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).

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)

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!

My Top 5 Classical Albums of 2019

Isabelle Faust plays Bach Violin Concertos

This album just had to be there. I’m a big Isabelle Faust fan, as most of my regular readers know.

This is just a fantastic album overall, and an must have. Hugely enjoyable, Faust’s signature Sleeping Beauty Stradivarius sound, and the AKAMUS is a perfect partner. I had heard the same combination live in 2018, and it was already a great experience.

You’ll find the original review here

Saint-Saëns Piano Concertos 2&5 by Bertrand Chamayou

Saint Saens Concertos 2& 5 solo piano works Bertrand Chamayou Orchestre National de France Emmanuel Krivine Erato 2019 24 96

I really didn’t know Saint-Saëns really well before 2019. I still don’t, but at least the piano concertos were a true discovery for me, with Bertrand Chamayou’s fantastic recording, also with the equally exciting album by Alexandre Kantorow with the concertos 3-5.

The Chamayou album got the 2019 Gramophone award, and I can only highly recommend this, particularly for the concerto no. 2 which really has become a favourite of mine now.

Yuya Wang’s Berlin Recital

Yuya Wang The Berlin Recital Encores Deutsche Grammophon 2019 24 96

I’ve said it in the review, I wasn’t a big fan of Yuja Wang before this album. This live recital really has become one of my absolute favourites, for the playing, the recording quality, and the exciting repertoire. Highly recommended.

Savall’s mesmerising Messiah

Georg Friedrich Händel Messiah An Oratorio HWV 56 La Capella Reial de Catalunya Jordi Savall Alia Vox 2019 DSD 24 88

This album, which only came out some weeks ago, has been in constant rotation on my playlist. Being in the Christmas season helps, but this album constantly keeps playing in the back of my head, even when not listening to music at all. You’ll find my original review here.

Igor Levit’s Beethoven Cycle

Igor Levit Beethoven Complete Piano Sonatas Sony Classical 24/96 2019

I had several contenders for the last spot on this list. There’s Volodos’ beautiful recording of the Schubert sonata D959 (not yet reviewed), Pichon’s Liberta compilation, several of the great Debussy recordings on Harmonia Mundi (e.g. Faust, or Roth), or Petrenko’s Tchaikovsky Pathétique. But ultimately I ended up choosing this fantastic cycle. I have yet to fully discover in detail every of the 32 sonatas (there’s just so much material), and I don’t think I’ll ever feel fully qualified to review all 32 sonatas in detail.

And I don’t necessarily agree with every single choice of style or particularly tempo. But one this is for sure, this cycle is special, and will make you think. Isn’t this what musical enjoyment is all about?

You’ll find the download links to all of the above in the original reviews.

So, up to you? Do you agree with my choices? Anything I missed?

Two Beautiful New Albums for the Christmas Season from Jordi Savall and Vladimir Jurowski – The Messiah and the Nutcracker

Christmas Music

I’ve already written several blog posts on music for the Christmas season.

By the way, should you follow any other faith, please be aware that while I grew up in a Christian country, I’m agnostic and really see Christmas more as a beautiful family tradition, that nicely enough has led to the creation of some really beautiful music.

Both works I’ll be discussing here, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and Händel’s Messiah, are not properly speaking Christmas music, but the Nutcracker is obviously strongly associated with the season, and at least part I of the Messiah deals directly with the birth of Jesus, so has a more direct connection.

The last couple of weeks saw the release of two new great recordings of these old warhorses. Jordi Savall has attacked the Messiah, and Vladimir Jurowski the Nutcracker. Let me start with Savall

Händel: The Messiah – Jordi Savall – Le Concert des Nations (AliaVox 2019)

Georg Friedrich Händel Messiah An Oratorio HWV 56 La Capella Reial de Catalunya Jordi Savall Alia Vox 2019 DSD 24 88

I’ve already written about 3 excellent versions of the Messiah. So is there really a need to add another one? Well I just bought it, so for me, the answer is yes.

Here’s why: I really like Jordi Savall, his early music and baroque recordings are always worth exploring, see for example his recording of the Bach and Vivaldi Magnificat. So I clearly had high expectations.

Nicely enough, I wasn’t disappointed. Let’s compare this to my preferred version so far by Emmanuelle Haïm. Haïm really has an incomparable swing, which really makes baroque music so enjoyable.

Savall often takes slower tempi, but the entire recording has just so much brilliance, shine and sparkle, that I was immediately reminded of one of those giant Christmas trees that many cities put up (e.g. the Rockefeller one in NYC).

And this is music you really want to sparkle. The singers really shine as well. One of my favourites is “He shall feed his flock” from part II, with Rachel Redmond and Damien Guillon. Just beautiful.

The Nutcracker – Vladimir Jurowski – State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia “Evgeny Svetlanov” (Pentatone 2019)

Tchaikovsky The Nutcracker Vladimir Jurowski State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia "Evgeny Svetlanov" Pentatone 2019

Some say Russian music only should be played by Russian orchestras. My favourite version of the Nutcracker proves otherwise, but still there is something to be said for the combination.

Jurowski had already recorded a very beautiful Swan Lake, so I was curious to hear what he did with the Nutcracker, especially in an all live recording.

I wasn’t disappointed. In a way, this album is kind of the reversal of the Messiah situation, here my favourite Rattle version is the shiny Christmas tree, whereas the Jurowski version clearly has a lot of swing and verve. You are drawn in from the first minute of the overture, and if you can sit still during the enchanting Flower Waltz, you’re probably deaf.

The only minor issue I have with this album is the occasional imprecision in timing of the orchestra, these are due to the live recording here, I’m sure in a studio version these would have been edited out.

But this is nitpicking, overall this is a truly engaging and beautiful Nutcracker.

So in a nutshell, both are albums that are a must have for the season, and as a cherry on the cake, are actually quite well recorded on top of everything else.

My rating: 5 stars for both

You can find them here (Messiah) and here (Nutcracker), both on Qobuz.

My Reflections On the Classica Magazine “Chocs de l’année 2019” – part II

This is the continuation of a blog post started last weekend.

Marc-Antoine Charpentier – Histoires sacrées – Christophe Daucé – Ensemble Correspondances – Harmonia Mundi 2019

Yet another French composer that I know very little about. If like me you’ve grown up in Central Europe and have been watching television, you typically know Charpentier as the composer of the Eurovision theme, the fanfare that was played when several European countries decided to do a joint production.

This theme is actually the prelude to his Te Deum.

Beyond this, again giving away my ignorance, I barely knew anything about him. He occasionally pops up on some French baroque compilation I own, but in my entire library which really isn’t that small, I have a total of 2 albums featuring this composer.

Marc-Antoine Charpentier Histoires Sacrées Ensemble Correspondances Sébastien Daucé Harmonia Mundi 2019 24 96

Listening to this album as part of writing this blog post made it clear to me that I really missed something here. I have zero benchmark to compare the version to obviously, but Sebastien Daucé’s Ensemble Correspondances plays truly engaging early baroque vocal music, beautifully sung and played. It immediately reminded me of Monteverdi, which turns out isn’t misleading. Monteverdi’s operas clearly influenced the Versailles court and Charpentier’s composing.

Really worth checking out. No formal rating given my ignorance of the composer, but informally this is 4 stars upwards.

Antonio Vivaldi: Il Giustino – Ottavio Dantone (Naïve 2019)

Vivaldi Il Giustino Ottavio Dantone Accademia Bizantina Naive 2019 24 96 Galou Barath Gang Cangemi

Only two things to say here from my side: Dantone’s Vivaldi playing is truly fantastic, but unfortunately I can stand Vivaldi’s operas in doses of 10 min max.

So don’t expect a formal review here. But if you like Vivaldi, this is a no brainer.

Bach: 6 Partitas – Robert Levin (2019

J.S. Bach: Six partitas BWV 825-830 Robert Levin 2019

I was already confused when I saw the original review of this in Classica some months ago. I tried it again, and I just don’t get it: the interpretation is so bland and boring to my ears, I really don’t understand what Classica likes about this.

I prefer Igor Levit or Perahia any time.

Camille Pépin – Chamber Music (NoMad 2019)

Camille Pépin Chamber Music Ensemble Polygones (Nomad 2019)

I had already checked this out when I read the original review. A contemporary composer (born 1990), and female, which unfortunately is still a rarity, I was intrigued.

No formal review here, I still struggle with contemporary music, but this is not atonal, and actually quite rhythmic, so I encourage you to check this out, especially if you like e.g. the ECM New Series style.

Weinberg: Symphony No. 2 and 21 – Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla – City of Birmingham Symphony – Gidon Kremer (DG 2019)

A 20th century composer, with a young female conductor (also here we have way to few), and Gidon Kremer to top it all off, again I was interested. This album actually got huge praise by both Gramophone and Classica, and these two magazines don’t often overlap.

Mirga Grazinyte Tyla Gidon Kremer Weinberg Symphonies No. 2 & 21 City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Kremerata Baltica Deutsche Grammophon 2019

I checked this out several times, initially liking the tonal passages, then the music drifts into chordal progressions that just leave me confused. Which typically makes me give up to quickly. Now that I’m getting more and more (with baby steps) into Shostakovich, I may start to appreciate it more. I’ll certainly come back to this and so should you.

And keep an eye on Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla. This young Lithuanian conductor is a great talent worth watching.

Classica also recommends another Weinberg album by Gidon Kremer, also on DG; focusing on his chamber music.

Saint-Saëns: Piano Concertos 3-5 – Kantorow (x2) – Tapiola Sinfonietta (BIS 2019)

Saint Saens: Piano Concertos 3 4 5 Alexandre Kantorow Tapiola Sinfonietta BIS 2019

Sure, Classica likes French composers. Fair enough for a French classical music magazine. But actually, for Camille Saint-Saëns I truly share their enthousiasm. I must again admit my ignorance, but 2019 has been my year of discovery of his piano concertos. After the fantastic recording with Bertrand Chamayou which won a well deserved Gramophone Award, comes another outstanding recording, by French pianist Alexandre Kantorow, playing here with his father, Jean-Jacques at the baton. Kantorow is a fantastic pianist (see my review of his recent Russian album here, which also made it into my top classical albums of 2017). In short, a five star album that you should really own!

Mozart: Libertà – Raphaël Pichon

Liberta Mozart Et L'opera Raphael Pichon Pygmalion 24 96 Harmonia Mundi 2019

I’ve already shared my passion for this fantastic album in my review here. A must have.

Brahms: Clarinet Sonatas & Trio – Moraguès – Braley – Poltera (Indésens 2018)

Brahms: Clarinet Sonatas & Trio Moraguès Braley Poltéra Indesens 2019

Brahms’ chamber music for clarinet is still a part of his oeuvre that I find among the least accessible. I’ve so far only reviewed the recording of the sonatas with Lorenzo Coppola and Andreas Staier, but have never written about the clarinet trio.

This excellent album is a good occasion to change the latter, you get very nuanced and delicate playing that really helps exploring these beautiful and intimate works. Give them a try!

So, any feedback from your side? What do you think about this selection?

You can find the albums I mention above here (or in the original review):

Daucé – Charpentier

Dantone – Vivaldi

Levin – Bach

Pepin – Chamber music

Grazinyte-Tyla – Weinberg

Kantorow – Saint Saëns

Moraguès – Brahms