A New Reference Recording for the Chopin Nocturnes – Stephen Hough

First of all, sorry for my long absence, there was just too much going on in my day job. I even skipped my traditional section “reflections on the Gramophone awards”.

The Chopin Nocturnes

Which of the many works of Chopin are his true masterpiece? The Etudes, the Préludes, the Sonatas, Scherzi, or even the Mazurkas that Chopin cherished so much? As always, these things are impossible to judge objectively.

But I know which ones are my favourite: The Nocturnes. They are simple enough that even I with my very limited piano skills could try to play some of them (I’d butcher them…), but they have such a melodic charm and such an intimacy to them, that if I’d have to live with only one category of his works, this would be it. It is clearly inspired by Belcanto, and as I’ve written many times here, I’m a sucker for beautiful melodies.

Has Chopin invented the Nocturne? Almost certainly not, it is a much older category, and even the solo piano one was invented by Irish composer John Fields according to some musicologists.

But Chopin truly mastered this category, which by the way, unlike the Préludes and the Etudes, aren’t just one or two large collection of works, but actually a lot of smaller collections of 2-3 Nocturnes per opus.

So the way we listen to them today, as one end-to-end album experience, probably wasn’t something that a lot of people would have heard during Chopin’s lifetime, given that they were written over a period of nearly 20 years.

I’ve already written about my favourite version of the Nocturnes, in the legendary Supraphon recording by Ivan Moravec, which also features in my Top 10 Chopin albums and my 25 Essential Classical Albums.

I’ve also mentioned the other legendary version, by Maria-Joao Pires, have reviewed Fazil Say’s recent recording. Beyond Moravec and Pires, there are other legendary classics like Rubinstein obviously, Claudio Arrau, or Nelson Freire.

So I wasn’t really searching for yet another Nocturnes recording. But then I read that Stephen Hough had released on the Hyperion label.

Until recently, Stephen wasn’t even fully on my radar screen. I had heard his name as a great pianist, of course, but I hadn’t really listened to many of his recordings yet.

This is mainly due to the fact that Hyperion, his record label, still categorically refuses to be streamed anywhere. While I can understand their reluctance, given how little streaming revenues must mean to any classical label, it just really doesn’t help discovery.

Chopin: Noctures – Stephen Hough (Hyperion 2021)

Chopin Noctures Stephen Hough Hyperion Records 2021 24/192

The first album that I truly appreciated Stephen Hough is his recording of a collection of works I particularly care about, Brahms’ Late Piano pieces. I already had several recordings of this that I considered to be my absolute references, including Volodos, but then I read several reviews of Stephen Hough’s recording, bought it blindly, and was blown away.

So when I read another outstanding review of this recording by Jed Distler on classicstoday.com, I just went ahead and shelled out the GBP26, without thinking too much.

I was glad I did. Very much like with the Brahms above, Hough just finds something new to say about these works that are so familiar, so often played, without ever feeling like he had to force himself to do something different (which was one of my issues with the recent Say recording).

The entire playing sounds so natural, light, and charming (in the most positive sense of the word), that when you listen to this you’re kind of wondering how these little masterpieces could ever have been played in a different way. Take one of my favourites, op. 37 No. 2. So deceivingly simple, it could be mistaken as a Children’s lullaby. But when you listen closely, in spite of all the apparent ease in which Hough takes this, you’ll see all the depth and complexity underlying this little gem of a song.

I’d go as far that if you buy only one classical piano album in 2021, this should be the one (And yes, I still plan to do my top albums of the year post in the coming days, this one is already set).

I should probably at some point add Hough to my Top 10 Favorite Pianists.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Hyperion)

Beautiful recordings of Mozart’s late string quartets by the Quatuor van Kuijk

Mozart’s string quartets

I must admit that for years I somewhat ignored Mozart’s chamber music, or actually quite a bit of Mozart’s other works as well (more to come in future posts). Mozart really was for me my god in terms of operatic works, the entire DaPonte suite will always be my favourite operas ever, and I increasingly discover other masterpieces like Idomeneo or La Clemenza di Tito. On string quartets, I simply thought that nothing can beat Beethoven and Haydn, that I’d been listening to for years. I was wrong, obviously.

A young French string quartet, the Quatuor Van Kuijk, named after first violin Nicolas Van Kuijk, joined by Sylvain Favre-Bulle, Emmanuel François and Anthony Kondo, convinced me otherwise. It is actually several Chocs by French Classica magazine that flagged them to me.

A particular new favourite turned out to Mozart’s latest quartet, KV465, also known as “Dissonance“.

Mozart: String Quartets No. 16 & 19 – Quatuor van Kuijk (Alpha 2016)

Mozart: String Quartets No. 16 & 19 - Quatuor van Kuijk Alpha 2016 24/96

But let’s start with KV428, another gem of a string quartet, very clearly inspired by (and even dedicated to) Joseph Haydn’s quartets op. 33, there is so much to discover. It is clearly showing Mozart’s total mastery of making melodies sing. But there’s so much more to it, with a lot of underlying complexity of the different voices interacting like a true dialogue. Some smarter people than me even said it reminds them of Brahms, meaning that Mozart here was potentially 100 years ahead of his time.

You get a Divertimento (KV136) as a nice filler, truly enjoyable in the very meaning of the word (divertire meaning “to amuse”).

The real highlight of this album is KV465, a nearly 30 min long masterpiece, that starts with the dissonances that must have totally shocked the audience at the time, and still puzzles today’s audiences when you hear it for the first time. The “seeking” nearly 2 minutes long intro resolves into one of Mozart’s true masterpieces. This was composed alongside some of my all time favourites of Mozart, like his piano concertos KV466 and 467 (nos. 20 & 21 respectively), and you can hear the same mastery of both melody and structure here.

Not sure why I ignored these pieces for so long, I really recommend you check them out.

Watch this space, I’ll be shortly writing about another outstanding recording of KV465.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

The “Best” Keith Jarrett Solo Album? The Legendary Sun Bear Concerts

The “Sun Bear” Concerts

Keith Jarrett has recorded A LOT of solo concerts. Attending one of the last of them in 2015 actually triggered me to start this blog.

I’ve reviewed a number of them here already, and still have the ambition at some point to review them all. You’ll find the links to my reviews of his concerts in Budapest, Munich, Paris, Modena/Ferrara/Torino/Genova, Bregenz/München, Milan, and Bremen/Lausanne, which I mentioned in my 25 Essential Jazz albums. And yes, there’s obviously, the Köln Concert, the best selling solo Jazz album in Jazz history.

None of these concerts is ever not worth exploring, but some are better than others.

The Sun Bear Concerts however are in a good spot to be a contender for the best solo piano album of Jarrett ever. Thanks to my loyal reader Alain for reminding me to finally get this blog post out.

Keith Jarrett Sun Bear Concerts Piano Solo Recorded in Japan ECM DSD64 Remaster

Calling the Sun Bear Concerts an “album” is a bit of an understanding. When they came out, they were a hefty 10 vinyl box (which I still own), and in the days of CDs it still filled 6 of the silver discs. We’re actually talking about 6h42 of music with concerts taken from 5 different cities in Japan, all in 1976, the year following the legendary Köln Concert.

I must admit I’m not even going to try to properly “review” 7 hours of music. It would probably a rather boring read anyhow. What I can say though is that in spite of being this long, this really is a gem of a box.

Jarrett can have three tendencies that I tend to dislike: 1) occasionally, he get’s into “noodling”, i.e the music isn’t going anywhere. Which shouldn’t be surprising given that they are 100% improvised. You barely get this here. Where he found his creative energy, I’m not sure, but let’s face it, the man is a genius. 2) Sometimes Jarrett gets quite beyond tonality. I’m personally not a big fan of this, my simple little brain is just to addicted to actually chords and melodies. Again, very little of this during the 6 hours of music. And 3) there isn’t a Jarrett album without his somewhat obnoxious humming along to the music. I’m still hoping some future AI can filter this out at some point, but on this album, maybe because of the special atmosphere in Japan, he holds himself back much more than usual.

All of this taken together makes this album an absolute must have for any loyal Jarrett fan, but I’d even say it should be your next step after the Köln Concert as your gateway drug, even if you’re not very much into Jazz at all (for me the Köln Concert was the 2nd Jazz album I ever owned, and it clearly got me hooked forever).

My rating: A very definite 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz, 16/44 CD version) or here (Highresaudio DSD remaster)

Francesco Corti Plays Bach Harpsichord Concerti – A True Delight

Bach Harpsichord Concertos

In more than 5 years of this blog, I’ve only formally reviewed one version of the Bach piano/harpsichord concertos, the very surprisingly disappointing (to my ears) recording with Andreas Staier.

In that article I mentioned that I’m still looking for my favorite version of these beautiful works. So far I typically went with Cafe Zimmermann’s recordings that I haven’t reviewed yet individually.

So, what was wrong (again, IMHO) with the Staier recording? Well, Gramophone at the time summarised it nicely: “If you’re looking for fun, abandon, lyricism, radiant lift off […] and luminosity, then maybe this one is not for you“.

And yes, that’s exactly what I was looking for. And it seems like I finally found it.

Bach: Harpsichord Concertos vol. 1 & 2 – Francesco Corti – Il Pomo d’Oro (Pentatone 2020/2021)

For some reason, I missed the release of vol. 1 of these two separate albums back last year, and really only fully discovered this when vol. 2 was released some days ago.

Bach: Harpsichord concertos Francesco Corti Il Pomo d'oro Pentatone 2020 24 96
Bach: Francesco Corti Harpsichord Concertos II Il Pomo d'oro Pentatone 2021 24 192

Francesco Corti is a well known Italian organ and harpsichord player, and Il Pomo d’Oro is a recently (2012) founded ensemble specialized in baroque music.

Both bring together two recordings that are playful, enjoyable, bouncy, lively, and engaging. Very much the opposite of the somewhat dull Andreas Staier recording.

Is it perfect? Well, no. Corti and the ensemble occasionally have some quirks, particularly with regards to tempo selection in some parts.

But, to quote Duke Ellington, It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. And swing there is, plenty. It is just a sheer pleasure to listen to. And that, to me at least, is worth more than technical perfection.

Therefore, this may well become my new go-to version for these works I bought both volumes immediately, which I encourage you to do as well.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (vol. 1) and here (vol. 2)

My (Current) Favorite Version of Brahms’ 4th Symphony

Brahms’ 4th Symphony

I started this blog writing extensively about Brahms’ 1st symphony, and why it means so much to me, and why to this day I’m still looking for my “perfect” version.

I’ve also reviewed Andris Nelsons’ excellent Brahms cycle with the Boston Symphony some time ago (5 stars). I’ve also found a favorite version of Brahms 2nd symphony

But I’ve never written explicitly about Brahms 4th symphony.

To me, there’s a clear (personal) hierarchy among the Brahms symphonies. The first will always come, well, first, the 2nd is still nice but I listen to it much more occasionally, the 3rd is beautiful, but has the super famous 3rd movement that has been a bit overused in popular culture. And then there’s the 4th symphony.

After all, this could actually be the greatest masterpiece of all of them. Why? Well, I’m just totally in awe of the fourth movement, which is basically just a set of variations on a very simple motif, a Passacaglia. I’ve written before how much I really appreciate variations these days, they are a true art form (even though it is something that one appreciates only after some learning), be it the Goldberg variations, the Diabelli Variations, or Brahms several other variations, like the Haydn or Händel variations.

Each one of these little variations in the 4th movement is such a gem, with an emotional depth (some say down to very deep despair) in a bit more than 9 minutes. And unlike most other symphonies, this symphony doesn’t end in happiness. It starts in the e-minor key, and ends in e-minor. Compare this to Brahms own first symphony where you start with the nearly menacing timpani but you end in a chorale that tells you that all will end well. Nothing ends well here.

Don’t get me wrong, it is not only the last movement that is fantastic. In this symphony there’s more than enough to discover in each of the movements. In comparison, Brahms’ 1st has a fantastic first and last movement, but the two in between feel more like an interlude.

Brahms: The Symphonies – Riccardo Chailly – Gewandhausorchester Leipzig (Decca 2013)

Brahms: The Symphonies Gewandhausorchester Leipzig Riccardo Chailly Decca 2013 24 96

So, now to my current favorite version of the 4th. I put the “current” in the title, as I always keep discovering and looking, and my taste clearly changes and evolves over time.

Before I get into Chailly’s excellent recording, a quick note on some other versions you should check out. Many critics will give you Carlos Kleiber’s legendary recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, and they have a point. It really among the best. I’ve long been in love with Fritz Reiner’s beautiful reading with the Royal Philharmonic. Another all time classic is George Szell with the Cleveland Orchestra. (Side note: Szell takes the 4th movement much more slowly at 10:42 compared to Chailly’s 9:23, only to be exceeded by Karajan’s reading with 10:49, as well as Kurt Masur in 10:52).

If we look at the more contemporary versions, beyond the already mentioned Andris Nelsons, you should also check out John Eliot Gardiner’s historically informed reading with his own Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique (I’m not totally convinced of his approach, but it is nevertheless quite insightful).

But now enough of the alternatives, here’s my current champion: Riccardo Chailly with the Gewandhausorchester. By the way, this is not the first recording I love from Chailly in Leipzig, my favorite version ever of the Bruch violin concerto with Janine Jansen was recorded with this great team, and the same recording also features my favorite Mendelssohn violin concerto (mentioned in my 25 Essential Classical albums). Chailly’s recording of the Brahms piano concertos with Nelson Freire is also one of my all-time favourites, and the complete Brahms’ serenades recording is also outstanding.

So why do I prefer Chailly over all the other versions mentioned? I’d say it is not one little thing, but a sum of all the small things. This recording just feels “right”, balanced, nuanced, going deep when it needs to, but still tightly controlled.

And this doesn’t only apply to the 4th symphony. As you can only get this as a box set (if you decide to buy and not to stream, which I strongly encourage you to do), you’d also need to know that all the other three symphonies are top notch. They are IMHO, together with Nelsons, the best contemporary set you can buy.

To compare the two: Nelsons & the BSO really go big, this really is Brahms in Cinemascope in the great tradition of Karajan. Chailly’s approach in pretty much all cases is a bit more nuanced and delicate. Both versions really have very strong merit, and you won’t be disappointed with any of them.

And on top of that, going back to Chailly, in this very reasonably priced set, you also get most of the other orchestral works that Brahms has written, e.g. the above mentioned Haydn-Variations, the Tragic Overture, the rarely played Liebeslieder Walzer, and even to wrap it up some of the famous Hungarian Dances.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Keith Jarrett: Standards Live

Keith Jarrett’s Standards Trio

Happy New Year, dear readers! I assume all of you are keeping your fingers crossed that 2021 will be the year that will make things better, and that we all can attend live concerts again

In the meantime, recorded live concerts are for most of us the only option to recreate that feeling, so I thought it would be a good idea to write about some of these.

As the subtitle of my blog indicates, I’m a big Keith Jarrett fan. And his “Standards” trio with Gary Peacock and Jack de Johnette, remains, after Bill Evans legendary trios, the archetype of the Jazz Piano Trio, one of my favorite art forms.

The Standards Trio was formed semi-formally in 1983, when the trio recorded the album Standards, featuring, guess what, the jazz standards of the Great American Song Book (I’ve reviewed the legendary vol. 2 of this album here). This is not the first time the trio played together, but it was the start of more than a decade of albums, many of them live, of the trio playing together. This came as a return to more accessible music, after the 1970s, which for me Jazz-wise were not very interesting (I really don’t like free jazz, jazz-rock, fusion, or most of the other stuff that came out of that decade that for me was much more interesting on the art-rock side of things).

I’ve already put the fantastic Live at the Blue Note box into my 25 Essential Jazz Albums, and have also reviewed the enjoyable After The Fall from 1998, 15 years after the original Standards album.

Standards Live (ECM 1986)

Keith Jarrett Standards Live Highresaudio DSD remaster

This album was recorded in 1985, two years after Standards, at a live concert in Paris.

It captures all the energy of the trio at the peak of their performance, and unlike After The Fall, is recorded with the excellent recording quality that ECM is well known for.

Thanks to the live format, the trio always has sufficient times to develop the songs, with the average track length being 8-11 minutes. You can hear the fun the trio is having.

We start out with a true standard, the beautiful Stella By Starlight, that Jarrett takes a while to intro solo before the trio kicks in. They follow up with a solid The Wrong Blues, that has absolutely nothing wrong with it. Falling In Love With Love is the archetype of the swinging and grooving together. But the track from this album that I go back over and over again is Too Young To Go Steady, that Jarrett again intros solo. This is 10:11 of pure bliss to me. This is a textbook example of the trio playing truly as one.

The only downside of this, as of pretty much every other Jarrett album is his constant humming and vocalising. I still hope at some point that an AI will be able to filter this out….

My rating: 5 stars (it’s not the absolute best of the Standards trio live albums, the rating is mainly driven by the sublime To Young To Go Steady, but it id still so much better to my ears than so much other music that’s out there).

You can find it here (Highresaudio, audiophile DSD remaster) and here (Qobuz)

My Top 5 Classical Albums of 2020

2020

I don’t need to tell anybody that 2020 was a weird year to say the least. It was supposed to be the big Beethoven anniversary year, with concerts all over the world and a lot of new album releases.

We certainly got a lot of new album releases, but we clearly didn’t have the live concerts we all wished for. I got lucky, I attended two socially distanced concerts during the times when Covid in Europe was still at lower levels, both involving Beethoven by the way (Igor Levit playing some piano sonatas, and Lars Vogt playing the 4th piano concerto with Paavo Järvi).

But without further ado, let’s jump right into it and list my top 5 classical albums of the year. Interestingly, less Beethoven than I’d have expected in here.

Chopin’s Piano Concertos by Benjamin Grosvenor (Decca 2020)

Yes, Benjamin Grosvenor regularly gets 5 stars on this blog, guilty as charged. But what can I say, this new album with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Elim Chan is just great (see my original review here). And it won the Gramophone Album of the Year in its category, which was well deserved.

Brahms Late Solo Piano Works by Stephen Hough

Stephen Hough Brahms The Final Piano Pieces Hyperion 2020 24 96

I love Brahms’ late piano pieces, and this is a worthy addition to the top recordings of these works, alongside Arkadi Volodos. See my original review here.

Beethoven and Sibelius Violin Concertos – Christian Tetzlaff

Beethoven / Sibelius Violin Concertos Christan Tetzlaff Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin - Robin Ticciati Odine 2020 24/96

In this Beethoven year, two German artists recorded excellent versions of the Beethoven classics, both with the Deutsches Sinfonieorchester Berlin. I must admit, this second or third (depending on how you rank) orchestra of Berlin always flew a bit under my radar, behind the Berlin Philharmonic and the Staatskapelle Berlin. This was probably undeserved. Both the recordings of Martin Helmchen with Andrew Manze as conductor, and this recording with Christian Tetzlaff under Robin Ticciati both show the full potential of this orchestra.

Between Helmchen’s now complete Beethoven cycle (I reviewed one volume here), and this new recording of the violin concerto by Tetzlaff, I’m highlighting Tetzlaff here.

He really is one of the best violin players of our era, and probably also somewhat underrated. Both his Beethoven and the Sibelius give a very fresh take on these concertos.

Beethoven Complete String Quartets by the Quatuor Ebène

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

I’m a big fan of the Quatuor Ebène, and already had the pleasure of seeing them live some years ago.

They have now recorded all Beethoven String Quartets in a world tour (mostly pre-Covid). I’ve reviewed one of the releases here.

Now, is their new complete cycle something that will replace my favorite box of all times, the complete recordings by the legendary Takacs Quartet? No, but honestly, the Beethoven string quartets are such masterpieces, and have such a breadth of material from the early op. 18 to the amazing but not very accessible late works, that one should never have only one complete cycle.

Bach: St John Passion – Herreweghe (2020 recording)

Johann Sebastian Bach: Johannes Passion Philippe Herreweghe Collegium Vocale Ghent Phi 2020 24/96

How could a best of list on my blog be complete without some Bach? This year, we had several great recordings of the choral masterpieces. Masaaki Suzuki has released both a St John (recorded in Cologne) and a St Matthew Passion, that have both won accolades from critics.

But let me flag here another recording by another artist that I admire (and had the pleasure of seeing live already), the great Philippe Herreweghe.

I had initially missed this and only really noticed it when it popped up in the Gramophone Awards. This is not his first recording but potentially his best. I can’t wait until Easter (I know, Christmas is just barely over…) so I can play it again in repetition.

So, here you go. This will be my last post of the year, there won’t be a similar list for Jazz. I just wasn’t able to find 5 albums that I liked enough to give them 5 stars this year. Let’s keep our fingers crossed for 2021.

Wishing all of you a Happy New Year 2021!

You’ll find the recordings here (Qobuz/Hyperion):

Grosvenor Chopin

Hough Brahms

Tetzlaff Beethoven Sibelius

Quatuor Ebene Beethoven

Herreweghe St John Passion

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