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)
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.
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”.
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.
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 “Diskothekim 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)
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.
I’ve not only been neglecting my blog overall quite a bit since 2020, but particularly if you’re following this site because you’re interested in Jazz, I’ve been really not writing about that a whole lot recently.
Unfortunately, this trend started already in 2019, when I barely found enough new releases that interested me enough to write about them, and really hasn’t improved this year. But when I saw this new cover popping up in the Qobuz New Releases section, with the beautiful typical ECM style cover, I had my hopes up.
Luckily enough, I wasn’t disappointed.
Now, before we go to the album itself, one could really argue if this is “Jazz” at all. A duo of accordion and guitar is certainly not your typical jazz setting.
And indeed, the music takes many inspirations, from “Manouche” type “gypsy” jazz, to more ethnic music (Matinier previously played on several of Anouar Brahem’s albums, and one of the tracks is coming from traditional Bulgarian folklore) to Gabriel Fauré (track 3, Les Berceaux).
But who cares, this is beautiful music, full stop. I anyhow already had a certain soft spot for the accordion, being a big fan of Richard Galliano (see here, here, and here).
Jean-Louis Matinier & Kevin Seddiki – Rivages (ECM 2020)
I must admit, I’m not really sure what to write about this music.
I could be descriptive, and go into more details around Matinier’s long career including his contribution to Anouar Brahem’s masterpiece Le Pas Du Chat Noir.
I could equally detail the fascinating collaborations guitarist Kevin Seddiki has been part of over the years.
I could mention the amazing sounds quality of the album (though that’s not a surprise for an album produced by ECM’s Manfred Eicher).
Or I could go into a track by track description of the content. While I sometimes do this myself, I’m often struggling with the added value of trying to describe music.
Seriously, because this album is very special, I’d rather suggest you really give it a go directly. If you’re open to two outstanding musicians who just click and produce fascinating and intriguing music, check it out now.
So, obviously when he recently released the Chopin piano concertos, I was all ears.
So was Gramophone (Editor’s Choice March 2020), and the French magazine Diapason, who gave a Diapason d’or, their highest rating.
So far, my favorite versions of these were the great classics (Zimerman and Argerich), so do I agree with the praise this album got?
Chopin Piano Concertos – Benjamin Grosvenor – Elim Chan – Royal Scottish National Orchestra (Decca 2020)
And the simple answer is: Absolutely!
I must admit in the past when listening to the Chopin concertos I often skipped directly to the 2nd movements only. They are obviously the true peak of these works. But here with Grosvenor even the 1st and 3rd movements are highly enjoyable. I
One of the favourite pieces of the first movement starts from the 10 min mark. Here you really hear what an exceptional pianist Grosvenor is. He plays with the melody, keeps it singing all the time.
I must admit I didn’t know what to expect from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. With the exception of a few recordings from the Neeme Järvi time this orchestra had never made it into my library.
And this album cover was the first time I’d ever heard of Elim Chan. One of the reasons is simply that she’s only 33, a very young age for a conductor. I’m very happy to see we’re finally getting more female conductors! Let’s watch her career closely.
The orchestra in any case isn’t the highlight of any Chopin concerto recording, many critics over the last one and and a half centuries dismissed it as mere “background” and claimed that Chopin didn’t know how to orchestrate. Whatever truth there is to this claim, in any case in this album, soloist and orchestra really complement each other, in a beautiful intensity.
So, while I presume you may already have a recording of the Chopin concerti, get this one anyhow. And if you don’t, get it now! This one is up there (or at least pretty close) with the Zimermans and Argerichs of this world.
First of all, I feel a bit bad for not posting more regularly in 2020. OK, so my year transitioned very brutally from traveling like crazy to working even crazier hours from home, and obviously the situation of most parts of the world really has plenty of reasons to not have a clean head to think about other things.
But then again, isn’t music even more essential these days? It is a nearly universal source of joy, and I really hope I can share my enjoyment with you, my dear readers.
Beethoven Piano Concertos No. 1 & 4 – Martin Helmchen – Andrew Manze (Alpha 2020)
Does the world need yet another recording of Beethoven’s piano concertos? Almost certainly not.
But that said, when I more or less randomly checked into this recent release, I was very positively surprised how much I liked it.
Both Martin Helmchen and Andrew Manze are artists that aren’t fully in the limelight. Insiders will know them, Helmchen for example for his many beautiful chamber music collaborations, Manze was until recently more known for his HIP influenced baroque performances that he lead with the English Consort. Since 2014 he is conducting the NDR Radiophilharmonie in Hanover, Germany. And obviously, the Deutsche Sinfonieorchester Berlin (DSO) is often eclipsed by the two other amazing orchestras in the same city, the BPO and the Staatskapelle.
But as I’ve written many times before, the best performances don’t necessarily come from the big names and the traditional large orchestras any more. You always need to watch seemingly lesser known ensembles, you more often than not will be positively surprised.
So, why do I like this recording? Well, it is hard to pinpoint a single feature. Probably the best description of what I like is the balance. You can clearly hear that Manze knows his historically informed practice, but at no point this performance becomes bloodless which some “HIP” recordings can clearly get to. You have a very transparent and intimate reading, but never dull.
Helmchen also is a fantastic performer here. I’m a particular fan of his performance of piano concerto no. 1. This work, which clearly sits spot on on the border between the “Wiener Klassik” of Mozart and Haydn, and the following romantic era of Schubert and Schumann, but it is so very Beethoven in so many ways. Helmchen perfectly captures the spirit of this transitional work.
Piano concerto no. 4 is probably my favorite of all 5 piano concertos. The opening, with its very simple solo piano chords, immediately answered by the orchestra, is a totally different beast to the piano concerto no. 1. This work was premiered for the first time in a massive concert that also features the 5th and 6th symphony. This is clearly a Beethoven at the height of his powers, fully emancipated from Haydn and Mozart, creating a style that is so very immediately recognisable as Beethoven, and has never been surpassed since.
Helmchen and Manze also give us a beautiful performance here, but maybe it is for this work that I’d just like to have a tiny bit more of something, what exactly I really don’t know. Maybe I’m still influenced by the very first performance I owned of this work, a recording of the legendary Rudolf Serkin with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony (a recording that build a much “bigger” Beethoven, not that that is necessarily automatically a good thing). OK, let me stop rambling here. In these situations I’m happy I don’t have to pretend I’m a professional reviewer, but just share my personal impressions.
Overall though this is a recording you really should check out, particularly for what could be close to a perfect first piano concerto.
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)
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).