Schumann’s underrated piano chamber music beautifully played by the Trio Wanderer

Robert Schumann

I haven’t written very many entries on Schumann yet. That is not because I don’t like this composer.

In fact, his symphonies, typically either played by Szell, Gardiner, or more recently, Nézet-Seguin (that I really need to review here), Dausgaard (that I even mentioned in my 25 Essential Classical albums), or Rattle, are in very heavy rotation on my hifi.

I listen to his piano concerto much less frequently, just because I probably overplayed it in my youth. That said, going back to Lipatti’s legendary performance every once in a while is a true pleasure. For more modern performances, it is also worth going with Leif Ove Andsnes, or if you prefer a period piano, Alexander Melnikov.

His solo piano music gets even less frequently played here, which is a pity, as there are beautiful pieces like the Davidsbündlertänze, the Etudes Symphoniques, or Kreisleriana. I really don’t know why I don’t play them more often, maybe I should just actively seek them out more.

Now, when we get to Schumann’s chamber music, I must admit I barely played it until recently. I purchased the three piano trios in a very good version with Isabelle Faust, Alexander Melnikov, and Jean-Guihen Queyras, as they were included in their excellent recordings of the concertos for piano, violin, and cello. However, I mostly focused my attention to the orchestral works, not giving the chamber works enough attention.

My interest in Schumann’s chamber music grew when I recently purchased a reference version of Brahms’ piano quintet by the Artemis Quartet with Leif Ove Andsnes (not yet reviewed here), that also included Schumann’s piano quartet (in an equally exellent performance)

So when the following album was released recently, I was immediately very interested:

Schumann: Complete Trios / Piano Quartet / Piano Quintet – Trio Wanderer (Harmonia Mundi 2021)

Robert Schumann Complete PIano Trios PIano Quartet Piano Quintet Trio Wanderer Christophe Gaugué Catherine Montier Harmonia Mundi 2021

I already own an excellent box by this French trio, that consistently records very strong performances, of the complete Beethoven trios.

I really like these performances here as well. They are more polished that the somewhat rougher performances of the trios by Melnikov/Faust/Queyras mentioned above (the period instruments clearly make a difference), but there is beauty all along.

The piano quintet performance doesn’t get the brilliance of the above mentioned Artemis recording, but there is beautiful “singing” in the melodies everywhere.

I really don’t have a good reference for the piano quartet in my collection, so as with this entire review, take my comments here with a big grain of salt, but I really like what I hear as well.

Overall, a truly enjoyable box.

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Smetana’s String Quartets No. 1 & 2 by the Pavel Haas Quartet – Excellent

Bedřich Smetana

I haven’t written much about the other famous Czech composer (that said, even Dvorak doesn’t have a post dedicated to one of his works yet on this blog, I should change that).

As a kid I listened to The Moldau (or more correctly Vltava) from his Ma Vlast patriotic cycle A LOT. It is one of those classics that nearly everybody has heard at some point. My only issue is that I’ve heard it so much that I barely touch it any more these days. I’ll probably need to rediscover the entire work more systematically (and I have two Kubelik recordings in my library, with Boston and the Czech Philhamonic orchestra to do so).

That said, I have only a small number of Smetana recordings in my library overall, so I may not be the most qualified reviewers of his work. For the string quartets I’m going to write about I only have one other recording, by the Stamitz Quartet. So keep this in mind when you read my comments below.

Smetana: String Quartet No. 1 & 2 – Pavel Haas Quartet (Supraphon 2015)

Smetana String Quartet No. 1 & 2 - Pavel Haas Quartet Supraphon 2015
Pavel Has

The two string quartets are quite different in nature. One is what you’d expect from a late romantic composer of Bohemia, a lot of flowing melodies and a lot of well, “romanticism” (however you want to define that).

The 2nd string quartet is much less accessible, it was written in the very last years of the composer as he was already deaf. Yes, an eery parallel to Beethoven’s late string quartets, right? In any case both are very much worth discovering.

I’ve praised the Pavel Haas Quartet many times, for their Schubert (here and here), which even made it into my list of the 25 Essential Classical Albums.

I had even previously mentioned this particular album, as it had received the Gramophone Award for Chamber in 2015.

Why did I decide to write about this album again then? I must admit over the time (the original review was published in 2015) this album really grew on me, particularly the less accessible no. 2. I by now truly love particularly the Largo Sostenuto. Over the years I’ve listened to a lot of string quartets, making it by now one of my favourite genres of classical music. So naturally, tastes evolve (which really is a good thing. Stay curious!). I encourage you to do the same, regularly try to rediscover things you may already have in your library, or go a bit beyond your comfort zone in the streaming service of your choice!

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

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

Brahms’ Piano Concertos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, is it worth it?

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

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

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

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

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Some thoughts around the new Liszt album from Benjamin Grosvenor

Benjamin Grosvenor

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

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

Benjamin Grosvenor – Liszt (Decca 2021)

Benjamin Grosvenor - Liszt - Decca 2021 - 24 96

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

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

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

The b-minor sonata

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

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

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

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

Nevertheless, this is a beautiful album absolutely worth having.

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

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

Mozart’s Piano Concertos

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

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

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

And that’s basically it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’ll find it here (Qobuz)

My (Current) Favorite Version of Brahms’ 4th Symphony

Brahms’ 4th Symphony

I started this blog writing extensively about Brahms’ 1st symphony, and why it means so much to me, and why to this day I’m still looking for my “perfect” version.

I’ve also reviewed Andris Nelsons’ excellent Brahms cycle with the Boston Symphony some time ago (5 stars). I’ve also found a favorite version of Brahms 2nd symphony

But I’ve never written explicitly about Brahms 4th symphony.

To me, there’s a clear (personal) hierarchy among the Brahms symphonies. The first will always come, well, first, the 2nd is still nice but I listen to it much more occasionally, the 3rd is beautiful, but has the super famous 3rd movement that has been a bit overused in popular culture. And then there’s the 4th symphony.

After all, this could actually be the greatest masterpiece of all of them. Why? Well, I’m just totally in awe of the fourth movement, which is basically just a set of variations on a very simple motif, a Passacaglia. I’ve written before how much I really appreciate variations these days, they are a true art form (even though it is something that one appreciates only after some learning), be it the Goldberg variations, the Diabelli Variations, or Brahms several other variations, like the Haydn or Händel variations.

Each one of these little variations in the 4th movement is such a gem, with an emotional depth (some say down to very deep despair) in a bit more than 9 minutes. And unlike most other symphonies, this symphony doesn’t end in happiness. It starts in the e-minor key, and ends in e-minor. Compare this to Brahms own first symphony where you start with the nearly menacing timpani but you end in a chorale that tells you that all will end well. Nothing ends well here.

Don’t get me wrong, it is not only the last movement that is fantastic. In this symphony there’s more than enough to discover in each of the movements. In comparison, Brahms’ 1st has a fantastic first and last movement, but the two in between feel more like an interlude.

Brahms: The Symphonies – Riccardo Chailly – Gewandhausorchester Leipzig (Decca 2013)

Brahms: The Symphonies Gewandhausorchester Leipzig Riccardo Chailly Decca 2013 24 96

So, now to my current favorite version of the 4th. I put the “current” in the title, as I always keep discovering and looking, and my taste clearly changes and evolves over time.

Before I get into Chailly’s excellent recording, a quick note on some other versions you should check out. Many critics will give you Carlos Kleiber’s legendary recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, and they have a point. It really among the best. I’ve long been in love with Fritz Reiner’s beautiful reading with the Royal Philharmonic. Another all time classic is George Szell with the Cleveland Orchestra. (Side note: Szell takes the 4th movement much more slowly at 10:42 compared to Chailly’s 9:23, only to be exceeded by Karajan’s reading with 10:49, as well as Kurt Masur in 10:52).

If we look at the more contemporary versions, beyond the already mentioned Andris Nelsons, you should also check out John Eliot Gardiner’s historically informed reading with his own Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique (I’m not totally convinced of his approach, but it is nevertheless quite insightful).

But now enough of the alternatives, here’s my current champion: Riccardo Chailly with the Gewandhausorchester. By the way, this is not the first recording I love from Chailly in Leipzig, my favorite version ever of the Bruch violin concerto with Janine Jansen was recorded with this great team, and the same recording also features my favorite Mendelssohn violin concerto (mentioned in my 25 Essential Classical albums). Chailly’s recording of the Brahms piano concertos with Nelson Freire is also one of my all-time favourites, and the complete Brahms’ serenades recording is also outstanding.

So why do I prefer Chailly over all the other versions mentioned? I’d say it is not one little thing, but a sum of all the small things. This recording just feels “right”, balanced, nuanced, going deep when it needs to, but still tightly controlled.

And this doesn’t only apply to the 4th symphony. As you can only get this as a box set (if you decide to buy and not to stream, which I strongly encourage you to do), you’d also need to know that all the other three symphonies are top notch. They are IMHO, together with Nelsons, the best contemporary set you can buy.

To compare the two: Nelsons & the BSO really go big, this really is Brahms in Cinemascope in the great tradition of Karajan. Chailly’s approach in pretty much all cases is a bit more nuanced and delicate. Both versions really have very strong merit, and you won’t be disappointed with any of them.

And on top of that, going back to Chailly, in this very reasonably priced set, you also get most of the other orchestral works that Brahms has written, e.g. the above mentioned Haydn-Variations, the Tragic Overture, the rarely played Liebeslieder Walzer, and even to wrap it up some of the famous Hungarian Dances.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

A Beautiful New Recording of the Concerto di Aranjuez

Rodrigo and the Concerto di Aranjuez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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