The Complete Beethoven String Quartets by the Takács Quartet – A Masterpiece

Beethoven’s String Quartets

I haven’t written that much yet about Beethoven’s string quartets. It is a hard to cover vast subject of 16 masterpieces, from the early ones that are still very reminiscent of Haydn, to the middle ones (mainly the Rasumovksy ones), that clearly match the power of the major Beethoven symphonies, to the entirely different universe that are the late quartets, that enter completely unheard harmonic complexities, that go even beyond his symphonic works.

How can one quartet really do them all justice? Typically, reviewers recommend getting different boxes for the different periods, and they are right.

However, some outstanding artists are able to just set a standard for all three periods. And the Takács Quartet is just one of them.

When Decca re-released the complete Beethoven box that was originally recorded in the early 2000s, I had to go back to it. I’m very glad I did, I was again blown away.

Beethoven: Complete String Quartets – Takács Quartet (Decca 2017 Remaster)

 

Takacs Quartet Beethoven Complete String Quartets Decca 24 48 2017 remaster

The Takacs Quartet has been around since 1975! They are probably one of the most outstanding string quartets ever. I’ve praised the Takacs´ several times already (See for example here my review of their fantastic Schubert), and remain a great fan of them.

In this box, in the early quartets of op. 18, you get all the Viennese lightness. These are just a pleasure to listen to. These works need to “swing”, and the Takacs just pull it off.

Moving to the more serious op. 59, the Takacs´switch gear appropriately. Take quartet no. 9, op. 59 no. 3, that starts with a very “serious” Andante con moto. This part occasionally reminds me of a Mahler symphony. And here, you get the full weight and emotional power this work requires, before moving on to the Allegro part, that gives you the Beethoven you are most likely to think of when you hear the name.

The late quartets again are a completely different animal. Let’s take for example op. 127. I have a pretty direct comparison, having only recently heard this played live by the equally fantastic Quatuor Ébène (see my concert review here). Comparing the two approaches here, let´s say we could characterise the Ébène’s live approach with “Passion”, and the Takacs’s with “Precision”. These are obviously simplifications, but you get the idea. Both are absolutely fantastic versions, and show you how much there is to discover in these masterworks, that are unfortunately not very approachable for the beginner. Give them some time, and they will grow on you.

If you only ever wanted to own one version of the Beethoven string quartets, this really would be the one to have. I´d strongly advise against having only one version, there are so many others to discover, and Beethoven’s quartets really are among the most outstanding masterpieces the Western world ever produced.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Prostudiomasters) or here (Prestoclassical, as limited edition disc set with some bonus DVDs)

My Reflections on the 2017 Gramophone Awards – Part I

2017 Gramophone Awards

The 2017 Gramophone Awards nominees have been published. As in the two previous years(2015 and 2016, let me add my comments and reflections on the proposed selection.

Overall, this year I was suprised how very few of the recordings I actually knew.

Therefore, this year I’ll only do two overall post on this, unlike the posts per category I did in recent years.

Baroque Instrumental

Bach: Orchestral Suites: Zefiro

Johann Sebastian Bach: Overtures - Zefiro - Alessandro Bernadini - Arcana - 2017 (24/96)

I very much liked this recording, giving it 4 stars here. Is it good enough for album of the year? Well, maybe.

Bach: Goldberg Variations – Mahan Esfahani

I was never as enthousiastic about this album as was Gramophone, my rating in my review was a lukewarm 3 stars. So definitely not my album of the year.

I haven’t heard any of the other albums, with some Telemann and Vivaldi, but will check in and maybe report back later.

 

Baroque Vocal

Hyperion doesn’t stream, so I cannot comment about Cohens/Arcangelos cantata album.

Bach: Matthew Passion – Gardiner

Bach St Matthew Passion John Eliot Gardiner SDG 2017 24/96

As reviewed here, I fully agree that this is a five star album very much worth having.

 

I haven’t heard any of the other recommended albums, from Blow (never heard that name before), Couperin, Monteverdi and Scarlatti, but will check them out, as they are by Les Arts Florissants and Christophe Rousset among other, that I really admire.

Chamber

I haven’t heard any of the first three recommended albums, as they are all 20th century stuff which really isn’t my cup of tea, from Ades, via Bacewicz, Berg, Schönberg, and Webern. I’ll leave this to others.

I´d be interested in trying the Bruch String Quartets as I have very little chamber music from this composer, but Hyperion doesn´t stream so I have no way of risk free trying.

Then there are two Schubert albums. Quatuors 12 and 15 by the Doric Quartet. I have only heard it once on the radio (again, also Chandos doesn´t stream), and liked it, but wasn´t blown away. Not interesting enough for me to spend money blindly on it.

Finally, there is the Death and the Maiden and a quartet by Sibelius by the Ehnes Quartet. Unfortunately, Onyx is another label that doesn´t stream.

So basically, there´s unfortunately not a lot I can contribute to this category, which I usually love.

Choral

Several albums in here that are just not my cup of tea, eg. Berkeley or Elgar. Even Haydn´s Season, here with Paul McCreesh, is not a piece of music I´m particularly passionate about. Better to shut up then.

I´m more curious about the Cherubini album by Hervé Niquet, I´ll check that one out later today.

There have been a number of recent recordings of Rachmaninov´s All-Night Vigil, and I´m also very interested by this latest recording of John Scott. I will report back on this one as well.

And then there is my highlight of the year:

Mozart: C-minor Mass – Mazaki Suzuki

Mozart: Great Mass in C-Minor Exsultate Jubilate Masaaki Suzuki Bach Collegium Japan BIS 2016 24/96

Truly a new reference, see also my review here

Concerto

Let me maybe start by the one recording I can really recommend in here:

Mozart: Violin Concertos – Isabelle Faust

Mozart: Violin Concertos Isabelle Faust Il Giardino Armonico Giovanni Antonini Harmonia Mundi 2016 24/96

I gave it a four star rating, as I don´t consider Mozart´s violin concertos to be essential, but the playing is truly five star.

I´m not a very huge fan of Lisa Batiashvili´s Sibelius and Tchaikovsky album, but this is more due to Barenboim, not Batiashvili´s fault. Augustin Hadelich Tchaikovsky is straightforward, but also not that much my cup of tea.

I will certainly check out Alexandre Tharaud´s Rachmaninov album and report back.

I can´t comment on the albums by Adams and Beach.

I´ll skip the contemporary and early categories, as I don´t feel qualified enough here.

 

Instrumental

Bach: French Suites – Murray Perahia

Johann Sebastian Bach: The French Suites - Murray Perahia (24/96) Deutsche Grammophon 2016

Yes, absolutely, great album. A must have. See also here

 

Bach: Goldberg Variations: Beatrice Rana

Bach: Goldberg Variations - Beatrice Rana Warner Classics

I´ve now played this album many times, and still haven´t fully made up my mind. I kind of like it, but it´s really not my personal reference.

I´d like to comment about Cedric Tiberghien´s Bartok album and Pavel Koselnikov´s Chopin Mazurkas, but due to Hyperion´s no streaming policy I can´t. Side note: I really understand why labels don´t want to support streaming, as the business model is not very attractive, but on the other hand it really limits discovery. Maybe labels should invent a streaming model where you can listen to an album only 2-3 times and then need to purchase it. I find that album´s I can´t test I often don´t buy.

 

Liszt: Transcendental Etudes: Daniel Trifonov (Deutsche Grammophon)

Liszt: Transcendental: Daniel Trifonov Deutsche Grammophon

I haven´t reviewed this album yet, but have listened to it many times. And yes, it is very good, justifying the Artist of the Year he received last year.

Mozart/Schumann: Fantaisies – Piotr Anderszewski (Warner)

Mozart/Schumann.: Fantaisies - Piotr Anderszewski Warner

I wasn´t such a big fan of Anderszewski´s Bach album that won 2 years ago, but this one (only one listen so far, so beware) sounds really very good. I´ll report back.

 

To be contiued….

 

 

9 Outstanding Live Jazz Recordings

Work and blogging

As many of you know, this really isn’t my day job. I work in a completely unrelated industry. Recently I’ve traveled on average 2-3 times per week, so my blogging has taken a back seat.

I’ll still try to get a blog post done every two weeks. The best you can do, instead of having to check back on my somewhat unreliable posting schedule, is just to sign up with your email on the right, so new updates will come to your inbox, or follow me on WordPress. Like this you don’t miss any update.

Live Jazz Recordings

Furthermore, given my workload, I’ll shamelessly steal from my own forum post here at Computer Audiophile, where I post quite regularly on music, and less so on audio gear.

I have previously written about my 25 Essential Jazz albums, but had never done a specific post on live jazz albums. Triggered by “Route66″‘s question, I went through my album library and had a look at which live albums I can particularly recommend. The  OP was particularly interested in small Jazz club-type venues, so this further limited the selection to the following 9 albums. Some of them I’ve written about previously, some of them are new to this blog.

Cannonball Adderley: Mercy Mercy Mercy – Live At “The Club” (Capitol 1966)

 

The Cannonball Adderley Quintet Mercy, Mercy, Mercy Live at "The Club" Capitol / Blue Note 1966

I’ve previously written about this album here, and it is worth having already for the outstanding title track.

 

Bill Evans Trio: Waltz for Debby (1961)

I’ll mention Bill Evans twice on this blog post. Bill Evans during his career had three major trios (see also this blog post on his middle trio). He started, after the work with Miles Davis, with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian. Unfortunately, LaFaro passed away in an accident shortly after the album below was recorded. Many still consider this early trio his best. I don’t necessarily agree, as I really love his later trios very much as well.

Bill Evans Trio Waltz for Debby

 

Waltz for Debby is part of several recordings taken by the trio live at the Village Vanguard. The Village Vanguard is one of the legendary NYC jazz clubs that is still open today. If you want more of it, you can also get The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings 1961 box, which includes the titles above. You’ll see it popping up a number of times below in this post.

The advantage of getting the individual Waltz For Debby album is that you can try to find one of the many audiophile remasters. I’ll leave it to others to debate which of the several available remasters is the best, and will recommend the HDtracks version which is already pretty good. Musically in any case, this album, is an absolute must have and really helped define the category of the Jazz Piano Trio.

My Rating: 5 stars

 

Bill Evans Trio: Consecration

Bill Evans Consecration The Final Recordings Part 2 Live At The Keystone Korner September 1980 Fantasy Recordings

Consecration is already mentioned as part of my 25 Essential Jazz albums. This is Evans’s latest trio, and actually his very final recording before his early passing.

Do I prefer Consecration over Waltz For Debby, or vice versa? Why decide? Get both!

Brad Mehldau: The Art of the Trio Vol. 2 – Live At the Village Vanguard (1991)

This one is a new addition to the blog.

Brad Mehldau Live At The Village Vanguard The Art Of The Trio Volume Two

 

I’ve written about my love/hate relationship with Brad Mehldau several times (see here for example), but Vol. 3 of his early series The Art Of The Trio is listed in my 25 Essential Jazz albums. This live album is not as good as the studio vol. 3, but still very much worth having. Especially for Moon River, a particular favorite of mine. Recordede at the same Village Vanguard as the Bill Evans 30 years earlier.

My rating: 4 stars

The Jazz Messengers At The Cafe Bohemia Vol. 1 (1955)

The Jazz Messengers At The Café Bohemia Vol. 1

I haven’t written about Hard Bop for a long time. Actually, I haven’t even listened to Hard Bop a lot recently, which is a pity, as this is one of my favorite genres.

I’ve even done an entire mini-series on the Jazz Messengers and their several alumni.

The above 1955 album is one of those who started it all. Look at the line-up. Horace Silver, Hank Mobley, Kenny Dorham. All of these had successful solo careers after which (check out my blog for recommended albums in the above mini series).

Unfortunately, there hasn’t been any new audiophile remastering of this album, so you can probably just as well go with the regular CD remastering by Rudy Van Gelder (although I’m not a particular fan of his remasters in general).

My rating: 4 stars

Giovanni Mirabassi: Live At the Blue Note Tokyo (2010)

3700426915557_600

Giovanni Mirabassi was also mentioned several times on this blog, including as part of my 25 Essential Jazz albums.

This album, recorded live in Toyko, is not my absolute favorite, but still a very good performance. What is nice about it that the trio takes time for each track, often 8-10 minutes, allowing melodic development and soloing.

My rating: 4 stars

Christian McBride Trio: Live At The Village Vanguard (2015)

The Christian McBride Trio Live At The Village Vanguard 2015 MackAvenue

No, I haven’t selected albums simply on the fact that they were recorded at the Vanguard. It is just simply a very popular recording spot.

I’ve written about this album previously, you’ll find my review here.

 

Enrico Pieranunzi: Live At The Village Vanguard (2013)

Yes, also Pieranunzi has recorded at the Vanguard in 2010.

I’ve written previously that I consider Pieranunzi as really following the Bill Evans heritage.

Enrico Pieranunzi with Marc Johnson Paul Motian Live At The Village Vanguard

And look at the lineup here: Paul Motian was already the drummer on Waltz For Debby above, and Marc Johnson was the bass player in Evans’ middle quartet (but has later played a lot with Pieranunzi).

This is a very good live album, but doesn’t get to the intensity swing-wise of his master. It’s very much worth having still. Pieranunzi really develops the lyrical side of Bill Evans even further.

Check out this video, how Paul Motian called up Pieranunzi for this one week live gig. The text is in Italian, but you get enough excerpts of the music to get a good idea.

 

My rating: 4 stars

 

Michael Wollny Trio: Weltentraum Concert Edition – Live At The Unterfahrt

Michael Wollny Trio Live At The Unterfahrt Weltentraum Concert Edition ACT 2014 Tim Lefebvre Eric Schaefer

I’ve listed Weltentraum among my 25 Essential Jazz albums.

Michael Wollny is one of the most creative pianists we have today. This is the live album of Weltentraum, recorded at the Unterfahrt jazz club in Munich in 2014. This album is really as good as the studio one, in many respects even better. Very much worth having.

My rating: 5 stars

 

You can find the newly listed albums here, for links to the other albums please go to the original blog post.

Evans Waltz For Debby: here (HDTracks)

Brad Mehldau: here (Qobuz)

Jazz Messengers: here (Qobuz)

Giovanni Mirabassi: here (Qobuz)

Enrico Pieranunzi: here (Camjazz)

Michael Wollny: here (Qobuz)

 

 

Alexandre Kantorow – A La Russe – Outstanding!

A quick comment on classical reviews

I’ve mentioned this several times before, reviewing classical music is a very subjective business. See examples here and here of cases where professional reviewers disagree a lot about the quality of a recording.

Therefore, it is even more impressive if you find reviews where nearly everybody agrees. Those are the recordings you should truly check out, as these are actually rather rare.

One of these outstanding recordings is the recent Arkadi Volodos recording of Brahms. This album got a “Choc” (i.e. 5 stars) from Classica AND an Album of the Month by Gramophone.

What is even more impressive is that not only these two agree, but 5 other classical reviewers (not counting me) do as well. Classica publishes every month an overview of what the leading critics in the French media (France 3, Le Figaro, Radio Classique, France Musique, and Le Monde) think of a number of recent albums on a scale from “X” (didn’t like at all) to “three hearts” (liked passionately). I check this overview every month, and it is really extremely rare to find that all reviewers give three hearts.

Well, for the Volodos recording, three hearts from all of them. The only outlier I’m aware off is Andrew Clements from the Guardian.

In a nutshell, we have a strong contender here for the piano album of the year (a bit early after only 5 months, but mark my words, I’ll get back to this later).

Why am I writing all this in a review of a completely different album?

Well, a because I just read the overview in the latest Classica, but also because the album I’ll be writing about now is to me the only serious contender for best piano album of the year (again, so far).

 

Alexandre Kantorow – A La Russe (BIS 2017)

I first heard about Kantorow, son of the conductor Jean-Jacques Kantorow, from a recent email by Robert von Bahr, the owner of the Swedish independent classical label BIS.

I’m on his mailing list, and on a monthly basis, you’ll get a note about BIS’s most recent releases. Obviously, this being the owner, you have to take his promotional talk with a grain of salt, but actually he has a rather refreshing open style, and more often than not, he can even be sometimes being quite critical of his own releases.

So when I received an email with the following text “I have absolutely no qualms in saying, nay, screaming, that we in ALEXANDRE KANTOROW have a super talent, indeed someone destined for a world career that is now starting (….) Alexandre Kantorow is a genius, and we are going to record as much with him as he can give us“, I at least got curious.

Well, Robert wasn’t overpromising. This album is truly spectacular, and really is so far the only real challenger for Arkadi Volodos this year.

Alexandre Kantorow A La Russe BIS 2017 (24/96)

What do you get? Well, as the title indicates, Russian composers. A sonata by Rachmaninov, some lesser known pieces by Tchaikovsky, and Balakirev’s Islamey.

But to me the absolute highlight of this album is the piano transcriptions of parts of L’Oiseau du Feu (Firebird) by Igor Stravinsky. I’m not a big fan of Stravinsky in general, his music doesn’t speak to me that much.

But here, I cannot be but mesmerized by the mixture of extreme virtuosity and outstanding musicality.

This is a must have album.

My review: 5 stars

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

Helge Lien’s New Album Guzuguzu – Fantastic

It’s been a while – sorry

This must have been the longest time between blog posts ever, and I don’t feel good about this.

My only excuse is work (my day job), I’m traveling more than ever including some intercontinential trips (actually, I’m writing this from an airport lounge) and free time was pretty much down to zero.
It doesn’t look like it’s going to get better any time soon, but I still hope I’ll be able to write my weekly blog post (there is more than enough material and notes in my Evernote account).

Helge Lien

I’m a big fan of Norvegian pianist Helge Lien. His trio albums Natsukashii and Hello Troll feature regularly in my playlists, and I’ve given a 4 star review to his previous album Badgers and Other Beings.

So when his latest trio album came out, I was naturally very interested, as a matter of fact, I bought it in less than a day after it came out (I still buy albums, digitally, in spite of also subscribing to streaming, to ensure that artists make at least some money from their art).

Guzuguzu (Ozella Music 2017)

4038952000706_600

I really didn’t have to hesitate a long time because the album is truly outstanding.

It is probably my favorite since Hello Troll. You get Scandinavian lyricism combined with often extremely complex rhythms. And even peaceful ballads like Shitoshito (Raining Quietly) get their share of chordal shifts and interesting rhythmic breaks.

Lien plays with his usual companions, Frode Berg on bass, and Per Oddvar Johansen on drums, and you can really hear the intimate connections between the musicians all the time, they truly melt into one common instrument.

Add to this that the recording quality of this album is outstanding, as produced again with recording Engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug at the brilliant Oslo Rainbow studio, this album really cannot be recommended higher if you like Scandinavian trio jazz, or actually trio jazz in general.

My rating: 5 stars

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

Volodos Play Brahms – A Fantastic Album

Brahms late solo piano works

Brahms late piano works, starting with the op. 76, but especially his very late works op. 116 – 119 have always been close to my heart.

His piano sonatas, written when he was young, always touched me much less, although I recently found a version I quite liked.

Most of the op. 76 and 116-119 are simply called Klavierstücke, i.e. piano pieces. They are little collections of 4-8 pieces, typically called Cappriccio or Intermezzo, titles that don’t mean a lot.

To me, while I’m well aware that these are composed works, they always reminded me of improvisations. They lack the formal structure of a Beethoven piano sonata, and really just “live in the moment”, if a musical piece can do such a thing.

In a way, they remind me of Keith Jarrett’s solo concertos.

Arcadi Volodos himself calls these pieces “the Summit of piano music”. Brahms himself called op. 117 “lullabies for my sorrows”.

I’ve only written about one recording of these works yet, with Andreas Staier’s excellent recording of op. 118. This is because I was still looking for my favorite version. Murray Perahia and Radu Lupu were both good, I also liked the young French pianist Adam Laloum. But I knew you could do things differently.

Arcadi Volodos

Arcadi Volodos is a Russian pianist and virtuoso. He is pretty well known, but why he doesn’t have more of a reputation escapes me. Maybe it is because he doesn’t search the limelight, and just isn’t present enough in the media.

All of his previous albums were at least good, with some being exceptional, my favorite being Volodos in Vienna, a live recording, and Volodos plays Liszt.

Volodos Plays Brahms

Arcadi Volodos Plays Brahms (24/96) Sony Classical 2017

When I heard this album for the first time, I was a bit puzzled. He really plays these works in a very individual, very different way.

I needed to listen to this at least 5 time before I made up my mind. But now I really just love it. His playing is extremely nuanced, never just showing off the great virtuoso he really is, and in a way, this is probably the recording that gets closest to my idea about playing them like Keith Jarrett plays live.

Nicely enough, the sound quality of this recording matches the musical quality. This was recorded at Berlin’s mythical Teldex Studio, with Volodos playing his personal favorite Steinway. The recording quality captures the intimate nature of these pieces very well.

My rating: 5 stars

Classica agrees by the way, and gives this album a Choc, their highest rating. The Guardian has quite a different opinion, giving it only 3 stars.

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

 

UPDATE May 21: In it’s June 2017 issue, Gramophone agrees and gives this album an Editor’s Choice, and Album of the Month.

 

Update June 6: Diapason d’or for from Diapason Magazine, and plenty of other good reviews of this album mentioned here.

 

Easter is Coming Up Again: Time to Recommend A New Outstanding Matthew Passion Recording by John Eliot Gardiner

The Matthew Passion

I’ve previously written about the importance of the Matthew Passion here.

It is probably one of the most relevant works of Bach, which in turn makes it one of the most important works of the entire classical music.

If you want a good entry to understand what this is all about, check out this NPR “guided tour” through this masterpiece.

I’ve mentioned previously that I’m not religious at all, but that doesn’t take one bit of the attraction away, the emotions Bach has captured here really has universal appeal.

Bach: St. Matthew Passion – John Eliot Gardiner (SDG 2017)

My previous and still valid recommendation for the Matthew Passion remains John Butt’s outstanding recording of the 1742 version, with the Dunedin Consort. I’ve listed it in my 25 Essential Classical Music Albums.

But when the great John Eliot Gardiner decided to re-record this masterpiece nearly 30 years after his legendary DG Archiv version, I had to write about this.

Bach St Matthew Passion John Eliot Gardiner SDG 2017 24/96

Actually, I had heard it even before it was released, as I had the pleasure of seeing Gardiner with his Monteverdi Choir live at the KKL in Lucerne last spring. During this European tour this album was recorded (a bit later in 2016, at Pisa Cathedral).

I don’t know why I didn’t write about this concert before, as it was such an outstanding performance. Therefore, I’m extremely happy it was recorded.

I wasn’t always been with Gardiners recent recordings (see here and here), even his new recording of the b-minor mass left me a bit cold.

But this one is pure perfection again. Gramophone agrees and gives it a “Recording of the Month” for April. Germany’s Fono Forum is also on board, with 5 stars.

How does Gardiner compare against John Butt?

Well, actually there are more similarities than differences. Both are historically informed, both favor transparency over let’s say the power of a Karl Richter.

Both have excellent singers, both have an outstanding period ensemble. As mentioned above, Butt uses the more rarely heard 1742 version, but the differences are small.

Where Gardiner has the edge, is probably in even more increased transparency, in a way it sounds even more intimate. On the other hand, you get a bit more emotional power with the Dunedins in some of the choral scenes.

But here we’re talking very minor differences, it is very clear that Gardiner has recorded a reference version. Do yourself a favor and listen to it.

My rating: 5 stars

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