April 23, 2014

Shakespeare in classical music: tunes for the Bard's 450th birthday

Countless composers have been inspired by Shakespeare's immortal words, so if music be the food of love, play on...
The greatest poet and playwright who ever lived was baptised on 26 April, 1564. Warner Classics celebrates with a few of the greatest operas, songs and orchestral music he inspired.

Music For A While: Improvisations on Henry Purcell
Philippe Jaroussky, L'Arpeggiata & Christina Pluhar

The English composer and lutenist John Dowland is Shakespeare's almost exact contemporary (they were born one year apart), but it is the Baroque master Henry Purcell who is considered England's greatest composer just as the Bard is known as England's greatest wordsmith. Purcell's 1692 The Fairy Queen, based on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, captures the sounds and spirit of the age with the poignant 'plaint' O Let Me Weep and The Secresy's Song, both heard here in L'Arpeggiata's playful, jazz-tinged arrangements.


Thomas Adès: The Tempest
Ian Bostridge, Kate Royal, Royal Opera House, Adès

Rather than set the original Shakespearean text, English composer Thomas Adès opted for an adapted libretto for his thoroughly modern vision of Shakespeare's deserted island. The opera's 2004 premiere, starring Ian Bostridge, Kate Royal, Philip Langridge and other great British singers, was a triumph at Covent Garden.

Verdi: Macbeth
José Carreras, Sherrill Milnes, Ruggero Raimondi, New Philharmonia
Orchestra & Riccardo Muti

Verdi understood and loved Shakespeare like no other composer, throwing all the energy of his Italianate drama behind two great tragedies and a comedy: Macbeth, Otello and Falstaff. His planned King Lear, sadly, was never to be.

"Muti leads like a house-on-fire, whipping the Witches into a frenzy..." ClassicsToday wrote of this classic recording released in 1999.

Thomas: Hamlet
Simon Keenlyside, Natalie Dessay, Symphony Orchestra & Chorus of the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Bertrand de Billy

Natalie Dessay is no stranger to mad scenes, but her Ophélie in Ambroise Thomas' Hamlet is one of her most demanding and memorable tour-de-forces. In this French 1868 opera, by the way, the Shakespearean text is adapted by no lesser a librettist than Alexandre Dumas.

Purcell and Handel: Sound the Trumpet
Alison Balsom

In 2013, English trumpet virtuoso Alison Balsom played and acted in her own production, Gabriel, at Shakespeare's original Globe Theatre in London. Featuring the music of Henry Purcell on valveless Baroque trumpet, the show had a rave review from The Guardian.

Britten: A Midsummer Night's Dream
David Daniels, Symphony Orchestra of the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Harry Bicket

This stunning, atmospheric 2005 DVD features countertenor David Daniels as Shakespeare's enigmatic fairy king. Britten had a special gift for setting text to music and was especially sensitive to Shakespearean prose; the composer's partner, tenor Peter Pears, adapted the play for the opera libretto.