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.
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.
I don’t need to tell anybody that 2020 was a weird year to say the least. It was supposed to be the big Beethoven anniversary year, with concerts all over the world and a lot of new album releases.
We certainly got a lot of new album releases, but we clearly didn’t have the live concerts we all wished for. I got lucky, I attended two socially distanced concerts during the times when Covid in Europe was still at lower levels, both involving Beethoven by the way (Igor Levit playing some piano sonatas, and Lars Vogt playing the 4th piano concerto with Paavo Järvi).
But without further ado, let’s jump right into it and list my top 5 classical albums of the year. Interestingly, less Beethoven than I’d have expected in here.
Chopin’s Piano Concertos by Benjamin Grosvenor (Decca 2020)
Beethoven and Sibelius Violin Concertos – Christian Tetzlaff
In this Beethoven year, two German artists recorded excellent versions of the Beethoven classics, both with the Deutsches Sinfonieorchester Berlin. I must admit, this second or third (depending on how you rank) orchestra of Berlin always flew a bit under my radar, behind the Berlin Philharmonic and the Staatskapelle Berlin. This was probably undeserved. Both the recordings of Martin Helmchen with Andrew Manze as conductor, and this recording with Christian Tetzlaff under Robin Ticciati both show the full potential of this orchestra.
Between Helmchen’s now complete Beethoven cycle (I reviewed one volume here), and this new recording of the violin concerto by Tetzlaff, I’m highlighting Tetzlaff here.
He really is one of the best violin players of our era, and probably also somewhat underrated. Both his Beethoven and the Sibelius give a very fresh take on these concertos.
Beethoven Complete String Quartets by the Quatuor Ebène
They have now recorded all Beethoven String Quartets in a world tour (mostly pre-Covid). I’ve reviewed one of the releases here.
Now, is their new complete cycle something that will replace my favorite box of all times, the complete recordings by the legendary Takacs Quartet? No, but honestly, the Beethoven string quartets are such masterpieces, and have such a breadth of material from the early op. 18 to the amazing but not very accessible late works, that one should never have only one complete cycle.
Bach: St John Passion – Herreweghe (2020 recording)
How could a best of list on my blog be complete without some Bach? This year, we had several great recordings of the choral masterpieces. Masaaki Suzuki has released both a St John (recorded in Cologne) and a St Matthew Passion, that have both won accolades from critics.
But let me flag here another recording by another artist that I admire (and had the pleasure of seeing live already), the great Philippe Herreweghe.
I had initially missed this and only really noticed it when it popped up in the Gramophone Awards. This is not his first recording but potentially his best. I can’t wait until Easter (I know, Christmas is just barely over…) so I can play it again in repetition.
So, here you go. This will be my last post of the year, there won’t be a similar list for Jazz. I just wasn’t able to find 5 albums that I liked enough to give them 5 stars this year. Let’s keep our fingers crossed for 2021.
Nevertheless, the Christmas Oratorio is on constant repeat in the last 2-3 weeks leading up to Christmas every single year. It is as essential as mulled wine, seasonal decorations, and home made Christmas cookies. This year, due to Covid, I probably won’t have any of the first, and a strict diet over the last months stops me from doing the latter.
I’m very happy that listening to Bach is totally carb-free (even though it can be very sweet), and at least played from the stereo very much compatible with social distancing.
I had already mentioned John Butt’s recording in my 2016 post, but didn’t own it at the time. Linn Records has a pretty strict no-streaming policy, so I ended up buying it blindly, given how much I like the Dunedin Consort’s other big Bach works.
And sure enough, I wasn’t disappointed. The orchestral playing is a beautiful as ever, and the singers are doing an excellent job. The only two things to mention: most of the singers are non native speakers, and while they are doing quite a decent job with the German pronunciation, if you’re picky, you may have an issue with this.
And, for some even more tricky maybe, the typical Dunedin Consort approach of having One Voice Per Part, a concept introduced by Joshua Rifkin in the 1980s. If your Bach oratorio reference is Karl Richter, you’ll be disappointed.
I really like it though. It gives it a very particularly intimate feel. I’m still rotating between the Dunedin’s version, and my other favourites, Gardiner, Herreweghe, and the occasional Suzuki. But this is very much among the best. And if you care for these things, this is a truly “audiophile” version, it is really well recorded.
My rating: 4 stars (It’s a truly beautiful album but I’m still waiting for my imaginary “perfect” recording)
This is a follow-up to the two part article I’ve written discussing some of the albums that were nominated for the 2020 Gramophone awards, that you can find here and here.
You’ll find the latest edition of the Gramophone podcast (that is usually worth a listen in any case) here a very passionate discussion of the winning albums, check it out.
Chamber: Veress & Bartok
I didn’t have time to review any chamber works of the winning category, and I truly cannot relate to the winning album, by Sandor Veress, and Bartok. So sharing this winner truly just for your information. As mentioned previously, I’m typically lost with most of the music composed in the 20th century.
Choral: Suzuki’s St Matthew Passion
While I’m still struggling a bit with the slow first movement, I gave this another complete listen the other day and must admit it is a spectacular performance.
Concerto: Chopin’s concertos by Benjamin Grosvenor
As written previously, I wholeheartedly agree with this choice. I’m a huge fan of Grosvenor, and this version is up there with the very top of Zimerman and Argerich.
Contemporary: Thomas Adès Piano Concerto & Totentanz
Again, mentioning this for completeness only, you can guess if I’m struggling with 20th century music how my brain is coping with contemporary stuff.
Early Music: Gesualdo Madrigali by Les Arts Florissants
While I’m really lost in the 20th and 21st century, the 16th century music is something I really admire, just don’t get to listen to it that much.
But this is an album that I’ll definitely add to my collection, as I’m a big fan of Les Arts Florissants, and Gesualdo’s madrigals are truly beautiful. Recommended.
Instrumental: Igor Levit’s Beethoven Cycle
A worthy winner. This complete cycle is insightful from no. 1 all the way to no. 32, and every classical music lover should check this out. Levit’s tempi are sometimes somewhat extreme, but never for the sake of it, always with a very clear sense of purpose.
This is probably my favorite of the entire list.
Opera: Händel’s Aggrippina – Joyce DiDonato
I had completely missed this album. My bad, just look at this lineup of fantastic baroque singers. I’ll definitely have to add this to my collection. You can really count on Erato to still produce fantastic opera recordings.
Here comes my 20th century music dilemma again. I’m still barely getting my feet wet with Shostakovich (and again, only occasionally), so I’m not going to add any value with my opinion here. But if you’re into it, the same album also won the “Choc de l’année” by French magazine Classica, so Gražinytė-Tyla must have done something right.
Recital: Sandrine Piau – Si j’ai aimé
Another album I had missed. It is a collection of not that well known French songs with orchestra, mostly from the late 19th century.
Sandrine Piau is a fantastic singer, and this is definitely something I’ll add to my playlist. Not a must have, but a nice discovery off the beaten track.
Solo Vocal: Janacek: The Diary Of One Who Disappeared
Unfortunately, due to Hyperion’s strict no streaming policy I have no way of checking this out beyond the snippets I can check out on Hyperion’s website. So nothing to add from my side here, just mentioning it for completeness.
So, what do you think? Were the right winners selected?
And on an unrelated note, am I silly to ignore the 20th and 21st century music?
This album just had to be there. I’m a big Isabelle Faust fan, as most of my regular readers know.
This is just a fantastic album overall, and an must have. Hugely enjoyable, Faust’s signature Sleeping Beauty Stradivarius sound, and the AKAMUS is a perfect partner. I had heard the same combination live in 2018, and it was already a great experience.
The Chamayou album got the 2019 Gramophone award, and I can only highly recommend this, particularly for the concerto no. 2 which really has become a favourite of mine now.
Yuya Wang’s Berlin Recital
I’ve said it in the review, I wasn’t a big fan of Yuja Wang before this album. This live recital really has become one of my absolute favourites, for the playing, the recording quality, and the exciting repertoire. Highly recommended.
Savall’s mesmerising Messiah
This album, which only came out some weeks ago, has been in constant rotation on my playlist. Being in the Christmas season helps, but this album constantly keeps playing in the back of my head, even when not listening to music at all. You’ll find my original review here.
Igor Levit’s Beethoven Cycle
I had several contenders for the last spot on this list. There’s Volodos’ beautiful recording of the Schubert sonata D959 (not yet reviewed), Pichon’s Liberta compilation, several of the great Debussy recordings on Harmonia Mundi (e.g. Faust, or Roth), or Petrenko’s Tchaikovsky Pathétique. But ultimately I ended up choosing this fantastic cycle. I have yet to fully discover in detail every of the 32 sonatas (there’s just so much material), and I don’t think I’ll ever feel fully qualified to review all 32 sonatas in detail.
And I don’t necessarily agree with every single choice of style or particularly tempo. But one this is for sure, this cycle is special, and will make you think. Isn’t this what musical enjoyment is all about?
You’ll find the download links to all of the above in the original reviews.
So, up to you? Do you agree with my choices? Anything I missed?
This is another favorite category of mine, as typically it is mainly piano recordings.
This year, interestingly enough a solo violin recording starts the selection, Giuliani Carmignola’s recent recording of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas. I’m really puzzled by this choice. Let me make it clear, I really like Carmignola (his Four Seasons are among my absolute favorites), and I also love the solo sonatas and partitas. However, Carmignola’s version sounds completely “wrong” to me. I know this is a very unspecific remark, and I’m not going to dwell on it, as this won’t be helpful for my readers. But I’ll stick with Milstein anytime.
So let’s rather go directly to the recording that is most likely going to make my Top 5 Classical albums of the year 2019, and that I sincerely hope will win this category: Yuja Wang’s fantastic Berlin recital.
As you can see from my review, I really love this album. It has completely changed my perception of Wang as an artist. This recital combines a fantastic selection of repertoire, a playing that is both nuanced and passionate.
I’d like to thank my reader Ed for his comment on the article flagging the extra album of the 4 encores she played at this concerto. This is a must have as well. You could argue with DG why they simply didn’t include this into the main album, but in any case this 4 track album is very cheap, and a must have.
Next in line is another favorite artist of mine, Igor Levit. I haven’t yet formally reviewed his latest recording of the Beethoven sonatas, but have seen him play a selection live at this year’s Lucerne festival, and can already say his set is worth checking out. You may not like all his choices, especially on his sometimes extreme tempi, but this will be a worthy addition to the long catalogue of complete sonata recordings, more to come).
But Gramophone focused on Levit’s other release in the last 12 months, his very personal album “Life”.
I’ve reviewed it here, and if you haven’t done so yet, you should absolutely check out this five star gem.
I’ve only just started listening to another recommendation of this selection, Alexander Melnikov’s recording of Debussy’s 2nd book of Préludes.
As you know, I’m far from being a Debussy expert, I typically just go to my complete Debussy recordings by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, but my first impression of this album is very positive. What is very interesting about this recording is the sound of the piano, an Erard, presumably from the time of Debussy. Melnikov has recorded quite a bit on period instruments, and it truly gives a different color and perspective.
I can’t comment on the two other albums that made the original 6 album shortlist, Steven Osborne’s recording o fthe late Beethoven sonatas, and Stephen Hough’s “Dream Album”, as Hyperion still refuses to stream and I refuse to buy albums blindly.
Now, as you know in the meantime Gramphone has narrowed down the shortlist from 6 to 3 albums. The finalists are Carmignola, Wang, and Levit.
I’m willing to bet that Wang will be the winner this year, and it would be well deserved!
I presume this will be the last part of this year’s mini-series on the Gramophone Awards. Maybe I’ll do one more post on the remaining categories lumped together (Choral, Contemporary, Early Music, and Opera, Recital, Solo Vocal) if I find time, but I’m much less comfortable and familar here, so let’s see. So most likely you’ll hear back from me on the Gramphone Awards once the winners are announced on October 1st.
What do you think? What would be your favorites among all these albums?
Therefore, when I went on my “quest” last year to see all of my favorite violin players in one year, I obviously had to go for Alina Ibragimova, Janine Jansen, Lisa Batiashvili, Julia Fischer, and yes, maybe the queen of all, Isabelle Faust. I was very lucky I managed to squeeze all of these live performances into one year.
Isabelle Faust offered one of my preferred programs (I saw her on Lake Geneva last summer during the festival at Château de Tannay), playing exclusively Bach. The program included some of the violin concertos, but also some chamber works. The concert (only slightly spoiled by being in the main air corridor towards Geneva airport) was not surprisingly hugely enjoyable.
So what a pleasure it was when I saw that Faust just released a very similar program on Harmonia Mundi
Bach: Violin Concertos – Isabelle Faust – Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin (Harmonia Mundi 2019)
Isabelle Faust had recorded the violin concertos previously around the year 2000, with Helmut Rilling for the Hänssler label (included in their complete Bach edition). Already this recording was really very nice.
But here it get’s even better. The keywords here are precision, balance, and a complete lack of showmanship. This is one of the most introvert recordings of these concertos that I’ve ever heard.
So this recording is the complete opposite. That said, I like it probably even a bit better. You really hear all the complexity of Bach’s counterpoint, the delicacy of the different instruments and their balance to form something bigger together. And Faust, just as she did in Tannay, wasn’t the star of the show, but really just one more musician as part of a team.
Another similarity to my Tannay experience is also that this album not only includes all violin concertos, including the reconstructed ones, but also one of the Orchestral Suites, several individual tracks such as the Sinfonia BWV1045, and some chamber music, the trio sonatas BWV 527 and 529. In total, you get nearly 2h30 of music.
If you like Bach and historically informed performance, this album is an absolute must have.
UPDATE March 26: Listening to a recent Gramophone podcast where Gramophone speaks with Faust about this recording, I noticed I completely forgot to mention that Faust doesn’t play her typical Sleeping Beauty Stradivarius, but instead a German Steiner violin that Bach himself would have found familiar. In the interview she explained that this much better fits the ensemble sound than the Stradivarius, and that in general she really tries to be as close to what the composer intended as possible.
It is the same violin already used in the previous recording of the Bach violin sonatas (reviewed here).
In the podcast, the interviewer already said that the upcoming review of this album will be very positive. I’m not surprised.
UPDATE March 30: Classica likes it, but only gives it 4 stars, quoting the slightly remote sound quality, and the sometimes somewhat “martial” style of the orchestra. I can somewhat understand the first point, but don’t agree on the 2nd point.
Whereas Gramophone fully agrees with me and gives this album an “Editor’s Choice” in their April 2019 issue, calling it a “hugely enjoyable celebration of Bach”