Writing About and Reviewing Classical Music and Jazz
Category: 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.
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)
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.
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)
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).
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.
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.
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)
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 Diapasond’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)
This is just going to be a short update on the recently held ceremony for the 2020 Gramophone awards and the winners that weren’t announced previously. If you want more detail on the individual category winners, check out this previous post.
Recording Of The Year
Recording of the year is the Weinberg Symphonies. Probably well deserved, and I’m happy to see a female conductor win this award, but the music really doesn’t speak to me. If your tolerance/interest of 20th century music is more developed than mine, you should really check this out.
Artist Of The Year – Igor Levit
Absolutely. He really is an outstanding pianist. In this section, Gramophone particularly recommends his album Life (see my review here, I agree), and his complete Beethoven cycle really is a must have (or pretty much everything else he’s recorded for that matter).
Lifetime Achievement – Itzhak Perlman
I just checked my library and I actually have only 5 albums Perlman, so I’m really not an expert. That said, his Brahms and Beethoven violin sonatas with Vladimir Ashkenazy are really nice. I should probably check out more of his repertoire.
Orchestra of the Year – Philadelphia Orchestra
I agree, Yannick Nézet-Séguin really has helped to bring this grand old orchestras which fame dates from the Stokowki and Ormandy era back to life, e.g. with this great Rachmaninov album.
Young Artist Of The Year – Natalya Romaniw
I must admit this is the first time my attention is drawn to this young Russian singer, but I’ll make sure I’ll keep out an eye for her.
Special Achievement – Robert von Bahr
Here’s another award that I 100% agree with. Robert von Bahr, founder and still the boss of the independent label BIS, has released so many recordings I adore, and always very well recorded. I’ve mentioned earlier that independent labels like Alpha (see below), BIS, Hyperion, Harmonia Mundi, or Naïve are these days in many ways even more significant to the advancement of classical music than the so-called majors.
The Beethoven 250 Award – Martin Helmchen – Andrew Manze – Beethoven concertos No. 2 & 5
Fully agree again, this is a very nice album.
Label Of The Year – Alpha Classics
Another one that is spot on. I’ve hardly ever been disappointed by a release on this great independent French label.
So, what do you think? Do you agree with the choices?
This is a follow-up to the two part article I’ve written discussing some of the albums that were nominated for the 2020 Gramophone awards, that you can find here and here.
You’ll find the latest edition of the Gramophone podcast (that is usually worth a listen in any case) here a very passionate discussion of the winning albums, check it out.
Chamber: Veress & Bartok
I didn’t have time to review any chamber works of the winning category, and I truly cannot relate to the winning album, by Sandor Veress, and Bartok. So sharing this winner truly just for your information. As mentioned previously, I’m typically lost with most of the music composed in the 20th century.
Choral: Suzuki’s St Matthew Passion
While I’m still struggling a bit with the slow first movement, I gave this another complete listen the other day and must admit it is a spectacular performance.
Concerto: Chopin’s concertos by Benjamin Grosvenor
As written previously, I wholeheartedly agree with this choice. I’m a huge fan of Grosvenor, and this version is up there with the very top of Zimerman and Argerich.
Contemporary: Thomas Adès Piano Concerto & Totentanz
Again, mentioning this for completeness only, you can guess if I’m struggling with 20th century music how my brain is coping with contemporary stuff.
Early Music: Gesualdo Madrigali by Les Arts Florissants
While I’m really lost in the 20th and 21st century, the 16th century music is something I really admire, just don’t get to listen to it that much.
But this is an album that I’ll definitely add to my collection, as I’m a big fan of Les Arts Florissants, and Gesualdo’s madrigals are truly beautiful. Recommended.
Instrumental: Igor Levit’s Beethoven Cycle
A worthy winner. This complete cycle is insightful from no. 1 all the way to no. 32, and every classical music lover should check this out. Levit’s tempi are sometimes somewhat extreme, but never for the sake of it, always with a very clear sense of purpose.
This is probably my favorite of the entire list.
Opera: Händel’s Aggrippina – Joyce DiDonato
I had completely missed this album. My bad, just look at this lineup of fantastic baroque singers. I’ll definitely have to add this to my collection. You can really count on Erato to still produce fantastic opera recordings.
Here comes my 20th century music dilemma again. I’m still barely getting my feet wet with Shostakovich (and again, only occasionally), so I’m not going to add any value with my opinion here. But if you’re into it, the same album also won the “Choc de l’année” by French magazine Classica, so Gražinytė-Tyla must have done something right.
Recital: Sandrine Piau – Si j’ai aimé
Another album I had missed. It is a collection of not that well known French songs with orchestra, mostly from the late 19th century.
Sandrine Piau is a fantastic singer, and this is definitely something I’ll add to my playlist. Not a must have, but a nice discovery off the beaten track.
Solo Vocal: Janacek: The Diary Of One Who Disappeared
Unfortunately, due to Hyperion’s strict no streaming policy I have no way of checking this out beyond the snippets I can check out on Hyperion’s website. So nothing to add from my side here, just mentioning it for completeness.
So, what do you think? Were the right winners selected?
And on an unrelated note, am I silly to ignore the 20th and 21st century music?
Usually, I try to do one blog post per section (Orchestral, Piano, etc.), at least for those that I do care about. This time unfortunately my day job is keeping me quite busy and I wasn’t able to listen to all albums shortlisted by Gramophone, so this will just be a “best of” of albums from some of the nominated albums from the different categories.
Note that this is the continuation from part I that I published last week, where I had a look at the “Concerto” category. Today I’ll cover “Choral”, “Instrumental”, and “Orchestral”.
Let’s start with the Choral section, and two recent recordings of Bach’s masterpieces.
Bach: St John’s Passion – Philippe Herreweghe – Collegium Vocale Gent (Phi 2020)
I must admit I only learned about this release from the Gramophone awards issue, although it was already released in February. What a miss! I do have already a favourite recording of the St John passion, as performed by John Butt and the Dunedin Consort, I have praised Philippe Pierlot’s excellent reading here, I also have Herreweghe’s previous version from 2001, as well as versions from Suzuki, and Gardiner (the usual suspects for great baroque vocal works).
But this new release is truly outstanding, and could potentially become my favorite, a true 5 star recording.
Bach: St Matthew Passion – Masaaki Suzuki – Bach Collegium Japan (BIS 2020)
So, after the “smaller” passion, there’s also a new release of the majestic St Matthew Passion. I’ve already written about some other fantastic versions (again by the usual bunch of John Butt, one of my 25 Essential Classical Music albums, and the recent recording of John Eliot Gardiner that I was able to attend live), so it wasn’t obvious that I needed yet another version on top of the 7 or 8 others I have in my local library. But I bought it anyhow, given the recommendations by Gramophone, unfortunately without listening to it beforehand.
Don’t get me wrong, this is brilliantly performed, with excellent soloists. So why am just a bit hesitant about it? A simple fact, Suzuki starts the opening chorus “Kommt, Ihr Töchter” is just significantly slower (8:20 compared to John Butt’s 6:38), and it startles me a bit every time. It makes it even more powerful, but it just loses a tiny bit of drive. Check it out before you buy, but it clearly is among the very top performances out there.
Buxtehude: Membra Jesu Nostri – Philippe Ricercar Cosort (Mirare 2019)
I really liked the album, and while I still would pick Bach over Buxtehude anytime, Buxtehude’s early baroque is growing on me. It is very much worth discovering.
Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas – Igor Levit (Sony 2019)
The more I discover Levit’s Beethoven cycle, the more I’m impressed. You’ll find my 5 star review here, but in the meantime I’ve again had the pleasure seeing Levit perform a part of the cycle live at the 2020 Lucerne festival (he played the Pathétique and Tempest among others), and have tickets for a live performance of the Hammerklavier that I’m very much looking forward to.