The Complete Beethoven String Quartets by the Takács Quartet – A Masterpiece

Beethoven’s String Quartets

I haven’t written that much yet about Beethoven’s string quartets. It is a hard to cover vast subject of 16 masterpieces, from the early ones that are still very reminiscent of Haydn, to the middle ones (mainly the Rasumovksy ones), that clearly match the power of the major Beethoven symphonies, to the entirely different universe that are the late quartets, that enter completely unheard harmonic complexities, that go even beyond his symphonic works.

How can one quartet really do them all justice? Typically, reviewers recommend getting different boxes for the different periods, and they are right.

However, some outstanding artists are able to just set a standard for all three periods. And the Takács Quartet is just one of them.

When Decca re-released the complete Beethoven box that was originally recorded in the early 2000s, I had to go back to it. I’m very glad I did, I was again blown away.

Beethoven: Complete String Quartets – Takács Quartet (Decca 2017 Remaster)

 

Takacs Quartet Beethoven Complete String Quartets Decca 24 48 2017 remaster

The Takacs Quartet has been around since 1975! They are probably one of the most outstanding string quartets ever. I’ve praised the Takacs´ several times already (See for example here my review of their fantastic Schubert), and remain a great fan of them.

In this box, in the early quartets of op. 18, you get all the Viennese lightness. These are just a pleasure to listen to. These works need to “swing”, and the Takacs just pull it off.

Moving to the more serious op. 59, the Takacs´switch gear appropriately. Take quartet no. 9, op. 59 no. 3, that starts with a very “serious” Andante con moto. This part occasionally reminds me of a Mahler symphony. And here, you get the full weight and emotional power this work requires, before moving on to the Allegro part, that gives you the Beethoven you are most likely to think of when you hear the name.

The late quartets again are a completely different animal. Let’s take for example op. 127. I have a pretty direct comparison, having only recently heard this played live by the equally fantastic Quatuor Ébène (see my concert review here). Comparing the two approaches here, let´s say we could characterise the Ébène’s live approach with “Passion”, and the Takacs’s with “Precision”. These are obviously simplifications, but you get the idea. Both are absolutely fantastic versions, and show you how much there is to discover in these masterworks, that are unfortunately not very approachable for the beginner. Give them some time, and they will grow on you.

If you only ever wanted to own one version of the Beethoven string quartets, this really would be the one to have. I´d strongly advise against having only one version, there are so many others to discover, and Beethoven’s quartets really are among the most outstanding masterpieces the Western world ever produced.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Prostudiomasters) or here (Prestoclassical, as limited edition disc set with some bonus DVDs)

My Reflections on the 2017 Gramophone Awards – Part II

This is the continuation of Part I of my musings about the 2017 Gramophone Awards.

I had a to-do from this entry, which was to check out Hervé Niquet´s latest Cherubini album.

Cherubini / Plantade: Requiems – Hervé Niquet – Le Concert Spirituel (Alpha 2017)

Cherubini / Plantade: Requiems pour Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette Hervé Niquet - Le Concert Spirituel Alpha 2017

Not surprisingly for a Hervé Niquet album, this one is really good. I´m not such a big fan of Cherubini in general, but this one is really with checking out.

My rating: 4 stars

I´ll skip the opera section, as I´m not really an opera expert in the first place, and didn’t find anything too interesting in this section to try out.

Orchestral

Haydn: Il Distratto – Haydn 2032 no. 4 – Giovanni Antonini – Il Giardino Armonico

Haydn 2032 no. 4 Il Distratto Giovani Antonini Il Giardino Armonico

Antonini´s Haydn is as good as ever. This has the potential of being the reference Haydn cycle of the 21st century (but we´ll have to wait another 15 years to find out). See my review of vol. 3. My rating: 4 stars (this is absolute 5 star playing, but I just can´t get myself to give a Haydn symphony 5 stars…)

I’m going to skip Mahler´s 10 by Dausgaard. I´m not enough of a fan of the 10th (which isn’t a complete symphony in the first place) to be able to give a proper judgment here.

Shostakovich Symphonies No. 5 and 9 – Nelsons – Boston Symphony (DG 2017)

 

Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 5, 8 & 9 - Andris Nelsons - Boston Symphony Orchestra

This was part of my own top 5 albums of 2016, and yes, this is true 5 star territory!

I´m going to skip again over Sibelius 3 & 6 by Vänskä, I´m not familiar enough with Sibelius symphonic work to really be able to judge. But everybody I know that knows something about Sibelius tends to recommend the Vänskä cycle, so I assume there must be something to it.

Vasily Petrenko´s Tchaikovsky get´s a second recommendation here (after the violin concerto which didn’t impress me much). And sorry, the Pathetique again isn´t my cup of tea, so no comment from my side here. Same comment applies to Bychkov´s recording of the same work, you´ll have to look elsewhere for a review of this.

I´m going to skip over Recital and Solo Vocal categories as well. The only album that appealed to me in the former is Anett Fritsch´s Mozart album, which is quite well done, but for me no match to Sabine Devielhe´s solo album last year.

And in the Solo Vocal, Goerne´s Brahms album is a no brainer, as I love his voice, but again I don’t feel comfortable enough properly reviewing Lieder, this is still a territory I need to explore slowly and cautiously. I´m sure I´ll get there eventually

Conclusion

So, there you have it. As you can see from my two posts here, I´m not fully convinced by this year´s selection.

Is there anything you must buy?

I´d say, the only must-haves in this selection are the Shostakovich with Nézet-Séguin, Perahia´s French Suites, and Suzuki´s c-minor mass (with Gardiner´s Matthew Passion just behind).

Faust´s violin concertos, Antonini´s Haydn, and Niquet´s Cherubini are a very good recording of only nice to have (to my ears) music.

I´d probably pass on most of the others.

What do you think? Am I completely off? Anything I´ve missed? Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments!

Tingvall Trio’s New Album Cirklar – A Review

Tingvall Trio

When I started this post, I was suprised to notice that I hadn’t written a single post on this trio yet. I kind of assumed I had. But my search function told me otherwise.

Martin Tingvall’s Hamburg, Germany-based piano trio is a pretty international affair. Tingvall himself is Swedish, his Bass player Omar Rodriguez Calvo is Cuban, only the drummer is German.

They have a pretty strong following in Germany, but start to get better known beyond the borders.

Let me open a parenthesis here: I’m still surprised that Jazz is a very regional affair. You’d think that in the days of the internet any artist can be heard and known everywhere. And especially in a niche area like Jazz people wouldn’t really care where an artist comes from. But then again, quite often I see artists available due to some weird label rights in Europe, but not in the US, or vice versa.

Probably it boils down to the fact that album sales really don’t matter that much any more these days, and concerts are the main way a Jazz artists gets to their audience these days. And concerts quite often remain a very local affair. Great artists like Triosence for example rarely venture out of their native Germany. Parenthesis closed.

Tingvalls albums in the past have been very consistent, weird-sounding (to non Swedish ears) Scandinavian names like Vägen, Vattensaga, or Norr, and also have followed a certain style.

Tingvall Trio: Cirklar (Skip Records 2017)

 

Tingvall Trio Cirklar 24/96 2017 Skip Records

The latest album keeps this consistency. A weird name (that the booklet doesn´t bother explaining), and a very Tingvall-like Scandinavian-inspired jazz.

If you´ve followed my blog for a bit you know which kind of style I like in piano trio. Basically either the Oscar-Peterson swinging and grooving style, or the more melodic approach.

Tingvall clearly is the latter. They do groove up to a point in the faster tracks, but the real beauty is revealed in the slow tracks, that evolve into always interesting melodic and harmonic developments.

Track 4, Black Molnen is a perfect example of this, the type of ballad I just love.

 

Some may ask: but where is the Jazz in that? And I agree, this music is probably borderline in that respect. But to me, the melodic and harmonic beauty is just what I’m looking for.

As mentioned above, faster tracks on this album don´t always work for me. Track 5, Skansk Blues, is too much of a regular blues to be attractive. Blues obviously live from simplicity, but here the recipe just gets a bit too repetitive.

The title track, another ballad, then again gives me exactly what I want from Tingvall. If you like this track, buy the album.

That’s not to say that I only like the slow tracks on this album. Tidlös for example is a very groove uptempo track that has just the right amount of creativity. And Bumerang (See clip above) is quite well done, too.

Finally, Elis Visar really gives you the feeling of an open Nordic landscape.
Overall, really worth checking out.

 My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz) and here (Prostudiomasters)

My Reflections on the 2017 Gramophone Awards – Part I

2017 Gramophone Awards

The 2017 Gramophone Awards nominees have been published. As in the two previous years(2015 and 2016, let me add my comments and reflections on the proposed selection.

Overall, this year I was suprised how very few of the recordings I actually knew.

Therefore, this year I’ll only do two overall post on this, unlike the posts per category I did in recent years.

Baroque Instrumental

Bach: Orchestral Suites: Zefiro

Johann Sebastian Bach: Overtures - Zefiro - Alessandro Bernadini - Arcana - 2017 (24/96)

I very much liked this recording, giving it 4 stars here. Is it good enough for album of the year? Well, maybe.

Bach: Goldberg Variations – Mahan Esfahani

I was never as enthousiastic about this album as was Gramophone, my rating in my review was a lukewarm 3 stars. So definitely not my album of the year.

I haven’t heard any of the other albums, with some Telemann and Vivaldi, but will check in and maybe report back later.

 

Baroque Vocal

Hyperion doesn’t stream, so I cannot comment about Cohens/Arcangelos cantata album.

Bach: Matthew Passion – Gardiner

Bach St Matthew Passion John Eliot Gardiner SDG 2017 24/96

As reviewed here, I fully agree that this is a five star album very much worth having.

 

I haven’t heard any of the other recommended albums, from Blow (never heard that name before), Couperin, Monteverdi and Scarlatti, but will check them out, as they are by Les Arts Florissants and Christophe Rousset among other, that I really admire.

Chamber

I haven’t heard any of the first three recommended albums, as they are all 20th century stuff which really isn’t my cup of tea, from Ades, via Bacewicz, Berg, Schönberg, and Webern. I’ll leave this to others.

I´d be interested in trying the Bruch String Quartets as I have very little chamber music from this composer, but Hyperion doesn´t stream so I have no way of risk free trying.

Then there are two Schubert albums. Quatuors 12 and 15 by the Doric Quartet. I have only heard it once on the radio (again, also Chandos doesn´t stream), and liked it, but wasn´t blown away. Not interesting enough for me to spend money blindly on it.

Finally, there is the Death and the Maiden and a quartet by Sibelius by the Ehnes Quartet. Unfortunately, Onyx is another label that doesn´t stream.

So basically, there´s unfortunately not a lot I can contribute to this category, which I usually love.

Choral

Several albums in here that are just not my cup of tea, eg. Berkeley or Elgar. Even Haydn´s Season, here with Paul McCreesh, is not a piece of music I´m particularly passionate about. Better to shut up then.

I´m more curious about the Cherubini album by Hervé Niquet, I´ll check that one out later today.

There have been a number of recent recordings of Rachmaninov´s All-Night Vigil, and I´m also very interested by this latest recording of John Scott. I will report back on this one as well.

And then there is my highlight of the year:

Mozart: C-minor Mass – Mazaki Suzuki

Mozart: Great Mass in C-Minor Exsultate Jubilate Masaaki Suzuki Bach Collegium Japan BIS 2016 24/96

Truly a new reference, see also my review here

Concerto

Let me maybe start by the one recording I can really recommend in here:

Mozart: Violin Concertos – Isabelle Faust

Mozart: Violin Concertos Isabelle Faust Il Giardino Armonico Giovanni Antonini Harmonia Mundi 2016 24/96

I gave it a four star rating, as I don´t consider Mozart´s violin concertos to be essential, but the playing is truly five star.

I´m not a very huge fan of Lisa Batiashvili´s Sibelius and Tchaikovsky album, but this is more due to Barenboim, not Batiashvili´s fault. Augustin Hadelich Tchaikovsky is straightforward, but also not that much my cup of tea.

I will certainly check out Alexandre Tharaud´s Rachmaninov album and report back.

I can´t comment on the albums by Adams and Beach.

I´ll skip the contemporary and early categories, as I don´t feel qualified enough here.

 

Instrumental

Bach: French Suites – Murray Perahia

Johann Sebastian Bach: The French Suites - Murray Perahia (24/96) Deutsche Grammophon 2016

Yes, absolutely, great album. A must have. See also here

 

Bach: Goldberg Variations: Beatrice Rana

Bach: Goldberg Variations - Beatrice Rana Warner Classics

I´ve now played this album many times, and still haven´t fully made up my mind. I kind of like it, but it´s really not my personal reference.

I´d like to comment about Cedric Tiberghien´s Bartok album and Pavel Koselnikov´s Chopin Mazurkas, but due to Hyperion´s no streaming policy I can´t. Side note: I really understand why labels don´t want to support streaming, as the business model is not very attractive, but on the other hand it really limits discovery. Maybe labels should invent a streaming model where you can listen to an album only 2-3 times and then need to purchase it. I find that album´s I can´t test I often don´t buy.

 

Liszt: Transcendental Etudes: Daniel Trifonov (Deutsche Grammophon)

Liszt: Transcendental: Daniel Trifonov Deutsche Grammophon

I haven´t reviewed this album yet, but have listened to it many times. And yes, it is very good, justifying the Artist of the Year he received last year.

Mozart/Schumann: Fantaisies – Piotr Anderszewski (Warner)

Mozart/Schumann.: Fantaisies - Piotr Anderszewski Warner

I wasn´t such a big fan of Anderszewski´s Bach album that won 2 years ago, but this one (only one listen so far, so beware) sounds really very good. I´ll report back.

 

To be contiued….

 

 

The Suk Quartet’s New Recording – Beautiful

A question about review methodology

Before starting my review, I need to put in a caveat. Usually, in the classical world, I write about music I know well and that I can compared to existing recordings.

So how do you review a work that you’ve never heard before? How can you tell what good looks like?

Well this is the issue I’m facing for this review. Both works I’ve never heard before, and I was suprised to see that neither of the two works even are present in my music library (which I consider to have a pretty decent size).

Well, I’ll move away from best practice here and share my impressions no matter what. You’ve been warned.

Antonin Dvořák & Josef Suk

Antonin Dvořák, the Czech composer (we could even call him Bohemian, in the very original version of the word, as that’s where he was born) has only been featured once on my blog so far. And this more forced by the fact that it was one of Gramophone’s albums of the year I commented about.

Does that mean I don’t like Dvořák? Au contraire! I actually really appreciate this composter. The problem is just that I only appreciate a very small selection of his work.

The New World symphony obviously, although that has been so overplayed I can only tolerate it in small doses. His outstanding cello concerto, that even made his part-time mentor, Johannes Brahms, jealous. His underrated piano concerto. Some of his chamber music.

But there I usually stop. I also only have 32 albums of Dvořák in my library, more than 3/4 of which feature the above mentioned works.

Compare that to more than 200 albums I have in my library for Brahms and Beethoven each. Well, I’m starting to think I’ve made a mistake, and will use my streaming subscription to rectify this, and explore more of his work.

And for Josef Suk, another Czech composer, things get even worse from the point of view of my understanding. A total of 4 tracks(!) in my library, not even one entire album. I really knew nothing about this composer, up to a point that I made a stupid mistake writing about him in a previous version of this blog post that a reader kindly pointed out to me. Let’s just say that Suk was a Dvořák pupil, and clearly influenced by his master.

Well, the good news is, that no matter how well you think you know the space of classical music, there is always more to discover! Get a streaming subscription and just explore!

Josef Suk Piano Quartet: Dvořák Piano Quartet No. 2 & Suk Piano Quartet No. 1 (Supraphon 2017)

Josef Suk Piano Quartet: Antonin Dvorak Piano Quartet No. 2 op. 87 & Josef Suk: PIano Quartet op. 1 Supraphon 2017

So what do you get here?

Well, first of all, very passionate playing. Not a single moment, this music will leave you bored. The most impressive moment is probably in the 2nd movement of the Dvorak, Lento, where you have some truly out of this world movements. But the second movement of Josef Suk’s op. 1, Adagio, comes close in intensity.

A couple of words around the performers: The Josef Suk Piano Quartet is a quite recent creation. It was originally founded in 2007 as a piano trio (then called Taras). They won several prices at competitions. The new name, and the addition of a fourth member to form a piano quartet, started in 2014. They all have a strong background in chamber music. Eva Krestova for example, 2nd violin, was formerly with the Pavel Haas Quartet I’ve praised previously in these pages.

In a nutshell, this is beautiful romantic chamber music that definitely is worth exploring!

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)

200 Posts And A New Layout

200 posts

After having just published the previous review of a Händel Album, my WordPress Iphone app gave me a a quick ping, saying “Congratulations on writing 200 posts”.

Wow, given how little I have recently written, I really didn’t see this coming.

Let me pause here and thank you, my dear readers, for your continuous support. Reader numbers are growing steadily, I get a lot of great feedback from you.

When I started a bit more than 2 years ago I had no idea where this journey would take me. Well, here I am, still writing, and it is all thanks to you.

A new layout

I must admit, I’m really not great at graphic design. Therefore, I always priviliged readability and usability of my blog over fancy design. But after 2 years and 200 blog posts I just felt it would be time to adapt the layout a bit.

I didn’t go very far design-wise, this is still one of WordPress’ standard free layouts. I just changed from the previous TwentyTwelve to the more recent TwentySixteen.

I hope the usability and readability of the blog improves by this. If not, and also if you have any other feedback, please let me know. I always appreciate hearing from my readers.

Thank you for following me on this journey.

One Of My Favorite Handel Oratorios: Il Trionfo Del Tempo E Del Disinganno by Emmanuelle Haïm

Georg Friedrich Händel

I haven’t written that much about Händel yet.

My index (you can find all blog post in relation to any composer on the right, or just do a free text search) shows only 3 articles. Namely, his opera Rinaldo, Christie’s exciting album about Music For Queen Caroline, and, obviously, the Messiah.

This may indicate a lack of interest. Well actually, not at all, Händel is my second favorite baroque composer (JSB takes first place by a large margin).

My “problem” with Händel is that his true masterworks are his operas and oratorios, all of which are quite long, and require quite a long attention span, and time that I don’t always have.

But then again, there truly are pieces that are worth checking out.

Let me write about one of the first I really fell in love with.

Händel: Il Trionfo Del Tempo E Del Disinganno – Emmanuelle Haïm, Il Concert D’Astrée (Erato 2007)

 

Handel: Il Trinofo Del Tempo E Del Disinganno - Emmanuelle Haïm - Le Concert d'Astree - Natalie Dessay - Ann Hallenberg - Sonia Prina - Pavol Breslik Erato 2007

Il Trionfo Del Tempo E Del Disinganno was Händels very first Oratorio.

I’m not sure you really care about the story. I do speak some Italian and am able to follow, but honestly, like with many of the rather confusing stories (to me) of the baroque operas, you basically have personified Beauty, Pleasure, Time and however you best translate disinganno (probably somewhat around “disillusion”) about their relative merits. The story ends with beauty being frustrated and wanting to become a nun.

So in a nutshell, never mind the story, but just enjoy the outstandingly beautiful music.

Emmanuelle Haïm & Le Concert d’Astrée

Who is playing here?

Emmanuelle Haïm, a French cembalo player, has established herself as one of the leading conductors of baroque music over the last 15 years. She had some great mentors having worked with William Christie and even Simon Rattle. She founded her own baroque ensemble, Le Concert d’Astrée, in 2000. I’ve already written about her outstanding Messiah, and a very beautiful Mozart c-minor mass with Louis Langrée and the same ensemble.

But obviously, an oratorio not only needs outstanding orchestral playing, but also beautiful voices. Nathalie Dessay is truly one of the best baroque singers ever, and Ann Hallenberg and Sonia Prina are of outstanding beauty as well.

One track to look out for is Lascia La Spina, the original version of Lascia ch’io pianga, already mentioned in my post Top 10 Music That Gives Me Goose Bumps.

Again, as mentioned above, you are in for nearly 2h30 of music here, but it is worth taking the time for it.

My review: 4 stars

You can find it here (Prestoclassical)