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.
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.
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
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
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
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?
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)
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.
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)
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.
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.
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)
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
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 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.
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.
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!
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):
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
Let me be clear from the start, this is not a formal “review” as I normally write them. I find it impossible to properly review all 32 sonatas, as I simply don’t have enough references for every single one of these fascinating works.
I must admit that to this day although I listen to them a lot in the complete cycles of e.g. Kempff, Arrau, Brendel, Goode, or Lewis, but there are still some of the lesser known sonatas that I really don’t know that well yet.
But I still want to bring this cycle to your attention, and am pretty sure you won’t regret checking it out.
I’d also already mentioned his recording of the late Beethoven sonatas, the recording that put him on the map as one of the most promising young artists.
Levit decided not to re-record the late sonatas he previously released, so if you have the “old” album and now by the new box, you’ll have some redundancy.
Beethoven: The Complete Sonatas – Igor Levit (Sony 2019)
I recently had the pleasure of seeing Levit perform some of these sonatas live. At the 2019 Lucerne festival, he in a series of concerts has played all of the sonatas live, I’ve attended one of these concerts.
This was already an impressive performance. The studio recordings follow a very similar approach.
One this is for sure, Levit’s approach will never leave you bored. He often chooses quite extreme tempi, going quite slow or breathtakingly fast in some parts.
Therefore, to me this is one of the most exciting new Beethoven releases in recent years.
To conclude, no formal rating from my side this time, just a very strong “check this out” message from my side, which in the days of streaming, is easier than ever. I really don’t think you’ll be disappointed!
Really looking forward to your opinions this time.
Chamayou’s recording deserves the price. (As I predicted in my post, though my personal favourite would have been Isabelle Faust Bach album which I love).
Gramophone went with the Langgaard recording, while my personal preference would have been for the Sibelius, I predicted again that this album would win (sorry for all the bragging). And it is a really interesting discovery. Not sure it will make my personal top 5 for 2019 though.
And yes, 3/4 predictions correct! (last time bragging, promised!). In any case, Gramophone was spot on when they said (much better than I could ever have, there’s clearly an advantage to being a native speaker…) “Anyone hitherto more put off than drawn in by Yuja Wang’s glamorous image may have to do some rethinking in the light of this recital.”
So, with such a success rate, Grammophone, do you have a job for me? (Just kidding, I’m happily employed in a completely unrelated industry).
Take home for you as a reader: get the Wang & get the Chamayou. And sure, also get the Debussy while you’re at it. You won’t regret any of these purchases, I promise.
And if you disagree, just let me know in the comments (I don’t offer any money back guarantee though, that’s why we have streaming in 2019…).
This is another favorite category of mine, as typically it is mainly piano recordings.
This year, interestingly enough a solo violin recording starts the selection, Giuliani Carmignola’s recent recording of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas. I’m really puzzled by this choice. Let me make it clear, I really like Carmignola (his Four Seasons are among my absolute favorites), and I also love the solo sonatas and partitas. However, Carmignola’s version sounds completely “wrong” to me. I know this is a very unspecific remark, and I’m not going to dwell on it, as this won’t be helpful for my readers. But I’ll stick with Milstein anytime.
So let’s rather go directly to the recording that is most likely going to make my Top 5 Classical albums of the year 2019, and that I sincerely hope will win this category: Yuja Wang’s fantastic Berlin recital.
As you can see from my review, I really love this album. It has completely changed my perception of Wang as an artist. This recital combines a fantastic selection of repertoire, a playing that is both nuanced and passionate.
I’d like to thank my reader Ed for his comment on the article flagging the extra album of the 4 encores she played at this concerto. This is a must have as well. You could argue with DG why they simply didn’t include this into the main album, but in any case this 4 track album is very cheap, and a must have.
Next in line is another favorite artist of mine, Igor Levit. I haven’t yet formally reviewed his latest recording of the Beethoven sonatas, but have seen him play a selection live at this year’s Lucerne festival, and can already say his set is worth checking out. You may not like all his choices, especially on his sometimes extreme tempi, but this will be a worthy addition to the long catalogue of complete sonata recordings, more to come).
But Gramophone focused on Levit’s other release in the last 12 months, his very personal album “Life”.
I’ve reviewed it here, and if you haven’t done so yet, you should absolutely check out this five star gem.
I’ve only just started listening to another recommendation of this selection, Alexander Melnikov’s recording of Debussy’s 2nd book of Préludes.
As you know, I’m far from being a Debussy expert, I typically just go to my complete Debussy recordings by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, but my first impression of this album is very positive. What is very interesting about this recording is the sound of the piano, an Erard, presumably from the time of Debussy. Melnikov has recorded quite a bit on period instruments, and it truly gives a different color and perspective.
I can’t comment on the two other albums that made the original 6 album shortlist, Steven Osborne’s recording o fthe late Beethoven sonatas, and Stephen Hough’s “Dream Album”, as Hyperion still refuses to stream and I refuse to buy albums blindly.
Now, as you know in the meantime Gramphone has narrowed down the shortlist from 6 to 3 albums. The finalists are Carmignola, Wang, and Levit.
I’m willing to bet that Wang will be the winner this year, and it would be well deserved!
I presume this will be the last part of this year’s mini-series on the Gramophone Awards. Maybe I’ll do one more post on the remaining categories lumped together (Choral, Contemporary, Early Music, and Opera, Recital, Solo Vocal) if I find time, but I’m much less comfortable and familar here, so let’s see. So most likely you’ll hear back from me on the Gramphone Awards once the winners are announced on October 1st.
What do you think? What would be your favorites among all these albums?