My Reflections on the 2020 Gramophone Awards – Part II – Choral, Instrumental & Orchestral

Usually, I try to do one blog post per section (Orchestral, Piano, etc.), at least for those that I do care about. This time unfortunately my day job is keeping me quite busy and I wasn’t able to listen to all albums shortlisted by Gramophone, so this will just be a “best of” of albums from some of the nominated albums from the different categories.

Note that this is the continuation from part I that I published last week, where I had a look at the “Concerto” category. Today I’ll cover “Choral”, “Instrumental”, and “Orchestral”.

I’m following the order that Gramophone uses in their Gramophone Awards shortlist special edition.

Let’s start with the Choral section, and two recent recordings of Bach’s masterpieces.

Bach: St John’s Passion – Philippe Herreweghe – Collegium Vocale Gent (Phi 2020)

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

I must admit I only learned about this release from the Gramophone awards issue, although it was already released in February. What a miss! I do have already a favourite recording of the St John passion, as performed by John Butt and the Dunedin Consort, I have praised Philippe Pierlot’s excellent reading here, I also have Herreweghe’s previous version from 2001, as well as versions from Suzuki, and Gardiner (the usual suspects for great baroque vocal works).

But this new release is truly outstanding, and could potentially become my favorite, a true 5 star recording.

Bach: St Matthew Passion – Masaaki Suzuki – Bach Collegium Japan (BIS 2020)

Bach: St Matthew Passion Bach Collegium Japan Masaaki Suzuki BIS 2020 24/96

So, after the “smaller” passion, there’s also a new release of the majestic St Matthew Passion. I’ve already written about some other fantastic versions (again by the usual bunch of John Butt, one of my 25 Essential Classical Music albums, and the recent recording of John Eliot Gardiner that I was able to attend live), so it wasn’t obvious that I needed yet another version on top of the 7 or 8 others I have in my local library. But I bought it anyhow, given the recommendations by Gramophone, unfortunately without listening to it beforehand.

Don’t get me wrong, this is brilliantly performed, with excellent soloists. So why am just a bit hesitant about it? A simple fact, Suzuki starts the opening chorus “Kommt, Ihr Töchter” is just significantly slower (8:20 compared to John Butt’s 6:38), and it startles me a bit every time. It makes it even more powerful, but it just loses a tiny bit of drive. Check it out before you buy, but it clearly is among the very top performances out there.

Buxtehude: Membra Jesu Nostri – Philippe Ricercar Cosort (Mirare 2019)

Buxtehude Membra Jesu Nostri Ricercar Consort Philippe Pierlot Mirare 2019 (24/96)

I don’t know why this ended up being reviewed by Gramophone only in 2020, you’ll find my 4 star review of March 2019 here.

I really liked the album, and while I still would pick Bach over Buxtehude anytime, Buxtehude’s early baroque is growing on me. It is very much worth discovering.

Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas – Igor Levit (Sony 2019)

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

Yes, absolutely!

The more I discover Levit’s Beethoven cycle, the more I’m impressed. You’ll find my 5 star review here, but in the meantime I’ve again had the pleasure seeing Levit perform a part of the cycle live at the 2020 Lucerne festival (he played the Pathétique and Tempest among others), and have tickets for a live performance of the Hammerklavier that I’m very much looking forward to.

By the way, if you speak German, Levit has done a fantastic podcast, produced by German public radio, where he discusses in-depth every single sonata. Highly recommended.

Brahms: The Final Piano Pieces -Stephen Hough (Hyperion 2020)

Stephen Hough Brahms The Final Piano Pieces Hyperion 2020 24 96

Another album that I fully agree with, as reviewed here (5 stars). This album is all the way up there for me with Volodos and Perahia. Very much worth having.

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 – Kiril Petrenko (BPO’s own label, 2020)

Berlin Philharmonic Kirill Petrenko Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 24/96

Again, an album I already reviewed in 2019 and loved it (5 stars).

In fact, it is the one recording that made me reconsider whether I actually like Tchaikovsky (I’m still on the fence, but getting there).

Very much recommended.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the selection this year.

If you want to buy any of these albums (which I highly recommend you do), you can find the albums here (Qobuz & Hyperion):

Bach St John Passion – Herreweghe

Bach St Matthew Passion – Suzuki

Buxtehude Membra Jesu Nostri – Pierlot

Beethoven Igor Levit

Brahms Stephen Hough

Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 1 by Martin Helmchen and Andrew Manze- A Positive Surprise

First of all, I feel a bit bad for not posting more regularly in 2020. OK, so my year transitioned very brutally from traveling like crazy to working even crazier hours from home, and obviously the situation of most parts of the world really has plenty of reasons to not have a clean head to think about other things.

But then again, isn’t music even more essential these days? It is a nearly universal source of joy, and I really hope I can share my enjoyment with you, my dear readers.

Beethoven Piano Concertos No. 1 & 4 – Martin Helmchen – Andrew Manze (Alpha 2020)

Does the world need yet another recording of Beethoven’s piano concertos? Almost certainly not.

Beethoven Piano Concertos 1& 4 Martin Heimchen Deutsches Sinfonieorchester Berlin Andrew Manze Alpha 2020 24 96

I’ve already shared how much I like the complete cycle of Leif Ove Andnses with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, which I also mentioned in my Top 5 Classical albums of 2015.

But that said, when I more or less randomly checked into this recent release, I was very positively surprised how much I liked it.

Both Martin Helmchen and Andrew Manze are artists that aren’t fully in the limelight. Insiders will know them, Helmchen for example for his many beautiful chamber music collaborations, Manze was until recently more known for his HIP influenced baroque performances that he lead with the English Consort. Since 2014 he is conducting the NDR Radiophilharmonie in Hanover, Germany. And obviously, the Deutsche Sinfonieorchester Berlin (DSO) is often eclipsed by the two other amazing orchestras in the same city, the BPO and the Staatskapelle.

But as I’ve written many times before, the best performances don’t necessarily come from the big names and the traditional large orchestras any more. You always need to watch seemingly lesser known ensembles, you more often than not will be positively surprised.

So, why do I like this recording? Well, it is hard to pinpoint a single feature. Probably the best description of what I like is the balance. You can clearly hear that Manze knows his historically informed practice, but at no point this performance becomes bloodless which some “HIP” recordings can clearly get to. You have a very transparent and intimate reading, but never dull.

Helmchen also is a fantastic performer here. I’m a particular fan of his performance of piano concerto no. 1. This work, which clearly sits spot on on the border between the “Wiener Klassik” of Mozart and Haydn, and the following romantic era of Schubert and Schumann, but it is so very Beethoven in so many ways. Helmchen perfectly captures the spirit of this transitional work.

Piano concerto no. 4 is probably my favorite of all 5 piano concertos. The opening, with its very simple solo piano chords, immediately answered by the orchestra, is a totally different beast to the piano concerto no. 1. This work was premiered for the first time in a massive concert that also features the 5th and 6th symphony. This is clearly a Beethoven at the height of his powers, fully emancipated from Haydn and Mozart, creating a style that is so very immediately recognisable as Beethoven, and has never been surpassed since.

Helmchen and Manze also give us a beautiful performance here, but maybe it is for this work that I’d just like to have a tiny bit more of something, what exactly I really don’t know. Maybe I’m still influenced by the very first performance I owned of this work, a recording of the legendary Rudolf Serkin with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony (a recording that build a much “bigger” Beethoven, not that that is necessarily automatically a good thing). OK, let me stop rambling here. In these situations I’m happy I don’t have to pretend I’m a professional reviewer, but just share my personal impressions.

Overall though this is a recording you really should check out, particularly for what could be close to a perfect first piano concerto.

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Cheerful Vivaldi for not so cheerful times

Vivaldi

I’ve said it before, I’m not a huge fan of Antonio Vivaldi in general. OK, I put Rachel Podger’s fantastic Four Seasons into my Top 5 Classical Albums of 2018, but beyond this I typically much rather listen to Bach, Beethoven, or Brahms to just name a few.

That said, one thing that Vivaldi really is good at is improving my mood. One good example of this is this Amandine Beyer album, that I also reviewed in April, pretty much exactly two years ago. Seems like spring time really is my Vivaldi time.

Obviously this is one of the weirdest Spring times most of us have lived through. Don’t worry, you won’t be reading about Covid here, it is sufficient that every other website on this planet talks about it. But especially in not so easy times, music can really play a role in bringing us back some of the cheerfulness that we all could be using more of right now.

Martin Fröst – Vivaldi – Concerto Köln (Sony Classical 2020)

Martin Fröst Vivaldi Concerto Köln Sony Classical 2020 24 96

When I saw this cover among the very recent new releases, I had high hopes. Martin Fröst is one of the best clarinet players of our times (his recording of Mozart’s clarinet concerto is mentioned in My Must Have Mozart Albums), and Concerto Köln hardly ever disappoints in the baroque repertoire.

I’m glad to report I wasn’t disappointed, this album is a little gem.

The Concerto Köln do what they always do, bringing the music to life with passion, nuance, and precision, and Martin Fröst’s beautiful tone is singing more than ever (check out the Adagio of the first clarinet concerto).

Check out this video trailer to get a first impression, and hear some of Fröst’s thinking about why he did this album in the first place:

One thing to note is that there wasn’t any clarinet at the time of Vivaldi, so this is a bit of an adaptation. But nothing wrong with this, and the end result is very convincing.

So, if you need some music that doesn’t require you to think too much, but just live in the moment and enjoy, this is the album to get.

My rating: 4 stars (to be clear, the playing is absolutely 5 star worthy, but this still is Vivaldi after all, and not an absolute must have for me).

You can find it here (Qobuz)

The Fred Hersch Trio – Sunday Night At The Village Vanguard

The Village Vanguard

New York City is still the world capital of jazz. The number of high quality jazz venues and outstanding muscians playing there is second to none.

I’m about to head to New York today for a short trip. The last time I was there, about 5-6 weeks ago, I had the opportunity, on a Sunday night, to go to my favorite of all the clubs, the legendary Village Vanguard.

The club is a tiny affair in Greenwich Village. It was founded in 1935, and became a full time jazz venue in 1957.

To get a feel of the importance of this little club, just type the name into your favorite streaming provider or online record store (or simply YouTube). You’ll find outstanding albums like Bill Evans’ legendary album Waltz For Debby , or his full set Complete At The Village Vanguard. On my blog, beyond these, I’ve also already mentioned other albums that were recorded there, like Brad Mehldau, Christian McBride, Enrico Pieranunzi, coincidentally all in the same blog post about 9 Outstanding Live Jazz Recordings, as well as Cecile McLorin Salvant’s Dreams and Daggers.

Fred Hersch

So, as mentioned above, I had the opportunity to see Fred Hersch live. Fred Hersch has the reputation of being one of the most intellectual of all jazz pianists. When you see him, that doesn’t surprise you, he looks somewhat like a university professor (which by the way he is as well, with former students like the above mentioned Brad Mehldau).

I’m not going to review the concert, which as usual in this fantastically intimate space, was a real pleasure, but instead point you to an album that was recorded 4 years ago in a very similar situation.

Fred Hersch Trio – Sunday Night At The Village Vanguard (Palmetto Records 2016)

This album captures very well the very typical Fred Hersch style as well as the intimate acoustics of the venue. My favorite track is For No One, a very delicate ballad.

I strongly suggest you check this album out, and obviously, if you ever get to NYC, make sure to check out what may potentially be the best jazz club on the planet, as I will most certainly do tomorrow night.

My rating: 4 stars

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

My reflections on the 2019 Gramophone Awards Part III – Chamber

Chamber is a particularly rewarding catogory for the Gramophone awards this year, at least from my perspective. Out of the 6 initially shortlisted (now narrowed to 3, see below), I fully support and like 5. Nice quota.

So let’s take them one by one:

Britten’s string quartets played by the Doric quartet is the only album I’m not going to comment about. I like the Doric as an excellent quartet, but Britten is a composer I just don’t get. Probably again, mainly due to my general issue with 20th century music.

Britten Purcell String Fantasias in four parts String quartets no 1 - 3 Doric String Quartet Chandos

Another 20th century album that I had completely missed comes from Debussy (a lot of Debussy recordings due to the 100 years of his death in 1918). We’re talking about an album called in a nice international mixture Les Trois SonatesLate Works. Not sure how I missed this as it features my heroine, Isabelle Faust. I’ve only started streaming it over the last few days but really like it. Also look at the list of musicians, Queyras, Melnikov, Perianes. Wow! Expect a more detailed review, but in any case, this is really promising!

Debussy Les trois sonates The Late Works - Isabelle Faust Alexander Melnikov, Jean-Guihen Queyras, Javier Perianes, Xavier de Maistre, Antoine Tamestit, Magali Mosnier, Tanguy de Williencourt Harmonia Mundi

Next on the list is another favourite of mine, Christian Tetzlaff and his sister Tanja and Lars Vogt on piano playing the piano trios no. 3 & 4 by Antonin Dvorak.

This trio is truly fantastic, having recorded some outstanding Brahms albums previously, and from the first bars of this album it is very clear this new release is also very special. Dvorak isn’t part of my most core repertoire, but this album could easily make it into heavy rotation on my computer.

Antonin Dvorak Piano Trios No. 3 & 4 Dumky Christian Tetzlaff Tanja Tetzlaff, Lars Vogt Ondine 2019

I have a special relationship to the next album as well, given that I’ve seen the artists perform it live in concert. Alina Ibragimova and Cédric Tiberghien, two fantastic artists on their own, but even more special as a perfect duo. The composers on this album, Franck, Vierene, Boulanger and Ysaÿe are less known, but the music is very much worth discovering. The two of them have also recently recorded the Brahms sonatas, and I’ll probably have to get my credit card out soon.

Vierne Franck Ysaye Violin Sonatas Alina Ibragimova Cedric Tiberghien Hyperion 24 96 2019

“Papa Haydn” really isn’t my favourite composer. That said, his symphonies are being freshly recorded by Giovanni Antonini (see here), his string quartets are fantastic, and his trios are also really worth exploring.

The French Trio Wanderer has recorded some very good albums before, check out their complete Beethoven trios for example. What is there to say, beautiful playing, charming music, a treat!

Joseph Haydn Piano trios Trio Wanderer 24 96 2019 Harmonia Mundi

And, to wrap up the list of the 6 shortlisted albums, Shostakovich.

I must admit I’m still new to most of Shostakovich’s oeuvre, and finding my way through the very special world of this composer. But I’ve recently acquired the piano quintet which is really worth discovering. I bought the version by the Takacs Quartet with Marc-André Hamelin on Hyperion, but the album selected here was truly the best alternative and I probably will add it to my collection soon.

We’re talking about the Belcea quartet, with Piotr Anderszewski. You also get String Quartet no. 3.

Shostakovich String Quartet No. 3 Piano Quintet Belcea Quartet Piotr Anderszewski Alpha 2019 24 96

So, out of the 6 albums above, which ones made the shortlist of the shortlist? Let’s make it short (sorry for the bad pun): the Britten, Debussy, and the Franck. Given Gramophones slightly patriotic tendencies, I’m willing to bet that the Britten album will win, but I’d prefer Faust or Ibragimova to get the price. We’ll know more soon.

Overall, a very strong selection this year, or what do you think?

My reflections on the 2019 Gramphone Awards – Part I – Concerto

The Gramophone Awards

Every year I tend to comment on the Gramophone awards nominees, you’ll find some examples here (2015), here (2016) and here (2017).

In late 2018 I was unfortunately too busy at work to get into this, but I hope I can get back on track this year.

Obviously, I’ll only be able to comment on albums that I’ve actually listened to, or ideally reviewed myself. Therefore, some categories will be less represented here.

The Gramophone awards are probably the most relevant and most highly regarded price in the classical music world, so it is always interesting to see what Gramophone comes up with, even if I don’t always agree.

You’ll find the published list of the 2019 nominees here.

Concerto

You’ve probably noticed that the “concerto” category is among my favorites.

Not suprisingly, I had already reviewed several of the nominees.

Bach – The Violin Concertos – Isabelle Faust

Johann Sebastian Bach: Violin Concertos Sinfonias Overture Sonatas Isabelle Faust Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin Bernhard Forck, Xenia Loeffler Harmonia Mundi 2019

I mean, what can I say, I’ve heard her play these live, I’ve given the album a very clear 5 star review, and anyhow I’m a self-declared Isabelle Faust fanboy. So absolutely, this is fantastic. And unlike the Trifonov below, I believe there is pretty much general consensus among reviewers that this is a great performance.

Rachmaninov – Piano Concertos 2 & 4 – Trifonov – Nézet-Séguin

Daniil Trifonov Yannick Nézet-Séguin The Philadelphia Orchestra Destination Rachmaninov - Departure Deutsche Grammophon 2018 24/96

This one is more tricky. I already predicted in my 5 star review before any of the professional reviews came out that this would be a love it or hate it affair. Turns out both professional reviewers and a lot of people who commented on my blog really don’t agree. So, while I love it, this is one of those albums I strongly suggest you check out before you buy. To me nevertheless is is one of my favorite performances of the work.

Saint-Saëns: Piano concertos 2 & 5 – Chamayou – Krivine

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

Here’s another album where I agree with Gramophone, the reason why my rating in my review was only four stars is because I didn’t rate Saint-Saëns highly enough from a repertoire perspective. But the playing is fantastic.

So, overall, good alignment between my reviews and Gramophone’s recommendations.

The category contains three other albums that I haven’t yet heard.

Leila Josefowicz playing John Adams violin concerto. I must admit I’m not familiar enough with Adams’ work to allow any proper review. As mentioned several times, I’m typically not very comfortable with 20th century music. But I may give this a try.

Kirill Gerstein playing Busoni’s piano concerto, with Sakari Oramo, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. This is an album that I’m really intrigued by as I recently discovered my interest in Busoni, but it isnt’ available for streaming, and I’m really hesitant these days to buy an album blindly.

MIchael Collins playing Crusell’s Clarinet concerto. Who’s Crusell I presume you’re going to ask. I must admit I don’t have the faintest idea. Apparently a Finnish composer. I may give this one a try just out of curiosity.

To wrap up, who do I predict will win this year? My bet is on Isabelle Faust. This is truly a reference version of the Bach concertos, and so it would be really deserved. The only thing that could stop her is that she already won the recording of the year in the 2017 Gramphone awards. Not sure if this may influence the jury. Let’s see in some weeks.

UPDATE Sep 19: I just noticed that in the October issue of Gramophone, only 3 albums remain shortlisted. Specifically the Adams, Busoni, and Saint-Saëns recordings. So Faust is apparently already out. I hope Chamayou wins, he deserves it.

Note you’ll find part II (orchestral) of this mini-series here.