My Top 5 Classical Albums of 2019

Isabelle Faust plays Bach Violin Concertos

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.

You’ll find the original review here

Saint-Saëns Piano Concertos 2&5 by Bertrand Chamayou

Saint Saens Concertos 2& 5 solo piano works Bertrand Chamayou Orchestre National de France Emmanuel Krivine Erato 2019 24 96

I really didn’t know Saint-Saëns really well before 2019. I still don’t, but at least the piano concertos were a true discovery for me, with Bertrand Chamayou’s fantastic recording, also with the equally exciting album by Alexandre Kantorow with the concertos 3-5.

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

Yuya Wang The Berlin Recital Encores Deutsche Grammophon 2019 24 96

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

Georg Friedrich Händel Messiah An Oratorio HWV 56 La Capella Reial de Catalunya Jordi Savall Alia Vox 2019 DSD 24 88

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

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

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?

My Reflections On the Classica Magazine “Chocs de l’année 2019” – part I

Classica Magazine

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.

Beethoven Michel Dalberto Pathetique Funebre Claire de Lune Appassionata op. 111 Erato 2019
Michel Dalberto & Novus Quartet César Franck Piano works quintet Aparte 2018

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.

Among other albums they specifically mention Celine’s Frisch Well Tempered Clavier recording (my 5 star review here), and Rouvali’s Sibelius 1 (also featured in the Gramophone Award nominees).

Sibelius Symphony No. 1 En Saga Gothenburg Symphony Santtu-Matias Rouvali Alpha 2019

Brahms: Piano Quintet & Klavierstücke op. 76 – Quatuor Hermes & Geoffroy Cocteau – LaDolce Volta 2019

Brahms Geoffrey Couteau & Quatuor Hermes Piano Quintet F minor op. 34 Klavierstücke op. 76 La Dolce Volta 2019 24 96

I had already noticed this album earlier this year when I saw it got a Choc from Classica and a 5 star review from Diapason.

I have yet to fully review this album, but overall I like it quite a bit. Not sure if it is a full 5 star to me, but I promise I come back to this more formally. In any case, it is worth discovering.

François Xavier Roth

Roth gets even two mentions, with his Berlioz Harold en Italie, as well as the recent Debussy album.

Hector Berlioz Harold en Italie Les Nuits d'été Les Siècles François-Xavier Roth Tabea Zimmermann Stéphane Degout Harmonia Mundi 2019 24 96

I can’t really comment on the Berlioz, again I’m only slowly getting to know the broader French repertoire better.

But I fully agree that Roth is a great talent, and also like his Debussy album very much, which also was nominated for a Gramophone Award.

Debussy Jeux Nocturnes Francois Xavier Roth Les Siècles Harmonia Mundi 2019

David Kadouch – Révolutions

David Kadouch Révolution 24 96 2019 Mirare

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)

Daniil Trifonov Yannick Nézet-Séguin The Philadelphia Orchestra Destination Rachmaninov - Departure Deutsche Grammophon 2018 24/96
Destination Rachmaninov - Arrival - Piano Concertos 1 & 3 Daniil Trifonov Yannick Nézéz-Séguin The Philadelphia Orchestra Deutsche Grammophon 2019 24 96

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.

Le Tribut de Zamora Charles Gounod Hervé Niquet Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks Münchener Rundfunkorchester
Gounod Faust version 1859 Les Talens Lyriques Flemish Radio Choir Christophe Rousset Faust

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.

Michel Dalberto – Franck

Quatuor Hermes – Brahms

Roth – Berlioz

Kadouch – Révolution

Trifonov – Rach 3

Niquet – Gounod

Rousset – Gounod

Igor Levit’s Fascinating Complete Beethoven Cycle

This is not a “review”

Let me be clear from the start, this is not a formal “review” as I normally write them. I find it impossible to properly review all 32 sonatas, as I simply don’t have enough references for every single one of these fascinating works.

I must admit that to this day although I listen to them a lot in the complete cycles of e.g. Kempff, Arrau, Brendel, Goode, or Lewis, but there are still some of the lesser known sonatas that I really don’t know that well yet.

But I still want to bring this cycle to your attention, and am pretty sure you won’t regret checking it out.

Igor Levit

Igor Levit has been mentioned over and over on this blog. It is no secret I’m a big fan. He’s been mentioned in the list of My Top 10 Favorite Classical Pianists, and I’ve already written about most of his recordings, be it the Bach Partitas, his Goldberg & Diabelli variations, or his recent, very personal album Life, and he’s pretty much consistently every year made the list of my top classical recordings of the year.

I’d also already mentioned his recording of the late Beethoven sonatas, the recording that put him on the map as one of the most promising young artists.

Levit decided not to re-record the late sonatas he previously released, so if you have the “old” album and now by the new box, you’ll have some redundancy.

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

Igor Levit Beethoven Complete Piano Sonatas Sony Classical 2019 24 96

I recently had the pleasure of seeing Levit perform some of these sonatas live. At the 2019 Lucerne festival, he in a series of concerts has played all of the sonatas live, I’ve attended one of these concerts.

This was already an impressive performance. The studio recordings follow a very similar approach.

One this is for sure, Levit’s approach will never leave you bored. He often chooses quite extreme tempi, going quite slow or breathtakingly fast in some parts.

Therefore, to me this is one of the most exciting new Beethoven releases in recent years.

Gramophone agrees, giving this the Editor’s Choice, Jed Distler on Classicstoday calls it “significant and stimulating”, giving it a 10/10 rating, and most other professional reviewers agree that this is a cycle worth having.

To conclude, no formal rating from my side this time, just a very strong “check this out” message from my side, which in the days of streaming, is easier than ever. I really don’t think you’ll be disappointed!

Really looking forward to your opinions this time.

You can find it here (Qobuz)

My reflections on the 2019 Gramophone Awards part IV – Instrumental

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.

Yuja Wang The Berlin Recital Rachmaninov Scriabin Ligeti Prokofiev 24 96 Deutsche Grammophon 2018

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.

Yuya Wang The Berlin Recital Encores Deutsche Grammophon 2019 24 96

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.

Debussy Préludes du 2e livre La Mer Alexander Melnikov Olga Pashchenko Harmonia Mundi 2018 24 96

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?

My Top 5 Classical Albums Of 2018

So, another year has passed. For me, while it has brought a lot of challenging moments, it also brought me a lot of good luck. And particularly, it brought all of us some exciting new recordings.

In the tradition from 2017, 2016, and 2015, so basically each year since I started this blog, let me summarize my top 5 Classical Albums Of The Year.

Yes, partially I do this because Top something lists always generate a lot of clicks (I don’t make any money on this site, so this is purely for my stupid little ego), but it is also a nice tradition to look back at the year.

And hopefully, it will inspire you to buy some of these (again, I’m not making any money here, but the artists do, as they should).

Igor Levit – Life

Yes, I really like Igor Levit. This may be his most personal album to date. In my original review I’ve described it as A Beautiful Treasure. An absolute must have.

Daniel Trifonov Plays Rach 2 and 4

Daniil Trifonov Yannick Nézet-Séguin The Philadelphia Orchestra Destination Rachmaninov - Departure Deutsche Grammophon 2018 24/96

Yes, this is one of my favorite Rach 2 ever. But PLEASE BE AWARE that I wrote in my original review (published as one of the first) that this recording will be controversial. It turned out it is, it is a love it or hate it affair. So please do check it out before you buy.

Rachel Podger’s Four Seasons

Vivaldi Le Quattro Stagioni (Four Seasons) Rachel Podger Brecon Baroque Channel Classics DSD 2018

Do you really need yet another version of the Four Seasons? Probably not, let’s be realistic. That said, if you are looking for one, you won’t go wrong with this beautiful account, which combines amazing energy with beautiful recording technology. See here for my original review.

Murray Perahia’s Moonlight and Hammerklavier

Beethoven: Sonatas No. 14 and 29 - Murray Perahia - Deutsche Grammophon 2018 24/96

Yes, I’m absolutely certain that this is an album that will stand the test of time. The only argument that you could have is whether the best piece here is the Moonlight (my opinion, see here for my review) or the Hammerklavier (many other reviewers). In any case, get this album, even if you already own these works.

Jean Rondeau Plays Scarlatti

Scarlatti Sonatas Jean Rondeau Erato 2018 (24/96) Warner Classics

As I wrote in my original review, I was really surprised to finally find an album that makes me like Scarlatti. Now is this enough of a reason for YOU to buy it? Will check it out, I think you won’t be disappointed.

You will find the download links in the respective original reviews.

Now back to you, what did I miss? Where do you disagree? What were your classical albums of 2018?

Piotr Anderszewski at Lucerne Festival with Bach and Beethoven – A Review

Piotr Anderszewski

My first “contact”, obviously virtual, with the Polish pianist Piotr Anderszewski was  when I reviewed the 2015 Gramophone Award nominees back in the early days of my blog. 

At the time, I wasn’t blown away by his recording of the English Suites, compared to my other favourites in this area, particularly Perahia and Pierre Hantaï.

So I was even more surprised when he won the Gramophone Award in this category over my personal favourites Levit and Grosvenor. 

In a nutshell, Piotr and I didn’t get off to a good start. 

Things improved more recently, when he was nominated again in 2017, for his Schumann album, which I really liked. I even meant to formally review it, which never happened for lack of time, but this album to this day is one I recommend without hesitation. 

But when I saw that he was playing the closing concert of the fall Lucerne Festival, which is always dedicated to the piano, and I happened to be in the area, I had to check it out.

Piotr Anderszewski at the 2018 Piano Lucerne Festival, KKL Lucerne, November 25, 2018

Piotr Anderszwewski at the KKL Lucerne, Lucerne Festival, November 25, 2018

If I needed any more convincing, the program helped. 

Anderszewski started off with parts of the Wohltemperiertes Klavier, especially the second book of the Well Tempered Clavier that I must admit I listen to much less than the first volume. 

This was really an amazing experience. Amazing intensity, while at the same time never too extrovert, a dense flow of sound, that really took you in as a listened. 

During the break, we got to admire the beautiful Christmas tree that Lucerne built up in front of the KKL’s main entry, together with a illuminated ice skating ring for kids that looked like taken out of a fairy tale (ok, I actually don’t know any fairy tales that feature ice skating rings, but you get the picture). Together with a glass of bubbly the break passed quickly.

Moving on to the “main  act”, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. I’ve previously written about them how they really aren’t easily accessible. It basically took me years to really appreciate them. By now, I have several favourites, including Andreas Staier, and obviously Igor Levit.

This was now the first time I heard this Opus Magnum live. I had pretty high  expectations after Andrew Clements in the Guardian called a similar performance by Anderszewski earlier this yearperhaps the most completely convincing reading of the Diabelli I’ve ever heard in the concert hall“.

Now, it was clearly also the most convincing reading for me, given that I heard it live for the first time, but bad pun aside, it was a fascinating reading.

What struck me most was the speed, or actually lack of it, that Anderszewski took. In many parts he really stopped time, or so it seemed. This may not be a performance that works on a recording, but in the beautiful acoustics of the large KKL hall, it worked wonders, and it truly became a transcendental experience in some moments. 

Overall, an amazing concert experience.

P.S. I didn’t find many reviews of this concert, but both the great Swiss critic Peter Hagmann, as well as Leonard Wüst on behalf of the Bochumer Zeitung, both reported very positively about their experience (both links in German only).

Murray Perahia Plays Beethoven Sonatas – Could This Be The Best “Moonlight” Ever?

Murray Perahia

Did I mention that I love Murray Perahia? Yes, actually, I did. He’s mentioned in my Top 10 Favorite Classical Pianists, his recent Bach Album made my Top 5 Classical Music albums of 2016.

So when a new Beethoven album from the great master came out on Deutsche Grammophon, I bought it pretty much immediately, without checking out the version via streaming as I’d typically do otherwise. His latest Beethoven sonata recording dates back to 2008, since then he’s been much more focused on Bach.

Beethoven: Sonatas No. 14 and 29 – Murray Perahia (Deutsche Grammophon 2018)

Beethoven: Sonatas No. 14 and 29 - Murray Perahia - Deutsche Grammophon 2018 24/96

Perahia attacks two of the most famous Beethoven sonatas here. No. 29, Hammerklavier, and the one that even non-classical listeners would recognize, the Moonlight.

Let me start by saying you immediately hear that Perahia has been playing a lot of Bach recently. If I had to summarize this album in one word, it would be “Clarity”, or “Transparency”. The counterpoint complexity of Bach certainly shines through on this album. Nothing is ever “too much”, even for these two sonatas that both mark the transition from the “classical” period to the starting “romantic” era.

Let’s start, as Perahia does, with the Hammerklavier heavyweight. This is one of the most pianistically challenging piano pieces out there. Especially if you’re trying to follow Beethoven’s original metronome marks, which some have considered unplayable. Perahia starts with a quite ambitious speed, but at no point this ever feels forced.

You get plenty of nuances especially in the beautiful Adagio, and the highlight could be the last movement, which stars seemingly simple with a little Largo, but then builds into a compex fuga type Allegro & Presto, where you can clearly hear that Beethoven knew his Bach, so Perahia really shines here.

I have yet to find my “perfect” Hammerklavier. Recently, the impressive version of Ronald Brautigam (played on an actual Hammerklavier-type historic instrument), or Igor Levit’s beautiful recording of the late sonatas, or you can obviously go back to the classics and pick your Serkin, Brendel, or Arrau. Actually, the complexity of this masterpiece is such that no one version will ever be “perfect”, you’ll always need more than one interpretation of this jewel.

Going to the Mondschein sonata, I’m going to contradict myself immediately: This could well be “the” perfect version of the Moonlight sonata, at least of the world famous Adagio sostenuto. 

Let me explain: He takes the movement relatively fast, with 5:16 I have only 3 versions in my library that take less time (my fastest version is Schnabel by the way, with 4:51).

What is so outstanding about this version goes back to the word I used earlier, “clarity”. This is played in a very plain, no-nonsense style. With such an overloaded romantic piece, there often is a tendency of just doing a bit too much, too much rubato, too much dynamic variation, etc. etc.

But honestly, this outstanding beauty of masterwork doesn’t need any of this. This apparent simplicity is just what makes this music truly shine. I can’t get enough of it. This could well become my new personal reference for No. 14.

My rating: 5 stars

 

You can find it here (Qobuz) and here (HDtracks)

 

UPDATE Feb 28, 2018: For once, we have an album where all critics agree. In their respective March editions, both Gramophone (Editor´s Choice & Recording Of The Month) and Classica (CHOC) give this album their highest rating.