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?

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