If you are ready for some warm Mediterranean sunshine and want to hear world-class musicians in one of Europe’s most spectacular cities, the Barcelona Obertura Spring Festival might just be the thing to put you back on your feet and remind you of what you have been missing during two years of Covid restrictions. Spain is putting out the welcome mat for fully vaccinated tourists, so take a moment to imagine yourself strolling along Las Ramblas and gazing in wonder at Antoni Gaudí’s extraordinary architecture, before heading out to hear outstanding music in this stylish, unique city.

Running from 9th to 29th March, the Barcelona Obertura Spring Festival will be staged at three of the top venues in this exciting Catalan capital: the glittering Gran Teatre del Liceu, which is also celebrating its 175th anniversary this year; the Palau de la Música Catalana, an Art Nouveau masterpiece now designated a world heritage site; and the cool, modern L’Auditori Barcelona. Each building alone is a feast for the senses, even before a single note is heard. 

Palau de la Música Catalana
© Palau de la Música Catalana

Two British singing stars feature in Handel’s supremely dramatic opera Giulio Cesare, given a concert performance for one night only (10th March) in the spectacular setting of the Palau de la Música Catalana, an architectural riot of palms, fruits and foliage – just right for a work set in Egypt. Soprano Carolyn Sampson will sing the seductive role of Cleopatra in this hot ticket event, with contralto Hilary Summers singing Cornelia. They are joined by two leading countertenors, Christopher Lowrey and Konstantin Derri, in what promises to be an electric performance, conducted by Aaron Zapico with Forma Antiqva.

More British voices are on the bill at the Palau de la Música two nights later (12th March) when the Tallis Scholars appear in a concert to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of Josquin des Prés. They will sing works by Byrd, Allegri, des Prés and Pärt under conductor Peter Phillips, before being joined by the Palau’s own youth choir, the Cor Jove de l’Orfeo Catalá and their conductor Esteve Nabona, in Tallis mighty 40-part motet, Spem in alium.

There’s more top-flight singing when the elite Belgian ensemble Vox Luminis take to the Palau stage on 14th March to perform Henry Purcell’s drama King Arthur. Since much of this most innovative work consists of spoken text, the performance will also feature actor Pere Arquillué as narrator. The ensemble will return on the 16th March with The Fairy Queen, and both semi-operas are conducted by Lionel Meunier. 

A programme of quality chamber music will feature at L’Auditori on 15th March, when violinist Janine Jansen and pianist Denis Kozhukin present a Schubert and Brahms programme which also features a Beethoven sonata which inspired, extraordinarily, “the longest kiss in advertising history” – his “Kreutzer” Sonata no. 9. It’s an intriguing story. The sonata’s distinct mood swings, from dark anger to thoughtful meditation and eventual blissful happiness, inspired the Russian author Leo Tolstoy to write a novella of the same name, published in 1889. It was quickly censored for its highly-charged arguments about sexual liberation, abstinence and marriage, but eventually published in full. It tells of a husband consumed by jealousy as he listens to his wife play the sonata with a handsome male violinist. In his delusion, he imagines an affair, with tragic consequences. In turn, this book gave the French painter Rene-Xavier Prinet an arresting subject for his work. His 1901 piece Kreutzer Sonata makes real the fevered imaginings of the husband and shows the violinist and pianist breaking off their playing to share in a passionate embrace. In 1941, Prinet’s picture was used by the Dana perfume company – established originally in Barcelona – for a marketing campaign designed to promote a scent named Tabu. In advertisements that ran for decades, the picture was accompanied by teasing lines such as “when you want what's going on to go on and on”. The campaign’s lasting popularity earned it the title of the "longest kiss in advertising history.” And the sonata’s influence didn’t stop there. A film starring Danny Huston, based on Tolstoy’s book, was also released in 2008.

Henrich Heine’s ecstatic love poetry found its ultimate expression when set to music by Robert Schumann in his song-cycle Dichterliebe, a mainstay of the lieder repertoire. Baritone Johannes Kammler and pianist Akemi Murakami present the cycle in a recital at the Palau on 23rd March, which will also include Maurice Ravel's Five Greek Folk Songs and the first version of Three Sonnets of Petrarch, by Franz Liszt, the brilliant Hungarian pianist and composer who was so heavily influenced by all things Italian.

© May Zircus

Another great song cycle, Benjamin Britten’s Les Illuminations, can be heard at L’Auditori Barcelona when British star tenor Ian Bostridge – a supreme Britten interpreter –  joins the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra and conductor Francesc Prat on 25th and 26th March. Rimbaud’s prose poetry ranges across a sometimes surreal landscape, shot through with protest at almost every aspect of society. Also on the programme is actor Pere Arquillué, making a second festival appearance in these concerts, this time as a narrator in a work supremely suitable for our Covid times, The Plague, by leading Catalan composer Robert Gerhard. This cantata, written in 1963 and said to be one of the composer’s greatest works, is based on the novel La Peste by Albert Camus and will feature three choirs: Ensemble O Vos Omnes, Cor de Cambra del Palau and Cor Madrigal.

L’Auditori Barcelona is a vibrant modern cultural hub, all set around a central courtyard containing a monumental glass lantern decorated by artist Pablo Palazuelo. The building, designed by architect Rafael Moneo and opened in 1999, has three wood-lined concert halls, each named after a Catalan musician: the Sala Pau Casals, where the Britten and Gerhard pieces will be heard, seats 2,340; the Sala Oriol Martorell 600, and the Sala Tete Montoliu, 400. 

The building is also home to a music school and the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra, which gets an opportunity to show off its strengths in three stand-out concerts of Russian music in the Sala Pau Casals. In a delicious programme, pianist Denis Kozhukin will play Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 1 on 11th and 12th March, and the same composer’s third piano concerto on 13th March. Each programme will also include Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 1 in F minor and Prokofiev’s suite from The Love for Three Oranges. Kazushi Ono will conduct.

Ono and the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra return to the Sala Pau Casals at L’Auditori Barcelona on 18th, 19th and 20th March in a fascinating programme which includes a world premiere performance of L'harmonia de les formes (The harmony of forms), by Jordi Cervelló. Cellist José Mor joins the orchestra to play the deluded knight in Richard Strauss’s 1898 symphonic variations, Don Quixote. The character of his hapless squire Sancho Panza is shared between the viola, bass clarinet and tuba. Toru Takemitsu’s Visions from 1990 will open what promises to be an intriguing evening.

Brahms’s Symphony no. 1 is sure to take off like a rocket when conductor Teodor Currentzis is in charge. His approach divides musical opinion, but one thing you can guarantee: you won’t be bored when he picks up the baton at L’Auditori on 29th March. A New York Times profile put it this way: “He has been described as a punk, a goth, an anarchist and a guru – all of which have elements of truth, but fail to convey the blend of talent, charisma and energy that has swept him from the periphery of the music world to its most prestigious stages.” Currentzis will no doubt give Brahms’s first movement a thrilling urgency in this most potent of symphonies. And it will be intriguing to hear what he does with Marko Nikodijevic’s Viola Concerto, with Antoine Tamestit as soloist. 

Gran Teatre del Liceu
© Paco Amate

The Grand Teatre del Liceu’s staging of Debussy’s ravishing, mesmeric Pelléas et Mélisande is wrapped into the Festival programme over three nights (11th, 15th, 18th March) and features two leading British singers: baritone Simon Keenlyside and mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly.

Debussy’s work, based on a symbolist play by Maeterlinck, baffled audiences when it opened in Paris in 1902, but is now seen as a masterpiece, possessing a mysterious, dream-like magnetism. Prince Golaud (Keenlyside) finds Mélisande (Julie Fuchs), lost in a forest. He marries her and takes her back to his father’s castle, where his mother Genevieve (Connolly) introduces Mélisande to Golaud's younger half-brother Pelléas (Stanislas de Barbeyrac), to whom she becomes increasingly attached. Much jealous suspicion ensues, and when Pelléas and Mélisande finally confess their love for one another, Golaud kills Pelléas, and Mélisande dies shortly afterwards, having given birth. Love has prevailed over human will and only death can offer fulfilment.

Director Alex Ollé employs references to Freud and Surrealism to explore both the score and the language of dreams. Centre stage in Alfons Flores’s design is a large black box which functions as a metaphor for the human mind and contains the complex codes of our dreams. This troubling, mysterious and yet exceptionally beautiful opera is conducted by Josep Pons with the Liceu Opera Orchestra and Chorus.

Head to Barcelona this spring to witness the city in musical bloom.

Click here to find the events of the Barcelona Obertura Spring Festival.

This article was sponsored by Barcelona Obertura.