Michael White’s classical news: Harrison Birtwistle; Ralph Vaughan Williams; Benjamin Grosvenor; Fidelio

Thursday, 5th May — By Michael White

Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1898

Ralph Vaughan Williams

AS a contemporary composer who wrote uncompromisingly “difficult” music, Harrison Birtwistle frightens off a lot of listeners. But when he died last month, the amount of coverage it got stood testimony to his magisterial presence in the modern history of English music. And though much of his work sounds like the grinding of industrial machinery, it was, somehow, profoundly English: a response to native landscape not unlike that of Vaughan Williams, although Birtwistle’s landscape tended to be that of the gritty industrial north where he was from, rather than the soft green hills of Gloucestershire.

What’s more, it wasn’t without mystical and spiritual qualities. And you get a sense of his reaching back into the shrouded past in Deep Time, a grand orchestral score that plays in his memory at the Royal Festival Hall on May 6, courtesy of the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Edward Gardner. Try it out for size. And if it fails to thrill, there’s also Mahler’s ecstatic Das Lied von der Erde on the bill, with soloists Magdalena Kozena and Andrew Staples. The Song of the Earth, southbankcentre.co.uk

Talking of Vaughan Williams, he remains a ubiquitous presence on concert platforms right now, in celebration of the 150th anniversary of his birth that falls this year. VW was principally a symphonic composer and you can hear his earliest effort, the heaving great Sea Symphony in the atmospheric context of Alexandra Palace on May 8, done by Crouch End Festival Chorus and their usual partner London Orchestra da Camera: alexandrapalace.com

But choral music was an almost equally important feature of his output, and there’s an attractive collection of it at Temple Church on May 7 when the Collegium Musicum of London Choir sing his austerely impressive G Minor Mass alongside the ravishingly sensual Five Mystical Songs. Be transported to other realms. collegiumchoir.com

• Two major pianists turn up at the Wigmore Hall this week: one of them the British star Benjamin Grosvenor playing Franck, Schumann and Ravel on May 8, the other the colourful, maverick Venezuelan Gabriela Montero on May 9 playing Stravinsky and some of her own improvisations – a regular feature of her programmes and usually done with a dazzling flair that has audiences eating from her hand. Or hands. wigmore-hall.org.uk

• Beethoven’s one and only opera Fidelio is a clunky piece that’s rarely altogether satisfying as a stage experience. But this is perhaps an argument for hearing it in concert – or delivered in a less traditional, semi-staged way of the sort you’ll find at the Barbican on May 11, performed by the Paris-based Insula Orchestra under its founding conductor Laurence Equilbey. Insula has a distinctive approach to whatever it does, and though this Fidelio is effectively a concert, it comes with action, lighting, dance and acrobats. How all that fits into the somber dramatic context Beethoven’s score largely demands I’ve no idea. But it will be interesting to find out. barbican.org.uk

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