András Schiff Plays Brahms Piano Concertos on Historical instruments – Worth Checking Out

Brahms’ Piano Concertos

There is clearly no lack of excellent performances of the two Brahms piano concertos. There are many masterful recordings from the 1960s with the great piano legends, Curzon, Arrau, Fleischer, Richter, or Gilels, often with the fantastic George Szell, that have stood the test of time, as the romantic repertoire has seen less of a sea change of recording style as have earlier composers (I can’t really enjoy non-HIP Bach concertos any more for example).

There also have been a lot of more recent recordings that are outstanding. One of my favorite sets is the Nelson Freire / Riccardo Chailly / Gewandhaus one from 2006, or more recently, the excellent (No. 1) / very good( No. 2) recordings by Lars Vogt with the Northern Sinfonia (that I just noticed I totally forgot to review here).

And as a nice coincidence, the very first recording I ever owned of No. 1 was with András Schiff as well, with George Solti on a 1989 Decca album.

So why would even a Brahms aficionado like me bother to buy one more recording of these?

The answer is called Blüthner. That is the piano that Schiff uses in this new recording.

Brahms: The Piano Concertos- András Schiff – Orchestra of the Age of Enlightening (ECM 2021)

Andras Schiff Johannes Brahms Piano Concertos Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment ECM New Series 2021 24 96

The Blüthner is a piano from c. 1859, i.e. 1 year after the writing of Brahms first concerto. It has a quite different sound to the typical modern Steinway, less heavy, less brilliant, but more transparent.

To complement that, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is also clearly historically informed, playing on gut strings.

So, is it worth it?

I’d say yes (and I did purchase the album). I really like the difference in sound and transparency one gets from the historically informed approach and instruments. This is the first recording of Brahms concertos with a HIP approach that hit my radar screen, and it really gives you new insights into these works.

To quote Schiff himself from the booklet: “With the present recording we have tried to recreate and restore the works, to cleanse and ‘detoxify’ the music, to liberate it from the burden of the – often questionable – trademarks of performing traditions“.

Now, does that mean this will be my new reference recording? Clearly not, I won’t be abandoning the beauty of all the recordings I’ve quoted above. I really like the piano playing, although some rubati aren’t always my cup of tea, but particularly in the first concerto, I’d just like to see a bit more drama in the orchestral introduction.

But if you like Brahms, you should really check this recording out!

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Mozart’s Piano Concertos vol. 4 with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet – A Somewhat Confused Review

Mozart’s Piano Concertos

I haven’t written about the Mozart piano concertos that much yet on this blog. Not sure why. I really like them. Maybe it is because they were just always there, I’ve been listening to them for my entire life. But then, there are many (and many of which if you want to be nasty sound somewhat similar). And while truly enjoyable, one could argue the true masterpieces from Mozart are to be found elsewhere (take the DaPonte operas for example).

That said, I always had a particular fondness for numbers 20 and 21. The andante of no. 21 is even featured on my very own wedding video (I added a personal soundtrack to some of the pieces in the edit).

A quick reminder of my mentions of the Mozart piano concertos on this blog: You’ll find a beautiful recording with the amazing combo of Martha Argerich and Claudio Abbado recommended as part of My Must Have Mozart Albums, which features no. 20, but not no. 21. In the same blog post I also mention the historically informed recordings of Bezuidenout (which I like) and Brautigam (which I’m starting to have some doubts on), as well as the classic Perahia box.

And that’s basically it.

So, when in 2020 a new Mozart album was released that got a Gramophone Editors Choice, a nomination for the Gramophone awards album of the year, as well as a Choc by the French magazine Classica, that I usually really trust, I just had to buy it.

Mozart: Piano Concertos vol. 4 – Jean-Efflam Bavouzet – Gabor Takacs-Nagy – Manchester Camerata (Chandos 2019)

Mozart Piano Concertos No. 21 & 20 - Jean-Efflam Bavouzet - Manchester Camerata - Gabor Takacs-Nagy Chandos 24/96

A quick word about the soloist, orchestra and conductor: While I like and appreciate Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (have a look at my post on his great complete Debussy box), I must admit this is my very first encounter with both the Manchester Camerata and Gabor Takacs-Nagy.

So, what is it like? Well this is going to be a somewhat weird review.

In many ways, it is perfect. It is extremely well played from both orchestra and soloist, and Bavouzet puts a lot of creativity into the solo part, from variations, improvisations and ornaments in many places to the occasional liberty on tempi, and overall, I really wouldn’t know what to criticize.

So what’s wrong? Well, maybe it is the modern instruments and I’ve recently enjoyed the historically informed practice so much, or maybe it is just a bit TOO perfect, and I need the occasional imperfection. Honestly, I don’t know.

You should probably just ignore my opinion here and check it out yourself (please let me know what you think in the comments); as mentioned, both Gramophone and Classica were extremely impressed.

My rating: 4 stars (I may come back on this rating later once I’ve figured out if I’m just making a mistake here).

You’ll find it here (Qobuz)

2020 Gramophone Awards – And The Winners Are…

This is a follow-up to the two part article I’ve written discussing some of the albums that were nominated for the 2020 Gramophone awards, that you can find here and here.

You’ll find the latest edition of the Gramophone podcast (that is usually worth a listen in any case) here a very passionate discussion of the winning albums, check it out.

Chamber: Veress & Bartok

I didn’t have time to review any chamber works of the winning category, and I truly cannot relate to the winning album, by Sandor Veress, and Bartok. So sharing this winner truly just for your information. As mentioned previously, I’m typically lost with most of the music composed in the 20th century.

Choral: Suzuki’s St Matthew Passion

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

While I’m still struggling a bit with the slow first movement, I gave this another complete listen the other day and must admit it is a spectacular performance.

Concerto: Chopin’s concertos by Benjamin Grosvenor

As written previously, I wholeheartedly agree with this choice. I’m a huge fan of Grosvenor, and this version is up there with the very top of Zimerman and Argerich.

Contemporary: Thomas Adès Piano Concerto & Totentanz

Again, mentioning this for completeness only, you can guess if I’m struggling with 20th century music how my brain is coping with contemporary stuff.

Early Music: Gesualdo Madrigali by Les Arts Florissants

Gesualdo Madrigali Libri Primo & Secondo Les Arts Florissants Paul Agnew Harmonia Mundi 2020 24/96

While I’m really lost in the 20th and 21st century, the 16th century music is something I really admire, just don’t get to listen to it that much.

But this is an album that I’ll definitely add to my collection, as I’m a big fan of Les Arts Florissants, and Gesualdo’s madrigals are truly beautiful. Recommended.

Instrumental: Igor Levit’s Beethoven Cycle

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

A worthy winner. This complete cycle is insightful from no. 1 all the way to no. 32, and every classical music lover should check this out. Levit’s tempi are sometimes somewhat extreme, but never for the sake of it, always with a very clear sense of purpose.

This is probably my favorite of the entire list.

Opera: Händel’s Aggrippina – Joyce DiDonato

I had completely missed this album. My bad, just look at this lineup of fantastic baroque singers. I’ll definitely have to add this to my collection. You can really count on Erato to still produce fantastic opera recordings.

Orchestral: Weinberg Symphonies 2 & 21 – Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla ​

Here comes my 20th century music dilemma again. I’m still barely getting my feet wet with Shostakovich (and again, only occasionally), so I’m not going to add any value with my opinion here. But if you’re into it, the same album also won the “Choc de l’année” by French magazine Classica, so Gražinytė-Tyla must have done something right.

Recital: Sandrine Piau – Si j’ai aimé

Another album I had missed. It is a collection of not that well known French songs with orchestra, mostly from the late 19th century.

Sandrine Piau is a fantastic singer, and this is definitely something I’ll add to my playlist. Not a must have, but a nice discovery off the beaten track.

Solo Vocal: Janacek: The Diary Of One Who Disappeared

Unfortunately, due to Hyperion’s strict no streaming policy I have no way of checking this out beyond the snippets I can check out on Hyperion’s website. So nothing to add from my side here, just mentioning it for completeness.

So, what do you think? Were the right winners selected?

And on an unrelated note, am I silly to ignore the 20th and 21st century music?

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)

EDIT November 2020: Classicstoday is even more enthusiastic, giving it a straight 10/10 rating.

My Top 5 Classical Albums of 2019

Isabelle Faust plays Bach Violin Concertos

This album just had to be there. I’m a big Isabelle Faust fan, as most of my regular readers know.

This is just a fantastic album overall, and an must have. Hugely enjoyable, Faust’s signature Sleeping Beauty Stradivarius sound, and the AKAMUS is a perfect partner. I had heard the same combination live in 2018, and it was already a great experience.

You’ll find the original review here

Saint-Saëns Piano Concertos 2&5 by Bertrand Chamayou

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

I really didn’t know Saint-Saëns really well before 2019. I still don’t, but at least the piano concertos were a true discovery for me, with Bertrand Chamayou’s fantastic recording, also with the equally exciting album by Alexandre Kantorow with the concertos 3-5.

The Chamayou album got the 2019 Gramophone award, and I can only highly recommend this, particularly for the concerto no. 2 which really has become a favourite of mine now.

Yuya Wang’s Berlin Recital

Yuya Wang The Berlin Recital Encores Deutsche Grammophon 2019 24 96

I’ve said it in the review, I wasn’t a big fan of Yuja Wang before this album. This live recital really has become one of my absolute favourites, for the playing, the recording quality, and the exciting repertoire. Highly recommended.

Savall’s mesmerising Messiah

Georg Friedrich Händel Messiah An Oratorio HWV 56 La Capella Reial de Catalunya Jordi Savall Alia Vox 2019 DSD 24 88

This album, which only came out some weeks ago, has been in constant rotation on my playlist. Being in the Christmas season helps, but this album constantly keeps playing in the back of my head, even when not listening to music at all. You’ll find my original review here.

Igor Levit’s Beethoven Cycle

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

I had several contenders for the last spot on this list. There’s Volodos’ beautiful recording of the Schubert sonata D959 (not yet reviewed), Pichon’s Liberta compilation, several of the great Debussy recordings on Harmonia Mundi (e.g. Faust, or Roth), or Petrenko’s Tchaikovsky Pathétique. But ultimately I ended up choosing this fantastic cycle. I have yet to fully discover in detail every of the 32 sonatas (there’s just so much material), and I don’t think I’ll ever feel fully qualified to review all 32 sonatas in detail.

And I don’t necessarily agree with every single choice of style or particularly tempo. But one this is for sure, this cycle is special, and will make you think. Isn’t this what musical enjoyment is all about?

You’ll find the download links to all of the above in the original reviews.

So, up to you? Do you agree with my choices? Anything I missed?

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