Europe’s best classical music festivals: what’s on this year?

With operas, concerts and music festivals returning to concert halls and venues across Europe following the coronavirus pandemic, we pick out some of the festivals you might want to grab tickets for

Europe's best classical music festivals

Best classical music festivals in Austria

Schubertiade Schwarzenberg

Schwarzenberg, Austria, 28 April – 5 October
Tel: +43 (0)5576 72091

Advertisement

A festival dedicated to Schubert was the brainchild of German baritone Hermann Prey and, enhanced by the tranquil Austrian countryside, it’s expanded to some 80-plus concerts spanning lieder, chamber music and piano recitals. Pianist Alfred Brendel shares thoughts on ‘Goethe and Music’, the Dover and Pavel Haas string quartets team up for the Mendelssohn Octet, and bass-baritone Christian Gerhaher sings an all-Schubert programme.

Salzburg Festival

Salzburg, Austria, 17 July – 31 August
Tel: +43 662 8045 500


Its centenary celebrations might have been somewhat circumscribed last year, but 2021’s opening night party, invading the squares and streets of the city, resolutely insists that Salzburg 101 means business – and some of last year’s cancelled highlights live to fight another day. Works by Luigi Nono and Morton Feldman swell the operatic ranks which also expropriate Handel’s oratorio Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno. A performance of Britten’s War Requiem by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla heralds a galaxy of visiting orchestras, including the Chicago Symphony, Berlin Philharmonic and MusicAeterna. And an inevitably classy chamber line-up with such musicians as Martha Argerich and Isabelle Faust includes series devoted to JS Bach and Feldman.

Best classical music festivals in Czech Republic

Prague Spring Festival

Prague, Czech Republic, 12 May – 3 June
Tel: +420 257 310414

A Prague Spring just wouldn’t be the same without the customary opening performances of Smetana’s Má vlast – an omission that is never going to happen, of course – and this year the honour falls to the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra  under Vladimir Jurowski. Prague isn’t set in its ways, however. A new ‘Offspring’ initiative invites Klangforum Wien to delve into contemporary music, while an early music strand commemorates Josquin’s 500th anniversary. Visiting ensembles include the London Symphony Orchestra and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, and a Stravinsky celebration culminates in the closing concert’s Oedipus Rex, conducted by Mark Wigglesworth.

Best classical music festivals in Germany

Göttingen Handel Festival

Göttingen, Germany, 13-24 May; and 9-19 September
Tel: +49 (0)551 3848130

For its centenary edition last year, Göttingen was poised to push the boat out acknowledging all 42 of Handel’s operas (even if one was in a hip-hop makeover and another repurposed as slam-poetry). There was even a multimedia ‘Handel goes Tinder’ opera planned… and then COVID intervened. This year brings two bites at the Handelian cherry: a digital offering keeps the May tradition at a rolling boil before September sees a resumption of live performance.

Dresden Festival

Dresden, Germany, 14 May – 12 June
Tel: +49 (0)351 478560


A 24-hour digital marathon was part of Dresden’s creative response to last summer. Now, exploring the theme of ‘Dialogues’, the festival returns ‘live’ with a punchy line-up dripping orchestral royalty. There’s Mahler from the Vienna Philharmonic (one of the best orchestras in the world) and the LSO, but the home team isn’t side-lined: at the head of his Dresden Staatskapelle, Christian Thielemann conducts Strauss’s ‘Conversation Piece for Music’, Capriccio

Handel Festival Halle

Halle, Germany, 28 May – 5 June
Tel: +49 (0)345 5652706

Handel’s hometown proposes Messiah in three different ways, including one performed in the cathedral where the teenage composer was organist and a Caribbean remix. A staging of the composer’s Brockes Passion and a concert performance of Giulio Cesare buttress 2021’s theme of ‘Heroes and Redemption’, while out of town in the intimate Theater Bernburg, Wolfgang Katschner’s Lautten Compagney Berlin joins the Carlo Colla e Figli puppet theatre for Ariodante.

Bachfest Leipzig

Leipzig, Germany, 11-20 June
Tel: +49 (0)341 9137300

It’s not every festival that can boast a Papal imprimatur, but Leipzig 2021 comes with a ringing endorsement from Papa Emeritus Benedict XVI for its birth-to-Ascension, 11-concert portrait of the Messiah across a succession of Bach’s key works. Those in the frame include the Akademie für alte Musik Berlin, Ton Koopman’s Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir, and Bach Collegium Japan. To end, under the soaring vaulting of the Thomaskirche, Jordi Savall conducts the B minor Mass.

Munich Opera Festival

Munich, Germany, 24 June – 31 July
Tel: +49 (0)89 21 85 19 20

With more than a dozen operas, four ballets, concerts and lieder evenings, the Bavarian State Opera certainly knows how to put on a festival. Conducted by Kirill Petrenko, a new production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde featuring Jonas Kaufmann and Anja Harteros is the headlining work, launching and concluding the festival – the last performance is relayed live to Max-Joseph-Platz, where Zubin Mehta also conducts a free concert performance of Verdi’s Aida. Mozart and Dvořák hold their own in this festival too.

Kunstfest Weimar

Weimar, Germany, 25 August – 11 September
Tel: +49 (0)3643 755334

Talk about a festival that’s highly charged! Weimar premieres a new opera by Stewart Copeland and Jonathan Moore, Electric Saint, that charts the rivalry between Thomas Edison and fellow electrical pioneer Nikola Tesla. Berlin-based opera company Novoflot, meanwhile, unveils the final instalment in its ‘reboot’ of Monteverdi operas.

Best classical music festivals in Ireland

West Wicklow Chamber Music Festival

Blessington, Republic of Ireland, 20 May – 10 June; and November

Set among Wicklow’s seductive mountains and lakes, Palladian Russborough House was almost a festival waiting to happen. For five years, pianist Fiachra Garvey has been the driving force behind a concert series that now boasts two editions a year. Highlights in May and June include guitarist Sean Shibe, the Sitkovetsky Trio and the Van Kuijk Quartet with the Irish premiere of Édith Canat de Chizy’s String Quartet No. 5.

West Cork Chamber Music Festival

Bantry, Republic of Ireland, 25 June – 4 July
Tel: +353 (0)27 52788

After a year of experiencing music ‘through the veil of a computer’, West Cork was champing at the bit, and had lined up its biggest programme to date – quartet cycles devoted to Bartók and Weinberg, early music complementing contemporary percussion works, and artists including the Pacific and Artis quartets, violinist Alina Ibragimova and Ensemble Diderot. Reluctantly, it’s been decided to move online again with special concerts filmed by some of those who were destined for Bantry House. See the website for emerging details.

Best classical music festivals in Norway

Bergen International Festival

Bergen, Norway, 26 May – 9 June
Tel: +47 55 21 06 30

‘This is America’ proclaims Bergen 2021’s motto for a festival that opens with a grand gesture: ‘The American Moth’ combines dance, multi-lingual theatre and live video with a cast headed up by Liv Ullmann. Soprano Danielle de Niese pairs Puccini and Porter, and Missy Mazzoli, ‘Brooklyn’s post-millennial Mozart’, is composer-in-residence.

Rosendal Festival

Rosendal, Norway, 5-8 August
Tel: +47 53 48 29 99

Dvořák and Romantic nationalism come in for close scrutiny at pianist Leif Ove Andsnes’s annual chamber festival – situated in the grounds of a 17th-century Norwegian manor house flanked by a fjord and mountains. Guests include the Dover String Quartet, cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason and – since there’s a 100th-birthday tribute to Astor Piazzolla – bandoneonista Per Arne Glorvigen.

Best classical music festivals in France

Festival de St-Denis

Paris, France, 1-29 June
Tel: +33 (0)148 130607

Last year, the great Gothic basilica and Maison d’éducation de la Légion d’honneur should have resounded to the half-century celebrations for a festival whose programming never fails to live up to the surroundings. It wasn’t to be. Eleven events stake a claim on this year’s Parisian summer, starting with conductor John Eliot Gardiner’s Monteverdi Choir in Bach’s St John Passion. Elsewhere, Camilla Nylund sings Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs in a concert given by the Orchestre Nationale de France, and Cappella Mediterranea couples Monteverdi with Piazzolla.

Chorégies d’Orange

Orange, France, 18 June – 31 July
Tel: +33 (0)4 90 34 24 24

Verona isn’t the only festival to call a Roman amphitheatre ‘home’. Orange’s 9,000-seat theatre has a long and illustrious tradition of presenting drama, musical and spoken. Conductor Riccardo Chailly brings his La Scala Milan forces for an evening of Verdi; accompanied by The Prince’s Musicians, mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli signs up to a ‘Viaggio Italiano’; and Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila, staged by director Jean-Louis Grinda, unites tenor Roberto Alagna and contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux in the title roles.

Aix-en-Provence Festival

Aix-en-Provence, France, 30 June – 25 July
Tel: + 33 (0)4 3408 0217

Basking under a Provençal sun, Aix isn’t just about opera – adroitly conceived concerts include soprano Barbara Hannigan in Messiaen and the world premiere of Pascal Dusapin’s La natura del mondo. But there’s no doubt that the operatic stage exerts an inescapable gravitational pull. No fewer than nine operas populate the Archbishop’s Courtyard, the 18th-century Thêatre du Jeu de Paume and modern Grand Thêatre de Provence. And, further afield, Arles bags the premiere of Samir Odeh-Tamimi’s The Arab Apocalypse. Kaija Saariaho also has a new opera to unveil beside mainstream highlights including a Wagner Tristan und Isolde conducted by Simon Rattle with Stuart Skelton and Nina Stemme in the title roles.

Festival International de Colmar

Colmar, France, 3-14 July
Tel:
+33 (0)3 89 20 68 97

Each year Colmar honours a great musician, and here the 32nd edition pays posthumous tribute to the legendary violinist Ivry Gitlis, who died last Christmas Eve at the age of 98. Artistic director Vladimir Spivakov appears as both violinist and conductor, directing the National Philharmonic Orchestra of Russia which is in residence throughout. The tribute opens with a Gitlis calling-card, the Berg Violin Concerto, and Viktoria Mullova plays another: the Sibelius Concerto. Among the chamber offerings, Quatuor Ludwig pairs Beethoven and Ravel, while pianist Grigory Sokolov prefaces Schumann’s Bunte Blätter with Mozart.

Itinéraire Baroque

Périgord, France, 29 July – 1 August
Tel: +33 (0)5 59 90 05 13


Dispersed among the historic churches of France’s bucolic Périgord Vert region, Ton Koopman’s early music festival is, quite literally, a moveable feast, not least the itinéraire itself which, following an organ recital by Koopman, dispatches
its audience to five Romanesque churches for small ‘taster’ concerts of Baroque delights. The closing concert given by Amsterdam Baroque includes the two-choir Vespers by the 17th-century Milanese nun Chiara Margarita Cozzolani.

Best classical music festivals in Spain

Granada Festival

Granada, Spain, 17 June – 18 July
Tel: +34 958 22 1844

Beethoven loomed large over Granada’s 2020 event but this year there’s a major local anniversary to celebrate: the Festival’s own 70th birthday. Some distinguished guests have been invited, including the Philharmonia Orchestra, François-Xavier Roth’s Cologne-based Gürzenich Orchestra, and the Orchestre de Paris with conductor Klaus Mäkelä and violinist Janine Jansen. Jordi Savall directs his period instrument Le Concert de Nations, and pianists include András Schiff and Elisabeth Leonskaja.

Best classical music festivals in Italy

Verona Opera Festival

Verona, Italy, 19 June – 4 September
Tel: +39 (0)45 800 5151

Opened almost exactly 2,000 years ago, its days of gladiatorial combat are long gone, but passions – albeit of an operatic kind – still run high in Verona’s iconic Roman arena. There’s a particular buzz this year. It’s 150 years since the premiere of Verdi’s Aida, and maestro Riccardo Muti launches the festival with two concert performances. Staged performances follow, rubbing shoulders with the same composer’s Nabucco and La traviata, though Puccini’s Turandot and a double-bill of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci puncture the Verdian hegemony. Gala nights are bestowed on singers Plácido Domingo and Jonas Kaufmann.

Ravenna Festival

Ravenna, Italy, 21 June – 31 July
Tel: +39 (0)544 249244

With the city home to his final resting place, Ravenna was always going to have the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death at the heart of its programming. Last November’s ‘Autumn trilogy’ paved the way with three works including choreography inspired by The Divine Comedy and a special appearance by a Ravenna fixture: conductor Riccardo Muti’s Cherubini Youth Orchestra. Others heading for the Byzantine splendours and Roman legacy include conductors Kristjan Järvi, Charles Dutoit and Wayne Marshall, as well as pianists Daniil Trifonov and Beatrice Rana.

Incontri in Terra di Siena

Siena, Italy, 23-31 July
Tel: +39 (0)578 63316

Pianist Alessio Bax is the current artistic director of a Tuscan festival that, he believes, forges a special relationship between music and landscape. The glowing surroundings can certainly have no cause for complaint, what with artists such as flautist Emmanuel Pahud, cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras and violinist Henning Kraggerud all signed up for 2021. Andrew Litton conducts the opening night concert, in which Bax himself plays Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.

Best classical music festivals in Finland

Savonlinna Opera Festival

Savonlinna, Finland, 2-31 July
Tel: +358 (0)15 476 750

Commanding its own little island, the imposing medieval castle of Olavinlinna has been hosting an opera festival for over a century. Although Szymanowski’s King Roger has had to be cancelled for this year, the white nights of a Finnish summer fall on a tantalising line-up: Handel’s Giulio Cesare brings baroque opera to Olavinlinna for the first time, and Massenet’s Werther appears alongside the likes of Bizet’s Carmen, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and Verdi’s La traviata. Norwegian music group Wardruna shares its ancient Norse passions, and a gala night with soprano Karita Mattila reaches a Wagnerian climax.

Best classical music festivals in Croatia

Dubrovnik Summer Festival

Dubrovnik, Croatia, 10 July – 25 August
Tel: +385 (0)20 326 100


With so much up in the air at the moment, the accent will be on relatively local talent as ‘the pearl of the Adriatic’ stirs itself for festivities. Guitarist Petrit Çeku and pianists Lovre Marušić and Goran Filipec are much in evidence as recitalists, chamber musicians and soloists with the Dubrovnik Symphony Orchestra. Plus, city spaces will resound to Percussion Collective and ‘Dubrovnik on a Rock’ proposes an eclectic mixtape of Obrodović, Jolivet and Mahler.

Best classical music festivals in Estonia

Pärnu Music Festival

Pärnu, Estonia, 11-18 July
Tel: +372 56 56 87 54


The Estonian festival with associated Academy and Festival Orchestra likes to keep things in the family: the Järvi family. It was founded, after all, by Paavo and his father Neeme, and Kristjan completes the conducting threesome. Guest soloists for the orchestral concerts include violinist Joshua Bell and flautist Emmanuel Pahud, and there’s a focus, too, on three home-grown composers: Eduard Tubin, Artur Lemba and the conspicuously versatile Ülo Krigul.

Haapsalu Early Music Festival

Haapsalu, Estonia, 22-25 July
Tel: +372 55 63 77 57


The Estonian seaside spa was a favourite with Russian royalty, and Tchaikovsky’s visit in 1867 is commemorated by a musical bench overlooking the shore. But for nearly a quarter of a century, Haapsalu has also boasted a distinguished early music festival that opens this year with Handel’s Theodora. The Dutch Cappella Pratensis sings Obrecht in the Dome Church; lutenist Thomas Dunford’s Jupiter Ensemble performs Bach and Vivaldi; and he also teams up with harpsichordist Jean Rondeau for a programme of Couperin, Marais, Rameau and more.

Best classical music festivals in Switzerland

Gstaad Menuhin Festival

Gstaad, Switzerland, 16 July – 4 September
Tel: +41 33 748 8338
Gstaad’s enthusiasm for exploring musical capitals alights on London this year – a dual celebration of both centuries of music-making and Menuhin’s ties to the city. A Festival Tent envelops the Festival Orchestra under conductor Jaap van Zweden as well as Valery Gergiev’s Mariinsky Orchestra; violinist Daniel Hope enjoys carte blanche over three programmes; and filling the local churches with choice chamber music are the likes of pianist András Schiff, violinist Isabelle Faust and baritone Thomas Hampson. If it all gets too much, the traditional concert in the mountain pastures above Lauenen should prove a breath of fresh air!

Verbier Festival

Verbier, Switzerland, 16 July – 1 August
Tel: +41 (0)848 771 882

Verbier went largely digital last year but is confident that 2021 will see a return to something like normality. Fingers crossed! Operatic fare includes a double helping of Puccini – La bohème and La fanciulla del West – plus Act II of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. On opening night, the Festival Orchestra is in playful mood as Valery Gergiev conducts Shchedrin’s Naughty Limericks. The grand finale falls to conductor Iván Fischer and Bartók’s kaleidoscopic Concerto for Orchestra.

Lucerne Festival

Lucerne, Switzerland, 10 August – 12 September
Tel: +41 (0)41 226 4480

After a year in which the term ‘stir-crazy’ has gained unexpected traction, Lucerne is seizing the bull by the horns and dedicates its programming to the notion of craziness. That translates into a spotlight on innovators and revolutionaries, musical milestones such as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and works that nibble at notions of normality. Conductor Riccardo Chailly includes three fragments from Berg’s Wozzeck in his first concert with the peerless Festival Orchestra, and complete operas flirting with madness include Handel’s Partenope (William Christie and Les Arts Florissants) and Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades (the Mariinsky Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev). A Schumann cycle includes all four symphonies; ‘Cosmos Boulez’ focuses on the French composer’s uncompleted or withdrawn works; and, rescued from last year, two of the ‘Bye-Bye Beethoven’ concerts allow Igor Levit to conclude his interrupted sonata cycle.

Best classical music festivals in Latvia

Riga-Jurmala Festival

Riga and Jurmala, Latvia, 16 July – 5 September
Tel: + 371 277 70 010

A relatively new kid on the festival block, Riga-Jurmala shares the honours between the Latvian capital and its nearby seaside getaway. The Bayreuth Festival Orchestra under Andris Nelsons promises two Wagner nights, the second devoted to Act I of Die Walküre; and other orchestral big guns comprise the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw and the St Petersburg Philharmonic. Alongside fellow pianists András Schiff and Maria João Pires, Víkingur Ólafsson gives a solo recital of Rameau and Debussy and joins baritone Matthias Goerne for Schubert, Schumann and Brahms

Best classical music festivals in Romania

George Enescu International Festival

Bucharest, Romania, 28 August – 26 September
Tel: +4 (0)21 212 5041

Advertisement

Named after Romania’s most celebrated musical son, the Enescu Festival is celebrating twice-over: the composer-violinist’s 140th birthday and its own 25th anniversary. There’s no holding back – nearly 5,000 international and Romanian artists are descending on Bucharest, and no fewer than 42 of Enescu’s works, including all five symphonies, are being presented. Seven London orchestras, including the LSO and the London Mozart Players, join an orchestral line-up that includes the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, Rome’s St Cecilia Orchestra and the Israel Philharmonic. Elsewhere, Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg and Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt are among the operatic offerings, and solo performers number pianist Martha Argerich and mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato among their ranks.