A Review of Two Recent Recordings of Mahler 1 by Vänskä and Roth

Gustav Mahler

You can easily tell that I’m still struggling a bit with Gustav Mahler by the number of posts I have done on him, so far a grand total of 1 (one!), commenting about very divergent reviews of Mahler’s 9th.

I find many of his symphonies hard to approach, too big, to complex, getting lost in the weeds. The one symphony that I semi-regularly go back to is no. 1. It is to me by far the most approachable, taking many of the beautiful melodies in the symphony directly from his own earlier the song cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (and if you read this blog regularly you know I’m a sucker for melodies).

My first recording of Mahler 1 with retrospect is not a reference, but at least a quite decent performance, with Eliahu Inbal and the HR Radio Symphony orchestra (I mainly bought the album initially because it was a so-called audiophile recording by Denon).

SInce then, on Mahler, I’ve been through all the great classics (Klemperer, Walter, Bernstein, Kubelik), but also many new releases of this work (Fischer, Zinman, Janssons), and these days most often go back to Ivan Fischer on Channel Classics, a very nice, if a bit middle-of-the-road performance (again, VERY audiophile, it’s a fantastic test for your speakers, but you may not make friends with your neighboring appartments if you explore the full dynamic range).

So I was very curious when in the space of a couple of months two new recordings of Mahler 1 came out, both by conductors I respect a lot.

Mahler: Symphony No. 1 – François Xavier Roth – Les Siècles (Harmonia Mundi 2019)

The first one is François-Xavier Roth with his relatively recent ensemble Les Siècles, which I now very much see on track to become one of the most important French orchestras, particularly for French composers (have a look at their recent Debussy and Ravel recordings).

Gustav Mahler Titan Symphony No. 1 Hamburg Weimar 1893-1894 version Les Siècles François Xavier Roth 24/96

So I was particularly curious how they’d do with German composers like Mahler .

What’s interesting about this recording is that they use a different version, “Hamburg/Weimar 1893-1894”, turning the symphony into a “tone poem”. Well, overall, you’ll still very much recognize most of the symphony, but you’ll notice an less familiar 2nd movement sneaking in, Blumine, making the symphony 5 movements long.

Mahler: Symphony No. 1 – Osmo Vänskä – Minnesota Orchestra (BIS 2019)

Gustav Mahler Symphony No. 1 Osmo Vänskä Minnesota Orchestra BIS 2019 24/96

The even more recent new release is a conductor I’ve loved for a long time, Osmo Vänskä, who has done fantastic work with the Minnesota Orchestra. Take for example his outstanding recording of the Beethoven piano concertos 2 & 4 with Yevgeny Sudbin.

Vänskä takes the “traditional” version of the symphony with 4 movements.

Now, are any of these worth getting, you’ll ask?

Well, let me start with the Vänskä. Given how much energy and passion Vänskä typically puts into his recordings, this was a major disappointment. The entire symphony just feels very slow and uninspired. I try to stay away from too drastic words especially when we’re talking about such fantastic artists like Vänskä. But I can’t help it, this recording really isn’t for me.

Roth is already a different story. The Blumine addition already gives you something to look out for, and overall, the tone is much more energetic and joyful in the first three movements, and has the appropriate amount of drama in the fourth movement. Overall, a very satisfying performance, maybe not a new reference, but you won’t regret buying it.

Now I’m curious what you think? Am I completely off? Do you love Vänskä’s approach, and I’m just deaf? Which other versions of Mahler 1 should I check out?

My rating: 4 stars (Roth), 2 stars (Vänska)

You can find them here (Roth, Qobuz) and here (Vänskä, Qobuz)

Update Aug 16: Classicstoday seems to agree with my assessment of the Vänskä, calling it a “CD from Hell” in their recent review.

A fantastic live album by Yuja Wang

Yuja Wang

If you read this blog regularly, you could think that I may be a bit biased towards Asian pianists. I’m really not a big fan of Lang Lang, and also can’t understand all the praise that Seong-Jin Cho is getting (see here and here). I really hope I don’t have any intrinsic biases and judge purely on the music though.

I had a more ambivalent opinion of Yuja Wang until recently. There was stuff I really appreciated (her Ravel concerto for example), but there are other albums like the Brahms sonatas with Kavakos (that got a lot of praise) that are not 100% my cup of tea.

But this latest live release (it actually already came out end of last year, I’m a bit behind here), is a truly exceptional album

Yuja Wang – The Berlin Recital (DG 2018)

Yuja Wang The Berlin Recital Rachmaninov Scriabin Ligeti Prokofiev 24 96 Deutsche Grammophon 2018

The album starts off with an engaging performance of the famous Rachmaninov Prelude op. 23 no. 5. You already are getting a level of energy, excitement, but also precision, that is drawing you in from the very beginning.

She follows with several other pieces of Rachmaninov, keeping up the level of engagement. A first highlight however is in the much more subtle Scriabin sonata. Here Wang demonstrates that she is not just the virtuoso, but can also be very nuanced. Scriabin isn’t easy to pull off. I had one of my most memorable performances of a live concert by Rudolf Serkin back in the early 90s, and this is one of the first time that Scriabin really moves me.

I’m still mostly struggling with most of 20th century music, but the Ligeti etudes are quite accessible even to me.

But a real highlight of this album is the closing, Prokofiev’s sonata no. 8. Again, not a showpiece, much more introvert, written during the horrible year of 1943 in the middle of World War II. Again, Wang shows how complete she is as an artist in this performace.

Overall, the album is very well recorded, giving you a premium seat in the Berlin Philharmonie.

I’m not the only one liking this album by the way, it’s got top reviews from pretty much every one in the business (Gramophone Editor’s Choice, Choc de Classica, 5 stars by Diapason and FonoForum).

Highly recommended.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 with Kirill Petrenko or Why Maybe I Do Like Tchaikovsky After All

Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky

My first ever post on this blog regarding Tchaikovsky created a bit of a debate among my readers, as it was titled Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 with Neeme Järvi or Why I Don’t Like Tchaikovsky.

Several of them couldn’t believe that I don’t really like Tchaikovsky that much, and tried to convince me otherwise.

That said, this post has been some years ago and I still basically limited my Tchaikovsky listening to about once yearly going back to said Symphony No. 5, occasionally the Violin Concerto with Heifetz (but more likely because it is on the same album as his fantastic Brahms), and every once in a while testing out new versions of his piano concerto no. 1, more often than not being disappointed.

And, for sure, during the pre-Christmas period, the Nutcracker, ideally by Rattle, was a must have.

I’ve tried the four early symphonies by Tchaikovsky, never got them, but most surprisingly his 6th, which many consider his symphonic masterpiece, never got my attention.

So when the Berlin Philharmonic finally released his first album with their new boss (elected many years ago), I got curious.

I’m very happy I did check it out.

Tchaikovsky Symphony No 6 – Kirill Petrenko – Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (BPO 2019)

So far, I must admit I always go a bit lost in this piece. Guess what, Petrenko really opened my eyes and ears here.

His very transparent reading helped me to see the structure, to understand the nuances, to see the many beautiful similarities with the beautiful orchestral sounds of his ballets.

At the same time, this is not a slim HIP-inspired baroque interpretation, as the word “transparent” may imply. This is the romantic power and suave sound of the BPO at it’s best. So all the necessary drama of the “Pathétique” is there when it is needed.

If this is an indication of the future of the Berlin Philharmonic under his new conductor, I hope this was not only a snapshot from the honeymoon period. We could be really entering a new Golden Age of the BPO, and we all should be going back to Scharoun’s yellow tent more often (if you can get tickets).

My rating: 5 stars

P.S. Gramophone agrees, giving this album an Editor’s Choice in the July 2019 edition

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Janine Jansen and Herbert Blomstedt for a Magnificent Brahms Performance at the Tonhalle Maag – June 28, 2019

Janine Jansen

I presume if you’ve followed this blog for a bit (or read it’s subtitle) you’ve figured out that I really like Brahms.

You’ve probably also noticed that I really like Janine Jansen, and see her as one of the best violin players alive.

Last year I went through a series of concerts aiming to see all my favourite violin players live, and succeeded being in concerts of Alina Ibragimova, Julia Fischer, Lisa Batiatishvili, Isabelle Faust, and Janine Jansen all in 2018. What a year.

The concert I saw with Jansen, also at the Tonhalle Maag, was with her husband Daniel Blendulf conducting, and playing a contemporary composition by Swedish composer Anders Eliasson. I didn’t get to write about this concert here on this blog, but I found the concert surprisingly enjoyable (I’m typically not very much into any classical music after 1930).

But now, when Jansen came back to Zurich playing Brahms of all violin concertos, I knew I had to be there, after all, I had given her Brahms concerto recording with Pappano a five star review here.

Brahms Violin Concerto & Symphony No. 3 – Janine Jansen – Herbert Blomstedt – Tonhalle Orchester Zurich – Tonhalle Maag, June 28, 2019

Janine Jansen after the Brahms Violin Concerto June 28, 2019 Tonhalle Maag with Herbert Blomstedt Tonhalle Orchestra
Janine Jansen had to come back out four times

Well, to make it short, I’m so happy I went. This was just a fantastic concert. Blomstedt chose a relatively slow tempo for the first movement. This can have the risk of being a big boring and drawn out. But obviously, none of that here. Janine Jansen put her energy into every single note that the audience was following, completely mesmerised.

The orchestra, in spite of this being the third consecutive night of performing the same program, was following with the same energy and power, clearly enjoying themselves.

To quote Felix Michel, who did a fantastic review on the NZZ (here, in German), the word he used several times was “Wunder” (miracle). Yes, that is kind of a fitting description of what we witnessed yesterday in the scorching Zurich summer heat (>36° Celsius, I’m happy the Tonhalle Maag seemed to have some form of AC).

Herbert Blomstedt

I haven’t written a lot about Herbert Blomstedt yet. I’ve last seen him, again conducting the Tonhalle playing Mendelssohn’s violin concerto, another magnificent evening.

He isn’t one of those flashy maestros that will make headlines, but like many others, e.g. Haitink, is much more of a Musician’s musician.

At the age of 91 (he’ll soon turn 92, but is already scheduled to appear back in Zurich in the fall), when he’s up there conducting, he’s more alive and present than many 20 year olds.

Now to the 3rd symphony. Here, the energy taking from the furious beginning with the violin concerto certainly continued after the break. The two most outstanding moments here were the famous 3rd movement, which you may know from several commercials and other uses in the movies, but even more impressively in the finale. Unlike most symphonies, this finale ends very quietly.

Blomstedt really made us enjoy this quiet ending, not dropping his hands (no baton) for several seconds after the last note expired, to keep the quiet tension.

Herbert Blomstedt, Tonhalle Maag, Brahms SympZurichhony No. 3 , June 27, 2019
Maestro Blomstedt getting standing ovations

As always, when the final movement lacks a climatic finish, the applause came more slowly. However, it became even more powerful, especially after it became apparent that one of the musicians of the Tonhalle had his last day pre-retirement and was showered with flowers and gifts. The applause lasted for a long time. Well deserved for a fantastic end of a season.

Looking forward to the next season, where my admired Paavo Järvi will take over the orchestra.

An Excellent (Nearly) New Schumann Cycle by Rattle and the BSO

Schumann’s Symphonies

Schumann’s symphonies have long been underrated. The idea of “Schumann cannot compose for orchestra” has been going around in musicology circles for many years.

I really disagree. OK, he’s no Beethoven or Brahms, but I still really like his symphonies, especially no. 3 and 4.

To be fair, there are excellent recordings already out there, e.g. from Gardiner, Nezét-Séguin, or, a bit more unorthodox, Thomas Dausgaard, (mentioned in My 25 Essential Classical Albums).

Rattle is now on his way out from the Berlin Philharmonic, with Kirill Petrenko coming.

I’ve not always been a fan of Rattle’s work at the BPO, but he has left some very good recordings, so I was very interested when I recently rediscovered this 2014 cycle which launched BPO’s own label (I had missed it at the time).

Schumann: The Symphonies – Simon Rattle – Berliner Philharmoniker (BPO Recordings 2014)

Berliner Philharmoniker Sir Simon Rattle Robert Schumann Symphonies 1-4 BPO Recordings 2014 24/96

So, what do we get? Overall, a very convincing package. I really enjoy every single symphony on this box. My favorite is actually no. 1, subtitled “spring”; where Rattle takes a very fresh and precise approach.

Potentially the weakest of the 4 is symphony no. 2, which I found slightly incoherent in certain parts. The “Rhenish” (my other favorite), and no. 4 both are presented in a way that combines on one hand a good view of the big picture, but really looks at many exciting details.

Overall, Rattle was clearly influenced by the historically informed movement, and the BPO doesn’t sound like during the Karajan era any more. Everything is much lighter and transparent.

A really enjoyable set.

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Mesmerising Viola Da Gamba Early Music by Paolo Pandolfo

Early Music

If you’re following this blog on a regular basic you know I’m not a specialist of Early Music (to simplify, most anything before Bach), and don’t listen to it very often.

Therefore, there is not a lot of coverage of the 16th century on this blog, and I want to put out a disclaimer that my review below is even more subjective than my regular ones, I’d certainly say my judgment is more educated in the 18th and 19th century than here.

But this brand new album has particularly touched me, so I still wanted to write about it. It’s been some weeks since my last review, because most of the recent new releases didn’t particularly motivate to write about them. This is the first one that does.

Paolo Pandolfo

Paolo Pandolfo is one of the leading soloists of the Early Music movement, but also plays a lot of baroque. His recording of the Bach cello suites is really quite beautiful and worth checking out. He plays both the cello, but also the Viola da Gamba, a string instrument that nearly disappeared around the 18th century.

Regina bastarda – Paolo Pandolfo – La Pedrina (Glossa 2019)

Regina bastarda Paolo Pandolfo la Pedrina Glossa 2019 24 172

So what’s the “bastard queen” in the title all about? Well “alla bastarda” was basically an improvised version of popular songs and madrigals played on a solo instrument like the Viola da Gamba.

And that really is what we get here, a lot of solo improvisations of a true master of the Viola da Gamba of several composers of the 16th century.

To lighten the mix, the solo improvisations (which are not truly solo, there is a “continuo” of other instruments supporting Pandolfo (played by the excellent La Pedrina), are mixed with Madrigals from the same period, mostly by Palestrina.

Overall, this results in a mesmerizing mix of fascinating music, that will draw you in and require all your attention. This is not background music, but requires your full dedication. You won’t regret it!

My rating: 5 stars

Buxtehude: Membra Jesu Nostri by Philippe Pierlot’s Ricercar Consort – Just Beautiful

Easter time & music

I’m not religious, but I understand that Easter is the most important Christian holiday, and the history of his suffering and resurrection have dominated about 2000 years of European history.

Typically, around this time of the year, I’d be listening to the two masterpieces that Johann Sebastian Bach has composed, telling the story of the passion of Christ as recorded by the apostels John and Matthew (click on the links before and this one to see some of my reviews around them).

But obviously the great Bach is not the only one inspired by this important point of Western religion and culture. From Gesualdo, Pergolesi, via Telemann, Rossini, all the way to Pärt, all have written often amazingly beautiful music about it.

Dieterich Buxtehude

Regular readers of my blog know that I typically mainly write about music between 1700 and 1900, more or less from Bach to Mahler. In the 20th century, I often struggle, and before Bach, I’m often equally lost.

Therefore, if you look around at the 4.5 years of blogging history on this site, you’ll find only a small handful of mentions of Claudio Monteverdi, and that’s it.

So therefore, take the following review with a grain of salt, I’m clearly not an expert on Early Music.

Dieterich Buxtehude isn’t particularly well known any more today. He’s of Danish/German origins, and lived his entire life in the area of Southern Denmark and the very Northern end of Germany, and passed away in 1707.

However, in his time, he was a living legend. In his young years, Bach himself walked the 250 miles separating his home in Thüringen to Lübeck in Northern Germany just to hear Buxtehude play (and presumably study with him), and Händel even considered taking over his job after he died.

Buxtehude

Buxtehude: Membra Jesu Nostri – Philippe Pierlot – Ricercar Consort (Mirare 2019)

Buxtehude Membra Jesu Nostri Ricercar Consort Philippe Pierlot Mirare 2019 (24/96)

Membra Jesu Nostri, or if you prefer the full title Membra Jesu nostri patientis sanctissima (“The most holy limbs of our suffering Jesus”) is actually a selection of seven cantatas written in 1680 (so 5 years before Bach was even born).

I’m not going to bore you with more detail on the structure and story of the work, Wikipedia has some really good information here.

What I do want to share is the beauty of all of this. You have a small baroque ensemble, just a handful of voices. But this album is captivating every single one of the 1h20 of the album (you get another cantata as “filler” at the end as well).

I’ve already praised Pierlot and his Ricercar Consort in their recording of the St. John Passion, and here again, their singing and playing is exceptional.

Again, I’m not an early music expert, but I briefly compared this to some of the well known recordings of this work (Gardiner, Koopman, van Veldhofen), and can guarantee that you won’t regret the purchase of this album.

My rating: 4 stars (5 star playing, 4 star repertoire)

You can find it here (Qobuz).