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.

A Review of Two Recent Recordings of Mahler 1 by Vänskä and Roth

Gustav Mahler

You can easily tell that I’m still struggling a bit with Gustav Mahler by the number of posts I have done on him, so far a grand total of 1 (one!), commenting about very divergent reviews of Mahler’s 9th.

I find many of his symphonies hard to approach, too big, to complex, getting lost in the weeds. The one symphony that I semi-regularly go back to is no. 1. It is to me by far the most approachable, taking many of the beautiful melodies in the symphony directly from his own earlier the song cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (and if you read this blog regularly you know I’m a sucker for melodies).

My first recording of Mahler 1 with retrospect is not a reference, but at least a quite decent performance, with Eliahu Inbal and the HR Radio Symphony orchestra (I mainly bought the album initially because it was a so-called audiophile recording by Denon).

SInce then, on Mahler, I’ve been through all the great classics (Klemperer, Walter, Bernstein, Kubelik), but also many new releases of this work (Fischer, Zinman, Janssons), and these days most often go back to Ivan Fischer on Channel Classics, a very nice, if a bit middle-of-the-road performance (again, VERY audiophile, it’s a fantastic test for your speakers, but you may not make friends with your neighboring appartments if you explore the full dynamic range).

So I was very curious when in the space of a couple of months two new recordings of Mahler 1 came out, both by conductors I respect a lot.

Mahler: Symphony No. 1 – François Xavier Roth – Les Siècles (Harmonia Mundi 2019)

The first one is François-Xavier Roth with his relatively recent ensemble Les Siècles, which I now very much see on track to become one of the most important French orchestras, particularly for French composers (have a look at their recent Debussy and Ravel recordings).

Gustav Mahler Titan Symphony No. 1 Hamburg Weimar 1893-1894 version Les Siècles François Xavier Roth 24/96

So I was particularly curious how they’d do with German composers like Mahler .

What’s interesting about this recording is that they use a different version, “Hamburg/Weimar 1893-1894”, turning the symphony into a “tone poem”. Well, overall, you’ll still very much recognize most of the symphony, but you’ll notice an less familiar 2nd movement sneaking in, Blumine, making the symphony 5 movements long.

Mahler: Symphony No. 1 – Osmo Vänskä – Minnesota Orchestra (BIS 2019)

Gustav Mahler Symphony No. 1 Osmo Vänskä Minnesota Orchestra BIS 2019 24/96

The even more recent new release is a conductor I’ve loved for a long time, Osmo Vänskä, who has done fantastic work with the Minnesota Orchestra. Take for example his outstanding recording of the Beethoven piano concertos 2 & 4 with Yevgeny Sudbin.

Vänskä takes the “traditional” version of the symphony with 4 movements.

Now, are any of these worth getting, you’ll ask?

Well, let me start with the Vänskä. Given how much energy and passion Vänskä typically puts into his recordings, this was a major disappointment. The entire symphony just feels very slow and uninspired. I try to stay away from too drastic words especially when we’re talking about such fantastic artists like Vänskä. But I can’t help it, this recording really isn’t for me.

Roth is already a different story. The Blumine addition already gives you something to look out for, and overall, the tone is much more energetic and joyful in the first three movements, and has the appropriate amount of drama in the fourth movement. Overall, a very satisfying performance, maybe not a new reference, but you won’t regret buying it.

Now I’m curious what you think? Am I completely off? Do you love Vänskä’s approach, and I’m just deaf? Which other versions of Mahler 1 should I check out?

My rating: 4 stars (Roth), 2 stars (Vänska)

You can find them here (Roth, Qobuz) and here (Vänskä, Qobuz)

Update Aug 16: Classicstoday seems to agree with my assessment of the Vänskä, calling it a “CD from Hell” in their recent review.

Update Sep 11: Classics is a bit less positive on Roth, giving it 3 stars.

An Beautiful New Vocal Jazz Album with Giovanni Mirabassi and Sarah Lancman

Giovanni Mirabassi

Giovanni Mirabassi remains one of my favorite Jazz pianists. I really love his trio efforts, be it on Terra Furiosa, Live in Toyko, or, probably my preferred one, Architectures.

Mirabassi is Italian, but has been living in Paris for many years. As mentioned above, he trio output (mainly with Gianluca Renzi and Leon Parker) is fantastic, but he’s also collaborated with some excellent singers, e.g. Angela Elvira Herrera Zaparta and Maikel Ante Fajardo on Adelante, and on Sarah Lancman’s previous 2018 albums A Contretemps and Inspiring Love. Both albums only featured Sarah on the title, now we have a recording where both Lancman and Mirabassi share the cover. The two already met in 2015 and have toured together.

Sarah Lancman

Sarah Lancman is a young French singer, who studied in Paris, and has released three albums so far.

There is no shortage of excellent Jazz singers today, but still, Lancman has a very recognisable, unique voice. Not suprisingly, she won the first price in a jazz contest hosted by Quincy Jones.

Giovanni Mirabassi – Sarah Lancman – Intermezzo (Starprod 2019)

So what do you get? Well, you could argue, is this still Jazz?

You basically get beautiful duos where Mirabassi plays in a very intimate and connected way with Sarah, who singing exclusively in Italian (note the album cover kind of gives it away) on this album.

Every once in a while, Olivier Bogé joins playing the saxophone, with a sound somewhat reminiscent of Stan Getz. So who cares if this is Jazz or not?

All of this is just hugely enjoyable, beautiful, intimate music, and really worth checking out.

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

An Excellent (Nearly) New Schumann Cycle by Rattle and the BSO

Schumann’s Symphonies

Schumann’s symphonies have long been underrated. The idea of “Schumann cannot compose for orchestra” has been going around in musicology circles for many years.

I really disagree. OK, he’s no Beethoven or Brahms, but I still really like his symphonies, especially no. 3 and 4.

To be fair, there are excellent recordings already out there, e.g. from Gardiner, Nezét-Séguin, or, a bit more unorthodox, Thomas Dausgaard, (mentioned in My 25 Essential Classical Albums).

Rattle is now on his way out from the Berlin Philharmonic, with Kirill Petrenko coming.

I’ve not always been a fan of Rattle’s work at the BPO, but he has left some very good recordings, so I was very interested when I recently rediscovered this 2014 cycle which launched BPO’s own label (I had missed it at the time).

Schumann: The Symphonies – Simon Rattle – Berliner Philharmoniker (BPO Recordings 2014)

Berliner Philharmoniker Sir Simon Rattle Robert Schumann Symphonies 1-4 BPO Recordings 2014 24/96

So, what do we get? Overall, a very convincing package. I really enjoy every single symphony on this box. My favorite is actually no. 1, subtitled “spring”; where Rattle takes a very fresh and precise approach.

Potentially the weakest of the 4 is symphony no. 2, which I found slightly incoherent in certain parts. The “Rhenish” (my other favorite), and no. 4 both are presented in a way that combines on one hand a good view of the big picture, but really looks at many exciting details.

Overall, Rattle was clearly influenced by the historically informed movement, and the BPO doesn’t sound like during the Karajan era any more. Everything is much lighter and transparent.

A really enjoyable set.

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Coltrane ’58: The Prestige Recordings

John Coltrane

I’ve checked, and to date, I’ve only mentioned John Coltrane twice on my blog. Let me clarify: this lack of coverage is not for lack of admiration, it is after all not by chance that I’ve listed the amazing album My Favorite Things in My 25 Essential Jazz Albums.

It is just that overall, so much more has been written about the Jazz legends, both online and offline, than about current contemporary musicians.

Therefore, I try to focus a lot of my Jazz writing here on recordings of the last 2 decades.

That said, every once in a while the record industry finds a smart way of re-releasing existing content, which gives me a nice excuse to write about it.

Coltrane’58 – The Prestige Recordings (Prestige Remaster 2019)

Coltrane '58 The Prestige Recordings 2019 remaster 24 96 192

To make it clear: there is no new content on this box that hasn’t been released previously. What is interesting about it is essentially two things: a remaster of the original recordings, and the chronological ordering of all of his recordings.

You get 37 tracks, all recorded in the year of 1958 when Coltrane signed with Prestige, and started to emerge as the star and legend he was bound to become in the following years. They are taken from albums such as Soultrane, Lush Life, or Kenny Burrell & John Coltrane.

Personally, I don’t think this year is as great as some of his all time masterpieces, be it Giant Steps (1959), My Favorite Things (1960) or obviously A Love Supreme (1964).

That said, this is nevertheless a box of thoroughly enjoyable music, uniting such fantastic musicians such as Tommy Flanagan, Red Garland, Paul Chambers, Jimmy Cobb, Louis Hayes or Art Taylor as the rhythm section, and great soloists such as Kenny Burrell and Freddy Hubbard.

Furthermore, the remastering really is quite well done, apparently taken directly from the original master tapes. Prestige unfortunately never was one of the “audiophile” labels, that said, for a 60 year old recording, this entire box really is fully enjoyable.

Before buying it, you may want to check out which of the original albums you may already own, or if you already (like me) have the Complete Prestige Recordings box set, in which case the only reason for buying would be the remastering.

If you don’t have any of these albums yet, this is a purchase I can recommend without any hesitation.

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Buxtehude: Membra Jesu Nostri by Philippe Pierlot’s Ricercar Consort – Just Beautiful

Easter time & music

I’m not religious, but I understand that Easter is the most important Christian holiday, and the history of his suffering and resurrection have dominated about 2000 years of European history.

Typically, around this time of the year, I’d be listening to the two masterpieces that Johann Sebastian Bach has composed, telling the story of the passion of Christ as recorded by the apostels John and Matthew (click on the links before and this one to see some of my reviews around them).

But obviously the great Bach is not the only one inspired by this important point of Western religion and culture. From Gesualdo, Pergolesi, via Telemann, Rossini, all the way to Pärt, all have written often amazingly beautiful music about it.

Dieterich Buxtehude

Regular readers of my blog know that I typically mainly write about music between 1700 and 1900, more or less from Bach to Mahler. In the 20th century, I often struggle, and before Bach, I’m often equally lost.

Therefore, if you look around at the 4.5 years of blogging history on this site, you’ll find only a small handful of mentions of Claudio Monteverdi, and that’s it.

So therefore, take the following review with a grain of salt, I’m clearly not an expert on Early Music.

Dieterich Buxtehude isn’t particularly well known any more today. He’s of Danish/German origins, and lived his entire life in the area of Southern Denmark and the very Northern end of Germany, and passed away in 1707.

However, in his time, he was a living legend. In his young years, Bach himself walked the 250 miles separating his home in Thüringen to Lübeck in Northern Germany just to hear Buxtehude play (and presumably study with him), and Händel even considered taking over his job after he died.

Buxtehude

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

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

Membra Jesu Nostri, or if you prefer the full title Membra Jesu nostri patientis sanctissima (“The most holy limbs of our suffering Jesus”) is actually a selection of seven cantatas written in 1680 (so 5 years before Bach was even born).

I’m not going to bore you with more detail on the structure and story of the work, Wikipedia has some really good information here.

What I do want to share is the beauty of all of this. You have a small baroque ensemble, just a handful of voices. But this album is captivating every single one of the 1h20 of the album (you get another cantata as “filler” at the end as well).

I’ve already praised Pierlot and his Ricercar Consort in their recording of the St. John Passion, and here again, their singing and playing is exceptional.

Again, I’m not an early music expert, but I briefly compared this to some of the well known recordings of this work (Gardiner, Koopman, van Veldhofen), and can guarantee that you won’t regret the purchase of this album.

My rating: 4 stars (5 star playing, 4 star repertoire)

You can find it here (Qobuz).