A Review of Two Recent Recordings of Mahler 1 by Vänskä and Roth

Gustav Mahler

You can easily tell that I’m still struggling a bit with Gustav Mahler by the number of posts I have done on him, so far a grand total of 1 (one!), commenting about very divergent reviews of Mahler’s 9th.

I find many of his symphonies hard to approach, too big, to complex, getting lost in the weeds. The one symphony that I semi-regularly go back to is no. 1. It is to me by far the most approachable, taking many of the beautiful melodies in the symphony directly from his own earlier the song cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (and if you read this blog regularly you know I’m a sucker for melodies).

My first recording of Mahler 1 with retrospect is not a reference, but at least a quite decent performance, with Eliahu Inbal and the HR Radio Symphony orchestra (I mainly bought the album initially because it was a so-called audiophile recording by Denon).

SInce then, on Mahler, I’ve been through all the great classics (Klemperer, Walter, Bernstein, Kubelik), but also many new releases of this work (Fischer, Zinman, Janssons), and these days most often go back to Ivan Fischer on Channel Classics, a very nice, if a bit middle-of-the-road performance (again, VERY audiophile, it’s a fantastic test for your speakers, but you may not make friends with your neighboring appartments if you explore the full dynamic range).

So I was very curious when in the space of a couple of months two new recordings of Mahler 1 came out, both by conductors I respect a lot.

Mahler: Symphony No. 1 – François Xavier Roth – Les Siècles (Harmonia Mundi 2019)

The first one is François-Xavier Roth with his relatively recent ensemble Les Siècles, which I now very much see on track to become one of the most important French orchestras, particularly for French composers (have a look at their recent Debussy and Ravel recordings).

Gustav Mahler Titan Symphony No. 1 Hamburg Weimar 1893-1894 version Les Siècles François Xavier Roth 24/96

So I was particularly curious how they’d do with German composers like Mahler .

What’s interesting about this recording is that they use a different version, “Hamburg/Weimar 1893-1894”, turning the symphony into a “tone poem”. Well, overall, you’ll still very much recognize most of the symphony, but you’ll notice an less familiar 2nd movement sneaking in, Blumine, making the symphony 5 movements long.

Mahler: Symphony No. 1 – Osmo Vänskä – Minnesota Orchestra (BIS 2019)

Gustav Mahler Symphony No. 1 Osmo Vänskä Minnesota Orchestra BIS 2019 24/96

The even more recent new release is a conductor I’ve loved for a long time, Osmo Vänskä, who has done fantastic work with the Minnesota Orchestra. Take for example his outstanding recording of the Beethoven piano concertos 2 & 4 with Yevgeny Sudbin.

Vänskä takes the “traditional” version of the symphony with 4 movements.

Now, are any of these worth getting, you’ll ask?

Well, let me start with the Vänskä. Given how much energy and passion Vänskä typically puts into his recordings, this was a major disappointment. The entire symphony just feels very slow and uninspired. I try to stay away from too drastic words especially when we’re talking about such fantastic artists like Vänskä. But I can’t help it, this recording really isn’t for me.

Roth is already a different story. The Blumine addition already gives you something to look out for, and overall, the tone is much more energetic and joyful in the first three movements, and has the appropriate amount of drama in the fourth movement. Overall, a very satisfying performance, maybe not a new reference, but you won’t regret buying it.

Now I’m curious what you think? Am I completely off? Do you love Vänskä’s approach, and I’m just deaf? Which other versions of Mahler 1 should I check out?

My rating: 4 stars (Roth), 2 stars (Vänska)

You can find them here (Roth, Qobuz) and here (Vänskä, Qobuz)

Update Aug 16: Classicstoday seems to agree with my assessment of the Vänskä, calling it a “CD from Hell” in their recent review.

A fantastic live album by Yuja Wang

Yuja Wang

If you read this blog regularly, you could think that I may be a bit biased towards Asian pianists. I’m really not a big fan of Lang Lang, and also can’t understand all the praise that Seong-Jin Cho is getting (see here and here). I really hope I don’t have any intrinsic biases and judge purely on the music though.

I had a more ambivalent opinion of Yuja Wang until recently. There was stuff I really appreciated (her Ravel concerto for example), but there are other albums like the Brahms sonatas with Kavakos (that got a lot of praise) that are not 100% my cup of tea.

But this latest live release (it actually already came out end of last year, I’m a bit behind here), is a truly exceptional album

Yuja Wang – The Berlin Recital (DG 2018)

Yuja Wang The Berlin Recital Rachmaninov Scriabin Ligeti Prokofiev 24 96 Deutsche Grammophon 2018

The album starts off with an engaging performance of the famous Rachmaninov Prelude op. 23 no. 5. You already are getting a level of energy, excitement, but also precision, that is drawing you in from the very beginning.

She follows with several other pieces of Rachmaninov, keeping up the level of engagement. A first highlight however is in the much more subtle Scriabin sonata. Here Wang demonstrates that she is not just the virtuoso, but can also be very nuanced. Scriabin isn’t easy to pull off. I had one of my most memorable performances of a live concert by Rudolf Serkin back in the early 90s, and this is one of the first time that Scriabin really moves me.

I’m still mostly struggling with most of 20th century music, but the Ligeti etudes are quite accessible even to me.

But a real highlight of this album is the closing, Prokofiev’s sonata no. 8. Again, not a showpiece, much more introvert, written during the horrible year of 1943 in the middle of World War II. Again, Wang shows how complete she is as an artist in this performace.

Overall, the album is very well recorded, giving you a premium seat in the Berlin Philharmonie.

I’m not the only one liking this album by the way, it’s got top reviews from pretty much every one in the business (Gramophone Editor’s Choice, Choc de Classica, 5 stars by Diapason and FonoForum).

Highly recommended.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 with Kirill Petrenko or Why Maybe I Do Like Tchaikovsky After All

Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky

My first ever post on this blog regarding Tchaikovsky created a bit of a debate among my readers, as it was titled Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 with Neeme Järvi or Why I Don’t Like Tchaikovsky.

Several of them couldn’t believe that I don’t really like Tchaikovsky that much, and tried to convince me otherwise.

That said, this post has been some years ago and I still basically limited my Tchaikovsky listening to about once yearly going back to said Symphony No. 5, occasionally the Violin Concerto with Heifetz (but more likely because it is on the same album as his fantastic Brahms), and every once in a while testing out new versions of his piano concerto no. 1, more often than not being disappointed.

And, for sure, during the pre-Christmas period, the Nutcracker, ideally by Rattle, was a must have.

I’ve tried the four early symphonies by Tchaikovsky, never got them, but most surprisingly his 6th, which many consider his symphonic masterpiece, never got my attention.

So when the Berlin Philharmonic finally released his first album with their new boss (elected many years ago), I got curious.

I’m very happy I did check it out.

Tchaikovsky Symphony No 6 – Kirill Petrenko – Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (BPO 2019)

So far, I must admit I always go a bit lost in this piece. Guess what, Petrenko really opened my eyes and ears here.

His very transparent reading helped me to see the structure, to understand the nuances, to see the many beautiful similarities with the beautiful orchestral sounds of his ballets.

At the same time, this is not a slim HIP-inspired baroque interpretation, as the word “transparent” may imply. This is the romantic power and suave sound of the BPO at it’s best. So all the necessary drama of the “Pathétique” is there when it is needed.

If this is an indication of the future of the Berlin Philharmonic under his new conductor, I hope this was not only a snapshot from the honeymoon period. We could be really entering a new Golden Age of the BPO, and we all should be going back to Scharoun’s yellow tent more often (if you can get tickets).

My rating: 5 stars

P.S. Gramophone agrees, giving this album an Editor’s Choice in the July 2019 edition

You can find it here (Qobuz)

An Beautiful New Vocal Jazz Album with Giovanni Mirabassi and Sarah Lancman

Giovanni Mirabassi

Giovanni Mirabassi remains one of my favorite Jazz pianists. I really love his trio efforts, be it on Terra Furiosa, Live in Toyko, or, probably my preferred one, Architectures.

Mirabassi is Italian, but has been living in Paris for many years. As mentioned above, he trio output (mainly with Gianluca Renzi and Leon Parker) is fantastic, but he’s also collaborated with some excellent singers, e.g. Angela Elvira Herrera Zaparta and Maikel Ante Fajardo on Adelante, and on Sarah Lancman’s previous 2018 albums A Contretemps and Inspiring Love. Both albums only featured Sarah on the title, now we have a recording where both Lancman and Mirabassi share the cover. The two already met in 2015 and have toured together.

Sarah Lancman

Sarah Lancman is a young French singer, who studied in Paris, and has released three albums so far.

There is no shortage of excellent Jazz singers today, but still, Lancman has a very recognisable, unique voice. Not suprisingly, she won the first price in a jazz contest hosted by Quincy Jones.

Giovanni Mirabassi – Sarah Lancman – Intermezzo (Starprod 2019)

So what do you get? Well, you could argue, is this still Jazz?

You basically get beautiful duos where Mirabassi plays in a very intimate and connected way with Sarah, who singing exclusively in Italian (note the album cover kind of gives it away) on this album.

Every once in a while, Olivier Bogé joins playing the saxophone, with a sound somewhat reminiscent of Stan Getz. So who cares if this is Jazz or not?

All of this is just hugely enjoyable, beautiful, intimate music, and really worth checking out.

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

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)