Can Heaven Be Captured On Disc? Bach’s B-minor Mass BWV 232

Another entry on Bach. Maybe I should add him to my Blog title.

In any case, I just had to write about the b-minor mass, as it is such a fantastic work of art, one of the absolute highlights of the entire classical repertoire in my view.

Again, if you want to know more about the history, I don’t feel like I need to copy Wikipedia here, the only thing that is a bit particular about the story of this mass is actually that it is a full traditional catholic mass, given that Bach was a protestant composer. Actually, Bach apparently never performed the full thing in one go during his lifetime.

Well we don’t need to care about these historic details, we can just sit back and enjoy this amazing beauty. It is pretty long, around 2h, but there is so much to discover that it is worth putting down our tendency of ADHD (and I’m the first to admit to that disease) and listen to it from back to back. If your ADHD is too much of an issue, just pick out parts, as JSB would have done during his time.

The Great Catholic Mass

What is so special about this work (to give it its formal title “Messe in h-moll BWV232“, or as Carl Phillip Emanuel Bach called it the “Great Catholic Mass”? To me, it is most of all the overwhelming power. I’ve said before that I’m not religious, but  when I hear the choir sing the “Kyrie eleyson” (Lord, have mercy) with full organ backup,  I’m sometimes getting second thoughts. Or take the “Qui tollis”, how the choir interacts with the solo flute, or to give a final example, the beautiful glory of the “Sanctus”. Just amazing.

Karl Richter

The first version I ever had of this was, as many other probably, Karl Richter’s legendary 1961 version.

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There is still a lot of positives about this recording today, including the outstanding soloists (Fischer-Dieskau, anybody?). That said, a lot of time has passed since this version and the last 50 years have completely changed our reception of Bach and other Baroque works, thanks to the movement of “historically informed performance” by Harnoncourt et al. in the 1970s/80s.

Therefore, as much as I appreciate the sheer power of this version, I’m not going back to it that often.

Philippe Herreweghe – omne trium perfectum – All Good Things Come By in Threes

Philippe Herreweghe (yes I know, again as well) has recorded the b-minor mass three times (to quote Herreweghe himself: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”). All three recordings are very good, my preferred one by small margin is the last one from 2011 on his own label Phi. It was recorded in Berlin.

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It just gives you the perfect balance, it is not over the top, but extremely intense.

Another excellent alternative, and my other favorite, is Frans Brüggen’s older recording from 1990 on Philips.

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Obviously, there are many others that have done an excellent job, from Gardiner (both 1985 and 2015) to Hengelbrock, to Suzuki. But these two recordings are just one tiny notch above the very busy crowd.

5 stars for both recordings.

UPDATE Nov 20, 2015: You’ll find a review of Gardiner’s 2015 recording of the b-minor mass here.

 

You can find the Herreweghe here (Qobuz)

An addendum to Diabelli – the point of view of Classica Magazine in a blind test

As a quick addendum to my previous post on the Diabelli variations, when I opened the latest issue of the French magazine Classica on my iPad today (a bit late, it came out several days ago), I was pleased to discover that they dedicated their monthly blind test column, where their review staff compare 8 versions of a given oeuvre blindly, and ranks them, to just this work.

Classica – l’écoute en aveugle (the blind test)

I usually have a large overlap in taste with Classica, so I was a bit surprised to see none of my two recommended recordings even mentioned. But then I read it in the text, “les pianofortes atteignent leur limited“, the fortepianos reach their limits. Interesting, so Beethoven composed something that couldn’t have been played on the instrument he was used to. To be fair he was deaf at that time, but this is still an interesting conclusion. But ok, let’s see where they take it from here.

Laurent Cabasso

Well, their recording that is leading the pack is a recent recording on the label Naive played by the French pianist Laurent Cabasso.

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Well, the French press, very much like the English, has a certain patriotic tendency in their reviews. But remember, this is a BLIND test, so let’s assume they haven’t cheated. I obviously had to listen to it immediately, and luckily my streaming provider, Qobuz, has the album available.

Don’t forget Richter

My conclusion remains the same, I’m personally much more touched by the fortepiano versions than by this admittedly very good, but not outstanding recording (4 star on my personal rating scale). So if you prefer a modern piano, you may want to check this version out. But if you do, also compare it to the much more extremist (in a positive sense) Sviatoslav Richter (FYI, no. 5 in the Classica ranking). Otherwise, Schiff and Staier are a must on your playlist.

P.S. Gramophone has done a similar comparison in their August 2015 edition, you’ll find a summary here.

Brahms lesser known choral works brilliantly performed by Philippe Herreweghe

One more post on Brahms (again).

I was thinking I’d be writing next about his amazing Deutsches Requiem, the only major requiem I know of that is not written to the traditional latin text but where Brahms himself has chosen parts of the bible he really cared about and in his native language, German (hence the title).

But somehow, this amazing work still overwhelms me and I don’t feel ready yet to talk about it at this stage. If you want to check it out, you can’t go wrong with Klemperer’s classic version on EMI, with the amazing Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. More about this later.

So let me write about all the works that share the beauty of the Requiem masterpiece but are much less known, and deserve to be known better, mainly the “Schicksalslied” and the “Alto Rhapsody”.

Schicksalslied op. 54

The Schicksalslied op. 54, or Song of Destiny, takes a Hoelderlin poem and puts is in words. Do yourself a favor and check out the beautiful lyrics. (I’m the first to admit I’m still not sure I fully understood it to be fair, but the beauty of the words are extremely touching.)

You’ll see that the text is split in two parts, one describing the beauty:

Luminous heaven-breezes

Touching ye soft,

Like as fingers when skillfully

Wakening harp-strings.

the second one about desperation:

To us is allotted

No restful haven to find

The music is split in two parts, of pretty much identical duration, that reflect the lyrics, you can feel the heaven-breezes in the first 8 minutes, while the music slides with us “Destined to disappearance below” in the second half of the work.

All in all, about 16 minutes of extreme intensity, both musically and vocally.

Alt-Rhapsodie op. 53

Written around the same time as the Schicksalslied (notice the relates opus numbers), and about 1 year after the requiem. On top of the chorus, this cantata has a solo alto.

On this work there is a background. I’ve mentioned before that Brahms was in love with the beautiful, young and extremely talented (she was one of the major piano virtuosos of her time) wife of his mentor, Clara Schumann. In a twist that would sound unrealistic even for a Hollywood blockbuster script, he later considered marrying one of her daughters, Julie. He actually never did (and apparently never even proposed), for unknown reasons, and remained a bachelor for his entire life. So he wrote this for her (Julie’s) wedding as a “good-bye” to marriage.

Now consider the starting lyrics of the alto aria, taken from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Brahms clearly knew his German classics) “Harzreise”:

Aber abseits, wer ist’s?“ (But who is that apart?) describing some poor fellow who is “engulfed by the wasteland”. In spite of these lyrics, the work is surprisingly calm and relaxed, and has very beautiful interaction between the solo alto and the chorus.

Philippe Herreweghe

The Belgian conductor Philippe Herreweghe has been one of the stars of the historically informed practice of playing music, and has started mainly with Baroque music. In recent years, he has ventured more and more into the romantic period, conducting Mahler, Dvorak, and also Brahms

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His recording of the Alto Rhapsody and Schicksalslied dates from 2011 and has appeared on his own label, Phi. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing both works performed live, again at the KKL in Lucerne, I believe in 2012.

This version is outstanding. Ann Hallenberg doesn’t have the power of a Christa Ludwig on the legendary Klemperer recording (you’ll have noticed by now that you never go wrong with Klemperer on Brahms), but the recording it has so many beautiful nuances and shades, both in the excellent choral parts and the vocal solo, that is has become my go-to version of these beautiful works.

As “fillers”, you get three more choral works from Brahms that are even less known than the two before, a Motet, the Begräbnisgesang op. 13, and the Gesang der Parzen op. 89. None of them individually would be worth buying an album for, but there is a lot of beauty especially in the 11 minutes of the Gesang der Parzen. But if you don’t mind purchasing albums by the track, you can also stop after the first two tracks in my opinion.

My rating: 5 stars

Let me know what you think in the comments below!

Currency of Man – Melody Gardot goes Soul – A Review

I’ve been a fan of Melody for quite a while now. Her story is touching (serious car accident, very long recovery, music as therapy), and her first three albums (Worrisome Heart, My One And Only Thrill, The Absence) were all very good. She’s also contributed a great track to Autour de Nina.

Currency Of Man (Legacy 2015)

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Generally, I’m not such a regular listener to vocal jazz. I appreciate the classics, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Billie Holiday, but of the contemporary singers, many don’t touch me as much.  Even clearly exceptional artists such as Cecile McLorin Salvant I only listen to occasionally.

So again, what’s different about Melody to all the other contemporary Jazz singers (and there are many): The music is well produced and she writes good songs. Many others do as well. Her unique feature to me is really her voice: pure seduction. This voice is really special and easily recognizable whatever she does.

Obviously, I had to get her latest album, I even had it on pre-order. Just downloaded it when it officially came out this morning.

Probably not Jazz anymore – if it ever was

Now let me put a disclaimer first, or rather a question: is this new album actually Jazz? Well, if you take the definition of many record stores (remember those, they’ll probably soon go the way of video rental places), who insisted on putting Norah Jones (or anything else published on BlueNote or Verve) and sometimes even Katie Melua under Jazz, then probably yes, but this album has more elements of Soul than Jazz.

One thing that struck me about this album were the arrangements. This album contains strings. Usually, the only one who is able to pull off combining Jazz and strings, is Ella Fitzgerald again. But here, it is really tastefully done, not overly cheesy, e.g. on the very intense “If I Ever Recall Your Face“. In other songs, you get typical Soul/Motown elements like brass and background vocals. Again, those just blend in and support the music. Very well done.

Then on some songs, e.g Morning Sun, you initially think she’s entering Norah Jones territory. But no, soon you’ll realize, this really is a Soul album with even funky elements occasionally.

Very enjoyable

How does it all work out? Very very well. I’m a big fan of this album. There is only one song that stands out as slightly weaker compared to the rest of the album “Same To You“; all  the rest is truly enjoyable.

An outstanding next step for an artist who will have a great future. Check it out!

You’ll find some good vids including some “behind the scenes” here.

My rating: 4 stars

EDIT: Deluxe edition

It has just been flagged to me that I didn’t specify whether I reviewed the regular or the deluxe edition of the album. The comments above refer to the regular edition, I hadn’t even realized the existence of the Deluxe Edition until now.

The latter has not only 5 bonus tracks (to be fair, 2 of them are less than 1 min), including the outstanding “Burying My Troubles“, pretty much most of the regular songs appear to be different cuts/mixes to the regular edition. I’ll need to compare a bit more and will report back in the next days.

Autour de Nina – an outstanding Vocal Jazz complilation

Hommage albums are popular these days. Cassandra Wilson and José James just recently released their Billie Holiday inspired albums (see my review of Cassandra Wilson’s album here), but here we are dedicating an entire album to another Vocal Jazz legend: Nina Simone.

Autour de Nina cover

This album, while it was released on Verve, got significantly more press coverage in France then elsewhere. Even the website, and their Facebook page, is written in French. This is a pity, as this album is outstanding and would benefit from being better known globally.

This is a compilation including some relatively well known international celebrities, the most popular probably being Gregory Porter and Melody Gardot (who will release here new album tomorrow by the way). You may also have heard of ACT-label singer Youn Sun Nah.

Then we have some names that are probably more familiar to a French/European audience, including Camille, Lianne La Havas,Olivia Ruiz, and the Swiss rising singer songwriter Sophie Hunger (more about her certainly later in another post).

The quality of this album is outstanding throughout. Olivia Ruiz manages to put a new twist on the TV-commercial-abused “My Baby Just Cares For Me“, Gregory Porter is great in “Black is the Color (Of My True Love’s Hair)”, and Liane La Havas does a great “Baltimore“. The only weak spot to me is “Feeling Good”, which I (shame on me) prefer by our Great Cheesy Canadian, Michael Bublé, Ben L’Oncle Sam’s version just doesn’t make me feel as good (sorry for the bad pun).

I Put A Spell On You

However, let me flag my personal favorites: “Plain Gold Ring” by Youn Sun Nah (one of my favorite Nina Simone songs, from her famous debut), “Four Women” by Melody Gardot, but most of all, Sophie Hunger’s “I Put A Spell On You“, a version that for me personally even beats Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (please don’t stone me…).

Very highly recommended, 5 stars.

Beethoven: Diabelli-Variations – an acquired taste?

Beethoven. You could be saying that I’m really trying to tick off the famous “great Three B’s” first. How creative of me.

Well, while the general consensus doesn’t get everything right, there’s a reason why the three B’s are so important. And in any case, I probably wasn’t mean to be a rebel to tell the establishment they got it all wrong.

Back to Ludwig van. I’ve been a fan, like forever (excuse me for sounding like an over-excited American teenager). The symphonies I can never never never get bored with (except, as already mentioned before, the ninth, which somehow escapes me). His piano sonatas are amazing and cover his entire spectrum from something that sounds like young Haydn (and were not surprisingly his op. 2) to the extremely well-known sonatas in his middle period, many of which got their reputation due to their nickname (from Mondschein to Apassionata), to the late works (op. 109 to 111) which are anything but immediately accessible for the average listener, including me.

But let me talk about the Diabelli variations today. They are probably not as well known as their famous variations older brother (Bach’s Goldberg), but still are seen by most experts as an absolutely masterpiece. And let me admit: until recently, I just never “got” them. I tried again and again with the small handful of versions I had (including Brendel nevertheless), and nothing ever stuck, I just never really fell in love.

Until recently. Two and a half versions (I was tempted to do a Charlie Sheen joke here) of this, and very repeated listening, changed my mind.

Andras Schiff

The first version, is the one I kind of called 1.5. To be fair, they are two, but both played by the same pianist and on the same album. Andras Schiff, the great Hungarian pianist, recorded the Diabelli-Variations twice, for ECM (yes, I know, ECM again...)

Disc 1 (if in the times of computer audio it still makes sense to speak of discs) contains a recording on a 1921 Bechstein grand. This version really opened my eyes for the beauty of the Diabellis.

Disc 2 contains the same piece again, played this time on a fortepiano from Beethoven’s time. I recently started enjoying the fortepiano more and more (thanks to great pianists like Roland Brautigam, Kristian Bezuidenhout), as not only “it sounds like Beethoven would have heard it” (if he wouldn’t have been deaf by the time this was composed), but also it gives a totally different degree of transparency.

Andreas Staier

But when we get to the fortepiano, there is another version I prefer even more, from an artist with pretty much the same first name: Andreas Staier on Harmonia Mundi. Andreas Staier is a German fortepiano and harpsichord player, and I have yet to find any recording of him that seriously disappointed me.

This has been recommended by several people I usually trust well. But because of my scepticism until recently regarding the Diabellis, I only got this version some weeks ago. What a mistake. It is just amazing.

Luckily for us, both versions are also very well recorded (you can usually trust both ECM and Harmonia Mundi to get that part right), and are available as high-res downloads.

Check both out, you won’t be disappointed.

P.S: I just discovered this interesting article from Nick van Bloss describing his recording the Diabellis on Gramophone’s blog. I haven’t checked out his album yet, but his description and approach are certainly worth reading.

P.P.S. If you prefer a modern piano reading, read my addendum I just published.

P.P.P.S. Gramophone also likes Staier, but has yet another alternative

P.P.P.P.S: Igor Levit has recorded another outstanding alternative on a modern piano.

Please let me know if I missed any good version out there, I can certainly live with more!

Who will be leading the Berlin Philharmonic? (I hope for Paavo Järvi, but don’t really believe in it)

Not sure I have very much to add to this brilliant article by Alex Ross in the New Yorker, except that I wish it would be Paavo Järvi, who is not even in the most often quoted lists of high-likelihood candidates, or if I have to chose a name from this “inner circle”, I’d take Nelsons.