Brahms Late Piano Works In a New Fantastic Recording by Stephen Hough

Brahms Late Piano Pieces

I’ve written previously about these late masterpieces, op. 116 – 119, that are among the last pieces written by Brahms.

Brahms always was primarily a pianist. Whenever he wrote for other instruments, he got advice from experts, e.g. his friend Joseph Joachim for his violin works So it is not surprising that he wrote some of his most important but also most intimate works ever for the instrument he knew best.

I had been looking for a “definitive” version for a long time, and only some years ago fell in love with the album that the Russian pianist Volodos recorded in 2017 (see my review here). The only other version I reviewed here on this blog is by Andreas Staier on a fortepiano, only for op. 116.

So when I recently read two reviews, by Classicstoday and Gramophone, that both praised a new recording by Stephen Hough, I went out to buy it blindly.

You see, the issue is that Hyperion, the label that has Stephen Hough exclusively, doesn’t allow streaming, which is a key reason why I typically don’t buy his albums, as I can’t really explore them properly upfront, and also why I never reviewed any of his albums here, in spite of the fact that Gramophone is a huge fan.

But for my idol Brahms, it was worth the risk of GBP 13.

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

Stephen Hough Brahms The Final Piano Pieces Hyperion 2020 24 96

So, am I happy? To make it short, yes, very much. This is among the most unorthodox recordings of these work I’ve ever heard. None of these sound as I’m used to hearing them.

But honestly, it is worth the discovery. Once you overcome the initial surprise, you discover that Hough clearly has spent a long time thinking about these works, and each peculiarity is there for a reason. If you want to find out more about his approach to Brahms, check out this podcast about this new release.

I’m totally sold now. This is an album that I’ll go back over and over again, just because every single one of these little short gems is worth having a new look at them.

Here’s a Youtube example, so you can get an idea what I’m talking about. Let me know what you think!

In a nutshell, highly recommended! (My prediction is that this will make it into the Gramophone Award nomination list for 2020. Let’s see later this year if I’m right).

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Hyperion Records).

Fauré’s Beautiful Requiem

Gabriel Fauré

This is my first ever entry on the French composer Gabriel Fauré, after more than 5 years of this blog and hundreds of posts. Why did it take me so long? Well to be fair, there are only a handful of his works of this late romantic composers that I actually know. Coming from a German speaking background originally, French composers just weren’t very high on the list of stuff that you’d be aware off. In my personal library that contains thousands of albums I only have 16 that include some music of him, mainly some piano and chamber music.

The only major work of him that I knew and loved for more than 20 years now is the requiem.

I still try to remember where I first discovered it. I still think it was in a movie soundtrack, I even remember a scene with clouds drifting over a sky, and this beautiful music that immediately struck me as truly celestial. I tried to find the movie, and Fauré is listed in more than 100 of them in IMDB, but I couldn’t retrace that scene just yet. I keep digging.

In any case, his requiem is truly special, unlike any other requiem that I’m aware of.

Catholic requiems are typically, in the spirit of Mozart and Verdi, to name two of the most famous ones, very big and sometimes even threatening affairs. After all, it includes the Dies irae, the “Day of Wrath”, that starts like this “Day of wrath and doom impending. David’s word with Sibyl’s blending, Heaven and earth in ashes ending.”.

Well, no ashes in Fauré’s requiem. He simply skips the Day of Wrath, and focuses rather on In Paradisum, which I presume does’t need translation.

Overall, this really is the most peaceful (even compared to my beloved Brahms German Requiem) of all works for mourning the dead that I’m aware off.

My father passed away about a year ago, so I’ve been listening to this, as well as the Brahms, quite regularly. While I’m not at all religious, both works really give me solace.

For years I only had one version, which I still treasure today, by Michel Corboz with the Berne Symphony Orchestra. Not necessarily a reference version, but still one of my favorites.

But I wanted to write about this one instead:

Fauré: Requiem – Paavo Järvi – Orchestre de Paris (Erato 2011)

Regular readers of my blog know that I’m a fan of Paavo Järvi. He is here conducting the Orchestre de Paris, which obviously is very familiar with this work. I still often see that French orchestras have an advantage for French music, as it is so engrained in their culture.

Fauré Requiem Cantique de Jean Racine, Super Flumina Babylonis, Pavane, Elegie Philippe Jaroussky Matthias Goerne, Eric Picard, Choeur de l'Orchestre de Paris, Orchestre de Paris Paavo Järvi 24 48 Erato Warner 2011 24 48

On top of a top notch conductor and an orchestra that knows what it is doing, you also get two fantastic soloists, Philippe Jaroussky and Matthias Goerne.

Finally, this album will also give you an overview of some of the other large orchestral works of Fauré that are worth knowing, like the Cantique de Jean Racine, the Elegie for Cello, and the Pavane.

Highly recommended.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz).

Quatuor Ebène’s truly enjoyable Razumovsky quartets

Beethoven’s String Quartets

I must admit I always found the category of the string quartets one of the most intellectually challenging, but at the same time, also one of the most rewarding categories in classical music.

I, like many started out my classical journey with symphonic music, and, coming from the piano as a (lousy) amateur myself, with solo piano music.

I had an easier access to chamber works with a piano in it, e.g. trios, violin sonatas. But the string quartet really seemed to me the most daunting works to approach.

That said, there are worse works to start your exploration than Beethoven’s Rasumovsky quartets, officially known as op. 59. These are the works of a Beethoven in a great phase, contemporary of the 4th symphony and the violin concerto. These are the first string quartets of the so-called “middle-period”, after the 6 “early” quartets in op. 18. By this time, Beethoven was truly established as a respected master in Vienna, at the age of 35.

By the way, even Beethoven waited for a while until he attacked the string quartets category, with such a strong tradition being established by Haydn and Mozart.

Op. 59 No. 1 and 2 present all the skill set of an accomplished composer, so no matter how often you listen to them, there’s always something new to discover. These were sponsored by Andrey Rasumowsky, an important diplomat in Vienna at that time.

Quatuor Ebène: Beethoven Around The World – Vienna

Beethoven Around The World Vienna String Quartets 7 & 8 Quatuor Ebène Erato 2019 24 96

I’ve written about the French Quatuor Ebène before, praising their fantastic recording of Schubert’s string quintet.

I’ve even seen them live some years ago performing late Beethoven at the Tonhalle in Zürich (still in the old hall, not the current “factory” interim arrangement).

I therefore had high expectations when I read that they will release a complete cycle of Beethoven’s string quartets, taken from live recordings throughout the world, during 2020, which you know if you haven’t been hiding under a rock, is Beethoven’s 250th anniversary.

The “Vienna” in the album title refers to the recording location, so very appropriately starting in the town which was Beethoven’s home for so many years.

So what do you get, and how does it compare to my current reference cycle, by the great Takacs quartet?

Well to make it short: it is a truly great recording. Both Ebène and Takacs give you top-notch performances of both op. 59 No. 1 and 2. Ebène is occasionally a bit more on the extremes, while the Takacs are slightly more “polished”, but both are truly enjoyable performance of these masterpieces.

Really can’t wait for the rest of the tour of “Beethoven around the world”!

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

My Top 5 Classical Albums of 2019

Isabelle Faust plays Bach Violin Concertos

This album just had to be there. I’m a big Isabelle Faust fan, as most of my regular readers know.

This is just a fantastic album overall, and an must have. Hugely enjoyable, Faust’s signature Sleeping Beauty Stradivarius sound, and the AKAMUS is a perfect partner. I had heard the same combination live in 2018, and it was already a great experience.

You’ll find the original review here

Saint-Saëns Piano Concertos 2&5 by Bertrand Chamayou

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

I really didn’t know Saint-Saëns really well before 2019. I still don’t, but at least the piano concertos were a true discovery for me, with Bertrand Chamayou’s fantastic recording, also with the equally exciting album by Alexandre Kantorow with the concertos 3-5.

The Chamayou album got the 2019 Gramophone award, and I can only highly recommend this, particularly for the concerto no. 2 which really has become a favourite of mine now.

Yuya Wang’s Berlin Recital

Yuya Wang The Berlin Recital Encores Deutsche Grammophon 2019 24 96

I’ve said it in the review, I wasn’t a big fan of Yuja Wang before this album. This live recital really has become one of my absolute favourites, for the playing, the recording quality, and the exciting repertoire. Highly recommended.

Savall’s mesmerising Messiah

Georg Friedrich Händel Messiah An Oratorio HWV 56 La Capella Reial de Catalunya Jordi Savall Alia Vox 2019 DSD 24 88

This album, which only came out some weeks ago, has been in constant rotation on my playlist. Being in the Christmas season helps, but this album constantly keeps playing in the back of my head, even when not listening to music at all. You’ll find my original review here.

Igor Levit’s Beethoven Cycle

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

I had several contenders for the last spot on this list. There’s Volodos’ beautiful recording of the Schubert sonata D959 (not yet reviewed), Pichon’s Liberta compilation, several of the great Debussy recordings on Harmonia Mundi (e.g. Faust, or Roth), or Petrenko’s Tchaikovsky Pathétique. But ultimately I ended up choosing this fantastic cycle. I have yet to fully discover in detail every of the 32 sonatas (there’s just so much material), and I don’t think I’ll ever feel fully qualified to review all 32 sonatas in detail.

And I don’t necessarily agree with every single choice of style or particularly tempo. But one this is for sure, this cycle is special, and will make you think. Isn’t this what musical enjoyment is all about?

You’ll find the download links to all of the above in the original reviews.

So, up to you? Do you agree with my choices? Anything I missed?

Two Beautiful New Albums for the Christmas Season from Jordi Savall and Vladimir Jurowski – The Messiah and the Nutcracker

Christmas Music

I’ve already written several blog posts on music for the Christmas season.

By the way, should you follow any other faith, please be aware that while I grew up in a Christian country, I’m agnostic and really see Christmas more as a beautiful family tradition, that nicely enough has led to the creation of some really beautiful music.

Both works I’ll be discussing here, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and Händel’s Messiah, are not properly speaking Christmas music, but the Nutcracker is obviously strongly associated with the season, and at least part I of the Messiah deals directly with the birth of Jesus, so has a more direct connection.

The last couple of weeks saw the release of two new great recordings of these old warhorses. Jordi Savall has attacked the Messiah, and Vladimir Jurowski the Nutcracker. Let me start with Savall

Händel: The Messiah – Jordi Savall – Le Concert des Nations (AliaVox 2019)

Georg Friedrich Händel Messiah An Oratorio HWV 56 La Capella Reial de Catalunya Jordi Savall Alia Vox 2019 DSD 24 88

I’ve already written about 3 excellent versions of the Messiah. So is there really a need to add another one? Well I just bought it, so for me, the answer is yes.

Here’s why: I really like Jordi Savall, his early music and baroque recordings are always worth exploring, see for example his recording of the Bach and Vivaldi Magnificat. So I clearly had high expectations.

Nicely enough, I wasn’t disappointed. Let’s compare this to my preferred version so far by Emmanuelle Haïm. Haïm really has an incomparable swing, which really makes baroque music so enjoyable.

Savall often takes slower tempi, but the entire recording has just so much brilliance, shine and sparkle, that I was immediately reminded of one of those giant Christmas trees that many cities put up (e.g. the Rockefeller one in NYC).

And this is music you really want to sparkle. The singers really shine as well. One of my favourites is “He shall feed his flock” from part II, with Rachel Redmond and Damien Guillon. Just beautiful.

The Nutcracker – Vladimir Jurowski – State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia “Evgeny Svetlanov” (Pentatone 2019)

Tchaikovsky The Nutcracker Vladimir Jurowski State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia "Evgeny Svetlanov" Pentatone 2019

Some say Russian music only should be played by Russian orchestras. My favourite version of the Nutcracker proves otherwise, but still there is something to be said for the combination.

Jurowski had already recorded a very beautiful Swan Lake, so I was curious to hear what he did with the Nutcracker, especially in an all live recording.

I wasn’t disappointed. In a way, this album is kind of the reversal of the Messiah situation, here my favourite Rattle version is the shiny Christmas tree, whereas the Jurowski version clearly has a lot of swing and verve. You are drawn in from the first minute of the overture, and if you can sit still during the enchanting Flower Waltz, you’re probably deaf.

The only minor issue I have with this album is the occasional imprecision in timing of the orchestra, these are due to the live recording here, I’m sure in a studio version these would have been edited out.

But this is nitpicking, overall this is a truly engaging and beautiful Nutcracker.

So in a nutshell, both are albums that are a must have for the season, and as a cherry on the cake, are actually quite well recorded on top of everything else.

My rating: 5 stars for both

You can find them here (Messiah) and here (Nutcracker), both on Qobuz.

My Reflections On the Classica Magazine “Chocs de l’année 2019” – part II

This is the continuation of a blog post started last weekend.

Marc-Antoine Charpentier – Histoires sacrées – Christophe Daucé – Ensemble Correspondances – Harmonia Mundi 2019

Yet another French composer that I know very little about. If like me you’ve grown up in Central Europe and have been watching television, you typically know Charpentier as the composer of the Eurovision theme, the fanfare that was played when several European countries decided to do a joint production.

This theme is actually the prelude to his Te Deum.

Beyond this, again giving away my ignorance, I barely knew anything about him. He occasionally pops up on some French baroque compilation I own, but in my entire library which really isn’t that small, I have a total of 2 albums featuring this composer.

Marc-Antoine Charpentier Histoires Sacrées Ensemble Correspondances Sébastien Daucé Harmonia Mundi 2019 24 96

Listening to this album as part of writing this blog post made it clear to me that I really missed something here. I have zero benchmark to compare the version to obviously, but Sebastien Daucé’s Ensemble Correspondances plays truly engaging early baroque vocal music, beautifully sung and played. It immediately reminded me of Monteverdi, which turns out isn’t misleading. Monteverdi’s operas clearly influenced the Versailles court and Charpentier’s composing.

Really worth checking out. No formal rating given my ignorance of the composer, but informally this is 4 stars upwards.

Antonio Vivaldi: Il Giustino – Ottavio Dantone (Naïve 2019)

Vivaldi Il Giustino Ottavio Dantone Accademia Bizantina Naive 2019 24 96 Galou Barath Gang Cangemi

Only two things to say here from my side: Dantone’s Vivaldi playing is truly fantastic, but unfortunately I can stand Vivaldi’s operas in doses of 10 min max.

So don’t expect a formal review here. But if you like Vivaldi, this is a no brainer.

Bach: 6 Partitas – Robert Levin (2019

J.S. Bach: Six partitas BWV 825-830 Robert Levin 2019

I was already confused when I saw the original review of this in Classica some months ago. I tried it again, and I just don’t get it: the interpretation is so bland and boring to my ears, I really don’t understand what Classica likes about this.

I prefer Igor Levit or Perahia any time.

Camille Pépin – Chamber Music (NoMad 2019)

Camille Pépin Chamber Music Ensemble Polygones (Nomad 2019)

I had already checked this out when I read the original review. A contemporary composer (born 1990), and female, which unfortunately is still a rarity, I was intrigued.

No formal review here, I still struggle with contemporary music, but this is not atonal, and actually quite rhythmic, so I encourage you to check this out, especially if you like e.g. the ECM New Series style.

Weinberg: Symphony No. 2 and 21 – Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla – City of Birmingham Symphony – Gidon Kremer (DG 2019)

A 20th century composer, with a young female conductor (also here we have way to few), and Gidon Kremer to top it all off, again I was interested. This album actually got huge praise by both Gramophone and Classica, and these two magazines don’t often overlap.

Mirga Grazinyte Tyla Gidon Kremer Weinberg Symphonies No. 2 & 21 City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Kremerata Baltica Deutsche Grammophon 2019

I checked this out several times, initially liking the tonal passages, then the music drifts into chordal progressions that just leave me confused. Which typically makes me give up to quickly. Now that I’m getting more and more (with baby steps) into Shostakovich, I may start to appreciate it more. I’ll certainly come back to this and so should you.

And keep an eye on Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla. This young Lithuanian conductor is a great talent worth watching.

Classica also recommends another Weinberg album by Gidon Kremer, also on DG; focusing on his chamber music.

Saint-Saëns: Piano Concertos 3-5 – Kantorow (x2) – Tapiola Sinfonietta (BIS 2019)

Saint Saens: Piano Concertos 3 4 5 Alexandre Kantorow Tapiola Sinfonietta BIS 2019

Sure, Classica likes French composers. Fair enough for a French classical music magazine. But actually, for Camille Saint-Saëns I truly share their enthousiasm. I must again admit my ignorance, but 2019 has been my year of discovery of his piano concertos. After the fantastic recording with Bertrand Chamayou which won a well deserved Gramophone Award, comes another outstanding recording, by French pianist Alexandre Kantorow, playing here with his father, Jean-Jacques at the baton. Kantorow is a fantastic pianist (see my review of his recent Russian album here, which also made it into my top classical albums of 2017). In short, a five star album that you should really own!

Mozart: Libertà – Raphaël Pichon

Liberta Mozart Et L'opera Raphael Pichon Pygmalion 24 96 Harmonia Mundi 2019

I’ve already shared my passion for this fantastic album in my review here. A must have.

Brahms: Clarinet Sonatas & Trio – Moraguès – Braley – Poltera (Indésens 2018)

Brahms: Clarinet Sonatas & Trio Moraguès Braley Poltéra Indesens 2019

Brahms’ chamber music for clarinet is still a part of his oeuvre that I find among the least accessible. I’ve so far only reviewed the recording of the sonatas with Lorenzo Coppola and Andreas Staier, but have never written about the clarinet trio.

This excellent album is a good occasion to change the latter, you get very nuanced and delicate playing that really helps exploring these beautiful and intimate works. Give them a try!

So, any feedback from your side? What do you think about this selection?

You can find the albums I mention above here (or in the original review):

Daucé – Charpentier

Dantone – Vivaldi

Levin – Bach

Pepin – Chamber music

Grazinyte-Tyla – Weinberg

Kantorow – Saint Saëns

Moraguès – Brahms

My Reflections On the Classica Magazine “Chocs de l’année 2019” – part I

Classica Magazine

Regular readers of my blog know that I mainly follow two classical magazines as a reference. One is the UK’s Gramophone, the other France’s Classica Magazine.

Interestingly enough, Classica really is the magazine where I have the most overlap with their reviews, for Gramphone it is a bit more hit and miss.

I’ve commented nearly every year on the Gramophone Awards nominees and winners, but I’ve never written a lot about the equivalent of Classica Magazine, the “Chocs de l’année”.

Classica has a five star rating system for all albums (although I hardly ever see 1 stars appear), but on top of the 5 stars, they also select every months the albums “Choc”, similar to Gramophone’s Editor’s Choice.

And, once per year, Classica publishes their “Chocs de l’année”, i.e the overall best albums of the year.

Let’s have a look together.

Les Chocs de l’année 2019 – Classica Magazine – Artist of the Year

First category is “L’artiste de l’année”, winner is French pianist Michel Dalberto (I can’t help but notice that while Gramophone is a bit biased towards UK artists, Gramophone has the same for their local talent.)

Two albums get a particular mention, his recent 2019 Beethoven sonata album on La Dolce Volta, as well as César Franck solo piano and chamber album on Aparte.

Beethoven Michel Dalberto Pathetique Funebre Claire de Lune Appassionata op. 111 Erato 2019
Michel Dalberto & Novus Quartet César Franck Piano works quintet Aparte 2018

I must admit I really don’t share their excitement for the Beethoven album. Sure, it’s not bad, but I’d clearly prefer others here (among recent choices, Levit, Perahia, Lewis).

The Franck album I haven’t really listened to a lot, he is one of those lesser known French composers that I just have much less experience with. But I’ll check it out more systematically in the future, and so should you.

Label of the Year

Label of the year is the French label Alpha, and here I fully agree. In 2019, the smaller dedicated labels like Alpha, Hyperion, BIS, Chandos, have just become so much more important that the old majors like DG, Sony, Decca, etc.

Among other albums they specifically mention Celine’s Frisch Well Tempered Clavier recording (my 5 star review here), and Rouvali’s Sibelius 1 (also featured in the Gramophone Award nominees).

Sibelius Symphony No. 1 En Saga Gothenburg Symphony Santtu-Matias Rouvali Alpha 2019

Brahms: Piano Quintet & Klavierstücke op. 76 – Quatuor Hermes & Geoffroy Cocteau – LaDolce Volta 2019

Brahms Geoffrey Couteau & Quatuor Hermes Piano Quintet F minor op. 34 Klavierstücke op. 76 La Dolce Volta 2019 24 96

I had already noticed this album earlier this year when I saw it got a Choc from Classica and a 5 star review from Diapason.

I have yet to fully review this album, but overall I like it quite a bit. Not sure if it is a full 5 star to me, but I promise I come back to this more formally. In any case, it is worth discovering.

François Xavier Roth

Roth gets even two mentions, with his Berlioz Harold en Italie, as well as the recent Debussy album.

Hector Berlioz Harold en Italie Les Nuits d'été Les Siècles François-Xavier Roth Tabea Zimmermann Stéphane Degout Harmonia Mundi 2019 24 96

I can’t really comment on the Berlioz, again I’m only slowly getting to know the broader French repertoire better.

But I fully agree that Roth is a great talent, and also like his Debussy album very much, which also was nominated for a Gramophone Award.

Debussy Jeux Nocturnes Francois Xavier Roth Les Siècles Harmonia Mundi 2019

David Kadouch – Révolutions

David Kadouch Révolution 24 96 2019 Mirare

Here I really can’t comment, I’ve never heard of this album nor of this pianist before. Turns out he’s French as well (did I mention there seems to be some geographical bias somewhere).

In any case, the program of this concept album (obviously around the Revolution) is quite intriguing, from Dussek (yes, I also had to google him), via Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Janacek, Debussy, to Rzewski. I only quickly sampled works I know well, like the Chopin Revolutionary Etude, or the Scherzo no. 1, in both cases I wasn’t blown away. But don’t take this as a proper review, and have a look.

Rachmaninov – The Piano Concertos – Trifonov – Nézét-Séguin (DG 2019)

Daniil Trifonov Yannick Nézet-Séguin The Philadelphia Orchestra Destination Rachmaninov - Departure Deutsche Grammophon 2018 24/96
Destination Rachmaninov - Arrival - Piano Concertos 1 & 3 Daniil Trifonov Yannick Nézéz-Séguin The Philadelphia Orchestra Deutsche Grammophon 2019 24 96

While I absolutely loved Trifonov’s recording of Rach 2, and was right at predicting that this would be a very controversial version, I still haven’t been able to properly review his approach to Rach 3 (sorry I typically disregard Rach 1 and 4) which was released quite recently.

Classica praises both of them, but I honestly would caution you before you buy the Rach 3 blindly. I can’t put my finger on it, but something is there that I just don’t like as much. I’d be very curious to hear your opinions. Personally, I rather stick to other versions like Leif Ove Andsnes with the LSO.

Two Gounod Operas

Gounod, yet another composer I barely know. A good friend of mine loves his Faust, but to this day, I really haven’t found my way around this composers’ work.

Let me nevertheless mention the two operas here that Classica likes, they clearly know more about French composers than I do. Both come from conductors I personally like very much, Hervé Niquet and Christophe Rousset, you probably won’t go wrong with any of these recordings.

Le Tribut de Zamora Charles Gounod Hervé Niquet Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks Münchener Rundfunkorchester
Gounod Faust version 1859 Les Talens Lyriques Flemish Radio Choir Christophe Rousset Faust

Look out for part II of this blog post in the next days. You’ll find it here.

You can find the new albums of this blog post here (Qobuz), or in the link to the original review.

Michel Dalberto – Franck

Quatuor Hermes – Brahms

Roth – Berlioz

Kadouch – Révolution

Trifonov – Rach 3

Niquet – Gounod

Rousset – Gounod