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.

My Top 5 Classical Albums for 2016

My Top 5 Classical Albums for 2016

I know, people love lists. Especially men apparently. Remember Nick Hornby’s book High Fidelity? Subjectively speaking, half of the book are top 5 lists. Somebody even bothered to compile them.

Why do we love lists? Well, they are easily digestable, and give you the feeling that you really are getting the best of the best, right?

I must admit, I also pay quite a bit of attention to such lists, be it the Gramophone Awards, the Chocs de l’Année by Classica, or whoever else bothers to put together such best-of’s. Even on my own blog, my various best-of lists (from Mozart, to Christmas Jazz, to Jazz Covers) tend to be the ones with the most clicks.

So here we go again. Helpful even if you’re still looking for Christmas gifts (though in the age of downloads and streaming, giving away music becomes more tricky, an iTunes Gift Card is probably not very sexy under the tree).

They are ordered alphabetically, by composer. Please don’t ask me to rank them within.

So you DO ask me? Really?

Well, here you go. Note that this priority list may change next week if I’m in a different mood.

  1. Mozart: The Weber Sisters
  2. Schubert: String Quintet
  3. Bach: French Suites
  4. Mozart: Mass in C-minor
  5. Shostakovich: Symphonies No. 5, 8, and 9

Again, as all my reviews, this list is very subjective, and not only based on the performance itself, but how much fun I have listening to you.

 

Bach: French Suites – Murray Perahia

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

Perahia this year not only made it into my list of top 10 pianists (yes, yet another list), he is the only baroque album of 2016 onto this particular list.

A fantastic album (see my full review here), getting the well deserved Gramophone Editor’s Choice.

 

Mozart: Great Mass in C-Minor – Masaaki Suzuki 

Mozart appears twice in my top 5 list this year, this is not on purpose, but a very happy circumstance. The playing of Mozart has evolved so much since the days of big orchestral Karajan, historically informed practice really has given us so many new insights into Mozart. Here we have two excellent examples.

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

Suzuki’s excellent new recording of the amazing C-minor Mass really is good enough to justify it’s place on this list. You’ll find my review here. Suzuki’s often very clean style doesn’t always convince me, but here we really have a winner.

 

Mozart: The Weber Sisters – Sabine Devielhe

Mozart: The Weber Sisters Sabine Devielhe Raphael Pichon Pgymalion Erato 2015

Technically, this is an album that was released in November 2015 and I reviewed it last December. But I reviewed it after my Top 5 classical albums of 2015, so I it deserves to be highlighted here as well.

This is Mozart singing as beautiful as it gets. It’s a bit of a “concept album”, based on Mozart’s wife Constanze Weber, and her sisters. But honestly, you don’t need the booklet here to enjoy a voice that touches your heart directly.

 

Schubert: String Quintet – Quatuor Ebène & Gautier Capuçon

Schubert String Quintet - Lieder - Quatuor Ebène - Gautier Capuçon - Matthias Goerne ERATO 2016

As reviewed here, this is one of the best versions ever of the absolute masterpiece that is Schubert String Quintet. It was one of the Gramophone Award nominees in it’s category, I have no idea why it didn’t win.

 

Shostakovich: Symphonies No. 5, 8 and 9 – Andris Nelsons

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

I didn’t have time yet to write a formal review about this album.

As mentioned previously, I don’t often venture into 20th century music.

This album however, is really worth it. Shostakovich 5 and 9 are probably among the most approachable symphonies from the Russian genius, and these are so well played here by Nelsons in extremely engaging live recordings with the BSO.

My rating: 5 stars

So now it’s your turn

Do you agree, disagree? Anything I’ve missed? Anything that shouldn’t be on there? Please tell me in the comments!

 

You can find the albums here:

Bach Perahia:  here (Qobuz) and here (Prostudiomasters).

Mozart Great Mass: here (eclassical)

Mozart: the Weber Sisters: here (Qobuz) and here (Acoustic Sounds)

Schubert: here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)

Shostakovich: here (Qobuz) and here (Prostudiomasters)

 

Shai Maestro: The Stone Skipper – Not Really A Review

Shai Maestro

Let me start by saying that I think that Shai Maestro is one of the most talented Jazz pianists out there. I’ve been a fan since I saw him live for the first time some years ago for his debut album, which I’ve reviewed here with 5 stars, and I’ve also listed him in Musicophile’s 25 Essential Jazz Albums.

With this introduction, it is very clear that there will be a “But” coming. And yes, unfortunately there is.

Artists Want To Evolve

I understand that artists want to evolve, explore new territories, be creative. This is why they are great artists. Think of Miles Davis dismissing his early stuff as old in the later years, he famously said “It’s not about standing still and becoming safe. If anybody wants to keep creating they have to be about change.”. 

The same goes for painters, or any other creative force. If you look at the different periods of Picasso, you’d hardly guess it was always the same artist. Similarly, I was very much surprised how unexciting Van Gogh’s early work was, and how much of his most admired paintings are from the last few years of this live. If these artists hadn’t evolved, humanity would have missed a lot.

However, what about the people who like a certain style of the artist? Sometimes this can be probably extremely frustrating for the artist, for example can you imagine an Eagles concert without Hotel California?  Other artists just move on and probably lose some of their initial audience when they evolve to a new style.

The Stone Skipper (Sound Surveyor Music 2016)

After this long introduction, you’ve probably guessed that I’m not too happy with the evolution that Shai Maestro, together with his core trio of Jorge Roeder et Ziv Ravitz, has taken on this album.

Shai Maestro Trio The Stone Skipper 24 96

This review has been in the making for several weeks now, as it pains me to write something negative about a great artist.

You still get the occasional Jazz trio, but quite a lot of the songs are going beyond Jazz. You’ll find a lot of elements inspired by Lo-Fi music, some more ethnic singing, some choral parts, the occasional synthesizer, etc. etc. etc.

Honestly, I’m probably (or actually most assuredly) a bit conservative, but most of this is not my cup of tea.

And this is in spite of the great musicians that Shai has been working here, including the fantastic singers Theo Bleckmann and Gretchen Parlato.

Let me give you some examples. The opening track A Man, Morning, Street, Rain has some typical lo-fi elements, sounding a bit like played from an old Gramophone, including even the cracks of the record. I don’t really sense a direction here.

You’ll find some choral elements in Without Words”, but again, I’m lacking structure, melody here. Or take Kunda kuchka, where you get the ethnic elements. I’m sorry, but I personally find myself skipping through those tracks very quickly.

So unfortunately, I probably really don’t get this album. Note that I’ve read several reviews in France that love this album (Jazz News has called it “Indispensable“), so really take my very personal opinion here with a huge grain of salt. Again, artists need to evolve, whether we like it or not.

My rating: 3 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz), apparently it is not yet formally released in the US (the artist says “coming soon” on his facebook page).

 

Update March 18: I’ve now seen Shai Maestro live playing the songs from this album, and here the music gets it’s true meaning! It really was an amazing concert.

It’s Christmas Season again! – Musicophile’s Favorite Seasonal Music

Unfortunately, an infection has stopped me from progressing on some new reviews.

So in the meantime, allow me to remind you about the beautiful music I’ve written about that you can enjoy in this beautiful season.

I’m not religious at all, but Christmas time in Europe still is a special moment to all of us, and this music will always be intrinsically linked to the smells of gingerbread and the like.

The Nutcracker

Let’s start all the way East: with the Nutcracker, probably the most seasonal ballet by Tchaikovsky. My favorite version remains Abbado, but I’m currently listening to a recent version by Gergiev that I plan to review shortly.

Tchaikovsky The Nutcracker Simon Rattle Berliner Philharmoniker EMI Classics

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio

Let’s move on to the all time classic of the period: Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.

I have several favorite versions here, but have yet to check out the recent release of John Butt and the Dunedin Consort, which got good reviews.

Bach Christmas Oratorio John Eliot Gardiner Monteverdi Choir English Baroque Soloists DG Archiv 1987

Bach’s Christmas Cantatas

Bach also has written some lesser know cantatas for the Christmas period, that are very much worth checking out, particularly in this version.

Bach: In Tempore Nativitatis - Weihnachten Kantanten - Christmas Cantatas - Canates de Noël - Ricercar Consort Philippe Pierlot Mirare

Händel’s Messiah

Moving from Bach to Händel, the Messiah is the other BIG Christmas work that you really cannot be missing. I’ve been “lazy” and have recommended not only one, but three excellent versions in this previous post.

Handel: Messiah - Emannuelle Haïm Le Concert d'Astree Erato 24/96

Christmas Jazz

And finally, if you’re more into Jazz, there is my blog post on my five favorite Christmas Jazz albums.

Diana Krall Christmas Songs Verve

Wishing all of you a peaceful holiday period!

Another Disappointing New Release by Seong-Jin Cho

Seong-Jin Cho

Cho is the winner of last years Warsaw Chopin competition, that in the past used to launch piano legends, e.g. Krystian Zimerman, or Martha Argerich.

However, in my previous review of his debut recording, I already was quite surprised by the choice of last years jury.

And unfortunately, his latest release, a full Chopin album with the piano concerto no. 1 and the ballades, confirms my disappointment.

Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 1 / Ballades – Seong-Jin Cho (Deutsche Grammophon 2016)

Let’s start with the good part. Piano concerto no. 1 is an overall convincing performance. He uses a lot of rubato, which I really like in Chopin, the brilliant parts are brilliant as expected, but the slower parts also get a well reflected treatment.

We are clearly not yet beating Zimerman’s both recordings on Deutsche Grammophon, but at least this is interesting and worth listening to.

The LSO under Gianandrea Noseda are a quite powerful partner. Let’s face it, the Chopin piano concertos aren’t the most satisfying material for orchestras, they often are nothing more than “background” for the soloist. But their playing here cannot be faulted.

Chopin: PIano Concerto No. 1 / Ballades Seong-Jin Cho, London Symphony Orchestra, Giandandrea Noseda Deutsche Grammophon 2016 24/96

The Ballades

The Chopin ballades are just amazingly beautiful. My favorite version is again, Zimerman, as already featured in my Top 10 Classical Pianists posts. Another favorite of mine, Murray Perahia, is also exceptional.

Getting to Cho, something is just wrong. The slow parts are often just plain boring, I can’t even fully put my finger on it.

When it gets fast, like after 2 min into Ballade No. 2 he becomes impressive, but more technically than musically, unfortunately.

It is very clear that Cho has amazing technical reserves that are barely even challenged here in these works. Maybe he would be perfect for Liszt, but here in the simple ballades, what you really need are nuances, and these are missing to my simple ear.

It pains my heart writing this, but I don’t think Cho is up there with his peers from previous competitions.

Let me know what you think, do you agree? Disagree? Think I’m completely nuts? Please share your comments.

My rating: 3 stars

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

UPDATE January 5, 2016: By now, some other reviewers have had more positive opinions than me about this album, I’d say the general consensus is around 4 stars. Doesn’t change my personal rating but I wanted to flag this to ensure you get a balanced view.

 

A Multitude Of Angels – A review of the “new” Keith Jarrett solo album recorded by Jarrett himself

Ah, yet another blog post that starts with me complaining that I’m not writing often enough. I guess you don’t care about my excuses, so let me just say I really try to improve the frequency of my writing. So let’s stop whining and get into it.

A New Keith Jarrett Recording?

So, a new Keith Jarrett album! Out of the blue (at least to me)! Very nice surprise obviously for a blog that has Jarrett in the sub-title.

Let’s get the bad news out of the way first: I personally find the title quite cheesy (although Jarrett is very serious about it in the liner notes), and the cover even more so (which is sad given that I do quite like the general ECM sober cover style).

But let’s face it, you won’t buy this album for the title nor the cover, but for the music.

And we’re talking about A LOT of music. Should you decide to buy this on CD (do people still do this?), you’ll get 5 of them, should you decide to download, you may initially be disappointed to get only 12 files, but you’re still getting 4h57 for your money!

A Multitude Of Angels (ECM 2016)

Keith Jarrett A Multitude Of Angels Modena Ferrara Torino Genova Solo Concerts ECM 2016

So where is this album all over sudden coming from? Well unfortunately it doesn’t comprise any recent concerts, like the one in Lucerne I attended a year and a half ago (I know they were recording that, so I hope it will eventually be released).

In this case, we’re talking about 20 year old material. These are live recordings from four concerts in Northern Italy, as you see from the cover specifically Modena, Ferrara, Torino, and Genova, all in October 1996.

We were lucky, at the time, Jarrett hat a DAT recorder (one of the earliest portable digital recording techniques) and some microphones with him and was taping his own concerts.

In the liner notes, Jarrett explains that he’s listened to these recordings many times and claims them to be “a pinnacle in his career”. Lucky for us, we finally get to share this pleasure.

How do you describe 5 hours of improvised music?

Well to make it short, I don’t even try. Let me just summarize my impressions: These are indeed beautiful recordings. Are these to my ears the pinnacle of Jarrett’s career? I personally wouldn’t go as far. We’re still in the “old days” of Jarrett’s concerts with long 40 min uninterupted playing, very shortly before he had to take a break for health reasons. While there really is a lot to love here, my only point of criticism would be that sometimes I’d have liked a bit more stylistic variability.

So if you’re a first time Jarrett solo concert buyer, and you won’t get the cheap price on Qobuz (see last paragraph), you may want to go for some other concerts first, like the legendary Köln, or Bremen Lausanne. But if you like Keith Jarrett’s solo concerts, this one is clearly one to go for.

My rating: 4 stars.

You can find it here (Qobuz) or here (Amazon)

 

Murray Perahia’s French Suites – A Must Have

Japanese Art – Ukiyo-e

I must admit while I feel at least somehow reasonably comfortable with my understanding of Western art and paintings, I’m pretty ignorant when it gets to Japanese art.

Nevertheless, Bach’s music often reminded me of the the abstracted image I have in my head of Japanese art (mainly the Ukiyo-e style) often depicting landscapes, with delicate details of trees and flowers.

Why am I writing this here? Well, the latest recording by Murray Perahia makes me permanently think of this. These Japanese artworks often are woodblock prints. This essentially woks by chiseling away wood around the outlines of the drawing.

Murray Perahia’s French Suites

Well, in a way, that is exactly how I hear Perahia play these little miniature gems that are the French suites. He chisels away all everything superfluous and only leaves you with the outlines, and what remains is something of outstanding beauty.

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

My first encounter, as so often with Bach, was via the Glenn Gould recordings, and I also had the version by Keith Jarrett for a long time. Since then I’ve added about 3-4 other versions to my collection.

However, this really is the new star for me. I’ve listed Perahia in my Top 10 Favorite Classical Pianists post, especially for his Bach (his Goldberg are among my absolute best versions there are out there).

And here again, he doesn’t disappoint. This is intellectual and emotional at the same time, something which is sometimes hard to achieve with Bach’s keyboard music, as artists tend to focus either on one or the other.

Here’s the official trailer so you get an idea what to expect:

By the way, Gramophone agrees and has listed this as their “Editor’s Choice” for their November issue. Classica is also globally positive,  giving 4 stars (the highest rating below the CHOC, their equivalent of a five star).

No hesitation on my side however:

My rating: 5 stars

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

UPDATE Nov 29: if you need any further reassurance: French magazine Diapason has given this album it’s highest rating, the Diapason d’or, in the November issue. And it was named “recording of the month” by BBC Music magazine.