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
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.
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”!
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.
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)
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
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 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.
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.
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!
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):
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).
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.
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…).
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.
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 LesTrois Sonates – Late 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!
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.
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.
“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!
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.
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?
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!
Why streaming is a good thing – at least for the consumers
It´s amazing how our listening habits have changed in so little time since streaming arrived. I was personally late to the game, only started less than two years ago (about the time when I started this blog).
In the not so “old days”, one had to go to a record store and listen to new music there. That was an adventure on its own, and if you had a good CD (or vinyl) dealer, you even got some great advice.
Well, we can safely assume that CD stores will mostly go the way of video rental stores, with few exceptions. You may like this trend or not, but for me, streaming has opened up new worlds.
You basically get every single new album, the day it is out, directly onto your computer, in CD quality or even better. And this for a relatively modest fee, about the price of 1-2 CDs. I’ve discovered so much new music like this, stuff that I wouldn’t otherwise have explored.
So from a customer perspective there is a real gain. From a musician perspective, things are obviously different, as musicians only make very little money from streaming if you’re not Beyonce. I assume for this reason, many smaller labels, like ECM, Chandos, or Hyperion didn’t allow streaming until now.
It looks like things are changing again, as labels do realize that streaming may be a tricky business model, but if you’re not on it, you’re out of mind for too many music lovers. ECM came first recently, Chandos just started, and I hope Hyperion will follow.
It is just that especially for classical music there is no decent way to sample music before you buy now that CD stores are gone, and the 30 seconds snippets from Amazon may work for Bruno Mars, but not for a 50 minute classical piece.
Which lead to me often ignoring recordings, like this particular one. I’ve mentioned it previously in my post about the 2017 Gramophone award nominations. To quote myself “I have only heard it once on the radio (again, also Chandos doesn´t stream), and liked it, but wasn´t blown away. Not interesting enough for me to spend money blindly on it“. There you go. I’ve simply ignored a truly great recording just because of their lack of streaming.
But please, fellow music lovers, remember, no musician can live off streaming only. So, please, if you like something, buy the album, or go to their concert. We want these great musicians to be able to live off what they are doing!
No. 15 is the last one, and to me pretty much on par with the two others as well as the outstanding String Quintet (see here and here for my favorite versions).
No. 15 is a true masterpiece, and longer than most of Schubert´s symphonies. My initial versions of this were the great Alban Berg Quartet and the Quartetto Italiano.
The Doric String Quartet is a young UK-based quartet, with Alex Redington and Jonathan Stone on violin, Hélène Clément viola, and John Myerscough on cello. The quartet has won a number of prices and awards yet, including several high praises by Gramophone.
And as already mentioned above, my superficial listening on the radio simply wasn’t enough to make up my mind. The playing is truly excellent, showing all the passion that late Schubert requires, but at the same time the attention to detail that shows all the little nuances that Schubert is so good at hiding in the music. This is truly breathtaking.
Did I mention you also get the Quartettsatz, a one movement quartet from Schubert? We won’t say no to this!
My rating: 5 stars
As mentioned previously, Gramophone agrees, this was and Editor´s Choice, and shortlisted for the 2017 Gramophone Awards. Germany´s Fono Forum also gives 5 stars.
You can find it here (Qobuz, who at the time of writing has a special offer on all Chandos), and here (Chandos own online store)
As most of you, I have made a couple of New Years resolutions. Among them was, not suprisingly, exercise more and eat healthier. Well, 7 days in and, while improving, I’m far from where I want to be (although slightly better than last year).
Another resolution was to go to more concerts. There are so many fantastic concerts out there, and I have the privilege of often being in places that offer excellent musical performances on a regular basis. Berlin is a case in point, where I happened to be quite a bit recently.
So, I guess starting with my first concert on January 6 is a good starting point for the last resolution. Let’s see how I continue from here.
A lot of firsts
This concert was a lot of “firsts” for me. First concert of the year, first time I’m listening to a concert performance of any of the three composers on the program (more about that later), first time I see Alina Igrabimova and Cedric Tiberghien in concert, first time the two are actually mentioned on this blog (beyond a small side note in passing), and first time a Berlin´s new Pierre Boulez Saal.
Pierre Boulez Saal
The Pierre Boulez Saal is the latest of the classical music venues in Berlin. It was built as part of the Barenboim-Said academy. It formally opened in March of 2017. It was planned by architecture legend Frank Gehry as a Salle Modulable, i.e. with a lot of flexibility.
Entering the building, I really like the architecture of the overall hallway, with a nice mix of traditional and modern elements over the several floors.
However, entering the Boulez Saal itself, I was a bit underwhelmed. Being a big Frank Gehry fan, I kind of expected more. It kind of reminds me of a smaller Roman amphitheater, just more wood, less stone.
And honestly, who designed the patterns covering the seats? This weird mix of blue and red reminds me of some of the public transport seats in Europe that use complex patterns to deter graffiti. I don’t expect the typically 50+ classical music audience to be big into graffiti, so no idea what went on here.
But well, I shouldn’t be too negative, the acoustics were quite nice, you have excellent visibility from pretty much all seats, and to really honor the concept of a roundish concert hall, the piano was turned during the break having the artists face the other way in the second half of the concert.
Anyhow, there is quite an intriguing concept behind the hall, and it is hard to take pictures in there (and unfortunately forbidden during the concert, so no pictures from the artists here…), therefore I suggest you check out this video:
Alina Ibragimova and Cedric Tiberghien
Two young, brilliant artists that I’ve never mentioned on my blog in 2+ years. How come? I actually like both.
The reason is more or less technical. Both mainly record for Hyperion, and Hyperion doesn’t allow streaming. As mosts of my initial reviews are typically based on streaming (I like to sample before I buy), I haven’t really formally reviewed any of their recordings yet. However, the samples I was able to listen to were, plus the raving reviews everywhere, really made me curious.
32 year old Ibragimova has some highly praised albums, including her Bach solo sonatas, Ysaye´s solo sonatas, the Beethoven and Mozart sonatas with Tiberghien, and a really enjoyable recording of the Bach violin concertos. Tiberghien is not only her regular duo partner, but has also done some very nice solo recordings that are worth checking out.
So I was very enthusiastic to be able to see both of them live.
Ibragimova and Tiberghien At Boulez Saal playing Ysaye, Vierne, and Franck – January 6, 2018
And actually, to be fair, the first one isn’t even French but Belgian, Eugene Ysaye. I had heard about him, but never the Poème élégiaque that started the performance. As rare as it is for me, it is actually very refreshing hearing a piece of classical music performed for the very first time. You have a much more open reception.
And I was blown away. This relatively short piece was inspired by Shakespeare´s Romeo and Juliet, and you could certainly hear all the passion of this inspiration in there. Ibragimova played with a wonderful intensity, and Tiberghien was the perfect partner, never overshadowing, which the powerful sound of a Steinway can easily do.
Next came a composer I literally had to google. Louis Vierne. You may say Louis who? Turns out he’s relatively well known in France, but his reputation beyond the French borders is still very low. So I had no idea what to expect.
A violin sonata from a composer mainly known as an organist? Again, I was very positively surprised. My personal highlight was the second movement, Andante. I was literally mesmerized by the beauty of it. Isn’t it enjoyable that there is still so much beautiful music to be discovered?
After the break, we got my personal highlight of the evening, César Frank´s A-Major sonata. This piece I was much more familiar with, both from historic recordings with Heifetz, and from Isabelle Faust´s recent album on Franck and Chausson.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a Faust fanboy. But what Ibragimova and Tiberghien did last night was even significantly better than Faust´s excellent recorded performance. Given that this was a live event, the performers took quite some liberties on timing, but only to the benefit of this music. The audience, like me, was extremely enthusiastic.
As an encore, we got a beautiful work of one of Vierne´s pupils, Lili Boulanger, the less-well known sister of Nadia Boulanger, who unfortunately passed away at the young age of 24. The Nocturne was again of outstanding beauty.
Overall, an evening of extreme emotional intensity and passion