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: Daniel 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.

 

To be contiued….

 

 

Quatuor Ebène Plays Mozart & Beethoven – Tonhalle Zürich – June 11, 2017 – A Review

Quatuor Ebène

About a year ago I wrote about Quatuor Ebènes outstanding Schubert recording with Gautier Capuçon. For me, it was the album that should have won the Gramphone awards in 2016 in their category.

My first encounter with this young French quartet was even before that, with their excellent recordings of quartets by Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn.

They really are among the best string quartets out there in 2017, and this is not for a lack of competition.

So I was very pleased when I saw that they’d be coming to Zurich on a day where I’d be close by, yesterday, June 11, 2017

Tonhalle Zürich

A quick word about the Tonhalle Zürich. I’m actually not such a great fan of that venue (Luzern’s modern KKL is much nicer for my taste), but that said, both the big and small concert hall are have their end of 19th century luxury baroque style, and the 1930s incorporation of the old concert halls into the Zurich congress center is an interesting contrast of style.

Quatuor Ebene Tonhalle
Detail of Tonhalle Zürich Lobby

 

Between the two halls, I quite prefer the smaller one use for chamber music. I’ve had a number of fantastic concerts in here, including the great Quatuor Mosaiques with Haydn.

As a side note, the Tonhalle and the Kongresshaus will be renovated soon, and Zurich is currently preparing the Maag Music Hall in Zurich’s industrial “Kreis 5”, far away from the fancy shores of Lake Zurich, where the Tonhalle is a direct neighbor to the posh Hotel Baur Au Lac, to a completely different environment.

Maag Music Hall
Maag Music Hall back in January 2017

 

Quatuor Ebène at Tonhalle Zürich, June 11, 2017

But back to the good old Tonhalle.

Quatuor Ebène, dressed in black,  as the name (ebony) implies, started with Mozart.

Quatuor Ebène at Tonhalle Kleiner Saal Jun 11, 2017
Quatuor Ebène

But not with your Kleine Nachtmusik “Happy Mozart”, but with a romantic Sturm and Drang Mozart, the Mozart of Don Giovanni, sharing the same key, d-minor, somehow transporting Mozart directly into the 19th century. There is a lot of chiaroscuro, changing from shadows to the light in this work.

They have recorded this on their 2011 Mozart album, but this live interpretation went beyond what they recorded, there was an enormous passion in the room.

The move to Beethoven felt like a logical next step, with a very intimate connection to the Mozart.

They started with the latest of the “middle quartets”, op. 95, also known as Quartetto Serioso. Unlike some other nicknames like e.g. Moonshine, it appears that this name is genuinely by Beethoven.

It is not the most accessible of the middle quartets, it’s “seriousness” making it one of the most drastic works he’s ever written. This work mentally belongs much more to the late quartets.

Quatuor Ebene put all their energy into this and played as if their lives depended on it. The passion was tangible in the room.

After the break we returned to get the opus magnum of the evening. Just one number later in the list of Beethoven’s string quartets, no. 12 to be precise, op. 127. This work not only has the length of a symphony (and I’m talking Beethoven symphony), but also the power. Who would have thought that only 4 strings can fill a room with so much power?

But there wasn’t only power. The more than 16 minutes long Adagio was all subtleness, which transported the audience out of this world for the moment.

After the final movement, the Swiss audience simply didn’t want to stop clapping, clearly expecting an encore.

At the end, the four musicians came back out, without their instruments this time, explaining in a very friendly way that they felt that after such a work as op. 127, which they compared to the chamber equivalent of Beethoven’s Ode To Joy, there simply wasn’t any music they could play that wouldn’t be out of place.

I couldn’t have said it better.

What a concert. Magnificent

 

Sarah McKenzie Live in Berlin – May 5, 2017

Better late than never

This will be a post about all the things I’ve recently been late at.

Well not all the things, but at least two of them. One is recognizing the 2nd anniversary of my blog!

On May 22, 2015, I’ve published my first post here. We’re now a bit more than two years and 194 posts later, and I’m still doing it.

And really, what keeps me motivated doing this, beyond my passion for good music, is your feedback. I’ve heard from so many of you individually, so many encouraging comments, and appreciative notes, I just have to say a big THANK YOU!

The second thing I’m really late at is a review of the concert of Sarah McKenzie I saw about a month ago now.

Sarah McKenzie Live at Passionskirche Berlin

I’ve written about her three times already (here, here, and here) and I remain a great fan of this young Australian singer. So when I had the opportunity to see her live in Berlin, I grabbed it.

And I’m very glad I did. My review of her last album was a bit mixed. There was nothing wrong with the music per se, I just felt the album was a bit overproduced, a bit sterile.

Obviously, live you get a completely different experience.

Let me get the negative points out of the way first.

  • Never do a Jazz concert in a church

The Passionskirche in Kreuzberg is a beautiful building and room, but why on earth somebody would want to do a Jazz concert in there really is beyond me. The acoustics are really bad, and the long reverb half killed the excellent swing of the band. Well at least, for the first time in my life I had a beer (they sold drinks before the concert) in a church. An interesting experience.

  • No pictures please

Unfortunately, the organizers didn’t want me to take any pictures, although I had brought my little Fuji X100T. That’s really a pity, as I believe a concert report with some pictures of the event is much more interesting for the reader. So sorry guys, text only.

But as of now starts the positive part: It really was a fantastic concert.

Her band was as good as ever, and we got a really great mix of standards and her own compositions. So the program switched between the good old classics of  I’m old fashioned to her new Paris in the Rain. 

What were my highlights? Well, as always, Moon River, in a duet with guitar only. Pierre Boussaguet on bass, who managed to even improvise a Bach Cello Suite into his bass solo. A blues, where the entire band was just swinging like crazy.

And, maybe my personal favorite, Sarah has now added You Must Believe In Spring to her repertoire. I´ve written here how much I love this Michel Legrand Song that was made famous in the Jazz world by Bill Evans. It was fantastic hearing her perform this gem.

In a nutshell: Sarah Mckenzie is still on tour, including her very first time at the legendary Montreux Jazz festival in July. Here are her tour dates, make sure you check her out when you can, she is just amazing!

 

First time at the Elbphilharmonie – finally! Xavier de Maistre’s Harp fireworks with William Christie

The Hamburg Elbphilharmonie

Hamburg’s latest addition to the number of beautiful classical venues, the Elbphilharmonie concert hall overlooking the harbor, is a true masterpiece by Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron. Completed several years after plan and hugely over budget, most of Hamburg’s population has already forgiven all the bad planning (and their tax euros gone) seeing this beauty finally come alive.

I was lucky enough to buy tickets more than 6 months ago, because since the official opening tickets are basically only available through the black market. Huge media coverage including the New York Times didn’t really help. Well, at least we now have a classical venue that is most likely sold out for years, many other places would be happy to have such a problem, with ageing population and less people interested in classical music.

DSCF5302 Weihnachten 2016
The Elbphilharmonie Plaza

I had been to what is called the “Plaza” (see above), basically the publicly accessible space between the only brick harbor warehouse and the  new steel and glass construction on top, which houses not only the concert hall, but also a hotel, several restaurants, and even some private apartments. If you’re in Hamburg, check it out, the views and the architecture are spectacular. It is located within the fully new part of town call Hafencity, which on its own is already worth a visit.

This time, last Sunday, was my first time in the actual large hall. I had heard wonders about the supposedly fabulous acoustics and had seen pictures from the inside. But actually being in there is just amazing.

I’ve previously been to other beautiful concert halls, like the Berlin Philharmonie that inspired this new layout of the audience sitting all around the orchestra, the KKL in Lucerne, or the Disney Concert hall in LA, but this beats them all.

Elbphilharmonie interior Grosser Saal (c) 2017 Musicophile
Inside the Elbphilharmonie: Grosser Saal

The only issue I have withthis venue is that most walls  look like they’ve been covered in egg cartons. And actually, they kind of are, an acoustic measure to optimize the sound experience.

William Christie – Les Arts Florissants – Xavier de Maistre 

I went to see a rather atypical ensemble for this hall: William Christie’s Baroque Ensemble Les Arts Florissants. This great period ensemble is well known for their baroque performances, I had seen them once before at the Barbican Hall (a much less beautiful venue) in London in a great performance of Purcell’s Didon and Aeneas.

Xavier de Maistre, William Christie, Les Arts Florissants Elbphilharmonie March 26, 2017 (c) Musicophile
Xavier de Maistre, William Christie, and Les Arts Florissants at Elbphilharmonie

Here they went into a repertoire a little bit later than their typical fare, as they were playing Harp concertos from the time of Marie-Antoinette, as in their recently released album.

So we got exposed to some lesser known composers such as Johann Baptist Krumpholz and Johann David Hermann (the literature for harp concertos isn’t very large).

The concert opened with a lively played Kleine Nachtmusik (Little Night Music), one of the most well known Mozart pieces. It is not my favorite and I had never heard it play live, but it was a refreshing opener.

Krumpholz concerto wasn’t really my cup of tea, so I spent the 2nd half of the part before the break admiring the beautiful venue.

After the break and a glass of Cremant de Loire, Christie started with Haydn.  And to answer my own question: no you don’t have to be Italian to conduct Haydn, being an American living in France will do just well. The performance of symphony no. 85, La Reine, was impressive, and made the small ensemble sound at times nearly like a full Beethoven orchestra.

And then things were wrapped up with de Maistre back on stage and Herman’s harp concerto, a much more convincing piece to my ears than Krumpholz.

All in all, a hugely enjoyable evening. If you’re lucky enough to get your hands on Elbphilharmonie tickets, go for it!

GoGo Penguin Live At Moods, Zürich – May 8, 2016 – A Review

Jazz has a problem. An age problem. I go to many Jazz concerts, and unfortunately, the typical spectator at such a concert is male, middle-aged at least, and grey haired.

I guess the times of Jazz being the music of the cool kids is over since the 1960’s, and overall this genre has been niched too much as intellectual, and has very little presence in the mainstream media and the public mind. Women and younger people are often clear minorities at this kind of concert.

Therefore I was very happy to see that I was able to attend a Jazz concert where not only the musicians where all in their early thirties, but the average age of the audience must have been not more than 25! Also both genders were pretty much equally represented. A very refreshing sight.

So who was able to pull these younger crowds into Moods, the best Jazz club in Zurich?

GoGo Penguin Live At Moods

Well, obviously we’re talking about GoGo Penguin. I’ve already praised their recent release Man Made Object previously, and was very happy to have such a musically rewarding weekend after seeing Michael Wollny’s trio just the day before.

So, how did it go?

Well, first of all, I was impressed. The trio sound of GoGo Penguin is very much influenced by Electronica, so I imagined a fair share of  Logic Pro or Ableton computer wizardry going on on the album.

Well, I obviously was mistaken. While they had their sound engineer with them, and I saw a Macbook connected to the mixing console, the ludicrous speed you here on their albums is nothing but exactly the same what they are pulling off live!

GoGo Pengui Live At Moods May 8 2016 1

Bassist Nick Blacka pictured above was just impressive. Although I was sitting in the first row, I could sometimes barely follow his fingers, they were that fast. And he made generous use of the bow, which is always a nice change.

GoGo Pengui Live At Moods May 8 2016 2

Chris Illingworth on piano sounded at times like a reborn Esbjörn Svensson, but this is probably one of the best compliments you can make to any Jazz pianist.

The real hero of the evening however was Rob Turner on drums.

GoGo Pengui LIve At Moods May 8 2016

The way he kept the beats of amazing syncopating complexity and even crazier speeds was just breathtaking. His pulsating bass drum was of drum machine precision, and was one of the key factors why this evening was so absorbing musically.

Obviously, this is not very traditional Jazz. There was some improvisation, but the music lived much more of the groove and in many moments sounded way more like Drum-and-Bass than Dave Brubeck.

But this is really what we need. Miles Davis famously said “It’s not about standing still and becoming safe. If anybody wants to keep creating they have to be about change.

EST really gets the credit for having started to modernize the Jazz trio. But here we truly have a worthy successor!

This is the kind of change I’d love to see more of!

Check out their concert schedule and if they come anywhere near you, you just have to go!

P.S. To close, some impressions of the Schiffbau buildin, where Moods is located, a former ship yard and industrial site, beautifully converted into a complex for theater, dining, and Jazz. Worth checking out if you’re ever in Zurich

 

All pictures (c) Musicophilesblog 2016

Michael Wollny Trio Live at Kaserne Basel – May 7, 2016 – A Review

Michael Wollny

I already wrote Wollny twice. Most recently about his most recent release, Nachtfahrten, which I really liked, and I have one of his live albums in my list of the 25 Essential Jazz Albums.

He is probably one of the most creative jazz pianists out there these days. Unfortunately, in spite of being extremely popular in his home country, he’s still not as well known in the rest of the world. I really hope this will change.

A Jazz Piano Trio Concert Weekend

I hadn’t really planned on being in Switzerland this weekend, but in the end, concert-wise, it turned out rather a great place to be. I had the extreme pleasure of seeing Michael Wollny’s Trio Live yesterday in Basel, and will be seeing GoGo Penguin live tonight in Zurich (see my review of their latest album here).

Michael Wollny Trio Live At Jazz Festival Basel, July 7, 2016 – Nachtfahrten

I must admit, I initially had some hesitations about a live concert of his most recent album Nachtfahrten. Although I liked it a lot, it is an overall rather quiet, nocturnal album, and I wasn’t sure if this is music that would be well adapted to a live concert.

I shouldn’t have worried. While he played several songs of Nachtfahrten, only the title track, which he played as a great encore, was as slow and meditative as the album.

During pretty much the entire rest of the concert, the trio was truly on fire. Wollny was in great shape, you could really see how physical this was for him (I was lucky to be all the way up front in third row, so had an excellent view). This is a musician that truly lives his music.

Michael Wollny Trio Christian Weber Eric Schaefer Live At Kaserne Basel July 07 2016

A special compliment needs to go to Eric Schäfer on drums. He put so much energy into his solos, that at some point a piece of his drum kit got catapulted into the audience. And the way he kept the groove really was essential to the spellbinding atmosphere of this concert.

Michael Wollny Trio Christian Weber Eric Schaefer Live At Kaserne Basel July 07 2016

Christian Weber, the local Swiss addition to the trio, was in great shape as well. The interplay between him and Wollny was just outstanding.

Michael Wollny Trio Christian Weber Eric Schaefer Live At Kaserne Basel July 07 2016

The trio also played several songs from the previous album, Weltentraum. Actually, the concert was special in a way that the trio didn’t only play individual songs, but actually one song merged into an improvisation seamlessly blending over into the next song. The audience barely got any occasion to clap (so when they did, the applause was over enthusiastic).

Michael Wollny Trio Christian Weber Eric Schaefer Live At Kaserne Basel July 07 2016

If you ever get the possibility to see these amazing artists live, don’t miss it. His Weltentraum Live Album gives you a good idea what to expect.

Luckily, this concert got recorded by Swiss radio (to be played somewhere in summer), so I hopefully will be able to relive this great experience again. And maybe this even makes it into an album. Fingers crossed.

 

Bänz Öster & The Rainmakers Live in Willisau – Ukuzinikela

Live Concerts

Last year I clearly haven’t been attending enough live concerts. I have the clear intention of changing this for 2016.

During a recent trip to Hamburg, a friend of mine took me to see a Jazz artist I must admit I hadn’t heard of before, the Swiss bass player Bänz Öster, at the relatively recently established Cascadas Jazz Club in downtown Hamburg.

I had checked out a quick Youtube excerpt of this artist, but was pretty unsure to what I would be expecting. Well, I was very positively surprised.

Bänz Öster and The Rainmakers

Let me write first of all about the other three musicians. Obviously, Jazz is these days a rather international affair, but this was truly an interesting mixture. We had Ganesh Geymeyer on saxophone. He is Swiss as well, but coming from the French speaking part around Lake Geneva.

And then we go to a completely different continent, that at least in my mind wasn’t strongly linked to Jazz, Africa. I was obviously proven wrong. We had a great drum experience from Ayanda Sikade. But the true hero of the evening for me was Afrika Mkhize on piano. This really encouraged me to find out more about the South African Jazz scene.

So what did we get from this quartet? Exciting, interesting and melodic Jazz that often reminded me of Coltrane’s quartet recordings in his best days, but didn’t rely on standards, during the concerts we mostly got recent compositions, many of them written by the musicians themselves.

After such a great evening, I obviously had to immediately buy their new CD which was just released and was available at the concert.

Bänz Öster & The Rainmakers Live in Willisau – Ukuzinikela (Enja 2016)

Bänz Öster & The Rainmakers Live In Willis Ukuzinikela Afrika Mkhize Ganesh Geymeier Amanda Sikade Enja 2016

This live album, in spite of having quite a different track list than the live concert I saw in Hamburg (it was released just now, but already recorded in 2014), truly replicates the pleasure I had listening to these four musicians.

As this is a live concert, the musicians really take their time, the tracks are often more than 10 minutes giving ample solo time. My favorite track of this album is Hungersnot (famine), which after a long two minute intro where Bänz and Geymeyer play unisono, turns into a fascinating groove, thanks especially due to the miracles that Mkhize does on the piano. I’ve said it before, I’m a big fan of him now, he has amazing technical capabilities (the speed is incredible), but he doesn’t have to overdo it, it just flows naturally.

Overall, a live album that is absolutely worth discovering!

Here is a kind of “making of” video for the album:

 

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)