My Reflections on the 2020 Gramophone Awards I – Concerto

Gramophone Awards

My comments on the Gramophone Awards, that I’ve done nearly every year since the beginning of this blog in 2015, always are quite popular with my readers.

And rightly so, Gramophone remains the most important and influencial classical music magazine in the world (in my subjective opinion), so it is always valuable to check what they like and recommend. And by default the handful of albums who make it to the final selection of the annual awards are obviously very good recordings.

But why bother writing about it and not just referring you to the full magazine release (available for free) that Gramophone has just put out ? Basically, I repeat myself: You really have to find a reviewer that you like and that your personal taste aligns with. If your taste happens to be somewhat similar to mine, maybe my couple of comments around the nominations can be of help.

But as always, I also love it when you violently disagree with me!

So, let’s start.

CPE Bach: Oboe Concertos – Xenia Loeffler – Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin (Harmonia Mundi 2020)

I haven’t formally reviewed this album on my blog yet, but I had checked it out when it was released. I’m usually a big fan of the AKAMUS orchestra, and I’ve even seen Xenia Löffler and the ensemble live, however, performing the JS Bach violin concertos together with Isabelle Faust (the album of which co-incidentally was a 2019 Gramophone Award nomination), so I had high expectations.

Poor Carl Philipp Emmanuel still is in the shadow of his legendary father, but, to my personal taste, he is really the one most worth checking out. He perfectly illustrates the ongoing transition from the baroque period to the “Wiener Klassik” of Haydn and Mozart (check out some of my album recommendations for CPE here).

Richard Wigmore in Gramophone writes “I’d confidently recommend this disc to anyone attracted to CPE’s quirkily fascinating art“. Couldn’t have said it better (except I wonder who beyond Gramophone editors still uses “discs”).

My rating: 4 stars (absolutely 5 stars playing, but CPE isn’t such a core composer that I’d necessarily recommend this to everybody blindly).

Beethoven: Piano Concertos No. 2 & 5 – Martin Helmchen – Andrew Manze – DSO Berlin (Alpha 2020)

Beethoven Piano Concertos 2 & 5 Martin Helmchen Deutsches Symphonieorchester Berlin Andrew Manze Alpha 2020 24/96

I didn’t review this album, however, you’ll find my very positive notes (4 stars) on their recordings of concertos no. 1 & 4 here.

The recordings of 2 & 5 is even more impressive. This is in many ways a “modern mainstream” recording, how you’d expect a Beethoven recording to sound like in 2020. Sufficiently inspired from the Historically Informed practice (where Manze comes from), and Helmchen really is one of those a brilliant a bit under the radar pianists that would benefit from being a bit more well known. (Co-incidentally, a very good recording of the Beethoven violin sonatas by Helmchen with Frank Peter Zimmermann was just released yesterday, more on this later).

But as Gramophone nicely writes, the magic sauce is in the beautiful pairing of Manze and Helmchen. This album really is highly enjoyable. Will it kick Andsnes and a lot of the legendary 1960 performances from their thrones? No, but it really is an album well worth having.

My rating: 5 stars

Beethoven & Sibelius – Violon Concertos – Christian Tetzlaff – Richard Ticciati – DSO Berlin (Ondine 2020)

Beethoven / Sibelius Violin Concertos Christan Tetzlaff Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin - Robin Ticciati Odine 2020 24/96

Seeing two Beethoven albums in this selection isn’t very surprising in the 250th anniversary of Beethoven. However, seeing two albums of the Deutsche Symphonieorchester Berlin here is already more intriguing.

For decades, the former RIAS (radio in the American sector) orchestra has been a bit in the shadows of the legendary Berlin Philharmonic and the excellent Staatskapelle from the former East. But as these two albums show, it has been able to develop an independent profile. It is often working with younger or still lesser known conductors (Ticciati is 37), and has therefore been able to experiment more.

Not that I’d call a recording of the two Beethoven and Sibelius warhorses an experiment. That said, Christian Tetzlaff (I’m a big fan) takes quite a lot of risks in this album. Luckily for him, these risks are very much rewarding. This is a recording that will allow you to discover many new details in these two works that you probably know really well, particurlarly in the somewhat more experimental Sibelius. And it is played with a beautiful passion. And a special mention needs to go to Ticciati for his excellent handling of the orchestra.

For the Beethoven, as a side note, Swiss Public Radio recently released one of their shows where two experts compare 5 recordings blindly. The two winners of this blind test of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, all recordings of the last decade, where my beloved recording with Isabelle Faust and Claudio Abbado (my personal reference), and this very recent release by Tetzlaff. And I fully agree with the reviewers choices, both recordings are excellent in their own rights and should be in your collection.

My rating: 5 stars

Chopin: Piano Concertos – Benjamin Grosvenor – Elim Chan – Royal Scottish National Orchestra (Decca 2020)

Oh yes!

OK I admit I’m as big of a fanboy of Grosvenor as I am of Isabelle Faust and Igor Levit, basically pretty much everything they release usually blows me away.

But still I’m impressed that this recording takes its place right there with the legendary recordings of the Chopin Award winners Krystian Zimerman and Martha Argerich. I’ve already reviewed this magnificent album here, and have nothing much more to add than “buy it now, what are you waiting for!”.

My rating: 5 stars

Mozart: Piano Concertos vol. 4 – Jean-Efflam Bavouzet – Manchester Camerata – Gabor Takacs-Nagy (Chandos 2020)

Mozart Piano Concertos vol. 4 Nor 20 & 21 Jean-Efflam Bavouzet - Gabor Takacs-Nagy - Manchester Camerata Chandos 2020 24/96

Unfortunately, Chandos has a somewhat restrictive streaming policy, presumably allowing only slightly older albums to be streamed on Qobuz. I checked out the previous vol. 3 of this cycle which was available for streaming and liked what I heard, but unfortunately that’s all I can say at this time.

Schoenberg: Violin Concerto / Verklärte Nacht – Isabelle Faust – Daniel Harding – Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra (Harmonia Mundi 2020)

Arnold Schoenberg: Violin Concerto Verklärte Nacht - Isabelle Faust - Daniel Harding - Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra Harmonia Mundi 2020 24/96

So, this is another Isabelle Faust release, so I should like it, right? Well my only problem is that the musical universe of Arnold Schoenberg and my comfort zone are still miles apart. The violin concerto is just something that my brain isn’t able to process correctly just yet.

That said, the earlier and more accessible Verklärte Nacht (transfigured night) sounds much more accessible. I’m probably going to buy this album just to really expand my musical horizon a bit. But don’t expect any value added comments from me.

In short, it’s the brilliant Isabelle Faust and recommended by Gramphone, so if you like early 20th century classical music, this should be a no-brainer.

My conclusion

My personal winner of the very good selection above would be Grosvenor’s Chopin, with Tetzlaff’s new album just behind (and those are also the albums I’ve purchased for my personal music collection).

We’ll know more in some weeks when the final awards are being given.

How about you? I’d love to hear your take on these albums.

You can find the albums here (all Qobuz):

CPE Bach / Loeffler

Beethoven / Helmchen

Beethoven / Sibelius / Tetzlaff

Chopin / Grosvenor

Mozart / Bavouzet

Schoenberg / Faust

Wonderful Bach Concertos with Isabelle Faust

Isabelle Faust

I mentioned two blog posts ago that I’m a fanboy. I’m a fanboy of Igor Levit, of Murray Perahia, of Sabine Deviehle, but probably one of my favorite artists these days is Isabelle Faust.

I’ve reviewed her countless time on this blog, playing Bach, Mozart, Brahms (here and here), Beethoven. And there are other albums I could have mentioned as well.

The only time I was ever disappointed by a recording by Isabelle Faust was her version of Mendelssohn’s violin concerto with Pablo Heras-Casado.

Therefore, when I went on my “quest” last year to see all of my favorite violin players in one year, I obviously had to go for Alina Ibragimova, Janine Jansen, Lisa Batiashvili, Julia Fischer, and yes, maybe the queen of all, Isabelle Faust. I was very lucky I managed to squeeze all of these live performances into one year.

Isabelle Faust offered one of my preferred programs (I saw her on Lake Geneva last summer during the festival at Château de Tannay), playing exclusively Bach. The program included some of the violin concertos, but also some chamber works. The concert (only slightly spoiled by being in the main air corridor towards Geneva airport) was not surprisingly hugely enjoyable.

So what a pleasure it was when I saw that Faust just released a very similar program on Harmonia Mundi

Bach: Violin Concertos – Isabelle Faust – Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin (Harmonia Mundi 2019)

Johann Sebastian Bach: Violin Concertos Sinfonias Overture Sonatas Isabelle Faust Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin Bernhard Forck, Xenia Loeffler Harmonia Mundi 2019

Isabelle Faust had recorded the violin concertos previously around the year 2000, with Helmut Rilling for the Hänssler label (included in their complete Bach edition). Already this recording was really very nice.

But here it get’s even better. The keywords here are precision, balance, and a complete lack of showmanship. This is one of the most introvert recordings of these concertos that I’ve ever heard.

Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with taking a lot of freedom with these works, at witnessed by the very beautiful recording of Alina Ibragimova with Arcangelo which I reviewed last year.

So this recording is the complete opposite. That said, I like it probably even a bit better. You really hear all the complexity of Bach’s counterpoint, the delicacy of the different instruments and their balance to form something bigger together. And Faust, just as she did in Tannay, wasn’t the star of the show, but really just one more musician as part of a team.

Another similarity to my Tannay experience is also that this album not only includes all violin concertos, including the reconstructed ones, but also one of the Orchestral Suites, several individual tracks such as the Sinfonia BWV1045, and some chamber music, the trio sonatas BWV 527 and 529. In total, you get nearly 2h30 of music.

If you like Bach and historically informed performance, this album is an absolute must have.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

UPDATE March 26: Listening to a recent Gramophone podcast where Gramophone speaks with Faust about this recording, I noticed I completely forgot to mention that Faust doesn’t play her typical Sleeping Beauty Stradivarius, but instead a German Steiner violin that Bach himself would have found familiar. In the interview she explained that this much better fits the ensemble sound than the Stradivarius, and that in general she really tries to be as close to what the composer intended as possible.

It is the same violin already used in the previous recording of the Bach violin sonatas (reviewed here).

In the podcast, the interviewer already said that the upcoming review of this album will be very positive. I’m not surprised.

UPDATE March 30: Classica likes it, but only gives it 4 stars, quoting the slightly remote sound quality, and the sometimes somewhat “martial” style of the orchestra. I can somewhat understand the first point, but don’t agree on the 2nd point.

Whereas Gramophone fully agrees with me and gives this album an “Editor’s Choice” in their April 2019 issue, calling it a “hugely enjoyable celebration of Bach”