I must admit I only discovered Christian Tetzlaff’s outstanding talent in the last two years. There are so many talented female violinists out there, as a self-declared Isabelle Faust fanboy, and then there’s Janine Jansen, Alina Ibragimova, Vilde Frang, etc. etc.
My first formal review of any of his albums was his 2020 recording of the Beethoven and Sibelius violin concertos with the DSO, which promptly made it into my Top 5 classical albums of 2020.
Lars Vogt I already followed for longer, he initially came to my attention with his beautiful recording of the Schumann and Grieg back in the Birmingham days of Simon Rattle.
I really appreciated his excellent recordings of the Brahms piano concertos with the Royal Northern Symphonia in the last 2 years (though I totally missed to formally review them here, will have to follow up on that).
I already had the pleasure of hearing Lars Vogt live, playing Beethoven’s 4th piano concerto with the Zurich Tonhalle under Paavo Järvi. A memorable experience.
Brahms’ violin sonatas No. 1 and 3 were among the earliest works I owned on CD, in the great recording with Henryk Szerying and Anton Rubinstein. I discovered the sonata No. 2 only much later, it seems to be much less loved than the two other ones
My modern reference recording so far is (obviously) Isabelle Faust, as reviewed here. So how does the duo Tetzlaff/Vogt compare to the dream team Faust/Melnikov?
Brahms: The Violin Sonatas – Christian Tetzlaff – Lars Vogt (Ondine 2016)
Well, to make it short, very well indeed.
First of all, as opposed to Melnikov’s fortepiano, you get a modern concert grand (presumably a Steinway, couldn’t find any information in the booklet).
Well, this is as close to perfection as you can get with modern instruments. The sound overall is a bit broader, more “romantic”, than the (still excellent) reading of Faust and Melnikov, with broad vibrato, and a lot of rubato. You can hear the passion and love both artists have for these works. Gramophone agrees by the way, this was their “record of the month”.
As a side note, for the audiophiles among my readers, the label 2xHD has applied their remastering voodoo (a lot of Nagra and other stuff), making the excellent Ondine sound even more smooth.
My rating: 5 stars
You can find the regular Ondine recording here (Qobuz), or go here (Prestomusic) if you prefer the 2xHD remaster
There is clearly no lack of excellent performances of the two Brahms piano concertos. There are many masterful recordings from the 1960s with the great piano legends, Curzon, Arrau, Fleischer, Richter, or Gilels, often with the fantastic George Szell, that have stood the test of time, as the romantic repertoire has seen less of a sea change of recording style as have earlier composers (I can’t really enjoy non-HIP Bach concertos any more for example).
There also have been a lot of more recent recordings that are outstanding. One of my favorite sets is the Nelson Freire / Riccardo Chailly / Gewandhaus one from 2006, or more recently, the excellent (No. 1) / very good( No. 2) recordings by Lars Vogt with the Northern Sinfonia (that I just noticed I totally forgot to review here).
And as a nice coincidence, the very first recording I ever owned of No. 1 was with András Schiff as well, with George Solti on a 1989 Decca album.
So why would even a Brahms aficionado like me bother to buy one more recording of these?
The answer is called Blüthner. That is the piano that Schiff uses in this new recording.
Brahms: The Piano Concertos- András Schiff – Orchestra of the Age of Enlightening (ECM 2021)
The Blüthner is a piano from c. 1859, i.e. 1 year after the writing of Brahms first concerto. It has a quite different sound to the typical modern Steinway, less heavy, less brilliant, but more transparent.
To complement that, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is also clearly historically informed, playing on gut strings.
So, is it worth it?
I’d say yes (and I did purchase the album). I really like the difference in sound and transparency one gets from the historically informed approach and instruments. This is the first recording of Brahms concertos with a HIP approach that hit my radar screen, and it really gives you new insights into these works.
To quote Schiff himself from the booklet: “With the present recording we have tried to recreate and restore the works, to cleanse and ‘detoxify’ the music, to liberate it from the burden of the – often questionable – trademarks of performing traditions“.
Now, does that mean this will be my new reference recording? Clearly not, I won’t be abandoning the beauty of all the recordings I’ve quoted above. I really like the piano playing, although some rubati aren’t always my cup of tea, but particularly in the first concerto, I’d just like to see a bit more drama in the orchestral introduction.
But if you like Brahms, you should really check this recording out!
But I’ve never written explicitly about Brahms 4th symphony.
To me, there’s a clear (personal) hierarchy among the Brahms symphonies. The first will always come, well, first, the 2nd is still nice but I listen to it much more occasionally, the 3rd is beautiful, but has the super famous 3rd movement that has been a bit overused in popular culture. And then there’s the 4th symphony.
After all, this could actually be the greatest masterpiece of all of them. Why? Well, I’m just totally in awe of the fourth movement, which is basically just a set of variations on a very simple motif, a Passacaglia. I’ve written before how much I really appreciate variations these days, they are a true art form (even though it is something that one appreciates only after some learning), be it the Goldberg variations, the Diabelli Variations, or Brahms several other variations, like the Haydn or Händel variations.
Each one of these little variations in the 4th movement is such a gem, with an emotional depth (some say down to very deep despair) in a bit more than 9 minutes. And unlike most other symphonies, this symphony doesn’t end in happiness. It starts in the e-minor key, and ends in e-minor. Compare this to Brahms own first symphony where you start with the nearly menacing timpani but you end in a chorale that tells you that all will end well. Nothing ends well here.
Don’t get me wrong, it is not only the last movement that is fantastic. In this symphony there’s more than enough to discover in each of the movements. In comparison, Brahms’ 1st has a fantastic first and last movement, but the two in between feel more like an interlude.
So, now to my current favorite version of the 4th. I put the “current” in the title, as I always keep discovering and looking, and my taste clearly changes and evolves over time.
Before I get into Chailly’s excellent recording, a quick note on some other versions you should check out. Many critics will give you Carlos Kleiber’s legendary recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, and they have a point. It really among the best. I’ve long been in love with Fritz Reiner’s beautiful reading with the Royal Philharmonic. Another all time classic is George Szell with the Cleveland Orchestra. (Side note: Szell takes the 4th movement much more slowly at 10:42 compared to Chailly’s 9:23, only to be exceeded by Karajan’s reading with 10:49, as well as Kurt Masur in 10:52).
If we look at the more contemporary versions, beyond the already mentioned Andris Nelsons, you should also check out John Eliot Gardiner’s historically informed reading with his own Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique (I’m not totally convinced of his approach, but it is nevertheless quite insightful).
But now enough of the alternatives, here’s my current champion: Riccardo Chailly with the Gewandhausorchester. By the way, this is not the first recording I love from Chailly in Leipzig, my favorite version ever of the Bruch violin concerto with Janine Jansen was recorded with this great team, and the same recording also features my favorite Mendelssohn violin concerto (mentioned in my 25 Essential Classical albums). Chailly’s recording of the Brahms piano concertos with Nelson Freire is also one of my all-time favourites, and the complete Brahms’ serenades recording is also outstanding.
So why do I prefer Chailly over all the other versions mentioned? I’d say it is not one little thing, but a sum of all the small things. This recording just feels “right”, balanced, nuanced, going deep when it needs to, but still tightly controlled.
And this doesn’t only apply to the 4th symphony. As you can only get this as a box set (if you decide to buy and not to stream, which I strongly encourage you to do), you’d also need to know that all the other three symphonies are top notch. They are IMHO, together with Nelsons, the best contemporary set you can buy.
To compare the two: Nelsons & the BSO really go big, this really is Brahms in Cinemascope in the great tradition of Karajan. Chailly’s approach in pretty much all cases is a bit more nuanced and delicate. Both versions really have very strong merit, and you won’t be disappointed with any of them.
And on top of that, going back to Chailly, in this very reasonably priced set, you also get most of the other orchestral works that Brahms has written, e.g. the above mentioned Haydn-Variations, the Tragic Overture, the rarely played Liebeslieder Walzer, and even to wrap it up some of the famous Hungarian Dances.
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.
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”.
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.
I’ve written previously about these late masterpieces, op. 116 – 119, that are among the last pieces written by Brahms.
Brahms always was primarily a pianist. Whenever he wrote for other instruments, he got advice from experts, e.g. his friend Joseph Joachim for his violin works So it is not surprising that he wrote some of his most important but also most intimate works ever for the instrument he knew best.
So when I recently read two reviews, by Classicstoday and Gramophone, that both praised a new recording by Stephen Hough, I went out to buy it blindly.
You see, the issue is that Hyperion, the label that has Stephen Hough exclusively, doesn’t allow streaming, which is a key reason why I typically don’t buy his albums, as I can’t really explore them properly upfront, and also why I never reviewed any of his albums here, in spite of the fact that Gramophone is a huge fan.
But for my idol Brahms, it was worth the risk of GBP 13.
Brahms: The Final Piano Pieces – Stephen Hough (Hyperion 2020)
So, am I happy? To make it short, yes, very much. This is among the most unorthodox recordings of these work I’ve ever heard. None of these sound as I’m used to hearing them.
But honestly, it is worth the discovery. Once you overcome the initial surprise, you discover that Hough clearly has spent a long time thinking about these works, and each peculiarity is there for a reason. If you want to find out more about his approach to Brahms, check out this podcast about this new release.
I’m totally sold now. This is an album that I’ll go back over and over again, just because every single one of these little short gems is worth having a new look at them.
Here’s a Youtube example, so you can get an idea what I’m talking about. Let me know what you think!
In a nutshell, highly recommended! (My prediction is that this will make it into the Gramophone Award nomination list for 2020. Let’s see later this year if I’m right).
Regular readers of my blog know that I mainly follow two classical magazines as a reference. One is the UK’s Gramophone, the other France’s Classica Magazine.
Interestingly enough, Classica really is the magazine where I have the most overlap with their reviews, for Gramphone it is a bit more hit and miss.
I’ve commented nearly every year on the Gramophone Awards nominees and winners, but I’ve never written a lot about the equivalent of Classica Magazine, the “Chocs de l’année”.
Classica has a five star rating system for all albums (although I hardly ever see 1 stars appear), but on top of the 5 stars, they also select every months the albums “Choc”, similar to Gramophone’s Editor’s Choice.
And, once per year, Classica publishes their “Chocs de l’année”, i.e the overall best albums of the year.
Let’s have a look together.
Les Chocs de l’année 2019 – Classica Magazine – Artist of the Year
First category is “L’artiste de l’année”, winner is French pianist Michel Dalberto (I can’t help but notice that while Gramophone is a bit biased towards UK artists, Gramophone has the same for their local talent.)
Two albums get a particular mention, his recent 2019 Beethoven sonata album on La Dolce Volta, as well as César Franck solo piano and chamber album on Aparte.
I must admit I really don’t share their excitement for the Beethoven album. Sure, it’s not bad, but I’d clearly prefer others here (among recent choices, Levit, Perahia, Lewis).
The Franck album I haven’t really listened to a lot, he is one of those lesser known French composers that I just have much less experience with. But I’ll check it out more systematically in the future, and so should you.
Label of the Year
Label of the year is the French label Alpha, and here I fully agree. In 2019, the smaller dedicated labels like Alpha, Hyperion, BIS, Chandos, have just become so much more important that the old majors like DG, Sony, Decca, etc.
Here I really can’t comment, I’ve never heard of this album nor of this pianist before. Turns out he’s French as well (did I mention there seems to be some geographical bias somewhere).
In any case, the program of this concept album (obviously around the Revolution) is quite intriguing, from Dussek (yes, I also had to google him), via Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Janacek, Debussy, to Rzewski. I only quickly sampled works I know well, like the Chopin Revolutionary Etude, or the Scherzo no. 1, in both cases I wasn’t blown away. But don’t take this as a proper review, and have a look.
Rachmaninov – The Piano Concertos – Trifonov – Nézét-Séguin (DG 2019)
While I absolutely loved Trifonov’s recording of Rach 2, and was right at predicting that this would be a very controversial version, I still haven’t been able to properly review his approach to Rach 3 (sorry I typically disregard Rach 1 and 4) which was released quite recently.
Classica praises both of them, but I honestly would caution you before you buy the Rach 3 blindly. I can’t put my finger on it, but something is there that I just don’t like as much. I’d be very curious to hear your opinions. Personally, I rather stick to other versions like Leif Ove Andsnes with the LSO.
Two Gounod Operas
Gounod, yet another composer I barely know. A good friend of mine loves his Faust, but to this day, I really haven’t found my way around this composers’ work.
Let me nevertheless mention the two operas here that Classica likes, they clearly know more about French composers than I do. Both come from conductors I personally like very much, Hervé Niquet and Christophe Rousset, you probably won’t go wrong with any of these recordings.
Look out for part II of this blog post in the next days. You’ll find it here.
You can find the new albums of this blog post here (Qobuz), or in the link to the original review.