Category Archives: Opera

Operas from Gluck to early 20th century

Musicophile’s 25 Essential Classical Music Albums – Part II

Continued from part I here.

Anton Bruckner: Sinfonie Nr. 4 – Günter Wand – Berliner Philharmoniker

The 4th Big B as some call him, Bruckner had to be on my list.

The album I’m recommending nicely enough is a collection of all his relevant symphonies, but I’d really like to focus on Symphony no. 4, my first love, and still my preferred Bruckner symphony.

Günter Wand Anton Bruckner Symphonies Berliner Philharmoniker RCA Red Seal

I’ve written about it previously, and am not going to repeat the entire blog post. As I mentioned there, I’m not listening to Bruckner that much any more, my taste has moved on from the romantic period to much more Mozart and especially Bach, but my Essential Album list couldn’t be complete without Symphony No. 4. Even if I listen to it only a couple of times per year, the broad symphonic sound will always remain close to my heart.

There is especially one part in the first movement, that really give me goose bumps (for 10 other tracks doing the same, check out this blog post), it is a little part that connects two larger sections of the movement, and on the Wand album mentioned here, from 9:48 to 11:02, and has a beauty from out of this world.

 

Chopin: Nocturnes – Moravec

Finally moving away from the letter B, my first Chopin album. Chopin to me is one of the absolute masters of the piano to me. You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned any Beethoven piano sonata, as much as I love them, Chopin is still closer to my heart.

And if you only have to have one Chopin album, it should be Moravec’s legendary Nocturnes. Already, to me the Nocturnes are quintessential Chopin, and nobody plays them better than Ivan Moravec.

Ivan Moravec Chopin Nocturnes

See my full review here.

Not surprisingly, Moravec also shows up in my Top 10 Classical Pianists.

 

Chopin: Preludes – Blechacz

Another Chopin album, another pianist I already featured in my Top 10 pianists. At least you cannot call me inconsistent.

Chopin Complete The Preludes Rafal Blechacz Deutsche Grammophon

See my review here

Obviously, there are many other pieces you could get from Chopin, the Etudes (Pollini), the piano concertos, Benjamin Grosvenor’s beautiful albums, etc. etc.

But really, the Nocturnes and Preludes should be in everybody’s music library.

 

Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto – Janine Jansen

Skipping quite a lot of letters of the alphabet, and with this really good composers like Berlioz, Debussy, Dvořák, Fauré, Händel, Haydn (although I was close in adding his Cello concertos), Grieg, Mahler, all of which have composed great music and that I’ll write or have written about. But none of these composers have made it on my, again, extremely subjective list of “essential”, i.e. something I really wouldn’t want to live without. I know, we can discuss this endlessly, but I had to make a choice, and here we go.

So finally an album and piece that I haven’t written about yet.

You could argue, of the great violin concertos, why do I chose Brahms and Mendelssohn, and not Beethoven or Tchaikovsky (or, to a lesser extent, Bruch)? Well, again for the same subjective reasons as above, both really touch me the most.

Janine Jansen Riccardo Chailly Gewandhausorchester Mendelssohn Bruch Violin Concertos Decca

I’ve previously praised Janine Jansen’s recent Brahms recording, and am also quite a fan of what Riccardo Chailly has done with the Gewandhaus, be it his complete Brahms symphonies, or the piano concertos with Nelson Freire.

On this excellent album, on top of Mendelssohn’s masterpiece, you also get an outstanding version of Bruch, so this really is another must have.

Other music from Mendelssohn I can highly recommend includes his Songs Without Words, and his symphonies no. 3 and 4.

 

Mozart: Cosi Fan Tutte – Nézet-Séguin

Moving on to Mozart. And getting into dangerous territory. My favorite pieces of all times are his great DaPonte operas, most of all Cosi, closely followed by Figaro.

Nezet-Seguin Mozart Cosi Fan Tutte Chamber Orchestra of Europe Deutsche Grammophon

However, as mentioned in my review of this album, I still don’t consider myself an opera expert. So take my recommendations with a grain of salt, and I’d particularly appreciate any feedback from any opera lovers about their favorite versions.

That said, this 2013 live recording is great, much better than the more recent, slightly disappointing Figaro.

 

Le Nozze Di Figaro – René Jacobs

Even more difficult territory here, as René Jacobs operas are usually love/hate affairs, i.e. you either love them or hate them.

I personally usually find them really interesting and insightful.

Mozart: Le Nozze Di Figaro René Jacobs Concerto Köln Harmonia Mundi

I also have about 10 other versions, including the classics from Böhm, Muti, Erich Kleiber, but keep returning to this version, as well as the first I ever owned, by James Levine.

 

Mozart: C-minor Mass – Masaaki Suzuki

Mozart: Great Mass in C-Minor Exsultate Jubilate Masaaki Suzuki Bach Collegium Japan BIS 2016 24/96

I’ve written twice previously about Mozart’s choral masterpiece, one of the most amazing works of music ever written. And I must admit that Masaaki Suzuki’s recent version really made something very special.

Read my full review here.

You’ll find more great Mozart in my blog post about My Must-Have Mozart albums.

 

Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 3 – Leif Ove Andsnes

Again, jumping a couple of letters ahead, skipping Liszt (although his b-minor sonata was close to making the list), Monteverdi, Mussorgsky, and Prokofiev), directly to Rachmaninov.

And for Rachmaninov, as much as I like quite a bit of his solo piano work, the true essentials are his piano concertos no. 2, and even more so, no. 3

Rachmaninov Complete Piano Concertos Leif Ove Andsnes London Symphony Orchestra Berliner Philharmoniker Antonio Pappano Warner Classics

I’ve previously mentioned this album in my post about My Top 10 pianists.

Obviously, there are many other legendary performances of the Rach’s, including Horowitz, and Van Cliburn, but Andsnes and Pappano really stand out.

 

Schubert: The Late Piano Sonatas – Uchida

Moving one letter ahead again, to S.

Mitsuko Uchida plays Schubert

Schubert’s “late” (all relative, given that he passed away at the age of 31) piano sonatas, D958-960, are absolute masterpieces again. It is not easy to pick my favorite.

Luckily, quite recently I did a systematic comparison of D959, where Uchida, Perahia, and Brendel came out on top.

I’m here rather arbitrarely recommending Uchida, given that her rather exhaustive Schubert box contains 8 CDs for a really low price, you may as well get this directly. You won’t regret it.

 

Schubert: Winterreise – Prégardien – Staier

Schubert: Die Winterreise - Christoph Prégardien - Andreas Staier Warner Classics

A Schubert Lied just had to be in the list, and Winterreise really is such a gem.

As written here, I really like Christoph Prégardien with Andreas Staier, but this is one where one could easily collect 20 and more versions and still discover something new.

 

Schubert: String Quintet – Pavel Haas Quintet

Pavel Haas Quartet String Quintet Schubert Death and the Maiden Supraphon

As you can see, I really like Schubert. He get’s 3 entries, and I could easily have given him four or five. Luckily, on this album you get two of my favorites, the amazing quintet, and the nearly as outstandingly beautiful Death and the Maiden Quartet.

You’ll find my initial review here. I could have easily recommended the more recent version by the Quatuor Ebène as well, I just find the coupling more attractive of the Pavel Haas.

 

Schumann: Symphony No. 3 – Daussgard – Swedish Chamber Orchestra

 

Schubert: Symphony No. 3 and 4 - Thomas Dausgaard - Swedish Chamber Orchestra - BIS

And last but not least, Schumann.

Given that this is the last entry, you’ll notice the absence of Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky (although you’ll find I’ve reviewed quite a bit of Tchaikovsky on my blog), Ravel, Telemann, Sibelius (although his violin concerto was close to making the list), or Vivaldi.

And for Schumann, I didn’t chose his piano concerto, nor his solo piano music, but his symphony no. 3, the “Rhenish”. Moreover, I’m recommending an atypical version, by Thomas Dausgaard with the Swedish Chamber orchestra. Why? Well, it has often been written that Schumann didn’t know how to orchestrate properly, the balance was supposedly off.

Well, actually, if you listen to it played by a smaller chamber orchestra, like here, or on Nézet-Séguin’s recent recording with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, another excellent version, you get a totally different picture. Well, obviously the classic recordings of Klemperer, Szell or Sawallisch also have their charm. But for me, a smaller ensemble is what works best.

 

Again, I very much appreciate any feedback!

Thanks again for all of you who already commented on part I, I can assure you, your feedback is always very welcome. Agree, or even better, disagree, and tell me why!

All albums mentioned here are five stars on my personal rating scale.

 

 

You can find the albums here:

Bruckner / Wand: here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)

Chopin / Moravec:  here (Prestoclassical)

Chopin / Blechacz: here (Prestoclassical)

Mendelssohn / Janssen: here (Qobuz)

Mozart Cosi Séguin: here (Qobuz)

Mozart Figaro Jacobs: here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)

Mozart / Suzuki: here (eclassical)

Rachmaninov / Andsnes: here (Qobuz)

Schubert / Uchida: here (Prestoclassical)

Schubert / Pavel Haas: here (HDTracks)

Schubert  Winterreise: here (Qobuz) or here (Prestoclassical)

Schumann / Dausgaard: here (eclassical)

My Reflections on the 2016 Gramophone Awards (Part V): All The Rest

And All The Rest

After 4 parts on my favorite categories of the 2016 Gramophone Award nominations, I discovered that I simply don’t have enough to say about most albums in the other categories, so I decided to lump all remaining categories (Baroque Instrumental, Choral, Contemporary, Early Music, Opera, Orchestral, Recital, Solo Vocal) into one big “super-post” and only write about the albums I really care about in this remaining sections.

So, here we go:

Baroque Instrumental

Masaaki Suzuki plays Bach Organ Works (BIS 2016)

I must admit, I bought this album initially because I finally wanted to have a well recorded modern version of the Toccata d-minor BWV565, probably Bach’s best known work even for lay people.

Masaaki Suzuki plays Bach Organ Works BIS 2016 24/96

Well, that and the fact that I truly admire Masaaki’s efforts with the Bach Collegium Japan, and have pretty much his entire Cantata cycle. So I was curious to hear him as a soloist.

Well, I wasn’t disappointed. BIS can usually be trusted for recording quality, and this recording delivers (although has quite a bit of reverb from the Marinikerk in Groninen, so if you don’t like this, look elsewhere).

The good thing of this album is as well that once you go beyond the Toccata earworm, there is lots of beautiful music to discover. I don’t listen to organ very regularly, so this album pushes me in the right direction.

And Masaaki surely knows how to play. This album has received some controversial reviews, some like Diapason and obviously Gramophone love it, some critisize Suzuki takes too many liberties. Well, I’m certainly in the first camp.

My rating: 4 stars

 

WF Bach Keyboard Concertos – Maude Gratton (Mirare 2015)

Wilhelm Friedemann Bach: Concertos pour Clavecin et Cordes / Cembalo Concerts Maude Gratton Il Convito

I’ve reviewed this album previously and unfortunately, it still isn’t my cup of tea.

 

Biber: Rosary Sonatas – Rachel Podger (Channel Classics 2016)

Ah, Rachel Podger. I’m a big fan, and like pretty much everything she recorded, see also here.

Biber: Rosary Sonatas - Rachel Podger Channel Classics 2016 DSD

Sometimes, even in the music world, there seem to be trends.

You barely heard about Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (to quote his full name) for years, and all over sudden, you get 3 recordings of the Rosary Sonatas in a row.

Not sure about the exact order, but we got Ariadne Daskalakis on BIS, Hélène Schmitt on Aeolus, and Rachel Podger in the space of about 12 months.

What’s even more difficult: all of the above are very good.

Nevertheless Podger has an edge over the two others in my ear due to the sheer beauty of the playing. Now, you could argue, is beauty the right approach for these works.

Well I’m not religious, but if Wikipedia is correct, the Mystery of the Rosaries are meditations on important moments in the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary. I personally would want these to be beautiful. The outstanding recording quality of Channel Classics in DSD only makes it more breathtaking. 

My rating: 5 stars

In any case, check out the two others as well before buying.

My prediction

So who will win in the category? Both Suzuki and Podger have made it into the final three, I’d expect a tight race here. I personally give the edge to Podger.

Opera

I recently bought Netrebko’s beautiful recording of Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta and enjoyed it a lot, so I really need to check out the recording of Pique Dame that Gramophone recommends here by Mariss Jansons, but I haven’t done so yet, so will refrain from any comment at this stage.

The only album in the opera category I’ve heard (and own) is:

Verdi: Aidi – Antonio Pappano – Anja Harteros – Jonas Kaufmann (Warner 2015)

Verdi: Aida Pappanis Anja Harteros Jonas Kaufmann

Well, no change to my previous five star rating (see the review here), and I wouldn’t be surprised if this album will also win. Like the Tchaikovsky mentioned above, it made it into the final three candidates.

Orchestral

I’m a bit surprised myself that I wasn’t able to write a dedicated blog post about the Orchestral category, but there are simply too many albums nominated from composers that I dont’ care enough about, often 20th century, from Casella, Dutilleux, Elgar, to Vaughan Williams.

So just a quick note about two albums in this section:

Schubert: Symphony No. 9 – Claudio Abbado – Orchestra Mozart

Schubert Symphony No. 9 Abbado Orchestra Mozart Deutsche Grammophon 2015

Going to be brief here, I love a lot of the stuff that Abbado did with his Orchestra Mozart, this isn’t my favorite. I’d much rather go with Dohnanyi as reviewed here.

And then there is Andris Nelson’s BSO recording of Shostakovich symphony no. 10. I don’t have that one yet, but really like his even more recent release of symphonies no. 5 and 9.

Shostakovich Symphony No. 10 Andris Nelson Boston Symphony Orchestra Deutsche Grammophon 2016 24 96

Given that I haven’t heard 90% of the albums in this category, predicting the winner is obviously preposterous. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Nelsons wins here.

Recital

I’ve only spent a decent amout of time with one album in this section, the excellent Weber Sisters.

A side note on the Ricercar Cavalli album, I skipped through it, but found the Christina Pluhar album released pretty much at the same time more exciting. I may need to revisit that though.

And I gave Jonas Kaufmann’s Nessun Dorma as a present to my mother-in-law, she’s a big Kaufmann fan, and I must admit, the album is really worth checking out.

Mozart and the Weber Sisters – Sabine Devieilhe – Raphael Pichon – Ensemble Pygmalion

Mozart: The Weber Sisters Sabine Devielhe Raphael Pichon Pgymalion Erato 2015

I’ve already reviewed this album, with 5 stars.

And I keep going back to it over and over again.

This is again one of the rare birds of albums where Classica (Choc de l’année), Diapason (5 stars), Gramophone (Editor’s choice, Gramphone Award nominee), and Telerama (4F) all agree.

She is nominated among the final 3 contenders in this category, I really hope she wins!

 

So in summary: Podger’s Biber, Pappano’s Aida, and Devielhe’s Mozart are the must have albums for me here, with Suzuki’s organ works also highly recommended.

 

What do you think? I’d love to hear your opinions!

 

You can find the albums here:

Bach Suzuki Organ Works

WF Bach Cembalo Concertos

Biber Rosary Sonatas Podger

Verdi Aida Pappano

Schubert 9 Abbado

Nelsons BSO Shostakovich 10

The Weber Sisters

 

 

Nézet-Séguin’s Figaro – Nice, but lacking some sparkle

I don’t regularly write about opera, as I don’t really consider myself an opera expert. I come from instrumental music, and tend to judge operas much more on the orchestral performance than on the singers.

But then again, occasionally there are operas I really care about and therefore feel comfortable enough sharing my impression. My favorite opera composer by far is Mozart, and I’ve mentioned Jacobs’ beautiful Idomeneo in My Must Have Mozart Albums

Furthermore, there is one more five star rating opera review, Nézet-Séguin’s Cosi Fan Tutte, recorded live in  Baden-Baden. Cosi is my absolute favorite Mozart opera, closely followed by Le Nozze di Figaro.

So as you can kind of guess, when Nézet-Séguin’s Figaro was very recently released, I clicked buy pretty much instantaneously.

Le Nozze di Figaro – Nézet-Séguin (Deutsche Grammophon 2016)

Mozart: Le Nozze di Figaro - Yannick Nézet-Séguin - Chamber Orchestra of Europe 24/96 Deutsche Grammophon 2016

Maybe I should have used my streaming subscription first.

No, that’s a bit harsh, I don’t expect to regret the purchase. It’s just that after the great Cosi I just expected more. I expect drive, lightness, sparkle! Just what the libretto of this slightly silly story requires.

And what we get here is slightly different. Nothing really wrong, beautiful singers, and the COE plays well, but there is the certain “Je ne sais quoi” missing.

I mean, we have with Thomas Hampson and Sonya Yoncheva a beautiful Almaviva couple.

However, both Pisaroni and Karg convince me a bit less. They sound a bit too much Belcanto, and not enough Mozart, if you know what i mean.

And even Nézet, who usually plays so energetically, just takes a slightly lower, heavier tone here with the COE. Nuances, I admit, but I still rather go back to Jacobs, Erich Kleiber, or James Levine at the Met.

I’m curious to hear if these are only my personal impressions, or if you share them. Please agree or disagree with me in the comments section!

My rating: 4 stars (it is still very much worth owning, may just not be the best out there)

You can find it here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)

UPDATE Aug 15: Gramophone agrees with me in their September 2016 issue, saying that “the drama slips through his [Nézet-Séguin’s] fingers at some places.

There Must Be An Angel: Mozart – The Weber Sisters

If reading the blog post title you wonder what the connection is between a 1990s Eurythmics title, Mozart, and some sisters called Weber, let me explain.

The angel is simply referring to Sabine Devieilhe, the young soprano on the album I’m about to write about. Not only she looks pretty much like one (see the cover photo below), she really has an angelic voice. Clear, bright, shiny, with a beautiful color and an amazing range.

I first noticed her in her debut recording on Erato, with Alexis Kossenko (previously mentioned for his Telemann recording here), Le Grand Théatre de l’Amour dedicated to Jean-Philippe Rameau.

Mozart: The Weber Sisters (Erato 2015)

Mozart: The Weber Sisters Sabine Devielhe Raphael Pichon Pgymalion Erato 2015

This is Sabine Devileilhe’s second album on Erato, recorded this time with Raphaël Pichon’s ensemble Pygmalion.

I hesitated for quite some time to write about his album as I’m generally not a big fan of “best-of” type albums. I don’t mind them for baroque music as much, as it can be sometimes a bit tedious to go through 3+ hours of an opera seria, but for Mozart and beyond I prefer to listen to the entire opera instead. However, the selection on this particular album includes quite a number of single arias that are not part of a larger opera and are not recorded that often.

Let me briefly explain the Weber Sisters title of his album, as this is kind of a concept album. The most famous Weber sister is Constanze, Mozart’s wife, but actually Mozart was a close friend of the Weber family and as the booklet extensively explains, was at some point in love with the youngest sister, Aloysia, and the middle sister, Josepha, also played an important role in his life.

What music do you get? Well known hits like the famous Queen of the Night aria, or the French song Ah vous dirais-je maman, but also as mentioned previously several lesser known arias. All this is beautifully player by Raphaël Pichon’s ensemble, and Devileilhe’s voice is an absolute pleasure to hear.

This albums was elected among the albums of the year by Classica magazine, and I fully agree that his album is highly recommended.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Pappano’s Aida – We’re Really Lucky This Kind of Album Still Gets Produced

Me and opera – again

I’ve already mentioned previously that I’m far less knowledgeable about opera than about instrumental classical music. I clearly come from an instrumental background, and must admit I judge even opera performances first and foremost by the orchestral performance.

I know true opera experts will be able to discuss singer X vs Y. To me, these things matter, but much less. So take my opera recommendations with a big grain of salt.

Furthermore, Verdi is not my daily fare. I listen to a Mozart opera about once per month, Verdi is only on the playlist every quarter or so.

Okay, so the disclaimers are out of the way.

Pappano’s Aida (Warner Classics 2015)

Well, luckily on this album you don’t just need to trust me. I have yet to see a negative review of this outstanding album. The debate is just out whether this is a four or five-star album.

New opera recordings these days are very rare. The productions are simply to expensive for a declining classical music market. So we can count ourselves very lucky if we get new albums at all.

And here we’re even more lucky, because this really hits all the right buttons. Beautiful singing from outstanding artists is matched by the great playing of Pappano with the Santa Cecilia.

Verdi: Aida Pappanis Anja Harteros Jonas Kaufmann

Kaufmann is in a way the most hyped tenor of our days. Luckily for us, this hype really is justified, he has an amazing voice. I fully buy his Radomes. Anja Harteros as Aida is maybe a tiny bit lighter, but to be fair my reference so far is the legendary Karajan version with Tebaldi, so I’m being a bit picky here.

The recording quality is very spacious and resolving, and gives an excellent image of the Sala Santa Cecilia.

If only we’d get more of this kind of opera recordings, so we wouldn’t always have to go back to the 1950s and 60s for our operas. Sure, these legendary recordings will stay, but it is nice to be able to experience something with the sound quality of a 2015 high-res download.

My rating: Five stars

You can download it here (Qobuz) or here (HDtracks)

May The Wind Be Gentle – Nézet-Séguin’s Cosi Fan Tutte

Three HUGE gaps to fill on my blog: haven’t yet written about Mozart, haven’t talked about a single opera, and haven’t yet mentioned one of my favorite young conductors, Yannick Nézet-Séguin. How convenient is it that I can fill all three gaps in one go, with Nézet-Séguin’s 2013 recording with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe of Cosi Fan Tutte.

Nezet Seguin Cosi Fan Tutte

Me and Opera

Some introductory words first: my background is certainly much more in instrumental classical music than in opera. I can “blame” my parents in a way, they constantly listened to classical music at home, so I grew up with pretty much the entire classical spectrum in my young ears. However, both don’t like opera, so I had to acquire that taste myself much later. To this day, the first thing I’ll notice on an opera recording, is the orchestral playing. So my judgment is heavily biased to this part. I’m much more tolerant to individual slightly weaker singers. I know true opera buffs are singers first, orchestra second.

Nézet-Séguin and Mozart

These days, there are hardly any new opera recordings released. You can’t blame the music industry, the cost of an opera production is huge obviously, and the returns in the shrinking classical market are not what they were in the heydays of “Perfect Sound Forever” when everybody re-bought everything on CD; or even in the great 50s-60s, when all the great operas were all recorded for the first time in Stereo on LP, and many of these recordings are still of reference quality. Luckily, the young Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin got a deal with Deutsche Gramophon to record 7 Mozart operas. DG is piggy-backing here on existing performances at the Baden-Baden festival. So far, they have released 3, Don Giovanni, Die Entführung aus den Serail (to be released these days), next will be Le Nozze di Figaro (can’t wait) which is being recorded these days.

Thus Do All Women (no shitstorm please, it’s just the English translation of the title)

I just love Mozart’s operas. They are among the most beautiful things he’s ever written, and to me THE best operas out there. Cosi has a very special place in my heart. The story is obviously a bit silly and potentially slightly sexist, but who cares with this kind of music. And luckily my Italian is bad enough that I can switch it of and don’t have to follow the lyrics if I don’t concentrate on it. There are so many beautiful parts, I can’t even list them all. So let me just stick to my favorite part of all, the Terzettino “Soave Sia Il Vento”, gentle be the wind. where the two female protagonist wish their male companions smooth sailing in their fake trip to war. This could easily be among my top10 most beautiful musical pieces ever (actually I’ve just written a post about just that here).

Nézet’s Cosi

What is there to say about this particular recording? Well first of all, the orchestral playing of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe is outstanding. So as said above, this already gives me 80% of what I’m looking for in Opera. Nézet is consistent with his typical style, which can be summarized as “reasonably fast” and most of all “tight” (not sure if I’m making sense here), in a nutshell, he’s always in control, and there is always great tension. Personally I like all the protagonists singer here, although I’ve seen several reviews criticizing  Roberto Villazon especially. That said, Gramophone had this album shortlisted for the Gramophone Awards.

Overall rating: 5 stars

You can download the album here (I recommend the 24/96 high-res version) or buy the physical CD here.