My Reflections on the 2020 Gramophone Awards – Part II – Choral, Instrumental & Orchestral

Usually, I try to do one blog post per section (Orchestral, Piano, etc.), at least for those that I do care about. This time unfortunately my day job is keeping me quite busy and I wasn’t able to listen to all albums shortlisted by Gramophone, so this will just be a “best of” of albums from some of the nominated albums from the different categories.

Note that this is the continuation from part I that I published last week, where I had a look at the “Concerto” category. Today I’ll cover “Choral”, “Instrumental”, and “Orchestral”.

I’m following the order that Gramophone uses in their Gramophone Awards shortlist special edition.

Let’s start with the Choral section, and two recent recordings of Bach’s masterpieces.

Bach: St John’s Passion – Philippe Herreweghe – Collegium Vocale Gent (Phi 2020)

Johann Sebastian Bach: Johannes Passion Philippe Herreweghe Collegium Vocale Ghent Phi 2020 24/96

I must admit I only learned about this release from the Gramophone awards issue, although it was already released in February. What a miss! I do have already a favourite recording of the St John passion, as performed by John Butt and the Dunedin Consort, I have praised Philippe Pierlot’s excellent reading here, I also have Herreweghe’s previous version from 2001, as well as versions from Suzuki, and Gardiner (the usual suspects for great baroque vocal works).

But this new release is truly outstanding, and could potentially become my favorite, a true 5 star recording.

Bach: St Matthew Passion – Masaaki Suzuki – Bach Collegium Japan (BIS 2020)

Bach: St Matthew Passion Bach Collegium Japan Masaaki Suzuki BIS 2020 24/96

So, after the “smaller” passion, there’s also a new release of the majestic St Matthew Passion. I’ve already written about some other fantastic versions (again by the usual bunch of John Butt, one of my 25 Essential Classical Music albums, and the recent recording of John Eliot Gardiner that I was able to attend live), so it wasn’t obvious that I needed yet another version on top of the 7 or 8 others I have in my local library. But I bought it anyhow, given the recommendations by Gramophone, unfortunately without listening to it beforehand.

Don’t get me wrong, this is brilliantly performed, with excellent soloists. So why am just a bit hesitant about it? A simple fact, Suzuki starts the opening chorus “Kommt, Ihr Töchter” is just significantly slower (8:20 compared to John Butt’s 6:38), and it startles me a bit every time. It makes it even more powerful, but it just loses a tiny bit of drive. Check it out before you buy, but it clearly is among the very top performances out there.

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

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

I don’t know why this ended up being reviewed by Gramophone only in 2020, you’ll find my 4 star review of March 2019 here.

I really liked the album, and while I still would pick Bach over Buxtehude anytime, Buxtehude’s early baroque is growing on me. It is very much worth discovering.

Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas – Igor Levit (Sony 2019)

Igor Levit Beethoven Complete Piano Sonatas Sony Classical 24/96 2019

Yes, absolutely!

The more I discover Levit’s Beethoven cycle, the more I’m impressed. You’ll find my 5 star review here, but in the meantime I’ve again had the pleasure seeing Levit perform a part of the cycle live at the 2020 Lucerne festival (he played the Pathétique and Tempest among others), and have tickets for a live performance of the Hammerklavier that I’m very much looking forward to.

By the way, if you speak German, Levit has done a fantastic podcast, produced by German public radio, where he discusses in-depth every single sonata. Highly recommended.

Brahms: The Final Piano Pieces -Stephen Hough (Hyperion 2020)

Stephen Hough Brahms The Final Piano Pieces Hyperion 2020 24 96

Another album that I fully agree with, as reviewed here (5 stars). This album is all the way up there for me with Volodos and Perahia. Very much worth having.

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 – Kiril Petrenko (BPO’s own label, 2020)

Berlin Philharmonic Kirill Petrenko Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 24/96

Again, an album I already reviewed in 2019 and loved it (5 stars).

In fact, it is the one recording that made me reconsider whether I actually like Tchaikovsky (I’m still on the fence, but getting there).

Very much recommended.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the selection this year.

If you want to buy any of these albums (which I highly recommend you do), you can find the albums here (Qobuz & Hyperion):

Bach St John Passion – Herreweghe

Bach St Matthew Passion – Suzuki

Buxtehude Membra Jesu Nostri – Pierlot

Beethoven Igor Levit

Brahms Stephen Hough

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).