My reflections on the 2019 Gramophone Awards Part II – Orchestral

This is part II of my mini-series on the 2019 Gramophone awards. I need to hurry up with my posts, as the winners will be revealed early October. You’ll find part I (concerto) here.

Orchestral

This is another section where I normally feel very much at home with.

That said, this year this comment will be quite a bit shorter as there is only one selected album that I can actually comment on.

Let me quickly start by skimming over the recordings that Gramophone selected that I won’t be writing about, as I don’t feel qualified enough or don’t know them:

The recommendations start with a box of Bernstein orchestral works played by Antonio Pappano with his Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. As much as I appreciate this conductor, I really can’t comment here as Bernstein really isn’t my cup of tea (both as a composer and conductor with few exceptions).

Bernstein the 3 symphonies Antonio Pappano

The next one is an album I should be going back to more in-depth for a review, orchestral works by Debussy played by François-Xavier Roth with his Les Siècles. As I mentioned here, I like the conductor quite a bit, and I had a very good impression when I briefly checked this album out when it was released, but then left it for quite a while given that Debussy isn’t my core repertoire (I mentioned before that the 20th century isn’t my favourite).

Debussy Jeux Nocturnes Francois Xavier Roth Les Siècles Harmonia Mundi 2019

Talking about the 20th century, the next album is also from this era, as it is Langgaard’s 2nd and 6th symphony by Sakari Oramo and the Vienna Philharmonic. I must admit I had skipped this so far, but I’m streaming it right now as I write this and will have to have a closer look, as I like what I hear. So I recommend checking it out as well.

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

The next one is Ivan Fischer’s Mahler 7. Fischer’s Mahler recordings are often love it or hate it affairs (see my article here on his 9th). Personally, I like his 1st and 4th symphony recordings, even if they are a bit “middle of the road”, but his approach to the 7th doesn’t blow me away. I’d rather stick with Klemperer on this one, but don’t consider this a formal review, as I’m really no expert on the later Mahler symphonies.

Mahler symphony no. 7 Budapest Festival Orchestra Ivan Fischer Channel Classics 2019

The final album of the list is Stenhammar’s 2nd symphony with Herbert Blomstedt and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra. I have a huge respect for Herbert Blomstedt, but Stenhammar’s work is again really not my cup of tea. Another 20th century composition (there seems to be a pattern in this years Concerto awards category), so don’t expect me to comment here.

Stenhammar Symphony no. 2 serenade Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra Herbert Blomstedt BIS 2019

OK, so after this long rambling section talking about stuff I really don’t know much about, let me write about the only album from this list that I actually have listened to several times.

Given the pattern of the other nominated recordings it had to be either late 19th century or 20th century. This selection fits, as we’re talking about Sibelius 1st symphony, composed in 1899.

Sibelius Symphony No. 1 En Saga Gothenburg Symphony Santtu-Matias Rouvali Alpha 2019

I’ve mentioned in my review of Sibelius’ violin concerto, I still struggle really getting into Sibelius symphonic works. So this album, by young Finnish conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali, was an eye-opener for me. Similar to Petrenko’s recording of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique, this recording really made me more interested in Sibelius. I hope he’ll record more.

Congrats to the Gothenburg Symphony for being featured twice in this selection.

As usual, I’d love to hear what you think. Any feedback, any different opinions on the presented works?

Update Sep 19: I just noticed that in the October issue of Gramophone only 3 albums remain shortlisted: the Bernstein, the Langgaard, and the Stenhammar. My personal preference among these three would go to the Langgaard.

A Review of Two Recent Recordings of Mahler 1 by Vänskä and Roth

Gustav Mahler

You can easily tell that I’m still struggling a bit with Gustav Mahler by the number of posts I have done on him, so far a grand total of 1 (one!), commenting about very divergent reviews of Mahler’s 9th.

I find many of his symphonies hard to approach, too big, to complex, getting lost in the weeds. The one symphony that I semi-regularly go back to is no. 1. It is to me by far the most approachable, taking many of the beautiful melodies in the symphony directly from his own earlier the song cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (and if you read this blog regularly you know I’m a sucker for melodies).

My first recording of Mahler 1 with retrospect is not a reference, but at least a quite decent performance, with Eliahu Inbal and the HR Radio Symphony orchestra (I mainly bought the album initially because it was a so-called audiophile recording by Denon).

SInce then, on Mahler, I’ve been through all the great classics (Klemperer, Walter, Bernstein, Kubelik), but also many new releases of this work (Fischer, Zinman, Janssons), and these days most often go back to Ivan Fischer on Channel Classics, a very nice, if a bit middle-of-the-road performance (again, VERY audiophile, it’s a fantastic test for your speakers, but you may not make friends with your neighboring appartments if you explore the full dynamic range).

So I was very curious when in the space of a couple of months two new recordings of Mahler 1 came out, both by conductors I respect a lot.

Mahler: Symphony No. 1 – François Xavier Roth – Les Siècles (Harmonia Mundi 2019)

The first one is François-Xavier Roth with his relatively recent ensemble Les Siècles, which I now very much see on track to become one of the most important French orchestras, particularly for French composers (have a look at their recent Debussy and Ravel recordings).

Gustav Mahler Titan Symphony No. 1 Hamburg Weimar 1893-1894 version Les Siècles François Xavier Roth 24/96

So I was particularly curious how they’d do with German composers like Mahler .

What’s interesting about this recording is that they use a different version, “Hamburg/Weimar 1893-1894”, turning the symphony into a “tone poem”. Well, overall, you’ll still very much recognize most of the symphony, but you’ll notice an less familiar 2nd movement sneaking in, Blumine, making the symphony 5 movements long.

Mahler: Symphony No. 1 – Osmo Vänskä – Minnesota Orchestra (BIS 2019)

Gustav Mahler Symphony No. 1 Osmo Vänskä Minnesota Orchestra BIS 2019 24/96

The even more recent new release is a conductor I’ve loved for a long time, Osmo Vänskä, who has done fantastic work with the Minnesota Orchestra. Take for example his outstanding recording of the Beethoven piano concertos 2 & 4 with Yevgeny Sudbin.

Vänskä takes the “traditional” version of the symphony with 4 movements.

Now, are any of these worth getting, you’ll ask?

Well, let me start with the Vänskä. Given how much energy and passion Vänskä typically puts into his recordings, this was a major disappointment. The entire symphony just feels very slow and uninspired. I try to stay away from too drastic words especially when we’re talking about such fantastic artists like Vänskä. But I can’t help it, this recording really isn’t for me.

Roth is already a different story. The Blumine addition already gives you something to look out for, and overall, the tone is much more energetic and joyful in the first three movements, and has the appropriate amount of drama in the fourth movement. Overall, a very satisfying performance, maybe not a new reference, but you won’t regret buying it.

Now I’m curious what you think? Am I completely off? Do you love Vänskä’s approach, and I’m just deaf? Which other versions of Mahler 1 should I check out?

My rating: 4 stars (Roth), 2 stars (Vänska)

You can find them here (Roth, Qobuz) and here (Vänskä, Qobuz)

Update Aug 16: Classicstoday seems to agree with my assessment of the Vänskä, calling it a “CD from Hell” in their recent review.

Update Sep 11: Classics is a bit less positive on Roth, giving it 3 stars.

Janine Jansen and Herbert Blomstedt for a Magnificent Brahms Performance at the Tonhalle Maag – June 28, 2019

Janine Jansen

I presume if you’ve followed this blog for a bit (or read it’s subtitle) you’ve figured out that I really like Brahms.

You’ve probably also noticed that I really like Janine Jansen, and see her as one of the best violin players alive.

Last year I went through a series of concerts aiming to see all my favourite violin players live, and succeeded being in concerts of Alina Ibragimova, Julia Fischer, Lisa Batiatishvili, Isabelle Faust, and Janine Jansen all in 2018. What a year.

The concert I saw with Jansen, also at the Tonhalle Maag, was with her husband Daniel Blendulf conducting, and playing a contemporary composition by Swedish composer Anders Eliasson. I didn’t get to write about this concert here on this blog, but I found the concert surprisingly enjoyable (I’m typically not very much into any classical music after 1930).

But now, when Jansen came back to Zurich playing Brahms of all violin concertos, I knew I had to be there, after all, I had given her Brahms concerto recording with Pappano a five star review here.

Brahms Violin Concerto & Symphony No. 3 – Janine Jansen – Herbert Blomstedt – Tonhalle Orchester Zurich – Tonhalle Maag, June 28, 2019

Janine Jansen after the Brahms Violin Concerto June 28, 2019 Tonhalle Maag with Herbert Blomstedt Tonhalle Orchestra
Janine Jansen had to come back out four times

Well, to make it short, I’m so happy I went. This was just a fantastic concert. Blomstedt chose a relatively slow tempo for the first movement. This can have the risk of being a big boring and drawn out. But obviously, none of that here. Janine Jansen put her energy into every single note that the audience was following, completely mesmerised.

The orchestra, in spite of this being the third consecutive night of performing the same program, was following with the same energy and power, clearly enjoying themselves.

To quote Felix Michel, who did a fantastic review on the NZZ (here, in German), the word he used several times was “Wunder” (miracle). Yes, that is kind of a fitting description of what we witnessed yesterday in the scorching Zurich summer heat (>36° Celsius, I’m happy the Tonhalle Maag seemed to have some form of AC).

Herbert Blomstedt

I haven’t written a lot about Herbert Blomstedt yet. I’ve last seen him, again conducting the Tonhalle playing Mendelssohn’s violin concerto, another magnificent evening.

He isn’t one of those flashy maestros that will make headlines, but like many others, e.g. Haitink, is much more of a Musician’s musician.

At the age of 91 (he’ll soon turn 92, but is already scheduled to appear back in Zurich in the fall), when he’s up there conducting, he’s more alive and present than many 20 year olds.

Now to the 3rd symphony. Here, the energy taking from the furious beginning with the violin concerto certainly continued after the break. The two most outstanding moments here were the famous 3rd movement, which you may know from several commercials and other uses in the movies, but even more impressively in the finale. Unlike most symphonies, this finale ends very quietly.

Blomstedt really made us enjoy this quiet ending, not dropping his hands (no baton) for several seconds after the last note expired, to keep the quiet tension.

Herbert Blomstedt, Tonhalle Maag, Brahms SympZurichhony No. 3 , June 27, 2019
Maestro Blomstedt getting standing ovations

As always, when the final movement lacks a climatic finish, the applause came more slowly. However, it became even more powerful, especially after it became apparent that one of the musicians of the Tonhalle had his last day pre-retirement and was showered with flowers and gifts. The applause lasted for a long time. Well deserved for a fantastic end of a season.

Looking forward to the next season, where my admired Paavo Järvi will take over the orchestra.

An Excellent (Nearly) New Schumann Cycle by Rattle and the BSO

Schumann’s Symphonies

Schumann’s symphonies have long been underrated. The idea of “Schumann cannot compose for orchestra” has been going around in musicology circles for many years.

I really disagree. OK, he’s no Beethoven or Brahms, but I still really like his symphonies, especially no. 3 and 4.

To be fair, there are excellent recordings already out there, e.g. from Gardiner, Nezét-Séguin, or, a bit more unorthodox, Thomas Dausgaard, (mentioned in My 25 Essential Classical Albums).

Rattle is now on his way out from the Berlin Philharmonic, with Kirill Petrenko coming.

I’ve not always been a fan of Rattle’s work at the BPO, but he has left some very good recordings, so I was very interested when I recently rediscovered this 2014 cycle which launched BPO’s own label (I had missed it at the time).

Schumann: The Symphonies – Simon Rattle – Berliner Philharmoniker (BPO Recordings 2014)

Berliner Philharmoniker Sir Simon Rattle Robert Schumann Symphonies 1-4 BPO Recordings 2014 24/96

So, what do we get? Overall, a very convincing package. I really enjoy every single symphony on this box. My favorite is actually no. 1, subtitled “spring”; where Rattle takes a very fresh and precise approach.

Potentially the weakest of the 4 is symphony no. 2, which I found slightly incoherent in certain parts. The “Rhenish” (my other favorite), and no. 4 both are presented in a way that combines on one hand a good view of the big picture, but really looks at many exciting details.

Overall, Rattle was clearly influenced by the historically informed movement, and the BPO doesn’t sound like during the Karajan era any more. Everything is much lighter and transparent.

A really enjoyable set.

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Brahms 2nd with Paavo Järvi and the Kammerphilharmonie Bremen – Outstanding!

Brahms

Did I mention I like Brahms? Well to be fair, the subtitle of my blog kind of gives it away.

These are good times for lovers of Brahms symphonies. Only recently Andris Nelsons has released his fantastic cycle of the 4 symphonies with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (see my 5 star review here), now finally Paavo Järvi starts his Brahms cycle with the Kammerphilharmonie Bremen as well.

Paavo Järvi

I really liked his Beethoven cycle with the same orchestra, actually it is among my current references. His Schumann is also great. So obviously I had high hopes for his Brahms.

And I’m not disappointed.

Brahms Symphony No. 2 – Paavo Järvi – Kammerphilharmonie Bremen (RCA 2017)

Brahms Symphony No. 2 Tragic Overture Academic Festival Overture Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen RCA 2017 SACD

The 2nd symphony is not my favorite of the four. 1 and 4 are outstanding, 3 is great, and 2 is just nice in my personal classification. Many have described the 2nd as Brahms “Pastorale“. Obviously, there is more to it, but a certain influence in the peaceful moments cannot be completely discarded. That said, , as the booklet also nicely explains, Brahms himself called the work “melancholic” and “sad” and even had the score printed with a black border.

How does Järvi deal with the symphony? The Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, as the name indicates, is a chamber orchestra, so you’d expect a slimmer sound than e.g. with the Berlin Philharmonic.

But don’t expect this to sound like a HIP baroque orchestra, you still get the full color of  a symphony orchestra, maybe just not as cinemascope as e.g. the latest Rattle cycle or Nelsons with the BSO. There have been some interesting adaptations, e.g the drums are having goat skin giving them a very particular sound.

Overall, it is very balanced, and nuanced. You get plenty of romanticism though, after all this is Brahms we are talking about. I particularly like the end of the 2nd movement, where

As a “filler”, you get the Tragic Overture and Academic Festival Overture. Both are nice to have, but nothing I´d listen to on a regular basis. There is too much outstanding music elsewhere.

Overall this is one of the best Brahms 2 currently on the market.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz) or on many other streaming sites.

If you prefer the original SACD, it is unfortunately very pricey (only found it for $40-60, what’s going on here?)

 

2017 Gramophone Awards: And The Winners Are… (and yes, I really agree)

Gramophone Awards 2017

This year I had a bit more trouble than usual with Gramophone´s selection for the albums of the year, see my posts here (Part I) and here (Part II).

However, at the end our judgments were together again.

Here was my overall recommendation looking at the nominees, as published in Part II of my post:

I´d say, the only must-haves in this selection are the Shostakovich with Nelsons, Perahia´s French Suites, and Suzuki´s c-minor mass (with Gardiner´s Matthew Passion just behind).

Faust´s violin concertos, Antonini´s Haydn, and Niquet´s Cherubini are a very good recording of only nice to have (to my ears) music. And in the Solo Vocal category, Goerne´s Brahms album is a no brainer.

So, let´s take a look at this years winners:

Choral

 

Mozart: Great Mass in C Minor Exsultate Jubliate Bach Collegium Japan Masaaki Suzuki Carolyn Sampson Olivia Vermeulen Makoto Sakurada Christian Immler

 

Bingo. And fully agree.

 

Concerto

 

Mozart: Violin Concertos Isabelle Faust Il Giardino Armonico Giovanni Antonini Harmonia Mundi 2016 24/96

Bingo again. Extremely well played.

Instrumental

 

Johann Sebastian Bach: The French Suites - Murray Perahia (24/96) Deutsche Grammophon 2016

Absolutely, a 5 star album all the way.

 

Orchestral

 

Haydn 2032 no. 4 Il Distratto Giovani Antonini Il Giardino Armonico

Agree, it doesn’t get better when it gets to interpreting Haydn´s symphonies.

Solo Vocal

Brahms: Vier ernste Gesänge - Matthias Goerne - Christoph Eschenbach - Harmonia Mundi 2017

And yes again.

 

So 5 times alignment, not too bad.

 

If you take the other categories, I really need to check out the winner of Baroque Instrumental, called The Italian Job with Adrian Chandler and La Serenissima. From Caldara to Torelli, probably worth discovering.

Baroque Vocal has a recent Hyperion recording of some Bach cantatas with Jonathan Cohen´s Archangelo, I´ve heard good things about this ensemble, and will certainly have a closer look at the Hyperion website (unfortunately they don´t allow streaming of their content).

In the Early Music category, a John Dowland album won that simply isn´t my cup of tea musically, I´m too ignorant on contemporary to even comment on that category.

In the Opera category, a recording of Berg´s Wozzeck by Fabio Luisi won, I simply don´t have a BluRay player to check that one out.

But I´ll make sure to have a look at the album in the category Recitalwhere an album by the great Joyce di Donato In War And Peace won, that really sounds interesting.

So, what do you think? Who would you have chosen?

 

 

 

 

Isabelle Faust and Pablo Heras-Casado play Mendelssohn – Too HIP?

Isabelle Faust

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know I’m a huge Isabelle Faust fanboy.

Actually, I was mentally expecting another 5 star album when I saw what was just released, not suprisingly given my previous reviews (see here for the violin concertos of Mozart and Brahms, Brahms violin sonatas, her Beethoven sonata cycle is another reference for me,  or her recording of Schumann’s violin concerto and piano trios).

 

Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto / Symphony No.5 / The Hebrides – Isabelle Faust – Pablo Heras-Casado – Freiburger Barockorchester (Harmonia Mundi 2017)

 

Isabelle Faust Pablo Heras Casado Mendelssohn Violin Concerto Symphony No. 5, The Hebrides Freiburger Barockorchester 24 96 Harmonia Mundi

So, why don’t we get another 5 star review here?

Several reasons.

I’ve mentioned before in my review of the Mendelssohn’s symphonies by Yannick Nézet-Séguin that I just cannot relate very much to symphony no. 5. So I’ll leave the judgment of that work to others. I was hoping to like Heras-Casado’s previous recent recording of Mendelssohn’s 3rd and 4th (review not published), but found it a bit too rough on the edges to be really of my liking.

So, what about the centerpiece here, the violin concerto? Well, I cannot be to hard on Faust overall, her playing is flawless and impressive as usual. So what’s not to like?

Well, here we go into personal taste. I’ve always really liked the “historically informed” practice (HIP) using little vibrato, and often gut strings. I really feel it adds something to the music compared to the classical performance style of the 1960s-1980s.

And that’s exactly what Faust does here. Very, very, very little vibrato. Her Stradivarius, “Sleeping Beauty”, always had a slightly slimmer, shinier tone than others, which usually worked wonders for me.

But I’m sorry, it really doesn’t work for me at all with Mendelssohn. I just miss the fat romantic sound.

I’ve now played this album four times in the last days to see if it grows on me. And I just can’t get over it. So I’ll always refer you back to other recordings, like Janine Jansen’s beautiful album with Riccardo Chailly (mentioned in my 25 Essential Classical albums). Vibrato all the time (even though Chailly has done a good job putting a little bit of HIP into the Gewandhaus’ playing). And I just love it.

But that is not to say you shouldn’t check this album out. This really is purely based on personal preference, both Heras-Casado and Faust do an excellent performance.

The highlight of this album to me is the Hebrides overture, where the above mentioned roughness of the Heras-Casado and the Freiburger’s really works to paint the rough Northern landscape.

My review: 3 stars (and really only based on personal taste, you need to check it out to form your own opinion)

 

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

 

UPDATE Sep 23, 2017: The Guardian very much disagrees with me and gives this album a five star review. They like the roughness. Well, as mentioned above, you hav to listen to it to be the judge.

UPDATE Oct 5, 2017: Dave Hurvitz on Classicstoday has his full review behind his paywall, but I guess the title of the review gives his opinion away: “CD From Hell: Faust and Heras-Casado Starve Mendelssohn”. looks like this album generates rather strong reactions one way or another.