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.

Bach Cello Suites – Purity at the highest level

While Brahms made it into the title of my blog, as he’s been historically my favorite composer, I may as well have mentioned Bach. I know I’m not very creative in my choice of composers as good old Johann Sebastian figures in so many best of composers lists, but to be fair, he’s there for a reason.

Bach in a way is the founding father of modern music. Anything before him sounds if you listen to it today very “old” (take early Baroque like Monteverdi or Renaissance artists), but most stuff from Bach, if you hear it today, sounds relatively contemporary in the chord changes and harmonies. Is it because the well-tempered scale was invented around that time? Well, more scholarly minds than me have certainly spent a lot of time thinking about it.

You can never have enough Bach. There is barely a month where I don’t add a new Bach album to my collection (latest additions were Claire-Marie LeGuay’s album and Pierre Hantaï’s English Suites). His St. Matthew’s and St John’s passions are a must hear every year doing the Easter period (and again, I’m not religious at all), there is no Christmas without his Oratorio, his Orchestral Suites and Brandenburg Concertos, while being the “pop” music of his time, still please after 100s of times being heard. His b-minor mass is probably the most beautiful liturgical work ever written (ok, it has serious competition, but anyhow). His sonatas for solo violin are about the only way a single violin on its own is enjoyable to listen to.

And now writing about another of his solo masterpieces: the Cello Suites (BWV 1007-1012). Pablo Casals did a great job promoting them, and his recording still is a must have. Unfortunately, from a recording point of view it is really not pleasure.

Steven Isserlis

Now which one to choose if you want a contemporary one? A tough decision, given that pretty much every Cello player on earth has played (and often recorded) them. My personal favorite at this stage is Steven Isserlis 2007 recording on Hyperion.

Bach_ Cello-Suiten - Isserlis

Why this out of this extensive catalogue? Well in any case there are many other beautiful versions I appreciate (Starker, Queyras, Wispelwey to name just a few), what makes Isserlis so special to me is the purity of his tone. As both the bible and the Tropicana commercial say, “nothing added, nothing taken away”. He is not excessive in his tempi or phrasing, there is very little vibrato, the sound of the cello is beautiful, clear, but not overly heavy or dark.

In a way, this recording reminds me of one of those famous Japanese Zen gardens, just freshly raked. You don’t even want to touch the little pebbles, fearing to destroy the balance. This is where Isserlis takes me.

EDIT: August 27, 2015: Thanks to the Gramophone Awards 2015, I finally stumbled across the recent version by David Watkin. See my entry here. Watkins recording is a just outstanding, near-perfect version on a historic cello. I still love Isserlis, but this is even better.

Is the Jazz Piano Trio the ideal art form of the 21st century? – Keith Jarrett’s Standards Vol. 2

Let me answer my rhetorical question immediately: obviously not, there are so many art forms out there today that trying to single out one of them is clearly ridiculous.

So let me rephrase: Is the Jazz Piano Trio my ideal art form? And the answer is, pretty close. There is something special about the intimacy of 3 musicians together, interacting and generating something amazing. It is in a way the modern equivalent of the String Quartet, which many consider the summit of classical chamber music.

I’d like to start by one album which I consider somehow the birth of the contemporary (meaning the last 30 years, I’m starting to get older….): Keith Jarrett’s Standards vol. 2 (footnote: vol. 1 is great as well, I just have a very slight preference for the 2nd volume).

Oh no, you’re going to say, not Jarrett again. Well first of all, you’ve been warned, it is in my subtitle of the blog, and second, I promise I’ll be talking about other musicians as well in the future.

Back to my old friend Keith (not that I’ve ever met him beyond being about 25 meters away last Friday): Why is this album so important?

The lost decade

Well, put yourself in the early 1980s (assuming you were already alive then, I was, but not for long). Jazz just came out of an entire decade of trying to break the “limits” of traditional jazz by first going “Free”, and later by going to Jazzrock and Fusion. Well, I’m sure to offend some here, but to me this was a complete dead-end, and both genres bore me to death (slightly exaggerating to make a point here).

As important as the 70s were for genres like Rock, for Jazz it is my personal lost decade. Most of my collection goes from 1956/7 – 1966, and then starts again in the 80s. So in the early 1980s, we have Keith Jarrett, who already did the amazing solo concerts in the 1970s including the famous Köln concert, apparently the best-selling solo piano album of all times, and had been playing some quartet work both in the US and in Europe (I’ll talk about some of my favorite albums from that period later, so it wasn’t 100% a lost decade, just maybe 90%….).

So then, early 1980s, the bass player Gary Peacock, the drummer Jack de Johnette, and Keith, get together to record first Standards vol. 1, in 1983, and then vol. 2, in 1985. Both are obviously inspired from the key representatives of the traditional piano trio, e.g. Bill Evans first trio, Art Tatum, or Oscar Peterson, but represent something new. And obviously, luckily, don’t contain any element of fusion any more.

Standards vol. 2

I’m not going to review Standards vol. 2 in detail, many smarter people than me have done that. It is an album I keep going back to again and again. I’ve actually just purchased it again very recently. ECM just released some weeks ago a new remaster, now in high-res format of up to 24/192 (bit/khz respectively). Whether high-res files are better than the regular CD format (called 16/44 or “red book”) is a debate I’m certainly not going to start here, you’ll have enough sites to get that discussion going. What is really better is the remastering. ECM; Jarrett’s Munich based record label is known for the excellent recordings, and this new remaster really sounds way better than the CD version. I actually still have the original vinyl in my basement, maybe I should actually get a record player again at some point.

(Footnote again: Do I advocate everybody to get the high res version? It is quite pricey, ECM has always been a premium label. So only get it if you have a decent playback chain and care enough about that album).

So to me, Standards vol. 2 is the “standard” (sorry for the cheap pun) to which I compare all my piano trio recordings.

Since then, the standards trio has recorded many live albums, most of which are outstanding and absolutely worth having. Examples include At the Blue Note, Whisper Not, Standards Live, and even again at the KKL in 2009, Somewhere. (a pity I missed that concert, but at least I have the recording, released in 2014)

Luckily, today we’re living in the Golden Age of the piano trio, we have so many fantastic artists out there that we’re not limited to Keith Jarrett any more. But we really have to thank him for revitalizing this genre (EST then took it to the next level in the 90s, but more about that later).

My rating: 5 stars

UPDATE (Oct 2016): I’ve since reviewed many more Jazz piano trio albums, you can check them all out by clicking on this link.

And please let me know if you have any recommendations for me in the comments section below!

Brahms 1 – Still Looking

Following my previous post, I was thinking to myself, what if somebody asks you for a recording in stereo? Not everybody is willing to put up with a mono recording. Well, my recommendation goes to Otto Klemperer in this case (Philharmonia on EMI).

Next question: what if I want a recording that is less than 50 years old? And here I get in trouble. While there are decent contemporary recordings out there of the Brahms Symphonies, like the recent cycles from Chailly (very straightforward, but some excellent insights) to Thielemann, none of them get it fully right for no.1. Same goes for Gardiner and Dausgaard, that I admire on so many other recordings, e.g. Schumann. Both relatively recent Berlin Phil recordings with Rattle and Abbado leave me cold.

In the end, I’m hoping one of my current favorite next generation conductors will pick this up and just hit the same level of energy as now 64 years ago in Berlin. Good candidates for this are Nezet-Séguin (although he tends to be speedy) and Paavo Järvi, who’s Beethoven cycle with the Bremen Kammerphilharmonie is outstanding. Or Andris Nelsons with the BSO. Well, fingers crossed.

In the meantime, I’ll just live with a mono recording.

 

P.S. (October 2016), somebody pointed me to this live recording by Klaus Tennstedt with the LPO. Still, no replacement for Furtwängler, but at least getting the idea:

 

Brahms Symphony No. 1 No. 3 Klaus Tennstedt London Philharmonic BBC

 

You can find it here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)

 

And I’ll keep my eye open for future releases.

 

UPDATE August 20, 2017: Above I asked for Nelsons and the BSO to record a cycle. Well, now they did. And it is really good. See my review here.

Brahms 1st symphony – why it means so much to me

Well, the subtitle of my blog is “From Jarrett to Brahms”, so I after writing about the former I may as well write about the latter.

Brahms will always have a special place in my heart, not only he was born in my favorite city in the world (no, not NYC; although that comes close), but his music combines the best of what the so-called “classical” music (which spans several centuries of written music): He has the greatness of Beethoven (his idol), the romanticism of a Schumann (his mentor), the structure of Bach (Brahms studied Counterpoint extensively), he comes from my favorite instrument (the piano), and no matter what piece you hear from him, it has something very uniquely “Brahmsian” about it.

Smarter minds than me have tried to define what that actually consists of, I won’t even try. I’m pretty sure listening to several of Brahms works (for a start, how about Symphony 1, the German requiem, some of his late piano pieces op. 116-119, and some chamber music, e.g. his piano quartet op. 25), and I hope you feel and hear the commonality.

The first oeuvre from Brahms that impressed me was his first piano concerto, in a decent but not outstanding recording with Solti and Andras Schiff. I still very much like this, but will write on it later on. I very quickly started diving into his symphonies, and no. 1 quickly became my favorite (these days, 4 comes very close in my personal preference, 3 is a bit behind, and 2 is nice to have).

Wilhelm Furtwängler

By today, I’ve collected at latest count 30 version of “Sinfonie Nr. 1 c-moll op. 68”, to give it its official title. My first early favorite was Otto Klemperer’s version on EMI. Not to far after that, I discovered the legendary Wilhelm Furtwängler, and all 3 versions I have from him are very very good.

I cannot decide which of these is my favorite, but most likely it is the version with the Berliner Philharmoniker on Deutsche Grammophon, recorded in 1951 (or 52?). The other versions I have are with the Hamburg NDR orchestra and the Concertgebouw)

How do I compare versions of this work? Well, usually I’d use a more differentiated approach, but on symphony 1 I’m simple-minded: the chromatic opening part, with the characteristic tympani. If this part doesn’t have the right gravitas and tension (up to a point where I feel all my muscles tensing), I pass on. An example of how not to do it in my mind is Günter Wand (an underrated conductor that I otherwise adore, especially on Bruckner), which takes the opening WAY to fast.

Luckily, Furtwängler keeps the quailty at very high levels up to the end. In this symphony, the first and forth movement are so heavy and important, that the two movements in between barely count. You get a “relaxing” Andante, and a very short and sweet (approx 5 min) Poco Allegretto in between. This is good, because if one had to keep the tension and the overwhelming feelings from movements 1 and 4 for an entire 5 min, you’d probably feel like being on Botox and Extasy at the same time.

So, as said before, movement 1 lives on the dramatic chromatic opening. But it gets even better: movement no. 4 is as ecstatic as the 4th movement of Beethoven’s 9th (without all over sudden somebody shouting  “Oh Froyda” and all the other singing about freedom and equality that goes on after that which pretty much ruins this symphony to me). But you don’t get there easily. This movement with Furtwängler alone is more than 17, and you start very dark and desperate. Luckily we leave the desperation quickly, to a dramatic built up including the mandatory tympani, which gets us to the first amazingly beautiful horn solo at 2:57.

This solo is worth a quick excursion: this theme Brahms had already used earlier in a letter to his beloved Clara Schumann (yes, he was in love with his mentor’s wife, if you read his biography, you wonder why this soap opera material hasn’t made it into a major Hollywood movie yet), with the underlying text:

“Hoch auf´m Berg, tief im Tal grüß ich dich viel tausend mal!” (High on the mountain, deep in the valley, I salute you a thousand times). Yes, cheesy, even in the German original, but by then Brahms had moved from his native Hamburg to Austria, and fallen in love with the mountains, and you can really picture a lonely Alphorn playing that beautiful melody for the beloved.

But obviously at, 2:57 we’re not done yet, you 14 min more of “per aspera at astra” (you can google that yourself) fighting, with the occasional relaxing 2nd main motive, which Brahms even admitted was inspired by Beethoven 9. (When asked after the premiere if there are strange similarities between the two works, he replied sarcastically “And even stranger is the fact that every donkey seems to hear that immediately”.

Well in any case, in the last 5 min you get a lot of more brass, some more of the 2nd motive, some more of the Alphorn, tons of tympani some more fighting, which culminates in a dramatic climax in the last 2 min.

Obviously, my description of this amazing masterpiece is quite horrible. Don’t be misled: if you’re able to listen to this movement played by Furtwängler without getting goosebumps all over, you’re either deaf or challenged in some other way (or just have a different taste in music, but then you probably wouldn’t be reading this in the first place).

P.S. I’ve later published an addendum to this post here.