My Reflections on the 2015 Gramophone Award Nominees – Part III – Chamber

Following my two previous posts on the categories of Instrumental and Concerto, let me comment this time about the Chamber music category.

I have had the occasion to listen to four of the 6 nominated albums.

To quickly just list them, the ones I didn’t hear are:

Winds & Piano – Les Vents Français, Eric Le Sage

and

Langgard: String Quartets vol. 2 – Nightingale Quartet.

The ones I have heard are:

Hindemith: Sonatas –  Alexander Melnikov, Teunis van der Zwart, Alexander Rudin , Gerard Costes, Isabelle Faust

Hindemith Sonatas Melnikov Faust Harmonia Mundi 2015

Brahms: Clarinet Quintet & Trio – Martin Fröst, Janine Jansen, Boris Brovtsyn, Maxim Rysanov, Torleif Thedéen, Roland Pöntinen

Brahms: Piano Quintet - Martin Fröst - Janine Jansen - Boris Brovtsyn - Maxim Rysanov, Torleif Thedeen, Roland Pötinen

Haydn: String Quartets op. 20 – Doric String Quartet

Haydn String Quartets op. 20 - Doric String Quartet - Chandos

Smetana: String Quartets 1&2 – Pavel Haas Quartet

Smetana String Quartets Pavel Haas Quartet Supraphon 2015

Let’s start with the Haydn, as I’ve played this album only twice so far, it’s still a little bit too early to judge it properly. The issue is that on Haydn there’s obviously a lot of competition, but the Doric’s do a fine job. I guess in chamber music there’s always a trade-off between precision (which is outstanding here), and just pure joyfulness in playing, which I sometimes would like to have a little bit more here at first listen, especially with “Papa” Haydn (although the string quartets are certainly the works where general Haydn-skeptics like me have the least to complain). All right, let me shut up my rambling here and spend some more time listening. No rating here yet.

Next Brahms: I don’t know why, but the clarinet works have always been among my least favorite Brahms chamber compositions. However, two recent albums are making me change my mind right now, a) the excellent clarinet sonatas by Lorenzo Coppola and Andreas Staier, and b) this very nice album.

When it gets to the clarinet, Martin Fröst is one of the few superstars, and rightly so. He has released several outstanding recordings in recent years, e.g his Mozart concerto from 2013 with the Kammerphilharmonie Bremen which to my ears is even better than his previous recording with the Amsterdam Sinfonietta.

Not surprisingly, this Brahms album is very good as well. To be fair, he’s playing with some outstanding musicians here. Thorleif Thedeen and Roland Pöntinen have already recorded a very nice version of the Brahms Cello Sonatas, Janine Jansen is always a pleasure to listen to, and Maxim Rysanov is a safe bet on the Viola.

On top of the quintet and the trio, you get something that is really rather special, which is a an arrangement of some Brahms songs for Clarinet by Fröst himself. If you ever doubted that the clarinet can sing, here’s your proof.

Overall rating: 4 stars (playing is 5 stars, but I still need to fully overcome my issues with Brahms and the clarinet, so take this rating with a grain of salt)

Smetana: I assume the average classical listener knows exactly one work from this Czech composer, the ultra-famous Moldau. If they are a bit educated, they even know that the Moldau is just one part of the cycle Ma Vlast or “my homeland”. If you’re really into classical music, you may be aware of his opera “The Bartered Bride”. Beyond that, I’m pretty sure many would struggle to come up with other works from this composer.

So here’s a chance to change that. You get two of his chamber music works by one of the best string quartets that are currently out there. I’ve already praised them for their magnificent recording of the Schubert Quintet (see here), and they don’t disappoint here either. Their playing is outstanding, full of energy, but also very delicate and soft elements when needed.

My rating: 4 stars (not for the playing, which is certainly 5 stars) but at least to my ears, Smetana’s works are interesting, but there are chamber works I’d listen to first. Like for example the next one:

Hindemith: I’ve made it clear before that 20th century music, especially when we get to the borders of or beyond tonality, is really not my cup of tea. Well, exceptions confirm the rule. And this one is clearly one of those exceptions. This is a collection of sonatas with different musicians, and Alexander Melnikov on piano. Ever heard a Sonata for Trombone? Well here’s your chance. My beloved Isabelle Faust (see my admiring review of her Brahms concerto here), also get’s to play a sonata. Any album with Faust and Melnikov is usually a safe bet (take their outstanding Beethoven violin sonatas, the very nice Beethoven trio recording, their current cycle of Schumann works, etc. etc.)

And guess what, this album is truly outstanding throughout, and therefore my candidate for the Gramophone Award in the chamber category!

My rating: 5 stars. 

So, what are your favorites?

Isabelle Faust and Brahms’ Violin Concerto – Just Magical

My blog’s subtitle has Brahms in it, and I haven’t even mentioned good old Johannes for a while.So let me correct this by writing about his violin concerto, and my favorite versions.

Brahms’ Violin Concerto

Brahms was a pianist, not a violinist, and so he needed an expert on what to do and not to do. Luckily, one of his best friends, Joseph Joachim, was one of the leading violinists of his time, so he consulted extensively with him while writing this piece in 1878.

Obviously, this concerto has been recorded over and over again, so there are a lot of amazing versions to choose from. However, there is a relatively recent 2011 recording which I really love more than most others.

Isabelle Faust

Isabelle Faust Brahms Violin Concerto Daniel Harding Mahler Chamber Orchestra Harmonia Mundi 2011

There are so many outstanding young violin players these days, Julia Fischer, Janine Jansen, Hillary Hahn, etc. etc. etc. We are really spoilt these days. However, Isabelle Faust is in a way my personal favorite, probably because she does a lot of excellent chamber music as well (more about that later).

This recording of the violin concerto with the excellent Mahler Chamber Orchestra and Daniel Harding, a young rising star in the conductor scene, has not received praise across the board. Some even called her tone “thin”. Well, I agree her way of playing is always rather on the light than the heavy side, but to me it feels just right. Faust writes in the excellent liner notes that she has studied Joseph Joachim extensively, both his personality, but also historic sources about his playing style. Overall, Faust plays historically informed, but unlike in some other cases this doesn’t mean no vibrato at all, but just a more selective use of it.

The smaller size of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra matches her transparency very well, this is a match made in heaven. As a side note, these days younger orchestras like the MCO or the Chamber Orchestra of Europe are becoming more and more serious competition to the established big boys in Berlin/Vienna/London. I suppose we music lovers we can only be happy about this, as it hopefully keeps everybody on their toes.

A curiosity about this version is the use of the unusual Busoni cadenza, so if you are familiar with this work you’re in for a little surprise.

String Sextet No. 2

As mentioned before, Faust is an excellent chamber musician as well (her Beethoven sonatas are my absolute favorite). So as a “filler” we get the beautiful String Sextet No. 2, which is well worth listening to. A sextet is a more rarely heard form of chamber music, but for Brahms these were actually his first venture into pure string chamber music, and successful in the way that helped further build his name as a composer.

A little piece of trivia: Brahms fell in love many times during his life, but remained a bachelor nevertheless. Occasionally, we get glimpses into his love life from his music, like in the case of the Alto Rhapsody (see my earlier post here). In this case, he was in love with Agathe von Siebold, and nicely enough, you’ll get the motive “A-G-A-H-E” (H being the key for B in German notation) as a leitmotif several times in the first movement.

Overall rating: 5 stars. This, as usual is a very personal judgment. If you agree with me, please comment, if you don’t, I’d love to hear why!

And if you want a more traditional Brahms, you can always go to Oistrakh/Klemperer and Heifetz/Reiner, both outstanding in their own way.

You can get it here as download and here as physical album.

Brahms lesser known choral works brilliantly performed by Philippe Herreweghe

One more post on Brahms (again).

I was thinking I’d be writing next about his amazing Deutsches Requiem, the only major requiem I know of that is not written to the traditional latin text but where Brahms himself has chosen parts of the bible he really cared about and in his native language, German (hence the title).

But somehow, this amazing work still overwhelms me and I don’t feel ready yet to talk about it at this stage. If you want to check it out, you can’t go wrong with Klemperer’s classic version on EMI, with the amazing Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. More about this later.

So let me write about all the works that share the beauty of the Requiem masterpiece but are much less known, and deserve to be known better, mainly the “Schicksalslied” and the “Alto Rhapsody”.

Schicksalslied op. 54

The Schicksalslied op. 54, or Song of Destiny, takes a Hoelderlin poem and puts is in words. Do yourself a favor and check out the beautiful lyrics. (I’m the first to admit I’m still not sure I fully understood it to be fair, but the beauty of the words are extremely touching.)

You’ll see that the text is split in two parts, one describing the beauty:

Luminous heaven-breezes

Touching ye soft,

Like as fingers when skillfully

Wakening harp-strings.

the second one about desperation:

To us is allotted

No restful haven to find

The music is split in two parts, of pretty much identical duration, that reflect the lyrics, you can feel the heaven-breezes in the first 8 minutes, while the music slides with us “Destined to disappearance below” in the second half of the work.

All in all, about 16 minutes of extreme intensity, both musically and vocally.

Alt-Rhapsodie op. 53

Written around the same time as the Schicksalslied (notice the relates opus numbers), and about 1 year after the requiem. On top of the chorus, this cantata has a solo alto.

On this work there is a background. I’ve mentioned before that Brahms was in love with the beautiful, young and extremely talented (she was one of the major piano virtuosos of her time) wife of his mentor, Clara Schumann. In a twist that would sound unrealistic even for a Hollywood blockbuster script, he later considered marrying one of her daughters, Julie. He actually never did (and apparently never even proposed), for unknown reasons, and remained a bachelor for his entire life. So he wrote this for her (Julie’s) wedding as a “good-bye” to marriage.

Now consider the starting lyrics of the alto aria, taken from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Brahms clearly knew his German classics) “Harzreise”:

Aber abseits, wer ist’s?“ (But who is that apart?) describing some poor fellow who is “engulfed by the wasteland”. In spite of these lyrics, the work is surprisingly calm and relaxed, and has very beautiful interaction between the solo alto and the chorus.

Philippe Herreweghe

The Belgian conductor Philippe Herreweghe has been one of the stars of the historically informed practice of playing music, and has started mainly with Baroque music. In recent years, he has ventured more and more into the romantic period, conducting Mahler, Dvorak, and also Brahms

5400439000032_600-1

His recording of the Alto Rhapsody and Schicksalslied dates from 2011 and has appeared on his own label, Phi. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing both works performed live, again at the KKL in Lucerne, I believe in 2012.

This version is outstanding. Ann Hallenberg doesn’t have the power of a Christa Ludwig on the legendary Klemperer recording (you’ll have noticed by now that you never go wrong with Klemperer on Brahms), but the recording it has so many beautiful nuances and shades, both in the excellent choral parts and the vocal solo, that is has become my go-to version of these beautiful works.

As “fillers”, you get three more choral works from Brahms that are even less known than the two before, a Motet, the Begräbnisgesang op. 13, and the Gesang der Parzen op. 89. None of them individually would be worth buying an album for, but there is a lot of beauty especially in the 11 minutes of the Gesang der Parzen. But if you don’t mind purchasing albums by the track, you can also stop after the first two tracks in my opinion.

My rating: 5 stars

Let me know what you think in the comments below!

Brahms 1 – Still Looking

Following my previous post, I was thinking to myself, what if somebody asks you for a recording in stereo? Not everybody is willing to put up with a mono recording. Well, my recommendation goes to Otto Klemperer in this case (Philharmonia on EMI).

Next question: what if I want a recording that is less than 50 years old? And here I get in trouble. While there are decent contemporary recordings out there of the Brahms Symphonies, like the recent cycles from Chailly (very straightforward, but some excellent insights) to Thielemann, none of them get it fully right for no.1. Same goes for Gardiner and Dausgaard, that I admire on so many other recordings, e.g. Schumann. Both relatively recent Berlin Phil recordings with Rattle and Abbado leave me cold.

In the end, I’m hoping one of my current favorite next generation conductors will pick this up and just hit the same level of energy as now 64 years ago in Berlin. Good candidates for this are Nezet-Séguin (although he tends to be speedy) and Paavo Järvi, who’s Beethoven cycle with the Bremen Kammerphilharmonie is outstanding. Or Andris Nelsons with the BSO. Well, fingers crossed.

In the meantime, I’ll just live with a mono recording.

P.S. (October 2016), somebody pointed me to this live recording by Klaus Tennstedt with the LPO. Still, no replacement for Furtwängler, but at least getting the idea:

Brahms Symphony No. 1 No. 3 Klaus Tennstedt London Philharmonic BBC

You can find it here (Chandos)

And I’ll keep my eye open for future releases.

UPDATE August 20, 2017: Above I asked for Nelsons and the BSO to record a cycle. Well, now they did. And it is really good. See my review here.

Brahms 1st symphony – why it means so much to me

Well, the subtitle of my blog is “From Jarrett to Brahms”, so I after writing about the former I may as well write about the latter.

Brahms will always have a special place in my heart, not only he was born in my favorite city in the world (no, not NYC; although that comes close), but his music combines the best of what the so-called “classical” music (which spans several centuries of written music): He has the greatness of Beethoven (his idol), the romanticism of a Schumann (his mentor), the structure of Bach (Brahms studied Counterpoint extensively), he comes from my favorite instrument (the piano), and no matter what piece you hear from him, it has something very uniquely “Brahmsian” about it.

Smarter minds than me have tried to define what that actually consists of, I won’t even try. I’m pretty sure listening to several of Brahms works (for a start, how about Symphony 1, the German requiem, some of his late piano pieces op. 116-119, and some chamber music, e.g. his piano quartet op. 25), and I hope you feel and hear the commonality.

The first oeuvre from Brahms that impressed me was his first piano concerto, in a decent but not outstanding recording with Solti and Andras Schiff. I still very much like this, but will write on it later on. I very quickly started diving into his symphonies, and no. 1 quickly became my favorite (these days, 4 comes very close in my personal preference, 3 is a bit behind, and 2 is nice to have).

Wilhelm Furtwängler

By today, I’ve collected at latest count 30 version of “Sinfonie Nr. 1 c-moll op. 68”, to give it its official title. My first early favorite was Otto Klemperer’s version on EMI. Not to far after that, I discovered the legendary Wilhelm Furtwängler, and all 3 versions I have from him are very very good.

I cannot decide which of these is my favorite, but most likely it is the version with the Berliner Philharmoniker on Deutsche Grammophon, recorded in 1951 (or 52?). The other versions I have are with the Hamburg NDR orchestra and the Concertgebouw)

How do I compare versions of this work? Well, usually I’d use a more differentiated approach, but on symphony 1 I’m simple-minded: the chromatic opening part, with the characteristic tympani. If this part doesn’t have the right gravitas and tension (up to a point where I feel all my muscles tensing), I pass on. An example of how not to do it in my mind is Günter Wand (an underrated conductor that I otherwise adore, especially on Bruckner), which takes the opening WAY to fast.

Luckily, Furtwängler keeps the quailty at very high levels up to the end. In this symphony, the first and forth movement are so heavy and important, that the two movements in between barely count. You get a “relaxing” Andante, and a very short and sweet (approx 5 min) Poco Allegretto in between. This is good, because if one had to keep the tension and the overwhelming feelings from movements 1 and 4 for an entire 5 min, you’d probably feel like being on Botox and Extasy at the same time.

So, as said before, movement 1 lives on the dramatic chromatic opening. But it gets even better: movement no. 4 is as ecstatic as the 4th movement of Beethoven’s 9th (without all over sudden somebody shouting  “Oh Froyda” and all the other singing about freedom and equality that goes on after that which pretty much ruins this symphony to me). But you don’t get there easily. This movement with Furtwängler alone is more than 17, and you start very dark and desperate. Luckily we leave the desperation quickly, to a dramatic built up including the mandatory tympani, which gets us to the first amazingly beautiful horn solo at 2:57.

This solo is worth a quick excursion: this theme Brahms had already used earlier in a letter to his beloved Clara Schumann (yes, he was in love with his mentor’s wife, if you read his biography, you wonder why this soap opera material hasn’t made it into a major Hollywood movie yet), with the underlying text:

“Hoch auf´m Berg, tief im Tal grüß ich dich viel tausend mal!” (High on the mountain, deep in the valley, I salute you a thousand times). Yes, cheesy, even in the German original, but by then Brahms had moved from his native Hamburg to Austria, and fallen in love with the mountains, and you can really picture a lonely Alphorn playing that beautiful melody for the beloved.

But obviously at, 2:57 we’re not done yet, you 14 min more of “per aspera at astra” (you can google that yourself) fighting, with the occasional relaxing 2nd main motive, which Brahms even admitted was inspired by Beethoven 9. (When asked after the premiere if there are strange similarities between the two works, he replied sarcastically “And even stranger is the fact that every donkey seems to hear that immediately”.

Well in any case, in the last 5 min you get a lot of more brass, some more of the 2nd motive, some more of the Alphorn, tons of tympani some more fighting, which culminates in a dramatic climax in the last 2 min.

Obviously, my description of this amazing masterpiece is quite horrible. Don’t be misled: if you’re able to listen to this movement played by Furtwängler without getting goosebumps all over, you’re either deaf or challenged in some other way (or just have a different taste in music, but then you probably wouldn’t be reading this in the first place).

P.S. I’ve later published an addendum to this post here.

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