Music and Opera

Our curation of music and opera reviews

Damian Thompson

Yunchan Lim’s Chopin isn’t as good as his Liszt or Rach

Grade: B- In 2022 the South Korean pianist Yunchan Lim became, at 18, the youngest winner of the Van Cliburn competition, displaying a virtuosity that stunned the judges. You could see conductor Marin Alsop’s astonishment as he bounded through the finale of Rach 3, combining accuracy and swirling fantasy at daredevil speed. It’s been viewed nearly 15 million times on YouTube. In truth, though, he’d have had to screw up badly not to win, because he’d already dispatched Liszt’s fiendish Transcendental Études with perfect articulation and mercurial wit; in places he out-dazzled even the current master of this repertoire, Daniil Trifonov. Decca snapped him up and here’s his first studio

Across Britain punters are lapping up ultra-trad opera – the Arts Council will be disgusted

Another week at the opera, another evening with an elitist and ethically dubious art form. I love it; you love it; but the authors of the Arts Council’s recent report on opera in England are less enamoured. One issue they identified was that ‘the stories which opera and music theatre tells are failing to connect fully with contemporary society’. Possibly the memo never reached the promoters of Ellen Kent’s spring tour, which since January has visited 40-odd venues not typically served by major opera companies, and has done so without public subsidy. You might imagine that the only commercial outfit to make live opera pay in Wolverhampton, Ipswich and Sunderland

Dense, melancholic, hypnotic: Brighde Chaimbeul, at Summerhall, reviewed

The hip end of the folk spectrum is in rude health right now. Dublin’s mighty Lankum lead the way, but plenty of other interesting artists are following in their wake, Brighde Chaimbeul among them. If a Gaelic-speaking trad musician from Skye reinterpreting Philip Glass for the small pipes sounds like your thing – and why on earth wouldn’t it? – then Chaimbeul is worthy of exploration. At 17 she won the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award. Her 2019 debut, The Reeling, released via Rough Trade, cross-pollinated traditional with experimental electronic music. More recently, and still in her early twenties, she has collaborated with American avant-garde saxophonist Colin Stetson on

There are passages of considerable eloquence in Royal Ballet’s The Winter’s Tale

There’s no escaping Christopher Wheeldon – a modest, amiable fellow from Yeovil of whom anyone’s mum would be proud. Reaching outside the ballet bubble, his stagings of An American in Paris and the Michael Jackson musical have wowed the West End, Broadway and beyond. My guess is that his take on Oscar Wilde, to be premiered in Australia later this year, will soon travel north, too. Next season the Royal Ballet will revive his box-office smash Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as well as a programme drawn from his plentiful short pieces. Two summers ago, he presented us with an adaptation of the novel Like Water for Chocolate (not so tasty).

Don’t write off Hofesh Shechter – his new work is uniquely haunting

In 2010, when his thrillingly edgy and angry Political Mother delivered modern dance a winding punch right where it hurt, I had high hopes for Hofesh Shechter. Here was an outsider with the courage to make his own rules and engage dance with real-world issues (he had served a traumatising period in the Israeli army) rather than blindly following the fashionable goddess Pina Bausch down the rabbit hole of postmodern irony. He wasn’t interested in playing games. But success has taken his edge off and what has followed has largely been disappointing. Trapped by a limited choreographic vocabulary, Shechter has repeated himself, relying too hard on the brute effect of

How can anyone resist The Piano?

One challenge facing any novel, drama or film about the Holocaust is to restore its sheer unimaginability. In Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark – filmed, of course, as Schindler’s List – when news reaches Krakow of what’s happening in Auschwitz, Keneally pauses for some editorialising. ‘To write these things now,’ he says, ‘is to state the commonplaces of history. But to find them out in 1942… was to suffer a fundamental shock, a derangement in that area of the brain in which stable ideas about humankind and its possibilities are kept.’ The Piano shamelessly seeks to move us – and shamelessly succeeds In The Tattooist of Auschwitz, the same fundamental shock

Adrianne Lenker is a treasure for the ages 

You could very well sum up their differing approaches to American roots music from how they were dressed. Both wore cowboy hats and both wore trousers, but Adrianne Lenker’s were faded denim, while Lainey Wilson went with shiny brown leather. Lenker, looking austere and speaking and singing softly, played music plucked from eternity, demanding you concentrate on her stillness. Wilson, on the other hand, was here to make the crowd feel good; a little melancholy on the big ballads, sure, but she’s an entertainer in the grand tradition of country music. Wilson’s set was divided between bangers and ballads, and the best of them were very good You might draw

Damian Thompson

The mutilation of Radio 3

On Saturday 12 December 1964, Harold Wilson addressed his first Labour party conference as prime minister, George Harrison was photographed with his new girlfriend in the Bahamas, Pope Paul VI told Catholics they could drink alcohol ‘in moderation’ before Midnight Mass and, according to the Mirror, ‘two strip-tease girls fought in the nude in their dressing room after finishing their fan dance at a night club’. The station has become little more than a Spotify playlist interrupted by the disc-jockey burbling It was also the day that Record Review arrived in its Saturday morning slot on the BBC’s Third Programme, now Radio 3. And there it remained. During the Three-Day

Lionel Shriver

Douglas Murray, Lionel Shriver, Mark Mason and Graeme Thomson

29 min listen

On this week’s Spectator Out Loud: reporting from St Helena, Douglas Murray reflects on the inhabitants he has met and the history of the British Overseas Territory (1:12); Lionel Shriver opines on the debate around transgender care (9:08); following a boyhood dream to visit the country to watch cricket, Mark Mason reads his letter from India as he travels with his son (17:54); and, Graeme Thomson reviews Taylor Swift’s new album (22:41). Produced and presented by Patrick Gibbons.

Lloyd Evans

Cheesy remake of Our Mutual Friend: London Tide, at the Lyttelton Theatre, reviewed

Our Mutual Friend has been turned into a musical with a new title, London Tide, which sounds duller and more forgettable than the original. Why change the name? To confuse fans of Dickens, presumably, and to keep the theatre half-empty while heaps of tickets are sold at a discount. At the end of Act One, an actor explains the entire plot. This might have been delivered earlier The plot is a cheesy Victorian whodunnit involving three main characters and multiple locations so it’s hard to follow the action as it flits from this lowly hovel to that seedy tavern. The chief personalities are a pretentious lawyer, a psychotic teacher and

Taylor Swift’s new album is exhausting

How to explain the supercharged star power of Taylor Swift? An undeniably gifted artist, Swift’s albums 1989, Folklore and Evermore, in particular, are excellent. She has written a battery of terrific pop songs. She is a generous and skilled performer. To suggest she is overrated is not an insult, therefore, but simply a comment on the absurd critical mass of her popularity, in which every lyric, scrap of artwork, cultural reference and personal tit-bit is weighted with a monumental significance which, it is becoming apparent, does her work few favours. Anybody listening to Swift’s new album without prior knowledge of the layers of gossipy context surrounding it might well wonder

You could have built a tent city from all the red chinos: Aci by the River reviewed

The Thames cruise for which Handel composed his Water Music in 1717 famously went on until around 4 a.m. The boat trip downstream that formed part of the London Handel Festival’s Aci by the River was a bit zippier. We piled onto a chartered Thames Clipper at Westminster Pier, and a quartet of wind players were already huddled in the gangway, playing suitably aquatic Handel favourites. A bassoonist gave an anxious grimace as the captain floored the throttle and the boat lurched forward. If our craft had been wrecked on some enchanted isle, we could have built a tent city from the red chinos You do get to see an

Why garage punk is plainly the apogee of human achievement

How is it that a group that sounds like the Hives are selling out the Apollo? In a world configured according to expectation, the highlight of their year would be an appearance at the Rebellion punk festival in Blackpool, probably high up the bill on the second stage. They’d headline their own shows at places like the Dome in Tufnell Park to an audience made up of three-quarters old blokes and a quarter skinny young kids, suited and booted like it’s 1966 and Antonioni’s about to shout ‘Action!’. Afterwards, a DJ would play the Sonics and the Electric Prunes and the Chocolate Watchband. Garage punk tends to be of niche

Baffling and vile: ETO’s Manon Lescaut reviewed

In 1937, John Barbirolli took six pieces by Henry Purcell and arranged them for an orchestra of strings, horns and woodwinds. Nothing unusual about that: arranging baroque music for modern symphony orchestras was what famous conductors used to do. Beecham and Hamilton Harty re-upholstered Handel. Mahler did something similar with Bach, then directed the result from a grand piano, and wouldn’t you give anything to have heard him? All good clean fun in those innocent days before the advent of historically informed performance. ‘Can you tell me what was happening?’ asked a woman on the way out It’s unusual to hear these things revived now, and curiouser still when the

A teacher like Michael Tanner would never survive in today’s university climate

I came up to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, on a rain-sodden October evening in 1976. I’d flown from spring sunshine in South Africa to this misery – the weather having turned abysmal after the best summer of the century, just as one would expect. I didn’t know what a Cambridge porter was meant to do as I plonked down my bags at the lodge, anticipating assistance. The porter, a stocky, tough military type, hardly gave me a glance, saying ‘Pick ’em up and follow me’. This, I was soon to find out, was the legendary Jaggard, the porter with the most fearsome reputation in the university, upon whom Tom Sharpe’s

Pop musicians, be proud of your middle-class upbringings

Tracey Thorn’s was ‘by no means luxurious.’ Brett Anderson had a ‘small, very small’ one. Miki Berenyi’s was ‘shabby and dirty.’ The unwritten rule that the best rock music comes from the street can create a challenge for edgy post-punk musicians writing their memoirs. What if you grew up in comfortable circumstances or had a boring childhood? Downplaying the state of the house you lived in is one approach – but others are available. Take Brett Anderson’s Coal Black Mornings (2018). Anderson can reasonably claim to have come from a social position below the rest of his band, Suede. His parents were arty but they did, undeniably, live in a

Lloyd Evans

Why has the National engaged in this tedious act of defamation of the Brontës?

The Divine Mrs S is a backstage satire set in the year 1800, when flouncy costumes and elaborate English prose were common cultural ornaments. On press night the venue was full of resting actors and theatrical hangers-on who adored the show’s in-jokes and rehearsal-room wisecracks. Titus Andronicus is ‘an experimental play about a pie’, says an actor. Another thesp demonstrates how to enliven a dreary line by pretending that one’s character is in love. This tedious act of defamation belongs in the bin. Or the Radio 4 early-evening comedy slot The production looks immensely stylish and the company are clearly having a ball, but the ordinary punter may find it

What would Tanner say?

On the train home from the Royal Festival Hall I learned of the death of Michael Tanner, who wrote this column from 1996 to 2014 and beyond. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment had been playing Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony, and it’s not strictly true to say that the news made me wonder about his likely reaction to their performance, had he been able to hear it. But that’s only because, for anyone who came of age reading his criticism, asking ‘What would Michael say?’ is already a reflex – and will be for as long as we think or write about music. There was plenty to interrogate here, not

Jenny McCartney

I’m ashamed that I used to think ABBA wasn’t cool 

One of the joys of listening to archive BBC interviews with pop stars is the chance to hear long-discarded hipster jargon served up in its original setting. Near the beginning of Radio 2’s ABBA at the BBC, marking 50 years since the group won Eurovision with ‘Waterloo’, a prime example was unearthed from the immediate aftermath of their success. ‘If you were one of the 500 million Eurovision viewers, you may be wondering which was more important in getting the song through to number one,’ said the host. ‘Was it the music or the way-out gear?’ I think we can safely conclude that it was the music, although the sight