My Reflections on the 2020 Gramophone Awards – Part II – Choral, Instrumental & Orchestral

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”.

I’m following the order that Gramophone uses in their Gramophone Awards shortlist special edition.

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)

Johann Sebastian Bach: Johannes Passion Philippe Herreweghe Collegium Vocale Ghent Phi 2020 24/96

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)

Bach: St Matthew Passion Bach Collegium Japan Masaaki Suzuki BIS 2020 24/96

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)

Buxtehude Membra Jesu Nostri Ricercar Consort Philippe Pierlot Mirare 2019 (24/96)

I don’t know why this ended up being reviewed by Gramophone only in 2020, you’ll find my 4 star review of March 2019 here.

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)

Igor Levit Beethoven Complete Piano Sonatas Sony Classical 24/96 2019

Yes, absolutely!

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.

By the way, if you speak German, Levit has done a fantastic podcast, produced by German public radio, where he discusses in-depth every single sonata. Highly recommended.

Brahms: The Final Piano Pieces -Stephen Hough (Hyperion 2020)

Stephen Hough Brahms The Final Piano Pieces Hyperion 2020 24 96

Another album that I fully agree with, as reviewed here (5 stars). This album is all the way up there for me with Volodos and Perahia. Very much worth having.

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 – Kiril Petrenko (BPO’s own label, 2020)

Berlin Philharmonic Kirill Petrenko Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 24/96

Again, an album I already reviewed in 2019 and loved it (5 stars).

In fact, it is the one recording that made me reconsider whether I actually like Tchaikovsky (I’m still on the fence, but getting there).

Very much recommended.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the selection this year.

If you want to buy any of these albums (which I highly recommend you do), you can find the albums here (Qobuz & Hyperion):

Bach St John Passion – Herreweghe

Bach St Matthew Passion – Suzuki

Buxtehude Membra Jesu Nostri – Pierlot

Beethoven Igor Levit

Brahms Stephen Hough

A Beautiful Recording of the Complete Beethoven Trios

Beethoven’s Piano Trios

Beethoven has written a total of 7 “official piano trios (in reality there are some more without opus).

The first three of them are actually officially the first opus he released, his official op. 1, at the age of 25. While he innovated a bit on the form, overall they still are very much in the spirit of Mozart and Haydn, you can clearly hear that the young composer was still trying to find his own style. That said, they are each in itself beautiful gems and truly enjoyable.

No. 4, op. 11, also called “Gassenhauer” (a term that losely translates as “popular song”) is actually my least favorite of these works. It gets it’s nickname from the fact that the third movement is build around variations of a then popular opera aria.

The true masterworks are his three later trios, op. 70 No. 1 and 2, written around the time of the 5th symphony, as well as op. 97, composed at the same time as the 7th symphony. Both op. 70. No. 1 and op. 97 have nicknames. The former is called “Geistertrio” or ghost trio because of the somewhat eerie 2nd movement and stems apparently from Beethoven’s pupil Carl Czerny. The latter is called “Erzherzogtrio“, or Archduke trio, as it was dedicated to Archduke Rudoph of Austria.

So how did I end up discovering this album box? This was triggered by a show on Swiss public radio called Diskothek im 2, a weekly show that does a blind test of 6 version of a classical work with two experts in the studio commenting on the recordings, with one winner eventually emerging. The show was dedicated to op. 70 no. 2, the lesser known of the two (probably because of it’s lack of nicknames. As you can guess, I love the show, as it really forces you to discover a performance without the pre-conceived notions of knowing which artists you prefer.

Beethoven: The Piano Trios – Oliver Schnyder Trio (Sony 2017)

Beethoven: The Piano Trios - Oliver Schnyder Trios - 24/96 - Sony 2017

As you’ve probably guessed, the winner (for both the two experts on the show and for me) was this album box by the Oliver Schnyder Trio.

Schnyder is actually Swiss, and even is one of the experts that gets regularly invited to the show, but given that this was a blind comparison I don’t think any national bias came into play here.

I was personally so convinced by the performance that I immediately purchased the entire box. I’m really happy I did. I previously owned only one complete box, by the French Wanderer Trio (which was also featured on the show and did compete quite nicely), as well as a very good recording of just op. 70 no. 2 and op. 97 by my beloved Isabelle Faust together with the usual Jean-Guihen Queyras and Alexander Melnikov. Given the historic instruments I even recognised this version blindly, but I still preferred Schnyder and his two colleagues.

Schnyder is joined in his trio by two great musicians, Andreas Janke is the concertmaster of the Tonhalle Orchestra in Zurich, and Benjamin Nyfenegger is the deputy solo cellist of the same orchestra.

The playing of all 7 trios is truly top notch. Now, is it perfect? Well I’d argue for op. 1 pretty much yes, same for op. 70 no. 2. For op. 70 no. 1 and op. 96 you may want to add other performances, like the above mentioned Isabelle Faust and Wanderer Trio, the Florestan Trio, or, if you want a flashback to another era, the legendary (but somewhat outdated to my ears) Beaux Arts trio. But this is nitpicking.

The entire box is very much worth having.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

A wonderful new Chopin Concerto recording by Benjamin Grosvenor

Benjamin Grosvenor

Benjamin Grosvenor is still only 27. But what an amazing trajectory he’s already had.

I pretty much recommend every single one of his albums (see here or here for examples). I’ve even listed him in my Top 10 Classical Pianists, and he’s also featured in My Top 10 Chopin Albums.

So, obviously when he recently released the Chopin piano concertos, I was all ears.

So was Gramophone (Editor’s Choice March 2020), and the French magazine Diapason, who gave a Diapason d’or, their highest rating.

So far, my favorite versions of these were the great classics (Zimerman and Argerich), so do I agree with the praise this album got?

Chopin Piano Concertos – Benjamin Grosvenor – Elim Chan – Royal Scottish National Orchestra (Decca 2020)

And the simple answer is: Absolutely!

I must admit in the past when listening to the Chopin concertos I often skipped directly to the 2nd movements only. They are obviously the true peak of these works. But here with Grosvenor even the 1st and 3rd movements are highly enjoyable. I

One of the favourite pieces of the first movement starts from the 10 min mark. Here you really hear what an exceptional pianist Grosvenor is. He plays with the melody, keeps it singing all the time.

I must admit I didn’t know what to expect from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. With the exception of a few recordings from the Neeme Järvi time this orchestra had never made it into my library.

And this album cover was the first time I’d ever heard of Elim Chan. One of the reasons is simply that she’s only 33, a very young age for a conductor. I’m very happy to see we’re finally getting more female conductors! Let’s watch her career closely.

The orchestra in any case isn’t the highlight of any Chopin concerto recording, many critics over the last one and and a half centuries dismissed it as mere “background” and claimed that Chopin didn’t know how to orchestrate. Whatever truth there is to this claim, in any case in this album, soloist and orchestra really complement each other, in a beautiful intensity.

So, while I presume you may already have a recording of the Chopin concerti, get this one anyhow. And if you don’t, get it now! This one is up there (or at least pretty close) with the Zimermans and Argerichs of this world.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 1 by Martin Helmchen and Andrew Manze- A Positive Surprise

First of all, I feel a bit bad for not posting more regularly in 2020. OK, so my year transitioned very brutally from traveling like crazy to working even crazier hours from home, and obviously the situation of most parts of the world really has plenty of reasons to not have a clean head to think about other things.

But then again, isn’t music even more essential these days? It is a nearly universal source of joy, and I really hope I can share my enjoyment with you, my dear readers.

Beethoven Piano Concertos No. 1 & 4 – Martin Helmchen – Andrew Manze (Alpha 2020)

Does the world need yet another recording of Beethoven’s piano concertos? Almost certainly not.

Beethoven Piano Concertos 1& 4 Martin Heimchen Deutsches Sinfonieorchester Berlin Andrew Manze Alpha 2020 24 96

I’ve already shared how much I like the complete cycle of Leif Ove Andnses with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, which I also mentioned in my Top 5 Classical albums of 2015.

But that said, when I more or less randomly checked into this recent release, I was very positively surprised how much I liked it.

Both Martin Helmchen and Andrew Manze are artists that aren’t fully in the limelight. Insiders will know them, Helmchen for example for his many beautiful chamber music collaborations, Manze was until recently more known for his HIP influenced baroque performances that he lead with the English Consort. Since 2014 he is conducting the NDR Radiophilharmonie in Hanover, Germany. And obviously, the Deutsche Sinfonieorchester Berlin (DSO) is often eclipsed by the two other amazing orchestras in the same city, the BPO and the Staatskapelle.

But as I’ve written many times before, the best performances don’t necessarily come from the big names and the traditional large orchestras any more. You always need to watch seemingly lesser known ensembles, you more often than not will be positively surprised.

So, why do I like this recording? Well, it is hard to pinpoint a single feature. Probably the best description of what I like is the balance. You can clearly hear that Manze knows his historically informed practice, but at no point this performance becomes bloodless which some “HIP” recordings can clearly get to. You have a very transparent and intimate reading, but never dull.

Helmchen also is a fantastic performer here. I’m a particular fan of his performance of piano concerto no. 1. This work, which clearly sits spot on on the border between the “Wiener Klassik” of Mozart and Haydn, and the following romantic era of Schubert and Schumann, but it is so very Beethoven in so many ways. Helmchen perfectly captures the spirit of this transitional work.

Piano concerto no. 4 is probably my favorite of all 5 piano concertos. The opening, with its very simple solo piano chords, immediately answered by the orchestra, is a totally different beast to the piano concerto no. 1. This work was premiered for the first time in a massive concert that also features the 5th and 6th symphony. This is clearly a Beethoven at the height of his powers, fully emancipated from Haydn and Mozart, creating a style that is so very immediately recognisable as Beethoven, and has never been surpassed since.

Helmchen and Manze also give us a beautiful performance here, but maybe it is for this work that I’d just like to have a tiny bit more of something, what exactly I really don’t know. Maybe I’m still influenced by the very first performance I owned of this work, a recording of the legendary Rudolf Serkin with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony (a recording that build a much “bigger” Beethoven, not that that is necessarily automatically a good thing). OK, let me stop rambling here. In these situations I’m happy I don’t have to pretend I’m a professional reviewer, but just share my personal impressions.

Overall though this is a recording you really should check out, particularly for what could be close to a perfect first piano concerto.

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Brahms Late Piano Works In a New Fantastic Recording by Stephen Hough

Brahms Late Piano Pieces

I’ve written previously about these late masterpieces, op. 116 – 119, that are among the last pieces written by Brahms.

Brahms always was primarily a pianist. Whenever he wrote for other instruments, he got advice from experts, e.g. his friend Joseph Joachim for his violin works So it is not surprising that he wrote some of his most important but also most intimate works ever for the instrument he knew best.

I had been looking for a “definitive” version for a long time, and only some years ago fell in love with the album that the Russian pianist Volodos recorded in 2017 (see my review here). The only other version I reviewed here on this blog is by Andreas Staier on a fortepiano, only for op. 116.

So when I recently read two reviews, by Classicstoday and Gramophone, that both praised a new recording by Stephen Hough, I went out to buy it blindly.

You see, the issue is that Hyperion, the label that has Stephen Hough exclusively, doesn’t allow streaming, which is a key reason why I typically don’t buy his albums, as I can’t really explore them properly upfront, and also why I never reviewed any of his albums here, in spite of the fact that Gramophone is a huge fan.

But for my idol Brahms, it was worth the risk of GBP 13.

Brahms: The Final Piano Pieces – Stephen Hough (Hyperion 2020)

Stephen Hough Brahms The Final Piano Pieces Hyperion 2020 24 96

So, am I happy? To make it short, yes, very much. This is among the most unorthodox recordings of these work I’ve ever heard. None of these sound as I’m used to hearing them.

But honestly, it is worth the discovery. Once you overcome the initial surprise, you discover that Hough clearly has spent a long time thinking about these works, and each peculiarity is there for a reason. If you want to find out more about his approach to Brahms, check out this podcast about this new release.

I’m totally sold now. This is an album that I’ll go back over and over again, just because every single one of these little short gems is worth having a new look at them.

Here’s a Youtube example, so you can get an idea what I’m talking about. Let me know what you think!

In a nutshell, highly recommended! (My prediction is that this will make it into the Gramophone Award nomination list for 2020. Let’s see later this year if I’m right).

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Hyperion Records).

Fauré’s Beautiful Requiem

Gabriel Fauré

This is my first ever entry on the French composer Gabriel Fauré, after more than 5 years of this blog and hundreds of posts. Why did it take me so long? Well to be fair, there are only a handful of his works of this late romantic composers that I actually know. Coming from a German speaking background originally, French composers just weren’t very high on the list of stuff that you’d be aware off. In my personal library that contains thousands of albums I only have 16 that include some music of him, mainly some piano and chamber music.

The only major work of him that I knew and loved for more than 20 years now is the requiem.

I still try to remember where I first discovered it. I still think it was in a movie soundtrack, I even remember a scene with clouds drifting over a sky, and this beautiful music that immediately struck me as truly celestial. I tried to find the movie, and Fauré is listed in more than 100 of them in IMDB, but I couldn’t retrace that scene just yet. I keep digging.

In any case, his requiem is truly special, unlike any other requiem that I’m aware of.

Catholic requiems are typically, in the spirit of Mozart and Verdi, to name two of the most famous ones, very big and sometimes even threatening affairs. After all, it includes the Dies irae, the “Day of Wrath”, that starts like this “Day of wrath and doom impending. David’s word with Sibyl’s blending, Heaven and earth in ashes ending.”.

Well, no ashes in Fauré’s requiem. He simply skips the Day of Wrath, and focuses rather on In Paradisum, which I presume does’t need translation.

Overall, this really is the most peaceful (even compared to my beloved Brahms German Requiem) of all works for mourning the dead that I’m aware off.

My father passed away about a year ago, so I’ve been listening to this, as well as the Brahms, quite regularly. While I’m not at all religious, both works really give me solace.

For years I only had one version, which I still treasure today, by Michel Corboz with the Berne Symphony Orchestra. Not necessarily a reference version, but still one of my favorites.

But I wanted to write about this one instead:

Fauré: Requiem – Paavo Järvi – Orchestre de Paris (Erato 2011)

Regular readers of my blog know that I’m a fan of Paavo Järvi. He is here conducting the Orchestre de Paris, which obviously is very familiar with this work. I still often see that French orchestras have an advantage for French music, as it is so engrained in their culture.

Fauré Requiem Cantique de Jean Racine, Super Flumina Babylonis, Pavane, Elegie Philippe Jaroussky Matthias Goerne, Eric Picard, Choeur de l'Orchestre de Paris, Orchestre de Paris Paavo Järvi 24 48 Erato Warner 2011 24 48

On top of a top notch conductor and an orchestra that knows what it is doing, you also get two fantastic soloists, Philippe Jaroussky and Matthias Goerne.

Finally, this album will also give you an overview of some of the other large orchestral works of Fauré that are worth knowing, like the Cantique de Jean Racine, the Elegie for Cello, and the Pavane.

Highly recommended.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz).

Quatuor Ebène’s truly enjoyable Razumovsky quartets

Beethoven’s String Quartets

I must admit I always found the category of the string quartets one of the most intellectually challenging, but at the same time, also one of the most rewarding categories in classical music.

I, like many started out my classical journey with symphonic music, and, coming from the piano as a (lousy) amateur myself, with solo piano music.

I had an easier access to chamber works with a piano in it, e.g. trios, violin sonatas. But the string quartet really seemed to me the most daunting works to approach.

That said, there are worse works to start your exploration than Beethoven’s Rasumovsky quartets, officially known as op. 59. These are the works of a Beethoven in a great phase, contemporary of the 4th symphony and the violin concerto. These are the first string quartets of the so-called “middle-period”, after the 6 “early” quartets in op. 18. By this time, Beethoven was truly established as a respected master in Vienna, at the age of 35.

By the way, even Beethoven waited for a while until he attacked the string quartets category, with such a strong tradition being established by Haydn and Mozart.

Op. 59 No. 1 and 2 present all the skill set of an accomplished composer, so no matter how often you listen to them, there’s always something new to discover. These were sponsored by Andrey Rasumowsky, an important diplomat in Vienna at that time.

Quatuor Ebène: Beethoven Around The World – Vienna

Beethoven Around The World Vienna String Quartets 7 & 8 Quatuor Ebène Erato 2019 24 96

I’ve written about the French Quatuor Ebène before, praising their fantastic recording of Schubert’s string quintet.

I’ve even seen them live some years ago performing late Beethoven at the Tonhalle in Zürich (still in the old hall, not the current “factory” interim arrangement).

I therefore had high expectations when I read that they will release a complete cycle of Beethoven’s string quartets, taken from live recordings throughout the world, during 2020, which you know if you haven’t been hiding under a rock, is Beethoven’s 250th anniversary.

The “Vienna” in the album title refers to the recording location, so very appropriately starting in the town which was Beethoven’s home for so many years.

So what do you get, and how does it compare to my current reference cycle, by the great Takacs quartet?

Well to make it short: it is a truly great recording. Both Ebène and Takacs give you top-notch performances of both op. 59 No. 1 and 2. Ebène is occasionally a bit more on the extremes, while the Takacs are slightly more “polished”, but both are truly enjoyable performance of these masterpieces.

Really can’t wait for the rest of the tour of “Beethoven around the world”!

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)