The 2020 Gramophone Awards – A Quick Wrap Up

This is just going to be a short update on the recently held ceremony for the 2020 Gramophone awards and the winners that weren’t announced previously. If you want more detail on the individual category winners, check out this previous post.

Recording Of The Year

Weinberg Symphonies No. 2 & 21 - Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla - Gidon Kremer City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Kremerata Baltica Deutsche Grammophon 24 96 2020

Recording of the year is the Weinberg Symphonies. Probably well deserved, and I’m happy to see a female conductor win this award, but the music really doesn’t speak to me. If your tolerance/interest of 20th century music is more developed than mine, you should really check this out.

Artist Of The Year – Igor Levit

Absolutely. He really is an outstanding pianist. In this section, Gramophone particularly recommends his album Life (see my review here, I agree), and his complete Beethoven cycle really is a must have (or pretty much everything else he’s recorded for that matter).

Lifetime Achievement – Itzhak Perlman

I just checked my library and I actually have only 5 albums Perlman, so I’m really not an expert. That said, his Brahms and Beethoven violin sonatas with Vladimir Ashkenazy are really nice. I should probably check out more of his repertoire.

Orchestra of the Year – Philadelphia Orchestra

I agree, Yannick Nézet-Séguin really has helped to bring this grand old orchestras which fame dates from the Stokowki and Ormandy era back to life, e.g. with this great Rachmaninov album.

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

Young Artist Of The Year – Natalya Romaniw

I must admit this is the first time my attention is drawn to this young Russian singer, but I’ll make sure I’ll keep out an eye for her.

Special Achievement – Robert von Bahr

Here’s another award that I 100% agree with. Robert von Bahr, founder and still the boss of the independent label BIS, has released so many recordings I adore, and always very well recorded. I’ve mentioned earlier that independent labels like Alpha (see below), BIS, Hyperion, Harmonia Mundi, or Naïve are these days in many ways even more significant to the advancement of classical music than the so-called majors.

The Beethoven 250 Award – Martin Helmchen – Andrew Manze – Beethoven concertos No. 2 & 5

Fully agree again, this is a very nice album.

Label Of The Year – Alpha Classics

Another one that is spot on. I’ve hardly ever been disappointed by a release on this great independent French label.

So, what do you think? Do you agree with the choices?

GoGoPenguin’s Latest Album Is Just Outstanding

GoGo Penguin

I discovered Manchester-based Gogo Penguin about 4 years ago, and truly loved them when I saw them live.

I was getting a bit worried when I didn’t really like their 2018 studio album A Humdrum Star that much.

Luckily, things came back on track (at least for my personal taste) with the excellent movie soundtrack album Ocean In A Drop, that I listed in My Top 3 Jazz albums of 2019.

GoGo Penguin (BlueNote 2020)

GoGo Penguin 2020 Blue Note 24 96

I’m a bit late in reviewing this, as it came out already 3 months ago, but I bought it the day it came out.

The album is now simply called GoGo Penguin. Naming an album simply after the band name is a major step, as Marc Zisman notes in his album comments on Qobuz.

The album shows that they’ve now developed their truly owned style, the “GoGo Penguin style”, for lack of a better word, that’s clearly recognisable.

The combination of grooves inspired by electronic music, but played (mostly) on an acoustic jazz trio, is really fascinating.

There is something hypnotic about the groove and the repeating piano patterns of Atomised. Or take To the Nth, where Pianist Chris Illingworth plays with some reverb effects, or Don’t Go, that features bass player Rob Turner, supported by a (prepared) piano. Just beautiful.

I’m going to quote again Marc Zisman from Qobuz: With GoGo Penguin, GoGoPenguin goes to the essential. Couldn’t have said it better.

Go get it!

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Diana Krall: The Dream Of You – Really Not My Cup Of Tea

Diana Krall

Let me start by saying that I really like Diana Krall. I’ve even listed her album The Girl In The Other Room in My 25 Essential Jazz Albums; her Christmas Album gets a regular rotation every December, and her early work like Live in Europe are sreally attractive to me, even if quite middle-of-the-road. And obviously, she has a fantastic, immediately recognizable voice.

Of her more recent albums, the only one I somewhat liked was Turn Up The Quiet, although it had a bit too much of a Cocktail Jazz background music vibe to me. However, I truly hated the T Bone Burnett produced album Glad Rag Doll.

Nevertheless, I was very much waiting for her latest release, and so I’m very sad to report that I’m unfortunately really underwhelmed.

This Dream Of You (Verve 2020)

Diana Krall This Dream Of You 24 96 Verve 2020

The album is named after a Bob Dylan song featured on the album.

Overall, you get three types of music here: You start with an overly cheesy But Beautiful (seriously, strings on Jazz albums really need to be handled with a lot of care, and hardly ever work), and get similar ballads, like More Than You Know, which is actually a bit better, due to the more sparing arrangement with piano only.

Then you get some country or folk music inspired songs, like the truly horrible (to me) Just You, Just Me, with an annoying fiddle that just forces me to hit the skip button immediately

And finally, you’ll get Krall-style Jazz standards, like Autumn in New York, or I Wished On The Moon. Unfortunately these just don’t really swing as much as her early straight jazz albums used to do. I really don’t get why, I wasn’t able to get a clear information on the rhythm section musicians, I’ve read on Qobuz that Jeff Hamilton and Christian McBride were on some of the tracks. But it really doesn’t sound like them, or they had a very bad day or were somewhat bored

In any case, this is an album I’d really suggest you check out before you buy. I for my side will pass.

My rating: 3 stars

2020 Gramophone Awards – And The Winners Are…

This is a follow-up to the two part article I’ve written discussing some of the albums that were nominated for the 2020 Gramophone awards, that you can find here and here.

You’ll find the latest edition of the Gramophone podcast (that is usually worth a listen in any case) here a very passionate discussion of the winning albums, check it out.

Chamber: Veress & Bartok

I didn’t have time to review any chamber works of the winning category, and I truly cannot relate to the winning album, by Sandor Veress, and Bartok. So sharing this winner truly just for your information. As mentioned previously, I’m typically lost with most of the music composed in the 20th century.

Choral: Suzuki’s St Matthew Passion

Bach: St Matthew Passion Bach Collegium Japan Masaaki Suzuki BIS 2020 24/96

While I’m still struggling a bit with the slow first movement, I gave this another complete listen the other day and must admit it is a spectacular performance.

Concerto: Chopin’s concertos by Benjamin Grosvenor

As written previously, I wholeheartedly agree with this choice. I’m a huge fan of Grosvenor, and this version is up there with the very top of Zimerman and Argerich.

Contemporary: Thomas Adès Piano Concerto & Totentanz

Again, mentioning this for completeness only, you can guess if I’m struggling with 20th century music how my brain is coping with contemporary stuff.

Early Music: Gesualdo Madrigali by Les Arts Florissants

Gesualdo Madrigali Libri Primo & Secondo Les Arts Florissants Paul Agnew Harmonia Mundi 2020 24/96

While I’m really lost in the 20th and 21st century, the 16th century music is something I really admire, just don’t get to listen to it that much.

But this is an album that I’ll definitely add to my collection, as I’m a big fan of Les Arts Florissants, and Gesualdo’s madrigals are truly beautiful. Recommended.

Instrumental: Igor Levit’s Beethoven Cycle

Igor Levit Beethoven Complete Piano Sonatas Sony Classical 24/96 2019

A worthy winner. This complete cycle is insightful from no. 1 all the way to no. 32, and every classical music lover should check this out. Levit’s tempi are sometimes somewhat extreme, but never for the sake of it, always with a very clear sense of purpose.

This is probably my favorite of the entire list.

Opera: Händel’s Aggrippina – Joyce DiDonato

I had completely missed this album. My bad, just look at this lineup of fantastic baroque singers. I’ll definitely have to add this to my collection. You can really count on Erato to still produce fantastic opera recordings.

Orchestral: Weinberg Symphonies 2 & 21 – Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla ​

Here comes my 20th century music dilemma again. I’m still barely getting my feet wet with Shostakovich (and again, only occasionally), so I’m not going to add any value with my opinion here. But if you’re into it, the same album also won the “Choc de l’année” by French magazine Classica, so Gražinytė-Tyla must have done something right.

Recital: Sandrine Piau – Si j’ai aimé

Another album I had missed. It is a collection of not that well known French songs with orchestra, mostly from the late 19th century.

Sandrine Piau is a fantastic singer, and this is definitely something I’ll add to my playlist. Not a must have, but a nice discovery off the beaten track.

Solo Vocal: Janacek: The Diary Of One Who Disappeared

Unfortunately, due to Hyperion’s strict no streaming policy I have no way of checking this out beyond the snippets I can check out on Hyperion’s website. So nothing to add from my side here, just mentioning it for completeness.

So, what do you think? Were the right winners selected?

And on an unrelated note, am I silly to ignore the 20th and 21st century music?

My Reflections on the 2020 Gramophone Awards – Part II – Choral, Instrumental & Orchestral

Usually, I try to do one blog post per section (Orchestral, Piano, etc.), at least for those that I do care about. This time unfortunately my day job is keeping me quite busy and I wasn’t able to listen to all albums shortlisted by Gramophone, so this will just be a “best of” of albums from some of the nominated albums from the different categories.

Note that this is the continuation from part I that I published last week, where I had a look at the “Concerto” category. Today I’ll cover “Choral”, “Instrumental”, and “Orchestral”.

I’m following the order that Gramophone uses in their Gramophone Awards shortlist special edition.

Let’s start with the Choral section, and two recent recordings of Bach’s masterpieces.

Bach: St John’s Passion – Philippe Herreweghe – Collegium Vocale Gent (Phi 2020)

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

I must admit I only learned about this release from the Gramophone awards issue, although it was already released in February. What a miss! I do have already a favourite recording of the St John passion, as performed by John Butt and the Dunedin Consort, I have praised Philippe Pierlot’s excellent reading here, I also have Herreweghe’s previous version from 2001, as well as versions from Suzuki, and Gardiner (the usual suspects for great baroque vocal works).

But this new release is truly outstanding, and could potentially become my favorite, a true 5 star recording.

Bach: St Matthew Passion – Masaaki Suzuki – Bach Collegium Japan (BIS 2020)

Bach: St Matthew Passion Bach Collegium Japan Masaaki Suzuki BIS 2020 24/96

So, after the “smaller” passion, there’s also a new release of the majestic St Matthew Passion. I’ve already written about some other fantastic versions (again by the usual bunch of John Butt, one of my 25 Essential Classical Music albums, and the recent recording of John Eliot Gardiner that I was able to attend live), so it wasn’t obvious that I needed yet another version on top of the 7 or 8 others I have in my local library. But I bought it anyhow, given the recommendations by Gramophone, unfortunately without listening to it beforehand.

Don’t get me wrong, this is brilliantly performed, with excellent soloists. So why am just a bit hesitant about it? A simple fact, Suzuki starts the opening chorus “Kommt, Ihr Töchter” is just significantly slower (8:20 compared to John Butt’s 6:38), and it startles me a bit every time. It makes it even more powerful, but it just loses a tiny bit of drive. Check it out before you buy, but it clearly is among the very top performances out there.

Buxtehude: Membra Jesu Nostri – Philippe Ricercar Cosort (Mirare 2019)

Buxtehude Membra Jesu Nostri Ricercar Consort Philippe Pierlot Mirare 2019 (24/96)

I don’t know why this ended up being reviewed by Gramophone only in 2020, you’ll find my 4 star review of March 2019 here.

I really liked the album, and while I still would pick Bach over Buxtehude anytime, Buxtehude’s early baroque is growing on me. It is very much worth discovering.

Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas – Igor Levit (Sony 2019)

Igor Levit Beethoven Complete Piano Sonatas Sony Classical 24/96 2019

Yes, absolutely!

The more I discover Levit’s Beethoven cycle, the more I’m impressed. You’ll find my 5 star review here, but in the meantime I’ve again had the pleasure seeing Levit perform a part of the cycle live at the 2020 Lucerne festival (he played the Pathétique and Tempest among others), and have tickets for a live performance of the Hammerklavier that I’m very much looking forward to.

By the way, if you speak German, Levit has done a fantastic podcast, produced by German public radio, where he discusses in-depth every single sonata. Highly recommended.

Brahms: The Final Piano Pieces -Stephen Hough (Hyperion 2020)

Stephen Hough Brahms The Final Piano Pieces Hyperion 2020 24 96

Another album that I fully agree with, as reviewed here (5 stars). This album is all the way up there for me with Volodos and Perahia. Very much worth having.

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 – Kiril Petrenko (BPO’s own label, 2020)

Berlin Philharmonic Kirill Petrenko Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 24/96

Again, an album I already reviewed in 2019 and loved it (5 stars).

In fact, it is the one recording that made me reconsider whether I actually like Tchaikovsky (I’m still on the fence, but getting there).

Very much recommended.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the selection this year.

If you want to buy any of these albums (which I highly recommend you do), you can find the albums here (Qobuz & Hyperion):

Bach St John Passion – Herreweghe

Bach St Matthew Passion – Suzuki

Buxtehude Membra Jesu Nostri – Pierlot

Beethoven Igor Levit

Brahms Stephen Hough

My Reflections on the 2020 Gramophone Awards I – Concerto

Gramophone Awards

My comments on the Gramophone Awards, that I’ve done nearly every year since the beginning of this blog in 2015, always are quite popular with my readers.

And rightly so, Gramophone remains the most important and influencial classical music magazine in the world (in my subjective opinion), so it is always valuable to check what they like and recommend. And by default the handful of albums who make it to the final selection of the annual awards are obviously very good recordings.

But why bother writing about it and not just referring you to the full magazine release (available for free) that Gramophone has just put out ? Basically, I repeat myself: You really have to find a reviewer that you like and that your personal taste aligns with. If your taste happens to be somewhat similar to mine, maybe my couple of comments around the nominations can be of help.

But as always, I also love it when you violently disagree with me!

So, let’s start.

CPE Bach: Oboe Concertos – Xenia Loeffler – Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin (Harmonia Mundi 2020)

I haven’t formally reviewed this album on my blog yet, but I had checked it out when it was released. I’m usually a big fan of the AKAMUS orchestra, and I’ve even seen Xenia Löffler and the ensemble live, however, performing the JS Bach violin concertos together with Isabelle Faust (the album of which co-incidentally was a 2019 Gramophone Award nomination), so I had high expectations.

Poor Carl Philipp Emmanuel still is in the shadow of his legendary father, but, to my personal taste, he is really the one most worth checking out. He perfectly illustrates the ongoing transition from the baroque period to the “Wiener Klassik” of Haydn and Mozart (check out some of my album recommendations for CPE here).

Richard Wigmore in Gramophone writes “I’d confidently recommend this disc to anyone attracted to CPE’s quirkily fascinating art“. Couldn’t have said it better (except I wonder who beyond Gramophone editors still uses “discs”).

My rating: 4 stars (absolutely 5 stars playing, but CPE isn’t such a core composer that I’d necessarily recommend this to everybody blindly).

Beethoven: Piano Concertos No. 2 & 5 – Martin Helmchen – Andrew Manze – DSO Berlin (Alpha 2020)

Beethoven Piano Concertos 2 & 5 Martin Helmchen Deutsches Symphonieorchester Berlin Andrew Manze Alpha 2020 24/96

I didn’t review this album, however, you’ll find my very positive notes (4 stars) on their recordings of concertos no. 1 & 4 here.

The recordings of 2 & 5 is even more impressive. This is in many ways a “modern mainstream” recording, how you’d expect a Beethoven recording to sound like in 2020. Sufficiently inspired from the Historically Informed practice (where Manze comes from), and Helmchen really is one of those a brilliant a bit under the radar pianists that would benefit from being a bit more well known. (Co-incidentally, a very good recording of the Beethoven violin sonatas by Helmchen with Frank Peter Zimmermann was just released yesterday, more on this later).

But as Gramophone nicely writes, the magic sauce is in the beautiful pairing of Manze and Helmchen. This album really is highly enjoyable. Will it kick Andsnes and a lot of the legendary 1960 performances from their thrones? No, but it really is an album well worth having.

My rating: 5 stars

Beethoven & Sibelius – Violon Concertos – Christian Tetzlaff – Richard Ticciati – DSO Berlin (Ondine 2020)

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

Seeing two Beethoven albums in this selection isn’t very surprising in the 250th anniversary of Beethoven. However, seeing two albums of the Deutsche Symphonieorchester Berlin here is already more intriguing.

For decades, the former RIAS (radio in the American sector) orchestra has been a bit in the shadows of the legendary Berlin Philharmonic and the excellent Staatskapelle from the former East. But as these two albums show, it has been able to develop an independent profile. It is often working with younger or still lesser known conductors (Ticciati is 37), and has therefore been able to experiment more.

Not that I’d call a recording of the two Beethoven and Sibelius warhorses an experiment. That said, Christian Tetzlaff (I’m a big fan) takes quite a lot of risks in this album. Luckily for him, these risks are very much rewarding. This is a recording that will allow you to discover many new details in these two works that you probably know really well, particurlarly in the somewhat more experimental Sibelius. And it is played with a beautiful passion. And a special mention needs to go to Ticciati for his excellent handling of the orchestra.

For the Beethoven, as a side note, Swiss Public Radio recently released one of their shows where two experts compare 5 recordings blindly. The two winners of this blind test of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, all recordings of the last decade, where my beloved recording with Isabelle Faust and Claudio Abbado (my personal reference), and this very recent release by Tetzlaff. And I fully agree with the reviewers choices, both recordings are excellent in their own rights and should be in your collection.

My rating: 5 stars

Chopin: Piano Concertos – Benjamin Grosvenor – Elim Chan – Royal Scottish National Orchestra (Decca 2020)

Oh yes!

OK I admit I’m as big of a fanboy of Grosvenor as I am of Isabelle Faust and Igor Levit, basically pretty much everything they release usually blows me away.

But still I’m impressed that this recording takes its place right there with the legendary recordings of the Chopin Award winners Krystian Zimerman and Martha Argerich. I’ve already reviewed this magnificent album here, and have nothing much more to add than “buy it now, what are you waiting for!”.

My rating: 5 stars

Mozart: Piano Concertos vol. 4 – Jean-Efflam Bavouzet – Manchester Camerata – Gabor Takacs-Nagy (Chandos 2020)

Mozart Piano Concertos vol. 4 Nor 20 & 21 Jean-Efflam Bavouzet - Gabor Takacs-Nagy - Manchester Camerata Chandos 2020 24/96

Unfortunately, Chandos has a somewhat restrictive streaming policy, presumably allowing only slightly older albums to be streamed on Qobuz. I checked out the previous vol. 3 of this cycle which was available for streaming and liked what I heard, but unfortunately that’s all I can say at this time.

Schoenberg: Violin Concerto / Verklärte Nacht – Isabelle Faust – Daniel Harding – Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra (Harmonia Mundi 2020)

Arnold Schoenberg: Violin Concerto Verklärte Nacht - Isabelle Faust - Daniel Harding - Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra Harmonia Mundi 2020 24/96

So, this is another Isabelle Faust release, so I should like it, right? Well my only problem is that the musical universe of Arnold Schoenberg and my comfort zone are still miles apart. The violin concerto is just something that my brain isn’t able to process correctly just yet.

That said, the earlier and more accessible Verklärte Nacht (transfigured night) sounds much more accessible. I’m probably going to buy this album just to really expand my musical horizon a bit. But don’t expect any value added comments from me.

In short, it’s the brilliant Isabelle Faust and recommended by Gramphone, so if you like early 20th century classical music, this should be a no-brainer.

My conclusion

My personal winner of the very good selection above would be Grosvenor’s Chopin, with Tetzlaff’s new album just behind (and those are also the albums I’ve purchased for my personal music collection).

We’ll know more in some weeks when the final awards are being given.

How about you? I’d love to hear your take on these albums.

You can find the albums here (all Qobuz):

CPE Bach / Loeffler

Beethoven / Helmchen

Beethoven / Sibelius / Tetzlaff

Chopin / Grosvenor

Mozart / Bavouzet

Schoenberg / Faust

A Beautiful Recording of the Complete Beethoven Trios

Beethoven’s Piano Trios

Beethoven has written a total of 7 “official piano trios (in reality there are some more without opus).

The first three of them are actually officially the first opus he released, his official op. 1, at the age of 25. While he innovated a bit on the form, overall they still are very much in the spirit of Mozart and Haydn, you can clearly hear that the young composer was still trying to find his own style. That said, they are each in itself beautiful gems and truly enjoyable.

No. 4, op. 11, also called “Gassenhauer” (a term that losely translates as “popular song”) is actually my least favorite of these works. It gets it’s nickname from the fact that the third movement is build around variations of a then popular opera aria.

The true masterworks are his three later trios, op. 70 No. 1 and 2, written around the time of the 5th symphony, as well as op. 97, composed at the same time as the 7th symphony. Both op. 70. No. 1 and op. 97 have nicknames. The former is called “Geistertrio” or ghost trio because of the somewhat eerie 2nd movement and stems apparently from Beethoven’s pupil Carl Czerny. The latter is called “Erzherzogtrio“, or Archduke trio, as it was dedicated to Archduke Rudoph of Austria.

So how did I end up discovering this album box? This was triggered by a show on Swiss public radio called Diskothek im 2, a weekly show that does a blind test of 6 version of a classical work with two experts in the studio commenting on the recordings, with one winner eventually emerging. The show was dedicated to op. 70 no. 2, the lesser known of the two (probably because of it’s lack of nicknames. As you can guess, I love the show, as it really forces you to discover a performance without the pre-conceived notions of knowing which artists you prefer.

Beethoven: The Piano Trios – Oliver Schnyder Trio (Sony 2017)

Beethoven: The Piano Trios - Oliver Schnyder Trios - 24/96 - Sony 2017

As you’ve probably guessed, the winner (for both the two experts on the show and for me) was this album box by the Oliver Schnyder Trio.

Schnyder is actually Swiss, and even is one of the experts that gets regularly invited to the show, but given that this was a blind comparison I don’t think any national bias came into play here.

I was personally so convinced by the performance that I immediately purchased the entire box. I’m really happy I did. I previously owned only one complete box, by the French Wanderer Trio (which was also featured on the show and did compete quite nicely), as well as a very good recording of just op. 70 no. 2 and op. 97 by my beloved Isabelle Faust together with the usual Jean-Guihen Queyras and Alexander Melnikov. Given the historic instruments I even recognised this version blindly, but I still preferred Schnyder and his two colleagues.

Schnyder is joined in his trio by two great musicians, Andreas Janke is the concertmaster of the Tonhalle Orchestra in Zurich, and Benjamin Nyfenegger is the deputy solo cellist of the same orchestra.

The playing of all 7 trios is truly top notch. Now, is it perfect? Well I’d argue for op. 1 pretty much yes, same for op. 70 no. 2. For op. 70 no. 1 and op. 96 you may want to add other performances, like the above mentioned Isabelle Faust and Wanderer Trio, the Florestan Trio, or, if you want a flashback to another era, the legendary (but somewhat outdated to my ears) Beaux Arts trio. But this is nitpicking.

The entire box is very much worth having.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)