My reflections on the 2019 Gramophone Awards Part II – Orchestral

This is part II of my mini-series on the 2019 Gramophone awards. I need to hurry up with my posts, as the winners will be revealed early October. You’ll find part I (concerto) here.

Orchestral

This is another section where I normally feel very much at home with.

That said, this year this comment will be quite a bit shorter as there is only one selected album that I can actually comment on.

Let me quickly start by skimming over the recordings that Gramophone selected that I won’t be writing about, as I don’t feel qualified enough or don’t know them:

The recommendations start with a box of Bernstein orchestral works played by Antonio Pappano with his Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. As much as I appreciate this conductor, I really can’t comment here as Bernstein really isn’t my cup of tea (both as a composer and conductor with few exceptions).

Bernstein the 3 symphonies Antonio Pappano

The next one is an album I should be going back to more in-depth for a review, orchestral works by Debussy played by François-Xavier Roth with his Les Siècles. As I mentioned here, I like the conductor quite a bit, and I had a very good impression when I briefly checked this album out when it was released, but then left it for quite a while given that Debussy isn’t my core repertoire (I mentioned before that the 20th century isn’t my favourite).

Debussy Jeux Nocturnes Francois Xavier Roth Les Siècles Harmonia Mundi 2019

Talking about the 20th century, the next album is also from this era, as it is Langgaard’s 2nd and 6th symphony by Sakari Oramo and the Vienna Philharmonic. I must admit I had skipped this so far, but I’m streaming it right now as I write this and will have to have a closer look, as I like what I hear. So I recommend checking it out as well.

Rued Langgaard Symphonies 2 & 6 Vienna Philharmonic Sakari Oramo Anu Komst Dacapo 2019

The next one is Ivan Fischer’s Mahler 7. Fischer’s Mahler recordings are often love it or hate it affairs (see my article here on his 9th). Personally, I like his 1st and 4th symphony recordings, even if they are a bit “middle of the road”, but his approach to the 7th doesn’t blow me away. I’d rather stick with Klemperer on this one, but don’t consider this a formal review, as I’m really no expert on the later Mahler symphonies.

Mahler symphony no. 7 Budapest Festival Orchestra Ivan Fischer Channel Classics 2019

The final album of the list is Stenhammar’s 2nd symphony with Herbert Blomstedt and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra. I have a huge respect for Herbert Blomstedt, but Stenhammar’s work is again really not my cup of tea. Another 20th century composition (there seems to be a pattern in this years Concerto awards category), so don’t expect me to comment here.

Stenhammar Symphony no. 2 serenade Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra Herbert Blomstedt BIS 2019

OK, so after this long rambling section talking about stuff I really don’t know much about, let me write about the only album from this list that I actually have listened to several times.

Given the pattern of the other nominated recordings it had to be either late 19th century or 20th century. This selection fits, as we’re talking about Sibelius 1st symphony, composed in 1899.

Sibelius Symphony No. 1 En Saga Gothenburg Symphony Santtu-Matias Rouvali Alpha 2019

I’ve mentioned in my review of Sibelius’ violin concerto, I still struggle really getting into Sibelius symphonic works. So this album, by young Finnish conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali, was an eye-opener for me. Similar to Petrenko’s recording of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique, this recording really made me more interested in Sibelius. I hope he’ll record more.

Congrats to the Gothenburg Symphony for being featured twice in this selection.

As usual, I’d love to hear what you think. Any feedback, any different opinions on the presented works?

Update Sep 19: I just noticed that in the October issue of Gramophone only 3 albums remain shortlisted: the Bernstein, the Langgaard, and the Stenhammar. My personal preference among these three would go to the Langgaard.

Update Sep 26: As I mentioned above, Mahler reviews are even more inconsistent than others. The French magazine Classica, who when in doubt I often agree with more than with Gramophone, gives the latest Fischer Mahler 7 only 3 stars, which is much closer to my opinion.

My reflections on the 2019 Gramphone Awards – Part I – Concerto

The Gramophone Awards

Every year I tend to comment on the Gramophone awards nominees, you’ll find some examples here (2015), here (2016) and here (2017).

In late 2018 I was unfortunately too busy at work to get into this, but I hope I can get back on track this year.

Obviously, I’ll only be able to comment on albums that I’ve actually listened to, or ideally reviewed myself. Therefore, some categories will be less represented here.

The Gramophone awards are probably the most relevant and most highly regarded price in the classical music world, so it is always interesting to see what Gramophone comes up with, even if I don’t always agree.

You’ll find the published list of the 2019 nominees here.

Concerto

You’ve probably noticed that the “concerto” category is among my favorites.

Not suprisingly, I had already reviewed several of the nominees.

Bach – The Violin Concertos – Isabelle Faust

Johann Sebastian Bach: Violin Concertos Sinfonias Overture Sonatas Isabelle Faust Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin Bernhard Forck, Xenia Loeffler Harmonia Mundi 2019

I mean, what can I say, I’ve heard her play these live, I’ve given the album a very clear 5 star review, and anyhow I’m a self-declared Isabelle Faust fanboy. So absolutely, this is fantastic. And unlike the Trifonov below, I believe there is pretty much general consensus among reviewers that this is a great performance.

Rachmaninov – Piano Concertos 2 & 4 – Trifonov – Nézet-Séguin

Daniil Trifonov Yannick Nézet-Séguin The Philadelphia Orchestra Destination Rachmaninov - Departure Deutsche Grammophon 2018 24/96

This one is more tricky. I already predicted in my 5 star review before any of the professional reviews came out that this would be a love it or hate it affair. Turns out both professional reviewers and a lot of people who commented on my blog really don’t agree. So, while I love it, this is one of those albums I strongly suggest you check out before you buy. To me nevertheless is is one of my favorite performances of the work.

Saint-Saëns: Piano concertos 2 & 5 – Chamayou – Krivine

Saint Saens Concertos 2& 5 solo piano works Bertrand Chamayou Orchestre National de France Emmanuel Krivine Erato 2019 24 96

Here’s another album where I agree with Gramophone, the reason why my rating in my review was only four stars is because I didn’t rate Saint-Saëns highly enough from a repertoire perspective. But the playing is fantastic.

So, overall, good alignment between my reviews and Gramophone’s recommendations.

The category contains three other albums that I haven’t yet heard.

Leila Josefowicz playing John Adams violin concerto. I must admit I’m not familiar enough with Adams’ work to allow any proper review. As mentioned several times, I’m typically not very comfortable with 20th century music. But I may give this a try.

Kirill Gerstein playing Busoni’s piano concerto, with Sakari Oramo, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. This is an album that I’m really intrigued by as I recently discovered my interest in Busoni, but it isnt’ available for streaming, and I’m really hesitant these days to buy an album blindly.

MIchael Collins playing Crusell’s Clarinet concerto. Who’s Crusell I presume you’re going to ask. I must admit I don’t have the faintest idea. Apparently a Finnish composer. I may give this one a try just out of curiosity.

To wrap up, who do I predict will win this year? My bet is on Isabelle Faust. This is truly a reference version of the Bach concertos, and so it would be really deserved. The only thing that could stop her is that she already won the recording of the year in the 2017 Gramphone awards. Not sure if this may influence the jury. Let’s see in some weeks.

UPDATE Sep 19: I just noticed that in the October issue of Gramophone, only 3 albums remain shortlisted. Specifically the Adams, Busoni, and Saint-Saëns recordings. So Faust is apparently already out. I hope Chamayou wins, he deserves it.

Note you’ll find part II (orchestral) of this mini-series here.

Miles Davis’ Rubberband – An Album That Better Should Have Stayed Unpublished

Thank you again for all your feedback

I get a lot of comments, both on the site itself and via direct message. And I truly appreciate every single element of feedback. It is what keeps me going now 5 years in a row.

Recently you told me you’d like more reviews of Jazz albums, and also encouraged me to write more critical reviews. I often tend to shy away from them, as my reviews clearly are very subjective opinions, and I really don’t like to critisize great musicians just because I don’t like some of their albums.

That said, the next musician won’t mind, a) he’s passed away a long time ago, and b) he’s one of the most brilliant musicians ever and nothing I’ll write here will take anything away from this

Miles Davis – Rubberband (Warner 2019)

This is a negative review that is more of a warning. Stay away from this zombie at all cost.

In the 1980s, Miles Davis had finally left his long term label Columbia to sign up with Warner. He then started recording some tracks. For several reasons, these tracks were never fully finished, and ended up in a drawer somewhere.

Now, somebody decided, let’s take these tracks, complete what Miles didn’t complete, and let’s see if we can still milk the Miles Davis brand.

First of all, people think of Miles Davis as a Jazz musician. Let’s be clear, in the 1980s had moved on, to a style much more influenced by funk and pop. Nothing wrong with this, it’s not really my cup of tea, but Tutu an album that was recorded shortly after this, is a modern classic. It will never get a lot of playtime on my system, but I understand why some people like it.

Rubberband really never should have been published in my opinion. Without Davis’ trademark horn popping up every once in a while, it would have just been a very bland synthetic late funk / 80s pop album. So if you’re interested in 1980s funk jazz, get Tutu (or some Herbie Hancock stuff from that era). But really avoid this “album” at all cost.

My rating: 1 star (this is now officially my first 1 star review in 5 years and more than 300 posts)

If you still want to check it out, you can find it here (Qobuz)

Libertà – Mozart Et L’Opéra by Raphaël Pichon – An Outstanding Album!

No, I haven’t Forgotten About Jazz

Some quick words to start:

Sorry for the Jazz fans subscribing to my blog, I know I’ve been pretty heavy on classical articles and not a lot of Jazz. I simply haven’t found too many good new albums, reviewing albums I don’t really like is much less fun, and I prefer writing about new releases, so my occasional reviewing of older albums also didn’t progress a lot. I hereby promise that I’ll try to restore the old balance of 50/50 between Jazz and Classical. So please subscribe if you haven’t done so yet.

Best-Of Albums

I used to hate “best of” or “highlights” albums, especially for Opera when I was younger. I thought the composer had taken the time to do the full opera, we should be appreciating the work in its entirety.

I’ve since evolved and really see the benefit of somebody else curating the music, especially when we’re talking about lesser known works, like in the album that I’m about to write about.

Furthermore, conductor Raphaël Pichon doesn’t do “best-of’s”, he does “concept” albums, that follow a story combining the different tracks, be it Stravaganza, Birth of The Opera At the Medici Court, or Enfers (Hells).

I’ve previously praised another of his concept albums, Mozart – The Weber Sisters, with the fantastic soprano Sabine Devielhe, which I’ve also listed in My Top 5 Classical Albums of 2016.

So I was very happy to see that in this new album that was released yesterday, that Devielhe is again featured.

Libertà – Mozart and the Opera – Raphaël Pichon – Pygmalion (Harmonia Mundi 2019)

Liberta Mozart Et L'opera Raphael Pichon Pygmalion 24 96 Harmonia Mundi 2019

On this album, Devielhe isn’t the only star, we’re actually getting several other great singers, from Siobhan Stagg via Linard Vrielink to Nahuel di Pierro.

I’m not going to comment too much about the concept, which the booklet nicely explains on several pages, including an interview with Pichon.

Let’s summarise what you’re buying: You’re getting 1h44 of mainly Mozart opera extracts. We’re mostly talking about his less known operas, like Lo Sposo Deluso, L’Oca del Cairo, or Der Schauspieldirektor.

What does that mean? Actually, Pichon did a fantastic job selecting gems among these lesser known works that definitely are worth discovering.

Pichon and his ensemble Pygmalion deliver some Mozart playing as it should be in the 21st century: Inspired, energetic, but dedicate where needed, clearly historically informed, but not overly “baroque”. And as mentioned, you get really good singers.

This album already is one of my favourite new releases of this year, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up featured on my Best of 2019 list at the end of the year.

An absolute delight, worth having for any Mozart opera fan, especially in times where new opera productions are too rare.

Highly recommended.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

UPDATE Sep 12: Classica agrees and gives this album a “Choc”, their highest rating.

A Review of Two Recent Recordings of Mahler 1 by Vänskä and Roth

Gustav Mahler

You can easily tell that I’m still struggling a bit with Gustav Mahler by the number of posts I have done on him, so far a grand total of 1 (one!), commenting about very divergent reviews of Mahler’s 9th.

I find many of his symphonies hard to approach, too big, to complex, getting lost in the weeds. The one symphony that I semi-regularly go back to is no. 1. It is to me by far the most approachable, taking many of the beautiful melodies in the symphony directly from his own earlier the song cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (and if you read this blog regularly you know I’m a sucker for melodies).

My first recording of Mahler 1 with retrospect is not a reference, but at least a quite decent performance, with Eliahu Inbal and the HR Radio Symphony orchestra (I mainly bought the album initially because it was a so-called audiophile recording by Denon).

SInce then, on Mahler, I’ve been through all the great classics (Klemperer, Walter, Bernstein, Kubelik), but also many new releases of this work (Fischer, Zinman, Janssons), and these days most often go back to Ivan Fischer on Channel Classics, a very nice, if a bit middle-of-the-road performance (again, VERY audiophile, it’s a fantastic test for your speakers, but you may not make friends with your neighboring appartments if you explore the full dynamic range).

So I was very curious when in the space of a couple of months two new recordings of Mahler 1 came out, both by conductors I respect a lot.

Mahler: Symphony No. 1 – François Xavier Roth – Les Siècles (Harmonia Mundi 2019)

The first one is François-Xavier Roth with his relatively recent ensemble Les Siècles, which I now very much see on track to become one of the most important French orchestras, particularly for French composers (have a look at their recent Debussy and Ravel recordings).

Gustav Mahler Titan Symphony No. 1 Hamburg Weimar 1893-1894 version Les Siècles François Xavier Roth 24/96

So I was particularly curious how they’d do with German composers like Mahler .

What’s interesting about this recording is that they use a different version, “Hamburg/Weimar 1893-1894”, turning the symphony into a “tone poem”. Well, overall, you’ll still very much recognize most of the symphony, but you’ll notice an less familiar 2nd movement sneaking in, Blumine, making the symphony 5 movements long.

Mahler: Symphony No. 1 – Osmo Vänskä – Minnesota Orchestra (BIS 2019)

Gustav Mahler Symphony No. 1 Osmo Vänskä Minnesota Orchestra BIS 2019 24/96

The even more recent new release is a conductor I’ve loved for a long time, Osmo Vänskä, who has done fantastic work with the Minnesota Orchestra. Take for example his outstanding recording of the Beethoven piano concertos 2 & 4 with Yevgeny Sudbin.

Vänskä takes the “traditional” version of the symphony with 4 movements.

Now, are any of these worth getting, you’ll ask?

Well, let me start with the Vänskä. Given how much energy and passion Vänskä typically puts into his recordings, this was a major disappointment. The entire symphony just feels very slow and uninspired. I try to stay away from too drastic words especially when we’re talking about such fantastic artists like Vänskä. But I can’t help it, this recording really isn’t for me.

Roth is already a different story. The Blumine addition already gives you something to look out for, and overall, the tone is much more energetic and joyful in the first three movements, and has the appropriate amount of drama in the fourth movement. Overall, a very satisfying performance, maybe not a new reference, but you won’t regret buying it.

Now I’m curious what you think? Am I completely off? Do you love Vänskä’s approach, and I’m just deaf? Which other versions of Mahler 1 should I check out?

My rating: 4 stars (Roth), 2 stars (Vänska)

You can find them here (Roth, Qobuz) and here (Vänskä, Qobuz)

Update Aug 16: Classicstoday seems to agree with my assessment of the Vänskä, calling it a “CD from Hell” in their recent review.

Update Sep 11: Classics is a bit less positive on Roth, giving it 3 stars.

A fantastic live album by Yuja Wang

Yuja Wang

If you read this blog regularly, you could think that I may be a bit biased towards Asian pianists. I’m really not a big fan of Lang Lang, and also can’t understand all the praise that Seong-Jin Cho is getting (see here and here). I really hope I don’t have any intrinsic biases and judge purely on the music though.

I had a more ambivalent opinion of Yuja Wang until recently. There was stuff I really appreciated (her Ravel concerto for example), but there are other albums like the Brahms sonatas with Kavakos (that got a lot of praise) that are not 100% my cup of tea.

But this latest live release (it actually already came out end of last year, I’m a bit behind here), is a truly exceptional album

Yuja Wang – The Berlin Recital (DG 2018)

Yuja Wang The Berlin Recital Rachmaninov Scriabin Ligeti Prokofiev 24 96 Deutsche Grammophon 2018

The album starts off with an engaging performance of the famous Rachmaninov Prelude op. 23 no. 5. You already are getting a level of energy, excitement, but also precision, that is drawing you in from the very beginning.

She follows with several other pieces of Rachmaninov, keeping up the level of engagement. A first highlight however is in the much more subtle Scriabin sonata. Here Wang demonstrates that she is not just the virtuoso, but can also be very nuanced. Scriabin isn’t easy to pull off. I had one of my most memorable performances of a live concert by Rudolf Serkin back in the early 90s, and this is one of the first time that Scriabin really moves me.

I’m still mostly struggling with most of 20th century music, but the Ligeti etudes are quite accessible even to me.

But a real highlight of this album is the closing, Prokofiev’s sonata no. 8. Again, not a showpiece, much more introvert, written during the horrible year of 1943 in the middle of World War II. Again, Wang shows how complete she is as an artist in this performace.

Overall, the album is very well recorded, giving you a premium seat in the Berlin Philharmonie.

I’m not the only one liking this album by the way, it’s got top reviews from pretty much every one in the business (Gramophone Editor’s Choice, Choc de Classica, 5 stars by Diapason and FonoForum).

Highly recommended.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

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)