An Excellent (Nearly) New Schumann Cycle by Rattle and the BSO

Schumann’s Symphonies

Schumann’s symphonies have long been underrated. The idea of “Schumann cannot compose for orchestra” has been going around in musicology circles for many years.

I really disagree. OK, he’s no Beethoven or Brahms, but I still really like his symphonies, especially no. 3 and 4.

To be fair, there are excellent recordings already out there, e.g. from Gardiner, Nezét-Séguin, or, a bit more unorthodox, Thomas Dausgaard, (mentioned in My 25 Essential Classical Albums).

Rattle is now on his way out from the Berlin Philharmonic, with Kirill Petrenko coming.

I’ve not always been a fan of Rattle’s work at the BPO, but he has left some very good recordings, so I was very interested when I recently rediscovered this 2014 cycle which launched BPO’s own label (I had missed it at the time).

Schumann: The Symphonies – Simon Rattle – Berliner Philharmoniker (BPO Recordings 2014)

Berliner Philharmoniker Sir Simon Rattle Robert Schumann Symphonies 1-4 BPO Recordings 2014 24/96

So, what do we get? Overall, a very convincing package. I really enjoy every single symphony on this box. My favorite is actually no. 1, subtitled “spring”; where Rattle takes a very fresh and precise approach.

Potentially the weakest of the 4 is symphony no. 2, which I found slightly incoherent in certain parts. The “Rhenish” (my other favorite), and no. 4 both are presented in a way that combines on one hand a good view of the big picture, but really looks at many exciting details.

Overall, Rattle was clearly influenced by the historically informed movement, and the BPO doesn’t sound like during the Karajan era any more. Everything is much lighter and transparent.

A really enjoyable set.

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Mesmerising Viola Da Gamba Early Music by Paolo Pandolfo

Early Music

If you’re following this blog on a regular basic you know I’m not a specialist of Early Music (to simplify, most anything before Bach), and don’t listen to it very often.

Therefore, there is not a lot of coverage of the 16th century on this blog, and I want to put out a disclaimer that my review below is even more subjective than my regular ones, I’d certainly say my judgment is more educated in the 18th and 19th century than here.

But this brand new album has particularly touched me, so I still wanted to write about it. It’s been some weeks since my last review, because most of the recent new releases didn’t particularly motivate to write about them. This is the first one that does.

Paolo Pandolfo

Paolo Pandolfo is one of the leading soloists of the Early Music movement, but also plays a lot of baroque. His recording of the Bach cello suites is really quite beautiful and worth checking out. He plays both the cello, but also the Viola da Gamba, a string instrument that nearly disappeared around the 18th century.

Regina bastarda – Paolo Pandolfo – La Pedrina (Glossa 2019)

Regina bastarda Paolo Pandolfo la Pedrina Glossa 2019 24 172

So what’s the “bastard queen” in the title all about? Well “alla bastarda” was basically an improvised version of popular songs and madrigals played on a solo instrument like the Viola da Gamba.

And that really is what we get here, a lot of solo improvisations of a true master of the Viola da Gamba of several composers of the 16th century.

To lighten the mix, the solo improvisations (which are not truly solo, there is a “continuo” of other instruments supporting Pandolfo (played by the excellent La Pedrina), are mixed with Madrigals from the same period, mostly by Palestrina.

Overall, this results in a mesmerizing mix of fascinating music, that will draw you in and require all your attention. This is not background music, but requires your full dedication. You won’t regret it!

My rating: 5 stars

Coltrane ’58: The Prestige Recordings

John Coltrane

I’ve checked, and to date, I’ve only mentioned John Coltrane twice on my blog. Let me clarify: this lack of coverage is not for lack of admiration, it is after all not by chance that I’ve listed the amazing album My Favorite Things in My 25 Essential Jazz Albums.

It is just that overall, so much more has been written about the Jazz legends, both online and offline, than about current contemporary musicians.

Therefore, I try to focus a lot of my Jazz writing here on recordings of the last 2 decades.

That said, every once in a while the record industry finds a smart way of re-releasing existing content, which gives me a nice excuse to write about it.

Coltrane’58 – The Prestige Recordings (Prestige Remaster 2019)

Coltrane '58 The Prestige Recordings 2019 remaster 24 96 192

To make it clear: there is no new content on this box that hasn’t been released previously. What is interesting about it is essentially two things: a remaster of the original recordings, and the chronological ordering of all of his recordings.

You get 37 tracks, all recorded in the year of 1958 when Coltrane signed with Prestige, and started to emerge as the star and legend he was bound to become in the following years. They are taken from albums such as Soultrane, Lush Life, or Kenny Burrell & John Coltrane.

Personally, I don’t think this year is as great as some of his all time masterpieces, be it Giant Steps (1959), My Favorite Things (1960) or obviously A Love Supreme (1964).

That said, this is nevertheless a box of thoroughly enjoyable music, uniting such fantastic musicians such as Tommy Flanagan, Red Garland, Paul Chambers, Jimmy Cobb, Louis Hayes or Art Taylor as the rhythm section, and great soloists such as Kenny Burrell and Freddy Hubbard.

Furthermore, the remastering really is quite well done, apparently taken directly from the original master tapes. Prestige unfortunately never was one of the “audiophile” labels, that said, for a 60 year old recording, this entire box really is fully enjoyable.

Before buying it, you may want to check out which of the original albums you may already own, or if you already (like me) have the Complete Prestige Recordings box set, in which case the only reason for buying would be the remastering.

If you don’t have any of these albums yet, this is a purchase I can recommend without any hesitation.

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Buxtehude: Membra Jesu Nostri by Philippe Pierlot’s Ricercar Consort – Just Beautiful

Easter time & music

I’m not religious, but I understand that Easter is the most important Christian holiday, and the history of his suffering and resurrection have dominated about 2000 years of European history.

Typically, around this time of the year, I’d be listening to the two masterpieces that Johann Sebastian Bach has composed, telling the story of the passion of Christ as recorded by the apostels John and Matthew (click on the links before and this one to see some of my reviews around them).

But obviously the great Bach is not the only one inspired by this important point of Western religion and culture. From Gesualdo, Pergolesi, via Telemann, Rossini, all the way to Pärt, all have written often amazingly beautiful music about it.

Dieterich Buxtehude

Regular readers of my blog know that I typically mainly write about music between 1700 and 1900, more or less from Bach to Mahler. In the 20th century, I often struggle, and before Bach, I’m often equally lost.

Therefore, if you look around at the 4.5 years of blogging history on this site, you’ll find only a small handful of mentions of Claudio Monteverdi, and that’s it.

So therefore, take the following review with a grain of salt, I’m clearly not an expert on Early Music.

Dieterich Buxtehude isn’t particularly well known any more today. He’s of Danish/German origins, and lived his entire life in the area of Southern Denmark and the very Northern end of Germany, and passed away in 1707.

However, in his time, he was a living legend. In his young years, Bach himself walked the 250 miles separating his home in Thüringen to Lübeck in Northern Germany just to hear Buxtehude play (and presumably study with him), and Händel even considered taking over his job after he died.

Buxtehude

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

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

Membra Jesu Nostri, or if you prefer the full title Membra Jesu nostri patientis sanctissima (“The most holy limbs of our suffering Jesus”) is actually a selection of seven cantatas written in 1680 (so 5 years before Bach was even born).

I’m not going to bore you with more detail on the structure and story of the work, Wikipedia has some really good information here.

What I do want to share is the beauty of all of this. You have a small baroque ensemble, just a handful of voices. But this album is captivating every single one of the 1h20 of the album (you get another cantata as “filler” at the end as well).

I’ve already praised Pierlot and his Ricercar Consort in their recording of the St. John Passion, and here again, their singing and playing is exceptional.

Again, I’m not an early music expert, but I briefly compared this to some of the well known recordings of this work (Gardiner, Koopman, van Veldhofen), and can guarantee that you won’t regret the purchase of this album.

My rating: 4 stars (5 star playing, 4 star repertoire)

You can find it here (Qobuz).

One of the best Jarrett Solo albums: Paris Concert

Keith Jarrett’s Solo Albums

At some point on this blog I had said I was planning to review all of Jarrett’s solo recordings here.

Well, I haven’t written about them in a long time. Nicely enough, a reader comment, inquiring about a live concert by Jarrett she heard on the radio a long time ago, brought me back on track.

I’m still not sure, but most likely the album she is looking for is one of Jarrett’s best ever solo piano recordings, Bremen/Lausanne, actually one of my 25 Essential Jazz albums.

Therefore, let’s talk about another excellent Jarrett solo album I’ve had for a long time:

Keith Jarrett: Paris Concert (ECM 1990)

Keith Jarrett: Paris Concert ECM 1990

This is not one of Jarrett’s longest solo albums, containing just a single concert. It mainly consists of one impressive continuous improvisation of more than 38 minutes, simply titled “October 17, 1988”. 

The concert starts sounding like Jarrett is actually doing a Bach concert, he plays something that could be a slow Präludium, indicating that Jarrett clearly knows his counterpoint. 

This is not totally surprising, Jarrett was actually playing a lot of Bach at the time, e.g. his recording of the Goldberg Variations was released just one year later after this concert was recorded in 1988 at Salle Pleyel. (Side note: I’m not such a fan of Jarrett’s classical recordings on their own, but am very happy how they influenced his Jazz playing).

About 9 to 10 minutes in this evolves into a more hypnotic part, with the left hand in a steady bass pattern over which the right hand freely improvises.

Later, around the 20 minutes mark, the music becomes increasingly minimal, but probably even more beautiful and mesmerizing. He quickly evolves back into a much more powerful improvisation.

After the main course you get two smaller pieces, simply called The Wind and Blues, both of which are highly enjoyable.

The only downside of this album is Jarrett’s really annoying tendency to hum along with his music. I sincerely hope one day artificial intelligence will be good enough to remove his singing from his otherwise fantastic albums.

This is clearly one of his best ever solo efforts, and should be in every Jarrett lover’s collection.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Wonderful Bach Concertos with Isabelle Faust

Isabelle Faust

I mentioned two blog posts ago that I’m a fanboy. I’m a fanboy of Igor Levit, of Murray Perahia, of Sabine Deviehle, but probably one of my favorite artists these days is Isabelle Faust.

I’ve reviewed her countless time on this blog, playing Bach, Mozart, Brahms (here and here), Beethoven. And there are other albums I could have mentioned as well.

The only time I was ever disappointed by a recording by Isabelle Faust was her version of Mendelssohn’s violin concerto with Pablo Heras-Casado.

Therefore, when I went on my “quest” last year to see all of my favorite violin players in one year, I obviously had to go for Alina Ibragimova, Janine Jansen, Lisa Batiashvili, Julia Fischer, and yes, maybe the queen of all, Isabelle Faust. I was very lucky I managed to squeeze all of these live performances into one year.

Isabelle Faust offered one of my preferred programs (I saw her on Lake Geneva last summer during the festival at Château de Tannay), playing exclusively Bach. The program included some of the violin concertos, but also some chamber works. The concert (only slightly spoiled by being in the main air corridor towards Geneva airport) was not surprisingly hugely enjoyable.

So what a pleasure it was when I saw that Faust just released a very similar program on Harmonia Mundi

Bach: Violin Concertos – Isabelle Faust – Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin (Harmonia Mundi 2019)

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

Isabelle Faust had recorded the violin concertos previously around the year 2000, with Helmut Rilling for the Hänssler label (included in their complete Bach edition). Already this recording was really very nice.

But here it get’s even better. The keywords here are precision, balance, and a complete lack of showmanship. This is one of the most introvert recordings of these concertos that I’ve ever heard.

Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with taking a lot of freedom with these works, at witnessed by the very beautiful recording of Alina Ibragimova with Arcangelo which I reviewed last year.

So this recording is the complete opposite. That said, I like it probably even a bit better. You really hear all the complexity of Bach’s counterpoint, the delicacy of the different instruments and their balance to form something bigger together. And Faust, just as she did in Tannay, wasn’t the star of the show, but really just one more musician as part of a team.

Another similarity to my Tannay experience is also that this album not only includes all violin concertos, including the reconstructed ones, but also one of the Orchestral Suites, several individual tracks such as the Sinfonia BWV1045, and some chamber music, the trio sonatas BWV 527 and 529. In total, you get nearly 2h30 of music.

If you like Bach and historically informed performance, this album is an absolute must have.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

UPDATE March 26: Listening to a recent Gramophone podcast where Gramophone speaks with Faust about this recording, I noticed I completely forgot to mention that Faust doesn’t play her typical Sleeping Beauty Stradivarius, but instead a German Steiner violin that Bach himself would have found familiar. In the interview she explained that this much better fits the ensemble sound than the Stradivarius, and that in general she really tries to be as close to what the composer intended as possible.

It is the same violin already used in the previous recording of the Bach violin sonatas (reviewed here).

In the podcast, the interviewer already said that the upcoming review of this album will be very positive. I’m not surprised.

UPDATE March 30: Classica likes it, but only gives it 4 stars, quoting the slightly remote sound quality, and the sometimes somewhat “martial” style of the orchestra. I can somewhat understand the first point, but don’t agree on the 2nd point.

Whereas Gramophone fully agrees with me and gives this album an “Editor’s Choice” in their April 2019 issue, calling it a “hugely enjoyable celebration of Bach”

Youn Sun Nah’s Latest Album Immersion – Really Not My Cup Of Tea

The Borderline between Jazz and Pop Music

Youn Sun Nah, while typically being classified as a Jazz singer, has always been on the borderline between Jazz and Pop. Nothing wrong with that, many great singers like Melody Gardot or Norah Jones successfully navigate both sides of the equation very well, at least in my personal opinion.

Youn Sun Nah’s greatest effort on the Jazz side of things were brilliant albums such as Lento or Same Girl. I’ve mentioned the brilliant cover she did of Metallica’s Enter Sandman on Same Girl in my post on my favourite Jazz covers of Pop songs here.

It is very understandable that artists want to evolve their musical style. Not surprisingly therefore, her previous album was called She Moves On (2017). I didn’t review this one on my blog, already because it really didn’t move me very much. And it is usually much more fun to write about albums I like, hence the large number of 4 and 5 star reviews here.

So why did I make a difference here? Well, it is rare that an album really puts me off and annoys me. I rarely have that (exceptionally for some reggae and rap albums), but typically just move on to something else.

In the Jazz territory, there’s one other similar example of an album that I really couldn’t stand, which was Diana Krall’s Glad Rag Doll, produce by T-Bone Burnett. If you wanted to torture me, you could easily use this album, just put it on repeat.

Youn Sun Nah – Immersion (Arts Music 2019)

Youn Sun Nah Immersion 24/48 Art Music 2019

So, what do we get on Immersion? A LOT of synthesizers first of all. Nothing wrong with synthesizers, I used to own several of them in my high school and student days. I’m just not so convinced they are the best combination for Jazz-type albums. But I presume that’s the point, this is actually not an Jazz album.

You also seem to get quite a bit of drum machines (or if it is a real drummer, he uses a heck of a lot of effects). You also get a lot of sound effects.

One example of the extensive use of synths is the cover version of Leonard Cohen’s beautiful Hallelujah. This is recorded over “carpet strings” (do people still use this expression?) that are just wobbling in the background. This really so completely misses the point of this song.

But the most annoying is a minimalistic ballad version of You Can Hurry Love, where the only instrument is a bell- or gamelan-like e-piano that sounds like somebody has taken the good old Yamaha DX7 out of the garage (or more likely, out of Logic Pro).

OK, I’ll stop my rambling here, you’ve got the point, I just don’t like this album.

My rating: 2 points.

If you still want to try it out, which you should, as I think this album may be a love it or hate it affair, you’ll find it here (Qobuz)