Category Archives: Classical Music

In my personal definition, which is not necessarily generally agreed, it is the time from the so called “Wiener Klassik” of Haydn to around 1920. I personally can’t stand anything atonal (my brain is to limited for that), so all the efforts of the Vienna school that tried to move beyond tonality are totally lost on me. Here’s my personal cutoff. I have yet to hear a “classical” work written after the 1920s which interests me enough to listen to it twice. Call me narrow-minded which I probably am.

Quatuor Ebène Plays Mozart & Beethoven – Tonhalle Zürich – June 11, 2017 – A Review

Quatuor Ebène

About a year ago I wrote about Quatuor Ebènes outstanding Schubert recording with Gautier Capuçon. For me, it was the album that should have won the Gramphone awards in 2016 in their category.

My first encounter with this young French quartet was even before that, with their excellent recordings of quartets by Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn.

They really are among the best string quartets out there in 2017, and this is not for a lack of competition.

So I was very pleased when I saw that they’d be coming to Zurich on a day where I’d be close by, yesterday, June 11, 2017

Tonhalle Zürich

A quick word about the Tonhalle Zürich. I’m actually not such a great fan of that venue (Luzern’s modern KKL is much nicer for my taste), but that said, both the big and small concert hall are have their end of 19th century luxury baroque style, and the 1930s incorporation of the old concert halls into the Zurich congress center is an interesting contrast of style.

Quatuor Ebene Tonhalle

Detail of Tonhalle Zürich Lobby

 

Between the two halls, I quite prefer the smaller one use for chamber music. I’ve had a number of fantastic concerts in here, including the great Quatuor Mosaiques with Haydn.

As a side note, the Tonhalle and the Kongresshaus will be renovated soon, and Zurich is currently preparing the Maag Music Hall in Zurich’s industrial “Kreis 5”, far away from the fancy shores of Lake Zurich, where the Tonhalle is a direct neighbor to the posh Hotel Baur Au Lac, to a completely different environment.

Maag Music Hall

Maag Music Hall back in January 2017

 

Quatuor Ebène at Tonhalle Zürich, June 11, 2017

But back to the good old Tonhalle.

Quatuor Ebène, dressed in black,  as the name (ebony) implies, started with Mozart.

Quatuor Ebène at Tonhalle Kleiner Saal Jun 11, 2017

Quatuor Ebène

But not with your Kleine Nachtmusik “Happy Mozart”, but with a romantic Sturm and Drang Mozart, the Mozart of Don Giovanni, sharing the same key, d-minor, somehow transporting Mozart directly into the 19th century. There is a lot of chiaroscuro, changing from shadows to the light in this work.

They have recorded this on their 2011 Mozart album, but this live interpretation went beyond what they recorded, there was an enormous passion in the room.

The move to Beethoven felt like a logical next step, with a very intimate connection to the Mozart.

They started with the latest of the “middle quartets”, op. 95, also known as Quartetto Serioso. Unlike some other nicknames like e.g. Moonshine, it appears that this name is genuinely by Beethoven.

It is not the most accessible of the middle quartets, it’s “seriousness” making it one of the most drastic works he’s ever written. This work mentally belongs much more to the late quartets.

Quatuor Ebene put all their energy into this and played as if their lives depended on it. The passion was tangible in the room.

After the break we returned to get the opus magnum of the evening. Just one number later in the list of Beethoven’s string quartets, no. 12 to be precise, op. 127. This work not only has the length of a symphony (and I’m talking Beethoven symphony), but also the power. Who would have thought that only 4 strings can fill a room with so much power?

But there wasn’t only power. The more than 16 minutes long Adagio was all subtleness, which transported the audience out of this world for the moment.

After the final movement, the Swiss audience simply didn’t want to stop clapping, clearly expecting an encore.

At the end, the four musicians came back out, without their instruments this time, explaining in a very friendly way that they felt that after such a work as op. 127, which they compared to the chamber equivalent of Beethoven’s Ode To Joy, there simply wasn’t any music they could play that wouldn’t be out of place.

I couldn’t have said it better.

What a concert. Magnificent

 

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)

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.

 

First time at the Elbphilharmonie – finally! Xavier de Maistre’s Harp fireworks with William Christie

The Hamburg Elbphilharmonie

Hamburg’s latest addition to the number of beautiful classical venues, the Elbphilharmonie concert hall overlooking the harbor, is a true masterpiece by Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron. Completed several years after plan and hugely over budget, most of Hamburg’s population has already forgiven all the bad planning (and their tax euros gone) seeing this beauty finally come alive.

I was lucky enough to buy tickets more than 6 months ago, because since the official opening tickets are basically only available through the black market. Huge media coverage including the New York Times didn’t really help. Well, at least we now have a classical venue that is most likely sold out for years, many other places would be happy to have such a problem, with ageing population and less people interested in classical music.

DSCF5302 Weihnachten 2016

The Elbphilharmonie Plaza

I had been to what is called the “Plaza” (see above), basically the publicly accessible space between the only brick harbor warehouse and the  new steel and glass construction on top, which houses not only the concert hall, but also a hotel, several restaurants, and even some private apartments. If you’re in Hamburg, check it out, the views and the architecture are spectacular. It is located within the fully new part of town call Hafencity, which on its own is already worth a visit.

This time, last Sunday, was my first time in the actual large hall. I had heard wonders about the supposedly fabulous acoustics and had seen pictures from the inside. But actually being in there is just amazing.

I’ve previously been to other beautiful concert halls, like the Berlin Philharmonie that inspired this new layout of the audience sitting all around the orchestra, the KKL in Lucerne, or the Disney Concert hall in LA, but this beats them all.

Elbphilharmonie interior Grosser Saal (c) 2017 Musicophile

Inside the Elbphilharmonie: Grosser Saal

The only issue I have withthis venue is that most walls  look like they’ve been covered in egg cartons. And actually, they kind of are, an acoustic measure to optimize the sound experience.

William Christie – Les Arts Florissants – Xavier de Maistre 

I went to see a rather atypical ensemble for this hall: William Christie’s Baroque Ensemble Les Arts Florissants. This great period ensemble is well known for their baroque performances, I had seen them once before at the Barbican Hall (a much less beautiful venue) in London in a great performance of Purcell’s Didon and Aeneas.

Xavier de Maistre, William Christie, Les Arts Florissants Elbphilharmonie March 26, 2017 (c) Musicophile

Xavier de Maistre, William Christie, and Les Arts Florissants at Elbphilharmonie

Here they went into a repertoire a little bit later than their typical fare, as they were playing Harp concertos from the time of Marie-Antoinette, as in their recently released album.

So we got exposed to some lesser known composers such as Johann Baptist Krumpholz and Johann David Hermann (the literature for harp concertos isn’t very large).

The concert opened with a lively played Kleine Nachtmusik (Little Night Music), one of the most well known Mozart pieces. It is not my favorite and I had never heard it play live, but it was a refreshing opener.

Krumpholz concerto wasn’t really my cup of tea, so I spent the 2nd half of the part before the break admiring the beautiful venue.

After the break and a glass of Cremant de Loire, Christie started with Haydn.  And to answer my own question: no you don’t have to be Italian to conduct Haydn, being an American living in France will do just well. The performance of symphony no. 85, La Reine, was impressive, and made the small ensemble sound at times nearly like a full Beethoven orchestra.

And then things were wrapped up with de Maistre back on stage and Herman’s harp concerto, a much more convincing piece to my ears than Krumpholz.

All in all, a hugely enjoyable evening. If you’re lucky enough to get your hands on Elbphilharmonie tickets, go for it!

Bravo, Maestro? – No! Brava, Maestra! Alondra de la Parra at Tonhalle Zürich

Two premieres

Yesterday, I had two personal premieres:

I heard the Stravinsky’s Pulcinella suite for the first time live (and probably for the first time conciously, I have it on a Günter Wand album but never paid much attention).

And, more importantly, I was at my first live concert with a female conductor. This is a pretty sad fact given that we’re in the year 2017 and I attend classical concerts on a regular basis. But let’s look at the odds: right now there are only three female conductors I’d be able to spontaneously come up with: Simone Young in Hamburg, Marin Alsop, and closer to my heart, Emmanuelle Haïm. Can you come up with any other names? Wikipedia gives you a slightly (but really only slightly) longer lists with other names I’ve never heard of.

I actually had heard the name of Alondra de la Parra once before, on the radio. But that was  all I knew about this young Mexican conductor (who was born in NYC).

z-e1433526126421

Alondra de la Parra (Source: http://www.alondradelaparra.com)

So I was very curious to hear her, given that the Tonhalle Orchester had given her the opportunity of three consecutive concerts.

A little parenthesis on the Tonhalle-Orchester:  The only recently appointed current conductor, Lionel Bringuier, will soon be history. I’ve only heard him once with the Tonhalle, but really wasn’t convinced, so I’m not very sad about the change.

David Zinman did great things with the orchestra previously (even though it is still a bit short of being on par with the really big guys), and so I’m very much looking forward to whoever will be replacing him. Paavo Järvi has been mentioned, and given my affection for him, I’d be applauding.

But if de la Parra get’s 3 evenings, I’m just wondering, could she also be in the mix?

Alondra de La Parra Tonhalle Zürich February 2,2017

Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite

Well, this one will be quite quick, as I simply don’t have any reference to judge the performance from. All I can say is I was surprised I really liked the piece. I have a very difficult relationship with Stravinsky, I hate Le Sacre, I can listen to Petrouchka about once every 5 years, preferable in the piano version.

It’s generally just not my cup of tea. But this piece warrants further study.

Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 9 – Jan Lisiecki

Beyond Mrs de la Palla, Jan Lisiecki was the other motivation for me (plus being near Zurich anyhow that particular day) to go to see this concert.

He got very good reviews for his Chopin and Mozart, and so I was very curious to see this very young artist (22 years old) from Canada live. The first thing that’s a bit shocking is that he looks even younger than that. He wouldn’t be out of place in any US highschool movie.

Now, how did the two young stars play together? Well, let’s just say it was a really interesting experience. De la Parra lead the Tonhalle with a lot of energy, but overall the playing sounded a tiny bit heavy (maybe I’m also just too much used to historically informed performance these days). On top of that, Lisiecki had a rather firm grip on the Steinway.

Therefore, this well-known concert, which was written by the 21 year old Mozart, sounded a lot like Beethoven, and not even like his first two concertos, which still live the spirit of Mozart, but in parts this could have even been the 4th concerto.

And the 2nd movement got even more interesting, it sounded really much more like a Chopin concerto. Nothing wrong with all this, and it was a very pleasing experience, it is just different from what I’m recently used to hear.

Appropriately enough, Lisiecki gave us a Chopin encore, op. 48 no. 1, if my memory serves me well. This really was quite spectacular. Lisiecki gave it so much energy, especially in the second half, that I was occasionally thinking of being in the Grande Polonaise Brilliante. In any case, should you listen to this performance late at night (which the title Nocturne kind of indicates), you’d be wide awake by all the sheer brilliance. Very enjoyable.

The true highlight came after the break though.

Beethoven: Eroica

I love the Eroica. Actually, it is a mistake that I didn’t mention it in my 25 Essential Classical Albums (a mistake I’ll soon rectify by enlarging the list to 50). But it’s been ages since I last heard it live somewhere.

I was really hoping from some Latin power (mentally I was probably thinking of de la Parra as the female equivalent of Rodrigo, the slightly crazy Mexican conductor in Amazon’s TV series Mozart in the Jungle). 

But I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Boy, how positively surprised I ended up being. I spend the entire Eroica on the edge of my seat by the sheer energy she created. The poor musicians of the Tonhalle Orchester were clearly stretched to their limits, but they were following her with all the energy and passion they got. Wow!

In summary, as much as I’d like to see Paavo Järvi in Zürich, should the Tonhalle Orchester be daring and go for this amazing talent, I’d be all for it!

P.S. After the concert I read the review by the venerable Neue Zürcher Zeitung of the same concert the previous day, and they shared my enthousiasm.

 

Musicophile’s 25 Essential Classical Music Albums – Part II

Continued from part I here.

Anton Bruckner: Sinfonie Nr. 4 – Günter Wand – Berliner Philharmoniker

The 4th Big B as some call him, Bruckner had to be on my list.

The album I’m recommending nicely enough is a collection of all his relevant symphonies, but I’d really like to focus on Symphony no. 4, my first love, and still my preferred Bruckner symphony.

Günter Wand Anton Bruckner Symphonies Berliner Philharmoniker RCA Red Seal

I’ve written about it previously, and am not going to repeat the entire blog post. As I mentioned there, I’m not listening to Bruckner that much any more, my taste has moved on from the romantic period to much more Mozart and especially Bach, but my Essential Album list couldn’t be complete without Symphony No. 4. Even if I listen to it only a couple of times per year, the broad symphonic sound will always remain close to my heart.

There is especially one part in the first movement, that really give me goose bumps (for 10 other tracks doing the same, check out this blog post), it is a little part that connects two larger sections of the movement, and on the Wand album mentioned here, from 9:48 to 11:02, and has a beauty from out of this world.

 

Chopin: Nocturnes – Moravec

Finally moving away from the letter B, my first Chopin album. Chopin to me is one of the absolute masters of the piano to me. You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned any Beethoven piano sonata, as much as I love them, Chopin is still closer to my heart.

And if you only have to have one Chopin album, it should be Moravec’s legendary Nocturnes. Already, to me the Nocturnes are quintessential Chopin, and nobody plays them better than Ivan Moravec.

Ivan Moravec Chopin Nocturnes

See my full review here.

Not surprisingly, Moravec also shows up in my Top 10 Classical Pianists.

 

Chopin: Preludes – Blechacz

Another Chopin album, another pianist I already featured in my Top 10 pianists. At least you cannot call me inconsistent.

Chopin Complete The Preludes Rafal Blechacz Deutsche Grammophon

See my review here

Obviously, there are many other pieces you could get from Chopin, the Etudes (Pollini), the piano concertos, Benjamin Grosvenor’s beautiful albums, etc. etc.

But really, the Nocturnes and Preludes should be in everybody’s music library.

 

Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto – Janine Jansen

Skipping quite a lot of letters of the alphabet, and with this really good composers like Berlioz, Debussy, Dvořák, Fauré, Händel, Haydn (although I was close in adding his Cello concertos), Grieg, Mahler, all of which have composed great music and that I’ll write or have written about. But none of these composers have made it on my, again, extremely subjective list of “essential”, i.e. something I really wouldn’t want to live without. I know, we can discuss this endlessly, but I had to make a choice, and here we go.

So finally an album and piece that I haven’t written about yet.

You could argue, of the great violin concertos, why do I chose Brahms and Mendelssohn, and not Beethoven or Tchaikovsky (or, to a lesser extent, Bruch)? Well, again for the same subjective reasons as above, both really touch me the most.

Janine Jansen Riccardo Chailly Gewandhausorchester Mendelssohn Bruch Violin Concertos Decca

I’ve previously praised Janine Jansen’s recent Brahms recording, and am also quite a fan of what Riccardo Chailly has done with the Gewandhaus, be it his complete Brahms symphonies, or the piano concertos with Nelson Freire.

On this excellent album, on top of Mendelssohn’s masterpiece, you also get an outstanding version of Bruch, so this really is another must have.

Other music from Mendelssohn I can highly recommend includes his Songs Without Words, and his symphonies no. 3 and 4.

 

Mozart: Cosi Fan Tutte – Nézet-Séguin

Moving on to Mozart. And getting into dangerous territory. My favorite pieces of all times are his great DaPonte operas, most of all Cosi, closely followed by Figaro.

Nezet-Seguin Mozart Cosi Fan Tutte Chamber Orchestra of Europe Deutsche Grammophon

However, as mentioned in my review of this album, I still don’t consider myself an opera expert. So take my recommendations with a grain of salt, and I’d particularly appreciate any feedback from any opera lovers about their favorite versions.

That said, this 2013 live recording is great, much better than the more recent, slightly disappointing Figaro.

 

Le Nozze Di Figaro – René Jacobs

Even more difficult territory here, as René Jacobs operas are usually love/hate affairs, i.e. you either love them or hate them.

I personally usually find them really interesting and insightful.

Mozart: Le Nozze Di Figaro René Jacobs Concerto Köln Harmonia Mundi

I also have about 10 other versions, including the classics from Böhm, Muti, Erich Kleiber, but keep returning to this version, as well as the first I ever owned, by James Levine.

 

Mozart: C-minor Mass – Masaaki Suzuki

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

I’ve written twice previously about Mozart’s choral masterpiece, one of the most amazing works of music ever written. And I must admit that Masaaki Suzuki’s recent version really made something very special.

Read my full review here.

You’ll find more great Mozart in my blog post about My Must-Have Mozart albums.

 

Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 3 – Leif Ove Andsnes

Again, jumping a couple of letters ahead, skipping Liszt (although his b-minor sonata was close to making the list), Monteverdi, Mussorgsky, and Prokofiev), directly to Rachmaninov.

And for Rachmaninov, as much as I like quite a bit of his solo piano work, the true essentials are his piano concertos no. 2, and even more so, no. 3

Rachmaninov Complete Piano Concertos Leif Ove Andsnes London Symphony Orchestra Berliner Philharmoniker Antonio Pappano Warner Classics

I’ve previously mentioned this album in my post about My Top 10 pianists.

Obviously, there are many other legendary performances of the Rach’s, including Horowitz, and Van Cliburn, but Andsnes and Pappano really stand out.

 

Schubert: The Late Piano Sonatas – Uchida

Moving one letter ahead again, to S.

Mitsuko Uchida plays Schubert

Schubert’s “late” (all relative, given that he passed away at the age of 31) piano sonatas, D958-960, are absolute masterpieces again. It is not easy to pick my favorite.

Luckily, quite recently I did a systematic comparison of D959, where Uchida, Perahia, and Brendel came out on top.

I’m here rather arbitrarely recommending Uchida, given that her rather exhaustive Schubert box contains 8 CDs for a really low price, you may as well get this directly. You won’t regret it.

 

Schubert: Winterreise – Prégardien – Staier

Schubert: Die Winterreise - Christoph Prégardien - Andreas Staier Warner Classics

A Schubert Lied just had to be in the list, and Winterreise really is such a gem.

As written here, I really like Christoph Prégardien with Andreas Staier, but this is one where one could easily collect 20 and more versions and still discover something new.

 

Schubert: String Quintet – Pavel Haas Quintet

Pavel Haas Quartet String Quintet Schubert Death and the Maiden Supraphon

As you can see, I really like Schubert. He get’s 3 entries, and I could easily have given him four or five. Luckily, on this album you get two of my favorites, the amazing quintet, and the nearly as outstandingly beautiful Death and the Maiden Quartet.

You’ll find my initial review here. I could have easily recommended the more recent version by the Quatuor Ebène as well, I just find the coupling more attractive of the Pavel Haas.

 

Schumann: Symphony No. 3 – Daussgard – Swedish Chamber Orchestra

 

Schubert: Symphony No. 3 and 4 - Thomas Dausgaard - Swedish Chamber Orchestra - BIS

And last but not least, Schumann.

Given that this is the last entry, you’ll notice the absence of Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky (although you’ll find I’ve reviewed quite a bit of Tchaikovsky on my blog), Ravel, Telemann, Sibelius (although his violin concerto was close to making the list), or Vivaldi.

And for Schumann, I didn’t chose his piano concerto, nor his solo piano music, but his symphony no. 3, the “Rhenish”. Moreover, I’m recommending an atypical version, by Thomas Dausgaard with the Swedish Chamber orchestra. Why? Well, it has often been written that Schumann didn’t know how to orchestrate properly, the balance was supposedly off.

Well, actually, if you listen to it played by a smaller chamber orchestra, like here, or on Nézet-Séguin’s recent recording with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, another excellent version, you get a totally different picture. Well, obviously the classic recordings of Klemperer, Szell or Sawallisch also have their charm. But for me, a smaller ensemble is what works best.

 

Again, I very much appreciate any feedback!

Thanks again for all of you who already commented on part I, I can assure you, your feedback is always very welcome. Agree, or even better, disagree, and tell me why!

All albums mentioned here are five stars on my personal rating scale.

 

 

You can find the albums here:

Bruckner / Wand: here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)

Chopin / Moravec:  here (Prestoclassical)

Chopin / Blechacz: here (Prestoclassical)

Mendelssohn / Janssen: here (Qobuz)

Mozart Cosi Séguin: here (Qobuz)

Mozart Figaro Jacobs: here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)

Mozart / Suzuki: here (eclassical)

Rachmaninov / Andsnes: here (Qobuz)

Schubert / Uchida: here (Prestoclassical)

Schubert / Pavel Haas: here (HDTracks)

Schubert  Winterreise: here (Qobuz) or here (Prestoclassical)

Schumann / Dausgaard: here (eclassical)

Musicophile’s 25 Essential Classical Music Albums – Part I

I Love Reader Feedback!

Hearing from your readers is just fantastic. Blogging is obviously sometimes a bit lonely exercise. You write something on your own, and then it’s out there, being read in places as far away as Turkmenistan, Mozambique, or Mongolia (I’m not making this up, the stats for my blog show user access from 157 different countries, including all of the above, and places like Micronesia, Myanmar, or Brunei).

So it is really great to hear back from readers, which luckily happens regularly, and even better if I get questions, because often these turn into blog posts, like for example My Must Have Mozart Albums.

So in this particular case, in my last blog entry about the CPE Bach keyboard concertos, reader Jim S asked me if I could do a similar post to my 25 Essential Jazz albums for classical music.

Sure, here we go!

25 Essential Classical Albums

However, now starts the tricky part. How do you define essential? Are we talking about the musical value of the work, or do you want to be as representative as possible of the 500+ years of what we call classical music today? And obviously, you’ll find many of these lists already online.

I’ve toyed with several ideas and concepts, but discarded all supposedly objective approaches to something purely subjective. Therefore, this list will simply be albums I truly don’t want to live without. Call them “desert island” albums (a cliché I hate, I’d much prefer to take an entire external hard drive to said island).

With this purely subjective list, there will be obvious gaps. Nothing prior to Bach, so the entire early music gets excluded. No Grieg, no Wagner, no Mahler, no Händel, no Debussy, no Ravel, no Haydn? All this doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate these artists (and I’ve written about most of them on this blog already). They are just not as essential to my very personal taste. And if you’re listing only 25 albums you really have to do some tough choices.

Furthermore, I’ve cheated a bit, occasionally I’ve extended the concept of “album” to an entire multi-CD box by the same artist.

So, here we go. I decided to simply go alphabetically.

I’ve you’re following my blog regularly, you won’t be surprised that the entire first part of the blog post is exclusively dedicated the the “big B’s”, Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. The entire rest of the alphabet will be covered in part II.

 

Bach: Brandenburg Concertos

This first entry is already controversial. The Brandenburgs are essentially music for entertainment. How can I put them in this list and for example, not put Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis? The answer is very simple, I just love them too much. I really never get tired from this music. So all musicologists out there, sorry!

Bach Brandenburg Concertos Rinaldo Alessandrini Naive 2005

I’ve already written about my favorite version here.

 

Bach: Goldberg Variations – Pierre Hantaï

Pierre Hantai Goldberg variations Mirare 2003

This one was easy. No essential classical album list could be complete without this absolute pinnacle of keyboard music.

I’m recommending here Pierre Hantaï on harpsichord, given that this is the instrument for which this was originally written. You’ll find my original review here. if you prefer a modern piano version, go with Murray Perahia, or more recently, Igor Levit (see the review of the latter here).

 

Bach: B-minor mass – Herreweghe

Bach b-minor mass Herreweghe 2011 Phi

Again, another absolute masterpiece, that has to be in every collection. My review of my favorite version with Philippe Herreweghe can be found here.

 

Bach: St: Matthew Passion – Dunedin Consort

Here I could have chosen either the smaller St. John’s passion or the larger St. Matthew’s. I went for the larger one.

Matthew Passion Dunedin Consort John Butt Linnrecords 24 88

You’ll find my review of this truly essential masterpiece here.

 

Bach: Orchestral Suites

No. 5, the last of the great Johann Sebastian. And like with entry no. 1, the Brandenburgs, we’re getting into the “pop music” territory again. I would never claim that the Orchestral Suites (also known as Overtures) are of the same musical value as the b-minor mass for example.

But again, I listen to these over and over again. That’s why they feature here.

I haven’t reviewed my favorite version on this blog yet, so just a quick comment about this album. I usually really like the Freiburger Barockorchester, and this is probably my favorite album they’ve ever recorded. They just get the balance right between swing, brillance, and sheer fun.

Bach: Ouvertüren - Complete Orchestral Suites - Freiburger Barockorchester Harmonia Mundi

 

Now, moving on to the next Big B:

Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 & 7

Among the Beethoven symphonies, I was very tempted to simply put Paavo Järvi’s complete cycle, that I’ve written about here. However, they actually haven’t been released as a single album yet, and anyhow, I just needed to feature this outstanding album below, as I hadn’t written about it yet:

Carlos Kleiber Beethoven Symphonies 5 & 7 Wiener Philharmoniker Deutsche Grammophon 24 96

Carlos Kleiber, son of famous Erich Kleiber, is one of those conductor legends. Partially this is due to the fact that he has recorded relatively little, so a rarety factor comes into play here. But then again, this album above features in pretty much every “Best Of Classical” list I’ve consulted while doing the research for this post. And honestly, it very much deserves that place. There is really something special about it.

On top of everything else, you’re not only getting the famous “da da da daaaa” 5th, but my personal favorite of Beethoven’s symphonies, No 7.

A true must have.

Beethoven Complete Piano Sonatas – Ronald Brautigam

I’ve already mentioned Brautigam and his complete Beethoven cycle in My Top 10 Favorite Classical Pianists.

7318599920009_600

I know not everybody appreciates the sound of the fortepiano. And if you don’t you’ll find plenty of alternatives in the catalogue on modern Steinways. But I really suggest you check this out. Not only you get outstanding playing, the different sound of the fortepiano opens up an entirely different world.

 

Beethoven: Complete Violin Sonatas – Isabelle Faust

Beethoven: Complete Sonatas for piano & violon - Isabelle Faust - Alexander Melnikov - Harmonia Mundi 2013 24/44

Oh no you’re going to say – again Isabelle Faust? Yes I know, I’m a BIG fan. I’m not going to give links here to all the positive reviews I’ve written about her, there are simply too many (just enter “Faust” in the search box on the right, and you’ll see the long list).

But what can I do? She’s done one of the best, if not THE best cycle of Beethoven’s violin sonatas.

What you could argue about, if I choose chamber music from Beethoven, why the violin sonatas and not the string quartets? Well to be frank, I’m still in the process of fully absorbing all string quartets and have yet to make up my mind which version to prefer.

So, only 3 entries for Beethoven, but given that I’ve “cheated” with two complete boxes, I figured we can move on to the composer whose name features in the sub-title of my blog.

 

Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1 – Leon Fleisher – George Szell

Brahms first piano concerto was my first big love in music. I started out with a decent, but not outstanding version, with Sir Georg Solti, and Andras Schiff on piano, and by now have collected more than 20 versions.

Among the more recent recordings, I really like the version by Riccardo Chailly with Nelson Freire, but when we’re getting a bit back in time, I guess there is simply no beating of George Szell.

The only problem I’m having is, which version? George Szell has recorded piano concerto no. 1 with several pianists, including Rudolf Serkin, Leon Fleisher, and Clifford Curzon, among others.

I guess, overall the version with Leon Fleisher wins by a very small margin, but tomorrow I may well recommend Curzon instead. But I guess I have to decide, so Fleisher it is:

Leon Fleisher: Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 and Beethoven Piano concerto No. 2 Cleveland Orchestra George Szell

Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2 – Richter – Leinsdorf

Brahms Piano concerto no. 2 Beethoven Sonata No. 23 Sviatoslav Richter, Erich Leinsdorf - Chicago Symphony RCA

Again, for piano concerto no. 2 I could have recommended a lot of albums. I’ve previously written about Emil Gilels,  and could have recommended Gilels with Reiner, or again Chailly/Frere.

But I guess there is something truly special about this particular recording with the great Sviatoslav Richter, that I had the pleasure of hearing live once in a solo recital.

A must have.

Brahms: Symphony No. 1 – Wilhelm Furtwängler

Here it gets complicated. In one of my very first blog posts I’ve written about my quest to find a modern version to replace my love for Wilhelm Furtwängler in Brahms first symphony. I’ve also written about why this symphony is so important to me, so I simply couldn’t keep it of the list.

Therefore, be warned, the recording I’m recommending here is a historic performance, that may not please everyones ears from a technical perspective (musically it is hard to beat though).

Furtwängler has recorded this symphony several times, and my favorite version is either with the Berlin Philharmonic, or with the NDR Sinfonieorchester Hamburg.

Let’s pick the BPO version here. Unfortunately it is not that easy to find. It can be found on the Furtwängler Anniversary Box, which is worth having:

Wilhelm Furtwängler Anniversary Tribute Deutsche Grammophon

 

Brahms: Symphony No. 4 – John Eliot Gardiner

Brahms 4 is my other favorite Brahms symphony. I really love the variations in the 4th movement!

I could have given a lot of recommendations here, Chailly, Szell again, or as above, Carlos Kleiber.

But let me stick to this version, the 2010 recording by John Eliot Gardiner with his Orcheste Revolutionnaire et Romantique. I know the concept of historically informed performance is controversial, especially for late 19th century works.

Anyhow, I really like what I hear, especially the transparency.

If you want more traditional Vienna Philharmonic sound, just get the Carlos Kleiber instead!

Brahms Symphony No. 4 John Eliot Gardiner SDG 2010

 

Brahms: Violin Concerto – Isabelle Faust

Isabelle Faust Brahms Violin Concerto Daniel Harding Mahler Chamber Orchestra Harmonia Mundi 2011

Yes, sorry, Faust pops up twice in this post, here we go again for Brahms Violin Concerto, as reviewed here. If you want an alternative, just get Jascha Heifetz with Fritz Reiner, or Janine Jansen (see here)

 

To be continued next week…..

All of the albums above that weren’t reviewed previously are obviously full 5 star ratings!

And while I’m preparing part II, I’d love to hear your feedback on the selection above? Am I nuts? What do you think? What are your favorites?

 

You can find the albums here: