an opera of Figaro, the most controversial play of its time. After the Emperor had given it the go-ahead, the work was premiered in Vienna on 1 May 1786 and has been entertaining audiences since. 

    As usual, Mozart introduces his opera with an overture, and while it uses none of the opera’s subsequent material, it perfectly defines the general mood of the piece with its Presto tempo marking and busy, bustling orchestral writing suggesting the constant whispering and intrigue during the course of what Beaumarchais’s full title – La folle journée, ou le Mariage de Figaro – calls a
    ‘crazy day’.

    All of the main characters are given memorable arias, including Bartolo’s furious ‘La vendetta’, in which he swears vengeance on Figaro in Gilbert & Sullivan-like comic patter; Cherubino’s ‘Non so più’, in which the rapid fluttering of his vocal line indicates his constant emotional and sexual excitement; the Countess’s sorrow-laden ‘Porgi amor’, whose shapely melodic line traces the depths of her feeling of abandonment; and the Count’s ‘Vedrò mentre io sospiro’, in which his aristocratic fury at Figaro’s challenge to his entitlement is banged out in firm rhythms and grand triplet roulades.

    Figaro is unusually rich in ensembles, where the test for the composer is to maintain individual vocal character and specific individual emotions while the other characters are singing something entirely different – a trick Mozart pulls off with flying colours, notably in the sextet in the trial scene in Act III that was Mozart’s own favourite piece in his score. 

    But it is in the two big finales that end the second and fourth acts that Mozart brings his skills in ensemble writing to an apogee rarely equalled – even by him. Here his music reflects each tiny twist and turn of the plot, reaching extraordinary heights of complexity as the audience experiences every fleeting emotion that the individual characters are feeling; few operatic comedies can match Figaro’s combination of wit with emotional truth. 



    Words by: John Allison, Oliver Condy, Christopher Cook, Elinor Cooper, Rebecca Franks, George Hall, Daniel Jaffé, David Nice, Anna Picard, Jeremy Pound and Steph Power. 

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