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.

Brahms in Cinemascope: Andris Nelsons and the BSO’s New Symphony Cycle

Brahms’ Symphonies

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).

But unfortunately, most of the recent complete symphony recordings didn’t impress me much (see also this post where I was desperately, and in vain, searching for a modern reference of the 1st symphony). The only box I like (and still, not for every symphony) is Riccardo Chailly’s cycle with the Gewandhaus, which takes a nice middle way between the heavy romantic recordings of the past and the HIP inspired gut-string recordings of today.

Andris Nelsons

I’m a big fan of Andris Nelsons since he took over the Boston Symphony Orchestra. I put his Shostakovich into my best albums for 2016. I even specifically mentioned in said blog post about Brahms 1 that I was hoping for a new reference recording to come from Nelsons and the BSO.

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.

Well, then the September 2017 issue of Gramophone comes out, and gives it an “Editor’s choice”. I haven’t always been in agreement with Gramophone recently (see my comments about the 2017 Gramophone awards), but an Editor’s choice still means something. Then I started googling and also found this excellent review by John Marks, formerly with Stereophile.

So there you had me. I bought the box blindly.

Brahms: The Symphonies – Andris Nelsons – Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO Classics 2017)

 

Brahms: The Symphonies - Andris Nelsons - Boston Symphony Orchestra 24/192

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)

My Reflections on the 2017 Gramophone Awards – Part II

This is the continuation of Part I of my musings about the 2017 Gramophone Awards.

I had a to-do from this entry, which was to check out Hervé Niquet´s latest Cherubini album.

Cherubini / Plantade: Requiems – Hervé Niquet – Le Concert Spirituel (Alpha 2017)

Cherubini / Plantade: Requiems pour Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette Hervé Niquet - Le Concert Spirituel Alpha 2017

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.

Orchestral

Haydn: Il Distratto – Haydn 2032 no. 4 – Giovanni Antonini – Il Giardino Armonico

Haydn 2032 no. 4 Il Distratto Giovani 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)

 

Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 5, 8 & 9 - Andris Nelsons - Boston Symphony Orchestra

This was part of my own top 5 albums of 2016, and yes, this is true 5 star territory!

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

Conclusion

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!