Cheerful Vivaldi for not so cheerful times

Vivaldi

I’ve said it before, I’m not a huge fan of Antonio Vivaldi in general. OK, I put Rachel Podger’s fantastic Four Seasons into my Top 5 Classical Albums of 2018, but beyond this I typically much rather listen to Bach, Beethoven, or Brahms to just name a few.

That said, one thing that Vivaldi really is good at is improving my mood. One good example of this is this Amandine Beyer album, that I also reviewed in April, pretty much exactly two years ago. Seems like spring time really is my Vivaldi time.

Obviously this is one of the weirdest Spring times most of us have lived through. Don’t worry, you won’t be reading about Covid here, it is sufficient that every other website on this planet talks about it. But especially in not so easy times, music can really play a role in bringing us back some of the cheerfulness that we all could be using more of right now.

Martin Fröst – Vivaldi – Concerto Köln (Sony Classical 2020)

Martin Fröst Vivaldi Concerto Köln Sony Classical 2020 24 96

When I saw this cover among the very recent new releases, I had high hopes. Martin Fröst is one of the best clarinet players of our times (his recording of Mozart’s clarinet concerto is mentioned in My Must Have Mozart Albums), and Concerto Köln hardly ever disappoints in the baroque repertoire.

I’m glad to report I wasn’t disappointed, this album is a little gem.

The Concerto Köln do what they always do, bringing the music to life with passion, nuance, and precision, and Martin Fröst’s beautiful tone is singing more than ever (check out the Adagio of the first clarinet concerto).

Check out this video trailer to get a first impression, and hear some of Fröst’s thinking about why he did this album in the first place:

One thing to note is that there wasn’t any clarinet at the time of Vivaldi, so this is a bit of an adaptation. But nothing wrong with this, and the end result is very convincing.

So, if you need some music that doesn’t require you to think too much, but just live in the moment and enjoy, this is the album to get.

My rating: 4 stars (to be clear, the playing is absolutely 5 star worthy, but this still is Vivaldi after all, and not an absolute must have for me).

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Brahms Late Piano Works In a New Fantastic Recording by Stephen Hough

Brahms Late Piano Pieces

I’ve written previously about these late masterpieces, op. 116 – 119, that are among the last pieces written by Brahms.

Brahms always was primarily a pianist. Whenever he wrote for other instruments, he got advice from experts, e.g. his friend Joseph Joachim for his violin works So it is not surprising that he wrote some of his most important but also most intimate works ever for the instrument he knew best.

I had been looking for a “definitive” version for a long time, and only some years ago fell in love with the album that the Russian pianist Volodos recorded in 2017 (see my review here). The only other version I reviewed here on this blog is by Andreas Staier on a fortepiano, only for op. 116.

So when I recently read two reviews, by Classicstoday and Gramophone, that both praised a new recording by Stephen Hough, I went out to buy it blindly.

You see, the issue is that Hyperion, the label that has Stephen Hough exclusively, doesn’t allow streaming, which is a key reason why I typically don’t buy his albums, as I can’t really explore them properly upfront, and also why I never reviewed any of his albums here, in spite of the fact that Gramophone is a huge fan.

But for my idol Brahms, it was worth the risk of GBP 13.

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

Stephen Hough Brahms The Final Piano Pieces Hyperion 2020 24 96

So, am I happy? To make it short, yes, very much. This is among the most unorthodox recordings of these work I’ve ever heard. None of these sound as I’m used to hearing them.

But honestly, it is worth the discovery. Once you overcome the initial surprise, you discover that Hough clearly has spent a long time thinking about these works, and each peculiarity is there for a reason. If you want to find out more about his approach to Brahms, check out this podcast about this new release.

I’m totally sold now. This is an album that I’ll go back over and over again, just because every single one of these little short gems is worth having a new look at them.

Here’s a Youtube example, so you can get an idea what I’m talking about. Let me know what you think!

In a nutshell, highly recommended! (My prediction is that this will make it into the Gramophone Award nomination list for 2020. Let’s see later this year if I’m right).

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Hyperion Records).

Fauré’s Beautiful Requiem

Gabriel Fauré

This is my first ever entry on the French composer Gabriel Fauré, after more than 5 years of this blog and hundreds of posts. Why did it take me so long? Well to be fair, there are only a handful of his works of this late romantic composers that I actually know. Coming from a German speaking background originally, French composers just weren’t very high on the list of stuff that you’d be aware off. In my personal library that contains thousands of albums I only have 16 that include some music of him, mainly some piano and chamber music.

The only major work of him that I knew and loved for more than 20 years now is the requiem.

I still try to remember where I first discovered it. I still think it was in a movie soundtrack, I even remember a scene with clouds drifting over a sky, and this beautiful music that immediately struck me as truly celestial. I tried to find the movie, and Fauré is listed in more than 100 of them in IMDB, but I couldn’t retrace that scene just yet. I keep digging.

In any case, his requiem is truly special, unlike any other requiem that I’m aware of.

Catholic requiems are typically, in the spirit of Mozart and Verdi, to name two of the most famous ones, very big and sometimes even threatening affairs. After all, it includes the Dies irae, the “Day of Wrath”, that starts like this “Day of wrath and doom impending. David’s word with Sibyl’s blending, Heaven and earth in ashes ending.”.

Well, no ashes in Fauré’s requiem. He simply skips the Day of Wrath, and focuses rather on In Paradisum, which I presume does’t need translation.

Overall, this really is the most peaceful (even compared to my beloved Brahms German Requiem) of all works for mourning the dead that I’m aware off.

My father passed away about a year ago, so I’ve been listening to this, as well as the Brahms, quite regularly. While I’m not at all religious, both works really give me solace.

For years I only had one version, which I still treasure today, by Michel Corboz with the Berne Symphony Orchestra. Not necessarily a reference version, but still one of my favorites.

But I wanted to write about this one instead:

Fauré: Requiem – Paavo Järvi – Orchestre de Paris (Erato 2011)

Regular readers of my blog know that I’m a fan of Paavo Järvi. He is here conducting the Orchestre de Paris, which obviously is very familiar with this work. I still often see that French orchestras have an advantage for French music, as it is so engrained in their culture.

Fauré Requiem Cantique de Jean Racine, Super Flumina Babylonis, Pavane, Elegie Philippe Jaroussky Matthias Goerne, Eric Picard, Choeur de l'Orchestre de Paris, Orchestre de Paris Paavo Järvi 24 48 Erato Warner 2011 24 48

On top of a top notch conductor and an orchestra that knows what it is doing, you also get two fantastic soloists, Philippe Jaroussky and Matthias Goerne.

Finally, this album will also give you an overview of some of the other large orchestral works of Fauré that are worth knowing, like the Cantique de Jean Racine, the Elegie for Cello, and the Pavane.

Highly recommended.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz).

The Fred Hersch Trio – Sunday Night At The Village Vanguard

The Village Vanguard

New York City is still the world capital of jazz. The number of high quality jazz venues and outstanding muscians playing there is second to none.

I’m about to head to New York today for a short trip. The last time I was there, about 5-6 weeks ago, I had the opportunity, on a Sunday night, to go to my favorite of all the clubs, the legendary Village Vanguard.

The club is a tiny affair in Greenwich Village. It was founded in 1935, and became a full time jazz venue in 1957.

To get a feel of the importance of this little club, just type the name into your favorite streaming provider or online record store (or simply YouTube). You’ll find outstanding albums like Bill Evans’ legendary album Waltz For Debby , or his full set Complete At The Village Vanguard. On my blog, beyond these, I’ve also already mentioned other albums that were recorded there, like Brad Mehldau, Christian McBride, Enrico Pieranunzi, coincidentally all in the same blog post about 9 Outstanding Live Jazz Recordings, as well as Cecile McLorin Salvant’s Dreams and Daggers.

Fred Hersch

So, as mentioned above, I had the opportunity to see Fred Hersch live. Fred Hersch has the reputation of being one of the most intellectual of all jazz pianists. When you see him, that doesn’t surprise you, he looks somewhat like a university professor (which by the way he is as well, with former students like the above mentioned Brad Mehldau).

I’m not going to review the concert, which as usual in this fantastically intimate space, was a real pleasure, but instead point you to an album that was recorded 4 years ago in a very similar situation.

Fred Hersch Trio – Sunday Night At The Village Vanguard (Palmetto Records 2016)

This album captures very well the very typical Fred Hersch style as well as the intimate acoustics of the venue. My favorite track is For No One, a very delicate ballad.

I strongly suggest you check this album out, and obviously, if you ever get to NYC, make sure to check out what may potentially be the best jazz club on the planet, as I will most certainly do tomorrow night.

My rating: 4 stars

Quatuor Ebène’s truly enjoyable Razumovsky quartets

Beethoven’s String Quartets

I must admit I always found the category of the string quartets one of the most intellectually challenging, but at the same time, also one of the most rewarding categories in classical music.

I, like many started out my classical journey with symphonic music, and, coming from the piano as a (lousy) amateur myself, with solo piano music.

I had an easier access to chamber works with a piano in it, e.g. trios, violin sonatas. But the string quartet really seemed to me the most daunting works to approach.

That said, there are worse works to start your exploration than Beethoven’s Rasumovsky quartets, officially known as op. 59. These are the works of a Beethoven in a great phase, contemporary of the 4th symphony and the violin concerto. These are the first string quartets of the so-called “middle-period”, after the 6 “early” quartets in op. 18. By this time, Beethoven was truly established as a respected master in Vienna, at the age of 35.

By the way, even Beethoven waited for a while until he attacked the string quartets category, with such a strong tradition being established by Haydn and Mozart.

Op. 59 No. 1 and 2 present all the skill set of an accomplished composer, so no matter how often you listen to them, there’s always something new to discover. These were sponsored by Andrey Rasumowsky, an important diplomat in Vienna at that time.

Quatuor Ebène: Beethoven Around The World – Vienna

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

I’ve written about the French Quatuor Ebène before, praising their fantastic recording of Schubert’s string quintet.

I’ve even seen them live some years ago performing late Beethoven at the Tonhalle in Zürich (still in the old hall, not the current “factory” interim arrangement).

I therefore had high expectations when I read that they will release a complete cycle of Beethoven’s string quartets, taken from live recordings throughout the world, during 2020, which you know if you haven’t been hiding under a rock, is Beethoven’s 250th anniversary.

The “Vienna” in the album title refers to the recording location, so very appropriately starting in the town which was Beethoven’s home for so many years.

So what do you get, and how does it compare to my current reference cycle, by the great Takacs quartet?

Well to make it short: it is a truly great recording. Both Ebène and Takacs give you top-notch performances of both op. 59 No. 1 and 2. Ebène is occasionally a bit more on the extremes, while the Takacs are slightly more “polished”, but both are truly enjoyable performance of these masterpieces.

Really can’t wait for the rest of the tour of “Beethoven around the world”!

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov’s Wonderful Mozart Violin Sonatas (vol. 2)

It’s been a while

Wow, sorry guys, this must have been potentially the longest break ever between posts. But the last six weeks have been packed with travel and family issues, including a trip to China mid January just some days before the Coronavirus issue got really big (and many people kept looking at me like a walking zombie that is just about to bite them for a while).

On top of that I must admit among the new releases of the last 6 weeks, there weren’t a lot of new recordings that really got me excited. And if I’m not passionate about something, I just don’t like writing about it. That’s why you don’t find a lot of 3 star reviews on my blog. The bias of being able to write just what you like.

Therefore I’m pleased to say I finally found a recording that really is making me happy to get me started again, and I have a couple of other reviews in the backlog for the next weeks.

Isabelle Faust & Alexander Melnikov – Mozart Sonatas for Fortepiano and Violin vol. 2 (Harmonia Mundi 2020)

OK, let’s get the obvious elephant in the room out of the way: I’m a self declared fanboy of Isabelle Faust, and have praised pretty much every single one of her recordings on this blog (one exception, to prove the point that it’s not just her name, is her recording of the Mendelssohn concerto which I really didn’t like that much).

So take this review with a grain of salt (although several professional reviewers agree that among all the amazing violin talents we have today, Faust may be the one that truly stands out).

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Sonatas fro fortepiano & violin Isabelle Faust Alexander Melnikov Harmonia Mundi 2020 24 96

It gets even more interesting as my previous favourite version of these works is by another fantastic violin player that approaches this from the baroque side, Rachel Podger (see my review here, and I also included this album into my Must Have Mozart Albums).

This is volume 2, so you are going to ask me, why didn’t I write about volume 1? Honestly, it just slipped my attention.

That said, what I particularly like about vol. 2 is the choice of the works. Mozart’s violin sonatas are all works that were written by a young Mozart, and often for advanced amateurs, so they could be played at home. So some of the works are really just a bit too light. But particularly KV376 and 378 are works that really stand on their own, and deserve to be heard.

Isabelle Faust’s wonderful Sleeping Beauty, together with Alexander Melnikov, plays a Fortepiano replica by Christoph Kern, modelled after an Anton Walter from 1795, produce a beautiful sound. These two musicians have played together a lot and you can really hear that, the interplay between the two is just outstanding.

Now, the obvious comparison: Do I prefer this or Rachel Podger? Well, between the two, Faust is somewhat more shiny and brilliant, think of sparkling jewellery, while Podger and Cooper have a slightly more slower, more velvety approach. Both are outstanding performances, so it will be your taste that you need to ask which one to get (or just get both).

The only additional complication in the game is that another fantastic violin player, the great Alina Ibragimova, has released some of the violin sonatas on Hyperion, with Cedric Tiberghien playing a modern piano. Hyperion doesn’t allow streaming, so I could only compare snippets, and on these I prefer Faust. But you should check these ones out as well.

My rating: 5 stars (ok, Mozart’s violin sonatas are not by themselves 5 star repertoire, but I find this album so pleasing that I just ignore my own criteria).

You can find it here (Qobuz)

UPDATE Feb 29, 2020: Gramophone agrees, giving this album an Editor’s Choice in the March 2020 edition.

My Top 3 Jazz Albums of 2019

Happy New Year

Wishing all of you a fantastic 2020!

I meant to complement my Top of the Year 2019 article I wrote on classical music with a similar one for Jazz. I didn’t get to finish that last year, so at least it is the first thing I do in the still very fresh year of 2020. Hope all of you had a nice New Year’s Eve last night.

Why is this post called “Top 3” and not “Top 5” as I typically do? Well, for one I did review significantly less albums in 2019 than in the years before, due to very extensive business travel.

Furthermore however, I find less and less new Jazz albums that truly excite me. Not sure if it is the Jazz scene, or my taste is evolving. Anyhow, let’s get to it.

Keith Jarrett – Munich 2016

Keith Jarrett Munich 2016 ECM 2019 24 96

Any new Keith Jarrett solo album is an event, but this is a particularly nice one. I’m slightly biased as me attending the 2015 concert in Lucerne that was part of the same tour triggered me to start this blog in the first place Highly recommended. You’ll find my original review of Munich 2016 here.

GoGo Penguin – Ocean in a Drop

GoGo Penguin Ocean In A Drop Music For A Film Blue Note 2019

Ocean In A Drop is a very special album. Not even originally intended to be released, it really captures a very special atmosphere of an improvised film soundtrack. I still haven’t seen the movie it refers to, but keep going back to the album on a regular basis.

Triosence: scorpio rising

Triosence: Scorpio Rising 2019 24 96

I’ve written about Triosence previously (here and here), but never got to formally review this album. They are a relatively unknown group from Germany, but their style is very much to my taste. So this may be the most subjective of my recommendations. Triosence are all about melody. Therefore, some may consider them a bit too mainstream. So check them out before you buy, but if you like modern trio jazz, they are a worthy discovery. You’ll find it here (Qobuz)

So, over to you, enlighten me! I’m sure I’ve missed plenty of good new releases in 2019 that should have been mentioned here. What would you recommend I check out?

Wishing you again a Happy New Year and thank you for all the great feedback and discussions we had in 2019!