My Top 5 Classical Albums of 2017

It is starting to be a tradition now; this is a third time I´ll be writing about my top 5 classical albums of the year (see here for 2016, and here for 2015).

It´s been a busy year both professionally (completely unrelated to this blog) and musically, with a lot of excellent recordings being published, my blog being listed among Musicaroo´s Top 100 Independent Music Blogs, and me reaching 200 blog posts this summer.

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

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

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.

See my original review here.

 

Brahms: The Symphonies – Andris Nelsons – Boston Symphony Orchestra

Brahms: The Symphonies - Andris Nelsons - Boston Symphony Orchestra 24/192

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.

You’ll find the original review here.

 

Volodos Plays Brahms

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

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.

A must have for any Brahms fan.

See my original review here.

Mozart: Great Mass in C – Masaaki Suzuki – Bach Collegium Japan

Mozart: Great Mass in C Minor Exsultate Jubliate Bach Collegium Japan Masaaki Suzuki Carolyn Sampson Olivia Vermeulen Makoto Sakurada Christian Immler

 

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.

You’ll find my original review here.

Alexandre Kantorow: A La Russe

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

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.

You can find my original review here.

 

What do you think?

So, this is my list, what would be yours? Please share! As always, I appreciate your feedback and ideas!

In the meantime, let me wish all of you Happy Holidays!

 

P.S. 

One more album, which isn’t properly speaking a 2017 album, but “just a remaster” released this year, gets a special mention: The outstanding complete Beethoven string quartets by the Takács Quartet.

See my original review here.

Takacs Quartet Beethoven Complete String Quartets Decca 24 48 2017 remaster

 

 

Brahms 2nd with Paavo Järvi and the Kammerphilharmonie Bremen – Outstanding!

Brahms

Did I mention I like Brahms? Well to be fair, the subtitle of my blog kind of gives it away.

These are good times for lovers of Brahms symphonies. Only recently Andris Nelsons has released his fantastic cycle of the 4 symphonies with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (see my 5 star review here), now finally Paavo Järvi starts his Brahms cycle with the Kammerphilharmonie Bremen as well.

Paavo Järvi

I really liked his Beethoven cycle with the same orchestra, actually it is among my current references. His Schumann is also great. So obviously I had high hopes for his Brahms.

And I’m not disappointed.

Brahms Symphony No. 2 – Paavo Järvi – Kammerphilharmonie Bremen (RCA 2017)

Brahms Symphony No. 2 Tragic Overture Academic Festival Overture Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen RCA 2017 SACD

The 2nd symphony is not my favorite of the four. 1 and 4 are outstanding, 3 is great, and 2 is just nice in my personal classification. Many have described the 2nd as Brahms “Pastorale“. Obviously, there is more to it, but a certain influence in the peaceful moments cannot be completely discarded. That said, , as the booklet also nicely explains, Brahms himself called the work “melancholic” and “sad” and even had the score printed with a black border.

How does Järvi deal with the symphony? The Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, as the name indicates, is a chamber orchestra, so you’d expect a slimmer sound than e.g. with the Berlin Philharmonic.

But don’t expect this to sound like a HIP baroque orchestra, you still get the full color of  a symphony orchestra, maybe just not as cinemascope as e.g. the latest Rattle cycle or Nelsons with the BSO. There have been some interesting adaptations, e.g the drums are having goat skin giving them a very particular sound.

Overall, it is very balanced, and nuanced. You get plenty of romanticism though, after all this is Brahms we are talking about. I particularly like the end of the 2nd movement, where

As a “filler”, you get the Tragic Overture and Academic Festival Overture. Both are nice to have, but nothing I´d listen to on a regular basis. There is too much outstanding music elsewhere.

Overall this is one of the best Brahms 2 currently on the market.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz) or on many other streaming sites.

If you prefer the original SACD, it is unfortunately very pricey (only found it for $40-60, what’s going on here?)

 

A Truly Moving Performance of Brahms Requiem by Yannick-Nezet Séguin and the Berlin Philharmonic: My Review

Serendipity

Who would have thought that I end up back at the Berlin Philharmonie so soon after the last concert by Simon Rattle just some days ago? Certainly not me.

This was really pure coincidence. I happened to stroll by the Berlin Philharmonic hall purely by chance. Suddenly, a guy approaches me, and asks “Would you want a ticket for the concert? Brahms, right now?” Well, who can say no to that? So 5 min later I find myself sitting in the Berlin Philharmonic hall watching as the BPO and the Rundfunkchor Berlin reassemble (I only got there during the break).

Ein Deutsches Requiem

I haven’t written that much about requiems yet on my blog. I have a certain respect for this category of music, as I always remember it is written for a very serious occasion, the death of a loved one. Maybe because of this I don’t listen to requiems enough.

I’ve previously mentioned Mozart´s requiem on my blog as part of My Must-have Mozart Albums. The other requiems I really love are Fauré’s (this really would need its own blog post), and obviously Brahms’.

Brahms German Requiem is a particular in many ways. First of all, it was written under very personal circumstances, around the death of Brahms own mother. Second, given Brahms´protestant background (he’s from Hamburg), he doesn’t use the traditional latin text of the catholic requiem, but instead parts of the Bible that are of personal importance to him. These are sung in German, hence the name.

Yannick Nézet Séguin – Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra – Rundfunkchor Berlin – Hanna-Elisabeth Müller – Markus Werba

I was indeed very lucky last night. Not only I get to see again the BPO, one of the best orchestras in the world, but also finally get to see Yannick Nézet-Séguin live.

I’ve written a lot about his recordings, from his Cosi Fan Tutte to his FigaroMost recently I did a more ambivalent review of his Mendelssohn symphony box. But taken together, he is one of the most relevant conductors of the 21st century.

Yannick Nézet-Séguinm, The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Rundfunkchor Berlin, Brahms German Requiem Oct 19, 2017
Yannick Nézet-Séguinm, The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Rundfunkchor Berlin

Given his previous recordings, I expected this concert to be a relatively fast and lean performance. Well, from the first measure I was proven wrong. This was BPO beauty in full blast, with relatively slow tempo throughout.

Actually, I’m glad he did. Given the nature of this work, the grandiose and emotionally charged way Nézet-Séguin conducted this just worked out perfectly.

A word about the soloists: they don’t really have such an important role in this work (maybe with the exception of the central soprano solo Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit), and overall the soloists did an good job, but were not the most memorable parts of the evening. The audience seems to think the same: they got decent applause, but nothing out of the the ordinary.

The true star of the evening was the Rundfunkchor Berlin, under Gijs Leenaars.  Their performance was just amazing. Not surprisingly, they received standing ovations at the end. Well deserved

Yannick Nezet Seguin Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra Brahms Ein Deutsches Requiem Oct 19 2017
The BPO hall organ was a major player in the performance

 

The highlight of the evening for me was the second movement, Und alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras.  The combined power of the BPO, the powerful BPO hall organ, and the 80+ voices power (but also nuances) of the choir made this a performance I will never forget.

Truly outstanding.

My rating: 5 star

P.S. If you want to see it yourself, and are not in Berlin (note that there are some tickets left for tonight Oct 20 and tomorrow Oct 21), you can also see the Saturday performance streamed live in the Digital Concert Hall.

 

François-Frédéric Guy Live at Maison de la Radio Paris – Sep 29, 2017

François-Frédéric Guy

I’ve written previously about Guy´s great recording of the Brahms piano sonatas. As I was in Paris last weekend, I noticed him giving a piano recital at the Maison de la Radio. Liszt, Beethoven, and Brahms sonata no. 3. I was lucky enough to still get tickets.

Guy is one of those underrated pianists that outside of his home country typically are not well known. But I heard good things about his Beethoven cycle as well, and had very high expectations.

François-Frédéric Guy: Clair de Lune – Liszt, Beethoven, and Brahms – Live at Maison de la Radio, Paris

Maison de la Radio, hidden in the quite 16th arrondissement of Paris, is a 1960s building that has housed French public radio for decades now.

They have several rooms for public concerts, but the biggest one is the beautiful Auditorium, very recently renovated.

Auditorium of Maison de la Radio, Paris
Auditorium of Maison de la Radio, Paris

Therefore I already had a visual treat, before the music even started

Auditorium Maison de la Radio, Paris
Auditorium Maison de la Radio, Paris

 

The concert itself started with Liszt, Bénédiction de Dieu dans la Solitude from his Harmonies poétiques et religieuses. Liszt these days often tends to be underestimated compared to the big names of Brahms and Beethoven. And maybe his orchestral work is not always top notch, and even his very large piano work sometimes tends to go a bit overboard.

But when Liszt gets it right, and is well played (not obvious, given the technical hurdles), it is really just outstandingly beautiful. This was the case here, I was mesmerized by the beauty of this piece.

François-Frédéric Guy at La Maison de la Radio (c) 2017 Musicophile
François-Frédéric Guy at La Maison de la Radio

After this fantastic start came the title piece of the concert, Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata no. 14, (Clair de lune in French). I wasn’t as taken by this part of the concert as I was by the Liszt. One part of the problem was potentially that a young teenager noisily dropped his cell phone and it fell several steps down in the middle of the quiet intense beginning. This kind of stuff really can ruin my mood for a bit.

It may also have been simply the fact that we all have heard the Mondscheinsonate so many times, that we form a certain idea in our head. Don’t get me wrong, it was beautifully played (even with the occasional false note in the Presto), with a lot of rubato in the slow movement, a very personal version. So let’s just blame it on the noisy kid that I couldn’t enjoy this part as much.

After the break, Guy started his Brahms sonata. And wow, he really played is as intensely as I’ve ever heard anybody play Brahms. You could literally see how physically exhausted he was after this long piece of music with its 5 movements. An outstanding experience.

François-Frédéric Guy at La Maison de la Radio
François-Frédéric Guy at La Maison de la Radio

Guy got the applause he deserved, and thanked us with not only one, but two encores.

After another Brahms, we were all ready to get up and leave, but he sat down again, and guess what he played: Für Elise. Yes, that one. the one that every piano student plays, the one that even people who don’t know anything about classical music recognize immediately. And guess what, it showed that there is so much more in this music than typically meets the eye.

A beautiful closure to an evening full of emotions.

My rating: 4 stars

Brahms in Cinemascope: Andris Nelsons and the BSO’s New Symphony Cycle

Brahms’ Symphonies

As you can see from the subtitle of my blog, I’m a huge Brahms fan.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been that happy with most of the Brahms symphony cycles recorded in the last 30 years. To be fair, even more than for other composers, the legacy left by the glorious recordings of Furtwängler, Klemperer, Walter, and even Toscanini, made it not easy to do something better (except for the recording quality).

We’ve had some very modern light “HIP” approaches from Gardiner and Dausgaard, both of which I appreciate as they give a very fresh point of view, and benefit especially the lighter middle symphonies (I consider 1 & 4 the heavyweights).

But unfortunately, most of the recent complete symphony recordings didn’t impress me much (see also this post where I was desperately, and in vain, searching for a modern reference of the 1st symphony). The only box I like (and still, not for every symphony) is Riccardo Chailly’s cycle with the Gewandhaus, which takes a nice middle way between the heavy romantic recordings of the past and the HIP inspired gut-string recordings of today.

Andris Nelsons

I’m a big fan of Andris Nelsons since he took over the Boston Symphony Orchestra. I put his Shostakovich into my best albums for 2016. I even specifically mentioned in said blog post about Brahms 1 that I was hoping for a new reference recording to come from Nelsons and the BSO.

Well, my wishes have been heard. The BSO has recently released their first full Brahms cycle. And I must admit I initially didn’t plan on buying it. The album is not available for streaming on my favorite streaming provider (except for the 4th), and the 1st is so critical to me that I didn’t want to buy blindly.

Well, then the September 2017 issue of Gramophone comes out, and gives it an “Editor’s choice”. I haven’t always been in agreement with Gramophone recently (see my comments about the 2017 Gramophone awards), but an Editor’s choice still means something. Then I started googling and also found this excellent review by John Marks, formerly with Stereophile.

So there you had me. I bought the box blindly.

Brahms: The Symphonies – Andris Nelsons – Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO Classics 2017)

 

Brahms: The Symphonies - Andris Nelsons - Boston Symphony Orchestra 24/192

So, what do you get?

Well, let me start by saying, if you like Brahms, you need to have this box. Nelsons takes the learnings from the great classics, mixes in the beautiful BSO sound, and brings a very beautiful Brahms style to life.

I’d call it Cinemascope, as you really see all the colors, on a very big screen. His approach is never rushed. You get to see all the fine details that Brahms managed so well.

Let’s talk about the individual symphonies, and let’s take them backwards.

Symphony No. 4

I’ve mentioned above that No. 4 is one of the two heavyweights for me. I particularly love the variations of the fourth. I’ve mentioned Nelsons taking it relatively slow. He takes 10:08 for this movement. This is not yet the 11:29 of a Bruno Walter, but also not the 9:35 of a John Eliot Gardiner, or even the 9:23 of a Chailly (interestingly, Furtwängler uses 9:47, starting slowly but accelerating over time, which works for me).

But, this music can take the tempo. There is so much going on in these fantastic variations, and Nelson lays it all out in front of you. And he keeps the power during the entire movement, which isn’t easy.

Symphony No. 3

Going one back to no. 3: here the heavier approach works, but not as well as for no. 4. It gives the famous Poco Allegretto (known from movies and commercials) an even more sentimental character. In some way this speed, with the tremolo of the violins, makes the quiet anti-climax of the ending sound like we’ve just moved directly into a Wagner opera.

Brahms wasn’t a particular fan of Wagner, but actually this shows that while they may have disagreed on structure, there are more similarities between the two than you’d think.

Symphony No. 2

Symphony no. 2 is sometimes considered Brahms’ Pastorale. And here is where I have my biggest problem with the slower tempo, it tends to take away some of the lightness of this music. Here I’d much rather have a Chailly or Gardiner. That said, it is still a beautiful recording.

Symphony No. 1

And now let’s move to symphony no. 1, my absolute favorite of the four (here’s why). And you’ve probably guessed it by now: Nelson’s style is just perfect for this romantic work.

My appreciation of any interpretation of this symphony is often already formed in the first seconds: the chromatic increased with the dramatic tympani needs to grab me immediately (as do Furtwängler and Klemperer), otherwise, I’m already lost. Nelsons takes a very special approach here, the tension is there but he doesn’t release it yet. Beautifully done. Movements 2 and 3 are nice, but basically just fillers between movements 1 and 4. The finale really summarizes what I love about Brahms. A lot of variation and developments (you never know what comes next), and then so outstandinly beautiful moments as the famous horn solo (at 2:56 for Nelsons), followed by the even more amazing melody of the cellos (at 5:12).

It is still a bit too early days, but this has the potential to become my new modern reference version of Brahms 1.

My rating: 5 stars.

I was hesitating a bit, as you’ve seen above that not all of the four performances are 5 stars to me (1 and 4 certainly are, 3 up to a point, 2 would “only” be 4 star), but this is overall a very convincing new reading of the Brahms classics. Check it out!

You can find it here (BSO website) and here (Qobuz)

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.

UPDATE September 10: Jed Distler of Classics Today is also convinced and rates this album 10/10 here.

In a nutshell, while the year is not yet over, this album has very high chances of becoming one of my albums of the year for 2017.

Gramophone Awards 2016 – And The Winners Are……

The Gods have spoken

Or to be more precise, the jury at Gramophone has today officially published the winners in each category.

So, how did my little Crystal Ball work this year?

Baroque Instrumental

Here I forecasted a win for Rachel Podger’s Rosary sonatas.

Gramophone seemed to agree. Congratulations to Mrs Podger, well deserved!

Biber: Rosary Sonatas - Rachel Podger Channel Classics 2016 DSD

Baroque Vocal

As documented here, my vote went to Sebastian Daucé.

However, I’m perfectly supportive of the winner as well, congratulations to Les Arts Florissants for their winning Monteverdi album!

Monteverdi: Madrigali vol. 1 Cremona Paul Agnew Les Arts Florissants 2016

 

Chamber

While my vote would have been for the Quatuor Ebène, the jury went for the Heath Quartet’s Tippett album. Ok, no comment here, it’s just not my cup of tea.

Tippett String Quartets Heath Quartet Wigmore Hall Live

Choral

I just noticed I completely forgot to even mention this section in  my previous posts, don’t know what happened here. Well, anyhow, here’s the winner. I haven’t heard it, so no comment from my side.

Schönberg Gurrelieder Markus Stenz Gurrelieder Hyperion

Concerto

As written here, I’d have voted for Trifonov, but the Gramophone Jury liked Vilde Frang’s Britten and Korngold better. Congrats to Mrs Frang, and I’ll leave it at this, given that this album doesn’t really speak to me.

Britten/Korngold Violin Concertos James Gaffigan Frankfurt Radio Symphony James Gaffigan

Contemporary

I didn’t write about this section at all as I’m not really qualified, however, I must admit the winner looks interesting enough that I’ll check it out in more detail:

 

Hans Abrahamsen : Let me tell you Barbara Hannigan Andris Nelsons Winter & Winter

 

Early Music

Again a section I completely ignored in my posts.

0822252235227_600

I’ll take time to check this out formally, looks certainly interesting

Instrumental

Igor Levit Bach Goldberg Variations Beethoven Diabelli Variations Rzewski The People United Will Never Be Defeated Sony 2015

Now we’re back in familiar territory, and while I would have appreciated the recognition for Chamayou’s Ravel, Levit very much deserves this price IMHO.

Opera

My coverage of the Opera section was a bit light,  but at least my prediction of the winning album was correct:

Verdi: Aida Pappanis Anja Harteros Jonas Kaufmann

This album really is a must-have.

Orchestral

Very interestingly, here I correctly predicted the winner without even having actively previously listened to any of the nominated albums. Congratulations to Andris Nelsons!

Shostakovich Symphony No. 10 Andris Nelson Boston Symphony Orchestra Deutsche Grammophon 2016 24 96

Recital

Yes, she did it! As I was hoping, Sabine Devieilhe wins in her category. Couldn’t agree more!!!!

Mozart: The Weber Sisters Sabine Devielhe Raphael Pichon Pgymalion Erato 2015

Solo Vocal

This is another section I completely skipped in my blog post.

For reference, here’s the winning album:

Néère - Hahn, Duparc, Chausson - Véronique Gens Alpha

I really like Véronique Gens, but had only very briefly sampled this album, I’ll make sure to give it a proper listen now.

Summary

Let me virtually brag a bit (sorry!) and say that my crystal ball did a pretty good job this year. Out of 8 categories I wrote about, I got 5 “right”. Not a bad score (insert smiley here). OK, bragging mode off again.

What do you think? Who would you have chosen?

I really appreciate your feedback!