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.
Schumann’s symphonies have long been underrated. The idea of “Schumann cannot compose for orchestra” has been going around in musicology circles for many years.
I really disagree. OK, he’s no Beethoven or Brahms, but I still really like his symphonies, especially no. 3 and 4.
To be fair, there are excellent recordings already out there, e.g. from Gardiner, Nezét-Séguin, or, a bit more unorthodox, Thomas Dausgaard, (mentioned in My 25 Essential Classical Albums).
Rattle is now on his way out from the Berlin Philharmonic, with Kirill Petrenko coming.
I’ve not always been a fan of Rattle’s work at the BPO, but he has left some very good recordings, so I was very interested when I recently rediscovered this 2014 cycle which launched BPO’s own label (I had missed it at the time).
Schumann: The Symphonies – Simon Rattle – Berliner Philharmoniker (BPO Recordings 2014)
So, what do we get? Overall, a very convincing package. I really enjoy every single symphony on this box. My favorite is actually no. 1, subtitled “spring”; where Rattle takes a very fresh and precise approach.
Potentially the weakest of the 4 is symphony no. 2, which I found slightly incoherent in certain parts. The “Rhenish” (my other favorite), and no. 4 both are presented in a way that combines on one hand a good view of the big picture, but really looks at many exciting details.
Overall, Rattle was clearly influenced by the historically informed movement, and the BPO doesn’t sound like during the Karajan era any more. Everything is much lighter and transparent.
Pretty much simultaneously two recordings of the Mendelssohn piano concertos were released, by Jan Lisiecki and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, as reviewed by me recently, and another one by Ronald Brautigam with the Kölner Akademie under Michael Alexander Willens.
So, which one should you get?
Mendelssohn Piano Concertos – Ronald Brautigam – Michael Alexander Willens – Die Kölner Akademie (BIS 2018)
Let me focus more on the differences to Jan Lisiecki. The obvious one is the choice of instruments, Brautigam plays on his typical reconstructed Fortepiano, a Pleyel this time, and the Kölner Akademie clearly plays on historical instruments.
Overall, this gives a rougher, more unpolished, wilder sound than the more polished sound of Lisiecki’s modern Steinway.
Honestly, it’s very hard to choose. Both in their own way are excellent. I probably have a slight preference for Lisiecki and the Orpheus, the sound is just SOOO beautiful.
But then again, Brautigam clearly knows a thing or two about Mendelssohn. Furthermore, the two recordings differ by the choice of the “fillers” that you get on top of the piano concertos.
For Lisiecki, he intersperses some of the beautiful solo piano pieces. Brautigam and Willens instead go for some other lesser know pieces of the piano and concerto repertoire, the Rondo brilliant, the Capriccio brilliant, and the Serenade and Allegro giojoso. None of these works are particularly memorable individually, but taken together they really complement the piano concertos well, and are nice discoveries.
So back to the question, which one to choose? Well, while my slight preference goes to Lisiecki, in the days of streaming, just check out both and make up your own mind. You won’t regret either of the two.
Can one still wish a Happy New Year three weeks in? Well I’ll just do it anyway, given that the Chinese New Year is anyway still ahead of us.
I didn’t often use to write, or even listen to, Requiems. While I acknowledged the beautiful music of Mozart, Verdi, Fauré and others, it always felt “wrong” listening to music meant for mourning the death of somebody.
Well, now it is me being touched by a death in the family, that I still have a hard time mentally acknowledging, let alone fully digest. It turns out that the beautiful music written by these legends is just what you need in these situations.
So bear with me, you’ll read more about requiems on this blog this year. Don’t worry, life has to go on, so I’ll write about other stuff as well.
So I won’t repeat myself here, just re-alert you to the fact that this is a requiem that doesn’t use the typical latin text of pretty much any other requiem around, but instead uses handpicked parts of the bible that Brahms chose himself, and it is sung in German, hence the name.
It remains among my absolute favorite requiems.
Brahms: Ein Deutsches Requiem – Otto Klemperer – Philharmonia Chorus & Orchestra – Elisabeth Schwarzkopf – Dietrich Fischer Dieskau
I tend to often write about contemporary recordings here, a) because typically they are recorded much better sonically, b) because there’s already been written so much about the great classics, and c) because performance practice evolves and I could for example not really enjoy Bach played in the 1960’s symphony style, before historically informed practice came in the 1970s.
That said, there are some classics that have truly stood the test of time, and if there ever is one, this could be the one.
Otto Klemperer is an absolute Brahms legend, his symphony cycle was my first and still is one of my favorite ever.
And take a look at the soloist cast of this 1961 recording: We have Elisabeth Schwarzkopf AND Dietrich Fischer Dieskau! We get the full dramatic power of the Philharmonia Orchestra under Klemperer, that already made his stereo symphony cycle (also on EMI, Warner classics) so great. By the way, if you like this, you may want to consider getting the entire Klemperer Brahms box on Warner. I’ll provide a link below.
My favorite part of this requiem remains the intimate, simple, and amazingly touching Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit (You now have sorrow). This is really what sets this requiem apart from all the other Latin ones with their Days Of Wrath (Dies Irae). Just look at the consoling text:
My rating: 5 stars
You can find it here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)
If you prefer to get the entire Klemperer Brahms Warner box, which I highly recommend, as you’ll get all the symphonic works as well for just a little more money, you’ll find it here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)
So, another year has passed. For me, while it has brought a lot of challenging moments, it also brought me a lot of good luck. And particularly, it brought all of us some exciting new recordings.
In the tradition from 2017, 2016, and 2015, so basically each year since I started this blog, let me summarize my top 5 Classical Albums Of The Year.
Yes, partially I do this because Top something lists always generate a lot of clicks (I don’t make any money on this site, so this is purely for my stupid little ego), but it is also a nice tradition to look back at the year.
And hopefully, it will inspire you to buy some of these (again, I’m not making any money here, but the artists do, as they should).
Igor Levit – Life
Yes, I really like Igor Levit. This may be his most personal album to date. In my original review I’ve described it as A Beautiful Treasure. An absolute must have.
Daniel Trifonov Plays Rach 2 and 4
Yes, this is one of my favorite Rach 2 ever. But PLEASE BE AWARE that I wrote in my original review (published as one of the first) that this recording will be controversial. It turned out it is, it is a love it or hate it affair. So please do check it out before you buy.
Rachel Podger’s Four Seasons
Do you really need yet another version of the Four Seasons? Probably not, let’s be realistic. That said, if you are looking for one, you won’t go wrong with this beautiful account, which combines amazing energy with beautiful recording technology. See here for my original review.
Murray Perahia’s Moonlight and Hammerklavier
Yes, I’m absolutely certain that this is an album that will stand the test of time. The only argument that you could have is whether the best piece here is the Moonlight (my opinion, see here for my review) or the Hammerklavier (many other reviewers). In any case, get this album, even if you already own these works.
Jean Rondeau Plays Scarlatti
As I wrote in my original review, I was really surprised to finally find an album that makes me like Scarlatti. Now is this enough of a reason for YOU to buy it? Will check it out, I think you won’t be disappointed.
You will find the download links in the respective original reviews.
Now back to you, what did I miss? Where do you disagree? What were your classical albums of 2018?
Camille Saint-Saëns is one of those composers that outside of his native France isn’t that well known. Sure, many of us will have heard his most famous piece, Le Carnaval des Animaux (The Carnival of the Animals), if you’re a little bit deeper into classical music, you may know his Organ Symphony (no. 3).
And typically, that’s where most average classical listeners wits will end. I must admit it was very similar for me until quite recently. In fact, this is the very first time I even write a blot post about this composer.
However, nicely enough in the recent months, two new recordings of some of his piano concertos were released, triggering my interest. Both feature his apparently most famous concerto, no. 2. The first new release, with Louis Lortie, Edward Gardner, and the BBC Philharmonic, is more complete, featuring also concertos no. 1 & 4. You’ll find it on the Chandos label (and here on Qobuz). However, I overall have a slight preference for the other new release of 2018, namely:
Saint-Saëns: Piano Concertos No. 2 and 5 – Bertrand Chamayou – Emmanuel Krivine – Orchestre National de France (Erato 2018)
The 2nd concerto starts like a Bach solo work, which as a great fan of Johann Sebastian I really appreciate. But obviously, this is concerto of the romantic era (written in 1868), and once the orchestra sets in, there is no doubt about that. The concerto isn’t very “balanced”, the first movement being nearly as long, and “heavier” than the two other movements together.
You’d never be able to tell this work was written in only 17 days (it was written in a rush for Anton Rubinstein), and it is for a good reason the best known of the concertos.
That said, don’t skip concerto no. 5. It is a bit more intimate, but has many beautiful moments as well.
I’ve praised Chamyou for his beautiful Ravel box, and his playing is brilliant here as well. The ONF does a great job too, I believe they have a natural advantage over foreign orchestras as Saint-Saëns still gets much more air time in his home country and abroad.
To complete the album, Chamayou also plays several of Saint-Saëns Piano works, which were completely unknown to me. A particularly beautiful example are the 6 Etudes op. 111, that really show a close relationship to Debussy and Ravel, reminding us that Sain-Saëns lived long into the 20th century (he died in 1921).
Overall, a very enjoyable album that I highly recommend
My rating: 4 stars (5 star playing, 4 star repertoire)
You can find it here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)
But when I saw that he was playing the closing concert of the fall Lucerne Festival, which is always dedicated to the piano, and I happened to be in the area, I had to check it out.
Piotr Anderszewski at the 2018 Piano Lucerne Festival, KKL Lucerne, November 25, 2018
If I needed any more convincing, the program helped.
Anderszewski started off with parts of the Wohltemperiertes Klavier, especially the second book of the Well Tempered Clavier that I must admit I listen to much less than the first volume.
This was really an amazing experience. Amazing intensity, while at the same time never too extrovert, a dense flow of sound, that really took you in as a listened.
During the break, we got to admire the beautiful Christmas tree that Lucerne built up in front of the KKL’s main entry, together with a illuminated ice skating ring for kids that looked like taken out of a fairy tale (ok, I actually don’t know any fairy tales that feature ice skating rings, but you get the picture). Together with a glass of bubbly the break passed quickly.
Now, it was clearly also the most convincing reading for me, given that I heard it live for the first time, but bad pun aside, it was a fascinating reading.
What struck me most was the speed, or actually lack of it, that Anderszewski took. In many parts he really stopped time, or so it seemed. This may not be a performance that works on a recording, but in the beautiful acoustics of the large KKL hall, it worked wonders, and it truly became a transcendental experience in some moments.
To this day, Gramophone Magazine is probably THE reference for classical music reviews.
I haven’t always been fully aligned with their latest recommendations. For example, Hillary Hahn’s new recording of the Bach violin sonatas they have as recording of the month in November, which I personally don’t really like, way too much vibrato for me.
Give me Milstein, Szeryng, or Isabelle Faust anytime instead.
However, beyond this, there are a lot of familiar albums I’ve previously recommended on this blog:
Vikingur Olafsson – Johann Sebastian Bach
See my review here. Gramophone talks about “glowing lyricism and sparkling virtuosity”. Fully agree.
Igor Levit, Life
Gramophone says “A triumph of imaginative programming that ranges from Bach to Rzewski, and elevated further by masterly pianism“. Yep, see also my thoughts here.
And finally, there’s an album I really like, have purchased, but didn’t get to review it yet:
Schubert: String Quartets No. 9 and 14 “Death and the Maiden” – Chiaroscuro Quartet – BIS 2018
I’m a big fan of the young Chiaroscuro quartet, which features Alina Ibragimova as first violin. The previous recording I bought from them is an excellent Haydn op. 20.
This latest recording is also excellent. Gramophone says it is “played with enourmous conviction and power by this very stylish ensemble”. I can’t really comment on the stylishness of the musician, but I fully agree that this album is strongly recommended. I hope I’ll get around to a formal review eventually, but in the meantime, it won’t replace my favorite versions by the Takacs and Pavel Haas Quartets, but it is a truly worthwile addition to the catalogue and worth having!