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.
Overall, I’m not such a big fan of this composer. He had a very important role in music history, but I’d much rather listen to Mozart than to Haydn most of the time.
However, exceptions confirm the rule. For example, this excellent album by Paul Lewis:
Haydn: Piano Sonatas 32, 40, 49, 50 – Paul Lewis (Harmonia Mundi 2018)
Paul Lewis is one of the most famous pupils of the legendary Alfred Brendel. He’s already recorded quite a bit, and has often focused on a very similar repertoire to his master, e.g. Schubert and Beethoven (his complete Beethoven cycle is very nice).
You can hear a lot of his Schubert and Beethoven in this recording. The playing is always thoughtful, often energetic, but never too much, very nuanced, and overall extremely enjoyable. It is very clear that Lewis has learned a lot from Brendel, I’d use very similar adjectives for him.
What suprises me is that I keep going back to this album on a very regular basis, and in a way this is probably the one Haydn album I’ve listened to the most in my entire life of classical music listening.
Gramophone agrees and gives this an Editor’s Choice in their May 2018 issue (although they tend to be quite friendly to UK artists in general).
Overall, very much worth having.
My rating: 4 stars (5 star playing, 4 star repertoire)
You can find it here (Qobuz) and here (Prostudiomasters)
I knew Riccardo Minasi from his past recordings with Il Giardino Armonico and several other baroque ensembles where he was still playing the violin. And I’ve mentioned his excellent activities with the Pomo d’Oro here, but had never heard of Ensemble Resonanz. It turns out its been active since 1994 and is located in Hamburg. Well, you never stop learning.
So, how do they play? Well I must admit for these works I have only a handful of other versions, including for example a recent release on Erato with Truls Mørk, and Ophelie Gaillard on Aparté.
How does this recording compare? Well, it really hasn’t have to hide. It is joyful, energetic, and nuanced. This really is a prime example that this composer deserves to be heard more!
Queyras’ sound on the cello is beautiful, not too heavy, but with a nice singing tone. He really nicely integrates with Ensemble Resonanz, the soloist never being the dominant player, but it is more a marriage of equals.
Overall: Very enjoyable!
My rating: 4 stars
You can find it here (Qobuz) and here (Prostudiomaster)
So, this was supposed to be just a concert report about last night at Tonhalle Maag in Zurich. But please allow me a small parenthesis.
These days we’re extremely lucky, as we have many outstanding classical music artists that are currently active. I’ve already written about my Top 10 Favourite Classical Pianists some time ago, but I’ve never done the same for the violin.
Right now, there are about 5 female violinists that I truly admire, all of which are world-class. I had seen Alina Ibragimova earlier this year already, and had the pleasure of seeing Lisa Batiashvili for the first time last night.
But then, innocently enough, there was a little sign post in front of the Tonhalle Maag building, announcing Julia Fischer playing Mendelssohn’s violin concert at the very same Tonhalle in about a month time. The ticket office was open, so I obviously got tickets for that one as well. I don’t know why I haven’t written about Julia Fischer on this blog yet, but I’ll start a post on my top 10 favorite violinist soon, she’ll be in there.
So I was joking to the guy at the ticket office, if now I could only see Isabelle Faust and Janine Jansen live this year as well, I’d finally have covered all my favorite players. And then I realised, that was exactly what I had to do. So while waiting for the gates of the Tonhalle to open, I bought tickets for Isabelle Faust with the Akademie für Alte Musik playing Bach concertos, and I now just need to pick one of Jansen’s great concerts this year (Sibelius, Brahms, Berg, some chamber music in Verbier, there’s a lot of choice).
Let me close the long parenthesis here, but one of my new year resolutions was to see more live concerts. I started well, but slowed down in recent month. (By the way, I completely missed writing about seeing Aracadi Volodos live some months ago, my bad)
But now it looks like it is going to be a really good year now!
Lisa Batiatishvili, Antonio Pappano, Chamber Orchestra of Europe – Ligeti & Brahms – May 23, 2018, Tonhalle Maag, Zurich
So, now let’s get to the concert itself.
The Chamber Orchestra is a great ensemble, especially under an outstanding conductor.
Antonio Pappano really is one of those great conductors. I’ve written about him already twice on this blog, and in both cases we’re talking about 5 star albums. First his great Aida, and then even more relevant for last night’s performance, the Brahms violin concerto with Janine Jansen.
So while the orchestra and the soloist is different, I already had some idea how Pappano would potentially approach the orchestral part of this great violin concerto. Obviously, here we had the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and not his own Accademia di Santa Cecilia, but it was clear that Pappano and the orchestra knew each other well, as they are currently touring all over Europe with this program.
But first things first, the program started with Ligeti’s Concert Românesc. I must admit I had no idea what to expect, as I mentioned previously on this blog, I’m really not very knowledgable with classical music after 1920. I barely ever venture beyond the safe bets of Bartok, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev.
I was very positively surprised. The short work really is a firework of musical ideas and energy. I definitely need to check out more of Ligeti, one more (rather late) new year resolution then.
But now to the Masterpiece of the evening, the Brahms violin concerto.
I was a little hesitant though as I’m not such a big fan of the only time Batiashvili recorded this concerto before, with Christian Thielemann in Dresden. I mean, it’s not bad, but something always felt slightly off. By now I feel this slightly off thing actually was Thielemann, not Batishvili (I never was a fan of Thielemann in the first place).
Luckily, no Thielemann here, just Pappano. What did we get?
To make it short: an outstanding experience. Pappano and the COE put in an amazing energy and pleasure, and Batiatishvili really played with all her heart. This was BIG Brahms, and it really was the full Cinemascope experience of this masterpiece.
The overall concert was so outstanding, that even the iPhone that was ringing TWICE! in the handbag of the elderly lady just in front of me didn’t spoil the experience (she clearly probably just received this phone and had no idea how to even switch off the sound).
The Tonhalle audience agreed, this was one of the most overwhelming applauses I’ve seen from in Zurich. We got treated to a nice encore.
I was even thinking, maybe I should just leave during the break, I cannot get any better.
I probably should have. After the break, we got Brahms’ Serenade no. 1. And I must admit I really don’t get why you can schedule Brahms most boring orchestral work EVER after the masterpiece of the violin concerto.
It really wasn’t the fault of Pappano and the COE not putting in an effort. This was am excellent performance on par with my current reference, Riccardo Chailly with the Gewandhaus.
But still I really think the serenades were nothing but trial works for his real symphonies, and I rather would have had ANY other Brahms orchestral work, even the rather silly Academic Festival overture, than this.
Nevertheless, this was truly an evening to remember!
Now I’m looking forward to Julia Fischer and Herbert Blomstedt.
RV589 is commonly known as “The” Vivaldi Gloria, but in fact there are others. But in my personal opinion (which is shared by many music lovers), RV589 beats them all. It may well be the most often performed Vivaldi Choral work.
So, if I like it that much, why didn’t I write about it earlier? Well, simply said, because I haven’t yet found my personal reference version.
The version I “grew up with” is the recording with David Willcocks and the King’s College Choir isn’t a bad starting point actually, in spite of it’s age, dating from the 1960s. Most baroque music from this time is heavy, slow and very far away from today’s standard of the historically informed practice, that I barely listen to it (Karl Richter’s b-minor mass being the occasional exception). Not so Willcocks, he was in a way HIP before it became a thing.
Later I discovered Rinaldo Alessandrini. With his ensemble “Concerto Italiano” he is one of the leading interpreters of HIP Vivaldi.
He’s actually recorded this work twice. Both versions have been released and re-released so many times that it is hard to distinguish them. The easiest way is the playing time.
In his first version, he gets through the initial Gloria in Excelsis Deo in a breathtaking 1:55. The poor strings barely get to follow this breathtaking speed. As much as I appreciate baroque music with a certain drive, this is just TOO fast.
You’re much better of with his second recording featuring Sara Mingardo among his soloists. The same Gloria is still fast, but at 2:10 a bit less Mickey Mouse on speed than the first one. So far, this has been my preferred version, but I still feel more can be done.
Therefore, I was very curious when this new recording was released:
Vivaldi: Gloria – Julia Lezhneva – Franco Fagioli – Diego Fasolis (Decca 2018)
I very much liked Russian soprano’s Julia Lezhneva’s early album Alleluia, and also enjoyed her more recent release on arias from Carl Heinrich Graun. I was less of a fan of her release of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater.
Diego Fasolis with his Swiss ensemble I Barocchisti is usually very reliable to give you something at least very enjoyable.
The same here, this version is good. The speed is always appropriate, dynamic, but never overly rushed.
Lezhneva is nicely complemented by Franco Fagioli, an excellent countertenor.
Now, is this version my new reference? Well, it’s hard to put my finger on it, but there is something missing. As with Alessandrini, I feel that still “more” could be done. I’m not a conductor nor a musicologist, otherwise I’d probably find better words. Is it the chorus?Anyhow, in the meantime, I’ll close by saying this is very much recommended, but I’ll keep on looking.
Do you have any versions of the RV589 that I should be checking out? Please share!
My rating: 4 stars
You can find it here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)
So when a new Beethoven album from the great master came out on Deutsche Grammophon, I bought it pretty much immediately, without checking out the version via streaming as I’d typically do otherwise. His latest Beethoven sonata recording dates back to 2008, since then he’s been much more focused on Bach.
Perahia attacks two of the most famous Beethoven sonatas here. No. 29, Hammerklavier, and the one that even non-classical listeners would recognize, the Moonlight.
Let me start by saying you immediately hear that Perahia has been playing a lot of Bach recently. If I had to summarize this album in one word, it would be “Clarity”, or “Transparency”. The counterpoint complexity of Bach certainly shines through on this album. Nothing is ever “too much”, even for these two sonatas that both mark the transition from the “classical” period to the starting “romantic” era.
Let’s start, as Perahia does, with the Hammerklavier heavyweight. This is one of the most pianistically challenging piano pieces out there. Especially if you’re trying to follow Beethoven’s original metronome marks, which some have considered unplayable. Perahia starts with a quite ambitious speed, but at no point this ever feels forced.
You get plenty of nuances especially in the beautiful Adagio, and the highlight could be the last movement, which stars seemingly simple with a little Largo, but then builds into a compex fuga type Allegro & Presto, where you can clearly hear that Beethoven knew his Bach, so Perahia really shines here.
I have yet to find my “perfect” Hammerklavier. Recently, the impressive version of Ronald Brautigam (played on an actual Hammerklavier-type historic instrument), or Igor Levit’s beautiful recording of the late sonatas, or you can obviously go back to the classics and pick your Serkin, Brendel, or Arrau. Actually, the complexity of this masterpiece is such that no one version will ever be “perfect”, you’ll always need more than one interpretation of this jewel.
Going to the Mondschein sonata, I’m going to contradict myself immediately: This could well be “the” perfect version of the Moonlight sonata, at least of the world famous Adagio sostenuto.
Let me explain: He takes the movement relatively fast, with 5:16 I have only 3 versions in my library that take less time (my fastest version is Schnabel by the way, with 4:51).
What is so outstanding about this version goes back to the word I used earlier, “clarity”. This is played in a very plain, no-nonsense style. With such an overloaded romantic piece, there often is a tendency of just doing a bit too much, too much rubato, too much dynamic variation, etc. etc.
But honestly, this outstanding beauty of masterwork doesn’t need any of this. This apparent simplicity is just what makes this music truly shine. I can’t get enough of it. This could well become my new personal reference for No. 14.
UPDATE Feb 28, 2018: For once, we have an album where all critics agree. In their respective March editions, both Gramophone (Editor´s Choice & Recording Of The Month) and Classica (CHOC) give this album their highest rating.
Why streaming is a good thing – at least for the consumers
It´s amazing how our listening habits have changed in so little time since streaming arrived. I was personally late to the game, only started less than two years ago (about the time when I started this blog).
In the not so “old days”, one had to go to a record store and listen to new music there. That was an adventure on its own, and if you had a good CD (or vinyl) dealer, you even got some great advice.
Well, we can safely assume that CD stores will mostly go the way of video rental stores, with few exceptions. You may like this trend or not, but for me, streaming has opened up new worlds.
You basically get every single new album, the day it is out, directly onto your computer, in CD quality or even better. And this for a relatively modest fee, about the price of 1-2 CDs. I’ve discovered so much new music like this, stuff that I wouldn’t otherwise have explored.
So from a customer perspective there is a real gain. From a musician perspective, things are obviously different, as musicians only make very little money from streaming if you’re not Beyonce. I assume for this reason, many smaller labels, like ECM, Chandos, or Hyperion didn’t allow streaming until now.
It looks like things are changing again, as labels do realize that streaming may be a tricky business model, but if you’re not on it, you’re out of mind for too many music lovers. ECM came first recently, Chandos just started, and I hope Hyperion will follow.
It is just that especially for classical music there is no decent way to sample music before you buy now that CD stores are gone, and the 30 seconds snippets from Amazon may work for Bruno Mars, but not for a 50 minute classical piece.
Which lead to me often ignoring recordings, like this particular one. I’ve mentioned it previously in my post about the 2017 Gramophone award nominations. To quote myself “I have only heard it once on the radio (again, also Chandos doesn´t stream), and liked it, but wasn´t blown away. Not interesting enough for me to spend money blindly on it“. There you go. I’ve simply ignored a truly great recording just because of their lack of streaming.
But please, fellow music lovers, remember, no musician can live off streaming only. So, please, if you like something, buy the album, or go to their concert. We want these great musicians to be able to live off what they are doing!
No. 15 is the last one, and to me pretty much on par with the two others as well as the outstanding String Quintet (see here and here for my favorite versions).
No. 15 is a true masterpiece, and longer than most of Schubert´s symphonies. My initial versions of this were the great Alban Berg Quartet and the Quartetto Italiano.
The Doric String Quartet is a young UK-based quartet, with Alex Redington and Jonathan Stone on violin, Hélène Clément viola, and John Myerscough on cello. The quartet has won a number of prices and awards yet, including several high praises by Gramophone.
And as already mentioned above, my superficial listening on the radio simply wasn’t enough to make up my mind. The playing is truly excellent, showing all the passion that late Schubert requires, but at the same time the attention to detail that shows all the little nuances that Schubert is so good at hiding in the music. This is truly breathtaking.
Did I mention you also get the Quartettsatz, a one movement quartet from Schubert? We won’t say no to this!
My rating: 5 stars
As mentioned previously, Gramophone agrees, this was and Editor´s Choice, and shortlisted for the 2017 Gramophone Awards. Germany´s Fono Forum also gives 5 stars.
You can find it here (Qobuz, who at the time of writing has a special offer on all Chandos), and here (Chandos own online store)
As most of you, I have made a couple of New Years resolutions. Among them was, not suprisingly, exercise more and eat healthier. Well, 7 days in and, while improving, I’m far from where I want to be (although slightly better than last year).
Another resolution was to go to more concerts. There are so many fantastic concerts out there, and I have the privilege of often being in places that offer excellent musical performances on a regular basis. Berlin is a case in point, where I happened to be quite a bit recently.
So, I guess starting with my first concert on January 6 is a good starting point for the last resolution. Let’s see how I continue from here.
A lot of firsts
This concert was a lot of “firsts” for me. First concert of the year, first time I’m listening to a concert performance of any of the three composers on the program (more about that later), first time I see Alina Igrabimova and Cedric Tiberghien in concert, first time the two are actually mentioned on this blog (beyond a small side note in passing), and first time a Berlin´s new Pierre Boulez Saal.
Pierre Boulez Saal
The Pierre Boulez Saal is the latest of the classical music venues in Berlin. It was built as part of the Barenboim-Said academy. It formally opened in March of 2017. It was planned by architecture legend Frank Gehry as a Salle Modulable, i.e. with a lot of flexibility.
Entering the building, I really like the architecture of the overall hallway, with a nice mix of traditional and modern elements over the several floors.
However, entering the Boulez Saal itself, I was a bit underwhelmed. Being a big Frank Gehry fan, I kind of expected more. It kind of reminds me of a smaller Roman amphitheater, just more wood, less stone.
And honestly, who designed the patterns covering the seats? This weird mix of blue and red reminds me of some of the public transport seats in Europe that use complex patterns to deter graffiti. I don’t expect the typically 50+ classical music audience to be big into graffiti, so no idea what went on here.
But well, I shouldn’t be too negative, the acoustics were quite nice, you have excellent visibility from pretty much all seats, and to really honor the concept of a roundish concert hall, the piano was turned during the break having the artists face the other way in the second half of the concert.
Anyhow, there is quite an intriguing concept behind the hall, and it is hard to take pictures in there (and unfortunately forbidden during the concert, so no pictures from the artists here…), therefore I suggest you check out this video:
Alina Ibragimova and Cedric Tiberghien
Two young, brilliant artists that I’ve never mentioned on my blog in 2+ years. How come? I actually like both.
The reason is more or less technical. Both mainly record for Hyperion, and Hyperion doesn’t allow streaming. As mosts of my initial reviews are typically based on streaming (I like to sample before I buy), I haven’t really formally reviewed any of their recordings yet. However, the samples I was able to listen to were, plus the raving reviews everywhere, really made me curious.
32 year old Ibragimova has some highly praised albums, including her Bach solo sonatas, Ysaye´s solo sonatas, the Beethoven and Mozart sonatas with Tiberghien, and a really enjoyable recording of the Bach violin concertos. Tiberghien is not only her regular duo partner, but has also done some very nice solo recordings that are worth checking out.
So I was very enthusiastic to be able to see both of them live.
Ibragimova and Tiberghien At Boulez Saal playing Ysaye, Vierne, and Franck – January 6, 2018
And actually, to be fair, the first one isn’t even French but Belgian, Eugene Ysaye. I had heard about him, but never the Poème élégiaque that started the performance. As rare as it is for me, it is actually very refreshing hearing a piece of classical music performed for the very first time. You have a much more open reception.
And I was blown away. This relatively short piece was inspired by Shakespeare´s Romeo and Juliet, and you could certainly hear all the passion of this inspiration in there. Ibragimova played with a wonderful intensity, and Tiberghien was the perfect partner, never overshadowing, which the powerful sound of a Steinway can easily do.
Next came a composer I literally had to google. Louis Vierne. You may say Louis who? Turns out he’s relatively well known in France, but his reputation beyond the French borders is still very low. So I had no idea what to expect.
A violin sonata from a composer mainly known as an organist? Again, I was very positively surprised. My personal highlight was the second movement, Andante. I was literally mesmerized by the beauty of it. Isn’t it enjoyable that there is still so much beautiful music to be discovered?
After the break, we got my personal highlight of the evening, César Frank´s A-Major sonata. This piece I was much more familiar with, both from historic recordings with Heifetz, and from Isabelle Faust´s recent album on Franck and Chausson.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a Faust fanboy. But what Ibragimova and Tiberghien did last night was even significantly better than Faust´s excellent recorded performance. Given that this was a live event, the performers took quite some liberties on timing, but only to the benefit of this music. The audience, like me, was extremely enthusiastic.
As an encore, we got a beautiful work of one of Vierne´s pupils, Lili Boulanger, the less-well known sister of Nadia Boulanger, who unfortunately passed away at the young age of 24. The Nocturne was again of outstanding beauty.
Overall, an evening of extreme emotional intensity and passion