Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 with Neeme Järvi or Why I Don’t Like Tchaikovsky

Tchaikovsky

There are several reasons why I don’t like Tchaikovsky. The first one is a bit silly and absolutely not his fault, but his Russian name Пётр Ильи́ч Чайко́вский has been transcribed into several different European languages in a different spelling, so trying to search for him in any kind of database or streaming service is an absolute nightmare.

The second reasons is that in general, Tchaikovsky is either “too much” in the sense that 1 pancake in the morning makes you want more, 4 and you already feel a bit stuffed, and 9 as I’ve been served in some US hotels just makes you want to run away. This is the occasional Tchaikovsky, let’s take his unfortunately totally overplayed piano concerto for example. Just can’t hear that thing any more. Even the Violin Concerto, that i kind of like, has some moments where less would be more.

I’ve tried all Tchaikovsky symphonies several times, and none of them speak to me in any way (the one exception will be mentioned below). To be fair, I haven’t really tried his operas yet, I’m still a bit hesitant when I don’t understand a word of what is being sung in an opera, makes the enjoyment harder.

There are exceptions within his oeuvre that I like, I on (rare) occasions listen to his ballets, which have some magical melodies, the first movement of the string serenade is kitsch, but beautiful, and obviously his Violin Concerto played by Jascha Heifetz (or Julia Fischer) is kind of special.

By the way, I strongly recommend you read a biography about Tchaikovky’s life, he surely didn’t have an easy one. Closet homosexual (one suspects), suffering from regular depression, died of Cholera (could have been a suicide), etc. etc. Your regular soap opera doesn’t get as dramatic as that. (EDIT: please check out the responses to this thread, it seems like some of this is inaccurate according to latest research).

Symphony No. 5 e-minor

So what is different about symphony no. 5? I don’t know really, it is really the overall character of this symphony in the dramatic and sad key of e-minor.

It basically starts out as kind of funeral march, and somehow is linked mentally to Beethoven’s 5th (I suppose no composer could ever write a fifth symphony without thinking of the famous “original”, and you hear influences e.g. in Mahler’s 5th as well. Some speculate even there’s a reason why Brahms stopped at 4). I also plays around with th notion of fate, a familiar motive within the symphony

There is something weird about the ending. Tchaikovsky himself considered it failed. I don’t care at all, this symphony really draws me in, and keeps my attention until the end. Tons of emotions again, but unlike after 9 pancakes, you don’t feel stuffed (exhausted maybe instead)

Neeme Järvi

Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 Neeme Järvi Gothenburg Symphony

Estonia is a weird place. 1.3m in habitants, but it is the birthplace of an entire outstanding family of excellent conductors, with Neeme, Kristjan, and Paavo, and also the home of Arvo Pärt, one of the most important contemporary composers.

I’m a big fan of most of Paavo’s playing, especially his recordings with the Kammerphilharmonie Bremen. More about that later. But this is about his dad, Neeme. While Neeme never had any formal ties with any of the grand old orchestras in Berlin, Vienna, or New York, his work with smaller ensembles like the Gothenburg Symphony or the Royal Scottish National Orchestra contain many hidden gems.

This recording is one of them. Very well recorded  (the Swedish label BIS is usually excellent at this), the smaller Gothenburg Orchestra and Järvi’s conducting give it a nice transparency, but still you get the full dose of emotions. Tradition says that Russian symphonies are best played by Russian conductors and orchestras, and while there are good examples for this (e.g. Mravinsky), these two neighbouring countries (Estonia and Sweden) do just fine for my ears.

Overall rating: 5 stars (meaning I don’t think you could play the symphony any better than this. Not meaning these 5 stars mean as much to me as e.g. Bach’s b-minor mass)

Side note: You can download it here from BIS’ own download shop, E-classical. What I really like about this shop that you are not obliged to buy entire albums, you can just buy individual tracks, and this is exactly what I did, I only went for the symphony, so cannot really comment on the two other works that were bundled on this album.

Am I Deaf or How Could This Go So Wrong – Gardiner & Pires’ Schumann & Mendelssohn

Sometimes there are albums coming out where just looking at the artists involved you really anticipate something great.

So when I read about this album of Maria João Pires playing the Schumann piano concerto together with the LSO conducted by Gardiner, I was really looking forward to hearing this. A beautiful pairing as well with Mendelssohn’s Scottish symphony that I really like.

Schumann piano concerto Mendelssohn Symphony No. 3 Maria Joao Pires John Eliot Gardiner LSO Live

Pires plays fantastic Mozart and Chopin (e.g. her Nocturnes are just beautiful), and I’m a big fan of Gardiner not only for his Bach cantatas, but also for his symphony recordings with the ORR. And obviously, the London Symphony is a great orchestra.

So all the stars are aligned. On top this album has received a Gramophone Editor’s Choice, plus some other great reviews.

And then I start listening (luckily I went for streaming first instead of just immediately buying), and can’t help to think I must have clicked on the wrong album. The Schumann piano concerto is just plain boring! Total lack of passion and energy. And a perceived speed that feels way too slow. Then I check, and it is really Gardiner and Pires playing here. How could this go wrong?

You have plenty of other alternatives here, go for Radu Lupu, Dino Lipatti (a disc to convert Karajan haters by the way), Andsnes again, etc. etc. etc.

But I don’t give up and check the Scottish symphony. Again, I can’t believe my ears. At best, an average performance. The worst is the forth movement which feels plump, and on some occasions (this is a live recording) the LSO even sounds out of sync. This is not the brilliant Gardiner of Schumann’s 4th with the ORR, this is somebody else entirely.

For Mendelssohn, I’d recommend you rather go with Abbado, or Christoph von Dohnanyi.

No idea what the guys at Gramophone heard here. I just don’t get it.

Overall rating: Just about 3 stars (It really pains me to give such a mediocre rating as these are all amazing musicians individually. But I just can’t help it.)

Ivan Fischer’s Mahler 9 or What To Make of Album Reviews

Reviewing music

Before we get to Mahler, let me start more general. You’ll see that I often recommend albums that have also been recommended by major classical magazines such as Gramophone and Classica. Sometimes it gets a bit extreme, when Gramophone recently came up with a list of the Top 10 Schubert recordings, in my handful of reviews so far I’ve already mentioned 2 out of the top 10 (Schiff and the Pavel Haas Quartet)

That is obviously no coincidence. I read several magazines to keep me posted on new releases and to get a hint on which ones are worth a closer look. So you could kind of ask, why bother reading my blog and not go directly to the original source. Well, obviously I strongly encourage you to read the original source. Our ailing classical press is probably even worse off than the rest of the music industry and needs every paying subscriber they can get.

That said, I simply don’t always agree with the critics, and you’ll always find my own personal  opinion here. I’ve described here how I come up with my ratings, which are obviously absolutely subjective.

The thing is, I’m not the only one being subjective, everybody else, including the professional reviewers, are. There simply aren’t any objective standards to say why one recording is good, another one is bad, beyond simple technical faults (and even here, many prefer an Artur Schnabel playing Beethoven in spite of his many objective playing mistakes).

Ivan Fischer’s Mahler 9

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This recording is a case in point. Gramophone names it among the Editor’s Choices of the month, and calls it “a potential Gramophone award winner”, Classica in this month’s issue calls the very same album “disappointing”, and gives it one star, the worst ranking out of 5. They even just bring it up in the “Egalement réçus” (also received) page, which I usually don’t even bother reading (it’s very text heavy and not easy to read). Doesn’t get more extreme than this. (Footnote: Overall, I like this approach, these day too often every single review is positive, and positive review ONLY make sense if there’s also stuff you don’t like at all).

So who is right? The problem is, I don’t know. I’m not a big Mahler fan overall. I like the 1st and 4th, and the 5th up to a point, and struggle with the rest. The 9th I’ve only started partially appreciating recently, 1-2 years ago (with Abbado), and so I simply don’t know the work well enough to make a proper judgment. I really liked Fischer’s approach to Mahler 1 and 4, which I feel comfortable judging, but on the ninth all I can say I haven’t found any obvious flaws yet.

What I can say is that the recording, like pretty much every single album by the Dutch Channel Classics label, is extremely well recorded, and is a pleasure listening to just for that. With a good hifi system you’ll be in for a treat. I recommend download a high resolution version directly from their website or buy an SACD if you have a compatible player.

If you’re a Mahler aficionado, and you’re reading this, I’d very much appreciate your opinion in the comments section on this rather controversial approach to Gustav Mahler.

Brahms 1 – Still Looking

Following my previous post, I was thinking to myself, what if somebody asks you for a recording in stereo? Not everybody is willing to put up with a mono recording. Well, my recommendation goes to Otto Klemperer in this case (Philharmonia on EMI).

Next question: what if I want a recording that is less than 50 years old? And here I get in trouble. While there are decent contemporary recordings out there of the Brahms Symphonies, like the recent cycles from Chailly (very straightforward, but some excellent insights) to Thielemann, none of them get it fully right for no.1. Same goes for Gardiner and Dausgaard, that I admire on so many other recordings, e.g. Schumann. Both relatively recent Berlin Phil recordings with Rattle and Abbado leave me cold.

In the end, I’m hoping one of my current favorite next generation conductors will pick this up and just hit the same level of energy as now 64 years ago in Berlin. Good candidates for this are Nezet-Séguin (although he tends to be speedy) and Paavo Järvi, who’s Beethoven cycle with the Bremen Kammerphilharmonie is outstanding. Or Andris Nelsons with the BSO. Well, fingers crossed.

In the meantime, I’ll just live with a mono recording.

P.S. (October 2016), somebody pointed me to this live recording by Klaus Tennstedt with the LPO. Still, no replacement for Furtwängler, but at least getting the idea:

Brahms Symphony No. 1 No. 3 Klaus Tennstedt London Philharmonic BBC

You can find it here (Chandos)

And I’ll keep my eye open for future releases.

UPDATE August 20, 2017: Above I asked for Nelsons and the BSO to record a cycle. Well, now they did. And it is really good. See my review here.

Brahms 1st symphony – why it means so much to me

Well, the subtitle of my blog is “From Jarrett to Brahms”, so I after writing about the former I may as well write about the latter.

Brahms will always have a special place in my heart, not only he was born in my favorite city in the world (no, not NYC; although that comes close), but his music combines the best of what the so-called “classical” music (which spans several centuries of written music): He has the greatness of Beethoven (his idol), the romanticism of a Schumann (his mentor), the structure of Bach (Brahms studied Counterpoint extensively), he comes from my favorite instrument (the piano), and no matter what piece you hear from him, it has something very uniquely “Brahmsian” about it.

Smarter minds than me have tried to define what that actually consists of, I won’t even try. I’m pretty sure listening to several of Brahms works (for a start, how about Symphony 1, the German requiem, some of his late piano pieces op. 116-119, and some chamber music, e.g. his piano quartet op. 25), and I hope you feel and hear the commonality.

The first oeuvre from Brahms that impressed me was his first piano concerto, in a decent but not outstanding recording with Solti and Andras Schiff. I still very much like this, but will write on it later on. I very quickly started diving into his symphonies, and no. 1 quickly became my favorite (these days, 4 comes very close in my personal preference, 3 is a bit behind, and 2 is nice to have).

Wilhelm Furtwängler

By today, I’ve collected at latest count 30 version of “Sinfonie Nr. 1 c-moll op. 68”, to give it its official title. My first early favorite was Otto Klemperer’s version on EMI. Not to far after that, I discovered the legendary Wilhelm Furtwängler, and all 3 versions I have from him are very very good.

I cannot decide which of these is my favorite, but most likely it is the version with the Berliner Philharmoniker on Deutsche Grammophon, recorded in 1951 (or 52?). The other versions I have are with the Hamburg NDR orchestra and the Concertgebouw)

How do I compare versions of this work? Well, usually I’d use a more differentiated approach, but on symphony 1 I’m simple-minded: the chromatic opening part, with the characteristic tympani. If this part doesn’t have the right gravitas and tension (up to a point where I feel all my muscles tensing), I pass on. An example of how not to do it in my mind is Günter Wand (an underrated conductor that I otherwise adore, especially on Bruckner), which takes the opening WAY to fast.

Luckily, Furtwängler keeps the quailty at very high levels up to the end. In this symphony, the first and forth movement are so heavy and important, that the two movements in between barely count. You get a “relaxing” Andante, and a very short and sweet (approx 5 min) Poco Allegretto in between. This is good, because if one had to keep the tension and the overwhelming feelings from movements 1 and 4 for an entire 5 min, you’d probably feel like being on Botox and Extasy at the same time.

So, as said before, movement 1 lives on the dramatic chromatic opening. But it gets even better: movement no. 4 is as ecstatic as the 4th movement of Beethoven’s 9th (without all over sudden somebody shouting  “Oh Froyda” and all the other singing about freedom and equality that goes on after that which pretty much ruins this symphony to me). But you don’t get there easily. This movement with Furtwängler alone is more than 17, and you start very dark and desperate. Luckily we leave the desperation quickly, to a dramatic built up including the mandatory tympani, which gets us to the first amazingly beautiful horn solo at 2:57.

This solo is worth a quick excursion: this theme Brahms had already used earlier in a letter to his beloved Clara Schumann (yes, he was in love with his mentor’s wife, if you read his biography, you wonder why this soap opera material hasn’t made it into a major Hollywood movie yet), with the underlying text:

“Hoch auf´m Berg, tief im Tal grüß ich dich viel tausend mal!” (High on the mountain, deep in the valley, I salute you a thousand times). Yes, cheesy, even in the German original, but by then Brahms had moved from his native Hamburg to Austria, and fallen in love with the mountains, and you can really picture a lonely Alphorn playing that beautiful melody for the beloved.

But obviously at, 2:57 we’re not done yet, you 14 min more of “per aspera at astra” (you can google that yourself) fighting, with the occasional relaxing 2nd main motive, which Brahms even admitted was inspired by Beethoven 9. (When asked after the premiere if there are strange similarities between the two works, he replied sarcastically “And even stranger is the fact that every donkey seems to hear that immediately”.

Well in any case, in the last 5 min you get a lot of more brass, some more of the 2nd motive, some more of the Alphorn, tons of tympani some more fighting, which culminates in a dramatic climax in the last 2 min.

Obviously, my description of this amazing masterpiece is quite horrible. Don’t be misled: if you’re able to listen to this movement played by Furtwängler without getting goosebumps all over, you’re either deaf or challenged in some other way (or just have a different taste in music, but then you probably wouldn’t be reading this in the first place).

P.S. I’ve later published an addendum to this post here.