A fantastic live album by Yuja Wang

Yuja Wang

If you read this blog regularly, you could think that I may be a bit biased towards Asian pianists. I’m really not a big fan of Lang Lang, and also can’t understand all the praise that Seong-Jin Cho is getting (see here and here). I really hope I don’t have any intrinsic biases and judge purely on the music though.

I had a more ambivalent opinion of Yuja Wang until recently. There was stuff I really appreciated (her Ravel concerto for example), but there are other albums like the Brahms sonatas with Kavakos (that got a lot of praise) that are not 100% my cup of tea.

But this latest live release (it actually already came out end of last year, I’m a bit behind here), is a truly exceptional album

Yuja Wang – The Berlin Recital (DG 2018)

Yuja Wang The Berlin Recital Rachmaninov Scriabin Ligeti Prokofiev 24 96 Deutsche Grammophon 2018

The album starts off with an engaging performance of the famous Rachmaninov Prelude op. 23 no. 5. You already are getting a level of energy, excitement, but also precision, that is drawing you in from the very beginning.

She follows with several other pieces of Rachmaninov, keeping up the level of engagement. A first highlight however is in the much more subtle Scriabin sonata. Here Wang demonstrates that she is not just the virtuoso, but can also be very nuanced. Scriabin isn’t easy to pull off. I had one of my most memorable performances of a live concert by Rudolf Serkin back in the early 90s, and this is one of the first time that Scriabin really moves me.

I’m still mostly struggling with most of 20th century music, but the Ligeti etudes are quite accessible even to me.

But a real highlight of this album is the closing, Prokofiev’s sonata no. 8. Again, not a showpiece, much more introvert, written during the horrible year of 1943 in the middle of World War II. Again, Wang shows how complete she is as an artist in this performace.

Overall, the album is very well recorded, giving you a premium seat in the Berlin Philharmonie.

I’m not the only one liking this album by the way, it’s got top reviews from pretty much every one in the business (Gramophone Editor’s Choice, Choc de Classica, 5 stars by Diapason and FonoForum).

Highly recommended.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Janine Jansen and Herbert Blomstedt for a Magnificent Brahms Performance at the Tonhalle Maag – June 28, 2019

Janine Jansen

I presume if you’ve followed this blog for a bit (or read it’s subtitle) you’ve figured out that I really like Brahms.

You’ve probably also noticed that I really like Janine Jansen, and see her as one of the best violin players alive.

Last year I went through a series of concerts aiming to see all my favourite violin players live, and succeeded being in concerts of Alina Ibragimova, Julia Fischer, Lisa Batiatishvili, Isabelle Faust, and Janine Jansen all in 2018. What a year.

The concert I saw with Jansen, also at the Tonhalle Maag, was with her husband Daniel Blendulf conducting, and playing a contemporary composition by Swedish composer Anders Eliasson. I didn’t get to write about this concert here on this blog, but I found the concert surprisingly enjoyable (I’m typically not very much into any classical music after 1930).

But now, when Jansen came back to Zurich playing Brahms of all violin concertos, I knew I had to be there, after all, I had given her Brahms concerto recording with Pappano a five star review here.

Brahms Violin Concerto & Symphony No. 3 – Janine Jansen – Herbert Blomstedt – Tonhalle Orchester Zurich – Tonhalle Maag, June 28, 2019

Janine Jansen after the Brahms Violin Concerto June 28, 2019 Tonhalle Maag with Herbert Blomstedt Tonhalle Orchestra
Janine Jansen had to come back out four times

Well, to make it short, I’m so happy I went. This was just a fantastic concert. Blomstedt chose a relatively slow tempo for the first movement. This can have the risk of being a big boring and drawn out. But obviously, none of that here. Janine Jansen put her energy into every single note that the audience was following, completely mesmerised.

The orchestra, in spite of this being the third consecutive night of performing the same program, was following with the same energy and power, clearly enjoying themselves.

To quote Felix Michel, who did a fantastic review on the NZZ (here, in German), the word he used several times was “Wunder” (miracle). Yes, that is kind of a fitting description of what we witnessed yesterday in the scorching Zurich summer heat (>36° Celsius, I’m happy the Tonhalle Maag seemed to have some form of AC).

Herbert Blomstedt

I haven’t written a lot about Herbert Blomstedt yet. I’ve last seen him, again conducting the Tonhalle playing Mendelssohn’s violin concerto, another magnificent evening.

He isn’t one of those flashy maestros that will make headlines, but like many others, e.g. Haitink, is much more of a Musician’s musician.

At the age of 91 (he’ll soon turn 92, but is already scheduled to appear back in Zurich in the fall), when he’s up there conducting, he’s more alive and present than many 20 year olds.

Now to the 3rd symphony. Here, the energy taking from the furious beginning with the violin concerto certainly continued after the break. The two most outstanding moments here were the famous 3rd movement, which you may know from several commercials and other uses in the movies, but even more impressively in the finale. Unlike most symphonies, this finale ends very quietly.

Blomstedt really made us enjoy this quiet ending, not dropping his hands (no baton) for several seconds after the last note expired, to keep the quiet tension.

Herbert Blomstedt, Tonhalle Maag, Brahms SympZurichhony No. 3 , June 27, 2019
Maestro Blomstedt getting standing ovations

As always, when the final movement lacks a climatic finish, the applause came more slowly. However, it became even more powerful, especially after it became apparent that one of the musicians of the Tonhalle had his last day pre-retirement and was showered with flowers and gifts. The applause lasted for a long time. Well deserved for a fantastic end of a season.

Looking forward to the next season, where my admired Paavo Järvi will take over the orchestra.

An Excellent (Nearly) New Schumann Cycle by Rattle and the BSO

Schumann’s Symphonies

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)

Berliner Philharmoniker Sir Simon Rattle Robert Schumann Symphonies 1-4 BPO Recordings 2014 24/96

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.

A really enjoyable set.

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Another Excellent Recording of the Mendelssohn Piano Concertos by Ronald Brautigam

Mendelssohn again

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)

Mendelssohn Piano Concertos - Ronald Brautigam Die Kölner Akademie - Michael Alexander Willens BIS 2019 24/96

Well, it’s not an easy choice.

I won’t do a full review here, as fellow music blogger Konsgaard has already done an excellent job here.

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.

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (eclassical).

UPDATE March 30, 2019: Classica likes this a lot as well giving it 5 stars.

The Legendary Klemperer Recording of Brahms’ Requiem

Happy New Year

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.

Requiems

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.

Brahms: Ein Deutsches Requiem

Given the subtitle of my blog, it is not surprising that Brahms’ is the only requiem I’ve already written about, in my review of Nézet-Séguin’s live performance in Berlin back in 2017.

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

Brahms: Ein Deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem) Otto Klemperer Elisabeth Schwarzkopf Dietrich Fischer Dieskau Philharmonia Chorus & Orchestra EMI Warner Classics

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:


You now have sorrow;
but I shall see you again
and your heart shall rejoice
and your joy no one shall take from you.

Behold me:
I have had for a little time toil and torment,
and now have found great consolation.

I will console you,
as one is consoled by his mother

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)

My Top 5 Classical Albums Of 2018

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

Daniil Trifonov Yannick Nézet-Séguin The Philadelphia Orchestra Destination Rachmaninov - Departure Deutsche Grammophon 2018 24/96

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

Vivaldi Le Quattro Stagioni (Four Seasons) Rachel Podger Brecon Baroque Channel Classics DSD 2018

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

Beethoven: Sonatas No. 14 and 29 - Murray Perahia - Deutsche Grammophon 2018 24/96

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

Scarlatti Sonatas Jean Rondeau Erato 2018 (24/96) Warner Classics

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?

Bertrand Chamayou plays Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concertos No. 2 and 5 – A Review

Camille Saint-Saëns

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)