Schumann’s Cello Concerto by Jean-Guihen Queyras – A Review

A Trilogy

This is now the third and presumably album of an exciting series by three outstanding musicians.

The German violinist Isabelle Faust (yes, I’m a big fan, see here or here), the Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov, and the French cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras are all great musicians individually, but get even better when they play together.

An excellent example is their recording of some Beethoven Trios on Harmonia Mundi some years ago, and Faust’s and Melnikov’s collaboration on Beethoven’s and Brahms’ violin sonatas are among my absolute favorites (the latter made it as part of my top 5 classical albums in 2015).

In this particular project, the three have decided to attack Schumann, and to couple one of his 3 piano trios with one of his orchestral solo works, playing with the Freiburger Barockorchester under Pablo Heras-Casado, on Harmonia Mundi.

Faust started, coupling his piano trio with his relatively unknown violin concerto back in early 2015. I really like this album.

Some month later Melnikov got his chance to play the famous piano concerto (see my 4 star review here) with piano trio no. 2.

So here we are at release no. 3, focusing obviously on the Cello concerto, and the remaining trio no. 1.

Schumann: Cello Concerto and Piano Trio No. 1 – Jean Guihen Queyras – Pablo Heras-Casado – Freiburger Barockorchester (Harmonia Mundi 2016)

Schumann: Cello Concerto / Piano Trio No. 1 Jean-Guihen Queyras Alexander Melnikov Isabelle Faust Pablo Heras-Casado Freiburger Barockorchester 2016 Harmonia Mundi

I expected quite a lot from this album, given that I really liked the two predecessors. However, on the Cello concerto I’m not exactly getting what I expected.

Schumann to me is one of the highest points of romanticism. I really like the energy, passion, and drama in his orchestral works. However, both Queyras and Heras-Casado chose a more subdued approach here, and I unfortunately constantly feel I’m missing something.

To explain what I mean, let me refer to my two personal reference versions for this concerto, by the legendary Jacqueline du Pré (playing with Daniel Barenboim), and even more, Janos Starker with Antal Dorati and the London Symphony. Do you hear the passion,  the power?

Here is a Youtube example of du Pré:

Maybe I just need to listen to the Queyras version more to get used to it, but so far it just doesn’t pull me in enough.

Obviously, we are talking about an excellent soloist (I really like his Bach Cello Suites for example) with a great orchestra, so fundamentally this remains a good recording, it is just not my cup of tea.

However, going back to the chamber music, all is well. These three trios, spread over 3 albums, will remain my reference version of these works for a foreseeable future.

My rating: 4 stars, averaging 3 stars for the Cello Concerto and 5 stars for the trio.

You can find it here (Qobuz) or here (Prostudiomasters)

Sol Gabetta, Leonard Slatkin, and the LA Philharmonic play Martinu and Berlioz – May 15, 2016

Disney Concert Hall

I’m a big Frank Gehry fan. Some critics say all of his buildings look a bit the same, and they may have a point. But honestly, given how great they look, I don’t mind a bit.

After having been to the Guggenheim Bilbao, and having stayed at the Gehry-designed Hotel Marques de Riscal in Rioja, a concert at the Walt Disney Concert Hall was long overdue.

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Although I’m in LA on a regular basis, I never had the time to actually go see a concert there. So I was very happy when things turned out different this time.

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Sol Gabetta

I just happened to be here during the annual Piatigorsky Cello festival, and saw the chance of seeing Sol Gabetta live. I had already seen her live in the past and was impressed by her passion. She is born in Argentina, but lives in Switzerland now.

The first time I heard about her was with her album Progetto Vivaldi back in 20o7, where she plays among others parts of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Note that these concertos are originally violin concertos, and she just effortlessly plays the violin part on a cello! Impressive.

With Leonard Slatkin and the LA Philharmonic

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I wasn’t too disappointed that Gustavo Dudamel wasn’t at the baton, as I’m really not a big fan of him. I had a more neutral opinion of Leonard Slatkin, and he really seems to be a nice guy, based on a long interview I recently heard with him, and the pre-concert talk he did at the Disney Hall (including a “conducting for beginners” improvisation).

The concert started off with Rossini’s William Tell overture. I must admit I’m not crazy about Rossini in general, but the overture really does the trick, and the part of the music that hasn’t been massacred for The Lone Ranger et al. is actually quite pleasant.

Bohuslav Martinu’s Cello Concerto

I’ve said it previously, I’m not too much into 20th century music. I occasionally like the impressionists like Debussy and Ravel, but beyond that I rarely enjoy stuff.

Three exceptions to the rule all come from Eastern Europe, Bartok, Janacek, and Martinu. I really like some of ;Martinu’s chamber music. But I must admit I hadn’t heard his cello concerto yet prior to this concert.

It is actually a nice experience discovering a new work for the first time in concert and not on record. It is a much more vivid experience. And in this case a very rewarding one. The concerto is just beautiful. Especially the second movement is really memorable. You wonder why this concerto isn’t played more often.

And Gabetta played great as expected, with passion and visibly having fun. We even got an encore from her, a solo piece by Peterisk Vasks. Trick question: how many voices can you get playing a solo cello? Regularly usually up to two if you play the strings in parallel. But here we got a third melody: her voice! A magical moment.

Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique

This is really about the only major work I know and love from Berlioz. The story is just fascinating. I’m still looking for my perfect interpretation on record, but “grew up” with the early 1990s recording of Roger Norrington with the London Classical Players, so early-HIP.

The LA Phil under Slatkin sounded anything but HIP, actually in many moments I was reminded of Wagner, but it was a great concert nevertheless. Slatkin went through a lot of efforts in storytelling, including putting one of the two “sheperds” from the pastoral scene on the balcony, or hiding the drums and “church bells” behind the orchestra.

Overall, a really great experience, in a beautiful hall, with great acoustics. The only downside of the great acoustics is that you hear every little noise the audience makes, and they were making a lot of it. I’ve rarely heard so many coughs, and this in spite of this concert being recorded for release.

In any case, I’m looking forward to buying this album eventually!

You can find the Progetto Vivaldi album here (Qobuz)

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My Reflections on the 2015 Gramophone Award Nominees – Part II – Concerto

After my comments on the “Instrumental” category of the Gramophone Awards last Saturday here, let me highlight some more gems in the Concerto category.

Nominated are:

The Beethoven Journey – Leif Ove Andsnes with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra playing Beethoven’s piano concertos 2 & 4

The Beethoven Journey - Beethoven Piano Concertos 2 & 4 - Leif Ove Andsnes - Mahler Chamber Orchestra

Beethoven again, piano concertos 3 & 4 by Maria Joao Pires with Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra

Beethoven Piano Concertos 3 & 4 - Maria Joao Pires - Daniel Harding - Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra

Britten / MacMIllan / Vaughan Williams played by the Britten Sinfonia (not heard)

Bruch & Prokofiev’s Violin Concertos by Guro Kleven Hagen with the Oslo Phlharmonic and Bjarte Engeset

Bruch Prokofiev Violin Concertos Guro Kleven Hagen Oslo Philharmonic Bjaerte Engeset

Dvorak’s Cello Concerto by Alisa Weilerstein with Jiri Belohlavek and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra

Alisa Weilerstein Jiri Belohlavek Dvorak Cello Concerto Decca Classics

Mozarts Violin Concertos 3 – 5, Arabella Steinbacher, Daniel Dodds, Festival Strings Lucerne

Mozart Violin Concertos 3, 4, 5 - Arabella Steinbacher - Festival Strings Lucerne - Daniel Dodds

As said above, I haven’t heard the Britten album (and actually don’t care much about Britten in the first place, so wouldn’t be in a good place to talk about the album.

Two other albums I only gave a quick spin, so I’m not going to rate them, which are the Mozart concertos by Arabella Steinbacher, and the Prokofiev/Bruch combo by the young Norvegian violin player Guro Kleven Hagen, that I hadn’t heard of before. My admittedly superficial impression on both were solid performances, nothing wrong with them, but also nothing that would motivate me to go back. One argument in favor of the Arabella Steinbacher is that it is recorded on Pentatone, that usually has an outstanding recording quality, so if you have a good Hifi, you may want to check it out.

The three albums I have heard in more detail are the two Beethovens and the Dvorak.

Let me start with Maria Joao Pires first. I’m very happy to report that after my rather lukewarm review of her Schumann concerto with Gardiner, in this recording I can reconfirm that I’m a fan. Very delicate, nuanced playing. I’ve already praised Daniel Harding in his recording of the Brahms Violin Concerto, and also the Orchestral part is doing a fine job here.

My rating: 4 stars

However, to my ears, with Leif Ove Andsnes it gets even better. I’ve already declared how much I like his Grieg, and here on Beethoven with the excellent Mahler Chamber Orchestra which Andsnes conducts from the piano, the result is just really really nice. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing this combo play concertos 2-4 live late last year, and the recording fully  captures the energy and passion by both soloist and orchestra. No. 4 is anyhow my preferred Beethoven concerto, and this is definitely one of the best versions I have. However, to my ears, they are even better on piano concerto no. 2 (side note: wrongly numbered, this should have been his no. 1 chronologically), which really benefits from the lighter sound of the Mahler Chamber.

My rating: 5 stars

But who is my predicted category winner? Well, by exclusion you could have guessed it: Alisa Weilerstein’s Dvorak. We recently already got an excellent reading of this concerto with Stephen Isserlis on Hyperion, and obviously there are a lot of outstanding historic recordings (Starker, Du Pré, etc.), this version just gets what is the essential for me in this concerto (my favorite piece by Dvorak by the way): the romantic passion. (Side note: When Brahms, who mentored Dvorak for a while, read the score, he’s quoted: “If I had known that it was possible to compose such a concerto for the cello, I would have tried it myself!” If only he had…). This recording is pure emotion. I suppose having a Czech orchestra playing music by their most famous local composer helps. There are some minor technical glitches here and there, but they don’t really matter, you don’t even notice.

My rating: 5 stars

So, what do you think? What are your predictions?