Schubert’s amazing chamber music (1) – The String Quintet played by the Pavel Haas Quartet

Franz Schubert

I’ve previously written about Schubert’s piano music, which I love. As a side note, I’m not a big fan of his symphonies, even his “great” 8th (or 9th depending on the counting system) doesn’t particularly motivate me to listen to it. I occasionally play the Unfinished, but being unfinished it’s over rather quickly. Anything else in his symphony repertoire is really just a bit too juvenile for me (if only he’d lived as long as Beethoven or Brahms…).

In my personal opinion, his late string quartets and especially the string quintet are the greatest pieces of chamber music ever written. Full stop. I know others will prefer Beethoven, but the emotional density and beautiful “singing” (let’s not forget Schubert was also a major composer of “Lieder”) in the music you’ll only find with Schubert.

The String Quintet

This absolute masterpiece beats by far every symphony Schubert has ever written. With over 50 minutes of playing time, it is also longer than pretty much everything he’s written. If length translates into too many repetitions, like with the C-major symphony, it can be boring. None of this you’ll find here. Actually, you’d (or at least I’d) love this work to go on forever, it is that beautiful.

Pavel Haas Quartet

Gramophone has a certain tendency of “hyping” some artist, they can’t do anything wrong, and every album of them gets an Editors-Choice or more. Sometimes, I quite disagree with this assessment. In the case of the Pavel Haas quartet, I fully agree, I’ve yet to hear a bad album from this young Czech quartet named after a Czech composer killed in Auschwitz.

Pavel Haas Quartet String Quintet Schubert Death and the Maiden
Pavel Haas Quartet String Quintet Schubert Death and the Maiden

This particular recording, which also includes an outstanding recording of the Death and the Maiden quartet no. 14, has been Gramophone Awards winner in the chamber music category in 2014, and very rightfully so. They are joined for the Quintet by the 2nd cello, played by the German-Japanese Danjulo Ishizaka.

What set’s this recording apart is the pure energy level that goes into the playing. This is not music to be enjoyed leaning back sipping a glass of bourbon on the rocks in your favorite rocking chair, this is music made for listening to with constant attention, barely keeping you on your couch any more.

There are many other good to outstanding versions out there, including the Takacs Quartet, the Tokyo Quartet, the Hagen Quartet with Heinrich Schiff, but this one really beats them all. The Czech label Supraphone has done quite a decent job on the recording quality.

My rating: 5 stars (with no hesitations)

You can get it here if you prefer downloads, and here if you prefer a physical disc (or 2 of them to be precise)

UPDATE April 27, 2016: see also my review of the String Quintet by the Quatuor Ebène and Gautier Capuçon here

The Legacy of the Jazz Messengers (3): Joe Henderson – Inner Urge

Not properly speaking a Jazz Messenger Alumni

Putting Joe Henderson into my little Jazz Messengers mini series is probably slightly incorrect, I don’t think Henderson ever played directly at the Jazz Messengers, but he started playing quite a bit with Kenny Dorham, another Messengers alumni, and he also contributes to my previously mentioned Horace Silver album “Song for my Father“, and the hardbop classic “Sidewinder” by Lee Morgan (more about this later).

Joe Henderson

I nevertheless wanted to mention him here, as I believe he was heavily influenced by his first real gigs, including those above (although Henderson himself cited mainly Charlie Parker as a lead influence). He went on rather quickly to lead several albums on Blue Note. Funnily enough, apparently he was “discovered” by another great saxophone player Dexter Gordon (who I personally never particularly liked, as a side note).

The other reason for bringing him up here is that I had the pleasure of hearing 3 out of four of the musicians on the album this post will eventually get to live (albeit all individually) including Henderson himself at a gig in the late 80s in Hamburg, and Elvin Jones and McCoyTyner in the early 2000s in Paris. So there’s a (if tiny) personal connection here.

Like Hank Mobley, Henderson is maybe not one of the real A-league saxophonists, but still better known compared to the former, probably also due to the fact that he continued recording albums up to the 1990s.

Joe Henderson’s greatest albums in my humble (is it really humble? hopefully) opinion, are all on Blue Note, from a short period between 1963 and 1966 (notice a pattern here, how glorious these days were for Jazz…). Namely, Page One, In ‘n Out, Mode For Joe, and, obviously:

Inner Urge

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Why this album? Well, being a pianist (well that’s stretching it, but let’s rather say having played the piano), my answer is called McCoy Tyner. He really does an outstanding job on this album, in the beautiful combination with Elvin Jones on drums. These two obviously knew each other well from playing with Coltrane, including on the legendary “A Love Supreme“.

The title track – Amazing

There is a very simple reason to buy the album: the eponymous title track. Nearly 12 minutes of tension and harmonic complexity that reminds me in some places of the above mentioned “A Love Supreme“. 5 stars plus for this track only.

The other tracks, with the exception of the great “El Barrio“, where Elvin Jones builds a mesmerizing latin groove, are more fillers. Isotope is swinging nicely, but not very memorable, Night and Day is a bit light for an album ending (but Jones drums manage to keep it interesting), but overall never mind, this album is worth purchasing for two tracks only. Or if you have a download site that allows purchasing by track, stick to 1 and 3 and you’re all set.

Overall rating: 5 stars (I’m a bit hesitant here and probably should rather give 4.5 stars, but I don’t want to dilute my rating system even further and just decide that the title tracks on its own is worth the 5 stars).

Georg Friedrich Händel – beyond the Messiah

I’ve already mentioned before that my personal ranking of Baroque composers is Bach first, Händel is second.

So let me write about no. 2 on the list. Händel is German, although he spent quite a bit of his professional life in London and is somehow adopted English, so probably you’re more familiar with the George Frideric spelling of his name.

Most well-known classical music pieces

If you ask the average guy on the street whose typical musical fare is contemporary pop music, chances are he or she has at least heard a couple of ultra-famous classical pieces. These often include the “Da-da-da-daaaa” from Beethoven’s 5th, Bach’s Toccata BWV565 etc. etc.. Somebody even bothered to compile a top 10. Not surprisingly, this top 10 list includes our friend Georg Friedrich (sorry, I’ll stick to his birth name). Guess which one it is? Obviously: “Hallelujah” from the Messiah.

I’m not such a big fan of the Messiah, it’s good, but I can only listen to it ever so often. But it summarizes one of the two things Händel does really well: Glorious Oratorios, often with festive character. His two other rather well-known pieces, the fireworks- and water music, are of similar character.

The other thing Händel is really great at, is related, amazing stage drama. His Baroque operas and oratorios (many oratorios are actually operas, but weren’t allowed to be called opera as the pope Clement XI had some issue with this form of entertainment). I’ll certainly post more about the baroque operas later.

Music for Queen Caroline

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Back to the festive music. Obviously key clients for composers at the time were royals, and royal festivities like the arrival of a new queen, the coronation, or even funerals, required the appropriate musical soundtrack.

This album from William Christie and his Les Arts Florissants ensemble from 2014 brings you all three. Like many others, William Christie, the American turned French conductor has created his own label for this release. By the way, usually you can buy most of Christie’s releases blindly, he’s rather ever done a bad album and many are outstanding. His Messiah is still my personal reference version.

You’ll get three oeuvres on this album, all related to Queen Caroline (another German in the long history of German blood in the British royal family by the way): The Coronation Anthem, a Te Deum that was even nicknamed after her, and her funeral music.

All three are just outstanding pleasure to listen to, and William Christie does an amazing job here. This is 1h12 packed with emotions, with very little time to relax. Furthermore, this album is very well recorded, which makes the impact on a good stereo even stronger.

Highly recommended.

My rating: 4 stars

(this is one potential 5 star candidate, but I’ve only acquired it recently and need to give it some more spins before making u p my mind).

Update Oct 2016: I’ll stick to the 4 star rating. It is really nice to have but not essential.

What is your favorite piece by Händel?

The Legacy of the Jazz Messengers (2): Hank Mobley – Soul Station

For part II of my little mini-series (well, given the number of relevant musicians that I really like, it may turn out maxi, who knows) on the Jazz Messengers, I obviously had a lot of choice. I ended up with Hank Mobley.

Hank Mobley

Why? He’s certainly one of the lesser known artists of the Jazz Messenger stable, and also one of the least well-known Tenor players (Coltrane, Shorter, Rollins, … would anybody spontaneously continue this list with Mobley?)

However, his albums are consistently good. They are never outstanding, I don’t have a single five-star album with Mobley, but I’ve rated most of his albums a very solid four star, they are just always fun to listen too. Getting to such a consistency is already a major achievement for me.

What are those four star albums? Well, you can pretty much chose blindly. Whether it is (in alphabetical order to avoid any impression of ranking) A Caddy For Daddy (what a nice title), Dippin, No Room For Squares, Hi Voltage, Roll Call, Soul Station, or Workout, they are all just a lot of fun. It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. Well Mobley and his several groups have plenty.

Mobley grew up learning the … piano. Apparently he starting playing the saxophone only at the age of 16. I sometimes wonder, had he started earlier, would we list him with the Coltranes of this world? If Wikipedia is to be believed,  Miles Davis had considered him as a replacement for Coltrane for a little while (what is for sure is that you’ll find Mobley on the great Miles Davis album “Someday My Prince Will Come” playing alongside Coltrane).

As part of the Messengers he also played with Horace Silver, including the nice album “Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers” I completely forgot to mention in my previous post.

Soul Station

Hank Mobley Soul Station Blue Note 24 192

 

So why did I pick his 1960 album Soul Station here? Well, there’s obviously the personnel: Wynton Kelly and Paul Chambers, plus Art Blakey. What could possible go wrong? In any case, I don’t seem to be alone in preferring this album (witness this very nice article about him written by the folks at BlueNote), and Jazz critic Bob Blumenthal wrote that this album could be considered his “Saxophone Colossus” or “Giant Steps”.

Luckily I didn’t even have to research the facts above, as I have a very simple system: given that I try to rate individual songs as much as possible within iTunes, I can simply check the average score of an album. While most of my Mobley albums net out at four stars throughout, Soul Station stands out just a bit at “4.33” stars.

Two exceptional tracks

The album stands out due to two exceptional tracks: This I Dig Of You and Soul Station. I don’t think it is a coincidence that these are the longest tracks on the album. I’ve noticed before that usually the really long tracks (Soul Station is 9:05) are often the best, probably because they just leave more room to the individual soloing.

Overall rating: 4 stars (well 4 1/3 mathematically…)

The Legacy of the Jazz Messengers (1): Song For My Father – Horace Silver

Hard Bop

I’m not going to win a price on originality here writing about one of the greatest Jazz groups in history, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. They’ve been praised over and over again over the last 50 years.

But never mind, my purpose was to write about music I really like, and the hard-bop era is one of my favorites in the entire Jazz history. And probably hard-bop wouldn’t be hard bop without the Jazz Messengers. Therefore, I’m starting this little mini-series about the Jazz Messengers and their spin-offs.

The Jazz Messengers

Starting in 1954, this group around the drummer Art Blakey was composed of an ever-changing group musicians that would pretty much all go on great solo careers, including, little known fact, Keith Jarrett at some point (in a way you could say Art Blakey discovered Jarrett). Other outstanding musicians include Wayne Shorter, Lee Morgan, Benny Golson, Clifford Brown, Curtis Fuller. By the way, most Jazz Messengers albums are worth having, including At the Café Bohemia, A Night In Tunisia, Caravan, and obviously, Moanin’.

The original quintet from 1954 was composed of Horace Silver, Kenny Dorham, Hank Mobley, and Doug Watkins. One of my next entries in this series will be about Mobley, who has done some great albums. But given that I have a piano background, let me start with the pianists of the group, Horace Silver.

Horace Silver

And let me start immediately by what is probably his greatest album, Song For My Father.

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Recorded in 1963 and 1964, and released in 1965, this album falls around the end of the hard bop period, before most  Jazz musicians moved on to “Free Jazz” and “Fusion” (to me an absolute dead-end in music), and it took until the 1980s to get back to a some form of revival of hard bop. (Some say the sale of the Blue Note label in 1966 also significantly contributed to the decline of hard bop).

On this album, Horace Silver records with two groups of musicians, the first one includes Carmel Jones, Teddy Smith, Roger Humphries and the great Joe Henderson (tracks 1, 2, 4, and 5), the second one being Blue Mitchell, Gene Taylor and Roy Brooks. By the way, the initial group of Horace Silver in his earlier recordings were pretty much “stolen” directly from the 1954 Jazz Messengers group (only Art Blakey stayed on).

As usual, I’m not going to write a track by track review of an album, I usually find those rather tedious to read, especially in the internet age where everybody can just listen to the tracks anyhow.

Let me just point out my two favorite tracks on the album, which are the title track, and Calcutta Cutie. Both songs exceed 7 minutes, a great duration for a jazz song because it really allows for several solos that are really outstanding. But luckily, on this great album, even if you have the CD version with some bonus tracks, there are really no weak tracks.

My rating: 5 stars

Other Horace silver albums that are worth exploring include Blowing the Blues Away, Horace-Scope, The Tokyo Blues, and The Cape Verdean Blues (notice a lot of blues in there? well, that’s probably what’s so special about Silver in the first place, his bluesy tone).

Get the 24/192 remaster

Usually I don’t intend to write about technical details here, this blog should be dedicated to music, but if you intend to purchase this album please don’t buy the CD, especially not the RVG remaster series.

The most recent 2012 remaster is released in 24 bit and 192khz format and is available on several sites including Qobuz, HDTracks and ProStudioMasters. Even if you don’t believe in the benefits of higher resolution than CD, the remastering of the recording per-se is way better than all previous versions I’m aware off.

Telemann – beyond Tafelmusik

Baroque Composers

Baroque composers. What comes to mind spontaneously? Bach, Vivaldi, Rameau maybe? And yes, if you remind people, specifically, there’s also Telemann. Personally, my “ranking” of baroque composers is very simple: Johann Sebastian Bach,  After that, with some distance, Georg Friedrich Händel. Then for quite some time pretty much nothing else, and finally, all the rest.

Let me explain. Vivaldi is “nice”, but the nasty saying that he composed only one violin concerto – but 200 times – has some truth to it. I usually get bored pretty quickly. Then there are the composers I still don’t “get”. I’ve never heard any Scarlatti (Alessandro and Domenico) that personally touched me. For the French baroque stars with Rameau, Lully, etc., well, I’m currently in learning mode. For Purcell, I love Dido and Aeneas, but still need to dig much deeper into the rest of this oeuvre.

Georg Philipp Telemann

And then there is Telemann. He probably didn’t do himself a favor by composing the famous “Tafelmusik” (literally “table music”, apparently a marketing term invented by Telemann himself to better sell his music). I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m not the only one who uses Telemann’s Tafelmusik as background entertainment when receiving guests for a dinner party (usually after preparing a rather fancy dinner decoration including lots of chandeliers that even Mr Carson of Downton Abbey would approve of). In a nutshell, the 18th century equivalent of the latest Café Del Mar mix. But I pretty much didn’t know anything else from him, beyond the infamous recorder concertos (remember that horrible instrument that many kids, including me, get tortured with for educational purposes).

So as you can see, Telemann didn’t have an easy start with me. However, when Classica Magazine gave a “Choc Classica” (their way of saying 5 stars) to a Telemann album in the latest issue of the magazine, I was intrigued. I figured I had to get it just to revisit my Telemann bias.

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I’m glad I did, in spite of the weird monkeys playing backgammon cover, and the fact that I hadn’t (consciously) heard of any of the artists on this album. I’ve been very positively surprised by several albums from the French Alpha label in the past, including the outstanding 6-album Café Zimmermann Bach cycle, so that helped a bit.

Alexis Kossenko – Les Ambassadeurs

Alexis Kossenko is a French flute player that founded the period instrument orchestra “Les Ambassadeurs” around 5 years ago, mainly composed of younger musicians. I only noticed after purchasing this that I already had another excellent album with this orchestra, the recent Sabine Devieilhe Rameau recital “Le Grand Théâtre de l’Amour” on Erato, purchased relatively recently as part of my self-educational efforts with regards to French baroque composers (see above).

What do you get on this album?

An overture, a violin concerto, two flute concerto, and a flute/violin double concerto. The latter is really my favorite of the album. All played with so much energy but at the same time attention to detail, it is a pure pleasure. This music is no b-minor mass obviously, but certainly on par with the Brandenburg concertos or Overtures by my admired Johann Sebastian. I really need to explore more Telemann, and certainly more of Les Ambassadeurs. As a bonus, Alpha is doing a great job in making their recordings sound very well, so if you have a good hifi, you’ll certainly enjoy this album even more.

Overall rating: 4 stars.

Schubert on Fortepiano by Andras Schiff – not for beginners

In his comment on my initial Diabelli thread, Jud asked about the new Schubert recording of Schiff on ECM.

0002894811577_600Curiosity got the better of me, and I bought it blindly (instead of streaming it first as I would have done usually), Actually, I’m glad I did.

Andreas Schiff uses the same 1820’s Franz Brodmann fortepiano he also uses on the Diabelli’s second “disc”. This is not very surprising given that he actually owns this since 2010. (It is usually on loan to the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn).

When listening to Fortepiano, the differences are much larger than with modern grand pianos. Sure, a Bösendorfer has a different house sound to a Steinway, and a trained pianists will be able to tell one Steinway from the other (witness the fascinating movie Pianomania if you want to know more), but that said, for most of us mere mortals all sound pretty nice.

In the early 1800s we were far from this homogeneity. This is important to know before you purchase a fortepiano recording, as they really can sound quite differently, and you may not like all sounds.

There are some I cannot listen to for a long time (e.g. Malcolm Bilson’s recording of the Mozart piano concertos), while I love the sound of others (e.g. Roland Brautigam playing a Paul McNulty replica of an 1820 fortepiano in his amazing Beethoven piano music cycle).

Brodmann Hammerflügel

The sound of this particular Brodmann Hammerflügel I very much like on the Diabelli, due to their very intellectual nature. It takes much more getting used on the romantic beauty of Schubert (I know Schubert was borderline between classical and romantic period, but to me is is clearly in the latter), especially if your current reference is this:

uchida schubert

Mitsuko Uchida

The sheer beauty of Uchida on Schubert is just outstanding. Well, the sound of the Brodmann is anything but beautiful at first ear.

Funnily enough, Andras Schiff himself is on record (from the 1990s) dreading somebody playing Schubert on a fortepiano. He has obviously by now made up his mind and admitted he was wrong.

And to be fair, he was. There is so much to discover here, not only you because you hear the music “as Schubert would have played it” (and unlike Beethoven, at least he wasn’t deaf), but the colors, the nuances, everything is different. This is NOT a recording to lay back and enjoy, this is a journey into the music.

Real highlights to me are the Moments Musicaux (revealing their true Viennese charm) and the amazing sonata D960.

If you don’t have any Schubert piano works yet, don’t buy this as a first album. Go for Uchida, Brendel, Lewis, etc (or the recently released outstandin album by David Fray).

And please do, as Schubert (to my ears) wasn’t great in the symphonic genre, but has done marvelous work both on the piano and in the chamber music fields (more on this later).

But if you know what you’re getting, check this out, you won’t disappointed. And obviously as usual ECM is very well recorded.

Overall rating: 4 stars