My (Current) Favorite Version of Brahms’ 4th Symphony

Brahms’ 4th Symphony

I started this blog writing extensively about Brahms’ 1st symphony, and why it means so much to me, and why to this day I’m still looking for my “perfect” version.

I’ve also reviewed Andris Nelsons’ excellent Brahms cycle with the Boston Symphony some time ago (5 stars). I’ve also found a favorite version of Brahms 2nd symphony

But I’ve never written explicitly about Brahms 4th symphony.

To me, there’s a clear (personal) hierarchy among the Brahms symphonies. The first will always come, well, first, the 2nd is still nice but I listen to it much more occasionally, the 3rd is beautiful, but has the super famous 3rd movement that has been a bit overused in popular culture. And then there’s the 4th symphony.

After all, this could actually be the greatest masterpiece of all of them. Why? Well, I’m just totally in awe of the fourth movement, which is basically just a set of variations on a very simple motif, a Passacaglia. I’ve written before how much I really appreciate variations these days, they are a true art form (even though it is something that one appreciates only after some learning), be it the Goldberg variations, the Diabelli Variations, or Brahms several other variations, like the Haydn or Händel variations.

Each one of these little variations in the 4th movement is such a gem, with an emotional depth (some say down to very deep despair) in a bit more than 9 minutes. And unlike most other symphonies, this symphony doesn’t end in happiness. It starts in the e-minor key, and ends in e-minor. Compare this to Brahms own first symphony where you start with the nearly menacing timpani but you end in a chorale that tells you that all will end well. Nothing ends well here.

Don’t get me wrong, it is not only the last movement that is fantastic. In this symphony there’s more than enough to discover in each of the movements. In comparison, Brahms’ 1st has a fantastic first and last movement, but the two in between feel more like an interlude.

Brahms: The Symphonies – Riccardo Chailly – Gewandhausorchester Leipzig (Decca 2013)

Brahms: The Symphonies Gewandhausorchester Leipzig Riccardo Chailly Decca 2013 24 96

So, now to my current favorite version of the 4th. I put the “current” in the title, as I always keep discovering and looking, and my taste clearly changes and evolves over time.

Before I get into Chailly’s excellent recording, a quick note on some other versions you should check out. Many critics will give you Carlos Kleiber’s legendary recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, and they have a point. It really among the best. I’ve long been in love with Fritz Reiner’s beautiful reading with the Royal Philharmonic. Another all time classic is George Szell with the Cleveland Orchestra. (Side note: Szell takes the 4th movement much more slowly at 10:42 compared to Chailly’s 9:23, only to be exceeded by Karajan’s reading with 10:49, as well as Kurt Masur in 10:52).

If we look at the more contemporary versions, beyond the already mentioned Andris Nelsons, you should also check out John Eliot Gardiner’s historically informed reading with his own Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique (I’m not totally convinced of his approach, but it is nevertheless quite insightful).

But now enough of the alternatives, here’s my current champion: Riccardo Chailly with the Gewandhausorchester. By the way, this is not the first recording I love from Chailly in Leipzig, my favorite version ever of the Bruch violin concerto with Janine Jansen was recorded with this great team, and the same recording also features my favorite Mendelssohn violin concerto (mentioned in my 25 Essential Classical albums). Chailly’s recording of the Brahms piano concertos with Nelson Freire is also one of my all-time favourites, and the complete Brahms’ serenades recording is also outstanding.

So why do I prefer Chailly over all the other versions mentioned? I’d say it is not one little thing, but a sum of all the small things. This recording just feels “right”, balanced, nuanced, going deep when it needs to, but still tightly controlled.

And this doesn’t only apply to the 4th symphony. As you can only get this as a box set (if you decide to buy and not to stream, which I strongly encourage you to do), you’d also need to know that all the other three symphonies are top notch. They are IMHO, together with Nelsons, the best contemporary set you can buy.

To compare the two: Nelsons & the BSO really go big, this really is Brahms in Cinemascope in the great tradition of Karajan. Chailly’s approach in pretty much all cases is a bit more nuanced and delicate. Both versions really have very strong merit, and you won’t be disappointed with any of them.

And on top of that, going back to Chailly, in this very reasonably priced set, you also get most of the other orchestral works that Brahms has written, e.g. the above mentioned Haydn-Variations, the Tragic Overture, the rarely played Liebeslieder Walzer, and even to wrap it up some of the famous Hungarian Dances.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Keith Jarrett: Standards Live

Keith Jarrett’s Standards Trio

Happy New Year, dear readers! I assume all of you are keeping your fingers crossed that 2021 will be the year that will make things better, and that we all can attend live concerts again

In the meantime, recorded live concerts are for most of us the only option to recreate that feeling, so I thought it would be a good idea to write about some of these.

As the subtitle of my blog indicates, I’m a big Keith Jarrett fan. And his “Standards” trio with Gary Peacock and Jack de Johnette, remains, after Bill Evans legendary trios, the archetype of the Jazz Piano Trio, one of my favorite art forms.

The Standards Trio was formed semi-formally in 1983, when the trio recorded the album Standards, featuring, guess what, the jazz standards of the Great American Song Book (I’ve reviewed the legendary vol. 2 of this album here). This is not the first time the trio played together, but it was the start of more than a decade of albums, many of them live, of the trio playing together. This came as a return to more accessible music, after the 1970s, which for me Jazz-wise were not very interesting (I really don’t like free jazz, jazz-rock, fusion, or most of the other stuff that came out of that decade that for me was much more interesting on the art-rock side of things).

I’ve already put the fantastic Live at the Blue Note box into my 25 Essential Jazz Albums, and have also reviewed the enjoyable After The Fall from 1998, 15 years after the original Standards album.

Standards Live (ECM 1986)

Keith Jarrett Standards Live Highresaudio DSD remaster

This album was recorded in 1985, two years after Standards, at a live concert in Paris.

It captures all the energy of the trio at the peak of their performance, and unlike After The Fall, is recorded with the excellent recording quality that ECM is well known for.

Thanks to the live format, the trio always has sufficient times to develop the songs, with the average track length being 8-11 minutes. You can hear the fun the trio is having.

We start out with a true standard, the beautiful Stella By Starlight, that Jarrett takes a while to intro solo before the trio kicks in. They follow up with a solid The Wrong Blues, that has absolutely nothing wrong with it. Falling In Love With Love is the archetype of the swinging and grooving together. But the track from this album that I go back over and over again is Too Young To Go Steady, that Jarrett again intros solo. This is 10:11 of pure bliss to me. This is a textbook example of the trio playing truly as one.

The only downside of this, as of pretty much every other Jarrett album is his constant humming and vocalising. I still hope at some point that an AI will be able to filter this out….

My rating: 5 stars (it’s not the absolute best of the Standards trio live albums, the rating is mainly driven by the sublime To Young To Go Steady, but it id still so much better to my ears than so much other music that’s out there).

You can find it here (Highresaudio, audiophile DSD remaster) and here (Qobuz)

My Top 5 Classical Albums of 2020

2020

I don’t need to tell anybody that 2020 was a weird year to say the least. It was supposed to be the big Beethoven anniversary year, with concerts all over the world and a lot of new album releases.

We certainly got a lot of new album releases, but we clearly didn’t have the live concerts we all wished for. I got lucky, I attended two socially distanced concerts during the times when Covid in Europe was still at lower levels, both involving Beethoven by the way (Igor Levit playing some piano sonatas, and Lars Vogt playing the 4th piano concerto with Paavo Järvi).

But without further ado, let’s jump right into it and list my top 5 classical albums of the year. Interestingly, less Beethoven than I’d have expected in here.

Chopin’s Piano Concertos by Benjamin Grosvenor (Decca 2020)

Yes, Benjamin Grosvenor regularly gets 5 stars on this blog, guilty as charged. But what can I say, this new album with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Elim Chan is just great (see my original review here). And it won the Gramophone Album of the Year in its category, which was well deserved.

Brahms Late Solo Piano Works by Stephen Hough

Stephen Hough Brahms The Final Piano Pieces Hyperion 2020 24 96

I love Brahms’ late piano pieces, and this is a worthy addition to the top recordings of these works, alongside Arkadi Volodos. See my original review here.

Beethoven and Sibelius Violin Concertos – Christian Tetzlaff

Beethoven / Sibelius Violin Concertos Christan Tetzlaff Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin - Robin Ticciati Odine 2020 24/96

In this Beethoven year, two German artists recorded excellent versions of the Beethoven classics, both with the Deutsches Sinfonieorchester Berlin. I must admit, this second or third (depending on how you rank) orchestra of Berlin always flew a bit under my radar, behind the Berlin Philharmonic and the Staatskapelle Berlin. This was probably undeserved. Both the recordings of Martin Helmchen with Andrew Manze as conductor, and this recording with Christian Tetzlaff under Robin Ticciati both show the full potential of this orchestra.

Between Helmchen’s now complete Beethoven cycle (I reviewed one volume here), and this new recording of the violin concerto by Tetzlaff, I’m highlighting Tetzlaff here.

He really is one of the best violin players of our era, and probably also somewhat underrated. Both his Beethoven and the Sibelius give a very fresh take on these concertos.

Beethoven Complete String Quartets by the Quatuor Ebène

Beethoven Around The World Vienna String Quartets 7 & 8 Quatuor Ebène Erato 2019 24 96

I’m a big fan of the Quatuor Ebène, and already had the pleasure of seeing them live some years ago.

They have now recorded all Beethoven String Quartets in a world tour (mostly pre-Covid). I’ve reviewed one of the releases here.

Now, is their new complete cycle something that will replace my favorite box of all times, the complete recordings by the legendary Takacs Quartet? No, but honestly, the Beethoven string quartets are such masterpieces, and have such a breadth of material from the early op. 18 to the amazing but not very accessible late works, that one should never have only one complete cycle.

Bach: St John Passion – Herreweghe (2020 recording)

Johann Sebastian Bach: Johannes Passion Philippe Herreweghe Collegium Vocale Ghent Phi 2020 24/96

How could a best of list on my blog be complete without some Bach? This year, we had several great recordings of the choral masterpieces. Masaaki Suzuki has released both a St John (recorded in Cologne) and a St Matthew Passion, that have both won accolades from critics.

But let me flag here another recording by another artist that I admire (and had the pleasure of seeing live already), the great Philippe Herreweghe.

I had initially missed this and only really noticed it when it popped up in the Gramophone Awards. This is not his first recording but potentially his best. I can’t wait until Easter (I know, Christmas is just barely over…) so I can play it again in repetition.

So, here you go. This will be my last post of the year, there won’t be a similar list for Jazz. I just wasn’t able to find 5 albums that I liked enough to give them 5 stars this year. Let’s keep our fingers crossed for 2021.

Wishing all of you a Happy New Year 2021!

You’ll find the recordings here (Qobuz/Hyperion):

Grosvenor Chopin

Hough Brahms

Tetzlaff Beethoven Sibelius

Quatuor Ebene Beethoven

Herreweghe St John Passion

Just A Quickie: My Top Streams from 2020

Year end Spotify summaries are all the rage on social media these days, so Qobuz apparently decided to jump on the bandwagon.

By the way, in case you wonder: I do mention Qobuz quite a bit on this blog. Just to be clear: I’m not sponsored by them in any way, I pay the full subscription every year, and even buy dozens, if not hundreds of of downloads from them every year. I just like the service.

So, here’s what I just received in my inbox. I really listen to music quite a bit, and the top streams this year will be no surprise to regular readers of this blog.

Note that this isn’t an exhaustive playlist for me, I often play from my own music library as well, which Qobuz obviously cannot count.

Obviously, I can strongly recommend all for the albums and artists listed below. And you’ll find all of them reviewed on my blog, with the exception of the Suzuki Brandenburg concertos (and yes, that one is very good as well)

How about you, dear readers? Any particular favourites in this weird year 2020?

Wishing all of you a great holiday break!

And by the way, watch this space (or even better, subscribe if you haven’t done so yet), my official Best Of 2020 post is still to come in a couple of days.

Here are the links to the original reviews:

Levit: Complete Beethoven Sonatas

Faust: Bach Violin Concertos

Schnyder: Beethoven Piano Trios

Pichon: Mozart Liberta

An Intimate Version of the Christmas Oratorio by the Dunedin Consort and John Butt

The Christmas Oratorio

It’s been a while since I last wrote about Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. The last entry was a blog post about My Favourite Seasonal Music for Christmas back in 2016, and the original post about this work dates back to the beginning of my blog back in 2015.

Nevertheless, the Christmas Oratorio is on constant repeat in the last 2-3 weeks leading up to Christmas every single year. It is as essential as mulled wine, seasonal decorations, and home made Christmas cookies. This year, due to Covid, I probably won’t have any of the first, and a strict diet over the last months stops me from doing the latter.

I’m very happy that listening to Bach is totally carb-free (even though it can be very sweet), and at least played from the stereo very much compatible with social distancing.

Bach: Christmas Oratorio – John Butt – Dunedin Consort (Linn 2016)

Bach: Christmas Oratorio Dunedin Consort John Butt Linn Records 2016 24 192

I had already mentioned John Butt’s recording in my 2016 post, but didn’t own it at the time. Linn Records has a pretty strict no-streaming policy, so I ended up buying it blindly, given how much I like the Dunedin Consort’s other big Bach works.

The Dunedin’s recording of the St Matthew Passion is one of my 25 Essential Classical Albums, their St John’s passion is equally great, and I can also recommend the recordings of Bach’s Magnificat, Händel’s Messiah also Mozart’s Requiem for that matter. So in short, I didn’t take too much of a risk.

And sure enough, I wasn’t disappointed. The orchestral playing is a beautiful as ever, and the singers are doing an excellent job. The only two things to mention: most of the singers are non native speakers, and while they are doing quite a decent job with the German pronunciation, if you’re picky, you may have an issue with this.

And, for some even more tricky maybe, the typical Dunedin Consort approach of having One Voice Per Part, a concept introduced by Joshua Rifkin in the 1980s. If your Bach oratorio reference is Karl Richter, you’ll be disappointed.

I really like it though. It gives it a very particularly intimate feel. I’m still rotating between the Dunedin’s version, and my other favourites, Gardiner, Herreweghe, and the occasional Suzuki. But this is very much among the best. And if you care for these things, this is a truly “audiophile” version, it is really well recorded.

My rating: 4 stars (It’s a truly beautiful album but I’m still waiting for my imaginary “perfect” recording)

You can find it here (Linn Records)

GoGo Penguin Live From Studio 2 – Excellent

GoGo Penguin

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a big fan of the UK trio GoGo Penguin, that mixes the acoustic piano trio with the sounds of contemporary electronic music very successfully (see my reviews of Ocean In A Drop, Man Made Object, an older live gig in Zurich, and the only album I wasn’t particularly fond of, A Humdrum Star).

In spite of Covid, GoGo Penguin this year has managed not only to release a new studio album (which I loved), but is now even giving us a “live” EP. Well, it is played live, but actually from the famous Abbey Road Studios, so without an audience around, given the circumstances.

GoGo Penguin – Live At Studio 2 (BlueNote 2020)

GoGo Penguin Live From Studio 2 BlueNote 2020 24 96

Audience or not, the energy in this album is incredible.

This video of one of the songs, Petit_a, should give you a good idea what to expect.

My favorite song from this EP is Atomised, from their 2020 self-titled album. This really epitomizes what I like about them, the powerful grooves, the ability to take a simple fragment arpeggio and turn it into an entire song, and the mesmerizing energy.

Check it out, you won’t be disappointed. And please remember, if you want to support artists in this challenging year 2020, do buy their music!

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

A Beautiful New Recording of the Concerto di Aranjuez

Rodrigo and the Concerto di Aranjuez

There are some pieces of classical music that even people that usually don’t care about classical music know, like the beginning of Beethoven’s Fifth, or Bach’s Toccata BWV565.

Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto di Aranjuez is one of these pieces. Play the second movement to anybody in the street, and I’d be a lot of them would recognize the melody. It has been used extensively in popular culture, adapted in a lot of pop songs, and even into jazz, in Miles Davis very popular album Sketches of Spain.

But then ask even classical music aficionados to name any other piece by Rodrigo, typically they pass. To modern memory, Rodrigo, who lived from 1901 to 1990, is a typical “one hit wonder”, a fate he shares for example with Max Bruch.

The concerto itself is special not only for the very clear Spanish sound, but most importantly for having a solo guitar. It is named after the Aranjuez gardens of the Spanish royal family. I’ve visited the place some years ago, and it is actually a really beautiful setting.

Thibaut Garcia – Aranjuez – Ben Glassberg – Orchestre National du Capitol de Toulouse (Erato 2020)

Thibaut Garcia Aranjuez Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse Ben Glassberg Erato Warner Classics 2020 24 96

Soloist Thibaut Garcia, while growing up in Toulouse, France, has Spanish family roots (as the last name gives away). Not sure if you need to have Spanish blood to play this concert this well, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. Being one of the best young (he’s born in 1994) classical guitarists of today helps as well.

The work is performed with a lot of beauty and grace, as it needs to be. The Toulouse orchestra, conducted by another very young artist, the Brit Ben Glassberg, always follows easily and has all the energy and vibrancy this music needs.

But the album doesn’t stop with after the 20 minutes of the concerto. You get a really beautiful performance of Garcia solo, playing guitar music by Regino Sainz de La Maza, another 20th century Spanish guitar composer.

This is followed by another work for guitar and orchestra, Alexandre Tansman’s Musique de Cour d’après Robert de Visée. Tansman, whose name like Sainz de la Maza was unfamiliar to me (I’m not a great expert of the classical guitar), was a Polish composer of the 20th century that was mostly focused on film music. This piece however is clearly inspired by older music, as the title indicates, references back to Robert de Visée, the famous guitarist (and theorbist, luthenist, etc.) at Louis XIV’s court. My somewhat simple mind is very pleased to note that Tansman, like Rodrigo, has completely ignored the unwritten law written by Schönberg et al that 20th century music after 1920 has to go beyond traditional tonality.

Appropriately, after the music above inspired by de Visée, we move back to the 17th century and de Visée himself, that Garcia performs beautifully.

I really recommend checking this album out if you like classical guitar. And by the way, most music critics agree. This album received a Choc from Classica, a Diapason d’or, and a Gramophone Editor’s Choice.

My rating: 4 stars (5 star playing throughout though, one star discount from me as I don’t consider this absolutly essential repertoire)