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)

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

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”

Händel At Its Best with Emmanuelle Haïm, Sabine Devielhe, and Lea Desandre

Of being a fanboy

Yes, you can accuse me of being a fanboy. I’m a Belieber. Well, not exactly of the Canadian with the interesting haircuts, but there are some artists that I just pretty much like every single album of.

This list includes the brilliant Igor Levit, the amazing Isabelle Faust, but also French soprano Sabine Devielhe. I really must pay attention that I don’t just praise an album just because they release it. At least I’ve got one example to prove that even my gods are not perfect, but these are really the exception to the rule. Anyhow, I’ll stay vigilant, and please let me know in the comments if you disagree, as always! I really like hearing your opinions.

Sabine Devielhe hasn’t faulted me yet. Whether you take her Rameau album Le Grand Théâtre de l’Amour (not yet reviewed on my blog as released before I started it), her fantastic Mozart album The Weber Sisters, her more recent release Mirages, this young Soprano and her beguiling voice are always amazing.

Handel: Italian Cantatas – Emmanuelle Haïm – Le Concert d’Astrée – Sabine Devielhe – Lea Desandre (Erato 2018)

Handel Italian Cantatas Sabine Devielhe Lea Desandre Le Concert d'Astrée Emmanuelle Haïm Erato 2018 24/96

In this album, we get another favourite of mine, Emmanuelle Haïm. I’ve first encountered her on another Händel album, Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno with the great Nathalie Dessay, and have praised her fantastic Messiah.

Young French/Italian Mezzo Lea Desandre wasn’t on my radar screen yet, but after this album she certainly will be.

So what do you get on this album?

Well, you get Händel’s beauty, but in lesser known works. These cantatas, as the well written booklet tells me, were all written in Italy (hence non-surprisingly the album title). But unlike with many of the longer baroque operas, you don’t need to worry about the rather complicated and cumbersome stories. The cantatas do have stories (nicely enough shorter) as well, which you can follow thanks to the extensive booklet, but you can just be like me, and just enjoy the breathtaking beauty of this music. My personal favorite is track no. 10, Se vago rio fra sassi.

I’m a bit late to the party recommending this album, it’s already been Recording of the Month by Gramophone, has received a Choc by Classica, and 5 stars by Diapason.

So don’t hesitate and just go buy it now. You won’t regret it.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

The Legendary Klemperer Recording of Brahms’ Requiem

Happy New Year

Can one still wish a Happy New Year three weeks in? Well I’ll just do it anyway, given that the Chinese New Year is anyway still ahead of us.

Requiems

I didn’t often use to write, or even listen to, Requiems. While I acknowledged the beautiful music of Mozart, Verdi, Fauré and others, it always felt “wrong” listening to music meant for mourning the death of somebody.

Well, now it is me being touched by a death in the family, that I still have a hard time mentally acknowledging, let alone fully digest. It turns out that the beautiful music written by these legends is just what you need in these situations.

So bear with me, you’ll read more about requiems on this blog this year. Don’t worry, life has to go on, so I’ll write about other stuff as well.

Brahms: Ein Deutsches Requiem

Given the subtitle of my blog, it is not surprising that Brahms’ is the only requiem I’ve already written about, in my review of Nézet-Séguin’s live performance in Berlin back in 2017.

So I won’t repeat myself here, just re-alert you to the fact that this is a requiem that doesn’t use the typical latin text of pretty much any other requiem around, but instead uses handpicked parts of the bible that Brahms chose himself, and it is sung in German, hence the name.

It remains among my absolute favorite requiems.

Brahms: Ein Deutsches Requiem – Otto Klemperer – Philharmonia Chorus & Orchestra – Elisabeth Schwarzkopf – Dietrich Fischer Dieskau

Brahms: Ein Deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem) Otto Klemperer Elisabeth Schwarzkopf Dietrich Fischer Dieskau Philharmonia Chorus & Orchestra EMI Warner Classics

I tend to often write about contemporary recordings here, a) because typically they are recorded much better sonically, b) because there’s already been written so much about the great classics, and c) because performance practice evolves and I could for example not really enjoy Bach played in the 1960’s symphony style, before historically informed practice came in the 1970s.

That said, there are some classics that have truly stood the test of time, and if there ever is one, this could be the one.

Otto Klemperer is an absolute Brahms legend, his symphony cycle was my first and still is one of my favorite ever.

And take a look at the soloist cast of this 1961 recording: We have Elisabeth Schwarzkopf AND Dietrich Fischer Dieskau! We get the full dramatic power of the Philharmonia Orchestra under Klemperer, that already made his stereo symphony cycle (also on EMI, Warner classics) so great. By the way, if you like this, you may want to consider getting the entire Klemperer Brahms box on Warner. I’ll provide a link below.

My favorite part of this requiem remains the intimate, simple, and amazingly touching Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit (You now have sorrow). This is really what sets this requiem apart from all the other Latin ones with their Days Of Wrath (Dies Irae). Just look at the consoling text:


You now have sorrow;
but I shall see you again
and your heart shall rejoice
and your joy no one shall take from you.

Behold me:
I have had for a little time toil and torment,
and now have found great consolation.

I will console you,
as one is consoled by his mother

My rating: 5 stars

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

If you prefer to get the entire Klemperer Brahms Warner box, which I highly recommend, as you’ll get all the symphonic works as well for just a little more money, you’ll find it here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)