New York City is still the world capital of jazz. The number of high quality jazz venues and outstanding muscians playing there is second to none.
I’m about to head to New York today for a short trip. The last time I was there, about 5-6 weeks ago, I had the opportunity, on a Sunday night, to go to my favorite of all the clubs, the legendary Village Vanguard.
The club is a tiny affair in Greenwich Village. It was founded in 1935, and became a full time jazz venue in 1957.
So, as mentioned above, I had the opportunity to see Fred Hersch live. Fred Hersch has the reputation of being one of the most intellectual of all jazz pianists. When you see him, that doesn’t surprise you, he looks somewhat like a university professor (which by the way he is as well, with former students like the above mentioned Brad Mehldau).
I’m not going to review the concert, which as usual in this fantastically intimate space, was a real pleasure, but instead point you to an album that was recorded 4 years ago in a very similar situation.
Fred Hersch Trio – Sunday Night At The Village Vanguard (Palmetto Records 2016)
This album captures very well the very typical Fred Hersch style as well as the intimate acoustics of the venue. My favorite track is For No One, a very delicate ballad.
I strongly suggest you check this album out, and obviously, if you ever get to NYC, make sure to check out what may potentially be the best jazz club on the planet, as I will most certainly do tomorrow night.
I must admit I always found the category of the string quartets one of the most intellectually challenging, but at the same time, also one of the most rewarding categories in classical music.
I, like many started out my classical journey with symphonic music, and, coming from the piano as a (lousy) amateur myself, with solo piano music.
I had an easier access to chamber works with a piano in it, e.g. trios, violin sonatas. But the string quartet really seemed to me the most daunting works to approach.
That said, there are worse works to start your exploration than Beethoven’s Rasumovsky quartets, officially known as op. 59. These are the works of a Beethoven in a great phase, contemporary of the 4th symphony and the violin concerto. These are the first string quartets of the so-called “middle-period”, after the 6 “early” quartets in op. 18. By this time, Beethoven was truly established as a respected master in Vienna, at the age of 35.
By the way, even Beethoven waited for a while until he attacked the string quartets category, with such a strong tradition being established by Haydn and Mozart.
Op. 59 No. 1 and 2 present all the skill set of an accomplished composer, so no matter how often you listen to them, there’s always something new to discover. These were sponsored by Andrey Rasumowsky, an important diplomat in Vienna at that time.
Quatuor Ebène: Beethoven Around The World – Vienna
I therefore had high expectations when I read that they will release a complete cycle of Beethoven’s string quartets, taken from live recordings throughout the world, during 2020, which you know if you haven’t been hiding under a rock, is Beethoven’s 250th anniversary.
The “Vienna” in the album title refers to the recording location, so very appropriately starting in the town which was Beethoven’s home for so many years.
Well to make it short: it is a truly great recording. Both Ebène and Takacs give you top-notch performances of both op. 59 No. 1 and 2. Ebène is occasionally a bit more on the extremes, while the Takacs are slightly more “polished”, but both are truly enjoyable performance of these masterpieces.
Really can’t wait for the rest of the tour of “Beethoven around the world”!
Wow, sorry guys, this must have been potentially the longest break ever between posts. But the last six weeks have been packed with travel and family issues, including a trip to China mid January just some days before the Coronavirus issue got really big (and many people kept looking at me like a walking zombie that is just about to bite them for a while).
On top of that I must admit among the new releases of the last 6 weeks, there weren’t a lot of new recordings that really got me excited. And if I’m not passionate about something, I just don’t like writing about it. That’s why you don’t find a lot of 3 star reviews on my blog. The bias of being able to write just what you like.
Therefore I’m pleased to say I finally found a recording that really is making me happy to get me started again, and I have a couple of other reviews in the backlog for the next weeks.
Isabelle Faust & Alexander Melnikov – Mozart Sonatas for Fortepiano and Violin vol. 2 (Harmonia Mundi 2020)
OK, let’s get the obvious elephant in the room out of the way: I’m a self declared fanboy of Isabelle Faust, and have praised pretty much every single one of her recordings on this blog (one exception, to prove the point that it’s not just her name, is her recording of the Mendelssohn concerto which I really didn’t like that much).
So take this review with a grain of salt (although several professional reviewers agree that among all the amazing violin talents we have today, Faust may be the one that truly stands out).
It gets even more interesting as my previous favourite version of these works is by another fantastic violin player that approaches this from the baroque side, Rachel Podger (see my review here, and I also included this album into my Must Have MozartAlbums).
This is volume 2, so you are going to ask me, why didn’t I write about volume 1? Honestly, it just slipped my attention.
That said, what I particularly like about vol. 2 is the choice of the works. Mozart’s violin sonatas are all works that were written by a young Mozart, and often for advanced amateurs, so they could be played at home. So some of the works are really just a bit too light. But particularly KV376 and 378 are works that really stand on their own, and deserve to be heard.
Isabelle Faust’s wonderful Sleeping Beauty, together with Alexander Melnikov, plays a Fortepiano replica by Christoph Kern, modelled after an Anton Walter from 1795, produce a beautiful sound. These two musicians have played together a lot and you can really hear that, the interplay between the two is just outstanding.
Now, the obvious comparison: Do I prefer this or Rachel Podger? Well, between the two, Faust is somewhat more shiny and brilliant, think of sparkling jewellery, while Podger and Cooper have a slightly more slower, more velvety approach. Both are outstanding performances, so it will be your taste that you need to ask which one to get (or just get both).
The only additional complication in the game is that another fantastic violin player, the great Alina Ibragimova, has released some of the violin sonatas on Hyperion, with Cedric Tiberghien playing a modern piano. Hyperion doesn’t allow streaming, so I could only compare snippets, and on these I prefer Faust. But you should check these ones out as well.
My rating: 5 stars (ok, Mozart’s violin sonatas are not by themselves 5 star repertoire, but I find this album so pleasing that I just ignore my own criteria).
I meant to complement my Top of the Year 2019 article I wrote on classical music with a similar one for Jazz. I didn’t get to finish that last year, so at least it is the first thing I do in the still very fresh year of 2020. Hope all of you had a nice New Year’s Eve last night.
Why is this post called “Top 3” and not “Top 5” as I typically do? Well, for one I did review significantly less albums in 2019 than in the years before, due to very extensive business travel.
Furthermore however, I find less and less new Jazz albums that truly excite me. Not sure if it is the Jazz scene, or my taste is evolving. Anyhow, let’s get to it.
Ocean In A Drop is a very special album. Not even originally intended to be released, it really captures a very special atmosphere of an improvised film soundtrack. I still haven’t seen the movie it refers to, but keep going back to the album on a regular basis.
Triosence: scorpio rising
I’ve written about Triosence previously (here and here), but never got to formally review this album. They are a relatively unknown group from Germany, but their style is very much to my taste. So this may be the most subjective of my recommendations. Triosence are all about melody. Therefore, some may consider them a bit too mainstream. So check them out before you buy, but if you like modern trio jazz, they are a worthy discovery. You’ll find it here (Qobuz)
So, over to you, enlighten me! I’m sure I’ve missed plenty of good new releases in 2019 that should have been mentioned here. What would you recommend I check out?
Wishing you again a Happy New Year and thank you for all the great feedback and discussions we had in 2019!
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.
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
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
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
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?
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)
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.
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)
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.
Yet another French composer that I know very little about. If like me you’ve grown up in Central Europe and have been watching television, you typically know Charpentier as the composer of the Eurovision theme, the fanfare that was played when several European countries decided to do a joint production.
This theme is actually the prelude to his Te Deum.
Beyond this, again giving away my ignorance, I barely knew anything about him. He occasionally pops up on some French baroque compilation I own, but in my entire library which really isn’t that small, I have a total of 2 albums featuring this composer.
Listening to this album as part of writing this blog post made it clear to me that I really missed something here. I have zero benchmark to compare the version to obviously, but Sebastien Daucé’s Ensemble Correspondances plays truly engaging early baroque vocal music, beautifully sung and played. It immediately reminded me of Monteverdi, which turns out isn’t misleading. Monteverdi’s operas clearly influenced the Versailles court and Charpentier’s composing.
Really worth checking out. No formal rating given my ignorance of the composer, but informally this is 4 stars upwards.
Antonio Vivaldi: Il Giustino – Ottavio Dantone (Naïve 2019)
Only two things to say here from my side: Dantone’s Vivaldi playing is truly fantastic, but unfortunately I can stand Vivaldi’s operas in doses of 10 min max.
So don’t expect a formal review here. But if you like Vivaldi, this is a no brainer.
Bach: 6 Partitas – Robert Levin (2019
I was already confused when I saw the original review of this in Classica some months ago. I tried it again, and I just don’t get it: the interpretation is so bland and boring to my ears, I really don’t understand what Classica likes about this.
I had already checked this out when I read the original review. A contemporary composer (born 1990), and female, which unfortunately is still a rarity, I was intrigued.
No formal review here, I still struggle with contemporary music, but this is not atonal, and actually quite rhythmic, so I encourage you to check this out, especially if you like e.g. the ECM New Series style.
Weinberg: Symphony No. 2 and 21 – Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla – City of Birmingham Symphony – Gidon Kremer (DG 2019)
A 20th century composer, with a young female conductor (also here we have way to few), and Gidon Kremer to top it all off, again I was interested. This album actually got huge praise by both Gramophone and Classica, and these two magazines don’t often overlap.
I checked this out several times, initially liking the tonal passages, then the music drifts into chordal progressions that just leave me confused. Which typically makes me give up to quickly. Now that I’m getting more and more (with baby steps) into Shostakovich, I may start to appreciate it more. I’ll certainly come back to this and so should you.
And keep an eye on Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla. This young Lithuanian conductor is a great talent worth watching.
Classica also recommends another Weinberg album by Gidon Kremer, also on DG; focusing on his chamber music.
Sure, Classica likes French composers. Fair enough for a French classical music magazine. But actually, for Camille Saint-Saëns I truly share their enthousiasm. I must again admit my ignorance, but 2019 has been my year of discovery of his piano concertos. After the fantastic recording with Bertrand Chamayou which won a well deserved Gramophone Award, comes another outstanding recording, by French pianist Alexandre Kantorow, playing here with his father, Jean-Jacques at the baton. Kantorow is a fantastic pianist (see my review of his recent Russian album here, which also made it into my top classical albums of 2017). In short, a five star album that you should really own!
Brahms’ chamber music for clarinet is still a part of his oeuvre that I find among the least accessible. I’ve so far only reviewed the recording of the sonatas with Lorenzo Coppola and Andreas Staier, but have never written about the clarinet trio.
This excellent album is a good occasion to change the latter, you get very nuanced and delicate playing that really helps exploring these beautiful and intimate works. Give them a try!
So, any feedback from your side? What do you think about this selection?
You can find the albums I mention above here (or in the original review):