My reflections on the 2019 Gramophone Awards part IV – Instrumental

This is another favorite category of mine, as typically it is mainly piano recordings.

This year, interestingly enough a solo violin recording starts the selection, Giuliani Carmignola’s recent recording of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas. I’m really puzzled by this choice. Let me make it clear, I really like Carmignola (his Four Seasons are among my absolute favorites), and I also love the solo sonatas and partitas. However, Carmignola’s version sounds completely “wrong” to me. I know this is a very unspecific remark, and I’m not going to dwell on it, as this won’t be helpful for my readers. But I’ll stick with Milstein anytime.

So let’s rather go directly to the recording that is most likely going to make my Top 5 Classical albums of the year 2019, and that I sincerely hope will win this category: Yuja Wang’s fantastic Berlin recital.

Yuja Wang The Berlin Recital Rachmaninov Scriabin Ligeti Prokofiev 24 96 Deutsche Grammophon 2018

As you can see from my review, I really love this album. It has completely changed my perception of Wang as an artist. This recital combines a fantastic selection of repertoire, a playing that is both nuanced and passionate.

I’d like to thank my reader Ed for his comment on the article flagging the extra album of the 4 encores she played at this concerto. This is a must have as well. You could argue with DG why they simply didn’t include this into the main album, but in any case this 4 track album is very cheap, and a must have.

Yuya Wang The Berlin Recital Encores Deutsche Grammophon 2019 24 96

Next in line is another favorite artist of mine, Igor Levit. I haven’t yet formally reviewed his latest recording of the Beethoven sonatas, but have seen him play a selection live at this year’s Lucerne festival, and can already say his set is worth checking out. You may not like all his choices, especially on his sometimes extreme tempi, but this will be a worthy addition to the long catalogue of complete sonata recordings, more to come).

But Gramophone focused on Levit’s other release in the last 12 months, his very personal album “Life”.

I’ve reviewed it here, and if you haven’t done so yet, you should absolutely check out this five star gem.

I’ve only just started listening to another recommendation of this selection, Alexander Melnikov’s recording of Debussy’s 2nd book of Préludes.

Debussy Préludes du 2e livre La Mer Alexander Melnikov Olga Pashchenko Harmonia Mundi 2018 24 96

As you know, I’m far from being a Debussy expert, I typically just go to my complete Debussy recordings by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, but my first impression of this album is very positive. What is very interesting about this recording is the sound of the piano, an Erard, presumably from the time of Debussy. Melnikov has recorded quite a bit on period instruments, and it truly gives a different color and perspective.

I can’t comment on the two other albums that made the original 6 album shortlist, Steven Osborne’s recording o fthe late Beethoven sonatas, and Stephen Hough’s “Dream Album”, as Hyperion still refuses to stream and I refuse to buy albums blindly.

Now, as you know in the meantime Gramphone has narrowed down the shortlist from 6 to 3 albums. The finalists are Carmignola, Wang, and Levit.

I’m willing to bet that Wang will be the winner this year, and it would be well deserved!

I presume this will be the last part of this year’s mini-series on the Gramophone Awards. Maybe I’ll do one more post on the remaining categories lumped together (Choral, Contemporary, Early Music, and Opera, Recital, Solo Vocal) if I find time, but I’m much less comfortable and familar here, so let’s see. So most likely you’ll hear back from me on the Gramphone Awards once the winners are announced on October 1st.

What do you think? What would be your favorites among all these albums?

My reflections on the 2019 Gramophone Awards Part III – Chamber

Chamber is a particularly rewarding catogory for the Gramophone awards this year, at least from my perspective. Out of the 6 initially shortlisted (now narrowed to 3, see below), I fully support and like 5. Nice quota.

So let’s take them one by one:

Britten’s string quartets played by the Doric quartet is the only album I’m not going to comment about. I like the Doric as an excellent quartet, but Britten is a composer I just don’t get. Probably again, mainly due to my general issue with 20th century music.

Britten Purcell String Fantasias in four parts String quartets no 1 - 3 Doric String Quartet Chandos

Another 20th century album that I had completely missed comes from Debussy (a lot of Debussy recordings due to the 100 years of his death in 1918). We’re talking about an album called in a nice international mixture Les Trois SonatesLate Works. Not sure how I missed this as it features my heroine, Isabelle Faust. I’ve only started streaming it over the last few days but really like it. Also look at the list of musicians, Queyras, Melnikov, Perianes. Wow! Expect a more detailed review, but in any case, this is really promising!

Debussy Les trois sonates The Late Works - Isabelle Faust Alexander Melnikov, Jean-Guihen Queyras, Javier Perianes, Xavier de Maistre, Antoine Tamestit, Magali Mosnier, Tanguy de Williencourt Harmonia Mundi

Next on the list is another favourite of mine, Christian Tetzlaff and his sister Tanja and Lars Vogt on piano playing the piano trios no. 3 & 4 by Antonin Dvorak.

This trio is truly fantastic, having recorded some outstanding Brahms albums previously, and from the first bars of this album it is very clear this new release is also very special. Dvorak isn’t part of my most core repertoire, but this album could easily make it into heavy rotation on my computer.

Antonin Dvorak Piano Trios No. 3 & 4 Dumky Christian Tetzlaff Tanja Tetzlaff, Lars Vogt Ondine 2019

I have a special relationship to the next album as well, given that I’ve seen the artists perform it live in concert. Alina Ibragimova and Cédric Tiberghien, two fantastic artists on their own, but even more special as a perfect duo. The composers on this album, Franck, Vierene, Boulanger and Ysaÿe are less known, but the music is very much worth discovering. The two of them have also recently recorded the Brahms sonatas, and I’ll probably have to get my credit card out soon.

Vierne Franck Ysaye Violin Sonatas Alina Ibragimova Cedric Tiberghien Hyperion 24 96 2019

“Papa Haydn” really isn’t my favourite composer. That said, his symphonies are being freshly recorded by Giovanni Antonini (see here), his string quartets are fantastic, and his trios are also really worth exploring.

The French Trio Wanderer has recorded some very good albums before, check out their complete Beethoven trios for example. What is there to say, beautiful playing, charming music, a treat!

Joseph Haydn Piano trios Trio Wanderer 24 96 2019 Harmonia Mundi

And, to wrap up the list of the 6 shortlisted albums, Shostakovich.

I must admit I’m still new to most of Shostakovich’s oeuvre, and finding my way through the very special world of this composer. But I’ve recently acquired the piano quintet which is really worth discovering. I bought the version by the Takacs Quartet with Marc-André Hamelin on Hyperion, but the album selected here was truly the best alternative and I probably will add it to my collection soon.

We’re talking about the Belcea quartet, with Piotr Anderszewski. You also get String Quartet no. 3.

Shostakovich String Quartet No. 3 Piano Quintet Belcea Quartet Piotr Anderszewski Alpha 2019 24 96

So, out of the 6 albums above, which ones made the shortlist of the shortlist? Let’s make it short (sorry for the bad pun): the Britten, Debussy, and the Franck. Given Gramophones slightly patriotic tendencies, I’m willing to bet that the Britten album will win, but I’d prefer Faust or Ibragimova to get the price. We’ll know more soon.

Overall, a very strong selection this year, or what do you think?

My reflections on the 2019 Gramophone Awards Part II – Orchestral

This is part II of my mini-series on the 2019 Gramophone awards. I need to hurry up with my posts, as the winners will be revealed early October. You’ll find part I (concerto) here.

Orchestral

This is another section where I normally feel very much at home with.

That said, this year this comment will be quite a bit shorter as there is only one selected album that I can actually comment on.

Let me quickly start by skimming over the recordings that Gramophone selected that I won’t be writing about, as I don’t feel qualified enough or don’t know them:

The recommendations start with a box of Bernstein orchestral works played by Antonio Pappano with his Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. As much as I appreciate this conductor, I really can’t comment here as Bernstein really isn’t my cup of tea (both as a composer and conductor with few exceptions).

Bernstein the 3 symphonies Antonio Pappano

The next one is an album I should be going back to more in-depth for a review, orchestral works by Debussy played by François-Xavier Roth with his Les Siècles. As I mentioned here, I like the conductor quite a bit, and I had a very good impression when I briefly checked this album out when it was released, but then left it for quite a while given that Debussy isn’t my core repertoire (I mentioned before that the 20th century isn’t my favourite).

Debussy Jeux Nocturnes Francois Xavier Roth Les Siècles Harmonia Mundi 2019

Talking about the 20th century, the next album is also from this era, as it is Langgaard’s 2nd and 6th symphony by Sakari Oramo and the Vienna Philharmonic. I must admit I had skipped this so far, but I’m streaming it right now as I write this and will have to have a closer look, as I like what I hear. So I recommend checking it out as well.

Rued Langgaard Symphonies 2 & 6 Vienna Philharmonic Sakari Oramo Anu Komst Dacapo 2019

The next one is Ivan Fischer’s Mahler 7. Fischer’s Mahler recordings are often love it or hate it affairs (see my article here on his 9th). Personally, I like his 1st and 4th symphony recordings, even if they are a bit “middle of the road”, but his approach to the 7th doesn’t blow me away. I’d rather stick with Klemperer on this one, but don’t consider this a formal review, as I’m really no expert on the later Mahler symphonies.

Mahler symphony no. 7 Budapest Festival Orchestra Ivan Fischer Channel Classics 2019

The final album of the list is Stenhammar’s 2nd symphony with Herbert Blomstedt and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra. I have a huge respect for Herbert Blomstedt, but Stenhammar’s work is again really not my cup of tea. Another 20th century composition (there seems to be a pattern in this years Concerto awards category), so don’t expect me to comment here.

Stenhammar Symphony no. 2 serenade Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra Herbert Blomstedt BIS 2019

OK, so after this long rambling section talking about stuff I really don’t know much about, let me write about the only album from this list that I actually have listened to several times.

Given the pattern of the other nominated recordings it had to be either late 19th century or 20th century. This selection fits, as we’re talking about Sibelius 1st symphony, composed in 1899.

Sibelius Symphony No. 1 En Saga Gothenburg Symphony Santtu-Matias Rouvali Alpha 2019

I’ve mentioned in my review of Sibelius’ violin concerto, I still struggle really getting into Sibelius symphonic works. So this album, by young Finnish conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali, was an eye-opener for me. Similar to Petrenko’s recording of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique, this recording really made me more interested in Sibelius. I hope he’ll record more.

Congrats to the Gothenburg Symphony for being featured twice in this selection.

As usual, I’d love to hear what you think. Any feedback, any different opinions on the presented works?

Update Sep 19: I just noticed that in the October issue of Gramophone only 3 albums remain shortlisted: the Bernstein, the Langgaard, and the Stenhammar. My personal preference among these three would go to the Langgaard.

My reflections on the 2019 Gramphone Awards – Part I – Concerto

The Gramophone Awards

Every year I tend to comment on the Gramophone awards nominees, you’ll find some examples here (2015), here (2016) and here (2017).

In late 2018 I was unfortunately too busy at work to get into this, but I hope I can get back on track this year.

Obviously, I’ll only be able to comment on albums that I’ve actually listened to, or ideally reviewed myself. Therefore, some categories will be less represented here.

The Gramophone awards are probably the most relevant and most highly regarded price in the classical music world, so it is always interesting to see what Gramophone comes up with, even if I don’t always agree.

You’ll find the published list of the 2019 nominees here.

Concerto

You’ve probably noticed that the “concerto” category is among my favorites.

Not suprisingly, I had already reviewed several of the nominees.

Bach – The Violin Concertos – Isabelle Faust

Johann Sebastian Bach: Violin Concertos Sinfonias Overture Sonatas Isabelle Faust Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin Bernhard Forck, Xenia Loeffler Harmonia Mundi 2019

I mean, what can I say, I’ve heard her play these live, I’ve given the album a very clear 5 star review, and anyhow I’m a self-declared Isabelle Faust fanboy. So absolutely, this is fantastic. And unlike the Trifonov below, I believe there is pretty much general consensus among reviewers that this is a great performance.

Rachmaninov – Piano Concertos 2 & 4 – Trifonov – Nézet-Séguin

Daniil Trifonov Yannick Nézet-Séguin The Philadelphia Orchestra Destination Rachmaninov - Departure Deutsche Grammophon 2018 24/96

This one is more tricky. I already predicted in my 5 star review before any of the professional reviews came out that this would be a love it or hate it affair. Turns out both professional reviewers and a lot of people who commented on my blog really don’t agree. So, while I love it, this is one of those albums I strongly suggest you check out before you buy. To me nevertheless is is one of my favorite performances of the work.

Saint-Saëns: Piano concertos 2 & 5 – Chamayou – Krivine

Saint Saens Concertos 2& 5 solo piano works Bertrand Chamayou Orchestre National de France Emmanuel Krivine Erato 2019 24 96

Here’s another album where I agree with Gramophone, the reason why my rating in my review was only four stars is because I didn’t rate Saint-Saëns highly enough from a repertoire perspective. But the playing is fantastic.

So, overall, good alignment between my reviews and Gramophone’s recommendations.

The category contains three other albums that I haven’t yet heard.

Leila Josefowicz playing John Adams violin concerto. I must admit I’m not familiar enough with Adams’ work to allow any proper review. As mentioned several times, I’m typically not very comfortable with 20th century music. But I may give this a try.

Kirill Gerstein playing Busoni’s piano concerto, with Sakari Oramo, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. This is an album that I’m really intrigued by as I recently discovered my interest in Busoni, but it isnt’ available for streaming, and I’m really hesitant these days to buy an album blindly.

MIchael Collins playing Crusell’s Clarinet concerto. Who’s Crusell I presume you’re going to ask. I must admit I don’t have the faintest idea. Apparently a Finnish composer. I may give this one a try just out of curiosity.

To wrap up, who do I predict will win this year? My bet is on Isabelle Faust. This is truly a reference version of the Bach concertos, and so it would be really deserved. The only thing that could stop her is that she already won the recording of the year in the 2017 Gramphone awards. Not sure if this may influence the jury. Let’s see in some weeks.

UPDATE Sep 19: I just noticed that in the October issue of Gramophone, only 3 albums remain shortlisted. Specifically the Adams, Busoni, and Saint-Saëns recordings. So Faust is apparently already out. I hope Chamayou wins, he deserves it.

Note you’ll find part II (orchestral) of this mini-series here.

Miles Davis’ Rubberband – An Album That Better Should Have Stayed Unpublished

Thank you again for all your feedback

I get a lot of comments, both on the site itself and via direct message. And I truly appreciate every single element of feedback. It is what keeps me going now 5 years in a row.

Recently you told me you’d like more reviews of Jazz albums, and also encouraged me to write more critical reviews. I often tend to shy away from them, as my reviews clearly are very subjective opinions, and I really don’t like to critisize great musicians just because I don’t like some of their albums.

That said, the next musician won’t mind, a) he’s passed away a long time ago, and b) he’s one of the most brilliant musicians ever and nothing I’ll write here will take anything away from this

Miles Davis – Rubberband (Warner 2019)

This is a negative review that is more of a warning. Stay away from this zombie at all cost.

In the 1980s, Miles Davis had finally left his long term label Columbia to sign up with Warner. He then started recording some tracks. For several reasons, these tracks were never fully finished, and ended up in a drawer somewhere.

Now, somebody decided, let’s take these tracks, complete what Miles didn’t complete, and let’s see if we can still milk the Miles Davis brand.

First of all, people think of Miles Davis as a Jazz musician. Let’s be clear, in the 1980s had moved on, to a style much more influenced by funk and pop. Nothing wrong with this, it’s not really my cup of tea, but Tutu an album that was recorded shortly after this, is a modern classic. It will never get a lot of playtime on my system, but I understand why some people like it.

Rubberband really never should have been published in my opinion. Without Davis’ trademark horn popping up every once in a while, it would have just been a very bland synthetic late funk / 80s pop album. So if you’re interested in 1980s funk jazz, get Tutu (or some Herbie Hancock stuff from that era). But really avoid this “album” at all cost.

My rating: 1 star (this is now officially my first 1 star review in 5 years and more than 300 posts)

If you still want to check it out, you can find it here (Qobuz)

Libertà – Mozart Et L’Opéra by Raphaël Pichon – An Outstanding Album!

No, I haven’t Forgotten About Jazz

Some quick words to start:

Sorry for the Jazz fans subscribing to my blog, I know I’ve been pretty heavy on classical articles and not a lot of Jazz. I simply haven’t found too many good new albums, reviewing albums I don’t really like is much less fun, and I prefer writing about new releases, so my occasional reviewing of older albums also didn’t progress a lot. I hereby promise that I’ll try to restore the old balance of 50/50 between Jazz and Classical. So please subscribe if you haven’t done so yet.

Best-Of Albums

I used to hate “best of” or “highlights” albums, especially for Opera when I was younger. I thought the composer had taken the time to do the full opera, we should be appreciating the work in its entirety.

I’ve since evolved and really see the benefit of somebody else curating the music, especially when we’re talking about lesser known works, like in the album that I’m about to write about.

Furthermore, conductor Raphaël Pichon doesn’t do “best-of’s”, he does “concept” albums, that follow a story combining the different tracks, be it Stravaganza, Birth of The Opera At the Medici Court, or Enfers (Hells).

I’ve previously praised another of his concept albums, Mozart – The Weber Sisters, with the fantastic soprano Sabine Devielhe, which I’ve also listed in My Top 5 Classical Albums of 2016.

So I was very happy to see that in this new album that was released yesterday, that Devielhe is again featured.

Libertà – Mozart and the Opera – Raphaël Pichon – Pygmalion (Harmonia Mundi 2019)

Liberta Mozart Et L'opera Raphael Pichon Pygmalion 24 96 Harmonia Mundi 2019

On this album, Devielhe isn’t the only star, we’re actually getting several other great singers, from Siobhan Stagg via Linard Vrielink to Nahuel di Pierro.

I’m not going to comment too much about the concept, which the booklet nicely explains on several pages, including an interview with Pichon.

Let’s summarise what you’re buying: You’re getting 1h44 of mainly Mozart opera extracts. We’re mostly talking about his less known operas, like Lo Sposo Deluso, L’Oca del Cairo, or Der Schauspieldirektor.

What does that mean? Actually, Pichon did a fantastic job selecting gems among these lesser known works that definitely are worth discovering.

Pichon and his ensemble Pygmalion deliver some Mozart playing as it should be in the 21st century: Inspired, energetic, but dedicate where needed, clearly historically informed, but not overly “baroque”. And as mentioned, you get really good singers.

This album already is one of my favourite new releases of this year, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up featured on my Best of 2019 list at the end of the year.

An absolute delight, worth having for any Mozart opera fan, especially in times where new opera productions are too rare.

Highly recommended.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

UPDATE Sep 12: Classica agrees and gives this album a “Choc”, their highest rating.

A Review of Two Recent Recordings of Mahler 1 by Vänskä and Roth

Gustav Mahler

You can easily tell that I’m still struggling a bit with Gustav Mahler by the number of posts I have done on him, so far a grand total of 1 (one!), commenting about very divergent reviews of Mahler’s 9th.

I find many of his symphonies hard to approach, too big, to complex, getting lost in the weeds. The one symphony that I semi-regularly go back to is no. 1. It is to me by far the most approachable, taking many of the beautiful melodies in the symphony directly from his own earlier the song cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (and if you read this blog regularly you know I’m a sucker for melodies).

My first recording of Mahler 1 with retrospect is not a reference, but at least a quite decent performance, with Eliahu Inbal and the HR Radio Symphony orchestra (I mainly bought the album initially because it was a so-called audiophile recording by Denon).

SInce then, on Mahler, I’ve been through all the great classics (Klemperer, Walter, Bernstein, Kubelik), but also many new releases of this work (Fischer, Zinman, Janssons), and these days most often go back to Ivan Fischer on Channel Classics, a very nice, if a bit middle-of-the-road performance (again, VERY audiophile, it’s a fantastic test for your speakers, but you may not make friends with your neighboring appartments if you explore the full dynamic range).

So I was very curious when in the space of a couple of months two new recordings of Mahler 1 came out, both by conductors I respect a lot.

Mahler: Symphony No. 1 – François Xavier Roth – Les Siècles (Harmonia Mundi 2019)

The first one is François-Xavier Roth with his relatively recent ensemble Les Siècles, which I now very much see on track to become one of the most important French orchestras, particularly for French composers (have a look at their recent Debussy and Ravel recordings).

Gustav Mahler Titan Symphony No. 1 Hamburg Weimar 1893-1894 version Les Siècles François Xavier Roth 24/96

So I was particularly curious how they’d do with German composers like Mahler .

What’s interesting about this recording is that they use a different version, “Hamburg/Weimar 1893-1894”, turning the symphony into a “tone poem”. Well, overall, you’ll still very much recognize most of the symphony, but you’ll notice an less familiar 2nd movement sneaking in, Blumine, making the symphony 5 movements long.

Mahler: Symphony No. 1 – Osmo Vänskä – Minnesota Orchestra (BIS 2019)

Gustav Mahler Symphony No. 1 Osmo Vänskä Minnesota Orchestra BIS 2019 24/96

The even more recent new release is a conductor I’ve loved for a long time, Osmo Vänskä, who has done fantastic work with the Minnesota Orchestra. Take for example his outstanding recording of the Beethoven piano concertos 2 & 4 with Yevgeny Sudbin.

Vänskä takes the “traditional” version of the symphony with 4 movements.

Now, are any of these worth getting, you’ll ask?

Well, let me start with the Vänskä. Given how much energy and passion Vänskä typically puts into his recordings, this was a major disappointment. The entire symphony just feels very slow and uninspired. I try to stay away from too drastic words especially when we’re talking about such fantastic artists like Vänskä. But I can’t help it, this recording really isn’t for me.

Roth is already a different story. The Blumine addition already gives you something to look out for, and overall, the tone is much more energetic and joyful in the first three movements, and has the appropriate amount of drama in the fourth movement. Overall, a very satisfying performance, maybe not a new reference, but you won’t regret buying it.

Now I’m curious what you think? Am I completely off? Do you love Vänskä’s approach, and I’m just deaf? Which other versions of Mahler 1 should I check out?

My rating: 4 stars (Roth), 2 stars (Vänska)

You can find them here (Roth, Qobuz) and here (Vänskä, Qobuz)

Update Aug 16: Classicstoday seems to agree with my assessment of the Vänskä, calling it a “CD from Hell” in their recent review.

Update Sep 11: Classics is a bit less positive on Roth, giving it 3 stars.