Category Archives: Composers

Quatuor Ebène Plays Mozart & Beethoven – Tonhalle Zürich – June 11, 2017 – A Review

Quatuor Ebène

About a year ago I wrote about Quatuor Ebènes outstanding Schubert recording with Gautier Capuçon. For me, it was the album that should have won the Gramphone awards in 2016 in their category.

My first encounter with this young French quartet was even before that, with their excellent recordings of quartets by Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn.

They really are among the best string quartets out there in 2017, and this is not for a lack of competition.

So I was very pleased when I saw that they’d be coming to Zurich on a day where I’d be close by, yesterday, June 11, 2017

Tonhalle Zürich

A quick word about the Tonhalle Zürich. I’m actually not such a great fan of that venue (Luzern’s modern KKL is much nicer for my taste), but that said, both the big and small concert hall are have their end of 19th century luxury baroque style, and the 1930s incorporation of the old concert halls into the Zurich congress center is an interesting contrast of style.

Quatuor Ebene Tonhalle

Detail of Tonhalle Zürich Lobby

 

Between the two halls, I quite prefer the smaller one use for chamber music. I’ve had a number of fantastic concerts in here, including the great Quatuor Mosaiques with Haydn.

As a side note, the Tonhalle and the Kongresshaus will be renovated soon, and Zurich is currently preparing the Maag Music Hall in Zurich’s industrial “Kreis 5”, far away from the fancy shores of Lake Zurich, where the Tonhalle is a direct neighbor to the posh Hotel Baur Au Lac, to a completely different environment.

Maag Music Hall

Maag Music Hall back in January 2017

 

Quatuor Ebène at Tonhalle Zürich, June 11, 2017

But back to the good old Tonhalle.

Quatuor Ebène, dressed in black,  as the name (ebony) implies, started with Mozart.

Quatuor Ebène at Tonhalle Kleiner Saal Jun 11, 2017

Quatuor Ebène

But not with your Kleine Nachtmusik “Happy Mozart”, but with a romantic Sturm and Drang Mozart, the Mozart of Don Giovanni, sharing the same key, d-minor, somehow transporting Mozart directly into the 19th century. There is a lot of chiaroscuro, changing from shadows to the light in this work.

They have recorded this on their 2011 Mozart album, but this live interpretation went beyond what they recorded, there was an enormous passion in the room.

The move to Beethoven felt like a logical next step, with a very intimate connection to the Mozart.

They started with the latest of the “middle quartets”, op. 95, also known as Quartetto Serioso. Unlike some other nicknames like e.g. Moonshine, it appears that this name is genuinely by Beethoven.

It is not the most accessible of the middle quartets, it’s “seriousness” making it one of the most drastic works he’s ever written. This work mentally belongs much more to the late quartets.

Quatuor Ebene put all their energy into this and played as if their lives depended on it. The passion was tangible in the room.

After the break we returned to get the opus magnum of the evening. Just one number later in the list of Beethoven’s string quartets, no. 12 to be precise, op. 127. This work not only has the length of a symphony (and I’m talking Beethoven symphony), but also the power. Who would have thought that only 4 strings can fill a room with so much power?

But there wasn’t only power. The more than 16 minutes long Adagio was all subtleness, which transported the audience out of this world for the moment.

After the final movement, the Swiss audience simply didn’t want to stop clapping, clearly expecting an encore.

At the end, the four musicians came back out, without their instruments this time, explaining in a very friendly way that they felt that after such a work as op. 127, which they compared to the chamber equivalent of Beethoven’s Ode To Joy, there simply wasn’t any music they could play that wouldn’t be out of place.

I couldn’t have said it better.

What a concert. Magnificent

 

Alexandre Kantorow – A La Russe – Outstanding!

A quick comment on classical reviews

I’ve mentioned this several times before, reviewing classical music is a very subjective business. See examples here and here of cases where professional reviewers disagree a lot about the quality of a recording.

Therefore, it is even more impressive if you find reviews where nearly everybody agrees. Those are the recordings you should truly check out, as these are actually rather rare.

One of these outstanding recordings is the recent Arkadi Volodos recording of Brahms. This album got a “Choc” (i.e. 5 stars) from Classica AND an Album of the Month by Gramophone.

What is even more impressive is that not only these two agree, but 5 other classical reviewers (not counting me) do as well. Classica publishes every month an overview of what the leading critics in the French media (France 3, Le Figaro, Radio Classique, France Musique, and Le Monde) think of a number of recent albums on a scale from “X” (didn’t like at all) to “three hearts” (liked passionately). I check this overview every month, and it is really extremely rare to find that all reviewers give three hearts.

Well, for the Volodos recording, three hearts from all of them. The only outlier I’m aware off is Andrew Clements from the Guardian.

In a nutshell, we have a strong contender here for the piano album of the year (a bit early after only 5 months, but mark my words, I’ll get back to this later).

Why am I writing all this in a review of a completely different album?

Well, a because I just read the overview in the latest Classica, but also because the album I’ll be writing about now is to me the only serious contender for best piano album of the year (again, so far).

 

Alexandre Kantorow – A La Russe (BIS 2017)

I first heard about Kantorow, son of the conductor Jean-Jacques Kantorow, from a recent email by Robert von Bahr, the owner of the Swedish independent classical label BIS.

I’m on his mailing list, and on a monthly basis, you’ll get a note about BIS’s most recent releases. Obviously, this being the owner, you have to take his promotional talk with a grain of salt, but actually he has a rather refreshing open style, and more often than not, he can even be sometimes being quite critical of his own releases.

So when I received an email with the following text “I have absolutely no qualms in saying, nay, screaming, that we in ALEXANDRE KANTOROW have a super talent, indeed someone destined for a world career that is now starting (….) Alexandre Kantorow is a genius, and we are going to record as much with him as he can give us“, I at least got curious.

Well, Robert wasn’t overpromising. This album is truly spectacular, and really is so far the only real challenger for Arkadi Volodos this year.

Alexandre Kantorow A La Russe BIS 2017 (24/96)

What do you get? Well, as the title indicates, Russian composers. A sonata by Rachmaninov, some lesser known pieces by Tchaikovsky, and Balakirev’s Islamey.

But to me the absolute highlight of this album is the piano transcriptions of parts of L’Oiseau du Feu (Firebird) by Igor Stravinsky. I’m not a big fan of Stravinsky in general, his music doesn’t speak to me that much.

But here, I cannot be but mesmerized by the mixture of extreme virtuosity and outstanding musicality.

This is a must have album.

My review: 5 stars

You can find it here (eclassical) and here (Qobuz)

A great recording of Bach’s Orchestral Suites by Zefiro

Bach’s Orchestral Suites

I’ve only written once about the Orchestral Suites by Johann Sebastian Bach before, in my 25 Essential Classical Albums. In that brief article, I’ve called them the “pop” music of classical. I still stand by this label, but really don’t mean this in any negative way.

One (or at least me) cannot only listen to advanced intellectually challenging music all day long. You sometimes want stuff that is just enjoyable, including some all time favorites.

The Orchestral Suites, or Overtures, are just that. I can probably (badly) whistle every single note of the well known melodies.

I bet you can too, at least for the second movement of BWV1068. No idea what I’m talking about? Does “Air on a g-string” ring a bell? If not, go to 6:59 in the YouTube Clip below, and I’m sure you’ll go “ahh, that one”.

 

Yes, that one. Played at numerous weddings and other occasions. Do you now get what I mean by “pop” music?

That said, I can listen to this again, again and again.

Zefiro

Zefiro is an Italian baroque ensemble that I must admit I had never heard of before it popped up among in Gramophone´s April 2017 issue as album of the month.

They are lead by oboist Alfredo Bernadini. I had to check out their website to see that they have already done an impressive number of recordings. I´m surprised I´d never conciously seen them mentioned anywhere so far. I really need to check out more of their recordings.

 

Bach: Overtures – Zefiro (Outthere Music 2017)

Johann Sebastian Bach: Overtures - Zefiro - Alessandro Bernadini - Arcana - 2017 (24/96)

I actually was not particularly interested when I skimmed through Gramophone’s April issue about a month ago. So, yet another recording of the Orchestral suites? It took me a while to really take notice, as I was very happy with the Freiburger Barockorchester recording mentioned in my 25 Essential albums.

But thanks to streaming, I figured, let´s give it a try at least. And I´m glad I did. This is not a recording that will kick the Freiburgers off their throne, but is very good on its own rights.

The playing is engaging, passionate, and transparent. On top of this great playing, you get two reconstructed movements that you won´t find anywhere else.

This really is a very enjoyable album throughout and I highly suggest you check it out.

My rating: 4 stars

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

Volodos Play Brahms – A Fantastic Album

Brahms late solo piano works

Brahms late piano works, starting with the op. 76, but especially his very late works op. 116 – 119 have always been close to my heart.

His piano sonatas, written when he was young, always touched me much less, although I recently found a version I quite liked.

Most of the op. 76 and 116-119 are simply called Klavierstücke, i.e. piano pieces. They are little collections of 4-8 pieces, typically called Cappriccio or Intermezzo, titles that don’t mean a lot.

To me, while I’m well aware that these are composed works, they always reminded me of improvisations. They lack the formal structure of a Beethoven piano sonata, and really just “live in the moment”, if a musical piece can do such a thing.

In a way, they remind me of Keith Jarrett’s solo concertos.

Arcadi Volodos himself calls these pieces “the Summit of piano music”. Brahms himself called op. 117 “lullabies for my sorrows”.

I’ve only written about one recording of these works yet, with Andreas Staier’s excellent recording of op. 118. This is because I was still looking for my favorite version. Murray Perahia and Radu Lupu were both good, I also liked the young French pianist Adam Laloum. But I knew you could do things differently.

Arcadi Volodos

Arcadi Volodos is a Russian pianist and virtuoso. He is pretty well known, but why he doesn’t have more of a reputation escapes me. Maybe it is because he doesn’t search the limelight, and just isn’t present enough in the media.

All of his previous albums were at least good, with some being exceptional, my favorite being Volodos in Vienna, a live recording, and Volodos plays Liszt.

Volodos Plays Brahms

Arcadi Volodos Plays Brahms (24/96) Sony Classical 2017

When I heard this album for the first time, I was a bit puzzled. He really plays these works in a very individual, very different way.

I needed to listen to this at least 5 time before I made up my mind. But now I really just love it. His playing is extremely nuanced, never just showing off the great virtuoso he really is, and in a way, this is probably the recording that gets closest to my idea about playing them like Keith Jarrett plays live.

Nicely enough, the sound quality of this recording matches the musical quality. This was recorded at Berlin’s mythical Teldex Studio, with Volodos playing his personal favorite Steinway. The recording quality captures the intimate nature of these pieces very well.

My rating: 5 stars

Classica agrees by the way, and gives this album a Choc, their highest rating. The Guardian has quite a different opinion, giving it only 3 stars.

You can find it here (Qobuz) and here (HDtracks)

 

UPDATE May 21: In it’s June 2017 issue, Gramophone agrees and gives this album an Editor’s Choice, and Album of the Month.

 

Update June 6: Diapason d’or for from Diapason Magazine, and plenty of other good reviews of this album mentioned here.

 

Easter is Coming Up Again: Time to Recommend A New Outstanding Matthew Passion Recording by John Eliot Gardiner

The Matthew Passion

I’ve previously written about the importance of the Matthew Passion here.

It is probably one of the most relevant works of Bach, which in turn makes it one of the most important works of the entire classical music.

If you want a good entry to understand what this is all about, check out this NPR “guided tour” through this masterpiece.

I’ve mentioned previously that I’m not religious at all, but that doesn’t take one bit of the attraction away, the emotions Bach has captured here really has universal appeal.

Bach: St. Matthew Passion – John Eliot Gardiner (SDG 2017)

My previous and still valid recommendation for the Matthew Passion remains John Butt’s outstanding recording of the 1742 version, with the Dunedin Consort. I’ve listed it in my 25 Essential Classical Music Albums.

But when the great John Eliot Gardiner decided to re-record this masterpiece nearly 30 years after his legendary DG Archiv version, I had to write about this.

Bach St Matthew Passion John Eliot Gardiner SDG 2017 24/96

Actually, I had heard it even before it was released, as I had the pleasure of seeing Gardiner with his Monteverdi Choir live at the KKL in Lucerne last spring. During this European tour this album was recorded (a bit later in 2016, at Pisa Cathedral).

I don’t know why I didn’t write about this concert before, as it was such an outstanding performance. Therefore, I’m extremely happy it was recorded.

I wasn’t always been with Gardiners recent recordings (see here and here), even his new recording of the b-minor mass left me a bit cold.

But this one is pure perfection again. Gramophone agrees and gives it a “Recording of the Month” for April. Germany’s Fono Forum is also on board, with 5 stars.

How does Gardiner compare against John Butt?

Well, actually there are more similarities than differences. Both are historically informed, both favor transparency over let’s say the power of a Karl Richter.

Both have excellent singers, both have an outstanding period ensemble. As mentioned above, Butt uses the more rarely heard 1742 version, but the differences are small.

Where Gardiner has the edge, is probably in even more increased transparency, in a way it sounds even more intimate. On the other hand, you get a bit more emotional power with the Dunedins in some of the choral scenes.

But here we’re talking very minor differences, it is very clear that Gardiner has recorded a reference version. Do yourself a favor and listen to it.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz) and here (HDTracks)

First time at the Elbphilharmonie – finally! Xavier de Maistre’s Harp fireworks with William Christie

The Hamburg Elbphilharmonie

Hamburg’s latest addition to the number of beautiful classical venues, the Elbphilharmonie concert hall overlooking the harbor, is a true masterpiece by Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron. Completed several years after plan and hugely over budget, most of Hamburg’s population has already forgiven all the bad planning (and their tax euros gone) seeing this beauty finally come alive.

I was lucky enough to buy tickets more than 6 months ago, because since the official opening tickets are basically only available through the black market. Huge media coverage including the New York Times didn’t really help. Well, at least we now have a classical venue that is most likely sold out for years, many other places would be happy to have such a problem, with ageing population and less people interested in classical music.

DSCF5302 Weihnachten 2016

The Elbphilharmonie Plaza

I had been to what is called the “Plaza” (see above), basically the publicly accessible space between the only brick harbor warehouse and the  new steel and glass construction on top, which houses not only the concert hall, but also a hotel, several restaurants, and even some private apartments. If you’re in Hamburg, check it out, the views and the architecture are spectacular. It is located within the fully new part of town call Hafencity, which on its own is already worth a visit.

This time, last Sunday, was my first time in the actual large hall. I had heard wonders about the supposedly fabulous acoustics and had seen pictures from the inside. But actually being in there is just amazing.

I’ve previously been to other beautiful concert halls, like the Berlin Philharmonie that inspired this new layout of the audience sitting all around the orchestra, the KKL in Lucerne, or the Disney Concert hall in LA, but this beats them all.

Elbphilharmonie interior Grosser Saal (c) 2017 Musicophile

Inside the Elbphilharmonie: Grosser Saal

The only issue I have withthis venue is that most walls  look like they’ve been covered in egg cartons. And actually, they kind of are, an acoustic measure to optimize the sound experience.

William Christie – Les Arts Florissants – Xavier de Maistre 

I went to see a rather atypical ensemble for this hall: William Christie’s Baroque Ensemble Les Arts Florissants. This great period ensemble is well known for their baroque performances, I had seen them once before at the Barbican Hall (a much less beautiful venue) in London in a great performance of Purcell’s Didon and Aeneas.

Xavier de Maistre, William Christie, Les Arts Florissants Elbphilharmonie March 26, 2017 (c) Musicophile

Xavier de Maistre, William Christie, and Les Arts Florissants at Elbphilharmonie

Here they went into a repertoire a little bit later than their typical fare, as they were playing Harp concertos from the time of Marie-Antoinette, as in their recently released album.

So we got exposed to some lesser known composers such as Johann Baptist Krumpholz and Johann David Hermann (the literature for harp concertos isn’t very large).

The concert opened with a lively played Kleine Nachtmusik (Little Night Music), one of the most well known Mozart pieces. It is not my favorite and I had never heard it play live, but it was a refreshing opener.

Krumpholz concerto wasn’t really my cup of tea, so I spent the 2nd half of the part before the break admiring the beautiful venue.

After the break and a glass of Cremant de Loire, Christie started with Haydn.  And to answer my own question: no you don’t have to be Italian to conduct Haydn, being an American living in France will do just well. The performance of symphony no. 85, La Reine, was impressive, and made the small ensemble sound at times nearly like a full Beethoven orchestra.

And then things were wrapped up with de Maistre back on stage and Herman’s harp concerto, a much more convincing piece to my ears than Krumpholz.

All in all, a hugely enjoyable evening. If you’re lucky enough to get your hands on Elbphilharmonie tickets, go for it!

Rémi Geniet Plays Beethoven Sonatas – A Review

Beethoven’s piano sonatas

I haven’t written about Beethoven’s piano sonatas yet on this blog, except for mentioning Igor Levit’s beautiful rendition of the late piano sonatas here.

Why? No idea. It is such a massive body of work, 32 sonatas, no really weak stuff in there, the late sonatas being particularly challenging. How do you attack such a mountain, or more precisely mountain range?

Rémi Geniet

Rémi Geniet, a young French pianist, must have asked himself the same question. His answer is an album that covers 4 sonatas from the very early op. 2 to the very late op. 110.

Who is Rémi Geniet? A young (born 1992) French pianist, who released a beautiful Bach album two years ago that was highly praised. He also won several competitions including the Horowitz International Competition in Kiew.

Geniet Plays Beethoven Sonatas

Rémi Geniet Beethoven Piano Sonatas Mirare 2017 24/96

From Bach to Beethoven. A small step? Well not really, actually anything but.  But Geniet manages this challenge beautifully.

You get a mix from Beerhovens sonata cycle, as mentioned above from the very early sonata no. 2 to the penultimate sonata no. 31.

The really famous sonata here is the “Moonshine“, no. 14, probably the piano piece that even non classical listeners will have heard at some point. Attacking such an earworm is obviously tricky, we all have some form of reference in our head. And what references, from Schnabel, to Arrau, to Brendel, or more recently Paul Lewis or Ronald Brautigam.

How does he compare against such great names of the piano? Well, actually, quite well.
Take the first movement. This, if done badly, can drown in kitsch. No kitsch here, you get  simplicty, very clean playing , no “fuzz”. But actually, this makes the entire experience nevertheless extremely intense.

He takes extremely technically challengingthird movement (Presto agitato) breathtakingly fast, but with extreme precision. Again, this is truly impressive.

All this really comes without neglecting musical substance. Take for example the sonata no. 31. Beethoven’s late sonatas, like his late string quartets, are works of extreme intellectual substance. You simply cannot gloss over them. Pianists typically only tackle them later in the career. But here, similar to Levit mentioned above, Geniet just goes for it, and very successfully.

Overall rating: 4 stars (at certain moments of playing I’d give a 5 star, but there is so much competition out there in the Beethoven space, that it is hard to consistently outperform all the piano legends).

You can find it here (Qobuz) and here (HDtracks)