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.
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)
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?)
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.
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 Recital, where an album by the great Joyce di Donato In War And Peace won, that really sounds interesting.
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)
So, why don’t we get another 5 star review here?
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.
As you can see from the subtitle of my blog, I’m a huge Brahms fan.
Unfortunately, I haven’t been that happy with most of the Brahms symphony cycles recorded in the last 30 years. To be fair, even more than for other composers, the legacy left by the glorious recordings of Furtwängler, Klemperer, Walter, and even Toscanini, made it not easy to do something better (except for the recording quality).
We’ve had some very modern light “HIP” approaches from Gardiner and Dausgaard, both of which I appreciate as they give a very fresh point of view, and benefit especially the lighter middle symphonies (I consider 1 & 4 the heavyweights).
Well, my wishes have been heard. The BSO has recently released their first full Brahms cycle. And I must admit I initially didn’t plan on buying it. The album is not available for streaming on my favorite streaming provider (except for the 4th), and the 1st is so critical to me that I didn’t want to buy blindly.
Brahms: The Symphonies – Andris Nelsons – Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO Classics 2017)
So, what do you get?
Well, let me start by saying, if you like Brahms, you need to have this box. Nelsons takes the learnings from the great classics, mixes in the beautiful BSO sound, and brings a very beautiful Brahms style to life.
I’d call it Cinemascope, as you really see all the colors, on a very big screen. His approach is never rushed. You get to see all the fine details that Brahms managed so well.
Let’s talk about the individual symphonies, and let’s take them backwards.
Symphony No. 4
I’ve mentioned above that No. 4 is one of the two heavyweights for me. I particularly love the variations of the fourth. I’ve mentioned Nelsons taking it relatively slow. He takes 10:08 for this movement. This is not yet the 11:29 of a Bruno Walter, but also not the 9:35 of a John Eliot Gardiner, or even the 9:23 of a Chailly (interestingly, Furtwängler uses 9:47, starting slowly but accelerating over time, which works for me).
But, this music can take the tempo. There is so much going on in these fantastic variations, and Nelson lays it all out in front of you. And he keeps the power during the entire movement, which isn’t easy.
Symphony No. 3
Going one back to no. 3: here the heavier approach works, but not as well as for no. 4. It gives the famous Poco Allegretto (known from movies and commercials) an even more sentimental character. In some way this speed, with the tremolo of the violins, makes the quiet anti-climax of the ending sound like we’ve just moved directly into a Wagner opera.
Brahms wasn’t a particular fan of Wagner, but actually this shows that while they may have disagreed on structure, there are more similarities between the two than you’d think.
Symphony No. 2
Symphony no. 2 is sometimes considered Brahms’ Pastorale. And here is where I have my biggest problem with the slower tempo, it tends to take away some of the lightness of this music. Here I’d much rather have a Chailly or Gardiner. That said, it is still a beautiful recording.
Symphony No. 1
And now let’s move to symphony no. 1, my absolute favorite of the four (here’s why). And you’ve probably guessed it by now: Nelson’s style is just perfect for this romantic work.
My appreciation of any interpretation of this symphony is often already formed in the first seconds: the chromatic increased with the dramatic tympani needs to grab me immediately (as do Furtwängler and Klemperer), otherwise, I’m already lost. Nelsons takes a very special approach here, the tension is there but he doesn’t release it yet. Beautifully done. Movements 2 and 3 are nice, but basically just fillers between movements 1 and 4. The finale really summarizes what I love about Brahms. A lot of variation and developments (you never know what comes next), and then so outstandinly beautiful moments as the famous horn solo (at 2:56 for Nelsons), followed by the even more amazing melody of the cellos (at 5:12).
It is still a bit too early days, but this has the potential to become my new modern reference version of Brahms 1.
My rating: 5 stars.
I was hesitating a bit, as you’ve seen above that not all of the four performances are 5 stars to me (1 and 4 certainly are, 3 up to a point, 2 would “only” be 4 star), but this is overall a very convincing new reading of the Brahms classics. Check it out!
You can find it here (BSO website) and here (Qobuz)
Not surprisingly for a Hervé Niquet album, this one is really good. I´m not such a big fan of Cherubini in general, but this one is really with checking out.
My rating: 4 stars
I´ll skip the opera section, as I´m not really an opera expert in the first place, and didn’t find anything too interesting in this section to try out.
Haydn: Il Distratto – Haydn 2032 no. 4 – Giovanni Antonini – Il Giardino Armonico
Antonini´s Haydn is as good as ever. This has the potential of being the reference Haydn cycle of the 21st century (but we´ll have to wait another 15 years to find out). See my review of vol. 3. My rating: 4 stars (this is absolute 5 star playing, but I just can´t get myself to give a Haydn symphony 5 stars…)
I’m going to skip Mahler´s 10 by Dausgaard. I´m not enough of a fan of the 10th (which isn’t a complete symphony in the first place) to be able to give a proper judgment here.
Shostakovich Symphonies No. 5 and 9 – Nelsons – Boston Symphony (DG 2017)
I´m going to skip again over Sibelius 3 & 6 by Vänskä, I´m not familiar enough with Sibelius symphonic work to really be able to judge. But everybody I know that knows something about Sibelius tends to recommend the Vänskä cycle, so I assume there must be something to it.
Vasily Petrenko´s Tchaikovsky get´s a second recommendation here (after the violin concerto which didn’t impress me much). And sorry, the Pathetique again isn´t my cup of tea, so no comment from my side here. Same comment applies to Bychkov´s recording of the same work, you´ll have to look elsewhere for a review of this.
I´m going to skip over Recital and Solo Vocal categories as well. The only album that appealed to me in the former is Anett Fritsch´s Mozart album, which is quite well done, but for me no match to Sabine Devielhe´s solo album last year.
And in the Solo Vocal, Goerne´s Brahms album is a no brainer, as I love his voice, but again I don’t feel comfortable enough properly reviewing Lieder, this is still a territory I need to explore slowly and cautiously. I´m sure I´ll get there eventually
So, there you have it. As you can see from my two posts here, I´m not fully convinced by this year´s selection.
Is there anything you must buy?
I´d say, the only must-haves in this selection are the Shostakovich with Nézet-Séguin, 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.
I´d probably pass on most of the others.
What do you think? Am I completely off? Anything I´ve missed? Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments!
Yes, again no post in 2 weeks, but I assume you don’t want to hear my lame excuses (too much work, family, etc.).
So let me start with a spoiler alert (actually, a bit late given that the title already gives it away), this will be a relatively useless review. I’ll actually be writing only about 2 out of 5 symphonies, and you won’t even get a proper review, just a very subjective “I like it, but”, with out getting any more specific.
I haven’t written that much about Mendelssohn yet. And this is not because I don’t like the composer, to the contrary. I adore his Lieder ohne Worte (Song without Words), and have written about them here.
But I haven’t really written about his symphonies yet. Why is that? Well, for once, I really only like symphonies 3 and 4, the Scottish and the Italian. No. 1 and 2 never touched me, and the reformation was with the exception of certain elements also not really my cup of tea.
Furthermore, I have yet to find my preferred set of these two. I still often go back to Christoph von Dohnanyi’s or Claudio Abbado’s old recordings.
I was very hopeful for the recent approach of Heras-Casado with the Freiburgers, but again, wasn’t convinced.
Therefore, I obviously immediately had to check out a new version by Yannick Nézet-Séguin with the COE.
Mendelssohn: The Symphonies – Yannick Nézet-Séguin – Chanber Orchestra of Europe (DG 2017)
It is no secret, I generally like Nézet-Séguin, the dynamic Canadian, and especially so with the COE. Be it for his Cosi Fan Tutte or for example his great Rachmaninov recoring with Daniil Trifonov.
Some critics say he has too many orchestras, having been involved with the COE, the Philadelphia, and the Rotterdam, to just name some, but he still is one of the most promising conductors of our time.
So, after this long intro, what about his Mendelssohn?
As mentioned above, I’m not too familiar with Symphonies 1, 2, and 5, and will leave the judgment to others.
But for 3 and 4, I do have an opinion. I can simply say, after at least 4-5 listenings, this is a 4 star recording to me. Lots of energy, punch at the right places, enough darkness in the Scottish, enough lightness in the Italian (but with a twist).
So what is wrong, why not 5 stars? And here is again where I get useless. There is something missing, but I simply cannot put my finger on it. This will be a version that I’ll go to again many times, but will it be my reference? Probably not.
But then again, as mentioned above, I really don’t have a reference yet. Maybe the seemingly accessible symphonies 3 and 4 have some dirty secret, that just make them impossible to master. I’ll keep looking.
I’m curious what the professional reviewers will be saying (at the time of writing, I haven’t seen any reviews out there yet).
In the meantime, check out this recording. You won’t be disappointed, I promise, in spite of my rather useless review.
My rating: 4 stars
You can find it here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)
UPDATE Aug 11: In their September issue, Gramophone awards this box a Recording Of The Month. Richard Wigmore is talking about “imaginative, fabulously executed performances” that “guarantee abiding pleasure”.
UPDATE August 26: to add some further confusion: The Guardian give this box a 3 star rating only, calling technically ok but artistically not adding a lot. I guess you’ll really have to make up your own mind on this recording.
UPDATE Sep 3: also only 3 stars from the French Classica. So really your call. In a nutshell: Listen before you buy!
UPDATE Sep 10: Classics Today’s Victor Carr Jr gives 6 out of 10 points for this album, calling it a “rather pathetic drag”.
I heard the Stravinsky’s Pulcinella suite for the first time live (and probably for the first time conciously, I have it on a Günter Wand album but never paid much attention).
And, more importantly, I was at my first live concert with a female conductor. This is a pretty sad fact given that we’re in the year 2017 and I attend classical concerts on a regular basis. But let’s look at the odds: right now there are only three female conductors I’d be able to spontaneously come up with: Simone Young in Hamburg, Marin Alsop, and closer to my heart, Emmanuelle Haïm. Can you come up with any other names? Wikipedia gives you a slightly (but really only slightly) longer lists with other names I’ve never heard of.
I actually had heard the name of Alondra de la Parra once before, on the radio. But that was all I knew about this young Mexican conductor (who was born in NYC).
So I was very curious to hear her, given that the Tonhalle Orchester had given her the opportunity of three consecutive concerts.
A little parenthesis on the Tonhalle-Orchester: The only recently appointed current conductor, Lionel Bringuier, will soon be history. I’ve only heard him once with the Tonhalle, but really wasn’t convinced, so I’m not very sad about the change.
David Zinman did great things with the orchestra previously (even though it is still a bit short of being on par with the really big guys), and so I’m very much looking forward to whoever will be replacing him. Paavo Järvi has been mentioned, and given my affection for him, I’d be applauding.
But if de la Parra get’s 3 evenings, I’m just wondering, could she also be in the mix?
Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite
Well, this one will be quite quick, as I simply don’t have any reference to judge the performance from. All I can say is I was surprised I really liked the piece. I have a very difficult relationship with Stravinsky, I hate Le Sacre, I can listen to Petrouchka about once every 5 years, preferable in the piano version.
It’s generally just not my cup of tea. But this piece warrants further study.
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 9 – Jan Lisiecki
Beyond Mrs de la Palla, Jan Lisiecki was the other motivation for me (plus being near Zurich anyhow that particular day) to go to see this concert.
He got very good reviews for his Chopin and Mozart, and so I was very curious to see this very young artist (22 years old) from Canada live. The first thing that’s a bit shocking is that he looks even younger than that. He wouldn’t be out of place in any US highschool movie.
Now, how did the two young stars play together? Well, let’s just say it was a really interesting experience. De la Parra lead the Tonhalle with a lot of energy, but overall the playing sounded a tiny bit heavy (maybe I’m also just too much used to historically informed performance these days). On top of that, Lisiecki had a rather firm grip on the Steinway.
Therefore, this well-known concert, which was written by the 21 year old Mozart, sounded a lot like Beethoven, and not even like his first two concertos, which still live the spirit of Mozart, but in parts this could have even been the 4th concerto.
And the 2nd movement got even more interesting, it sounded really much more like a Chopin concerto. Nothing wrong with all this, and it was a very pleasing experience, it is just different from what I’m recently used to hear.
Appropriately enough, Lisiecki gave us a Chopin encore, op. 48 no. 1, if my memory serves me well. This really was quite spectacular. Lisiecki gave it so much energy, especially in the second half, that I was occasionally thinking of being in the Grande Polonaise Brilliante. In any case, should you listen to this performance late at night (which the title Nocturne kind of indicates), you’d be wide awake by all the sheer brilliance. Very enjoyable.
The true highlight came after the break though.
I love the Eroica. Actually, it is a mistake that I didn’t mention it in my 25 Essential Classical Albums (a mistake I’ll soon rectify by enlarging the list to 50). But it’s been ages since I last heard it live somewhere.
I was really hoping from some Latin power (mentally I was probably thinking of de la Parra as the female equivalent of Rodrigo, the slightly crazy Mexican conductor in Amazon’s TV series Mozart in the Jungle).
But I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Boy, how positively surprised I ended up being. I spend the entire Eroica on the edge of my seat by the sheer energy she created. The poor musicians of the Tonhalle Orchester were clearly stretched to their limits, but they were following her with all the energy and passion they got. Wow!
In summary, as much as I’d like to see Paavo Järvi in Zürich, should the Tonhalle Orchester be daring and go for this amazing talent, I’d be all for it!