A New Reference Recording for the Chopin Nocturnes – Stephen Hough

First of all, sorry for my long absence, there was just too much going on in my day job. I even skipped my traditional section “reflections on the Gramophone awards”.

The Chopin Nocturnes

Which of the many works of Chopin are his true masterpiece? The Etudes, the Préludes, the Sonatas, Scherzi, or even the Mazurkas that Chopin cherished so much? As always, these things are impossible to judge objectively.

But I know which ones are my favourite: The Nocturnes. They are simple enough that even I with my very limited piano skills could try to play some of them (I’d butcher them…), but they have such a melodic charm and such an intimacy to them, that if I’d have to live with only one category of his works, this would be it. It is clearly inspired by Belcanto, and as I’ve written many times here, I’m a sucker for beautiful melodies.

Has Chopin invented the Nocturne? Almost certainly not, it is a much older category, and even the solo piano one was invented by Irish composer John Fields according to some musicologists.

But Chopin truly mastered this category, which by the way, unlike the Préludes and the Etudes, aren’t just one or two large collection of works, but actually a lot of smaller collections of 2-3 Nocturnes per opus.

So the way we listen to them today, as one end-to-end album experience, probably wasn’t something that a lot of people would have heard during Chopin’s lifetime, given that they were written over a period of nearly 20 years.

I’ve already written about my favourite version of the Nocturnes, in the legendary Supraphon recording by Ivan Moravec, which also features in my Top 10 Chopin albums and my 25 Essential Classical Albums.

I’ve also mentioned the other legendary version, by Maria-Joao Pires, have reviewed Fazil Say’s recent recording. Beyond Moravec and Pires, there are other legendary classics like Rubinstein obviously, Claudio Arrau, or Nelson Freire.

So I wasn’t really searching for yet another Nocturnes recording. But then I read that Stephen Hough had released on the Hyperion label.

Until recently, Stephen wasn’t even fully on my radar screen. I had heard his name as a great pianist, of course, but I hadn’t really listened to many of his recordings yet.

This is mainly due to the fact that Hyperion, his record label, still categorically refuses to be streamed anywhere. While I can understand their reluctance, given how little streaming revenues must mean to any classical label, it just really doesn’t help discovery.

Chopin: Noctures – Stephen Hough (Hyperion 2021)

Chopin Noctures Stephen Hough Hyperion Records 2021 24/192

The first album that I truly appreciated Stephen Hough is his recording of a collection of works I particularly care about, Brahms’ Late Piano pieces. I already had several recordings of this that I considered to be my absolute references, including Volodos, but then I read several reviews of Stephen Hough’s recording, bought it blindly, and was blown away.

So when I read another outstanding review of this recording by Jed Distler on classicstoday.com, I just went ahead and shelled out the GBP26, without thinking too much.

I was glad I did. Very much like with the Brahms above, Hough just finds something new to say about these works that are so familiar, so often played, without ever feeling like he had to force himself to do something different (which was one of my issues with the recent Say recording).

The entire playing sounds so natural, light, and charming (in the most positive sense of the word), that when you listen to this you’re kind of wondering how these little masterpieces could ever have been played in a different way. Take one of my favourites, op. 37 No. 2. So deceivingly simple, it could be mistaken as a Children’s lullaby. But when you listen closely, in spite of all the apparent ease in which Hough takes this, you’ll see all the depth and complexity underlying this little gem of a song.

I’d go as far that if you buy only one classical piano album in 2021, this should be the one (And yes, I still plan to do my top albums of the year post in the coming days, this one is already set).

I should probably at some point add Hough to my Top 10 Favorite Pianists.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Hyperion)

Beautiful recordings of Mozart’s late string quartets by the Quatuor van Kuijk

Mozart’s string quartets

I must admit that for years I somewhat ignored Mozart’s chamber music, or actually quite a bit of Mozart’s other works as well (more to come in future posts). Mozart really was for me my god in terms of operatic works, the entire DaPonte suite will always be my favourite operas ever, and I increasingly discover other masterpieces like Idomeneo or La Clemenza di Tito. On string quartets, I simply thought that nothing can beat Beethoven and Haydn, that I’d been listening to for years. I was wrong, obviously.

A young French string quartet, the Quatuor Van Kuijk, named after first violin Nicolas Van Kuijk, joined by Sylvain Favre-Bulle, Emmanuel François and Anthony Kondo, convinced me otherwise. It is actually several Chocs by French Classica magazine that flagged them to me.

A particular new favourite turned out to Mozart’s latest quartet, KV465, also known as “Dissonance“.

Mozart: String Quartets No. 16 & 19 – Quatuor van Kuijk (Alpha 2016)

Mozart: String Quartets No. 16 & 19 - Quatuor van Kuijk Alpha 2016 24/96

But let’s start with KV428, another gem of a string quartet, very clearly inspired by (and even dedicated to) Joseph Haydn’s quartets op. 33, there is so much to discover. It is clearly showing Mozart’s total mastery of making melodies sing. But there’s so much more to it, with a lot of underlying complexity of the different voices interacting like a true dialogue. Some smarter people than me even said it reminds them of Brahms, meaning that Mozart here was potentially 100 years ahead of his time.

You get a Divertimento (KV136) as a nice filler, truly enjoyable in the very meaning of the word (divertire meaning “to amuse”).

The real highlight of this album is KV465, a nearly 30 min long masterpiece, that starts with the dissonances that must have totally shocked the audience at the time, and still puzzles today’s audiences when you hear it for the first time. The “seeking” nearly 2 minutes long intro resolves into one of Mozart’s true masterpieces. This was composed alongside some of my all time favourites of Mozart, like his piano concertos KV466 and 467 (nos. 20 & 21 respectively), and you can hear the same mastery of both melody and structure here.

Not sure why I ignored these pieces for so long, I really recommend you check them out.

Watch this space, I’ll be shortly writing about another outstanding recording of KV465.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Schumann’s underrated piano chamber music beautifully played by the Trio Wanderer

Robert Schumann

I haven’t written very many entries on Schumann yet. That is not because I don’t like this composer.

In fact, his symphonies, typically either played by Szell, Gardiner, or more recently, Nézet-Seguin (that I really need to review here), Dausgaard (that I even mentioned in my 25 Essential Classical albums), or Rattle, are in very heavy rotation on my hifi.

I listen to his piano concerto much less frequently, just because I probably overplayed it in my youth. That said, going back to Lipatti’s legendary performance every once in a while is a true pleasure. For more modern performances, it is also worth going with Leif Ove Andsnes, or if you prefer a period piano, Alexander Melnikov.

His solo piano music gets even less frequently played here, which is a pity, as there are beautiful pieces like the Davidsbündlertänze, the Etudes Symphoniques, or Kreisleriana. I really don’t know why I don’t play them more often, maybe I should just actively seek them out more.

Now, when we get to Schumann’s chamber music, I must admit I barely played it until recently. I purchased the three piano trios in a very good version with Isabelle Faust, Alexander Melnikov, and Jean-Guihen Queyras, as they were included in their excellent recordings of the concertos for piano, violin, and cello. However, I mostly focused my attention to the orchestral works, not giving the chamber works enough attention.

My interest in Schumann’s chamber music grew when I recently purchased a reference version of Brahms’ piano quintet by the Artemis Quartet with Leif Ove Andsnes (not yet reviewed here), that also included Schumann’s piano quartet (in an equally exellent performance)

So when the following album was released recently, I was immediately very interested:

Schumann: Complete Trios / Piano Quartet / Piano Quintet – Trio Wanderer (Harmonia Mundi 2021)

Robert Schumann Complete PIano Trios PIano Quartet Piano Quintet Trio Wanderer Christophe Gaugué Catherine Montier Harmonia Mundi 2021

I already own an excellent box by this French trio, that consistently records very strong performances, of the complete Beethoven trios.

I really like these performances here as well. They are more polished that the somewhat rougher performances of the trios by Melnikov/Faust/Queyras mentioned above (the period instruments clearly make a difference), but there is beauty all along.

The piano quintet performance doesn’t get the brilliance of the above mentioned Artemis recording, but there is beautiful “singing” in the melodies everywhere.

I really don’t have a good reference for the piano quartet in my collection, so as with this entire review, take my comments here with a big grain of salt, but I really like what I hear as well.

Overall, a truly enjoyable box.

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Smetana’s String Quartets No. 1 & 2 by the Pavel Haas Quartet – Excellent

Bedřich Smetana

I haven’t written much about the other famous Czech composer (that said, even Dvorak doesn’t have a post dedicated to one of his works yet on this blog, I should change that).

As a kid I listened to The Moldau (or more correctly Vltava) from his Ma Vlast patriotic cycle A LOT. It is one of those classics that nearly everybody has heard at some point. My only issue is that I’ve heard it so much that I barely touch it any more these days. I’ll probably need to rediscover the entire work more systematically (and I have two Kubelik recordings in my library, with Boston and the Czech Philhamonic orchestra to do so).

That said, I have only a small number of Smetana recordings in my library overall, so I may not be the most qualified reviewers of his work. For the string quartets I’m going to write about I only have one other recording, by the Stamitz Quartet. So keep this in mind when you read my comments below.

Smetana: String Quartet No. 1 & 2 – Pavel Haas Quartet (Supraphon 2015)

Smetana String Quartet No. 1 & 2 - Pavel Haas Quartet Supraphon 2015
Pavel Has

The two string quartets are quite different in nature. One is what you’d expect from a late romantic composer of Bohemia, a lot of flowing melodies and a lot of well, “romanticism” (however you want to define that).

The 2nd string quartet is much less accessible, it was written in the very last years of the composer as he was already deaf. Yes, an eery parallel to Beethoven’s late string quartets, right? In any case both are very much worth discovering.

I’ve praised the Pavel Haas Quartet many times, for their Schubert (here and here), which even made it into my list of the 25 Essential Classical Albums.

I had even previously mentioned this particular album, as it had received the Gramophone Award for Chamber in 2015.

Why did I decide to write about this album again then? I must admit over the time (the original review was published in 2015) this album really grew on me, particularly the less accessible no. 2. I by now truly love particularly the Largo Sostenuto. Over the years I’ve listened to a lot of string quartets, making it by now one of my favourite genres of classical music. So naturally, tastes evolve (which really is a good thing. Stay curious!). I encourage you to do the same, regularly try to rediscover things you may already have in your library, or go a bit beyond your comfort zone in the streaming service of your choice!

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

András Schiff Plays Brahms Piano Concertos on Historical instruments – Worth Checking Out

Brahms’ Piano Concertos

There is clearly no lack of excellent performances of the two Brahms piano concertos. There are many masterful recordings from the 1960s with the great piano legends, Curzon, Arrau, Fleischer, Richter, or Gilels, often with the fantastic George Szell, that have stood the test of time, as the romantic repertoire has seen less of a sea change of recording style as have earlier composers (I can’t really enjoy non-HIP Bach concertos any more for example).

There also have been a lot of more recent recordings that are outstanding. One of my favorite sets is the Nelson Freire / Riccardo Chailly / Gewandhaus one from 2006, or more recently, the excellent (No. 1) / very good( No. 2) recordings by Lars Vogt with the Northern Sinfonia (that I just noticed I totally forgot to review here).

And as a nice coincidence, the very first recording I ever owned of No. 1 was with András Schiff as well, with George Solti on a 1989 Decca album.

So why would even a Brahms aficionado like me bother to buy one more recording of these?

The answer is called Blüthner. That is the piano that Schiff uses in this new recording.

Brahms: The Piano Concertos- András Schiff – Orchestra of the Age of Enlightening (ECM 2021)

Andras Schiff Johannes Brahms Piano Concertos Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment ECM New Series 2021 24 96

The Blüthner is a piano from c. 1859, i.e. 1 year after the writing of Brahms first concerto. It has a quite different sound to the typical modern Steinway, less heavy, less brilliant, but more transparent.

To complement that, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is also clearly historically informed, playing on gut strings.

So, is it worth it?

I’d say yes (and I did purchase the album). I really like the difference in sound and transparency one gets from the historically informed approach and instruments. This is the first recording of Brahms concertos with a HIP approach that hit my radar screen, and it really gives you new insights into these works.

To quote Schiff himself from the booklet: “With the present recording we have tried to recreate and restore the works, to cleanse and ‘detoxify’ the music, to liberate it from the burden of the – often questionable – trademarks of performing traditions“.

Now, does that mean this will be my new reference recording? Clearly not, I won’t be abandoning the beauty of all the recordings I’ve quoted above. I really like the piano playing, although some rubati aren’t always my cup of tea, but particularly in the first concerto, I’d just like to see a bit more drama in the orchestral introduction.

But if you like Brahms, you should really check this recording out!

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Some thoughts around the new Liszt album from Benjamin Grosvenor

Benjamin Grosvenor

I’m a big fan of this young British pianist (maybe not as extreme a fan as Gramophone who adore every single one of his albums). I’ve previously reviewed and praised his Chopin concertos (part of my top 5 albums of 2020), his Homages album, his Chopin/Liszt/Ravel album, which also appeared in my Top 10 Chopin albums, and I’ve even listed him among my Top 10 Classical pianists (a list that led to a lot of debate by the way).

So I had really high hopes when Grosvenor recently released his latest recording, of nothing less than Liszt’s magnificent b-minor sonata, plus some other works.

Benjamin Grosvenor – Liszt (Decca 2021)

Benjamin Grosvenor - Liszt - Decca 2021 - 24 96

Now, before I go to the meaty bit, the b-minor sonata, let me start by saying that I really love how Grosvenor plays the other pieces on this album, particularly the extract from the Années de Pélérinage.

Also particularly interesting is Liszt’s 15 min piano adaptation of Bellini’s classic, Réminiscenes de Norma, a less often played work.

And I can’t get enough of the beautiful piano adaptation of Schubert’s Ave Maria.

The b-minor sonata

I really love the b-minor sonata, it is to me at least the ultimate Liszt piece. And here’s where we get to my “but” that you probably saw coming from my intro above.

Let me start by the positives: I really like how he takes the Andante sostenuto slower than most, giving it a special sense of intimacy and out-of-this-world spirit.

Now, what am I missing here, in what is actually a very good version?

Well I really believe one needs to go to the biggest extremes in this work (an opinion probably not universally shared). That’s why my favorite versions will remain those of the legendary Martha Argerich, and the somewhat controversial version by Katia Buniatishvili. In some parts, I just wish Grosvenor would push things just a bit further, he certainly has the power and technical abilities to do it.

Nevertheless, this is a beautiful album absolutely worth having.

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Francesco Corti Plays Bach Harpsichord Concerti – A True Delight

Bach Harpsichord Concertos

In more than 5 years of this blog, I’ve only formally reviewed one version of the Bach piano/harpsichord concertos, the very surprisingly disappointing (to my ears) recording with Andreas Staier.

In that article I mentioned that I’m still looking for my favorite version of these beautiful works. So far I typically went with Cafe Zimmermann’s recordings that I haven’t reviewed yet individually.

So, what was wrong (again, IMHO) with the Staier recording? Well, Gramophone at the time summarised it nicely: “If you’re looking for fun, abandon, lyricism, radiant lift off […] and luminosity, then maybe this one is not for you“.

And yes, that’s exactly what I was looking for. And it seems like I finally found it.

Bach: Harpsichord Concertos vol. 1 & 2 – Francesco Corti – Il Pomo d’Oro (Pentatone 2020/2021)

For some reason, I missed the release of vol. 1 of these two separate albums back last year, and really only fully discovered this when vol. 2 was released some days ago.

Bach: Harpsichord concertos Francesco Corti Il Pomo d'oro Pentatone 2020 24 96
Bach: Francesco Corti Harpsichord Concertos II Il Pomo d'oro Pentatone 2021 24 192

Francesco Corti is a well known Italian organ and harpsichord player, and Il Pomo d’Oro is a recently (2012) founded ensemble specialized in baroque music.

Both bring together two recordings that are playful, enjoyable, bouncy, lively, and engaging. Very much the opposite of the somewhat dull Andreas Staier recording.

Is it perfect? Well, no. Corti and the ensemble occasionally have some quirks, particularly with regards to tempo selection in some parts.

But, to quote Duke Ellington, It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. And swing there is, plenty. It is just a sheer pleasure to listen to. And that, to me at least, is worth more than technical perfection.

Therefore, this may well become my new go-to version for these works I bought both volumes immediately, which I encourage you to do as well.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (vol. 1) and here (vol. 2)

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