So when a new Beethoven album from the great master came out on Deutsche Grammophon, I bought it pretty much immediately, without checking out the version via streaming as I’d typically do otherwise. His latest Beethoven sonata recording dates back to 2008, since then he’s been much more focused on Bach.
Perahia attacks two of the most famous Beethoven sonatas here. No. 29, Hammerklavier, and the one that even non-classical listeners would recognize, the Moonlight.
Let me start by saying you immediately hear that Perahia has been playing a lot of Bach recently. If I had to summarize this album in one word, it would be “Clarity”, or “Transparency”. The counterpoint complexity of Bach certainly shines through on this album. Nothing is ever “too much”, even for these two sonatas that both mark the transition from the “classical” period to the starting “romantic” era.
Let’s start, as Perahia does, with the Hammerklavier heavyweight. This is one of the most pianistically challenging piano pieces out there. Especially if you’re trying to follow Beethoven’s original metronome marks, which some have considered unplayable. Perahia starts with a quite ambitious speed, but at no point this ever feels forced.
You get plenty of nuances especially in the beautiful Adagio, and the highlight could be the last movement, which stars seemingly simple with a little Largo, but then builds into a compex fuga type Allegro & Presto, where you can clearly hear that Beethoven knew his Bach, so Perahia really shines here.
I have yet to find my “perfect” Hammerklavier. Recently, the impressive version of Ronald Brautigam (played on an actual Hammerklavier-type historic instrument), or Igor Levit’s beautiful recording of the late sonatas, or you can obviously go back to the classics and pick your Serkin, Brendel, or Arrau. Actually, the complexity of this masterpiece is such that no one version will ever be “perfect”, you’ll always need more than one interpretation of this jewel.
Going to the Mondschein sonata, I’m going to contradict myself immediately: This could well be “the” perfect version of the Moonlight sonata, at least of the world famous Adagio sostenuto.
Let me explain: He takes the movement relatively fast, with 5:16 I have only 3 versions in my library that take less time (my fastest version is Schnabel by the way, with 4:51).
What is so outstanding about this version goes back to the word I used earlier, “clarity”. This is played in a very plain, no-nonsense style. With such an overloaded romantic piece, there often is a tendency of just doing a bit too much, too much rubato, too much dynamic variation, etc. etc.
But honestly, this outstanding beauty of masterwork doesn’t need any of this. This apparent simplicity is just what makes this music truly shine. I can’t get enough of it. This could well become my new personal reference for No. 14.
Her Bach violin solo sonatas recording (in two volumes, also on Harmonia Mundi) is already excellent, so I was very curious to see how her latest release of the Bach would turn out.
I was particularly curious given that we get the amazing Kristian Bezuidenhout on the harpsichord, a South-African pianist and keyboard player focusing on historic instruments that I’ve already mentioned in My Must Have Mozart Albums.
Luckily, I wasn’t disappointed!
Bach: Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord – Isabelle Faust & Kristian Bezuidenhout (Harmonia Mundi 2018)
Unlike the famous sonatas for solo violin, these sonatas are much less often played. Which really is a pity as it is beautiful music that are really worth being explored in more detail.
By the way, these duo sonatas could also be performed in trio form with an optional viola da gamba. Here we get the duo form.
I complained about the Mendelssohn lacking some richness in sound and playing.
Here honestly I wouldn’t know what to criticize. The sound of Faust relatively bright Stradivarius is just perfect here in all its brilliance , even singing in a way, and Bezuidenhout plays a harpsichord that has a beautiful rich body.
Harpsichords occasionally can sound a bit thin, making some Bach harpsichord recordings sound more like a typewriter.
None of that here, this is music that is engaging, even dancing, with two equal partners that visibly enjoy playing together.
The recording beautifully showcases the close connection these two masters have developed musically, and makes this entire recording a sheer pleasure to listen to.
Why streaming is a good thing – at least for the consumers
It´s amazing how our listening habits have changed in so little time since streaming arrived. I was personally late to the game, only started less than two years ago (about the time when I started this blog).
In the not so “old days”, one had to go to a record store and listen to new music there. That was an adventure on its own, and if you had a good CD (or vinyl) dealer, you even got some great advice.
Well, we can safely assume that CD stores will mostly go the way of video rental stores, with few exceptions. You may like this trend or not, but for me, streaming has opened up new worlds.
You basically get every single new album, the day it is out, directly onto your computer, in CD quality or even better. And this for a relatively modest fee, about the price of 1-2 CDs. I’ve discovered so much new music like this, stuff that I wouldn’t otherwise have explored.
So from a customer perspective there is a real gain. From a musician perspective, things are obviously different, as musicians only make very little money from streaming if you’re not Beyonce. I assume for this reason, many smaller labels, like ECM, Chandos, or Hyperion didn’t allow streaming until now.
It looks like things are changing again, as labels do realize that streaming may be a tricky business model, but if you’re not on it, you’re out of mind for too many music lovers. ECM came first recently, Chandos just started, and I hope Hyperion will follow.
It is just that especially for classical music there is no decent way to sample music before you buy now that CD stores are gone, and the 30 seconds snippets from Amazon may work for Bruno Mars, but not for a 50 minute classical piece.
Which lead to me often ignoring recordings, like this particular one. I’ve mentioned it previously in my post about the 2017 Gramophone award nominations. To quote myself “I have only heard it once on the radio (again, also Chandos doesn´t stream), and liked it, but wasn´t blown away. Not interesting enough for me to spend money blindly on it“. There you go. I’ve simply ignored a truly great recording just because of their lack of streaming.
But please, fellow music lovers, remember, no musician can live off streaming only. So, please, if you like something, buy the album, or go to their concert. We want these great musicians to be able to live off what they are doing!
No. 15 is the last one, and to me pretty much on par with the two others as well as the outstanding String Quintet (see here and here for my favorite versions).
No. 15 is a true masterpiece, and longer than most of Schubert´s symphonies. My initial versions of this were the great Alban Berg Quartet and the Quartetto Italiano.
The Doric String Quartet is a young UK-based quartet, with Alex Redington and Jonathan Stone on violin, Hélène Clément viola, and John Myerscough on cello. The quartet has won a number of prices and awards yet, including several high praises by Gramophone.
And as already mentioned above, my superficial listening on the radio simply wasn’t enough to make up my mind. The playing is truly excellent, showing all the passion that late Schubert requires, but at the same time the attention to detail that shows all the little nuances that Schubert is so good at hiding in the music. This is truly breathtaking.
Did I mention you also get the Quartettsatz, a one movement quartet from Schubert? We won’t say no to this!
My rating: 5 stars
As mentioned previously, Gramophone agrees, this was and Editor´s Choice, and shortlisted for the 2017 Gramophone Awards. Germany´s Fono Forum also gives 5 stars.
You can find it here (Qobuz, who at the time of writing has a special offer on all Chandos), and here (Chandos own online store)
As most of you, I have made a couple of New Years resolutions. Among them was, not suprisingly, exercise more and eat healthier. Well, 7 days in and, while improving, I’m far from where I want to be (although slightly better than last year).
Another resolution was to go to more concerts. There are so many fantastic concerts out there, and I have the privilege of often being in places that offer excellent musical performances on a regular basis. Berlin is a case in point, where I happened to be quite a bit recently.
So, I guess starting with my first concert on January 6 is a good starting point for the last resolution. Let’s see how I continue from here.
A lot of firsts
This concert was a lot of “firsts” for me. First concert of the year, first time I’m listening to a concert performance of any of the three composers on the program (more about that later), first time I see Alina Igrabimova and Cedric Tiberghien in concert, first time the two are actually mentioned on this blog (beyond a small side note in passing), and first time a Berlin´s new Pierre Boulez Saal.
Pierre Boulez Saal
The Pierre Boulez Saal is the latest of the classical music venues in Berlin. It was built as part of the Barenboim-Said academy. It formally opened in March of 2017. It was planned by architecture legend Frank Gehry as a Salle Modulable, i.e. with a lot of flexibility.
Entering the building, I really like the architecture of the overall hallway, with a nice mix of traditional and modern elements over the several floors.
However, entering the Boulez Saal itself, I was a bit underwhelmed. Being a big Frank Gehry fan, I kind of expected more. It kind of reminds me of a smaller Roman amphitheater, just more wood, less stone.
And honestly, who designed the patterns covering the seats? This weird mix of blue and red reminds me of some of the public transport seats in Europe that use complex patterns to deter graffiti. I don’t expect the typically 50+ classical music audience to be big into graffiti, so no idea what went on here.
But well, I shouldn’t be too negative, the acoustics were quite nice, you have excellent visibility from pretty much all seats, and to really honor the concept of a roundish concert hall, the piano was turned during the break having the artists face the other way in the second half of the concert.
Anyhow, there is quite an intriguing concept behind the hall, and it is hard to take pictures in there (and unfortunately forbidden during the concert, so no pictures from the artists here…), therefore I suggest you check out this video:
Alina Ibragimova and Cedric Tiberghien
Two young, brilliant artists that I’ve never mentioned on my blog in 2+ years. How come? I actually like both.
The reason is more or less technical. Both mainly record for Hyperion, and Hyperion doesn’t allow streaming. As mosts of my initial reviews are typically based on streaming (I like to sample before I buy), I haven’t really formally reviewed any of their recordings yet. However, the samples I was able to listen to were, plus the raving reviews everywhere, really made me curious.
32 year old Ibragimova has some highly praised albums, including her Bach solo sonatas, Ysaye´s solo sonatas, the Beethoven and Mozart sonatas with Tiberghien, and a really enjoyable recording of the Bach violin concertos. Tiberghien is not only her regular duo partner, but has also done some very nice solo recordings that are worth checking out.
So I was very enthusiastic to be able to see both of them live.
Ibragimova and Tiberghien At Boulez Saal playing Ysaye, Vierne, and Franck – January 6, 2018
And actually, to be fair, the first one isn’t even French but Belgian, Eugene Ysaye. I had heard about him, but never the Poème élégiaque that started the performance. As rare as it is for me, it is actually very refreshing hearing a piece of classical music performed for the very first time. You have a much more open reception.
And I was blown away. This relatively short piece was inspired by Shakespeare´s Romeo and Juliet, and you could certainly hear all the passion of this inspiration in there. Ibragimova played with a wonderful intensity, and Tiberghien was the perfect partner, never overshadowing, which the powerful sound of a Steinway can easily do.
Next came a composer I literally had to google. Louis Vierne. You may say Louis who? Turns out he’s relatively well known in France, but his reputation beyond the French borders is still very low. So I had no idea what to expect.
A violin sonata from a composer mainly known as an organist? Again, I was very positively surprised. My personal highlight was the second movement, Andante. I was literally mesmerized by the beauty of it. Isn’t it enjoyable that there is still so much beautiful music to be discovered?
After the break, we got my personal highlight of the evening, César Frank´s A-Major sonata. This piece I was much more familiar with, both from historic recordings with Heifetz, and from Isabelle Faust´s recent album on Franck and Chausson.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a Faust fanboy. But what Ibragimova and Tiberghien did last night was even significantly better than Faust´s excellent recorded performance. Given that this was a live event, the performers took quite some liberties on timing, but only to the benefit of this music. The audience, like me, was extremely enthusiastic.
As an encore, we got a beautiful work of one of Vierne´s pupils, Lili Boulanger, the less-well known sister of Nadia Boulanger, who unfortunately passed away at the young age of 24. The Nocturne was again of outstanding beauty.
Overall, an evening of extreme emotional intensity and passion
Note that her Rameau album with Alexis Kossenko Le Grand Théatre de l’Amour is also outstanding.
I was also very close to put this into my Top 5 Classical Albums of 2017, I simply didn’t because I simply felt more comfortable writing about repertoire that I’m more familiar with. Consider this a late addition.
I must admit I’m really not a great expert on French music. I like the occasional Rameau, my understanding of Berlioz is pretty much limited to the Symphonie Fantastique, I know a handful of works by Franck, only dabble a bit in Debussy and Ravel, and that’s it.
Half of the names on this album I had barely heard of (Charles Koechlin, Ambroise Thomas), some were fully new to me (Maurice Delage, André Messager), and I’m also only very superficially familiar with the works of Delibes and Massenet, the two big names of French opera (after the obvious Bizet).
So keep this in mind when I write a “review” that it is hard to objectively judge something that you literally hear for the first time and have no reference in mind.
Sabine Deviehle – Mirages – Franz Xaver Roth – Les Siècles – Alexandre Tharaud (Erato 2017)
As mentioned, this is a rather unfamiliar repertoire for me. We start with André Messager, who has an impressive track record managing opera houses (Opéra Comique, Covent Garden, Opéra de Paris), but also did quite a bit of composing. This starts with an aria from his opera Madame Chrysanthème. from 1893. A beautiful melody if there ever was one. And then you get the angelic (sorry for falling into clichés…) voice of Devielhe, and you get immediate bliss.
Next is an extract from Claude Debussy´s Pelleas et Melisandre, one of the two works of the entire album I actually knew. Unfortunately, very short, beautiful nevertheless.
Lakmé is probably Leo Délibes most famous opera, written in 1880. And yes, even if you’ve never heard the name of the composer, you’ll most likely have come across his Flower Duet, which obviously gets featured on this album as well (we get a total of 3 tracks from Lakmé here, spread accross the album). Why am I so confident you know the Flower Duet? Well, it´s one of those pieces that developed a life on its own in movies and commercials. Don’t believe me? Scroll to 1:05 of this Youtube video:
4 consecutive tracks are devoted to Maurice Delage´s Poémes hindous. What? Exactly, no idea. Wikipedia tells me these (composed in 1912) are Delage´s most recorded work. I´ve been collecting classical music for 20+ years now, and I had never heard of the guy. Doesn’t matter, this is beautiful and an excellent discovery!
Another great revelation for me were a number of songs recorded with the great Alexandre Thauraud on piano, from Debussy, Stravinsky, Berlioz, and Koechlin.
Overall, in spite of Devielhe’s outstanding vocal capabilities, this album never turns into impressive self-serving vocal gymnastics, but is a a beautiful window into the French vocal repertoire.
Note to self: I should probably find a replacement adjective for beautiful here, as it pops up wait to often in this review.
Well, if you look up “beautiful” in http://www.thesaurus.com you’ll find, among others, dazzling, delightful, elegant, angelic, bewitching, and radiant. I couldn’t have summarized this album better.
It´s probably a bit late for Christmas shopping, but if you’re still looking for something to put under the tree (or whatever other holiday you’re celebrating right now, if any), or if you just would like to make yourself a nice present, here’s my selection for 2017. For download links to each album, please follow the link to the original review.
Bach: St. Matthew Passion – John Eliot Gardiner
I may be a bit biased here as I heard Gardiner perform this live as part of the same European tour as when this was recorded, but while I’ve been not always convinced by Gardiner´s recent recordings, I feel this is one that will stand the test of time as a reference.
Brahms: The Symphonies – Andris Nelsons – Boston Symphony Orchestra
Brahms being in the subtitle of my album, he is obviously featured on a regular basis.
Note that this album may not be of universal appeal. This is really not the new lean style of “historically informed”, with lean orchestras, which I actually often really like. This is “old-style” Brahms, big, broad, and romantic. I feel it works especially well for the first symphony, in the big tradition of the Klemperers and Walters of this world (not yet Furtwängler and Toscanini).
In, any case if you answer yes to “Aimez-vous Brahms?”, you need to check this box out.
And yes, 2 out of 5 for the grandmaster from Hamburg. Another Brahms album.
And this time I can get rid of any disclaimer, this is just outstanding in any way. While playing with all his virtuosity power, these little (underrated) gems of Brahms here really get the treatment they deserve.
Mozart: Great Mass in C – Masaaki Suzuki – Bach Collegium Japan
This gets a special treatment by me, because it is probably one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written.
Masaaki Suzuki and his Bach Collegium have never produced a bad album to my knowledge. The “worst” you get from this excellent Japanese ensemble is recordings that are a bit too polished and tame to my taste.
But here, none of that. Just beauty! This could well become a new reference recording for this work.
This album again may not be of universal appeal. A slightly more eclectic selection of music, a very young pianist, and a lot of extremes in one album.
I still preferred it to let’s say the extreme perfection of Zimerman´s new Schubert recording (another contender for this list), simply because of the piano performance of Stravinsky´s Firebird. I’m not even a particular fan of Stravinsky in general, but this recording is simply out of this world.
Actually, the Magnificat isn’t per see a Christmas-related work. It was however apparently very early on performed on Christmas Day, so it stuck around as a seasonal work. From a content perspective, this is actually about Mary, not Jesus.
This beautiful choral work has been recorded over and over again.
So instead of just picking up one version, let me write about 3 different versions that all have their merits, by outstanding musicians.
John Butt, Dunedin Consort (Linn 2016)
John Butt takes the Christmas connection seriously, and tries to fully reconstruct Bach´s own Christmas performance in Leipzig. Appropriately, you get some organ music and the Christmas Cantata BWV 63. He even intersects a Vom Himmel Hoch Da Komm Ich Her, a traditional German Christmas Carol, in the middle of the work.
I’ve previously mentioned this album in my comments about the Gramophone Awards nominees in 2016, giving this album 5 stars. My high opinion hasn’t changed, it still is one of the most beautiful version around, and combined with Linn´s excellent recording skills, this is very much worth having. Particularly memorable about this performance is the choir in all its glory.
This is the most recent release among the three I´ll be writing about. The French Alpha label (OutThereMusic) is one of the most reliable labels I know, usually you can buy them nearly blindly. Nicely enough these days you don’t have to as they are available on most streaming services, which is also what I did first.
Vox Luminis I must admit was new to me, but a bit of research tells me it is an outstanding early music choir from Belgium (a hotspot of early and historically informed performance if there ever was one). And increasingly, they are not only a choir but also built up their own early music orchestra with it.
So how different is this version? Well, if Dunedin is all about sparkle, this is more about nuance and detail. Both really are outstanding recordings of the Magnifcat, you’ll just get a different perspective. So, talking colors, Dundedin is sparkling, polished gold, whereas Vox Luminis is more dark bronze. Both are beautiful in its own right.
What’s different here is the coupling, you get Vivaldis Dixit Dominus here. I’ve previously stated that I’m not a particular fan of the Red Priest, but this is one of the works that is certainly nice having in your catalogue.
Overall: Highly Recommended.
Bach / Vivaldi: Magnificat & Concerti – Jordi Savall – Le Concert des Nations
This is the “oldest” of the three recordings, but still pretty recent, as released in 2014.
I absolutely had to include it here, as I just noticed my entire blog in spite of its 2,5 years of existence hasn’t mentioned one of the grand masters of early music yet, the brilliant Jordi Savall.
Jordi Savall, with his trusted ensembles of La Capella Reial and Le Concert Des Nations, is a legend in early music performance. If you don’t know him yet go and discover some of his many outstanding releases.
Interestingly enough, baroque music is already relatively “late” for Savall who focused quite a bit on the pre-baroque era.
But here he shines, particularly in the Magnificat. Comparing to the two version above, this is the most “balanced” approach, mixing the brilliance of the Dunedin´s with the more intimate performance of Vox Luminis.
Very interesting here are the fillers. Again, no fan of Vivaldi, but both the concerto for two violins and Vivaldi´s own Magnificat are quite pleasing. Nothing I´d go out to buy personally.
But the moment we move from Italy to Germany, this album really becomes outstanding. As mentioned, Bach´s Magnificat is close to perfect, And then you get a very surprising filler again, with Bach, with his keyboard concerto BWV 1052.
And who is the soloist, if no other then my beloved Pierre Hantai (see also here and here). I must admit I’m still looking for my perfect version of the Bach keyboard concertos. This one won’t be my reference as Hantai has the occasional quirk (he certainly is a character) that I don’t necessarily always appreciate, but one thing is for sure, you won’t regret having this version in your library. I keep coming back to it all the time.
There really is not a winner here. Check all of them out, look at which filling material you prefer, no matter what you choose, you’ll make a good choice. The Dunedin may have a slight advantage from an audiophile perspective, but all three recordings are of very high audio quality and are available as high-res recordings, so you really have the beauty of choice here.
My rating for all three albums: 5 stars
Update Dec 20, 2017: For once, I don’t really agreed with the latest recommendation by both Classica and Gramophone, who strongly recommend the very recent release of John Eliot Gardiner on SDG. Already the opening movement of the Magnificat sounds so rushed that it reminds me in a way of a 33 tours LP played at 45 RPM. May just be me, but I don’t get it. On the other hand, Classica was only so-so about the recording of Vox Luminis. All these reviews can be found in their December 17 issues. Doesn’t change my opinion above obviously.