Category Archives: Seasonal Music

Easter is Coming Up Again: Time to Recommend A New Outstanding Matthew Passion Recording by John Eliot Gardiner

The Matthew Passion

I’ve previously written about the importance of the Matthew Passion here.

It is probably one of the most relevant works of Bach, which in turn makes it one of the most important works of the entire classical music.

If you want a good entry to understand what this is all about, check out this NPR “guided tour” through this masterpiece.

I’ve mentioned previously that I’m not religious at all, but that doesn’t take one bit of the attraction away, the emotions Bach has captured here really has universal appeal.

Bach: St. Matthew Passion – John Eliot Gardiner (SDG 2017)

My previous and still valid recommendation for the Matthew Passion remains John Butt’s outstanding recording of the 1742 version, with the Dunedin Consort. I’ve listed it in my 25 Essential Classical Music Albums.

But when the great John Eliot Gardiner decided to re-record this masterpiece nearly 30 years after his legendary DG Archiv version, I had to write about this.

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

Actually, I had heard it even before it was released, as I had the pleasure of seeing Gardiner with his Monteverdi Choir live at the KKL in Lucerne last spring. During this European tour this album was recorded (a bit later in 2016, at Pisa Cathedral).

I don’t know why I didn’t write about this concert before, as it was such an outstanding performance. Therefore, I’m extremely happy it was recorded.

I wasn’t always been with Gardiners recent recordings (see here and here), even his new recording of the b-minor mass left me a bit cold.

But this one is pure perfection again. Gramophone agrees and gives it a “Recording of the Month” for April. Germany’s Fono Forum is also on board, with 5 stars.

How does Gardiner compare against John Butt?

Well, actually there are more similarities than differences. Both are historically informed, both favor transparency over let’s say the power of a Karl Richter.

Both have excellent singers, both have an outstanding period ensemble. As mentioned above, Butt uses the more rarely heard 1742 version, but the differences are small.

Where Gardiner has the edge, is probably in even more increased transparency, in a way it sounds even more intimate. On the other hand, you get a bit more emotional power with the Dunedins in some of the choral scenes.

But here we’re talking very minor differences, it is very clear that Gardiner has recorded a reference version. Do yourself a favor and listen to it.

My rating: 5 stars

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

It’s Christmas Season again! – Musicophile’s Favorite Seasonal Music

Unfortunately, an infection has stopped me from progressing on some new reviews.

So in the meantime, allow me to remind you about the beautiful music I’ve written about that you can enjoy in this beautiful season.

I’m not religious at all, but Christmas time in Europe still is a special moment to all of us, and this music will always be intrinsically linked to the smells of gingerbread and the like.

The Nutcracker

Let’s start all the way East: with the Nutcracker, probably the most seasonal ballet by Tchaikovsky. My favorite version remains Abbado, but I’m currently listening to a recent version by Gergiev that I plan to review shortly.

Tchaikovsky The Nutcracker Simon Rattle Berliner Philharmoniker EMI Classics

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio

Let’s move on to the all time classic of the period: Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.

I have several favorite versions here, but have yet to check out the recent release of John Butt and the Dunedin Consort, which got good reviews.

Bach Christmas Oratorio John Eliot Gardiner Monteverdi Choir English Baroque Soloists DG Archiv 1987

Bach’s Christmas Cantatas

Bach also has written some lesser know cantatas for the Christmas period, that are very much worth checking out, particularly in this version.

Bach: In Tempore Nativitatis - Weihnachten Kantanten - Christmas Cantatas - Canates de Noël - Ricercar Consort Philippe Pierlot Mirare

Händel’s Messiah

Moving from Bach to Händel, the Messiah is the other BIG Christmas work that you really cannot be missing. I’ve been “lazy” and have recommended not only one, but three excellent versions in this previous post.

Handel: Messiah - Emannuelle Haïm Le Concert d'Astree Erato 24/96

Christmas Jazz

And finally, if you’re more into Jazz, there is my blog post on my five favorite Christmas Jazz albums.

Diana Krall Christmas Songs Verve

Wishing all of you a peaceful holiday period!

St. John Passion – Philippe Pierlot – Ricercar Consort

No, I haven’t disappeared

More than 2 weeks without a blog post. Shame on me. In my defense, I was first sick and then crazily busy at work. But this cannot go on!

I’ll get back to writing as of now, and still target at least two posts per week. So check back regularly, or even better, subscribe!

Good Friday

I’ve already written about the St Matthew Passion some weeks ago here.

In the meantime, I had the extreme pleasure of hearing this masterpiece live in Lucerne, and played by none less than the magnificent Monteverdi Choir lead by Gardiner! To be fair, I haven’t always been convinced by some of Gardiners latest releases (especially this one), but I still consider him an absolute legend for Bach.

And I wasn’t disappointed. I wanted to write a review of this concert, but Sarah Bartschelet  in her review on Backtrack  has already done such an excellent job, that I just have to add that while Mark Padmore as Evangelist was indeed sublime, an absolute highlight for me was the counter-tenor Reginald Mobley, and Michael Niesemann on the first oboe. Both received standing ovations from the more than usually enthusiastic Swiss audience.

St John Passion BWV245

The St John passion is often considered the “little brother” of the St Matthew Passion. I’d be hard pressed to say which one I prefer, both are absolute masterpieces.

In any case, why choose?

Philippe Pierlot – Ricercar Consort (Mirare 2011)

Again, there is no shortage of good versions available. I could have easily written about the Dunedin Consort again, Suzuki’s version is also fantastic, and Herreweghe again is reliable as usual.

However, let me write here about a different version which I particularly like. I first came across Philippe Pierlot in his beautiful album of the Bach Christmas cantatas (reviewed here).

Bach: St John Passion Philippe Pierrot Ricercar Consort Mirare 2011 24 88

What is special about this recording is the lightness of the playing and singing. Obviously, this is an extremely tragic subject (even if you’re not Christian), but Pierlot and his ensemble give us a very clean and balanced version. It is never too heavy or overloaded. Furthermore, the soloists all do an excellent job, particularly Matthias Vieweg as Jesus.

If you don’t speak German, I strongly recommend you follow the booklet to be able to follow the story. It is really amazing how Bach was able to match the atmosphere of every single moment of this tragic story of treason and suffering.

This recording was shortlisted for Gramophone’s Baroque Vocal album of the year.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz) or here (Prestoclassical)

 

Easter Time Is Coming Up Soon – And With It The Magnificent Matthew Passion

Seasonal Music For Easter

Easter time is coming. At least over here in Europe, that means most shops fill up with chocolate eggs and bunnies. Nothing wrong with that.

But while I’m not religious, there are two pieces of music that are intrinsically linked for me to this time of the year. Both essentially tell the same story, the well-known biblical story of the last days of Jesus Christ as accounted for in the gospels of John and Matthew respectively.

At yes, this will be yet another blog post about Bach. Sorry for this, but he put both of these accounts into such beautiful music that it really doesn’t matter what religion you follow (or if at all), both of these works, the BWVs 245 and 244, respectively the Johannes-Passion and Matthäus-Passion, are among the most outstanding musical works ever written.

I’ll write about the St John Passion later, it is the possibly slightly less well-known of the two.

St Matthew Passion BWV244

But let me start with the St Matthew Passion, for the simple reason that I just spent a lot of money on a concert ticket. I’ll have the pleasure in a couple of weeks to see John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir live playing this masterpiece.

I highly encourage you to seek this concert out if you live in Europe, they are touring several countries starting with Valencia, Spain. I can guarantee this to be an outstanding concert experience by one of the greatest Bach interpreters and choirs ever. Check out the tour dates here. It also includes the great Mark Padmore as Evangelist.

I’ll be certainly writing about this concert experience here.

This work is also of historical importance, as its revival in the 19th century by Mendelssohn triggered also a much more general appreciation of Bach as the musical genius he truly was.

St Matthew’s Passion – John Butt – Dunedin Consort

Let me talk about another outstanding Bach interpreter here. I’ve written about John Butt and the Dunedin Consort several times already, regarding the Mozart Requiem, Händel’s Messiah, and more recently on the Brandenburg concertos.

If you believe Gramophone Magazine, he rarely misses a recording, having received a number of Gramophone Editor’s choices and Awards. Obviously, one needs to be a bit careful as Gramophone often suffers from a certain anglophilia in their reviews, and local artists more often than not get rather favorable reviews.

However, in this particular case, I fully concur with Gramophone’s opinion, whatever John Butt and his Dunedin Consort touch is usually worth checking out. Furthermore, being recorded on the Linn label (of legendary turntable fame), these recordings are what is often to referred as audiophile.

Matthew Passion Dunedin Consort John Butt Linnrecords 24 88

A word of advice, even if the story may be familiar to you if you are Christian, take the booklet and follow the lyrics (even better if you speak German obviously). It is just outstanding how much Bach’s music reflects the feeling of what is going on at any time of the 2h18, and really helps absorbing this masterpiece better.

This is particularly true in the very last Chorus Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder (we sit down in tears). If this track doesn’t touch your emotions, I don’t know what does.

The Dunedin’s version brings an astounding amount of clarity to the reading. This doesn’t mean it is lightweight, but it is played with beautiful transparency. Nicely enough, although none of the singers are German, their pronunciation of the text is exceptional.

 

Now is John Butt’s version the one and only to have for Matthew? Certainly not. There are other great versions out there that are worth checking out, from Gardiner’s and Herreweghe’s classic accounts in the late 1980s, via Kuijken and Suzuki, to the recent controversial but thought-provoking René Jacobs reading.

And although you’ll have noticed that I’m a big fan of historically informed practice, the legendary version of Karajan, with Gundola Janowitz, Christa Ludwig, Peter Schreier and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is worth checking out for the beautiful singing (although the tempi are really too slow for my ears with Kommt Ihr Töchter taking a full 9:21 vs. 6:38 with the Dunedins).

But overall the Dunedin version is an excellent starting point for exploring this masterpiece.

 

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Linn Records) or here (Prestoclassical)

Merry Christmas With 3x the Messiah!

The Messiah

Given the season, I’ve been quite busy writing about Christmas and Seasonal music recently. You will find my musings about the Christmas Oratorio, Bach’s Christmas Cantatas, the Nutcracker, and even my favorite Christmas Jazz albums.

However, one major piece is certainly missing from the list above, and potentially the most famous of all, Georg Friedrich Händel’s Messiah. I guess even most non classical listeners will be able to recognize the famous “Hallelujah” from his best-know oratorio.

I’ve previously written about some other beautiful vocal music of Händel, as well as started writing about his operas (see my post about Rinaldo here) which I like very much. I’ve so far avoided writing about the Messiah, not because I don’t like it, but I just didn’t get to it yet.

To be fair, the Messiah is not properly speaking Christmas music, although the entire first part focuses on the prophecies of the birth of the Messiah, but it is often enough played in this season, so I include it here.

There are about a gazillion recording of this piece, not surprisingly, starting from early ones like the famous Otto Klemperer version, to luckily (to my ears) many contemporary versions influenced by the Historically Informed Practice (HIP).

All the versions I recommend below are HIP, if you prefer big-scale, traditional playing, the Klemperer recording is not a bad place to start.

My Three Favorite Versions

My three favorite versions date from last three decades. The earliest from the early 90s, the middle one from the mid-2000’s, and the latest one is barely a year old at the time of writing (2015).

William Christie, Les Arts Florissants (Harmonia Mundi 1994)

William Christie is one of the greatest baroque conductors ever (see also his beautiful recent album Music for Queen Caroline, reviewed here).

His 1994 recording of the Messiah was my first ever version which I bought shortly after it came out, and I turned out to be very lucky as this remains a great version to this day.

Some great singers (e.g. Mark Padmore, Sandrine Piau), and the ever beautiful playing of the great French ensemble Les Arts Florissants, make this, 20 years later, still a very nice recording.

Handel: Messiah - Les Arts Florissants - William Christie Harmonia Mundi

 

John Butt, Dunedin Consort (Linn Records 2007)

Pretty much every recording of the Dunedin Consort under John Butt is worth having. They have a clear fanclub at Gramophone, but while I sometimes disagree with the UK-artist hyping of this British magazine, for the Dunedin Consort I share their excitement.

This recording is probably the most polished of the three, with beautiful acoustics, sometimes a bit more moderate tempos, but a lot of insights and beauty. Wholeheartedly recommended.

Handel: Messiah - Dunedin Consort & Players John Butt Linn Records

Emmanuelle Haïm, Le Concert D’Astrée (Erato/Warner Classics 2014)

The second French recording in my list (William Christie, in spite of his American origins, has worked most of his life in France). I haven’t written about Emmanuelle Haïm yet on this blog, which is a big mistake. I’m a huge fan of hers, and what she does with her Concert d’Astrée is nearly always worth checking out (note that I’ve previously praised the Concert d’Astrée’s version of Mozart’s c-minor mass, but under a different conductor).

This is the most recent recording of the Messiah that I own (2014), and it quickly became my favorite. Why? Well, most of all it is the orchestral playing which has a beautiful “swing” to it. While this is obviously a festive work, baroque music is often based on or inspired by dance music, and this is probably the version of the three that gets closest to that ideal. Love it!

Handel: Messiah - Emannuelle Haïm Le Concert d'Astree Erato 24/96

My ratings: 4 stars (Christie & Butt), 5 stars (Haïm)

You can find the Christie here (Prestoclassical), the Dunedin here (Linn), and the Haïm here (Qobuz).

Merry Christmas!

I wish all of you a relaxing year end break, Merry Christmas if you celebrate it, and all the best! This is most likely my last post of the year, check back in in 2016! It’s been great fun sharing all this beautiful music with you, and getting all the feedback from you! Thanks for taking this journey with me!

 

In Tempore Nativitatis – Bach’s Christmas Cantatas by Philippe Pierlot

Christmas Music

Finding tasteful Christmas music is not always an easy task.

Obviously, not everything is as bad as this:

or this:

But nevertheless, there is still a lot of tasteless stuff around. I’ve tried to point to some of my sources for tasteful Christmas music, the timeless Christmas Oratorio, the Nutcracker, and my favorite Christmas Jazz albums previously, but luckily good old Johann Sebastian has also written more than the Christmas Oratorio.

Bach’s Christmas Cantatas

The Christmas Oratorio itself is basically a collection of cantatas, and as part of his large collection of cantatas (that I yet need to write about in more detail), he’s also written several cantatas for specific seasons.

Typically, there are three cantatas closely associated with Christmas.

BWV 63, Christen, ätzet diesen Ta(Christians, engrave this day), was written in 1713 for the first day of Christmas, referring to the announcement of Christ. In character, it is very festive, but not necessarily very “christmassy”.

BWV 110, Unser Mund sei voll Lachens (May our mouth be full of laughter), is my favorite of the three. This is partially due to the fact that its opening is based on Bach’s Orchestral Suite BWV 1069, which I really love. And here, the addition of the choir really gives it a fully new structure and beauty. Again, this cantata was written for the first day of Christmas, in 1725, while Bach was working in Leipzig.

BWV 151, Süßer Trost, mein Jesus kömmt (Sweet comfort, my Jesus comes), was also written in 1725, for St. John’s day, the third day of Christmas, is the most intimate of the three cantatas, but doesn’t lack any beauty nevertheless. Just check out the beautiful flute solo in the first movement.

There is obviously no shortage of recordings of Bach cantatas, there is a sizable number of complete recordings out there. My personal favorites usually are Koopman and Gardiner, but Suzuki’s and Rilling also are very nice alternatives.

In Tempore Nativitatis – Christmas Cantatas – Philippe Pierrot – Ricercar Consort (Mirare 2013)

Bach: In Tempore Nativitatis - Weihnachten Kantanten - Christmas Cantatas - Canates de Noël - Ricercar Consort Philippe Pierlot Mirare

The Ricercar Consort is a Belgian ensemble lead by Philippe Pierlot. The musicians play with a lot of love for the music, and generate a very transparent and spacious sound.

The voices are also very beautiful. My favorite is Maria Keohane in Süsser Trost, but also really like Julien Prégardien, son of Christoph, here as well

If you want to go for a complete collection of cantatas, you may well go directly to Koopman and Gardiner, but if you are looking for a modern, beautifully recorded version of the Christmas cantatas specifically, you really cannot go wrong with this album.

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz) or here (Prestoclassical)

The Nutcracker – Or Why I Sometimes Do Like Tchaikovsky

The Nutcracker

In my previous post on Tchaikovsky’s symphony no. 5 I’ve stated that I don’t like Tchaikovsky very much. However, I must admit he really did some magical (and not in the Disney sense of the word) melodies in his ballets.

Western Christmas traditions now include regular performances of the Nutcracker. The story was originally a German fairy tale of a prince turned into a nutcracker, by E.T.A Hoffmann, later adapted by Alexandre Dumas. Tchaikovsky conducted the premiere in 1892, and both the ballet and the “best-of” excerpt, the suites, are these days among the most famous of his works.

Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker – Simon Rattle – Berliner Philharmoniker  (EMI Classics 2010)

Tchaikovsky The Nutcracker Simon Rattle Berliner Philharmoniker EMI Classics

My first version was the legendary one by André Previn with the London Symphony Orchestra (also on EMI). That version is still very nice, so I didn’t look for a new recording for years (I basically listen to this work literally once or twice per year, usually some time in December).

However, two  years ago I heard about this relatively new (2010) recording by Rattle on the radio, and I checked it out and I really liked it. Beautiful orchestral colors by the great BPO, and most importantly all the energy that this music really needs (I’m anything but a dancer, but this music makes me want to get up from my sofa and move to it).

You’ll find some excerpts of the recording here, with a nice interview with Sir Simon Rattle and some BPO musicians:

 

Note that some people say that Russian music can only be played well by Russian conductors, and indeed Gergiev did a great job on his Decca recording with the Kirov orchestra from the 1990s.

But still, Rattle did such a fine version that I doubt I’ll ever buy another Nutcracker again (well, never say never).

My rating: 5 stars

You can buy the CD here, I haven’t found a decent lossless download source.