Christoph von Dohnányi – A Totally Underrated Conductor

Christoph von Dohnányi

Why are conductors get so much more well known that others? The classical music industry has it’s own mechanisms of getting attention. I’m not sure I’ve fully understood them yet.

In any case, let me take a recent release by German conductor Christoph von Dohnányi as trigger to write about this conductor I really like a lot, but probably isn’t as famous as he could (or should?) be?

Von Dohnányi, born in Berlin in 1929, started his training as… a lawyer. Yes, he went to law school in Munich before deciding that music was more his thing. Well to be fair, he had some family history, his father Ernst (Ernö) von Dohnányi  was a pianist and composer.

You could assume that  Dohnányi’s talent was rather quickly recognized, given that in his early years he worked with giants like Leonard Bernstein and Georg Solti.

Later on, he became conductor of major orchestras like the Cleveland Orchestra, that Georges Szell had really turned into a world class ensemble, and the Philharmonia orchestra, of Karajan and Klemperer fame.

He also worked with many other leading orchestras, be it in Boston, New York, Paris, or Vienna.

His recording of the Mendelssohn symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic are still among my absolute favorite versions, especially for no. 3 and 4.

Nevertheless, I as said initially, I don’t see his name pop up as often as you think as one of the great conductors of our time.

Schubert’s Symphonies

I’ve said it before, I’m not a big fan of Schubert’s symphonies in general. OK, there is the beautiful Unfinished, but anything before that to me is only of passing interest. On the other hand, Schubert obviously was an absolute genius for chamber music (e.g. here, and here), piano music (see this review), or the Lied. Unfortunately, he passed away way too early. You can only wonder what Schubert’s music would have been had he reached the age of Beethoven or Brahms.

I also have somehow a difficult connection to his so called Great Symphony, or no. 9 in C-major.

Side note: Actually C-major is a really boring key. It’s the one you play on a piano if you just leave out all the black keys. By musicologists and composers it is often described as noble and majestic. I personally like minor key quite a bit more. But let’s close the parenthesis here.

What really annoys me (well that’s a strong word) about Schubert’s symphony no. 9 is what Robert Schumann called the Himmlische Längen (heavenly length) of this work, there are just some repetitions too many for me.

But that minor annoyance set apart, it is still a beautiful piece of music.

Especially when it get’s played by a conductor I really like…..

Schubert: Symphony No. 9 – Live in Concert – Christoph von Dohnányi – Philharmonia Orchestra (Signum Classics 2016)

 

Schubert: Symphony No. 9 Live In Concert Christoph von Dohnanyi Philharmonia Orchestra Signum Classics

Another parenthesis here: what do you plan to do when you’re about to turn 87 years old? Still working? Probably not.

Well, not so for our hero of the story here, who recorded this beautiful album at the age of 86, in a live performance.

What do I like about this recording?

Well, in a nutshell it has just the right balance of gravitas and lightness that this work needs. You have the big sound of a major orchestra, but there is never anything static about it, always positive tension, and most of all, a lot of fun and joyfulness.

I suggest you read this insightful interview with the conductor about this particular recording here on Prestoclassical.

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz), and here (Signum Records)

 

 

Sol Gabetta, Leonard Slatkin, and the LA Philharmonic play Martinu and Berlioz – May 15, 2016

Disney Concert Hall

I’m a big Frank Gehry fan. Some critics say all of his buildings look a bit the same, and they may have a point. But honestly, given how great they look, I don’t mind a bit.

After having been to the Guggenheim Bilbao, and having stayed at the Gehry-designed Hotel Marques de Riscal in Rioja, a concert at the Walt Disney Concert Hall was long overdue.

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Although I’m in LA on a regular basis, I never had the time to actually go see a concert there. So I was very happy when things turned out different this time.

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Sol Gabetta

I just happened to be here during the annual Piatigorsky Cello festival, and saw the chance of seeing Sol Gabetta live. I had already seen her live in the past and was impressed by her passion. She is born in Argentina, but lives in Switzerland now.

The first time I heard about her was with her album Progetto Vivaldi back in 20o7, where she plays among others parts of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Note that these concertos are originally violin concertos, and she just effortlessly plays the violin part on a cello! Impressive.

With Leonard Slatkin and the LA Philharmonic

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I wasn’t too disappointed that Gustavo Dudamel wasn’t at the baton, as I’m really not a big fan of him. I had a more neutral opinion of Leonard Slatkin, and he really seems to be a nice guy, based on a long interview I recently heard with him, and the pre-concert talk he did at the Disney Hall (including a “conducting for beginners” improvisation).

The concert started off with Rossini’s William Tell overture. I must admit I’m not crazy about Rossini in general, but the overture really does the trick, and the part of the music that hasn’t been massacred for The Lone Ranger et al. is actually quite pleasant.

Bohuslav Martinu’s Cello Concerto

I’ve said it previously, I’m not too much into 20th century music. I occasionally like the impressionists like Debussy and Ravel, but beyond that I rarely enjoy stuff.

Three exceptions to the rule all come from Eastern Europe, Bartok, Janacek, and Martinu. I really like some of ;Martinu’s chamber music. But I must admit I hadn’t heard his cello concerto yet prior to this concert.

It is actually a nice experience discovering a new work for the first time in concert and not on record. It is a much more vivid experience. And in this case a very rewarding one. The concerto is just beautiful. Especially the second movement is really memorable. You wonder why this concerto isn’t played more often.

And Gabetta played great as expected, with passion and visibly having fun. We even got an encore from her, a solo piece by Peterisk Vasks. Trick question: how many voices can you get playing a solo cello? Regularly usually up to two if you play the strings in parallel. But here we got a third melody: her voice! A magical moment.

Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique

This is really about the only major work I know and love from Berlioz. The story is just fascinating. I’m still looking for my perfect interpretation on record, but “grew up” with the early 1990s recording of Roger Norrington with the London Classical Players, so early-HIP.

The LA Phil under Slatkin sounded anything but HIP, actually in many moments I was reminded of Wagner, but it was a great concert nevertheless. Slatkin went through a lot of efforts in storytelling, including putting one of the two “sheperds” from the pastoral scene on the balcony, or hiding the drums and “church bells” behind the orchestra.

Overall, a really great experience, in a beautiful hall, with great acoustics. The only downside of the great acoustics is that you hear every little noise the audience makes, and they were making a lot of it. I’ve rarely heard so many coughs, and this in spite of this concert being recorded for release.

In any case, I’m looking forward to buying this album eventually!

You can find the Progetto Vivaldi album here (Qobuz)

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Papa Haydn – Or Not? Ottavio Dantone’s Haydn Symphonies

Joseph Haydn

I haven’t written a lot about Haydn yet, actually, there is so far only one blog that mentions a Haydn album in passing.

This is not entirely by chance, I’m generally not a big Haydn fan.

Baroque, yes please! Mozart, Beethoven, give me more. But Haydn? Somewhere stuck in between.

The old saying of “Papa” Haydn certainly has a point. I very much like his Cello concertos, and his masterly string quartets. But his symphonies? More than 100? Not really my cup of tea.

Or so I thought. Apparently I’m not alone, in the most recent issue of Gramophone, an article commenting about the recording I’ll be discussing below mentioned that Haydn apparently doesn’t sell well.

So what has changed?

Haydn: Symphonies No. 78-81 by Ottavio Dantone and the Academia Bizantina (Decca 2016)

Haydn: Symphonies 78, 79, 80, 81 - Ottavio Dantone - Accademia Bizantina (24/96)

Ottavio Dantone? Isn’t that the guy that I have several lovely Corelli recordings from? Yes indeed, he is mainly known for his Baroque albums. And now he attacks the traditional “Wiener Klassik”. How does he manage this material?

Actually, really well. The historically informed practice, gut strings et al., really helps Haydn a lot. What it adds is precision and clarity.

This album to be sounds like very precisely drawn with a fine pencil. You don’t miss a single detail. At the same time, there is a lot of energy. “Papa” Haydn really gets a kick in the butt, metaphorically speaking (excuse my French), and this is what this music needs. Extremely refreshing.

Now, about the music itself. Are we talking about something similar to a Beethoven symphony? Well, not to me (although especially the early Beethoven symphonies were clearly inspired by Haydn). But there is enough going on to make this recording interesting and worth discovering even for people (like me) who would usually shun Haydn.

Side note: There currently is a highly exciting complete Haydn HIP style cycle in the making, called Haydn 2032, by Giovanni Antonini and the Kammerorchester Basel. This cycle so far has only released some of Haydn’s earlier symphonies that I really cannot be bothered with, but are played so well that I’ll be closely following this project.

Back to Dantone: My rating: 4 stars

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

My Must-have Mozart Albums

This post was directly triggered by a question I got to my last post on Mozart’s Violin Sonatas:

To quote jpas1954:

If someone, like me, wanted to listen to Mozart but didn’t know where to start, what would you recommend?

I figured instead of hiding it in the blog comments, I may as well make a post out of it.

So here we go.

The first 3 I already immediately answered from the top of my head, now a post with some additional recommendations,based on some more thinking about it.

The Clarinet Concerto

Take the second movement of the clarinet concerto, and you’re in heaven. The brillian Clarinetist Martin Fröst has recorded this twice, I prefer his second recording with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie. On top of the clarient concerto, you also get the beautiful Kegelstatt Trio, and a less well known Allegro, with brilliant guests such as Leif-Ove Ansdnes or Janine Jansen.

Mozart Clarinet Concerto Kegelstatt Trio Martin Fröst Deutsche Kammerphilhamonie Bremen BIS

The Late Symphonies

For a newbie, I’d focus on the late symphonies 38-41, with the famous no. 40 a-minor and no. 41 “Jupiter”. My favorite version is by Charles Mackerras. He also has recorded the symphonies twice, once in Prague, once with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. I prefer the latter, but the former is a good one if you want to get all 41 symphonies rather cheaply (and still very well played).

Mozart Symphonies 38-41 Charles Mackerras Scottish Chamber Orchestra Linn 24 88

Piano Concerto no. 20 & 25

So many good recordings out there. But as I just admire Martha Argerich very much, I had to put this one out there. Is it the best? Probably not, but it is very special, and one of the last recordings of Maestro Abbado.

Mozart Piano Concerto 25 & 20 Martha Argerich Claudio Abbado Orchestra Mozart

Good alternatives on fortepiano include Bezuidenhout and Brautigam, and on modern piano the Perahia recordings are also outstanding.

The Violin Concertos

Again Abbado with his own Orchestra Mozart,  and this time the brilliant Giuliano Carmignola (see my review of his outstanding Four Seasons here), have recorded one of the best versions of the violin concertos and Sinfonia Concertante out there.

Mozart Violin Concertos Giuliano Carmignola Claudio Abbado Orchestra Mozart DG Archiv

Another very good version is Richard Tognetti with the Australian Chamber Orchestra.

Solo Piano Works

Kristian Bezuidenhout is one of the best Mozart players of these days. His latest release of the complete piano works, vol. 7, is particularly well-played.

Mozart Keyboard Music vol. 7 Kristian Bezuidenhout Harmonia Mundi

For modern piano, try Uchida or Brendel.

The Requiem

Sadly, never finished, so you only get versions that were completed by others, like Mozart’s pupil Süssmayr.

Again, so many great versions out there; this recent release by the Dunedin Consort is excellent both on the playing and on the recording quality.

Mozart Requiem Dunedin Consort John Butt Linn Records

Alternatives include Gardiner, Harnoncourt, and many others.

The Violin Sonatas

See my previous post on Rachel Podger.

Mozart Complete Violin Sonatas vol. 2 Rachel Podger Gary Cooper Channel Classics

And finally, the Operas: Idomeneo

i’ll certainly write more about my favorite operas Don Giovanni, Le Nozze di Figaro, and Cosi Fan Tutte (see my review of Nézet-Séguins version here) in the future, all are absolute must-haves. Let me promote here the Opera that was Mozart’s own favorite apparently (at least some booklet told me at some point): Idomeneo

René Jacobs Mozart is always worth discovering, not always very orthodox, but certainly exciting.

This one is really very good, and is among the top Idomeneos out there.

Mozart Idomeneo René Jacobs Freiburger Barockorchester Harmonia Mundi

This is certainly only an early starting point.

I still need to write about the string quartets, the Great Mass in c-minor, the piano quartets, the horn concertos, etc. etc. etc.

But you need to start somewhere, and for a newbie, you probably have an excellent starting point here.

Please add and suggest other alternatives in the comments!

You can find the recordings here:

Clarinet Concerto: here

Symphonies: here

Piano concerto: here

Violin Concertos: here

Solo piano: here

Mozart Requiem: here

Idomeneo: here

Mendelssohn, Shakespeare, and Dausgaard

Mendelssohn

I’ve already written previously that I consider Felix Mendelssohn an underrated composer. Well, here’s another proof, if needed.

Mendelssohn’s opus 21, Ein Sommernachtstraum after Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is probably one of Mendelssohn’s most popular works. Not only for the music itself, but obviously because of the most important “hit”, his wedding march.

(Small parenthesis, it took me until after my own wedding to figure out that there are two world-famous wedding marches, this one, and the one taken from Wagner’s Lohengrin, nowadays known from American RomComs as “Here Comes The Bride”.

If you read the story of Lohengrin, and the sad ending with Lohengrin having to leave and Elsa dying, you wonder why everybody wants this to be played at your wedding.

Well, during my own civil ceremony, not realizing I should have been more specific, I just had ordered “The Wedding March” thinking of Mendelssohn, and ended up getting the Wagner one. Well, lesson learned. Lucikly, no swan nor dove has taken me away yet).

Thomas Dausgaard and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra

Mendelssohn Midsummer Night's Dream Thomas Dausgaard Swedish Chamber Orchestra BIS 2015

Have I already mentioned how much I appreciate BIS? It is really one of those amazing smaller labels that really care about music, like Hyperion, or Chandos, and that is giving the major labels a hard time. Luckily for us, they care about music and about sound quality, and are always exceedingly well recorded.

I already have a number of Dausgaard’s recordings with the Swedish Chamber, and am especially fond of his Schumann. So when this recording was flagged to me, I didn’t hesitate long, as this is just the right music for this ensemble. Dausgaard’s tempi are always fast, there’s tons of energy and drive, and the smaller size of the Swedish Chamber sounds just right here.

On top of Shakespeare, you get the rather well-known Hebrides overture (beautifully played), and the  Schöne Melusine overture which so far was unknown to me. Obviously, like everything Mendelssohn, it is a charming work and well worth discovering.

My rating: 4 stars

You can get it from the label’s own shop, classical. At the time of writing, the 24/96 version of the album is even discounted. This only lasts some weeks usually, so if you like it, get it now).

UPDATE Jan 4, 2016: Gramophone has just very positively reviewed this album in it’s January 2016 edition. They would love to see this as the beginning of a Mendelssohn symphony cycle, and I wholeheartedly agree!

Gramophone’s Artist of the Year, Paavo Järvi, and his Beethoven Symphony no. 4

Paavo Järvi

Maestro Paavo Järvi just got voted Artist of the Year as part of the yearly Gramophone Awards.

As much as I wasn’t totally in agreement with some of Gramophone’s other choices (see my comment here), I fully agree with this readers choice, in fact, I also voted for him.

The son of Neeme (see my review of his Tchaikovsky here) and brother of Kristjan, certainly comes from a very musical family. He’s been recording with a number of orchestras, in Frankfurt, Bremen, Paris and elsewhere, and is producing an enormous amount of recordings. In spite of this quantity, his quality has been consistently very high.

Beethoven’s symphonies

I just noticed I hadn’t written a single post on Beethoven’s symphonies yet. In a way, they are the summit of classical music, that all other composers after him looked up to, and have been recorded and played thousands of times.

So if you still bother to record them in the 21st century, you better have a good reason. And interestingly enough, it is often smaller or lesser known orchestras that really offer a fresh view on things, e.g. Osmo Vänskä’s cycle with the Minnesota Orchestra, or the young Kammerphilharmonie Bremen with Paavo Järvi here. Berlin, Vienna, and NY, you better be on your toes (and Berlin certainly did  a smart and creative choice with Petrenko).

Deutsche Welle has published an excellent documentary on Paavo’s work with the Kammerphilharmonie, which can be found on Youtube (see part 1 at the end of this post).

Symphony no. 4 and 7

Beethoven symphonies 4 & 7 - Paavo Järvi - Deutsche Kammerphilhamonie Bremen

Why of all the albums did I pick symphonies no. 4 and 7?

Not not for my beloved symphony no. 7 (my preferred Beethoven symphony). But unfortunately, for this symphony, the definite recording has already been done some time ago, and while Järvi does an excellent job here, he cannot beat the legendary Kleiber version.

Beethoven Symphonies no. 5 and 7 Carlos Kleiber Wiener Philharmoniker Deutsche Grammophon

However, where I really think Järvi does a small miracle is symphony no. 4.

This symphony overall reminds me way to much of Haydn, and sorry to all Haydn fans, but his symphonies just don’t grab my attention enough (disclaimer: his string quartets and cello concertos are a different story. And I’m watching closely the Haydn 2032 project of Giovanni Antonini, that may eventually change my mind about the symphonies).

Big blocks of b-flat major orchestral tuttis all over the place, it is in a very unfortunate place between the monsters of the Eroica and the 5th, kind of the ugly step-child of Beethoven symphonies (the only one I like even less is the 8th).

Now what does Järvi do with this? Two words come to mind: Energy and transparency. This is not a recording that sounds like “Papa Haydn”. This is a recording that will have you sit on the edge of your seat all of the time, eagerly waiting what comes next. There is no moment to breathe, no moment to relax, it is tension, but a very positive one, all the time. This is exactly how this should be played!

Obviously, you can safely check out all other symphonies of the Beethoven cycle as well, you’ll never be disappointed by Järvi and the Kammerphilharmonie.

My rating: 5 stars

As promised above, part 1 of the documentary about Järvi’s Beethoven, you’ll find the three other parts on Youtube as well.

My Favorite Bruckner – Günter Wand’s Late Recordings With The Berlin Philharmonic

Anton Bruckner

Pretty much at the same time, around the end of high school, my two favorite composers were Brahms and Bruckner. As you can see, one survived and made it to the subtitle of my blog.

The other one, good old Anton, I listen too much less regularly these days. I still love mainly symphonies no. 4 and 7, but overall the broad romanticism and huge mountains of symphony blocks appeal less to me than they did at back then. Probably for similar reasons, I really still don’t appreciate Wagner that much, with some rare exceptions.

In parallel my taste moved backwards in time from the late romantic area to really appreciating Mozart and Bach. When I was really young I thought of Mozart as “too light”, and Bach as “could be composed by a computer, like painting by numbers”, Ah, the stupid arrogance of teenagers.

Anyhow, back to Bruckner. I still like him, even if I listen to his works only occasionally.

But if I do, it is usually with this box:

Anton Bruckner: Symphonies – Günter Wand – Berliner Philharmoniker

Günter Wand Anton Bruckner Symphonies Berliner Philharmoniker RCA Red Seal

Günter Wand is one of those amazingly underrated conductors, and usually only well known by die-hard Bruckner fans. There is something special about Wand and Bruckner. To be fair, Wand has recorded the symphonies at least 3 times, from a very good cycle in Cologne in the seventies, to several recordings with the NDR Symphony Orchestra in Hamburg he lead for many years, to this one, where he got to lead the BPO for a selection of the symphonies.

I grew up on Wand’ reading with the NDR. I even had the pleasure of hearing him live twice, with Bruckner 4 and 8. So obviously I’m biased, and you should certainly also check out other Bruckner specialists like Eugen Jochum or good old Karajan (yes, you Karajan haters out there, his Bruckner is great. Mind you, I used to be a Karajan hater as well….).

I only got introduced to this set 3-4 years ago from a good friend of mine from high school, who attended some of the Wand concert with me. A I had kind of moved on from Bruckner, I simply stuck to my old CDs whenever I wanted to go back and hadn’t really looked in to new recordings for nearly 20 years.

So what do I like about this? Well, it’ best of two worlds, you get Günter Wand who knows Bruckner inside out, and really has a lot of insights to offer, and you get a world-class orchestra like the Berlin Philharmonic. The sound of the BPO is just perfect for Bruckner. As much as I like the NDR, they are obviously in a different league.

Wand approaches the symphonies in a very clean way: there is no romantic overload, no sweet sugary drama, just illustrating the actually rather introvert struggle of an underrated, very catholic Austrian organ player with an inferiority complex that Anton Bruckner apparently was for most of his life.

(Bruckner experts, if I painted a wrong portrait taken mainly from reading too many booklets, please correct me!).

My rating: 5 stars (I notice I’m giving too many five stars recently. But I still think this is purely due to selection bias of me wanting to write about music I really like and not some kind of star inflation).

You can get it here (Qobuz).

P.S. David Hurvitz disagrees with me and thinks Wand’s Hamburg recordings are superior to the BPO ones. You may want to check them out too if you find them, e.g. in this box set. You never know, I may eventually return to my “roots” as well.

UPDATE Jan 29, 2016: In the Feb 2016 issue of Classica magazine, the reviewers compared blindly ten selected versions of Bruckner’s 9th. Günter Wand’s BPO version comes out on top! Here’s the comment: “The best possible version for discovering this work. Pure music, marked by the seal of infinity and eternity” (French sometimes have a certain way of getting very poetic with their language).