So I had really high hopes when Grosvenor recently released his latest recording, of nothing less than Liszt’s magnificent b-minor sonata, plus some other works.
Benjamin Grosvenor – Liszt (Decca 2021)
Now, before I go to the meaty bit, the b-minor sonata, let me start by saying that I really love how Grosvenor plays the other pieces on this album, particularly the extract from the Années de Pélérinage.
Also particularly interesting is Liszt’s 15 min piano adaptation of Bellini’s classic, Réminiscenes de Norma, a less often played work.
And I can’t get enough of the beautiful piano adaptation of Schubert’s Ave Maria.
The b-minor sonata
I really love the b-minor sonata, it is to me at least the ultimate Liszt piece. And here’s where we get to my “but” that you probably saw coming from my intro above.
Let me start by the positives: I really like how he takes the Andante sostenuto slower than most, giving it a special sense of intimacy and out-of-this-world spirit.
Now, what am I missing here, in what is actually a very good version?
Well I really believe one needs to go to the biggest extremes in this work (an opinion probably not universally shared). That’s why my favorite versions will remain those of the legendary Martha Argerich, and the somewhat controversial version by Katia Buniatishvili. In some parts, I just wish Grosvenor would push things just a bit further, he certainly has the power and technical abilities to do it.
Nevertheless, this is a beautiful album absolutely worth having.
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
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
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
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.
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?
Usually, I try to do one blog post per section (Orchestral, Piano, etc.), at least for those that I do care about. This time unfortunately my day job is keeping me quite busy and I wasn’t able to listen to all albums shortlisted by Gramophone, so this will just be a “best of” of albums from some of the nominated albums from the different categories.
Note that this is the continuation from part I that I published last week, where I had a look at the “Concerto” category. Today I’ll cover “Choral”, “Instrumental”, and “Orchestral”.
Let’s start with the Choral section, and two recent recordings of Bach’s masterpieces.
Bach: St John’s Passion – Philippe Herreweghe – Collegium Vocale Gent (Phi 2020)
I must admit I only learned about this release from the Gramophone awards issue, although it was already released in February. What a miss! I do have already a favourite recording of the St John passion, as performed by John Butt and the Dunedin Consort, I have praised Philippe Pierlot’s excellent reading here, I also have Herreweghe’s previous version from 2001, as well as versions from Suzuki, and Gardiner (the usual suspects for great baroque vocal works).
But this new release is truly outstanding, and could potentially become my favorite, a true 5 star recording.
Bach: St Matthew Passion – Masaaki Suzuki – Bach Collegium Japan (BIS 2020)
So, after the “smaller” passion, there’s also a new release of the majestic St Matthew Passion. I’ve already written about some other fantastic versions (again by the usual bunch of John Butt, one of my 25 Essential Classical Music albums, and the recent recording of John Eliot Gardiner that I was able to attend live), so it wasn’t obvious that I needed yet another version on top of the 7 or 8 others I have in my local library. But I bought it anyhow, given the recommendations by Gramophone, unfortunately without listening to it beforehand.
Don’t get me wrong, this is brilliantly performed, with excellent soloists. So why am just a bit hesitant about it? A simple fact, Suzuki starts the opening chorus “Kommt, Ihr Töchter” is just significantly slower (8:20 compared to John Butt’s 6:38), and it startles me a bit every time. It makes it even more powerful, but it just loses a tiny bit of drive. Check it out before you buy, but it clearly is among the very top performances out there.
Buxtehude: Membra Jesu Nostri – Philippe Ricercar Cosort (Mirare 2019)
I really liked the album, and while I still would pick Bach over Buxtehude anytime, Buxtehude’s early baroque is growing on me. It is very much worth discovering.
Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas – Igor Levit (Sony 2019)
The more I discover Levit’s Beethoven cycle, the more I’m impressed. You’ll find my 5 star review here, but in the meantime I’ve again had the pleasure seeing Levit perform a part of the cycle live at the 2020 Lucerne festival (he played the Pathétique and Tempest among others), and have tickets for a live performance of the Hammerklavier that I’m very much looking forward to.
I’ve written previously about these late masterpieces, op. 116 – 119, that are among the last pieces written by Brahms.
Brahms always was primarily a pianist. Whenever he wrote for other instruments, he got advice from experts, e.g. his friend Joseph Joachim for his violin works So it is not surprising that he wrote some of his most important but also most intimate works ever for the instrument he knew best.
So when I recently read two reviews, by Classicstoday and Gramophone, that both praised a new recording by Stephen Hough, I went out to buy it blindly.
You see, the issue is that Hyperion, the label that has Stephen Hough exclusively, doesn’t allow streaming, which is a key reason why I typically don’t buy his albums, as I can’t really explore them properly upfront, and also why I never reviewed any of his albums here, in spite of the fact that Gramophone is a huge fan.
But for my idol Brahms, it was worth the risk of GBP 13.
Brahms: The Final Piano Pieces – Stephen Hough (Hyperion 2020)
So, am I happy? To make it short, yes, very much. This is among the most unorthodox recordings of these work I’ve ever heard. None of these sound as I’m used to hearing them.
But honestly, it is worth the discovery. Once you overcome the initial surprise, you discover that Hough clearly has spent a long time thinking about these works, and each peculiarity is there for a reason. If you want to find out more about his approach to Brahms, check out this podcast about this new release.
I’m totally sold now. This is an album that I’ll go back over and over again, just because every single one of these little short gems is worth having a new look at them.
Here’s a Youtube example, so you can get an idea what I’m talking about. Let me know what you think!
In a nutshell, highly recommended! (My prediction is that this will make it into the Gramophone Award nomination list for 2020. Let’s see later this year if I’m right).
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.
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
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
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
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?
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):
Regular readers of my blog know that I mainly follow two classical magazines as a reference. One is the UK’s Gramophone, the other France’s Classica Magazine.
Interestingly enough, Classica really is the magazine where I have the most overlap with their reviews, for Gramphone it is a bit more hit and miss.
I’ve commented nearly every year on the Gramophone Awards nominees and winners, but I’ve never written a lot about the equivalent of Classica Magazine, the “Chocs de l’année”.
Classica has a five star rating system for all albums (although I hardly ever see 1 stars appear), but on top of the 5 stars, they also select every months the albums “Choc”, similar to Gramophone’s Editor’s Choice.
And, once per year, Classica publishes their “Chocs de l’année”, i.e the overall best albums of the year.
Let’s have a look together.
Les Chocs de l’année 2019 – Classica Magazine – Artist of the Year
First category is “L’artiste de l’année”, winner is French pianist Michel Dalberto (I can’t help but notice that while Gramophone is a bit biased towards UK artists, Gramophone has the same for their local talent.)
Two albums get a particular mention, his recent 2019 Beethoven sonata album on La Dolce Volta, as well as César Franck solo piano and chamber album on Aparte.
I must admit I really don’t share their excitement for the Beethoven album. Sure, it’s not bad, but I’d clearly prefer others here (among recent choices, Levit, Perahia, Lewis).
The Franck album I haven’t really listened to a lot, he is one of those lesser known French composers that I just have much less experience with. But I’ll check it out more systematically in the future, and so should you.
Label of the Year
Label of the year is the French label Alpha, and here I fully agree. In 2019, the smaller dedicated labels like Alpha, Hyperion, BIS, Chandos, have just become so much more important that the old majors like DG, Sony, Decca, etc.
Here I really can’t comment, I’ve never heard of this album nor of this pianist before. Turns out he’s French as well (did I mention there seems to be some geographical bias somewhere).
In any case, the program of this concept album (obviously around the Revolution) is quite intriguing, from Dussek (yes, I also had to google him), via Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Janacek, Debussy, to Rzewski. I only quickly sampled works I know well, like the Chopin Revolutionary Etude, or the Scherzo no. 1, in both cases I wasn’t blown away. But don’t take this as a proper review, and have a look.
Rachmaninov – The Piano Concertos – Trifonov – Nézét-Séguin (DG 2019)
While I absolutely loved Trifonov’s recording of Rach 2, and was right at predicting that this would be a very controversial version, I still haven’t been able to properly review his approach to Rach 3 (sorry I typically disregard Rach 1 and 4) which was released quite recently.
Classica praises both of them, but I honestly would caution you before you buy the Rach 3 blindly. I can’t put my finger on it, but something is there that I just don’t like as much. I’d be very curious to hear your opinions. Personally, I rather stick to other versions like Leif Ove Andsnes with the LSO.
Two Gounod Operas
Gounod, yet another composer I barely know. A good friend of mine loves his Faust, but to this day, I really haven’t found my way around this composers’ work.
Let me nevertheless mention the two operas here that Classica likes, they clearly know more about French composers than I do. Both come from conductors I personally like very much, Hervé Niquet and Christophe Rousset, you probably won’t go wrong with any of these recordings.
Look out for part II of this blog post in the next days. You’ll find it here.
You can find the new albums of this blog post here (Qobuz), or in the link to the original review.