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The Arts Desk Classical Music & Grand Opera Reviews

In this week’s classical and opera reviews, The Arts Desk was overrun with gems, from a poignant War Requiem to a Battle of Britain Handel opera.

With so much impressive Bruckner conducting around, Igor Toronyi-Lalic wondered whether Claudio Abbado, though a living legend and first-rate Mahlerian, would be able to make much of a mark with Bruckner Five. And after a lively rendition of Schumann’s Piano Concerto by Mitsuko Uchida, he had his answer. The brutish, monolithic opening movement did not bode well, but gradually Abbado transformed the orchestra, moving from a thaw through to full-scale rebirth, leaving Toronyi-Lalic with the conclusion that this was a deliberate trick to make the audience wonder all the more at the glorious finale. It was a risky approach, but one that paid off, earning Abbado a well-deserved standing ovation from the Festival Hall audience.

While over at the Barbican, with Remembrance Sunday coming up and the horrors of war ever present, the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus’s performance of Britten’s pacifist oratorio the War Requiem was a powerful commemorative event. Replacing Sir Colin Davis, conductor Gianandrea Noseda built up the dramatic tension to devastating effect, according to Alexandra Coghlan, as the orchestra took in every mood, from brutal and triumphant to beautiful and unnerving. With so much experience of this repertoire behind him, Ian Bostridge brought authority but still a sense of daring, while Simon Keenlyside offered an earthier alternative to communicate the drudgery of war. A true people’s favourite, this was a justly sold-out concert which has also received a rare repeat performance.

Meanwhile David Nice found -Rostropovich: The Genius of the Cello’ on BBC Four a moving and superlative documentary about a 20th century classical music great. The programme was expertly put together by John Bridcut, bringing close associates, family and pupils together to talk about the famous cellist, and to watch archive footage of him talking and performing and offer their gut reactions. Rostropovich’s fascinating life and extraordinary personality are a gift for the documentary maker, and Bridcut doesn’t abuse it, avoiding hagiography and his own ego to foreground the man and the music, often reducing this reviewer to tears in the process.

Meanwhile on the grand opera circuit, Alexandra Coghlan was delighted with English Touring Company’s new production of Handel’s -Xerxes’, which she saw at the Britten Theatre at the Royal College of Music. The delightful twist was that Persian princes had been swapped for British World War Two fighter pilots, with King Xerxes himself played by the comfortably masculine Julia Riley. Riley was the stand-out performance, her vocals the most assured on stage, though in fact there were no weak elements here, making it the true ensemble piece showcasing British singing talent that we have come to expect from ETO. Making good use of Nicholas Hytner’s witty translation and camping up the rather ridiculous plot, this was a relaxed, cheeky and very British take on Handel.

Stephen Walsh from The Arts Desk was equally impressed by Welsh National Opera’s production of Jancek’s tragic opera -Katya Kabanova’. As an opera that captures so authentically the tempestuous emotions of its heroine, Katie Mitchell’s production perhaps works unnecessary overtime in spelling out the constrictions of Katya’s world, with settings that box the characters into institutional interiors and waiting rooms. But Amanda Roocroft is smart and dignified as the woman trapped by her mother-in-law and the stifling world around her, bringing an intense radiance to the lead role. It’s a credit to the cast that the complex relationships here all make sense and a sign that new WNO artistic director David Pountney may be ushering in yet another golden age for this company.

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