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Grayston Burgess - Dowland: A Pilgrim's Solace (1612) - 8. Tell Me, True Love
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Claudio Monteverdi: (Composer), Ensemble Concerto (Artist), Roberto Gini (Artist) - Monteverdi: Madrigals, Book 7, For 1,2,3,4 & 6 Voices, Sv 117-145: Non Vedro Mai Le Stelle
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Carlo Gesualdo (Composer), Delitiae Musicae (Artist), Marco Longhini (Artist) - Gesualdo: Languisco E Moro
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Claudio Monteverdi (Composer), The King's Consort (Artist), Robert King (Artist) - Monteverdi: Exulta Filia Sion, Madrigal For Soprano, Sv 303
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Claudio Monteverdi (Composer), La Venixiana (Artist), Claudio Cavina (Artist) - Monteverdi: Quarto Libro Dei Madrigali: Voi Pur Da Me Partite, Anima Dura
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Claudio Monteverdi (Composer), Consort Of Musicke (Artist), Anthony Rooley (Artist) - Monteverdi: Iam Moriar, Mi Fili, Motet For Soprano (From Selva Morale E Spirituale), Sv 288
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Claudio Monteverdi (Composer), Alan Curtis (Performer), Il Complesso Barocco (Performer) - Monteverdi: Vorrei Baciarti
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The Hilliard Ensemble - Cease These False Sports
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Hesprion Xxi & Jordi Savall - Samuel Scheidt - Ludi Musici (Prima Pars): Canzon Super "cantionem Gallicam" (Xxix) A 5
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Carlo Gesualdo (Composer), Delitiae Musicae (Artist), Marco Longhini (Artist) - Gesualdo: Se Taccio, Il Duol S'avanza
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Claudio Monteverdi (Composer), John Eliot Gardiner (Artist), Bryn Terfel (Artist) - Monteverdi: Vespro Della Beata Vergine (1610) - Audi Coelum
Claudio Monteverdi (Composer), Consort Of Musicke (Performer) - Monteverdi: The Seventh Book Of Madrigals
Claudio Monteverdi (Composer), Emma Kirkby (Artist), Anthony Rooley (Artist), Consort Of Musicke (Orchestra) - Monteverdi: "il Sesto Libro De Madrigali": Lamento D'arianna
Claudio Monteverdi (Composer), Enseble Concerto (Artist), Roberto Gini (Artist) - Monteverdi: Madrigals, Book 7, For 1,2,3,4 & 6 Voices, Sv 117-145: Se Pur Destina
Hesprion Xxi & Jordi Savall - Samuel Scheidt - Ludi Musici (Prima Pars): Galliard Battaglia (Xxi) A 5
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Hesprion Xxi & Jordi Savall - Johann Hermann Schein - Banchetto Musicale (Leipzig 1617), No. 16 - Suite A 5 In A: Padouana
Claudio Monteverdi: (Composer), Ensemble Concerto (Artist), Roberto Gini (Artist) - Monteverdi: Madrigals, Book 7, For 1,2,3,4 & 6 Voices, Sv 117-145: Symphonia Tempro La Cetra
Claudio Monteverdi (Composer), Jordi Savall (Artist), La Capella Reial De Catalunya (Artist) - Monteverdi: Hor Ch'el Ciel E La Terra E'l Vento Tace, Madrigal For 6 Voices And 2 Violins (From Book 8), Sv 147: No. 1, "hor Che'l Ciel E La
John Dowland (Composer), Hesperion Xx (Artist), Jordi Savall (Artist) - Lachrimae, Or Seaven Teares, For 5 Viols/violins & Lute: M. Henry Noell His Galiard
The dramatic military-style rhythms which open this Mass reflect the Napoleonic War raging while Haydn composed. Otherwise, it’s charming and upbeat, even if the baleful opening returns in the ‘Benedictus’.
Recommended recording: Collegium Musicum 90/Richard Hickox Chandos CHAN 0640
The English National Opera has announced that Daniel Kramer, is standing down from his role as artistic director after almost three years.
The company announced that he will leave his position at the end of this season, which comes as a surprise after such a short stint with the ENO. Although he has divided opinions throughout his career, Harry Brünjes, ENO’s chairman, said that ‘Daniel Kramer’s focus on creative artistic output is the underlying reason why our most recent season was both thought provoking and entertaining, as well as commercially successful’.
Kramer is known for his sometimes unusual twists on performances, such as his daringly feminine take on Strauss’sSalome featuring controversial costumes. Some of his other recent projects have included Turn of the Screw, Porgy and Bess and Iolanthe.
The American director first worked with the ENO in 2008 when he directed Punch and Judy, and again the following year with Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, before being appointed to his permanent role in 2016 alongside music director Martyn Brabbins.
Despite joining the ENO in the midst of arts funding cuts, Kramer has broken box office records throughout his tenure. He said he is now leaving his role to focus on his freelance work, such as directing Britten's War Requiem in Taiwan and Puccini's La bohème and John Adams's Nixon in China closer to home in Europe.
Kramer is due to step down from his role in July this year, but will continue to work with the ENO until the end of 2019 to complete his work on the four-part Orpheus series being performed at the London Coliseum between 1 October and 29 November. Kramer commissioned works by Gluck, Offenbach, Birtwistle and Glass, which take the audience through the different composers’ interpretations on the Greek mythological character.
Florence B Price, née Smith, was a composer, pianist and organist, thought to be the first female symphonist of African-American heritage. She composed over 300 works – symphonies, chamber works and songs noted for their lush orchestration and enchanting lyricism – that were performed by leading orchestras and performers, including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and contralto Marian Anderson.
So why has such a figure remained on the fringes of 20th-century music? In 1,000 years of classical musicology, there is barely a mention of composers of colour, even though these musicians have contributed significantly to the evolution of the genre. Florence Price is just one of a plethora of such composers that have been overlooked.
Price’s life was typical of that lived by middle-class African Americans at the turn of the 20th century. The youngest of three, Florence was born in Little Rock, Arkansas on 9 April 1888 to James and Florence Irene Smith. It was a time when anyone of African heritage in North America was seen as an under-class, no matter their status, so the impact of her remarkable parents can never be underestimated.
The young Smith’s mother was a wily entrepreneur who ran a restaurant, sold property and served as secretary of the International Loan and Trust Company. She was also a music teacher and taught her daughter the piano. Florence’s father, Dr James Smith, was a notable dentist and inventor of patented dental implements.
He was possibly the only African-American dentist in Little Rock at that time and, because of his colour, had to overcome innumerable hurdles to qualify. He was also a successful painter who exhibited at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.
Florence Smith, however, grew up at a time and place in the American South where middle-class African-American families could at least progress to a limited degree, which was certainly not the case for African Americans in other parts of the US. It may have been a coincidence, but a comparably noted African-American composer, William Grant Still, was one of Price’s classmates. Charlotte Stephens, who over a 70-year teaching career influenced many notable alumni in other fields of endeavour, taught both Smith and Still, as well as the equally-noted composer, William Dawson.
Clearly gifted, the Smith family was considered to be one of the ‘10 percenters’, people that, according to the Harlem Renaissance philosopher and activist W. E. B. Du Bois, had benefited from a classical education and who had the potential to lead American society.
At their Little Rock home, Smith’s parents hosted many gatherings of African-American intelligentsia, including the piano prodigy ‘Blind’ Tom Wiggins, Du Bois himself and educator Booker T Washington. The young Florence, steeped in the tenets of the Harlem Renaissance that coursed through the veins of the ‘10 percenters’, entertained her parents’ high-profile guests on the piano.
It was an exciting time, with the blossoming of an African-American belief in equal opportunity and equal cultural value as promoted by the fiery Jamaican pan-Africanist orator Marcus Mosiah Garvey, who toured 38 US states in the early 20th century.
At the age of 14, Smith graduated as high school valedictorian and two years later, in 1903, left Little Rock to attend the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts where there were only one or two other students of colour (she won her place after following her mother’s advice to present herself as being of Mexican descent).
In just three years at the conservatory, she gained a soloist’s diploma in organ and a teacher’s diploma in piano, and she was the only one of 2,000 students to pursue a double-major in organ and piano. The principal, George Whitefield Chadwick, encouraged Florence to compose, which turned out to be life-changing advice. She took lessons in composition and counterpoint with composer Benjamin Cutter in her spare time and her early works included pieces for piano and organ.
After graduating, Florence Smith returned to the American South to teach in the town of Cotton Plant at the Arkadelphia Presbyterian Academy for a year and then at Little Rock’s Shorter College. In 1910 she moved to Atlanta, Georgia and soon became head of the music department at Clark University, staying there until 1912. It was, again, a tremendous achievement for a woman at that time. Smith returned to Little Rock in 1912 to marry attorney Thomas Jewell Price on 25 September.
The couple had two daughters and one son, who died in infancy. Price (now her married name) was heartbroken and composed the song To My Little Son in remembrance of him. Her husband worked with the highly respected law firm owned by Scipio Jones, known for successfully defending the appeals of 12 black men sentenced to death following the Elaine Massacre of 1919.
The notorious Jim Crow law (1877-1954) permeated life in the American South at the time and kept African Americans subjugated and voiceless. Any aspiration was stifled and achievements negated in American daily life.
So despite her qualifications, Price was denied membership to the Arkansas State Music Teachers Association. Instead, she established her own music studio, teaching the piano, music theory and composing short teaching pieces for her students. Additionally, to counter her rejection, she founded the Little Rock Club of Musicians. But racial problems continued to escalate in Little Rock, leading to the lynching of several African-American men in 1927. The Prices fled to Chicago for their safety and for a better quality of life.
Price’s husband, however, had difficulty finding work in Chicago, and financial struggles led to their divorce in 1931. Price became a single mother to her two daughters and, to make ends meet, played the organ for silent film screenings and wrote popular songs for WGN radio ads under the pen name Vee Jay.
She joined the R Nathaniel Dett Club of Music and the Allied Arts to gain friendships with like-minded musicians and artists and continued her composition studies at institutions such as the American Conservatory of Music, the Chicago Teachers College, the University of Chicago and the Chicago Musical College. While studying composition and orchestration with Carl Busch and Wesley LaViolette, her beginner piano pieces were published by G Schirmer and the McKinley Music Company.
All the while, Price continued to enter composing compositions with some success, including newly-established awards for black musicians and second place in the 1925 and 1927 Holstein Prize for composition. Eventually, her concert music came to the attention of one of her teachers, the composer and organist Leo Sowerby, who became one of her great champions.
In 1932 her big break finally arrived when she won several prizes at the Wanamaker Music Composition Contest: first prize in the orchestral category for her Symphony in E minor (1931-2), first prize for her Piano Sonata (1931) in the solo instrumental category, with the orchestral work Ethiopia’s Shadow in America and the Piano Fantasie mentioned in dispatches.
Fort Smith Symphony perform Price's Symphony No. 1
Her successes attracted the attention of Frederick Stock, the music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He conducted a performance of her First Symphony with the CSO on 15 June 1933 at the Century of Progress Exhibition, and Price became firmly established as a composer of note and the first black women in American history to have a symphonic work performed by a major American orchestra. ‘It is a faultless work,’ wrote The Chicago Daily News, ‘a work that speaks its own message with restraint and yet with passion … worthy of a place in the regular symphonic repertory.’
The work, originally nicknamed ‘Negro Symphony’, is nearly 40 minutes long and is imbued with African-American spirituals – Price’s music would go on to be steeped in both European and African-American musical and cultural elements including rhythmic syncopation, spiritual melodies, gospel church music, polyphony, references to African dances, blue notes, the pentatonic scale and African instruments such as the marimba.
Florence Price made significant friendships during the 1930s, including with the pianist and composer Margaret Bonds and the contralto Marian Anderson and the writer Langston Hughes. Anderson, who had sung her spiritual arrangement of ‘My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord’ in a broadcast from Prague on 6 May 1937, performed the song at the end of her programme at her renowned Lincoln Memorial concert on Easter Sunday in 1939. With 75,000 people attending the performance and many more listening on the radio, Price won overnight fame.
Marian Anderson singing Price's 'My Soul's Been Anchored in the Lord'
So it’s something of a mystery as to why Price couldn’t get her First Symphony published, despite nationwide performances. It spurred her on to send a letter to the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. ‘My dear Dr Koussevitzky,’ she wrote. ‘To begin with I have two handicaps – those of sex and race. I am a woman with some Negro blood in my veins. Knowing the worst then, would you be good enough to hold in check the possible inclination to regards a woman’s composition as long on emotionalism but short of virility…’
Even with her relative success, Price struggled to keep a roof over her head and was saved from destitution by friends. She suffered from poor health for most of her adult life and was often in hospital. In May 1953, however, her work was gaining momentum, and she was about to fly to Europe to promote her music when she suffered a heart attack and died on 3 June 1953.
Performances of her work declined from the late 1950s, but in the last few years there has been a resurgence. Notable advocates include the New Black Music Repertory Ensemble, the pianist Karen Walwyn, the violinist Er-Gene Kahng and Apo Hsu, director and conductor of The Women’s Philharmonic.
Emeritus Professor James Greeson has made an insightful film about her life, and the academic Professor Rae Linda Brown, who died last year, has written a biography. The time may have come when the roots of ‘a truly American art music’ will be re-examined and composers such as Florence Price will gain their true place among the great American composers.
In a world of traditional Italian operas and original dramatic 20th-century works, Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936) emerged as a composer best known for arranging and orchestrating early music. It was his fascination with Ancient Italy and Renaissance composers that led to his obsession with Gregorian chant, found in a lot of his music. His most common form of compositions are tone poems which are visually stimulating pieces featuring musical representations of a range of scenes and sounds from death to birdsong. His music is an insight into his sensitive but highly nationalistic mind.
These are 6 of his best works...
Pines of Rome (1924)
Respighi created this colourful musical work after being inspired by four particular areas of Rome’s famous pine trees. The opening movement is about the ‘Pines of the Villa Borghese’, a wealthy Italian family home in the 17th century. In contrast, the 2nd movement, ‘Pines Near a Catacomb’, depicts the ominous shadows in deserted Campagna. Listen carefully to the 3rd movement, ‘The Pines of the Janiculum’, as Respighi plays actual recordings of birds on the Janiculum Hill, heard on a record player within the music. Respighi’s nationalistic ideas come into play in the final movement, ‘The Pines of the Appian Way’ in which the army is heard marching underneath a row of pines. Respighi perfectly captures the natural beauty of the city in this work.
Rome is renowned for its stunning architecture, and Respighi found his inspiration for this work in four fountains around the capital city. The opening pastoral movement is about the ‘Fountain of Valle Giulia’ while dancing mythical beings can be heard in ‘The Triton Fountain’. The famous ‘Trevi Fountain’, home to the triumphant Triton is the subject of the third movement, finishing with the contrasting melancholic mood of ‘The Villa Medici Fountain’ to finish the work.
The Birds (1928)
Drawing on his enthusiasm for early music, Respighi was inspired by great harpsichord composers of the 17th and 18th century to create the sounds of birds in this music. He imitates the sounds of a cuckoo, a dove, a hen and a nightingale in each movement through the influence of composers such as Pasquini and Rameau; two of the most well-known harpsichord composers of their day. Many sounds are created to represent the birds’ flapping wings and scratching claws.
Respighi uses his love of Gregorian chants in this violin concerto, combining great chordal moments with virtuosic solo violin passages. The concerto was premiered in 1922 in Rome, a perfect location for a modern arrangement of early Christian chants and plainsong. The violin flourishes in the triumphant ending and leaves a lasting impression.
Ancient Airs and Dances (1917-1932)
Based on various Renaissance lute pieces, these three suites are characterised by each movement's titled dance. From a lilting Siciliana to a lively rustic dance, Respighi has created a more intimate sound with a reduced-size orchestra in the first and third suites, again most likely influenced by his focus on early music.
Respighi arranged this suite based on his own Ballet about the biblical story of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, after his wife thought it was too long to be performed. It is full of majestic and regal moments which contrast with the more serene movements.
However, this work ends on a dramatic cliff-hanger, as the ballet was so long to arrange that Respighi died before being able to complete the second suite!
If you fancy a slightly different Proms experience, you could join the Prommers and queue for £6 tickets on the door. It’s recommended that you get there from 5pm to ensure you get a queueing ticket (although you may need to go earlier for very popular concerts).
If you’re an avid Prommer and want to buy your tickets in bulk, you may find that a weekend or season pass is better value. Have a look at the ticket bundles here.
The Last Night of the Proms is a slightly different affair, owing to its huge demand. For Prommers, an early rise is on the cards. The stewards allow you to leave the queue for 30-minute intervals, and they will explain the specific Promming protocol to all queue members on the day.
If you have attended at least five other Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, you can enter the ballot to buy a maximum of two tickets for the Last Night. The Five-Concert Ballot closes on Thursday 6 June.
There is also an open ballot for the Last Night of the Proms, in which 200 seats are available. The ballot opens closes on Thursday 4 July. Apply here.
Any remaining tickets for the Last Night will go on sale on Friday 12 July at 9am, by phone and online only.
The Last Night of the Proms extends beyond the Albert Hall, with celebrations also taking place in Hyde Park. As well as the Prom being streamed live from the Albert Hall, there will be performances from artists and ensembles.
The programme for this year’s BBC Proms has been revealed, with major celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landings scheduled across the season. Founder and conductor Sir Henry Wood is also honoured this year, as the Proms celebrates the 150th anniversary of his birth.
Composers have long been inspired by the sound of space, imagined or otherwise. This year’s season will highlight some of these works to mark the anniversary of the moon landings. Holst’s The Planets and John Adams’s Short Ride in a Fast Machine will be performed, as well as premieres of Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Metacosmos, which is focused around the concept of black holes, and a work by Zosha Di Castri about the moon landings, which will be the first piece heard at the 2019 Proms.
Public Service Broadcasting has its own Late Night Prom this year, orchestrating its 2015 concept album The Race for Space, which blends music with broadcast recordings from the US/USSR Space Race era. Expanding on the space theme further, there will also be a Sci-Fi Film Music Prom in which the London Contemporary Orchestra will take on legendary scores from cult sci-fi films.
Exploring how our role on earth ties in with the solar system, Hans Zimmer has been commissioned by the BBC for this year’s Ten Pieces scheme. His new work, Earth, will be performed in the CBeebies Prom by the Chineke! Orchestra. This Prom will also be broadcast on CBeebies.
With a diverse range of performers, we will see Proms debuts from a clutch of BBC New Generation Artists as well as Eric Lu, winner of the 2019 Leeds International Piano Competition. Alongside these young performers are legends including Murray Perahia, who will play Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto with the Vienna Philharmonic, under 2018 BBC Music Magazine Recording of the Year winner Bernard Haitink.
As ever, the Proms venture beyond the walls of the Royal Albert Hall with the Proms at… series. This year, concerts will be held at Cadogan Hall, Battersea Arts Centre and the Holy Sepulchre London, where Proms founder Sir Henry Wood is buried.
Wood’s anniversary is being marked in several ways during this year’s season. As a major advocate of new music, Wood used the Proms as a platform for showcasing newly-written compositions. Thirty-three of the works Wood gave British and world premieres of will be performed again this year, including Stravinsky’s The Firebird, Sibelius’s Violin Concerto and Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra. The 2019 Proms will match this number, with 33 new works commissioned this year.
Henry Wood was a fan of dedicating a full night to one composer, a programming style which will be emulated in the final week of this year’s Proms season with concerts given over to Wagner, Bach and Beethoven.
To mark the 120th anniversary of Elgar’s Enigma Variations, a new anonymously-written theme has been written, inspired by Elgar’s legendary orchestral work. This new piece features variations by 14 composers including Sally Beamish, Judith Weir and Sir Harrison Birtwistle.
Other anniversaries and birthdays celebrated in this year’s Proms include those of Berlioz, Louis Andriessen, Peter Eötvös and Sir James MacMillan.
New BBC conductors will make their Proms debuts this year: the BBC Philharmonic’s new chief conductor Omer Meir Wellber and the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s principal guest conductor Dalia Stasevska. In other firsts in 2019, Karina Canellakis will be the first woman to conduct the First Night of the Proms.
Mezzo-soprano and winner of the 2018 BBC Music Magazine Vocal Award Jamie Barton will take to the stage for this year's Last Night of the Proms, accompanied by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under its chief conductor Sakari Oramo.
All Proms will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and 25 of the concerts will be available to watch on BBC TV.
The BBC Proms will take place from Friday 19 July to Saturday 14 September 2019.
'Lucile Boulanger emerges as something of the Jacqueline du Pré of the viol'
This week's free download is the fifth movement, Allegro, of Corelli's Violin Sonata No. 3, transcribed for the viola de gamba and performed by Lucile Boulanger, with basse de viol player Claire Gautrot and harpsichordist Pierre Gallon. It was recorded on the Harmonia Mundi label with a selection of other works that were once performed or composed by the great French Baroque viol player Antoine Forqueray.
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Bach’s collection of 48 Preludes and Fugues in all the major and minor keys has long been a bible for keyboard players, and was the inspiration for similar sets by Busoni, Chopin, Rachmaninov and Shostakovich, among others. Bach’s decision to explore music in all the keys had, in turn, been motivated by his predecessors – notably JKF Fischer, from whose Ariadne musica Bach borrowed and developed several themes.
Written ‘for the use and profit of musical youth’, the first of the two books of the ‘48’ appeared in 1722, the second following some 20 years later – a period when Bach played an active role in the development of various keyboard instruments. There is no easy answer to the question of which type of instrument is most suitable for these works. Bach, ever practical, would no doubt have played them on the range of keyboards available to him: clavichord, harpsichord or even organ.
András Schiff (piano) (2012) ECM New Series 476 4827
András Schiff’s two versions of the ‘48’ remain timeless classics. The first, a Decca recording from the 1980s, is poised and lyrical, if occasionally verging on the self-indulgent; the later, 2012 version on ECM would be my desert island choice. Schiff’s mature vision is more abstract, less sentimental: as such, we hear Bach’s music distilled to its essence, rather than the pianist’s personality.
Informed by the spikier sound of the harpsichord, Schiff avoids the temptation to smudge Bach’s textures with the piano’s sustaining pedal. Instead, thanks to his impeccable technique and instinctive grasp of the music’s architecture, he floats the sound, spinning cantabile melodies with the fingers alone (and with a little help from ECM’s glossy recording). Contrapuntal lines are sharply etched, so that even the most highly wrought fugues sound transparent as cut glass.
Schiff is unrivalled in his ability to delineate voice parts with subtle weighting and a conversational interplay that ranges from spirited repartee to reflective discourse. Discernible, too, is his synaesthetic perception of keys: A minor he sees ‘as red as blood’; D major as brassy gold; C major is the white of innocence; B minor is black, the colour of death. These readings span the gamut of human experience, from the exuberance of youth to the introspection of old age.
Among the most charismatic classic accounts from yesteryear are Glenn Gould’s (brilliant, if manic) and Richter’s (expansive and lyrical), but my definitive choice would be Swiss pianist Edwin Fischer, who made the first complete recording in the mid-1930s. It remains a landmark.
Poetic and thoughtful, Fischer is one of the most intuitive of Bach interpreters: tempos are beautifully judged – never too lugubrious nor too frenzied – and he eschews the anachronistic tendency for those grandiose, Romantic gestures that mar many early performances.
The recorded sound may not compare with recent versions, but this remastering reveals a luminous tone and transparent, cleanly articulated counterpoint. If you’re after a note-perfect reading, this may not suit; but for the humility and humanity of his musicianship, Fischer is unimpeachable.
Of the more recent piano versions, I’d be loath to lose Peter Hill’s honest, warmly coloured performances, but Angela Hewitt wins the day with her second recording from 2008. In contrast to her straight-laced earlier accounts, these mature readings are pliant and free, their liberal use of rhetorical gestures and rubato informed by Baroque harpsichord technique.
Her Fazioli piano is lighter and leaner than the Steinway of the previous version, its specially adapted action lending clarity. Hewitt is at her best in the dance-inspired pieces, which she plays with balletic grace; there’s never any hint of heaviness or pummelling here. My one caveat is that her microscopic attention to detail is sometimes just too finicky.
Gustav Leonhardt (harpsichord) (1989) Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 886 919 53072
For period-instrument performances, leave shelf space in the library for Robert Levin’s intelligent readings on the type of keyboard instruments Bach himself would have known: the delicate clavichord, one- and two-manual harpsichords, organ and fortepiano – all of which reveal the glorious palette of colours, timbres and temperaments available to the composer.
For a budget option, harpsichordist Luc Beauséjour’s accounts on Naxos are vital and historically informed. Ultimately, though, I’d opt for Gustav Leonhardt, whose noble playing on an equally noble Rückers harpsichord stands as a classic. Leonhardt plumbs the depths of these works, both as a musician and as a scholar, and by the time he made this 1989 recording, they flowed from him as naturally as blood through his veins. Blissfully free of mannerisms or intrusive eccentricities, his readings are seigneurial.
Though a masterful pianist, Daniel Barenboim disappoints with this 2006 Warner Classics recording of the ‘48’. With their excessive use of the sustaining pedal, wide dynamic range, rubato and other obtrusive mannerisms, Barenboim’s readings sound more like Mendelssohn or Schumann than Bach. They will only appeal if you don’t mind Baroque music blurred through a soft-focus and rather sentimental lens.
This article first appeared in the August 2017 issue of BBC Music Magazine.
It is thanks to Shakespeare that we have one of the most famous ever quotes about music. As Twelfth Night opens, Duke Orsino speaks the words that are familiar to millions of us: ‘If music be the food of love, play on’.
Shakespeare’s plays are awash with music. His characters make reference to music; singers and dancers regularly accompany the action on stage; and the Bard’s words themselves flow melodiously.
Unsurprisingly, then, composers for centuries have in turn been inspired by Shakespeare’s plays. Tragedies, comedies and histories have alike found themselves entering the repertoire, represented in all manner of ways: from Purcell, writing in the same century that Shakespeare died, to Thomas Adès in the present day; from Nordic types such as Sibelius and Stenhammar to those masters of Italian opera, Rossini and Verdi; from the briefest overtures to grand operas.
Over the following nine pages, we mark 400 years since Shakespeare’s death by taking a look at the plays that, above all, have inspired masterpieces and not-so-masterpieces. Operas, ballets, overtures, incidental music, tone poems, choral works and songs are all there (though, with apologies to Walton fans in particular, we have largely left out Shakespearean film scores – that’s a subject for another occasion.)
Keen Shakespeareans will, of course, know that Duke Orsino’s quote continues ‘Give me excess of it that, surfeiting, The appetite may sicken, and so die.’ But surely, when it comes to Bard-inspired music, there can be no such thing as an ‘excess’. And so, play on…
When Romeo and Juliet meet, they fall instantly in love. The catch is that their families, the Montagues and the Capulets, are sworn enemies, so they marry in secret with the help of Friar Laurence. Matters are complicated further when Romeo kills Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin, in revenge for the murder of his friend Mercutio, and is exiled from Verona. Friar Laurence prepares a sleeping potion to put Juliet in a death-like coma so that Romeo can return and the pair can escape. But the message never reaches him and, believing Juliet to be truly dead, he kills himself. Juliet wakes to find him dead and so kills herself too.
This tragic love story has inspired some truly great music, along with its share of less successful pieces. One of the earliest settings is a singspiel by the Czech composer Georg Benda, whose 1776 Romeo und Julie, loosely based on the play, was one of his most popular pieces. In keeping with operatic tradition at the time, his version ends happily, and he isn’t the only composer to experiment with the plot.
When Prokofiev decided to write music for a Romeo and Juliet ballet in 1936, he also thought it would be better if the lovers didn’t die. Stalin, however, had other thoughts and Prokofiev had to stick to Shakespeare’s ending. This bold, colourful score, which you can also hear in three concert suites, offers some of his best music, from the menacing ‘Dance of the Knights’ to the rapturous love music for Romeo and Juliet. Constant Lambert also wrote a Romeo and Juliet-inspired ballet, in 1926, with a double-layered scenario setting Shakespeare’s play within a dance rehearsal. Premiered by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, the score is lively and bright, in the mould of Satie, Poulenc and Milhaud.
In the opera house, Gounod’s 1867 Romeo et Juliette is perhaps the most enduring work, with Juliette’s sparkling waltz song ‘Je veux vivre’ as its highlight. The 19th-century craze for Shakespeare also saw Bellini and Nicola Vaccai take on the tale. Vaccai’s 1825 Giulietta e Romeo is now all but forgotten, but Bellini’s 1830 bel canto opera I Capuleti e i Montecchi is still a hit today, even if its plot might be more Romeo and Juliet fan fiction than faithful setting.
Later operas exploring the star-cross’d lovers include those by Harry Rowe Shelley (1901), Delius (loosely, in his 1901 Village Romeo and Juliet), John Edmund Barkworth (1916, who attempted to set Shakespeare word for word), Heinrich Sutermeister (1940) and Gian Francesco Malipiero (1950). But perhaps the most famous Romeo and Juliet-inspired score of the 20th century is West Side Story, the musical that features some of Leonard Bernstein’s most brilliant music.
Balakirev inspired Tchaikovsky to write a Fantasy-Overture on Romeo and Juliet, modelled after the older composer’s own King Lear Overture, but the taut drama and passionate outpourings of the final piece are all Tchaikovsky’s own. A Shakespeare fanatic, Berlioz went one step further and wrote a whole Romeo et Juliette choral symphony, inspired by the play’s ‘raging vendettas, the desperate kisses, the frantic strife of life and death’. The Romeo and Juliet operas by Daniel Steibelt (1793) and Bellini also inspired him, along with Beethoven’s Choral Symphony, resulting in one of his most original works. Stenhammar, Kabalevsky and Svendsen also wrote orchestral music based on Romeo and Juliet, all of which is worth exploring.
Hamlet learns his father was murdered when his ghost appears in Elsinore castle. Swearing revenge on his uncle Claudius, the murderer, Hamlet presents a play to the court in which the play-King is murdered. Claudius runs guiltily from the room and Hamlet later tries to kill him, but instead stabs Polonius, father of Ophelia, with whom Hamlet is in love.
Ophelia goes mad with grief and drowns. As Ophelia’s family plots to kill Hamlet, the body count rises – a poisoned swordfight results in the deaths of Laertes, Claudius and Hamlet himself, and Gertrude drinks poison intended for him. As the King of Norway arrives at Elsinore, the whole Danish royal family lies dead.
Shakespeare’s longest play provoked ‘Ophelia mania’ across Europe after an astonishing performance in Paris in 1827 that starred Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson as Ophelia, and inspired a wealth of music. Berlioz’s infatuation with Smithson most famously led to his lovesick, opium-fuelled Symphonie fantastique, but her performance also inspired Tristia: three songs for choir and orchestra depicting the deaths of Ophelia and Hamlet.
In fact, Ophelia’s plight is the focus of many musical settings. In the play her madness is highlighted by ever-stranger on-stage singing, a gift to composers. Some, such as Brahms’s unaccompanied Ophelia Lieder, even use Shakespeare’s original song texts, although Shostakovich’s Song of Ophelia, which sets a poem by Alexandr Blok, is equally haunting.
Shakespeare’s ultimate tragic hero does have musical homages of his own, meanwhile. Liszt’s eponymous symphonic poem is a whirlwind examination of character through Hamlet’s turbulent emotions – here, there is just a hint of Ophelia, though she has little chance to calm the impetuous Prince.
When Tchaikovsky was asked to compose incidental music for a stage production in 1888 he was hesitant. ‘Is it really possible to express in music the profundity of the tragedy and the very persona of the Prince of Denmark?’ he wrote to his brother Modest. His first attempt became an Overture-Fantasia, which was premiered to great success alongside his Fifth Symphony. However, in another attempt he simply borrowed music from previous compositions, leading to an unlikely combination of Hamlet and The Snow Queen.
Shostakovich also wrote incidental music, for a satirical 1930s production that was quickly shut down after scandalising Stalinists. His brash score is all that remains of this strange version of Hamlet, in which the characters are played as drunk, rather than mad. Prokofiev wrote incidental music for Hamlet just a year after his hugely successful Romeo and Juliet. Keen to attempt another Shakespearian tragedy, he had hopes to transform his music into an opera, but nothing came of it. In fact, only one notable operatic version of Hamlet exists, penned in 1868 by French composer Ambroise Thomas.
Based on a translation by Alexandre Dumas, who believed Shakespeare’s original ending was ‘most unpleasant’, Hamlet is miraculously restored from his deathbed by the ghost and leads his people into a hopeful future. Thomas wrote an ‘alternative’ final scene with a dead Hamlet for the Covent Garden premiere, as he was advised that the English wouldn’t stand for such a violation of Shakespeare’s original masterpiece.
Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy is also one of his goriest. When the Three Witches foretell that he will become King of Scotland, Macbeth becomes consumed with ambition to make that happen as soon as possible, goaded on by the odious Lady Macbeth. The reigning king, Duncan, is the first to be dispatched by him, beginning a trail of slaughter that, driven by his increasing paranoia over the ambiguity of the witches’ prophesies, goes on to include his friend Banquo and the family of Macduff, Thane of Fife. Macduff himself, however, is still at large and, accompanied by Duncan’s son Malcolm, wreaks bloody revenge.
Verdi had unbounded admiration for Shakespeare, whom he described as ‘above all dramatists, the Greeks not excepted’. Macbeth, which he told his librettist Francesco Maria Piave was ‘one of mankind’s grandest creations’, was the first of the playwright’s works to inspire an opera from him – the plot’s rich concoction of ruthless ambition, witchcraft, ghosts and deranged somnambulism gave opportunity aplenty to unleash his creativity, while handy political parallels could be drawn between the oppressed existence of the Scots under Macbeth’s rule and that of Verdi’s own Italian homeland.
Though Shakespeare’s trio of witches is replaced by a three-part chorus in the opera, Verdi was otherwise adamant that the all the elements of the play, as well as its unremittingly dark atmosphere, should be retained. For sheer sense of unease, few moments compare to the disturbed Lady Macbeth’s sleep-walking scene, followed by her aria ‘Una macchia è qui tuttora’.
Another Macbeth worth investigating is the 1904 opera by the Swiss-American composer Ernest Bloch, whose eerie but bewitchingly atmospheric score will have you wondering why it is performed so rarely today. Beyond that, it’s over to the concert hall for orchestral works by the likes of Richard Strauss, Spohr and Sullivan.
Strauss’s Macbeth, his first ever tone poem, does not display the rich imagination of his later symphonic works but is nonetheless suitably edgy and dramatic, while Spohr’s overture to an 1825 production of the play creeps menacingly into life. Sullivan’s 1888 overture, in contrast, packs all the menace of a prance through a daisy-filled meadow… but is lovely on its own terms.
Macbeth has also inspired orchestral music by Rubbra, Bantock and Khachaturian, though recordings of all three are near-impossible to find. You will, however, have little trouble getting hold of a disc of Smetana’s enchanting Macbeth and the Three Witches for solo piano, an 1859 work that, full of skittish chromatic runs, has more than a touch of his teacher, Liszt, about it.
When Othello, a Moorish knight in the Venetian army, promotes the young Cassio above his standard-bearer Iago, little does he know the demons he is about to unleash. Iago, arguably the most hate-ridden and duplicitous character in all of Shakespeare, hatches a series of plots to have Cassio implicated in an affair with Desdemona, Othello’s wife. He succeeds, but his ‘little web’ of deceit has fatal implications for the innocent Desdemona, who is murdered by the enraged Othello, only for Othello to then realise he has been duped. As justice awaits, the title character kills himself.
It was nearly 35 years after the premiere of his Macbeth that Verdi decided to return to Shakespeare. Setting a libretto by Arrigo Boito, Otello is one of his most masterful creations – dramatic, fast-paced and intensely moving. While some operatic adaptations of Shakespeare take the original play as a rough guide and then elaborate wildly from there, Boito chose to stick very tightly to the Bard – the opera’s action begins in Cyprus rather than Shakespeare’s Venice, but other than that, the plot and protagonists are all very recognisable.
Much of the brilliance of Verdi’s score lies in the way that he depicts the characters of the main protagonists: the tenor title role is big boned and powerful; Desdemona is a radiantly lyrical soprano; and the baritone part of Iago is sinuous, cagily sinister and disturbingly understated. Interestingly, Boito and Verdi initially intended to call the opera Iago – a fair reflection of his insidious ever-presence.
Unlike Verdi, when Rossini wrote his own Otello in 1816, he felt no need to stick closely to the script. Transferring the entire action to Venice, he lessens the role of Iago, bigs up the part played by the dissolute Roderigo and only really plays Shakespearean ball in the opera’s third and final act.
Crowned by Desdemona’s exquisitely mournful ‘Assisa a’ piè d’un salice’ aria (the ‘Willow Song’), that third act in particular shows Rossini at his most inventive and original. For non-operatic takes on Shakespeare’s Moor, meanwhile, try Dvorák’s Othello, a stormy orchestral overture from 1892 or, from the Soviet era, Khachaturian’s Othello suite, put together from his score for Sergei Yutkevich’s 1955 film.
Middle-aged, overweight and skint, Sir John Falstaff nonetheless fancies his chances of seducing Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, both of whom happen to be married. Falstaff’s already remote chances are lowered even further when his targets become aware of his intentions and team up to make a fool of him.
As he tries to get his wicked way, Sir John finds himself tricked into being tipped into a river in a basket of dirty laundry and then, at his second attempt, into dressing up as Mistress Ford’s dumpy aunt. Final humiliation comes when he is lured into Windsor Forest, only to be assaulted by children dressed as fairies. Thankfully, he eventually sees the funny side, and all ends happily.
Falstaff’s various antics in The Merry Wives of Windsor have proved quite a draw to composers, not least Verdi, who made him the eponymous hero of his final opera in 1893. Once again he turned to Boito for the libretto, and the collaboration resulted in a work of fast-paced action, charming characterisation and brilliant comic timing – even if it did leave its first audiences a little befuddled.
As with his previous takes on Shakespeare, Verdi remained largely faithful to the Bard’s plot but, feeling that the central character needed a little more depth than just buffoonery, he and Boito also drew on elements from the other two plays in which Falstaff appears: Henry IV Parts I and II.
Thirty years after the premiere of Verdi’s Falstaff, Vaughan Williams set to work on Sir John in Love, his own take on The Merry Wives, and poured into the project all the enthusiasm he had amassed during his spell as the music director at Stratford-upon-Avon.
It was in that role that he had first composed an adaptation of ‘Greensleeves’ for productions of The Merry Wives and Richard II, and the folk tune makes an appearance in Sir John in Love too, when it is sung by Mistress Ford. Importantly, Vaughan Williams chose to begin and end his opera with the real love interest in The Merry Wives – that between Fenton and Anne – and gives Falstaff a less boorish, and more melodious, character than Verdi does.
Other opera composers to have found themselves Merry Wives-inspired include Salieri, who dispensed the Fenton-and-Anne subplot entirely for his nimble Falstaff of 1799, concentrating his efforts instead on the eponymous hero. For a Falstaff from the heart of the bel canto era, meanwhile, try the little-known opera by the Irish composer Michael Balfe, penned in 1838.
Over the course of two plays, King Henry IV of England is at civil war against forces led by the powerful Percy family – a conflict that reaches a head at the Battle of Shrewsbury at the climax of Henry IV, Part I, resulting in victory for the king. Set against this, we also learn of Henry’s frustration at his son Harry – the future Henry V – who spends much of his time sharing the company and joining in the various antics of the witty and charismatic, but thoroughly dissolute, Sir John Falstaff. In Part II, Harry vows to change his ways which, when his father dies and he himself ascends the throne, sees him cruelly rejecting his former friend.
While Verdi’s Falstaff was based on the fat knight’s adventures in The Merry Wives of Windsor with little bits of Henry IV thrown in, Elgar’s Falstaff, a 30-minute ‘character study’ for symphony orchestra, takes its inspiration entirely from the latter. Accordingly, while there is bumbling and buffoonery to enjoy, Elgar’s 1913 work also reflects on Falstaff’s more reflective, and even forlorn, side – vividly portrayed high jinks with Harry and a rowdy drinking session in the Boar’s Head contrast with Falstaff’s wistful reminiscences of his younger days and, at the end, the dejection of going to greet his friend as the new king, only to find himself spurned.
Unlike Elgar’s work, which follows Falstaff in his adventures up and down the country, Holst’s 1924 one-act opera At The Boar’s Head stays firmly in the pub. Various regulars head in and out of the inn over the course of the opera, indulging in banter and describing what’s happening in the civil war-torn world outside.
Said regulars include Falstaff and Prince Hal, whose competitive duet – in which Hal sings Shakepseare’s sonnet ‘Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws’ against Falstaff’s earthier rendition of the ‘When Arthur first in Court began’ ballad – is one of the highlights. Like most things that take place in pubs, it’s good fun.
There are several plotlines to follow here: Hermia and Lysander are in love but Hermia’s father wants her to marry Demetrius, whom Helena loves. Meanwhile, Peter Quince and the so-called ‘mechanicals’ have been tasked with staging the play Pyramus and Thisbe. And at the same time, Oberon, the king of the fairies, and his queen, Titania, are having a tiff, so he convinces Puck to concoct a potion that will make her fall in love with the first thing she sees. But there’s a mix-up and both Lysander and Demetrius become besotted with Helena. Confusion aplenty ensues but it all ends in smiles, with weddings and a performance of the play-within-the-play.
When it comes to Shakespeare’s supreme comedy of magic and mischief, two composers loom large: Mendelssohn and Britten. In 1826, Mendelssohn was only 17 when he composed his sparkling Overture, described by George Grove as ‘the greatest marvel of early maturity that the world has ever seen in music’. Four wind chords transport the listener to the forest, before scurrying strings conjure up the fairies with the deft, light music that Mendelssohn made his speciality.
The rest of the incidental music was written years later, in 1842, thanks to a commission by Frederick William IV of Prussia. There are 14 movements, with voices and orchestra; the Wedding March has become perhaps the most famous bit of music by Mendelssohn, while the instrumental Scherzo, Intermezzo and Notturno movements are often heard in concert as standalone pieces. But there’s a dark twist to this piece’s history: the Nazis banned Mendelssohn’s music because he was Jewish. As a result, Carl Orff wrote his own incidental music to Ein Sommernachtstraum to replace Mendelssohn’s, revising it in a final version in 1966.
Six years earlier, in 1960, Britten wrote (pretty quickly) his masterly three-act opera for the opening of Aldeburgh’s refurbished Jubilee Hall. The libretto, by Britten and Peter Pears, preserves Shakespeare’s original words and keeps almost all of the characters. Each of the three groups and stories has its own distinctive soundworld: otherworldly, unsettling harps, percussion and keyboards for the Fairies; lusher strings and winds for the Royalty; comic brass and lower woodwind for the Mechanicals. Oberon’s aria ‘I know a bank where the wild thyme blows’ gives a taste of the opera’s darker undercurrents as well as a hint of the power that sleep, dreams and spells have in this opera.
Before Britten, there was Purcell. The English composer wrote his enchanting The Fairy Queen in 1692, a ‘semi-opera’ with instrumental masques to be played between each act of an adaptation of Shakespeare’s play. Other notable Midsummer Night’s Dream-inspired music includes Weber’s opera Oberon (1826), Henze’s Eighth Symphony (1992) and Hans Gefor’s Der Park (1922).
A ship crashes onto a remote island, where Prospero, his daughter Miranda, the magical spirit Ariel and the strange monster Caliban have lived together for 12 years. On the ship are a variety of characters, including Prospero’s brother, Antonio, who stole the Dukedom of Milan from him, and the young Ferdinand, son of Alonso, who everyone believes has drowned.
Ferdinand has, in fact, washed up on another part of the island, where he meets Miranda, falls in love and eventually marries her. Prospero reveals he caused the ship to be wrecked, and the remainder of the play charts his revenge and regaining of his title as Duke of Milan. Finally, the ship is magically repaired and Caliban left as the island’s sole inhabitant.
No shortage of musical settings here, although the only opera of note with the title The Tempest is Thomas Adès’s 2004 dramatic masterpiece, whose libretto condenses Shakespeare’s play into modern English and rhyming couplets. Perhaps the best known setting is Sibelius’s incidental music to a Danish-language theatrical production, with 35 snatches of music ranging from the eerie opening to the charming Dance of the Nymphs and exquisite music for Miranda.
Written in 1925, The Tempest was Sibelius’s penultimate work, and it was an eternal source of regret to him that he never had the chance to develop some of the ideas explored in many of the briefest of passages. Tchaikovsky also had a stab, writing his Tempest Fantasy Overture in just a fortnight during the summer of 1873. ‘In those two weeks,’ he remembered, ‘I wrote the draft of The Tempest without any effort, as though moved by some supernatural force.’ Like his treatment of Hamlet, the piece only touches on crucial events, here being the initial storm and shipwreck, the monstrous Caliban and the love between Ferdinand and Miranda.
There are other settings. Arthur Sullivan’s 1861 incidental music – his first major work – pays homage to Schumann and Mendelssohn, but falls short of their quality. Berlioz fares rather better with the dramatic ‘Fantasy on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”’, which is the final movement of his Lélio suite for narrator, soloists, choir and orchestra – this, incidentally, is the first time a piano had been used as an orchestral instrument.
Add to these Purcell’s setting (since thought to have written by John Weldon in 1712), Malcolm Arnold’s Three Songs From The Tempest for unison voices and piano, William Alwyn’s 1952 symphonic prelude The Magic Island and Arthur Bliss’s 1921 The Tempest for voice and ensemble. Vaughan Williams’s surprisingly modern-sounding 1951 Three Shakespeare Songs for unaccompanied choir are terrifically atmospheric, and include Ariel’s song ‘Full Fathom Five’ and ‘The Cloud-capp’d Towers’ from the final act.
Don Pedro pays a visit to Leonato with his officers, including Claudio – who becomes engaged to Leonato’s daughter Hero – and Benedick, who enjoys winding up Hero’s cousin Beatrice (in fact, they are secretly in love). Alas, the evil Don John plots to cause havoc by fooling Claudio into believing that his beloved is unfaithful.
At their wedding, Claudio denounces Hero, the shock of which appears to kill her. Don John’s deception soon becomes known and, to atone for his accusations, the grieving Claudio is persuaded to marry Hero’s cousin… who, hurrah, turns out to be Hero herself. They wed, as do Benedick and Beatrice.
Not really an opera as such, Berlioz’s last large-scale work, his 1862 ‘divertissement’ Béatrice et Bénédict, is a simplified setting of Much Ado, a series of tableaux connected by spoken dialogue. In terms of narrative flow, it’s not the most rewarding but Berlioz’s music is brilliant. The sunny, Italianate overture is one of the French composer’s more imaginative and subtle inventions and some of his arias are heart-melting, including the extraordinary end to Act I, a gorgeous duet between Héro and Ursule.
Written 60 years later, Korngold’s extensive and lush incidental music, written for a 1920 Viennese production of Much Ado, was an instant hit. It’s full of great tunes, although Korngold’s attempt to conjure up 16th-century Sicily is a touch clumsy. Those after a more regal approach to proceedings might like to try Edward German’s incidental music to an 1898 Herbert Beerbohm Tree production – it’s full of totally un-Sicilian pomp, as if Shakespeare set the whole play in the Cotswolds, but it’s deliciously irresistible. In a very similar mould, give the soupy Overture to Much Ado about Nothing by Alfred Reynolds (1884-1969) a spin.
King Lear decides to divide his realm between his three daughters depending on how much they love him. Goneril and Regan flatter Lear, but Cordelia’s plain speech angers him. He disinherits Cordelia, and splits his kingdom between the other two. They mistreat Lear and drive him mad. Edmund reveals that Cordelia is invading with the French army.
Regan and Goneril defeat the French and order the execution of Lear and Cordelia. Goneril poisons Regan so she cannot marry Edmund, who they both desire. When Edmund is killed, Goneril commits suicide. Lear escapes execution, but Cordelia does not. Overwhelmed by madness and grief, he dies.
Even Verdi was daunted at the prospect of adapting Lear for the stage: ‘Lear is so tremendous, so intricate, that it would seem impossible to make an opera of it.’ He struggled with a libretto for 40 years with no success. Three more recent operatic attempts have made it to the stage. German composer Aribert Reimann produced an intense, uncomfortable, and often all-out ugly Lear at the suggestion of baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.
Finnish composer Aulis Sallinen’s Kuningas Lear is a comparatively easy, if less striking, listen, with music more influenced by Musorgsky than Berg. The most effective, and remarkably hummable, of the three Lear operas is surely by Brit Alexander Goehr, who was at a self-described ‘Lear-like’ stage of life when he dreamt up his opera Promised End. His take focuses on the relationship between Lear and Gloucester, the ‘old men who get it wrong when they have power and influence’.
Another major source of Lear works is incidental music. Debussy had the same bug as Verdi, and only finished two movements of his 1904 Le roi Lear: the Fanfare-Overture and the mysterious ‘Le sommeil de Lear’ (Lear’s dream). Balakirev wrote his somewhat bombastic and nationalistic incidental music at the age of just 22, including an overture that is often performed separately. Shostakovich’s incidental music was written in the run up to Germany’s invasion of Russia – leading to many parallels being drawn between Russia, and Lear’s inwardly collapsing kingdom.
Needing funds to court Portia, Bassanio is persuaded by his friend Antonio to get a loan from Shylock, a Jewish money lender, with Antonio himself as guarantor. Shylock agrees, but only on the condition that he is entitled to a ‘pound of flesh’ from Antonio if Bassanio defaults on the payments. To cut a long, and complex, story short, Bassanio succeeds in winning the hand of Portia but, when it is reported that Antonio’s ships have been lost at sea and he cannot fulfill his obligation to Shylock, the latter demands his side of the bargain. When a hearing is called in front of the duke, Portia herself saves the day by disguising herself as a legal expert and turning the tables on Shylock – found guilty of conspiring against a Venetian citizen, he is ordered to hand over his property.
In Act V of The Merchant of Venice, Lorenzo, a friend of Antonio and Bassanio, declares his love to Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, under the moonlight. ‘How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!’ he begins. ‘Here will we sit and let the sounds of music Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night Become the touches of sweet harmony.’
The monologue that follows provides – with one or two judicious cuts and repetitions – the words for Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music, a work written in 1938 by the English composer to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Henry Woods’s first Prom concert. Scored for 16 vocal soloists and orchestra, it is a gloriously atmospheric wallow, with the amorous scene set firstly by a rhapsodic violin solo and then rippling orchestral accompaniment. Vaughan Williams did, incidentally, also write a similarly lovely version for orchestra only, but that rather misses the point.
The romance between Lorenzo and Jessica is also the subject of Sullivan’s Merchant of Venice incidental music – initially written for a production in 1871 – though in this instance it’s the jolly masque that accompanies their elopement in Act 2 that we hear. Bustling and bubbly, it’s arguably Sullivan’s most successful take on the Bard. Try out, too, Reynaldo Hahn’s 1935 opera Le Marchand de Venise – very French-sounding, including a smoky saxophone solo in its opening bars – or Fauré’s sumptuous orchestral Shylock suite, written for a Shakespeare-inspired play by Edmond Haraucourt in 1889.
Verdi et al. Messa per Rossini: 11. Agnus Dei (Veronica Simeoni, Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala di Milano/Riccardo Chailly)
Ethel Smyth Violin Sonata in A minor: IV. Finale. Allegro vivace (Tasmin Little, John Lenehan)
Berlioz Harold en Italie: 3. Sérénade d’un montagnard des Abbruzes à sa maîtresse (Tabea Zimmermann, Les Siècles/François-Xavier Roth)
Xenakis Pléïades: IV. Mélanges (DeciBells, Domenico Melchiorre)
Schubert Symphony No. 3: IV. Presto vivace (City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner)
Vivaldi Il Giustino, Act II: Scene 1. Sento in seno ch’in pioggia di lagrime (Anastasio) (Accademia Bizantina, Ottavio Dantone, Silke Gäng)
Gulda Concerto for Cello, Wind Orchestra and Band: I. Overture (Edgar Moreau, Raphaël Merlin, Les Forces Majeures)
Roxanna Panufnik Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis: I. Magnificat (Richard Johnson, Exultate Singers/David Ogden)
Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4: IV. Finale (London Symphony Orchestra/Gianandrea Noseda)
Weber Piano Sonata No. 2: III. Menuetto capriccioso. Presto assai (Paul Lewis)
Francis Lai Love Story – Theme (Arr. Campbell) (Jess Gillam, BBC Concert Orchestra/Ben Dawson)
Berlioz Harold in Italy: II. Marche de pèlerins chantant la prière du soir (Tabea Zimmermann, Les Siècles/François-Xavier Roth)
Arthur Lourié A Phoenix Park Nocturne (Vladimir Feltsman)
Ramin Djawadi The Rains of Castamere (Arr. Lawson) (VOCES8)
Philip Glass Etude No. 2 (Jeremy Denk)
Tallis Suscipe quaeso Domine (prima pars) (The Gentlemen of HM Chapel Royal, Hampton Court Palace/Carl Jackson)
Debussy Livre I: II. Pour les tierces (Roger Muraro)
Rachmaninov Prelude in G minor, Op. 23 No. 5 (Live at Philharmonie, Berlin) (Yuja Wang)
Stravinsky The Firebird: Tableau II, XIX: Disparition du palais et des sortilèges de Kastchei, animation des chevaliers petrifies. Allegresse génerale (Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
Amy Beach Violin Sonata in A minor, Op. 34: II. Scherzo. Molto vivace (Tasmin Little, John Lenehan)
Hauscha Dew and Spiderwebs (Hauschka)
Frank Horvat The Thailand HRDs: No. 5, Boonsom Nimnoi (Mivos Quartet)
Trad. Deep River (Arr. Coleridge-Taylor, Kanneh-Mason) (Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Isata Kanneh-Mason, Braimah Kanneh-Mason)
Mendelssohn Lieder ohne Worte, Op. 19: No. 6 in G minor (Andante sostenuto) ‘Venetian Gondola Song’ (Jan Lisiecki)
Wim Henderickx Nostalgia (Boho Strings)
Mozart Così fan tutte, Act 1: Aria ‘Come scoglio’ (Héloise Mas, Alexander Sprague, Nazan Fikret, Francesco Vultaggio, European Opera Centre, Biagio Pizzuti, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Laurent Pillot)
Philip Glass Melodies for Saxophone (arr. for trumpet): No. 3 (Craig Morris)
Giovanni Paisiello Partimento in F minor (Nicoleta Paraschievescu)
Ramin Djawadi The Rains of Castamere (VOCES8)
Triumphal Parade (Scottish National Jazz Orchestra/Tommy Smith)
Josquin Des Prez Miserere mei, Deus, IJ. 50: I. Miserere mei, Deus (Cappella Amsterdam/Daniel Reuss)
Dowland Come, Heavy Sleep (Grace Davidson, David Miller)
Schumann Humoreske Op. 20: II. Hastig (William Youn)
RO Morris Love Came Down at Christmas (arr. Stephen Cleobury) (Stephen Cleobury, Henry Websdale, Choir of King's College, Cambridge)
Tchaikovsky The Seasons Op. 37a: XII. December. Christmas (Barry Douglas)
Berlioz Roméo et Juliette: Pt. 3, Finale - Oath of Reconciliation (San Francisco Symphony Orchestra & Chorus/Michael Tilson Thomas)
Elgar Chanson de nuit (Hallé Orchestra/Mark Elder)
James Burton Tomorrow Shalle Be My Dancing Day (Jack Hawkins, Michael Bell, James Adams, Joseph Wicks, Choir of St John's College, Cambridge)
Julian Anderson Heaven is Shy of Earth: III. Gloria (With Bird) (Susan Bickley, BBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus/Oliver Knussen)
Richard Strauss Horn Concerto No. 1: III. Rondo. Allegro (Live) (William Caballero, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Manfred Honeck)
Derek Bermel Murmurations: I. Gathering at Gretna Green (ROCO)
Frank Martin Ballade for Flute & Piano (Bridget Bolliger, Andrew West)
Debussy Violin Sonata in G minor: III. Finale. Très animé (Isabelle Faust, Alexander Melnikov)
Anonymous Now May We Singen (ORA Singers/Suzi Didby)
Rachmaninov Prelude in G minor Op. 23 No. 5 (Live at Philharmonie, Berlin/2018) (Yuja Wang)
James Newton Howard Violin Concerto: II. Andante semplice (James Ehnes, Detroit Symphony Orchestra/Cristian Măcelaru)
Sally Beamish In the Stillness (Sonoro/Neil Ferris)
Parry Suite moderne (arr. J Dibble for Orchestra): III. Romanza. Lento (BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Rumon Gamba)
Jonathan Dove A Brief History of Creation: X. Whales Return to the Sea (Hallé Children's Choir, Hallé Orchestra/Mark Elder)
Purcell King Arthur, Act 1: 'Come if You Dare' (Robert Buckland, Vox Luminis/Lionel Meunier)
Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 4 (Live at Kimmel Center, Philadelphia) (Daniil Trifonov, The Philadelphia Orchestra/Yannick Nézet-Séguin)
Fagerlund Höstsonaten, Act 1: charlotte Andergast! Vilken konstnär! (Krista Kujala, Mari Sares, Jere Martikainen, Jarmo Ojala, Finnish National Opera Chorus, Finnish National Opera Orchestra/John Storgards
Julian Anderson Heaven is Shy of Earth: III. Gloria (With Bird) (Susan Bickley, BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra/Oliver Knussen)
Zemlinsky Albumblatt (Erinnerung aus Wien) (William Youn)
Schreker The Birthday of the Infanta: Suite I. Reigen (Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta)
Mozart Violin Concerto No. 1 K.207: III. Presto (Nikolaj Znaider, London Symphony Orchestra)
Tchaikovsky The Seasons, Op. 37a, TH 135: XII. December. Christmas (Barry Douglas)
Holst In the Bleak Midwinter (Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Isata Kanneh-Mason)
Glazunov The Seasons ‘L’été: No. 9, Scène de l’été (Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra/Dmitri Kitayenko
JS Bach Prelude & Fugue BVW 855a: Prelude No. 10 in B minor (Vikingur Ólafsson)
Magnus Lindberg Tempus fugit Pt. 1 (Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Hannu Lintu)
Gurney Since I Believe in God the Father Almighty (Tenebrae/Nigel Short)
Tchaikovsky The Nutcracker Act 1: No. 6 Clara and the Nutcracker (Los Angeles Philharmonic/Gustavo Dudamel)
Ravel Ma mère l’Oye Suite, M. 60: V. Le jardin féerique (Prague Philharmonia/Emmanuel Villaume)
Eric Whitacre Deep Field: Earth Choir (Eric Whitacre Singers, Virtual Choir 5, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Eric Whitacre)