Schumann’s underrated piano chamber music beautifully played by the Trio Wanderer

Robert Schumann

I haven’t written very many entries on Schumann yet. That is not because I don’t like this composer.

In fact, his symphonies, typically either played by Szell, Gardiner, or more recently, Nézet-Seguin (that I really need to review here), Dausgaard (that I even mentioned in my 25 Essential Classical albums), or Rattle, are in very heavy rotation on my hifi.

I listen to his piano concerto much less frequently, just because I probably overplayed it in my youth. That said, going back to Lipatti’s legendary performance every once in a while is a true pleasure. For more modern performances, it is also worth going with Leif Ove Andsnes, or if you prefer a period piano, Alexander Melnikov.

His solo piano music gets even less frequently played here, which is a pity, as there are beautiful pieces like the Davidsbündlertänze, the Etudes Symphoniques, or Kreisleriana. I really don’t know why I don’t play them more often, maybe I should just actively seek them out more.

Now, when we get to Schumann’s chamber music, I must admit I barely played it until recently. I purchased the three piano trios in a very good version with Isabelle Faust, Alexander Melnikov, and Jean-Guihen Queyras, as they were included in their excellent recordings of the concertos for piano, violin, and cello. However, I mostly focused my attention to the orchestral works, not giving the chamber works enough attention.

My interest in Schumann’s chamber music grew when I recently purchased a reference version of Brahms’ piano quintet by the Artemis Quartet with Leif Ove Andsnes (not yet reviewed here), that also included Schumann’s piano quartet (in an equally exellent performance)

So when the following album was released recently, I was immediately very interested:

Schumann: Complete Trios / Piano Quartet / Piano Quintet – Trio Wanderer (Harmonia Mundi 2021)

Robert Schumann Complete PIano Trios PIano Quartet Piano Quintet Trio Wanderer Christophe Gaugué Catherine Montier Harmonia Mundi 2021

I already own an excellent box by this French trio, that consistently records very strong performances, of the complete Beethoven trios.

I really like these performances here as well. They are more polished that the somewhat rougher performances of the trios by Melnikov/Faust/Queyras mentioned above (the period instruments clearly make a difference), but there is beauty all along.

The piano quintet performance doesn’t get the brilliance of the above mentioned Artemis recording, but there is beautiful “singing” in the melodies everywhere.

I really don’t have a good reference for the piano quartet in my collection, so as with this entire review, take my comments here with a big grain of salt, but I really like what I hear as well.

Overall, a truly enjoyable box.

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Smetana’s String Quartets No. 1 & 2 by the Pavel Haas Quartet – Excellent

Bedřich Smetana

I haven’t written much about the other famous Czech composer (that said, even Dvorak doesn’t have a post dedicated to one of his works yet on this blog, I should change that).

As a kid I listened to The Moldau (or more correctly Vltava) from his Ma Vlast patriotic cycle A LOT. It is one of those classics that nearly everybody has heard at some point. My only issue is that I’ve heard it so much that I barely touch it any more these days. I’ll probably need to rediscover the entire work more systematically (and I have two Kubelik recordings in my library, with Boston and the Czech Philhamonic orchestra to do so).

That said, I have only a small number of Smetana recordings in my library overall, so I may not be the most qualified reviewers of his work. For the string quartets I’m going to write about I only have one other recording, by the Stamitz Quartet. So keep this in mind when you read my comments below.

Smetana: String Quartet No. 1 & 2 – Pavel Haas Quartet (Supraphon 2015)

Smetana String Quartet No. 1 & 2 - Pavel Haas Quartet Supraphon 2015
Pavel Has

The two string quartets are quite different in nature. One is what you’d expect from a late romantic composer of Bohemia, a lot of flowing melodies and a lot of well, “romanticism” (however you want to define that).

The 2nd string quartet is much less accessible, it was written in the very last years of the composer as he was already deaf. Yes, an eery parallel to Beethoven’s late string quartets, right? In any case both are very much worth discovering.

I’ve praised the Pavel Haas Quartet many times, for their Schubert (here and here), which even made it into my list of the 25 Essential Classical Albums.

I had even previously mentioned this particular album, as it had received the Gramophone Award for Chamber in 2015.

Why did I decide to write about this album again then? I must admit over the time (the original review was published in 2015) this album really grew on me, particularly the less accessible no. 2. I by now truly love particularly the Largo Sostenuto. Over the years I’ve listened to a lot of string quartets, making it by now one of my favourite genres of classical music. So naturally, tastes evolve (which really is a good thing. Stay curious!). I encourage you to do the same, regularly try to rediscover things you may already have in your library, or go a bit beyond your comfort zone in the streaming service of your choice!

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

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)

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)

My Reflections On the Classica Magazine “Chocs de l’année 2019” – part II

This is the continuation of a blog post started last weekend.

Marc-Antoine Charpentier – Histoires sacrées – Christophe Daucé – Ensemble Correspondances – Harmonia Mundi 2019

Yet another French composer that I know very little about. If like me you’ve grown up in Central Europe and have been watching television, you typically know Charpentier as the composer of the Eurovision theme, the fanfare that was played when several European countries decided to do a joint production.

This theme is actually the prelude to his Te Deum.

Beyond this, again giving away my ignorance, I barely knew anything about him. He occasionally pops up on some French baroque compilation I own, but in my entire library which really isn’t that small, I have a total of 2 albums featuring this composer.

Marc-Antoine Charpentier Histoires Sacrées Ensemble Correspondances Sébastien Daucé Harmonia Mundi 2019 24 96

Listening to this album as part of writing this blog post made it clear to me that I really missed something here. I have zero benchmark to compare the version to obviously, but Sebastien Daucé’s Ensemble Correspondances plays truly engaging early baroque vocal music, beautifully sung and played. It immediately reminded me of Monteverdi, which turns out isn’t misleading. Monteverdi’s operas clearly influenced the Versailles court and Charpentier’s composing.

Really worth checking out. No formal rating given my ignorance of the composer, but informally this is 4 stars upwards.

Antonio Vivaldi: Il Giustino – Ottavio Dantone (Naïve 2019)

Vivaldi Il Giustino Ottavio Dantone Accademia Bizantina Naive 2019 24 96 Galou Barath Gang Cangemi

Only two things to say here from my side: Dantone’s Vivaldi playing is truly fantastic, but unfortunately I can stand Vivaldi’s operas in doses of 10 min max.

So don’t expect a formal review here. But if you like Vivaldi, this is a no brainer.

Bach: 6 Partitas – Robert Levin (2019

J.S. Bach: Six partitas BWV 825-830 Robert Levin 2019

I was already confused when I saw the original review of this in Classica some months ago. I tried it again, and I just don’t get it: the interpretation is so bland and boring to my ears, I really don’t understand what Classica likes about this.

I prefer Igor Levit or Perahia any time.

Camille Pépin – Chamber Music (NoMad 2019)

Camille Pépin Chamber Music Ensemble Polygones (Nomad 2019)

I had already checked this out when I read the original review. A contemporary composer (born 1990), and female, which unfortunately is still a rarity, I was intrigued.

No formal review here, I still struggle with contemporary music, but this is not atonal, and actually quite rhythmic, so I encourage you to check this out, especially if you like e.g. the ECM New Series style.

Weinberg: Symphony No. 2 and 21 – Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla – City of Birmingham Symphony – Gidon Kremer (DG 2019)

A 20th century composer, with a young female conductor (also here we have way to few), and Gidon Kremer to top it all off, again I was interested. This album actually got huge praise by both Gramophone and Classica, and these two magazines don’t often overlap.

Mirga Grazinyte Tyla Gidon Kremer Weinberg Symphonies No. 2 & 21 City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Kremerata Baltica Deutsche Grammophon 2019

I checked this out several times, initially liking the tonal passages, then the music drifts into chordal progressions that just leave me confused. Which typically makes me give up to quickly. Now that I’m getting more and more (with baby steps) into Shostakovich, I may start to appreciate it more. I’ll certainly come back to this and so should you.

And keep an eye on Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla. This young Lithuanian conductor is a great talent worth watching.

Classica also recommends another Weinberg album by Gidon Kremer, also on DG; focusing on his chamber music.

Saint-Saëns: Piano Concertos 3-5 – Kantorow (x2) – Tapiola Sinfonietta (BIS 2019)

Saint Saens: Piano Concertos 3 4 5 Alexandre Kantorow Tapiola Sinfonietta BIS 2019

Sure, Classica likes French composers. Fair enough for a French classical music magazine. But actually, for Camille Saint-Saëns I truly share their enthousiasm. I must again admit my ignorance, but 2019 has been my year of discovery of his piano concertos. After the fantastic recording with Bertrand Chamayou which won a well deserved Gramophone Award, comes another outstanding recording, by French pianist Alexandre Kantorow, playing here with his father, Jean-Jacques at the baton. Kantorow is a fantastic pianist (see my review of his recent Russian album here, which also made it into my top classical albums of 2017). In short, a five star album that you should really own!

Mozart: Libertà – Raphaël Pichon

Liberta Mozart Et L'opera Raphael Pichon Pygmalion 24 96 Harmonia Mundi 2019

I’ve already shared my passion for this fantastic album in my review here. A must have.

Brahms: Clarinet Sonatas & Trio – Moraguès – Braley – Poltera (Indésens 2018)

Brahms: Clarinet Sonatas & Trio Moraguès Braley Poltéra Indesens 2019

Brahms’ chamber music for clarinet is still a part of his oeuvre that I find among the least accessible. I’ve so far only reviewed the recording of the sonatas with Lorenzo Coppola and Andreas Staier, but have never written about the clarinet trio.

This excellent album is a good occasion to change the latter, you get very nuanced and delicate playing that really helps exploring these beautiful and intimate works. Give them a try!

So, any feedback from your side? What do you think about this selection?

You can find the albums I mention above here (or in the original review):

Daucé – Charpentier

Dantone – Vivaldi

Levin – Bach

Pepin – Chamber music

Grazinyte-Tyla – Weinberg

Kantorow – Saint Saëns

Moraguès – Brahms

2019 Gramophone Awards – And The Winners Are…

Gramophone has just revealed the 2019 award winners here. Let’s have a look at how my predictions turned out.

Concerto

Saint Saens Concertos 2& 5 solo piano works Bertrand Chamayou Orchestre National de France Emmanuel Krivine Erato 2019 24 96

Chamayou’s recording deserves the price. (As I predicted in my post, though my personal favourite would have been Isabelle Faust Bach album which I love).

Orchestral

Rued Langgaard Symphonies 2 & 6 Vienna Philharmonic Sakari Oramo Anu Komst Dacapo 2019

Gramophone went with the Langgaard recording, while my personal preference would have been for the Sibelius, I predicted again that this album would win (sorry for all the bragging). And it is a really interesting discovery. Not sure it will make my personal top 5 for 2019 though.

Chamber

Debussy Les trois sonates The Late Works - Isabelle Faust Alexander Melnikov, Jean-Guihen Queyras, Javier Perianes, Xavier de Maistre, Antoine Tamestit, Magali Mosnier, Tanguy de Williencourt Harmonia Mundi

So Isabelle Faust did win another award after all, just in a different category. I agree this album is very good. Here my prediction was completely off (can’t win all the time…)

Instrumental

Yuya Wang The Berlin Recital Encores Deutsche Grammophon 2019 24 96

And yes, 3/4 predictions correct! (last time bragging, promised!). In any case, Gramophone was spot on when they said (much better than I could ever have, there’s clearly an advantage to being a native speaker…) “Anyone hitherto more put off than drawn in by Yuja Wang’s glamorous image may have to do some rethinking in the light of this recital.”

So, with such a success rate, Grammophone, do you have a job for me? (Just kidding, I’m happily employed in a completely unrelated industry).

Take home for you as a reader: get the Wang & get the Chamayou. And sure, also get the Debussy while you’re at it. You won’t regret any of these purchases, I promise.

And if you disagree, just let me know in the comments (I don’t offer any money back guarantee though, that’s why we have streaming in 2019…).

My reflections on the 2019 Gramophone Awards Part III – Chamber

Chamber is a particularly rewarding catogory for the Gramophone awards this year, at least from my perspective. Out of the 6 initially shortlisted (now narrowed to 3, see below), I fully support and like 5. Nice quota.

So let’s take them one by one:

Britten’s string quartets played by the Doric quartet is the only album I’m not going to comment about. I like the Doric as an excellent quartet, but Britten is a composer I just don’t get. Probably again, mainly due to my general issue with 20th century music.

Britten Purcell String Fantasias in four parts String quartets no 1 - 3 Doric String Quartet Chandos

Another 20th century album that I had completely missed comes from Debussy (a lot of Debussy recordings due to the 100 years of his death in 1918). We’re talking about an album called in a nice international mixture Les Trois SonatesLate Works. Not sure how I missed this as it features my heroine, Isabelle Faust. I’ve only started streaming it over the last few days but really like it. Also look at the list of musicians, Queyras, Melnikov, Perianes. Wow! Expect a more detailed review, but in any case, this is really promising!

Debussy Les trois sonates The Late Works - Isabelle Faust Alexander Melnikov, Jean-Guihen Queyras, Javier Perianes, Xavier de Maistre, Antoine Tamestit, Magali Mosnier, Tanguy de Williencourt Harmonia Mundi

Next on the list is another favourite of mine, Christian Tetzlaff and his sister Tanja and Lars Vogt on piano playing the piano trios no. 3 & 4 by Antonin Dvorak.

This trio is truly fantastic, having recorded some outstanding Brahms albums previously, and from the first bars of this album it is very clear this new release is also very special. Dvorak isn’t part of my most core repertoire, but this album could easily make it into heavy rotation on my computer.

Antonin Dvorak Piano Trios No. 3 & 4 Dumky Christian Tetzlaff Tanja Tetzlaff, Lars Vogt Ondine 2019

I have a special relationship to the next album as well, given that I’ve seen the artists perform it live in concert. Alina Ibragimova and Cédric Tiberghien, two fantastic artists on their own, but even more special as a perfect duo. The composers on this album, Franck, Vierene, Boulanger and Ysaÿe are less known, but the music is very much worth discovering. The two of them have also recently recorded the Brahms sonatas, and I’ll probably have to get my credit card out soon.

Vierne Franck Ysaye Violin Sonatas Alina Ibragimova Cedric Tiberghien Hyperion 24 96 2019

“Papa Haydn” really isn’t my favourite composer. That said, his symphonies are being freshly recorded by Giovanni Antonini (see here), his string quartets are fantastic, and his trios are also really worth exploring.

The French Trio Wanderer has recorded some very good albums before, check out their complete Beethoven trios for example. What is there to say, beautiful playing, charming music, a treat!

Joseph Haydn Piano trios Trio Wanderer 24 96 2019 Harmonia Mundi

And, to wrap up the list of the 6 shortlisted albums, Shostakovich.

I must admit I’m still new to most of Shostakovich’s oeuvre, and finding my way through the very special world of this composer. But I’ve recently acquired the piano quintet which is really worth discovering. I bought the version by the Takacs Quartet with Marc-André Hamelin on Hyperion, but the album selected here was truly the best alternative and I probably will add it to my collection soon.

We’re talking about the Belcea quartet, with Piotr Anderszewski. You also get String Quartet no. 3.

Shostakovich String Quartet No. 3 Piano Quintet Belcea Quartet Piotr Anderszewski Alpha 2019 24 96

So, out of the 6 albums above, which ones made the shortlist of the shortlist? Let’s make it short (sorry for the bad pun): the Britten, Debussy, and the Franck. Given Gramophones slightly patriotic tendencies, I’m willing to bet that the Britten album will win, but I’d prefer Faust or Ibragimova to get the price. We’ll know more soon.

Overall, a very strong selection this year, or what do you think?