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?

Two Beautiful New Albums for the Christmas Season from Jordi Savall and Vladimir Jurowski – The Messiah and the Nutcracker

Christmas Music

I’ve already written several blog posts on music for the Christmas season.

By the way, should you follow any other faith, please be aware that while I grew up in a Christian country, I’m agnostic and really see Christmas more as a beautiful family tradition, that nicely enough has led to the creation of some really beautiful music.

Both works I’ll be discussing here, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and Händel’s Messiah, are not properly speaking Christmas music, but the Nutcracker is obviously strongly associated with the season, and at least part I of the Messiah deals directly with the birth of Jesus, so has a more direct connection.

The last couple of weeks saw the release of two new great recordings of these old warhorses. Jordi Savall has attacked the Messiah, and Vladimir Jurowski the Nutcracker. Let me start with Savall

Händel: The Messiah – Jordi Savall – Le Concert des Nations (AliaVox 2019)

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

I’ve already written about 3 excellent versions of the Messiah. So is there really a need to add another one? Well I just bought it, so for me, the answer is yes.

Here’s why: I really like Jordi Savall, his early music and baroque recordings are always worth exploring, see for example his recording of the Bach and Vivaldi Magnificat. So I clearly had high expectations.

Nicely enough, I wasn’t disappointed. Let’s compare this to my preferred version so far by Emmanuelle Haïm. Haïm really has an incomparable swing, which really makes baroque music so enjoyable.

Savall often takes slower tempi, but the entire recording has just so much brilliance, shine and sparkle, that I was immediately reminded of one of those giant Christmas trees that many cities put up (e.g. the Rockefeller one in NYC).

And this is music you really want to sparkle. The singers really shine as well. One of my favourites is “He shall feed his flock” from part II, with Rachel Redmond and Damien Guillon. Just beautiful.

The Nutcracker – Vladimir Jurowski – State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia “Evgeny Svetlanov” (Pentatone 2019)

Tchaikovsky The Nutcracker Vladimir Jurowski State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia "Evgeny Svetlanov" Pentatone 2019

Some say Russian music only should be played by Russian orchestras. My favourite version of the Nutcracker proves otherwise, but still there is something to be said for the combination.

Jurowski had already recorded a very beautiful Swan Lake, so I was curious to hear what he did with the Nutcracker, especially in an all live recording.

I wasn’t disappointed. In a way, this album is kind of the reversal of the Messiah situation, here my favourite Rattle version is the shiny Christmas tree, whereas the Jurowski version clearly has a lot of swing and verve. You are drawn in from the first minute of the overture, and if you can sit still during the enchanting Flower Waltz, you’re probably deaf.

The only minor issue I have with this album is the occasional imprecision in timing of the orchestra, these are due to the live recording here, I’m sure in a studio version these would have been edited out.

But this is nitpicking, overall this is a truly engaging and beautiful Nutcracker.

So in a nutshell, both are albums that are a must have for the season, and as a cherry on the cake, are actually quite well recorded on top of everything else.

My rating: 5 stars for both

You can find them here (Messiah) and here (Nutcracker), both on 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?

Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 with Kirill Petrenko or Why Maybe I Do Like Tchaikovsky After All

Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky

My first ever post on this blog regarding Tchaikovsky created a bit of a debate among my readers, as it was titled Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 with Neeme Järvi or Why I Don’t Like Tchaikovsky.

Several of them couldn’t believe that I don’t really like Tchaikovsky that much, and tried to convince me otherwise.

That said, this post has been some years ago and I still basically limited my Tchaikovsky listening to about once yearly going back to said Symphony No. 5, occasionally the Violin Concerto with Heifetz (but more likely because it is on the same album as his fantastic Brahms), and every once in a while testing out new versions of his piano concerto no. 1, more often than not being disappointed.

And, for sure, during the pre-Christmas period, the Nutcracker, ideally by Rattle, was a must have.

I’ve tried the four early symphonies by Tchaikovsky, never got them, but most surprisingly his 6th, which many consider his symphonic masterpiece, never got my attention.

So when the Berlin Philharmonic finally released his first album with their new boss (elected many years ago), I got curious.

I’m very happy I did check it out.

Tchaikovsky Symphony No 6 – Kirill Petrenko – Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (BPO 2019)

So far, I must admit I always go a bit lost in this piece. Guess what, Petrenko really opened my eyes and ears here.

His very transparent reading helped me to see the structure, to understand the nuances, to see the many beautiful similarities with the beautiful orchestral sounds of his ballets.

At the same time, this is not a slim HIP-inspired baroque interpretation, as the word “transparent” may imply. This is the romantic power and suave sound of the BPO at it’s best. So all the necessary drama of the “Pathétique” is there when it is needed.

If this is an indication of the future of the Berlin Philharmonic under his new conductor, I hope this was not only a snapshot from the honeymoon period. We could be really entering a new Golden Age of the BPO, and we all should be going back to Scharoun’s yellow tent more often (if you can get tickets).

My rating: 5 stars

P.S. Gramophone agrees, giving this album an Editor’s Choice in the July 2019 edition

You can find it here (Qobuz)

My Top 5 Classical Albums of 2017

It is starting to be a tradition now; this is a third time I´ll be writing about my top 5 classical albums of the year (see here for 2016, and here for 2015).

It´s been a busy year both professionally (completely unrelated to this blog) and musically, with a lot of excellent recordings being published, my blog being listed among Musicaroo´s Top 100 Independent Music Blogs, and me reaching 200 blog posts this summer.

It´s probably a bit late for Christmas shopping, but if you’re still looking for something to put under the tree (or whatever other holiday you’re celebrating right now, if any), or if you just would like to make yourself a nice present, here’s my selection for 2017. For download links to each album, please follow the link to the original review.

 

Bach: St. Matthew Passion – John Eliot Gardiner

Bach St Matthew Passion John Eliot Gardiner SDG 2017 24/96

I may be a bit biased here as I heard Gardiner perform this live as part of the same European tour as when this was recorded, but while I’ve been not always convinced by Gardiner´s recent recordings, I feel this is one that will stand the test of time as a reference.

See my original review here.

 

Brahms: The Symphonies – Andris Nelsons – Boston Symphony Orchestra

Brahms: The Symphonies - Andris Nelsons - Boston Symphony Orchestra 24/192

Brahms being in the subtitle of my album, he is obviously featured on a regular basis.

Note that this album may not be of universal appeal. This is really not the new lean style of “historically informed”, with lean orchestras, which I actually often really like. This is “old-style” Brahms, big, broad, and romantic. I feel it works especially well for the first symphony, in the big tradition of the Klemperers and Walters of this world (not yet Furtwängler and Toscanini).

In, any case if you answer yes to “Aimez-vous Brahms?”, you need to check this box out.

You’ll find the original review here.

 

Volodos Plays Brahms

Arcadi Volodos Plays Brahms (24/96) Sony Classical 2017

And yes, 2 out of 5 for the grandmaster from Hamburg. Another Brahms album.

And this time I can get rid of any disclaimer, this is just outstanding in any way. While playing with all his virtuosity power, these little (underrated) gems of Brahms here really get the treatment they deserve.

A must have for any Brahms fan.

See my original review here.

Mozart: Great Mass in C – Masaaki Suzuki – Bach Collegium Japan

Mozart: Great Mass in C Minor Exsultate Jubliate Bach Collegium Japan Masaaki Suzuki Carolyn Sampson Olivia Vermeulen Makoto Sakurada Christian Immler

 

This gets a special treatment by me, because it is probably one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written.

Masaaki Suzuki and his Bach Collegium have never produced a bad album to my knowledge. The “worst” you get from this excellent Japanese ensemble is recordings that are a bit too polished and tame to my taste.

But here, none of that. Just beauty! This could well become a new reference recording for this work.

You’ll find my original review here.

Alexandre Kantorow: A La Russe

Alexandre Kantorow A La Russe BIS 2017 (24/96)

This album again may not be of universal appeal. A slightly more eclectic selection of music, a very young pianist, and a lot of extremes in one album.

I still preferred it to let’s say the extreme perfection of Zimerman´s new Schubert recording (another contender for this list), simply because of the piano performance of Stravinsky´s Firebird. I’m not even a particular fan of Stravinsky in general, but this recording is simply out of this world.

You can find my original review here.

 

What do you think?

So, this is my list, what would be yours? Please share! As always, I appreciate your feedback and ideas!

In the meantime, let me wish all of you Happy Holidays!

 

P.S. 

One more album, which isn’t properly speaking a 2017 album, but “just a remaster” released this year, gets a special mention: The outstanding complete Beethoven string quartets by the Takács Quartet.

See my original review here.

Takacs Quartet Beethoven Complete String Quartets Decca 24 48 2017 remaster

 

 

My Reflections on the 2017 Gramophone Awards – Part I

2017 Gramophone Awards

The 2017 Gramophone Awards nominees have been published. As in the two previous years(2015 and 2016, let me add my comments and reflections on the proposed selection.

Overall, this year I was suprised how very few of the recordings I actually knew.

Therefore, this year I’ll only do two overall post on this, unlike the posts per category I did in recent years.

Baroque Instrumental

Bach: Orchestral Suites: Zefiro

Johann Sebastian Bach: Overtures - Zefiro - Alessandro Bernadini - Arcana - 2017 (24/96)

I very much liked this recording, giving it 4 stars here. Is it good enough for album of the year? Well, maybe.

Bach: Goldberg Variations – Mahan Esfahani

I was never as enthousiastic about this album as was Gramophone, my rating in my review was a lukewarm 3 stars. So definitely not my album of the year.

I haven’t heard any of the other albums, with some Telemann and Vivaldi, but will check in and maybe report back later.

 

Baroque Vocal

Hyperion doesn’t stream, so I cannot comment about Cohens/Arcangelos cantata album.

Bach: Matthew Passion – Gardiner

Bach St Matthew Passion John Eliot Gardiner SDG 2017 24/96

As reviewed here, I fully agree that this is a five star album very much worth having.

 

I haven’t heard any of the other recommended albums, from Blow (never heard that name before), Couperin, Monteverdi and Scarlatti, but will check them out, as they are by Les Arts Florissants and Christophe Rousset among other, that I really admire.

Chamber

I haven’t heard any of the first three recommended albums, as they are all 20th century stuff which really isn’t my cup of tea, from Ades, via Bacewicz, Berg, Schönberg, and Webern. I’ll leave this to others.

I´d be interested in trying the Bruch String Quartets as I have very little chamber music from this composer, but Hyperion doesn´t stream so I have no way of risk free trying.

Then there are two Schubert albums. Quatuors 12 and 15 by the Doric Quartet. I have only heard it once on the radio (again, also Chandos doesn´t stream), and liked it, but wasn´t blown away. Not interesting enough for me to spend money blindly on it.

Finally, there is the Death and the Maiden and a quartet by Sibelius by the Ehnes Quartet. Unfortunately, Onyx is another label that doesn´t stream.

So basically, there´s unfortunately not a lot I can contribute to this category, which I usually love.

Choral

Several albums in here that are just not my cup of tea, eg. Berkeley or Elgar. Even Haydn´s Season, here with Paul McCreesh, is not a piece of music I´m particularly passionate about. Better to shut up then.

I´m more curious about the Cherubini album by Hervé Niquet, I´ll check that one out later today.

There have been a number of recent recordings of Rachmaninov´s All-Night Vigil, and I´m also very interested by this latest recording of John Scott. I will report back on this one as well.

And then there is my highlight of the year:

Mozart: C-minor Mass – Mazaki Suzuki

Mozart: Great Mass in C-Minor Exsultate Jubilate Masaaki Suzuki Bach Collegium Japan BIS 2016 24/96

Truly a new reference, see also my review here

Concerto

Let me maybe start by the one recording I can really recommend in here:

Mozart: Violin Concertos – Isabelle Faust

Mozart: Violin Concertos Isabelle Faust Il Giardino Armonico Giovanni Antonini Harmonia Mundi 2016 24/96

I gave it a four star rating, as I don´t consider Mozart´s violin concertos to be essential, but the playing is truly five star.

I´m not a very huge fan of Lisa Batiashvili´s Sibelius and Tchaikovsky album, but this is more due to Barenboim, not Batiashvili´s fault. Augustin Hadelich Tchaikovsky is straightforward, but also not that much my cup of tea.

I will certainly check out Alexandre Tharaud´s Rachmaninov album and report back.

I can´t comment on the albums by Adams and Beach.

I´ll skip the contemporary and early categories, as I don´t feel qualified enough here.

 

Instrumental

Bach: French Suites – Murray Perahia

Johann Sebastian Bach: The French Suites - Murray Perahia (24/96) Deutsche Grammophon 2016

Yes, absolutely, great album. A must have. See also here

 

Bach: Goldberg Variations: Beatrice Rana

Bach: Goldberg Variations - Beatrice Rana Warner Classics

I´ve now played this album many times, and still haven´t fully made up my mind. I kind of like it, but it´s really not my personal reference.

I´d like to comment about Cedric Tiberghien´s Bartok album and Pavel Koselnikov´s Chopin Mazurkas, but due to Hyperion´s no streaming policy I can´t. Side note: I really understand why labels don´t want to support streaming, as the business model is not very attractive, but on the other hand it really limits discovery. Maybe labels should invent a streaming model where you can listen to an album only 2-3 times and then need to purchase it. I find that album´s I can´t test I often don´t buy.

 

Liszt: Transcendental Etudes: Daniil Trifonov (Deutsche Grammophon)

Liszt: Transcendental: Daniel Trifonov Deutsche Grammophon

I haven´t reviewed this album yet, but have listened to it many times. And yes, it is very good, justifying the Artist of the Year he received last year.

Mozart/Schumann: Fantaisies – Piotr Anderszewski (Warner)

Mozart/Schumann.: Fantaisies - Piotr Anderszewski Warner

I wasn´t such a big fan of Anderszewski´s Bach album that won 2 years ago, but this one (only one listen so far, so beware) sounds really very good. I´ll report back.

Click here for Part II of this article.

 

 

 

Alexandre Kantorow – A La Russe – Outstanding!

A quick comment on classical reviews

I’ve mentioned this several times before, reviewing classical music is a very subjective business. See examples here and here of cases where professional reviewers disagree a lot about the quality of a recording.

Therefore, it is even more impressive if you find reviews where nearly everybody agrees. Those are the recordings you should truly check out, as these are actually rather rare.

One of these outstanding recordings is the recent Arkadi Volodos recording of Brahms. This album got a “Choc” (i.e. 5 stars) from Classica AND an Album of the Month by Gramophone.

What is even more impressive is that not only these two agree, but 5 other classical reviewers (not counting me) do as well. Classica publishes every month an overview of what the leading critics in the French media (France 3, Le Figaro, Radio Classique, France Musique, and Le Monde) think of a number of recent albums on a scale from “X” (didn’t like at all) to “three hearts” (liked passionately). I check this overview every month, and it is really extremely rare to find that all reviewers give three hearts.

Well, for the Volodos recording, three hearts from all of them. The only outlier I’m aware off is Andrew Clements from the Guardian.

In a nutshell, we have a strong contender here for the piano album of the year (a bit early after only 5 months, but mark my words, I’ll get back to this later).

Why am I writing all this in a review of a completely different album?

Well, a because I just read the overview in the latest Classica, but also because the album I’ll be writing about now is to me the only serious contender for best piano album of the year (again, so far).

 

Alexandre Kantorow – A La Russe (BIS 2017)

I first heard about Kantorow, son of the conductor Jean-Jacques Kantorow, from a recent email by Robert von Bahr, the owner of the Swedish independent classical label BIS.

I’m on his mailing list, and on a monthly basis, you’ll get a note about BIS’s most recent releases. Obviously, this being the owner, you have to take his promotional talk with a grain of salt, but actually he has a rather refreshing open style, and more often than not, he can even be sometimes being quite critical of his own releases.

So when I received an email with the following text “I have absolutely no qualms in saying, nay, screaming, that we in ALEXANDRE KANTOROW have a super talent, indeed someone destined for a world career that is now starting (….) Alexandre Kantorow is a genius, and we are going to record as much with him as he can give us“, I at least got curious.

Well, Robert wasn’t overpromising. This album is truly spectacular, and really is so far the only real challenger for Arkadi Volodos this year.

Alexandre Kantorow A La Russe BIS 2017 (24/96)

What do you get? Well, as the title indicates, Russian composers. A sonata by Rachmaninov, some lesser known pieces by Tchaikovsky, and Balakirev’s Islamey.

But to me the absolute highlight of this album is the piano transcriptions of parts of L’Oiseau du Feu (Firebird) by Igor Stravinsky. I’m not a big fan of Stravinsky in general, his music doesn’t speak to me that much.

But here, I cannot be but mesmerized by the mixture of extreme virtuosity and outstanding musicality.

This is a must have album.

My review: 5 stars

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