My Top 5 Classical Albums of 2020

2020

I don’t need to tell anybody that 2020 was a weird year to say the least. It was supposed to be the big Beethoven anniversary year, with concerts all over the world and a lot of new album releases.

We certainly got a lot of new album releases, but we clearly didn’t have the live concerts we all wished for. I got lucky, I attended two socially distanced concerts during the times when Covid in Europe was still at lower levels, both involving Beethoven by the way (Igor Levit playing some piano sonatas, and Lars Vogt playing the 4th piano concerto with Paavo Järvi).

But without further ado, let’s jump right into it and list my top 5 classical albums of the year. Interestingly, less Beethoven than I’d have expected in here.

Chopin’s Piano Concertos by Benjamin Grosvenor (Decca 2020)

Yes, Benjamin Grosvenor regularly gets 5 stars on this blog, guilty as charged. But what can I say, this new album with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Elim Chan is just great (see my original review here). And it won the Gramophone Album of the Year in its category, which was well deserved.

Brahms Late Solo Piano Works by Stephen Hough

Stephen Hough Brahms The Final Piano Pieces Hyperion 2020 24 96

I love Brahms’ late piano pieces, and this is a worthy addition to the top recordings of these works, alongside Arkadi Volodos. See my original review here.

Beethoven and Sibelius Violin Concertos – Christian Tetzlaff

Beethoven / Sibelius Violin Concertos Christan Tetzlaff Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin - Robin Ticciati Odine 2020 24/96

In this Beethoven year, two German artists recorded excellent versions of the Beethoven classics, both with the Deutsches Sinfonieorchester Berlin. I must admit, this second or third (depending on how you rank) orchestra of Berlin always flew a bit under my radar, behind the Berlin Philharmonic and the Staatskapelle Berlin. This was probably undeserved. Both the recordings of Martin Helmchen with Andrew Manze as conductor, and this recording with Christian Tetzlaff under Robin Ticciati both show the full potential of this orchestra.

Between Helmchen’s now complete Beethoven cycle (I reviewed one volume here), and this new recording of the violin concerto by Tetzlaff, I’m highlighting Tetzlaff here.

He really is one of the best violin players of our era, and probably also somewhat underrated. Both his Beethoven and the Sibelius give a very fresh take on these concertos.

Beethoven Complete String Quartets by the Quatuor Ebène

Beethoven Around The World Vienna String Quartets 7 & 8 Quatuor Ebène Erato 2019 24 96

I’m a big fan of the Quatuor Ebène, and already had the pleasure of seeing them live some years ago.

They have now recorded all Beethoven String Quartets in a world tour (mostly pre-Covid). I’ve reviewed one of the releases here.

Now, is their new complete cycle something that will replace my favorite box of all times, the complete recordings by the legendary Takacs Quartet? No, but honestly, the Beethoven string quartets are such masterpieces, and have such a breadth of material from the early op. 18 to the amazing but not very accessible late works, that one should never have only one complete cycle.

Bach: St John Passion – Herreweghe (2020 recording)

Johann Sebastian Bach: Johannes Passion Philippe Herreweghe Collegium Vocale Ghent Phi 2020 24/96

How could a best of list on my blog be complete without some Bach? This year, we had several great recordings of the choral masterpieces. Masaaki Suzuki has released both a St John (recorded in Cologne) and a St Matthew Passion, that have both won accolades from critics.

But let me flag here another recording by another artist that I admire (and had the pleasure of seeing live already), the great Philippe Herreweghe.

I had initially missed this and only really noticed it when it popped up in the Gramophone Awards. This is not his first recording but potentially his best. I can’t wait until Easter (I know, Christmas is just barely over…) so I can play it again in repetition.

So, here you go. This will be my last post of the year, there won’t be a similar list for Jazz. I just wasn’t able to find 5 albums that I liked enough to give them 5 stars this year. Let’s keep our fingers crossed for 2021.

Wishing all of you a Happy New Year 2021!

You’ll find the recordings here (Qobuz/Hyperion):

Grosvenor Chopin

Hough Brahms

Tetzlaff Beethoven Sibelius

Quatuor Ebene Beethoven

Herreweghe St John Passion

Just A Quickie: My Top Streams from 2020

Year end Spotify summaries are all the rage on social media these days, so Qobuz apparently decided to jump on the bandwagon.

By the way, in case you wonder: I do mention Qobuz quite a bit on this blog. Just to be clear: I’m not sponsored by them in any way, I pay the full subscription every year, and even buy dozens, if not hundreds of of downloads from them every year. I just like the service.

So, here’s what I just received in my inbox. I really listen to music quite a bit, and the top streams this year will be no surprise to regular readers of this blog.

Note that this isn’t an exhaustive playlist for me, I often play from my own music library as well, which Qobuz obviously cannot count.

Obviously, I can strongly recommend all for the albums and artists listed below. And you’ll find all of them reviewed on my blog, with the exception of the Suzuki Brandenburg concertos (and yes, that one is very good as well)

How about you, dear readers? Any particular favourites in this weird year 2020?

Wishing all of you a great holiday break!

And by the way, watch this space (or even better, subscribe if you haven’t done so yet), my official Best Of 2020 post is still to come in a couple of days.

Here are the links to the original reviews:

Levit: Complete Beethoven Sonatas

Faust: Bach Violin Concertos

Schnyder: Beethoven Piano Trios

Pichon: Mozart Liberta

An Intimate Version of the Christmas Oratorio by the Dunedin Consort and John Butt

The Christmas Oratorio

It’s been a while since I last wrote about Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. The last entry was a blog post about My Favourite Seasonal Music for Christmas back in 2016, and the original post about this work dates back to the beginning of my blog back in 2015.

Nevertheless, the Christmas Oratorio is on constant repeat in the last 2-3 weeks leading up to Christmas every single year. It is as essential as mulled wine, seasonal decorations, and home made Christmas cookies. This year, due to Covid, I probably won’t have any of the first, and a strict diet over the last months stops me from doing the latter.

I’m very happy that listening to Bach is totally carb-free (even though it can be very sweet), and at least played from the stereo very much compatible with social distancing.

Bach: Christmas Oratorio – John Butt – Dunedin Consort (Linn 2016)

Bach: Christmas Oratorio Dunedin Consort John Butt Linn Records 2016 24 192

I had already mentioned John Butt’s recording in my 2016 post, but didn’t own it at the time. Linn Records has a pretty strict no-streaming policy, so I ended up buying it blindly, given how much I like the Dunedin Consort’s other big Bach works.

The Dunedin’s recording of the St Matthew Passion is one of my 25 Essential Classical Albums, their St John’s passion is equally great, and I can also recommend the recordings of Bach’s Magnificat, Händel’s Messiah also Mozart’s Requiem for that matter. So in short, I didn’t take too much of a risk.

And sure enough, I wasn’t disappointed. The orchestral playing is a beautiful as ever, and the singers are doing an excellent job. The only two things to mention: most of the singers are non native speakers, and while they are doing quite a decent job with the German pronunciation, if you’re picky, you may have an issue with this.

And, for some even more tricky maybe, the typical Dunedin Consort approach of having One Voice Per Part, a concept introduced by Joshua Rifkin in the 1980s. If your Bach oratorio reference is Karl Richter, you’ll be disappointed.

I really like it though. It gives it a very particularly intimate feel. I’m still rotating between the Dunedin’s version, and my other favourites, Gardiner, Herreweghe, and the occasional Suzuki. But this is very much among the best. And if you care for these things, this is a truly “audiophile” version, it is really well recorded.

My rating: 4 stars (It’s a truly beautiful album but I’m still waiting for my imaginary “perfect” recording)

You can find it here (Linn Records)

GoGo Penguin Live From Studio 2 – Excellent

GoGo Penguin

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a big fan of the UK trio GoGo Penguin, that mixes the acoustic piano trio with the sounds of contemporary electronic music very successfully (see my reviews of Ocean In A Drop, Man Made Object, an older live gig in Zurich, and the only album I wasn’t particularly fond of, A Humdrum Star).

In spite of Covid, GoGo Penguin this year has managed not only to release a new studio album (which I loved), but is now even giving us a “live” EP. Well, it is played live, but actually from the famous Abbey Road Studios, so without an audience around, given the circumstances.

GoGo Penguin – Live At Studio 2 (BlueNote 2020)

GoGo Penguin Live From Studio 2 BlueNote 2020 24 96

Audience or not, the energy in this album is incredible.

This video of one of the songs, Petit_a, should give you a good idea what to expect.

My favorite song from this EP is Atomised, from their 2020 self-titled album. This really epitomizes what I like about them, the powerful grooves, the ability to take a simple fragment arpeggio and turn it into an entire song, and the mesmerizing energy.

Check it out, you won’t be disappointed. And please remember, if you want to support artists in this challenging year 2020, do buy their music!

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

A Beautiful New Recording of the Concerto di Aranjuez

Rodrigo and the Concerto di Aranjuez

There are some pieces of classical music that even people that usually don’t care about classical music know, like the beginning of Beethoven’s Fifth, or Bach’s Toccata BWV565.

Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto di Aranjuez is one of these pieces. Play the second movement to anybody in the street, and I’d be a lot of them would recognize the melody. It has been used extensively in popular culture, adapted in a lot of pop songs, and even into jazz, in Miles Davis very popular album Sketches of Spain.

But then ask even classical music aficionados to name any other piece by Rodrigo, typically they pass. To modern memory, Rodrigo, who lived from 1901 to 1990, is a typical “one hit wonder”, a fate he shares for example with Max Bruch.

The concerto itself is special not only for the very clear Spanish sound, but most importantly for having a solo guitar. It is named after the Aranjuez gardens of the Spanish royal family. I’ve visited the place some years ago, and it is actually a really beautiful setting.

Thibaut Garcia – Aranjuez – Ben Glassberg – Orchestre National du Capitol de Toulouse (Erato 2020)

Thibaut Garcia Aranjuez Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse Ben Glassberg Erato Warner Classics 2020 24 96

Soloist Thibaut Garcia, while growing up in Toulouse, France, has Spanish family roots (as the last name gives away). Not sure if you need to have Spanish blood to play this concert this well, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. Being one of the best young (he’s born in 1994) classical guitarists of today helps as well.

The work is performed with a lot of beauty and grace, as it needs to be. The Toulouse orchestra, conducted by another very young artist, the Brit Ben Glassberg, always follows easily and has all the energy and vibrancy this music needs.

But the album doesn’t stop with after the 20 minutes of the concerto. You get a really beautiful performance of Garcia solo, playing guitar music by Regino Sainz de La Maza, another 20th century Spanish guitar composer.

This is followed by another work for guitar and orchestra, Alexandre Tansman’s Musique de Cour d’après Robert de Visée. Tansman, whose name like Sainz de la Maza was unfamiliar to me (I’m not a great expert of the classical guitar), was a Polish composer of the 20th century that was mostly focused on film music. This piece however is clearly inspired by older music, as the title indicates, references back to Robert de Visée, the famous guitarist (and theorbist, luthenist, etc.) at Louis XIV’s court. My somewhat simple mind is very pleased to note that Tansman, like Rodrigo, has completely ignored the unwritten law written by Schönberg et al that 20th century music after 1920 has to go beyond traditional tonality.

Appropriately, after the music above inspired by de Visée, we move back to the 17th century and de Visée himself, that Garcia performs beautifully.

I really recommend checking this album out if you like classical guitar. And by the way, most music critics agree. This album received a Choc from Classica, a Diapason d’or, and a Gramophone Editor’s Choice.

My rating: 4 stars (5 star playing throughout though, one star discount from me as I don’t consider this absolutly essential repertoire)

Less than 4 weeks until Christmas – Need another Christmas Jazz recommendation?

Stacey Kent

Stacey Kent is a Jazz singer that I believe to be more popular and better known in Europe than her native US.

I haven’t explicitly mentioned her on this blog (she does feature on Jazz Loves Disney that I reviewed previously). I quite like her, but these days I’m not listening to a lot of vocal jazz any more, with only few exceptions.

That said, she has done quite a lot of recordings you should definitely check out.

Including this one, if you start to be in the mood for more Christmas music.

Christmas In The Rockies (EP, Candid Productions 2020)

Stacey Kent Christmas In The Rockies 24/96

Don’t be scared off by the extremely cheesy cover (OMG; these fonts, the colours), this is actually a quite enjoyable performance of Christmas standards.

Note that this is only an EP, you get a total of four tracks.

You start with a very nice, if rather straightforward Sleigh Ride, going through the always beautiful Christmas Time Is Here, a really nice version of Winter Wonderland, and to wrap it all up, my favorite, The Christmas Song (see below)

Normally, I’d always recommend you buy albums, as on streaming revenues no regular artist can reasonably survive (particularly in Covid times when the live revenues are mostly gone).

However, my recommendation would be rather that you buy one of Kent’s other albums instead (check out Breakfast On The Morning Train for example), and add this album to your Spotify or Qobuz Christmas streaming playlist, as I find it a tad expensive for 4 tracks only.

Nevertheless, a solid recommendation for the next 4 weeks!

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

A somewhat Christmassy, and overall very enjoyable, new Jamie Cullum album

Christmas Music

You may not have noticed with all the Covid business going on right now, that we’re only 4 weeks away from Christmas.

I know my readers in North America first have to figure out how to best manage Thanksgiving and family in a Global pandemic next week, we in Europe have the same dilemma some weeks later.

But that’s enough of Covid gloom, you are reading enough about this elsewhere. Let’s go to the fun part (at least to me) of the season: Christmas music.

Regular readers will know that I’m not religious, but I still love the season very much for the feel, the lights, and the atmosphere.

I’ve previously shared some Christmas albums on this blog, be it in classical music (see here, here and here for example, or click on “seasonal music” in the category menu of this blog), or if you prefer the Jazz side of things, check out the posts here and here).

Jamie Cullum

I haven’t written about Jamie Cullum yet on my blog (he’s featured on the Jazz Loves Disney album featured here), but this is mainly because I haven’t listened to him in a while.

I actually really enjoy his style. I was complaining in my review of the recent Diana Krall album that I found it a bit too easy listening.

Jamie Cullum is in many ways easy listening. He’s also very much borderline jazz. But nevertheless, I find his mix of original songs, some nice swing, the occasional pop ballad really quite enjoyable.

Jamie Cullum – The Pianoman at Christmas

Jamie Cullum The Pianoman at Christmas 24/48 Island Records

So, is this a Christmas or a Jazz album?

Actually, neither to my ears.

The Christmas element really comes mainly from the lyrics, and yes there’s the occasional “jingle bells” vibe. But mostly, this is well done songwriting. So if you’re looking for yet another version of Baby, It’s Cold Outside, look else where (here for example)

And Jazz? Well, some tracks sound somewhat jazzy. But mostly, this is classical “piano man” pop, presumably inspired by Billy Joel or Elton John. And some songs, like Turn On The Lights, could nearly come straight out of a new Coldplay album (did I really just write this? Sorry….)

But who cares, most of all this is enjoyable music, that you can play even right now, without having a Jingle Bells overdose by the time you actually get to Christmas.

My favorite song is probably the title track, The Pianoman at Christmas, a beautiful, quite sentimental ballad. Yes, it’s cheesy, but isn’t that kind of the whole point of contemporary seasonal music? I guess we all need a bit of (tasteful) schmaltziness after this somewhat crazy 2020, don’t we?

P.S. I really love the cover, with the grainy analog film-type picture, and the retro “stereo” logo. Just spot-on.

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)