András Schiff Plays Brahms Piano Concertos on Historical instruments – Worth Checking Out

Brahms’ Piano Concertos

There is clearly no lack of excellent performances of the two Brahms piano concertos. There are many masterful recordings from the 1960s with the great piano legends, Curzon, Arrau, Fleischer, Richter, or Gilels, often with the fantastic George Szell, that have stood the test of time, as the romantic repertoire has seen less of a sea change of recording style as have earlier composers (I can’t really enjoy non-HIP Bach concertos any more for example).

There also have been a lot of more recent recordings that are outstanding. One of my favorite sets is the Nelson Freire / Riccardo Chailly / Gewandhaus one from 2006, or more recently, the excellent (No. 1) / very good( No. 2) recordings by Lars Vogt with the Northern Sinfonia (that I just noticed I totally forgot to review here).

And as a nice coincidence, the very first recording I ever owned of No. 1 was with András Schiff as well, with George Solti on a 1989 Decca album.

So why would even a Brahms aficionado like me bother to buy one more recording of these?

The answer is called Blüthner. That is the piano that Schiff uses in this new recording.

Brahms: The Piano Concertos- András Schiff – Orchestra of the Age of Enlightening (ECM 2021)

Andras Schiff Johannes Brahms Piano Concertos Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment ECM New Series 2021 24 96

The Blüthner is a piano from c. 1859, i.e. 1 year after the writing of Brahms first concerto. It has a quite different sound to the typical modern Steinway, less heavy, less brilliant, but more transparent.

To complement that, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is also clearly historically informed, playing on gut strings.

So, is it worth it?

I’d say yes (and I did purchase the album). I really like the difference in sound and transparency one gets from the historically informed approach and instruments. This is the first recording of Brahms concertos with a HIP approach that hit my radar screen, and it really gives you new insights into these works.

To quote Schiff himself from the booklet: “With the present recording we have tried to recreate and restore the works, to cleanse and ‘detoxify’ the music, to liberate it from the burden of the – often questionable – trademarks of performing traditions“.

Now, does that mean this will be my new reference recording? Clearly not, I won’t be abandoning the beauty of all the recordings I’ve quoted above. I really like the piano playing, although some rubati aren’t always my cup of tea, but particularly in the first concerto, I’d just like to see a bit more drama in the orchestral introduction.

But if you like Brahms, you should really check this recording out!

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Some thoughts around the new Liszt album from Benjamin Grosvenor

Benjamin Grosvenor

I’m a big fan of this young British pianist (maybe not as extreme a fan as Gramophone who adore every single one of his albums). I’ve previously reviewed and praised his Chopin concertos (part of my top 5 albums of 2020), his Homages album, his Chopin/Liszt/Ravel album, which also appeared in my Top 10 Chopin albums, and I’ve even listed him among my Top 10 Classical pianists (a list that led to a lot of debate by the way).

So I had really high hopes when Grosvenor recently released his latest recording, of nothing less than Liszt’s magnificent b-minor sonata, plus some other works.

Benjamin Grosvenor – Liszt (Decca 2021)

Benjamin Grosvenor - Liszt - Decca 2021 - 24 96

Now, before I go to the meaty bit, the b-minor sonata, let me start by saying that I really love how Grosvenor plays the other pieces on this album, particularly the extract from the Années de Pélérinage.

Also particularly interesting is Liszt’s 15 min piano adaptation of Bellini’s classic, Réminiscenes de Norma, a less often played work.

And I can’t get enough of the beautiful piano adaptation of Schubert’s Ave Maria.

The b-minor sonata

I really love the b-minor sonata, it is to me at least the ultimate Liszt piece. And here’s where we get to my “but” that you probably saw coming from my intro above.

Let me start by the positives: I really like how he takes the Andante sostenuto slower than most, giving it a special sense of intimacy and out-of-this-world spirit.

Now, what am I missing here, in what is actually a very good version?

Well I really believe one needs to go to the biggest extremes in this work (an opinion probably not universally shared). That’s why my favorite versions will remain those of the legendary Martha Argerich, and the somewhat controversial version by Katia Buniatishvili. In some parts, I just wish Grosvenor would push things just a bit further, he certainly has the power and technical abilities to do it.

Nevertheless, this is a beautiful album absolutely worth having.

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Delightfulee – Very Much So Indeed

Hard Bop

In the earlier days of my blog, I had an entire series on the Hard Bop period of Jazz. I haven’t written a lot about it recently.

I’m not sure why. Probably because I just haven’t listened to it as much recently. Without noticing, I saw my listening preferences subtly move towards even more classical music, with less emphasis on Jazz.

However, whenever I return to one of my hard bop classics, I can’t help but just truly enjoy the experience. It is a much more visceral enjoyment, compared to the sometimes more intellectual appreciation of some of my classical albums (not that classical music cannot be truly emotional).

Nicely enough, many of the old classics are now being remastered and re-released, which typically gets me to buy the same album again. As is the case in this one.

Lee Morgan: Delightfulee (Blue Note 1966)

Lee Morgan Delightfulee Blue note 1966 24/96
Note

Lee Morgan is mostly known for his legendary album The Sidewinder (see my review here), which I included in my 25 Essential Jazz albums list, but not only he’s been a fantastic sideman on a lot of great albums, including the other legendary classic, Moanin(yes, Morgan is yet another Jazz Messengers alumnus).

This album was recorded in 1966, probably the last year before Jazz descended on what to me are the dark ages of free and fusion (I’ve discussed this extensively on this blog that I barely listen to any Jazz albums between 1966 and 1980 approximately, with some exceptions to confirm the rule).

The very first track is already something I truly love, Ca-Lee-So, in the latin inspired Calypso style. This song, in my humble opinion, beats even the most famous Jazz Calypso of all, Sonny Rollins St. Thomas from the album Saxophone Colossus that was recorded 10 years earlier, and I believe contributed to make this style popular.

Yesterday starts a bit on the cheesy side admittedly. Once you get through the intro, it really gets better, giving time to the individual soloist to dissect the harmony of this classic.

Sunrise, Sunset, is just very solid swing, one that if you’re not tapping your foot to it, you are really missing the point.

Another highlight to me is Nite Flite, with its beautiful modal approach. It is also the longest track on the album, which confirms my theory that the longest tracks are often among the best (they just give more time for the soloists to develop their ideas, in this case particularly to the brilliant Joe Henderson, but McCoyTyner also gets plenty of air time).

Overall, a very aptly named album.

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

One Of The Few Fusion Albums I Actually Like: Light As A Feather

Fusion Jazz

Regular readers of my blog will know that my sweet spot in Jazz was typically between 1957 and 1966. Before that, the Swing era really wasn’t my thing, and as of somewhere in 1967 jazz decided to go either towards free jazz (which I can’t stand) or towards fusion. I fully understand why a musical genius like Miles Davis cannot be bothered to record one Kind of Blue after another (even if I wish he did), but unfortunately the 1970s really were mostly a kind of no-go-zone for me Jazz-wise, as I already mentioned in my recent blog post about Keith Jarrett going back to what I like with his Standards Trio in the 1980s.

The only 1970s albums I like are usually by Bill Evans, who basically stuck to his beautiful trio style until the very end, and some of Keith Jarrett’s work, like his solo albums (Köln, Bremen/Lausanne, Sun Bear), or a selection of his European work like My Song).

But let me write here about one of the few albums from that era (that is truly fusion) that I like, not only because we played some of its song of the with my amateur Jazz group when I still had time for that (our favorite was 500 Miles High, the crazy chord changes still drive me nuts when I’m trying to play it now).

Chick Corea & Return To Forever – Light As A Feather (Polydor 1973)

Chick Corea and Return To Forever Light As A Feather 24 96

I’m just noticing that I have had my blog for more than 5 years now and I’ve never written about Chick Corea. Probably just because of the fact that a lot of what he did really is in the fusion genre.

So, who is playing here? Well, Chick obviously, mostly on a Fender Rhodes electrical piano, and then Return To Forever, with Airto Moreira on drums, Joe Farrell on saxophone and flute, and Flora Purim’s beautiful voice. Most of the tracks are Samba inspired, which is the only style of fusion I can listen to (Jazz Rock makes me run away).

This is actually the second album that Corea recorded with Return To Forever, the 1972 predecessor (simple called Return To Forever, recorded by the way by Manfred Eicher who just had started ECM some years earlier), is also very good. I’ll have to review that one another time.

So, what are my highlights here? I’d say, Captain Marvel is really grooving very nicely, but 500 Miles High with it’s 9:14 playing time has even more room to develop, in some of the middle part the percussion just goes crazy.

And then there’s my hidden favorite, Spain, inspired by the Concerto Di Aranjuez (which I wrote about recently), or more likely by Miles Davis adaptation Sketches Of Spain with Gil Evans).

Overall, you should really check this classic out if you’re not aware of it yet.

My rating: 4 stars (the four stars are very personal, I take of one star as fusion still isn’t fully my cup of tea).

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Mozart’s Piano Concertos vol. 4 with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet – A Somewhat Confused Review

Mozart’s Piano Concertos

I haven’t written about the Mozart piano concertos that much yet on this blog. Not sure why. I really like them. Maybe it is because they were just always there, I’ve been listening to them for my entire life. But then, there are many (and many of which if you want to be nasty sound somewhat similar). And while truly enjoyable, one could argue the true masterpieces from Mozart are to be found elsewhere (take the DaPonte operas for example).

That said, I always had a particular fondness for numbers 20 and 21. The andante of no. 21 is even featured on my very own wedding video (I added a personal soundtrack to some of the pieces in the edit).

A quick reminder of my mentions of the Mozart piano concertos on this blog: You’ll find a beautiful recording with the amazing combo of Martha Argerich and Claudio Abbado recommended as part of My Must Have Mozart Albums, which features no. 20, but not no. 21. In the same blog post I also mention the historically informed recordings of Bezuidenout (which I like) and Brautigam (which I’m starting to have some doubts on), as well as the classic Perahia box.

And that’s basically it.

So, when in 2020 a new Mozart album was released that got a Gramophone Editors Choice, a nomination for the Gramophone awards album of the year, as well as a Choc by the French magazine Classica, that I usually really trust, I just had to buy it.

Mozart: Piano Concertos vol. 4 – Jean-Efflam Bavouzet – Gabor Takacs-Nagy – Manchester Camerata (Chandos 2019)

Mozart Piano Concertos No. 21 & 20 - Jean-Efflam Bavouzet - Manchester Camerata - Gabor Takacs-Nagy Chandos 24/96

A quick word about the soloist, orchestra and conductor: While I like and appreciate Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (have a look at my post on his great complete Debussy box), I must admit this is my very first encounter with both the Manchester Camerata and Gabor Takacs-Nagy.

So, what is it like? Well this is going to be a somewhat weird review.

In many ways, it is perfect. It is extremely well played from both orchestra and soloist, and Bavouzet puts a lot of creativity into the solo part, from variations, improvisations and ornaments in many places to the occasional liberty on tempi, and overall, I really wouldn’t know what to criticize.

So what’s wrong? Well, maybe it is the modern instruments and I’ve recently enjoyed the historically informed practice so much, or maybe it is just a bit TOO perfect, and I need the occasional imperfection. Honestly, I don’t know.

You should probably just ignore my opinion here and check it out yourself (please let me know what you think in the comments); as mentioned, both Gramophone and Classica were extremely impressed.

My rating: 4 stars (I may come back on this rating later once I’ve figured out if I’m just making a mistake here).

You’ll find it here (Qobuz)

An Intimate Version of the Christmas Oratorio by the Dunedin Consort and John Butt

The Christmas Oratorio

It’s been a while since I last wrote about Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. The last entry was a blog post about My Favourite Seasonal Music for Christmas back in 2016, and the original post about this work dates back to the beginning of my blog back in 2015.

Nevertheless, the Christmas Oratorio is on constant repeat in the last 2-3 weeks leading up to Christmas every single year. It is as essential as mulled wine, seasonal decorations, and home made Christmas cookies. This year, due to Covid, I probably won’t have any of the first, and a strict diet over the last months stops me from doing the latter.

I’m very happy that listening to Bach is totally carb-free (even though it can be very sweet), and at least played from the stereo very much compatible with social distancing.

Bach: Christmas Oratorio – John Butt – Dunedin Consort (Linn 2016)

Bach: Christmas Oratorio Dunedin Consort John Butt Linn Records 2016 24 192

I had already mentioned John Butt’s recording in my 2016 post, but didn’t own it at the time. Linn Records has a pretty strict no-streaming policy, so I ended up buying it blindly, given how much I like the Dunedin Consort’s other big Bach works.

The Dunedin’s recording of the St Matthew Passion is one of my 25 Essential Classical Albums, their St John’s passion is equally great, and I can also recommend the recordings of Bach’s Magnificat, Händel’s Messiah also Mozart’s Requiem for that matter. So in short, I didn’t take too much of a risk.

And sure enough, I wasn’t disappointed. The orchestral playing is a beautiful as ever, and the singers are doing an excellent job. The only two things to mention: most of the singers are non native speakers, and while they are doing quite a decent job with the German pronunciation, if you’re picky, you may have an issue with this.

And, for some even more tricky maybe, the typical Dunedin Consort approach of having One Voice Per Part, a concept introduced by Joshua Rifkin in the 1980s. If your Bach oratorio reference is Karl Richter, you’ll be disappointed.

I really like it though. It gives it a very particularly intimate feel. I’m still rotating between the Dunedin’s version, and my other favourites, Gardiner, Herreweghe, and the occasional Suzuki. But this is very much among the best. And if you care for these things, this is a truly “audiophile” version, it is really well recorded.

My rating: 4 stars (It’s a truly beautiful album but I’m still waiting for my imaginary “perfect” recording)

You can find it here (Linn Records)

A Beautiful New Recording of the Concerto di Aranjuez

Rodrigo and the Concerto di Aranjuez

There are some pieces of classical music that even people that usually don’t care about classical music know, like the beginning of Beethoven’s Fifth, or Bach’s Toccata BWV565.

Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto di Aranjuez is one of these pieces. Play the second movement to anybody in the street, and I’d be a lot of them would recognize the melody. It has been used extensively in popular culture, adapted in a lot of pop songs, and even into jazz, in Miles Davis very popular album Sketches of Spain.

But then ask even classical music aficionados to name any other piece by Rodrigo, typically they pass. To modern memory, Rodrigo, who lived from 1901 to 1990, is a typical “one hit wonder”, a fate he shares for example with Max Bruch.

The concerto itself is special not only for the very clear Spanish sound, but most importantly for having a solo guitar. It is named after the Aranjuez gardens of the Spanish royal family. I’ve visited the place some years ago, and it is actually a really beautiful setting.

Thibaut Garcia – Aranjuez – Ben Glassberg – Orchestre National du Capitol de Toulouse (Erato 2020)

Thibaut Garcia Aranjuez Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse Ben Glassberg Erato Warner Classics 2020 24 96

Soloist Thibaut Garcia, while growing up in Toulouse, France, has Spanish family roots (as the last name gives away). Not sure if you need to have Spanish blood to play this concert this well, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. Being one of the best young (he’s born in 1994) classical guitarists of today helps as well.

The work is performed with a lot of beauty and grace, as it needs to be. The Toulouse orchestra, conducted by another very young artist, the Brit Ben Glassberg, always follows easily and has all the energy and vibrancy this music needs.

But the album doesn’t stop with after the 20 minutes of the concerto. You get a really beautiful performance of Garcia solo, playing guitar music by Regino Sainz de La Maza, another 20th century Spanish guitar composer.

This is followed by another work for guitar and orchestra, Alexandre Tansman’s Musique de Cour d’après Robert de Visée. Tansman, whose name like Sainz de la Maza was unfamiliar to me (I’m not a great expert of the classical guitar), was a Polish composer of the 20th century that was mostly focused on film music. This piece however is clearly inspired by older music, as the title indicates, references back to Robert de Visée, the famous guitarist (and theorbist, luthenist, etc.) at Louis XIV’s court. My somewhat simple mind is very pleased to note that Tansman, like Rodrigo, has completely ignored the unwritten law written by Schönberg et al that 20th century music after 1920 has to go beyond traditional tonality.

Appropriately, after the music above inspired by de Visée, we move back to the 17th century and de Visée himself, that Garcia performs beautifully.

I really recommend checking this album out if you like classical guitar. And by the way, most music critics agree. This album received a Choc from Classica, a Diapason d’or, and a Gramophone Editor’s Choice.

My rating: 4 stars (5 star playing throughout though, one star discount from me as I don’t consider this absolutly essential repertoire)