Vilde Frang’s Outstanding Version of Sibelius’ Violin Concerto

Let me start a bit off-topic: Why do I write about Sibelius right now?

If you’ve watched this blog for a bit, or if you’ve bothered to scroll down my main page, you’ll see that my blog topic selection look rather arbitrary and randomly selected and doesn’t follow a clear pattern. And to be fair, this is pretty much exactly how I chose my topics, by inspiration. It is very similar to how i decide to which album to listen next, whatever inspires me. The only connecting factor is that I only write about music or related topics that I really care about.

Diskothek im 2 / Disques en lice

So back to the question: Why Sibelius right now? The simple answer is: I just listened to a great podcast about it. Or actually 2. Let me clarify: My adopted country, Switzerland, has rather average public television, but two great classical music radio stations, one German (SRF2) one French (Espace 2) speaking. Both get to produce their own proprietary content, including a show that is based on the principle of inviting a couple of experts, and listening to a select number of recordings of a certain classical work, and have the expert discuss them blindly, and chose a “winner”. This show is called “Diskothek im 2” for the German, and “Disques en lice” for the French version.

Both recently decided to review Sibelius violin concerto, with a slightly different selection of versions. There was one overlap however, the winner, which is the album I’ll be talking about in a minute. And while I don’t always agree with the experts (in the end, it is all also a question of taste), listening blindly is really a good way of seeing if you REALLY like a version or you’re just preferring it because of the great name of the artist.

Sibelius’ violin concerto

Again, I don’t want to be Wikipedia, if you want to find more about the violin concerto, go here or here. Let me just say that the violin concerto is the only piece from Sibelius i really love. I still need to “get used” to the symphonies and symphonic poems he wrote. I fell in love with the violin concerto early on as it was coupled with the Beethoven violin concert on this low-price Sony release from the 1990s. I was lucky, because it included the Sibelius in a version by the great David Oistrakh which is recommended in the second link above, so by chance I ended up having a very good version.

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So feel free to check this version out, it is still very much recommended.

However, today I want to talk about the recording that won both Disques en Lice and Diskothek im 2: the 2009 recording with Vilde Frang

Vilde Frang

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This was Frang‘s first major commercial record at the age of 22. And what a performance it is. It has both the cold/ghostly nordic impressions of what I imagine Finland must look like (I’ve never been) but also at the right moments has all the fire and energy this late romantic concerto needs. She’s from Norway by the way, so geographically not very far from Finland. No idea if this helps or if this is just a cliché. The conductor, that I wasn’t otherwise familiar with, Thomas Søndergård, is as you can see from the Ø’s and å’s in the name also from Scandinavia, Denmark in this case. Only the orchestra being from the nice town of Cologne, doesn’t qualify as Scandinavian at all.

A side note on German radio orchestras (recognizable by the WDR/NDR/HR or whatever abbreviation, the R meaning radio) are usually quite good, albeit not at the level of a Berlin Philharmonic. However, some of them can be really great, like this one. The Orchestra and Søndergård are doing a great job here as well, and soloist and orchestra are really well-integrated.

This being an “album”, a concept which was forced on us by the LP, and later CD, but doesn’t make a lot of sense for classical music, we not only get the Sibelius, which would have been perfectly fine by me, but you also get a violin concerto by Prokofiev, and some minor “Humoresques” by Sibelius. While I like some of Prokofievs piano music and his “classical” symphony, I cannot find a lot of interest in his violin concerto (no judgment on quality here, just personal preference), and the Humoresques are nice fillers.

Overall rating: 5 stars (applies to the Sibelius concerto, the rest of the album I cannot be bothered with)

A nice alternative recording which I also really like, with another young rising star on the violin, is the version with Lisa Batiashvili (We are living in great times with so many fantastic violin players around). On this recording, you even get a Finnish orchestra with it.

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Schubert’s amazing chamber music (1) – The String Quintet played by the Pavel Haas Quartet

Franz Schubert

I’ve previously written about Schubert’s piano music, which I love. As a side note, I’m not a big fan of his symphonies, even his “great” 8th (or 9th depending on the counting system) doesn’t particularly motivate me to listen to it. I occasionally play the Unfinished, but being unfinished it’s over rather quickly. Anything else in his symphony repertoire is really just a bit too juvenile for me (if only he’d lived as long as Beethoven or Brahms…).

In my personal opinion, his late string quartets and especially the string quintet are the greatest pieces of chamber music ever written. Full stop. I know others will prefer Beethoven, but the emotional density and beautiful “singing” (let’s not forget Schubert was also a major composer of “Lieder”) in the music you’ll only find with Schubert.

The String Quintet

This absolute masterpiece beats by far every symphony Schubert has ever written. With over 50 minutes of playing time, it is also longer than pretty much everything he’s written. If length translates into too many repetitions, like with the C-major symphony, it can be boring. None of this you’ll find here. Actually, you’d (or at least I’d) love this work to go on forever, it is that beautiful.

Pavel Haas Quartet

Gramophone has a certain tendency of “hyping” some artist, they can’t do anything wrong, and every album of them gets an Editors-Choice or more. Sometimes, I quite disagree with this assessment. In the case of the Pavel Haas quartet, I fully agree, I’ve yet to hear a bad album from this young Czech quartet named after a Czech composer killed in Auschwitz.

Pavel Haas Quartet String Quintet Schubert Death and the Maiden
Pavel Haas Quartet String Quintet Schubert Death and the Maiden

This particular recording, which also includes an outstanding recording of the Death and the Maiden quartet no. 14, has been Gramophone Awards winner in the chamber music category in 2014, and very rightfully so. They are joined for the Quintet by the 2nd cello, played by the German-Japanese Danjulo Ishizaka.

What set’s this recording apart is the pure energy level that goes into the playing. This is not music to be enjoyed leaning back sipping a glass of bourbon on the rocks in your favorite rocking chair, this is music made for listening to with constant attention, barely keeping you on your couch any more.

There are many other good to outstanding versions out there, including the Takacs Quartet, the Tokyo Quartet, the Hagen Quartet with Heinrich Schiff, but this one really beats them all. The Czech label Supraphone has done quite a decent job on the recording quality.

My rating: 5 stars (with no hesitations)

You can get it here if you prefer downloads, and here if you prefer a physical disc (or 2 of them to be precise)

UPDATE April 27, 2016: see also my review of the String Quintet by the Quatuor Ebène and Gautier Capuçon here

Georg Friedrich Händel – beyond the Messiah

I’ve already mentioned before that my personal ranking of Baroque composers is Bach first, Händel is second.

So let me write about no. 2 on the list. Händel is German, although he spent quite a bit of his professional life in London and is somehow adopted English, so probably you’re more familiar with the George Frideric spelling of his name.

Most well-known classical music pieces

If you ask the average guy on the street whose typical musical fare is contemporary pop music, chances are he or she has at least heard a couple of ultra-famous classical pieces. These often include the “Da-da-da-daaaa” from Beethoven’s 5th, Bach’s Toccata BWV565 etc. etc.. Somebody even bothered to compile a top 10. Not surprisingly, this top 10 list includes our friend Georg Friedrich (sorry, I’ll stick to his birth name). Guess which one it is? Obviously: “Hallelujah” from the Messiah.

I’m not such a big fan of the Messiah, it’s good, but I can only listen to it ever so often. But it summarizes one of the two things Händel does really well: Glorious Oratorios, often with festive character. His two other rather well-known pieces, the fireworks- and water music, are of similar character.

The other thing Händel is really great at, is related, amazing stage drama. His Baroque operas and oratorios (many oratorios are actually operas, but weren’t allowed to be called opera as the pope Clement XI had some issue with this form of entertainment). I’ll certainly post more about the baroque operas later.

Music for Queen Caroline

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Back to the festive music. Obviously key clients for composers at the time were royals, and royal festivities like the arrival of a new queen, the coronation, or even funerals, required the appropriate musical soundtrack.

This album from William Christie and his Les Arts Florissants ensemble from 2014 brings you all three. Like many others, William Christie, the American turned French conductor has created his own label for this release. By the way, usually you can buy most of Christie’s releases blindly, he’s rather ever done a bad album and many are outstanding. His Messiah is still my personal reference version.

You’ll get three oeuvres on this album, all related to Queen Caroline (another German in the long history of German blood in the British royal family by the way): The Coronation Anthem, a Te Deum that was even nicknamed after her, and her funeral music.

All three are just outstanding pleasure to listen to, and William Christie does an amazing job here. This is 1h12 packed with emotions, with very little time to relax. Furthermore, this album is very well recorded, which makes the impact on a good stereo even stronger.

Highly recommended.

My rating: 4 stars

(this is one potential 5 star candidate, but I’ve only acquired it recently and need to give it some more spins before making u p my mind).

Update Oct 2016: I’ll stick to the 4 star rating. It is really nice to have but not essential.

What is your favorite piece by Händel?

Telemann – beyond Tafelmusik

Baroque Composers

Baroque composers. What comes to mind spontaneously? Bach, Vivaldi, Rameau maybe? And yes, if you remind people, specifically, there’s also Telemann. Personally, my “ranking” of baroque composers is very simple: Johann Sebastian Bach,  After that, with some distance, Georg Friedrich Händel. Then for quite some time pretty much nothing else, and finally, all the rest.

Let me explain. Vivaldi is “nice”, but the nasty saying that he composed only one violin concerto – but 200 times – has some truth to it. I usually get bored pretty quickly. Then there are the composers I still don’t “get”. I’ve never heard any Scarlatti (Alessandro and Domenico) that personally touched me. For the French baroque stars with Rameau, Lully, etc., well, I’m currently in learning mode. For Purcell, I love Dido and Aeneas, but still need to dig much deeper into the rest of this oeuvre.

Georg Philipp Telemann

And then there is Telemann. He probably didn’t do himself a favor by composing the famous “Tafelmusik” (literally “table music”, apparently a marketing term invented by Telemann himself to better sell his music). I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m not the only one who uses Telemann’s Tafelmusik as background entertainment when receiving guests for a dinner party (usually after preparing a rather fancy dinner decoration including lots of chandeliers that even Mr Carson of Downton Abbey would approve of). In a nutshell, the 18th century equivalent of the latest Café Del Mar mix. But I pretty much didn’t know anything else from him, beyond the infamous recorder concertos (remember that horrible instrument that many kids, including me, get tortured with for educational purposes).

So as you can see, Telemann didn’t have an easy start with me. However, when Classica Magazine gave a “Choc Classica” (their way of saying 5 stars) to a Telemann album in the latest issue of the magazine, I was intrigued. I figured I had to get it just to revisit my Telemann bias.

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I’m glad I did, in spite of the weird monkeys playing backgammon cover, and the fact that I hadn’t (consciously) heard of any of the artists on this album. I’ve been very positively surprised by several albums from the French Alpha label in the past, including the outstanding 6-album Café Zimmermann Bach cycle, so that helped a bit.

Alexis Kossenko – Les Ambassadeurs

Alexis Kossenko is a French flute player that founded the period instrument orchestra “Les Ambassadeurs” around 5 years ago, mainly composed of younger musicians. I only noticed after purchasing this that I already had another excellent album with this orchestra, the recent Sabine Devieilhe Rameau recital “Le Grand Théâtre de l’Amour” on Erato, purchased relatively recently as part of my self-educational efforts with regards to French baroque composers (see above).

What do you get on this album?

An overture, a violin concerto, two flute concerto, and a flute/violin double concerto. The latter is really my favorite of the album. All played with so much energy but at the same time attention to detail, it is a pure pleasure. This music is no b-minor mass obviously, but certainly on par with the Brandenburg concertos or Overtures by my admired Johann Sebastian. I really need to explore more Telemann, and certainly more of Les Ambassadeurs. As a bonus, Alpha is doing a great job in making their recordings sound very well, so if you have a good hifi, you’ll certainly enjoy this album even more.

Overall rating: 4 stars.

Schubert on Fortepiano by Andras Schiff – not for beginners

In his comment on my initial Diabelli thread, Jud asked about the new Schubert recording of Schiff on ECM.

0002894811577_600Curiosity got the better of me, and I bought it blindly (instead of streaming it first as I would have done usually), Actually, I’m glad I did.

Andreas Schiff uses the same 1820’s Franz Brodmann fortepiano he also uses on the Diabelli’s second “disc”. This is not very surprising given that he actually owns this since 2010. (It is usually on loan to the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn).

When listening to Fortepiano, the differences are much larger than with modern grand pianos. Sure, a Bösendorfer has a different house sound to a Steinway, and a trained pianists will be able to tell one Steinway from the other (witness the fascinating movie Pianomania if you want to know more), but that said, for most of us mere mortals all sound pretty nice.

In the early 1800s we were far from this homogeneity. This is important to know before you purchase a fortepiano recording, as they really can sound quite differently, and you may not like all sounds.

There are some I cannot listen to for a long time (e.g. Malcolm Bilson’s recording of the Mozart piano concertos), while I love the sound of others (e.g. Roland Brautigam playing a Paul McNulty replica of an 1820 fortepiano in his amazing Beethoven piano music cycle).

Brodmann Hammerflügel

The sound of this particular Brodmann Hammerflügel I very much like on the Diabelli, due to their very intellectual nature. It takes much more getting used on the romantic beauty of Schubert (I know Schubert was borderline between classical and romantic period, but to me is is clearly in the latter), especially if your current reference is this:

uchida schubert

Mitsuko Uchida

The sheer beauty of Uchida on Schubert is just outstanding. Well, the sound of the Brodmann is anything but beautiful at first ear.

Funnily enough, Andras Schiff himself is on record (from the 1990s) dreading somebody playing Schubert on a fortepiano. He has obviously by now made up his mind and admitted he was wrong.

And to be fair, he was. There is so much to discover here, not only you because you hear the music “as Schubert would have played it” (and unlike Beethoven, at least he wasn’t deaf), but the colors, the nuances, everything is different. This is NOT a recording to lay back and enjoy, this is a journey into the music.

Real highlights to me are the Moments Musicaux (revealing their true Viennese charm) and the amazing sonata D960.

If you don’t have any Schubert piano works yet, don’t buy this as a first album. Go for Uchida, Brendel, Lewis, etc (or the recently released outstandin album by David Fray).

And please do, as Schubert (to my ears) wasn’t great in the symphonic genre, but has done marvelous work both on the piano and in the chamber music fields (more on this later).

But if you know what you’re getting, check this out, you won’t disappointed. And obviously as usual ECM is very well recorded.

Overall rating: 4 stars

Can Heaven Be Captured On Disc? Bach’s B-minor Mass BWV 232

Another entry on Bach. Maybe I should add him to my Blog title.

In any case, I just had to write about the b-minor mass, as it is such a fantastic work of art, one of the absolute highlights of the entire classical repertoire in my view.

Again, if you want to know more about the history, I don’t feel like I need to copy Wikipedia here, the only thing that is a bit particular about the story of this mass is actually that it is a full traditional catholic mass, given that Bach was a protestant composer. Actually, Bach apparently never performed the full thing in one go during his lifetime.

Well we don’t need to care about these historic details, we can just sit back and enjoy this amazing beauty. It is pretty long, around 2h, but there is so much to discover that it is worth putting down our tendency of ADHD (and I’m the first to admit to that disease) and listen to it from back to back. If your ADHD is too much of an issue, just pick out parts, as JSB would have done during his time.

The Great Catholic Mass

What is so special about this work (to give it its formal title “Messe in h-moll BWV232“, or as Carl Phillip Emanuel Bach called it the “Great Catholic Mass”? To me, it is most of all the overwhelming power. I’ve said before that I’m not religious, but  when I hear the choir sing the “Kyrie eleyson” (Lord, have mercy) with full organ backup,  I’m sometimes getting second thoughts. Or take the “Qui tollis”, how the choir interacts with the solo flute, or to give a final example, the beautiful glory of the “Sanctus”. Just amazing.

Karl Richter

The first version I ever had of this was, as many other probably, Karl Richter’s legendary 1961 version.

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There is still a lot of positives about this recording today, including the outstanding soloists (Fischer-Dieskau, anybody?). That said, a lot of time has passed since this version and the last 50 years have completely changed our reception of Bach and other Baroque works, thanks to the movement of “historically informed performance” by Harnoncourt et al. in the 1970s/80s.

Therefore, as much as I appreciate the sheer power of this version, I’m not going back to it that often.

Philippe Herreweghe – omne trium perfectum – All Good Things Come By in Threes

Philippe Herreweghe (yes I know, again as well) has recorded the b-minor mass three times (to quote Herreweghe himself: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”). All three recordings are very good, my preferred one by small margin is the last one from 2011 on his own label Phi. It was recorded in Berlin.

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It just gives you the perfect balance, it is not over the top, but extremely intense.

Another excellent alternative, and my other favorite, is Frans Brüggen’s older recording from 1990 on Philips.

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Obviously, there are many others that have done an excellent job, from Gardiner (see also here) to Hengelbrock, to Suzuki. But these two recordings are just one tiny notch above the very busy crowd.

5 stars for both recordings.

UPDATE Nov 20, 2015: You’ll find a review of Gardiner’s 2015 recording of the b-minor mass here.

 

You can find the Herreweghe here (Qobuz)

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.

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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.