David Fray’s elegant and intimate Schubert

Franz Schubert and the piano

I’ve been writing quite a bit about Schubert recently (see here and here). I’ve said before that one area where this amazing composer really excelled was chamber music. This is to be expected given that he grew up learning the violin. However, soon after that instrument (started at the age of five), he also got his first lessons on the organ, and he became a decent player of the piano as well (although never to the professional standard of other composers, and he rarely performed in public).

Many of his piano works (let’s keep “late in perspective, the guy died at the age of 31…) are nearly as outstanding as his chamber compositions. Namely, the late piano sonatas, the Impromptus, the Moments Musicaux and the Wanderer-Fantasie. I’ll be writing about all of these later.

And finally, his third category of musical excellence was the Lied or song obviously. I’ve only recently started to fully discover the riches of this repertoire, and will also come back to this.

Side note: If you want a great overview of his piano works, played at the highest level and very well recorded, there is, besides the obvious Alfred Brendel, mainly Mitsuko Uchidas’ great box on Decca, which can sometimes be found very cheaply (e.g here and here)

David Fray playing Schubert

So, with all these great recordings already existing (and you could easily add Paul Lewis, Radu Lupu, Paul Badura-Skoda etc. etc.) recordings, why bother buying another version in 2015?

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David Fray is a young French pianist. He got his lucky break when he was asked to jump in for Hélène Grimaud (they shared the same piano teacher) at some concerts. He has some other musical background: his father in law is the famous conductor Riccardo Muti. He already recorded several Schubert albums earlier, but this is the first time I noticed him.

He plays the lesser known Sonata D894 (nicknamed “Fantasie“), and some smaller works, including two for four hands with Jacques Rouvier. What is so special about his Schubert? Two words come to mind: elegance and fragility. In some parts this Schubert sounds more like Bach than a composer who was at the beginning of the romantic period. With this comes an outstanding transparency, but also a really intense intimacy. Very very touching.

Critics for once seem to like this album as well, Gramophone named it Editors choice, Classica gave it the “Choc”, 5 stars from Diapason, the only review I saw that didn’t like it was the BBC, calling it “Beautiful, certainly, in its way; but static.”. Sorry, dear old BBC; but I don’t hear anything static in here.

Erato is a label that usually cares about sound quality, this one is quite well recorded as well, much better than the sometimes a bit harsh sound of some of Brendel’s old recordings, so one more argument to get this new recording (if you need one more).

My rating: 4 stars (the playing only would be 5 stars, but this sonata is not as essential to have for me, albeit very nice to have)

Get it here as download (the 24/96 version is worth it), or here for a physical album

Georg Friedrich Händel – beyond the Messiah

I’ve already mentioned before that my personal ranking of Baroque composers is Bach first, Händel is second.

So let me write about no. 2 on the list. Händel is German, although he spent quite a bit of his professional life in London and is somehow adopted English, so probably you’re more familiar with the George Frideric spelling of his name.

Most well-known classical music pieces

If you ask the average guy on the street whose typical musical fare is contemporary pop music, chances are he or she has at least heard a couple of ultra-famous classical pieces. These often include the “Da-da-da-daaaa” from Beethoven’s 5th, Bach’s Toccata BWV565 etc. etc.. Somebody even bothered to compile a top 10. Not surprisingly, this top 10 list includes our friend Georg Friedrich (sorry, I’ll stick to his birth name). Guess which one it is? Obviously: “Hallelujah” from the Messiah.

I’m not such a big fan of the Messiah, it’s good, but I can only listen to it ever so often. But it summarizes one of the two things Händel does really well: Glorious Oratorios, often with festive character. His two other rather well-known pieces, the fireworks- and water music, are of similar character.

The other thing Händel is really great at, is related, amazing stage drama. His Baroque operas and oratorios (many oratorios are actually operas, but weren’t allowed to be called opera as the pope Clement XI had some issue with this form of entertainment). I’ll certainly post more about the baroque operas later.

Music for Queen Caroline

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Back to the festive music. Obviously key clients for composers at the time were royals, and royal festivities like the arrival of a new queen, the coronation, or even funerals, required the appropriate musical soundtrack.

This album from William Christie and his Les Arts Florissants ensemble from 2014 brings you all three. Like many others, William Christie, the American turned French conductor has created his own label for this release. By the way, usually you can buy most of Christie’s releases blindly, he’s rather ever done a bad album and many are outstanding. His Messiah is still my personal reference version.

You’ll get three oeuvres on this album, all related to Queen Caroline (another German in the long history of German blood in the British royal family by the way): The Coronation Anthem, a Te Deum that was even nicknamed after her, and her funeral music.

All three are just outstanding pleasure to listen to, and William Christie does an amazing job here. This is 1h12 packed with emotions, with very little time to relax. Furthermore, this album is very well recorded, which makes the impact on a good stereo even stronger.

Highly recommended.

My rating: 4 stars

(this is one potential 5 star candidate, but I’ve only acquired it recently and need to give it some more spins before making u p my mind).

Update Oct 2016: I’ll stick to the 4 star rating. It is really nice to have but not essential.

What is your favorite piece by Händel?

The Legacy of the Jazz Messengers (2): Hank Mobley – Soul Station

For part II of my little mini-series (well, given the number of relevant musicians that I really like, it may turn out maxi, who knows) on the Jazz Messengers, I obviously had a lot of choice. I ended up with Hank Mobley.

Hank Mobley

Why? He’s certainly one of the lesser known artists of the Jazz Messenger stable, and also one of the least well-known Tenor players (Coltrane, Shorter, Rollins, … would anybody spontaneously continue this list with Mobley?)

However, his albums are consistently good. They are never outstanding, I don’t have a single five-star album with Mobley, but I’ve rated most of his albums a very solid four star, they are just always fun to listen too. Getting to such a consistency is already a major achievement for me.

What are those four star albums? Well, you can pretty much chose blindly. Whether it is (in alphabetical order to avoid any impression of ranking) A Caddy For Daddy (what a nice title), Dippin, No Room For Squares, Hi Voltage, Roll Call, Soul Station, or Workout, they are all just a lot of fun. It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. Well Mobley and his several groups have plenty.

Mobley grew up learning the … piano. Apparently he starting playing the saxophone only at the age of 16. I sometimes wonder, had he started earlier, would we list him with the Coltranes of this world? If Wikipedia is to be believed,  Miles Davis had considered him as a replacement for Coltrane for a little while (what is for sure is that you’ll find Mobley on the great Miles Davis album “Someday My Prince Will Come” playing alongside Coltrane).

As part of the Messengers he also played with Horace Silver, including the nice album “Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers” I completely forgot to mention in my previous post.

Soul Station

Hank Mobley Soul Station Blue Note 24 192

 

So why did I pick his 1960 album Soul Station here? Well, there’s obviously the personnel: Wynton Kelly and Paul Chambers, plus Art Blakey. What could possible go wrong? In any case, I don’t seem to be alone in preferring this album (witness this very nice article about him written by the folks at BlueNote), and Jazz critic Bob Blumenthal wrote that this album could be considered his “Saxophone Colossus” or “Giant Steps”.

Luckily I didn’t even have to research the facts above, as I have a very simple system: given that I try to rate individual songs as much as possible within iTunes, I can simply check the average score of an album. While most of my Mobley albums net out at four stars throughout, Soul Station stands out just a bit at “4.33” stars.

Two exceptional tracks

The album stands out due to two exceptional tracks: This I Dig Of You and Soul Station. I don’t think it is a coincidence that these are the longest tracks on the album. I’ve noticed before that usually the really long tracks (Soul Station is 9:05) are often the best, probably because they just leave more room to the individual soloing.

Overall rating: 4 stars (well 4 1/3 mathematically…)

Telemann – beyond Tafelmusik

Baroque Composers

Baroque composers. What comes to mind spontaneously? Bach, Vivaldi, Rameau maybe? And yes, if you remind people, specifically, there’s also Telemann. Personally, my “ranking” of baroque composers is very simple: Johann Sebastian Bach,  After that, with some distance, Georg Friedrich Händel. Then for quite some time pretty much nothing else, and finally, all the rest.

Let me explain. Vivaldi is “nice”, but the nasty saying that he composed only one violin concerto – but 200 times – has some truth to it. I usually get bored pretty quickly. Then there are the composers I still don’t “get”. I’ve never heard any Scarlatti (Alessandro and Domenico) that personally touched me. For the French baroque stars with Rameau, Lully, etc., well, I’m currently in learning mode. For Purcell, I love Dido and Aeneas, but still need to dig much deeper into the rest of this oeuvre.

Georg Philipp Telemann

And then there is Telemann. He probably didn’t do himself a favor by composing the famous “Tafelmusik” (literally “table music”, apparently a marketing term invented by Telemann himself to better sell his music). I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m not the only one who uses Telemann’s Tafelmusik as background entertainment when receiving guests for a dinner party (usually after preparing a rather fancy dinner decoration including lots of chandeliers that even Mr Carson of Downton Abbey would approve of). In a nutshell, the 18th century equivalent of the latest Café Del Mar mix. But I pretty much didn’t know anything else from him, beyond the infamous recorder concertos (remember that horrible instrument that many kids, including me, get tortured with for educational purposes).

So as you can see, Telemann didn’t have an easy start with me. However, when Classica Magazine gave a “Choc Classica” (their way of saying 5 stars) to a Telemann album in the latest issue of the magazine, I was intrigued. I figured I had to get it just to revisit my Telemann bias.

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I’m glad I did, in spite of the weird monkeys playing backgammon cover, and the fact that I hadn’t (consciously) heard of any of the artists on this album. I’ve been very positively surprised by several albums from the French Alpha label in the past, including the outstanding 6-album Café Zimmermann Bach cycle, so that helped a bit.

Alexis Kossenko – Les Ambassadeurs

Alexis Kossenko is a French flute player that founded the period instrument orchestra “Les Ambassadeurs” around 5 years ago, mainly composed of younger musicians. I only noticed after purchasing this that I already had another excellent album with this orchestra, the recent Sabine Devieilhe Rameau recital “Le Grand Théâtre de l’Amour” on Erato, purchased relatively recently as part of my self-educational efforts with regards to French baroque composers (see above).

What do you get on this album?

An overture, a violin concerto, two flute concerto, and a flute/violin double concerto. The latter is really my favorite of the album. All played with so much energy but at the same time attention to detail, it is a pure pleasure. This music is no b-minor mass obviously, but certainly on par with the Brandenburg concertos or Overtures by my admired Johann Sebastian. I really need to explore more Telemann, and certainly more of Les Ambassadeurs. As a bonus, Alpha is doing a great job in making their recordings sound very well, so if you have a good hifi, you’ll certainly enjoy this album even more.

Overall rating: 4 stars.

Schubert on Fortepiano by Andras Schiff – not for beginners

In his comment on my initial Diabelli thread, Jud asked about the new Schubert recording of Schiff on ECM.

0002894811577_600Curiosity got the better of me, and I bought it blindly (instead of streaming it first as I would have done usually), Actually, I’m glad I did.

Andreas Schiff uses the same 1820’s Franz Brodmann fortepiano he also uses on the Diabelli’s second “disc”. This is not very surprising given that he actually owns this since 2010. (It is usually on loan to the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn).

When listening to Fortepiano, the differences are much larger than with modern grand pianos. Sure, a Bösendorfer has a different house sound to a Steinway, and a trained pianists will be able to tell one Steinway from the other (witness the fascinating movie Pianomania if you want to know more), but that said, for most of us mere mortals all sound pretty nice.

In the early 1800s we were far from this homogeneity. This is important to know before you purchase a fortepiano recording, as they really can sound quite differently, and you may not like all sounds.

There are some I cannot listen to for a long time (e.g. Malcolm Bilson’s recording of the Mozart piano concertos), while I love the sound of others (e.g. Roland Brautigam playing a Paul McNulty replica of an 1820 fortepiano in his amazing Beethoven piano music cycle).

Brodmann Hammerflügel

The sound of this particular Brodmann Hammerflügel I very much like on the Diabelli, due to their very intellectual nature. It takes much more getting used on the romantic beauty of Schubert (I know Schubert was borderline between classical and romantic period, but to me is is clearly in the latter), especially if your current reference is this:

uchida schubert

Mitsuko Uchida

The sheer beauty of Uchida on Schubert is just outstanding. Well, the sound of the Brodmann is anything but beautiful at first ear.

Funnily enough, Andras Schiff himself is on record (from the 1990s) dreading somebody playing Schubert on a fortepiano. He has obviously by now made up his mind and admitted he was wrong.

And to be fair, he was. There is so much to discover here, not only you because you hear the music “as Schubert would have played it” (and unlike Beethoven, at least he wasn’t deaf), but the colors, the nuances, everything is different. This is NOT a recording to lay back and enjoy, this is a journey into the music.

Real highlights to me are the Moments Musicaux (revealing their true Viennese charm) and the amazing sonata D960.

If you don’t have any Schubert piano works yet, don’t buy this as a first album. Go for Uchida, Brendel, Lewis, etc (or the recently released outstandin album by David Fray).

And please do, as Schubert (to my ears) wasn’t great in the symphonic genre, but has done marvelous work both on the piano and in the chamber music fields (more on this later).

But if you know what you’re getting, check this out, you won’t disappointed. And obviously as usual ECM is very well recorded.

Overall rating: 4 stars

An addendum to Diabelli – the point of view of Classica Magazine in a blind test

As a quick addendum to my previous post on the Diabelli variations, when I opened the latest issue of the French magazine Classica on my iPad today (a bit late, it came out several days ago), I was pleased to discover that they dedicated their monthly blind test column, where their review staff compare 8 versions of a given oeuvre blindly, and ranks them, to just this work.

Classica – l’écoute en aveugle (the blind test)

I usually have a large overlap in taste with Classica, so I was a bit surprised to see none of my two recommended recordings even mentioned. But then I read it in the text, “les pianofortes atteignent leur limited“, the fortepianos reach their limits. Interesting, so Beethoven composed something that couldn’t have been played on the instrument he was used to. To be fair he was deaf at that time, but this is still an interesting conclusion. But ok, let’s see where they take it from here.

Laurent Cabasso

Well, their recording that is leading the pack is a recent recording on the label Naive played by the French pianist Laurent Cabasso.

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Well, the French press, very much like the English, has a certain patriotic tendency in their reviews. But remember, this is a BLIND test, so let’s assume they haven’t cheated. I obviously had to listen to it immediately, and luckily my streaming provider, Qobuz, has the album available.

Don’t forget Richter

My conclusion remains the same, I’m personally much more touched by the fortepiano versions than by this admittedly very good, but not outstanding recording (4 star on my personal rating scale). So if you prefer a modern piano, you may want to check this version out. But if you do, also compare it to the much more extremist (in a positive sense) Sviatoslav Richter (FYI, no. 5 in the Classica ranking). Otherwise, Schiff and Staier are a must on your playlist.

P.S. Gramophone has done a similar comparison in their August 2015 edition, you’ll find a summary here.

Currency of Man – Melody Gardot goes Soul – A Review

I’ve been a fan of Melody for quite a while now. Her story is touching (serious car accident, very long recovery, music as therapy), and her first three albums (Worrisome Heart, My One And Only Thrill, The Absence) were all very good. She’s also contributed a great track to Autour de Nina.

Currency Of Man (Legacy 2015)

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Generally, I’m not such a regular listener to vocal jazz. I appreciate the classics, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Billie Holiday, but of the contemporary singers, many don’t touch me as much.  Even clearly exceptional artists such as Cecile McLorin Salvant I only listen to occasionally.

So again, what’s different about Melody to all the other contemporary Jazz singers (and there are many): The music is well produced and she writes good songs. Many others do as well. Her unique feature to me is really her voice: pure seduction. This voice is really special and easily recognizable whatever she does.

Obviously, I had to get her latest album, I even had it on pre-order. Just downloaded it when it officially came out this morning.

Probably not Jazz anymore – if it ever was

Now let me put a disclaimer first, or rather a question: is this new album actually Jazz? Well, if you take the definition of many record stores (remember those, they’ll probably soon go the way of video rental places), who insisted on putting Norah Jones (or anything else published on BlueNote or Verve) and sometimes even Katie Melua under Jazz, then probably yes, but this album has more elements of Soul than Jazz.

One thing that struck me about this album were the arrangements. This album contains strings. Usually, the only one who is able to pull off combining Jazz and strings, is Ella Fitzgerald again. But here, it is really tastefully done, not overly cheesy, e.g. on the very intense “If I Ever Recall Your Face“. In other songs, you get typical Soul/Motown elements like brass and background vocals. Again, those just blend in and support the music. Very well done.

Then on some songs, e.g Morning Sun, you initially think she’s entering Norah Jones territory. But no, soon you’ll realize, this really is a Soul album with even funky elements occasionally.

Very enjoyable

How does it all work out? Very very well. I’m a big fan of this album. There is only one song that stands out as slightly weaker compared to the rest of the album “Same To You“; all  the rest is truly enjoyable.

An outstanding next step for an artist who will have a great future. Check it out!

You’ll find some good vids including some “behind the scenes” here.

My rating: 4 stars

EDIT: Deluxe edition

It has just been flagged to me that I didn’t specify whether I reviewed the regular or the deluxe edition of the album. The comments above refer to the regular edition, I hadn’t even realized the existence of the Deluxe Edition until now.

The latter has not only 5 bonus tracks (to be fair, 2 of them are less than 1 min), including the outstanding “Burying My Troubles“, pretty much most of the regular songs appear to be different cuts/mixes to the regular edition. I’ll need to compare a bit more and will report back in the next days.