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.

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!