My Reflections on the 2015 Gramophone Award Nominees – Part II – Concerto

After my comments on the “Instrumental” category of the Gramophone Awards last Saturday here, let me highlight some more gems in the Concerto category.

Nominated are:

The Beethoven Journey – Leif Ove Andsnes with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra playing Beethoven’s piano concertos 2 & 4

The Beethoven Journey - Beethoven Piano Concertos 2 & 4 - Leif Ove Andsnes - Mahler Chamber Orchestra

Beethoven again, piano concertos 3 & 4 by Maria Joao Pires with Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra

Beethoven Piano Concertos 3 & 4 - Maria Joao Pires - Daniel Harding - Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra

Britten / MacMIllan / Vaughan Williams played by the Britten Sinfonia (not heard)

Bruch & Prokofiev’s Violin Concertos by Guro Kleven Hagen with the Oslo Phlharmonic and Bjarte Engeset

Bruch Prokofiev Violin Concertos Guro Kleven Hagen Oslo Philharmonic Bjaerte Engeset

Dvorak’s Cello Concerto by Alisa Weilerstein with Jiri Belohlavek and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra

Alisa Weilerstein Jiri Belohlavek Dvorak Cello Concerto Decca Classics

Mozarts Violin Concertos 3 – 5, Arabella Steinbacher, Daniel Dodds, Festival Strings Lucerne

Mozart Violin Concertos 3, 4, 5 - Arabella Steinbacher - Festival Strings Lucerne - Daniel Dodds

As said above, I haven’t heard the Britten album (and actually don’t care much about Britten in the first place, so wouldn’t be in a good place to talk about the album.

Two other albums I only gave a quick spin, so I’m not going to rate them, which are the Mozart concertos by Arabella Steinbacher, and the Prokofiev/Bruch combo by the young Norvegian violin player Guro Kleven Hagen, that I hadn’t heard of before. My admittedly superficial impression on both were solid performances, nothing wrong with them, but also nothing that would motivate me to go back. One argument in favor of the Arabella Steinbacher is that it is recorded on Pentatone, that usually has an outstanding recording quality, so if you have a good Hifi, you may want to check it out.

The three albums I have heard in more detail are the two Beethovens and the Dvorak.

Let me start with Maria Joao Pires first. I’m very happy to report that after my rather lukewarm review of her Schumann concerto with Gardiner, in this recording I can reconfirm that I’m a fan. Very delicate, nuanced playing. I’ve already praised Daniel Harding in his recording of the Brahms Violin Concerto, and also the Orchestral part is doing a fine job here.

My rating: 4 stars

However, to my ears, with Leif Ove Andsnes it gets even better. I’ve already declared how much I like his Grieg, and here on Beethoven with the excellent Mahler Chamber Orchestra which Andsnes conducts from the piano, the result is just really really nice. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing this combo play concertos 2-4 live late last year, and the recording fully  captures the energy and passion by both soloist and orchestra. No. 4 is anyhow my preferred Beethoven concerto, and this is definitely one of the best versions I have. However, to my ears, they are even better on piano concerto no. 2 (side note: wrongly numbered, this should have been his no. 1 chronologically), which really benefits from the lighter sound of the Mahler Chamber.

My rating: 5 stars

But who is my predicted category winner? Well, by exclusion you could have guessed it: Alisa Weilerstein’s Dvorak. We recently already got an excellent reading of this concerto with Stephen Isserlis on Hyperion, and obviously there are a lot of outstanding historic recordings (Starker, Du Pré, etc.), this version just gets what is the essential for me in this concerto (my favorite piece by Dvorak by the way): the romantic passion. (Side note: When Brahms, who mentored Dvorak for a while, read the score, he’s quoted: “If I had known that it was possible to compose such a concerto for the cello, I would have tried it myself!” If only he had…). This recording is pure emotion. I suppose having a Czech orchestra playing music by their most famous local composer helps. There are some minor technical glitches here and there, but they don’t really matter, you don’t even notice.

My rating: 5 stars

So, what do you think? What are your predictions?

An addendum to Diabelli – the point of view of Classica Magazine in a blind test

As a quick addendum to my previous post on the Diabelli variations, when I opened the latest issue of the French magazine Classica on my iPad today (a bit late, it came out several days ago), I was pleased to discover that they dedicated their monthly blind test column, where their review staff compare 8 versions of a given oeuvre blindly, and ranks them, to just this work.

Classica – l’écoute en aveugle (the blind test)

I usually have a large overlap in taste with Classica, so I was a bit surprised to see none of my two recommended recordings even mentioned. But then I read it in the text, “les pianofortes atteignent leur limited“, the fortepianos reach their limits. Interesting, so Beethoven composed something that couldn’t have been played on the instrument he was used to. To be fair he was deaf at that time, but this is still an interesting conclusion. But ok, let’s see where they take it from here.

Laurent Cabasso

Well, their recording that is leading the pack is a recent recording on the label Naive played by the French pianist Laurent Cabasso.

0822189019983_600

Well, the French press, very much like the English, has a certain patriotic tendency in their reviews. But remember, this is a BLIND test, so let’s assume they haven’t cheated. I obviously had to listen to it immediately, and luckily my streaming provider, Qobuz, has the album available.

Don’t forget Richter

My conclusion remains the same, I’m personally much more touched by the fortepiano versions than by this admittedly very good, but not outstanding recording (4 star on my personal rating scale). So if you prefer a modern piano, you may want to check this version out. But if you do, also compare it to the much more extremist (in a positive sense) Sviatoslav Richter (FYI, no. 5 in the Classica ranking). Otherwise, Schiff and Staier are a must on your playlist.

P.S. Gramophone has done a similar comparison in their August 2015 edition, you’ll find a summary here.

Beethoven: Diabelli-Variations – an acquired taste?

Beethoven. You could be saying that I’m really trying to tick off the famous “great Three B’s” first. How creative of me.

Well, while the general consensus doesn’t get everything right, there’s a reason why the three B’s are so important. And in any case, I probably wasn’t mean to be a rebel to tell the establishment they got it all wrong.

Back to Ludwig van. I’ve been a fan, like forever (excuse me for sounding like an over-excited American teenager). The symphonies I can never never never get bored with (except, as already mentioned before, the ninth, which somehow escapes me). His piano sonatas are amazing and cover his entire spectrum from something that sounds like young Haydn (and were not surprisingly his op. 2) to the extremely well-known sonatas in his middle period, many of which got their reputation due to their nickname (from Mondschein to Apassionata), to the late works (op. 109 to 111) which are anything but immediately accessible for the average listener, including me.

But let me talk about the Diabelli variations today. They are probably not as well known as their famous variations older brother (Bach’s Goldberg), but still are seen by most experts as an absolutely masterpiece. And let me admit: until recently, I just never “got” them. I tried again and again with the small handful of versions I had (including Brendel nevertheless), and nothing ever stuck, I just never really fell in love.

Until recently. Two and a half versions (I was tempted to do a Charlie Sheen joke here) of this, and very repeated listening, changed my mind.

Andras Schiff

The first version, is the one I kind of called 1.5. To be fair, they are two, but both played by the same pianist and on the same album. Andras Schiff, the great Hungarian pianist, recorded the Diabelli-Variations twice, for ECM (yes, I know, ECM again...)

Disc 1 (if in the times of computer audio it still makes sense to speak of discs) contains a recording on a 1921 Bechstein grand. This version really opened my eyes for the beauty of the Diabellis.

Disc 2 contains the same piece again, played this time on a fortepiano from Beethoven’s time. I recently started enjoying the fortepiano more and more (thanks to great pianists like Roland Brautigam, Kristian Bezuidenhout), as not only “it sounds like Beethoven would have heard it” (if he wouldn’t have been deaf by the time this was composed), but also it gives a totally different degree of transparency.

Andreas Staier

But when we get to the fortepiano, there is another version I prefer even more, from an artist with pretty much the same first name: Andreas Staier on Harmonia Mundi. Andreas Staier is a German fortepiano and harpsichord player, and I have yet to find any recording of him that seriously disappointed me.

This has been recommended by several people I usually trust well. But because of my scepticism until recently regarding the Diabellis, I only got this version some weeks ago. What a mistake. It is just amazing.

Luckily for us, both versions are also very well recorded (you can usually trust both ECM and Harmonia Mundi to get that part right), and are available as high-res downloads.

Check both out, you won’t be disappointed.

P.S: I just discovered this interesting article from Nick van Bloss describing his recording the Diabellis on Gramophone’s blog. I haven’t checked out his album yet, but his description and approach are certainly worth reading.

P.P.S. If you prefer a modern piano reading, read my addendum I just published.

P.P.P.S. Gramophone also likes Staier, but has yet another alternative

P.P.P.P.S: Igor Levit has recorded another outstanding alternative on a modern piano.

Please let me know if I missed any good version out there, I can certainly live with more!

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