Schumann’s underrated piano chamber music beautifully played by the Trio Wanderer

Robert Schumann

I haven’t written very many entries on Schumann yet. That is not because I don’t like this composer.

In fact, his symphonies, typically either played by Szell, Gardiner, or more recently, Nézet-Seguin (that I really need to review here), Dausgaard (that I even mentioned in my 25 Essential Classical albums), or Rattle, are in very heavy rotation on my hifi.

I listen to his piano concerto much less frequently, just because I probably overplayed it in my youth. That said, going back to Lipatti’s legendary performance every once in a while is a true pleasure. For more modern performances, it is also worth going with Leif Ove Andsnes, or if you prefer a period piano, Alexander Melnikov.

His solo piano music gets even less frequently played here, which is a pity, as there are beautiful pieces like the Davidsbündlertänze, the Etudes Symphoniques, or Kreisleriana. I really don’t know why I don’t play them more often, maybe I should just actively seek them out more.

Now, when we get to Schumann’s chamber music, I must admit I barely played it until recently. I purchased the three piano trios in a very good version with Isabelle Faust, Alexander Melnikov, and Jean-Guihen Queyras, as they were included in their excellent recordings of the concertos for piano, violin, and cello. However, I mostly focused my attention to the orchestral works, not giving the chamber works enough attention.

My interest in Schumann’s chamber music grew when I recently purchased a reference version of Brahms’ piano quintet by the Artemis Quartet with Leif Ove Andsnes (not yet reviewed here), that also included Schumann’s piano quartet (in an equally exellent performance)

So when the following album was released recently, I was immediately very interested:

Schumann: Complete Trios / Piano Quartet / Piano Quintet – Trio Wanderer (Harmonia Mundi 2021)

Robert Schumann Complete PIano Trios PIano Quartet Piano Quintet Trio Wanderer Christophe Gaugué Catherine Montier Harmonia Mundi 2021

I already own an excellent box by this French trio, that consistently records very strong performances, of the complete Beethoven trios.

I really like these performances here as well. They are more polished that the somewhat rougher performances of the trios by Melnikov/Faust/Queyras mentioned above (the period instruments clearly make a difference), but there is beauty all along.

The piano quintet performance doesn’t get the brilliance of the above mentioned Artemis recording, but there is beautiful “singing” in the melodies everywhere.

I really don’t have a good reference for the piano quartet in my collection, so as with this entire review, take my comments here with a big grain of salt, but I really like what I hear as well.

Overall, a truly enjoyable box.

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Smetana’s String Quartets No. 1 & 2 by the Pavel Haas Quartet – Excellent

Bedřich Smetana

I haven’t written much about the other famous Czech composer (that said, even Dvorak doesn’t have a post dedicated to one of his works yet on this blog, I should change that).

As a kid I listened to The Moldau (or more correctly Vltava) from his Ma Vlast patriotic cycle A LOT. It is one of those classics that nearly everybody has heard at some point. My only issue is that I’ve heard it so much that I barely touch it any more these days. I’ll probably need to rediscover the entire work more systematically (and I have two Kubelik recordings in my library, with Boston and the Czech Philhamonic orchestra to do so).

That said, I have only a small number of Smetana recordings in my library overall, so I may not be the most qualified reviewers of his work. For the string quartets I’m going to write about I only have one other recording, by the Stamitz Quartet. So keep this in mind when you read my comments below.

Smetana: String Quartet No. 1 & 2 – Pavel Haas Quartet (Supraphon 2015)

Smetana String Quartet No. 1 & 2 - Pavel Haas Quartet Supraphon 2015
Pavel Has

The two string quartets are quite different in nature. One is what you’d expect from a late romantic composer of Bohemia, a lot of flowing melodies and a lot of well, “romanticism” (however you want to define that).

The 2nd string quartet is much less accessible, it was written in the very last years of the composer as he was already deaf. Yes, an eery parallel to Beethoven’s late string quartets, right? In any case both are very much worth discovering.

I’ve praised the Pavel Haas Quartet many times, for their Schubert (here and here), which even made it into my list of the 25 Essential Classical Albums.

I had even previously mentioned this particular album, as it had received the Gramophone Award for Chamber in 2015.

Why did I decide to write about this album again then? I must admit over the time (the original review was published in 2015) this album really grew on me, particularly the less accessible no. 2. I by now truly love particularly the Largo Sostenuto. Over the years I’ve listened to a lot of string quartets, making it by now one of my favourite genres of classical music. So naturally, tastes evolve (which really is a good thing. Stay curious!). I encourage you to do the same, regularly try to rediscover things you may already have in your library, or go a bit beyond your comfort zone in the streaming service of your choice!

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Moments in Time – One of the best Stan Getz live albums

Stan Getz

I haven’t written that much about Stan Getz on my blog, as I don’t listen to his albums very often.

He’s probably best known for his latin jazz collaborations with Joao Gilberto, published under the simple titles of Getz/Gilberto (yes, the Girl from Ipanema, and she still goes walking) and Jazz Samba, both among the best selling jazz albums of all times.

There’s another album with Stan Getz I really enjoy, the 1958 Stan Getz & The Oscar Peterson Trio. I bought this very early in my Jazz discovery journey as Oscar Peterson’s trio was one of my gateway drugs into Jazz, and I bought a lot of his classic Verve albums. This one is definitely worth checking out.

Other than that, it seems to me that Getz has somewhat had an image issue with the hardcore jazz community, as his West Coast style jazz was not really seen as exciting as the developments going on in New York City. And I must admit, I mostly myself stick to the great Hard Bop period.

But then there’s Getz late period. I’ve already listed a set of fantastic performances in Europe, People Time, the collaboration with Kenny Barron, in my 25 Essential Jazz albums. I really get a very special introspective intensity from these late performances.

And then I recently discovery yet another live album that I didn’t have on my radar screen, recorded more than a decade earlier, that I really enjoy. It was only released in 2018.

Stan Getz – Moments in Time (Resonance Records 1976/2018)

This concert was discovered in the archives of the Keystone Corner, a San Francisco Jazz club.

I must admit I didn’t know any of the rhythm section previously, which includes Joanne Brackeen on piano, Clint Houston on bass, and Billy Hart on drums. Apparently, these were taken from the first part of the concert which featured just this quartet, which were then followed by a second set with Joao Gilberto.

So, what are we getting here?

Well, on the surface, mostly easy going jazz with the typical Stan Getz sound. But I still like this album much more than the average Getz album from this era.

Why? I presume it’s the live setup which gives just a special intensity to the performances. Live has the advantage of just giving more time to each individual musician to express themselves, with time to breathe and solo. The longest individual performance, Gillespie’s Con Alma, which is one of my favourite tracks on this album, has a playing time of 12:34. But the track I truly like best is a ballad, Wayne Shorter’s Infant Eyes, which really just has a beautiful intensity and intimacy to it.

So, overall, really an album really worth exploring.

My rating: 4 stars (with Con Alma and Infant Eyes being truly 5 stars)

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Alternatively, if you believe a bit in some audiophile voodoo, you can also get this remaster from 2xHD (it’s the one I bought and how I discovered the album in the first place).

András Schiff Plays Brahms Piano Concertos on Historical instruments – Worth Checking Out

Brahms’ Piano Concertos

There is clearly no lack of excellent performances of the two Brahms piano concertos. There are many masterful recordings from the 1960s with the great piano legends, Curzon, Arrau, Fleischer, Richter, or Gilels, often with the fantastic George Szell, that have stood the test of time, as the romantic repertoire has seen less of a sea change of recording style as have earlier composers (I can’t really enjoy non-HIP Bach concertos any more for example).

There also have been a lot of more recent recordings that are outstanding. One of my favorite sets is the Nelson Freire / Riccardo Chailly / Gewandhaus one from 2006, or more recently, the excellent (No. 1) / very good( No. 2) recordings by Lars Vogt with the Northern Sinfonia (that I just noticed I totally forgot to review here).

And as a nice coincidence, the very first recording I ever owned of No. 1 was with András Schiff as well, with George Solti on a 1989 Decca album.

So why would even a Brahms aficionado like me bother to buy one more recording of these?

The answer is called Blüthner. That is the piano that Schiff uses in this new recording.

Brahms: The Piano Concertos- András Schiff – Orchestra of the Age of Enlightening (ECM 2021)

Andras Schiff Johannes Brahms Piano Concertos Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment ECM New Series 2021 24 96

The Blüthner is a piano from c. 1859, i.e. 1 year after the writing of Brahms first concerto. It has a quite different sound to the typical modern Steinway, less heavy, less brilliant, but more transparent.

To complement that, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is also clearly historically informed, playing on gut strings.

So, is it worth it?

I’d say yes (and I did purchase the album). I really like the difference in sound and transparency one gets from the historically informed approach and instruments. This is the first recording of Brahms concertos with a HIP approach that hit my radar screen, and it really gives you new insights into these works.

To quote Schiff himself from the booklet: “With the present recording we have tried to recreate and restore the works, to cleanse and ‘detoxify’ the music, to liberate it from the burden of the – often questionable – trademarks of performing traditions“.

Now, does that mean this will be my new reference recording? Clearly not, I won’t be abandoning the beauty of all the recordings I’ve quoted above. I really like the piano playing, although some rubati aren’t always my cup of tea, but particularly in the first concerto, I’d just like to see a bit more drama in the orchestral introduction.

But if you like Brahms, you should really check this recording out!

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Some thoughts around the new Liszt album from Benjamin Grosvenor

Benjamin Grosvenor

I’m a big fan of this young British pianist (maybe not as extreme a fan as Gramophone who adore every single one of his albums). I’ve previously reviewed and praised his Chopin concertos (part of my top 5 albums of 2020), his Homages album, his Chopin/Liszt/Ravel album, which also appeared in my Top 10 Chopin albums, and I’ve even listed him among my Top 10 Classical pianists (a list that led to a lot of debate by the way).

So I had really high hopes when Grosvenor recently released his latest recording, of nothing less than Liszt’s magnificent b-minor sonata, plus some other works.

Benjamin Grosvenor – Liszt (Decca 2021)

Benjamin Grosvenor - Liszt - Decca 2021 - 24 96

Now, before I go to the meaty bit, the b-minor sonata, let me start by saying that I really love how Grosvenor plays the other pieces on this album, particularly the extract from the Années de Pélérinage.

Also particularly interesting is Liszt’s 15 min piano adaptation of Bellini’s classic, Réminiscenes de Norma, a less often played work.

And I can’t get enough of the beautiful piano adaptation of Schubert’s Ave Maria.

The b-minor sonata

I really love the b-minor sonata, it is to me at least the ultimate Liszt piece. And here’s where we get to my “but” that you probably saw coming from my intro above.

Let me start by the positives: I really like how he takes the Andante sostenuto slower than most, giving it a special sense of intimacy and out-of-this-world spirit.

Now, what am I missing here, in what is actually a very good version?

Well I really believe one needs to go to the biggest extremes in this work (an opinion probably not universally shared). That’s why my favorite versions will remain those of the legendary Martha Argerich, and the somewhat controversial version by Katia Buniatishvili. In some parts, I just wish Grosvenor would push things just a bit further, he certainly has the power and technical abilities to do it.

Nevertheless, this is a beautiful album absolutely worth having.

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Delightfulee – Very Much So Indeed

Hard Bop

In the earlier days of my blog, I had an entire series on the Hard Bop period of Jazz. I haven’t written a lot about it recently.

I’m not sure why. Probably because I just haven’t listened to it as much recently. Without noticing, I saw my listening preferences subtly move towards even more classical music, with less emphasis on Jazz.

However, whenever I return to one of my hard bop classics, I can’t help but just truly enjoy the experience. It is a much more visceral enjoyment, compared to the sometimes more intellectual appreciation of some of my classical albums (not that classical music cannot be truly emotional).

Nicely enough, many of the old classics are now being remastered and re-released, which typically gets me to buy the same album again. As is the case in this one.

Lee Morgan: Delightfulee (Blue Note 1966)

Lee Morgan Delightfulee Blue note 1966 24/96
Note

Lee Morgan is mostly known for his legendary album The Sidewinder (see my review here), which I included in my 25 Essential Jazz albums list, but not only he’s been a fantastic sideman on a lot of great albums, including the other legendary classic, Moanin(yes, Morgan is yet another Jazz Messengers alumnus).

This album was recorded in 1966, probably the last year before Jazz descended on what to me are the dark ages of free and fusion (I’ve discussed this extensively on this blog that I barely listen to any Jazz albums between 1966 and 1980 approximately, with some exceptions to confirm the rule).

The very first track is already something I truly love, Ca-Lee-So, in the latin inspired Calypso style. This song, in my humble opinion, beats even the most famous Jazz Calypso of all, Sonny Rollins St. Thomas from the album Saxophone Colossus that was recorded 10 years earlier, and I believe contributed to make this style popular.

Yesterday starts a bit on the cheesy side admittedly. Once you get through the intro, it really gets better, giving time to the individual soloist to dissect the harmony of this classic.

Sunrise, Sunset, is just very solid swing, one that if you’re not tapping your foot to it, you are really missing the point.

Another highlight to me is Nite Flite, with its beautiful modal approach. It is also the longest track on the album, which confirms my theory that the longest tracks are often among the best (they just give more time for the soloists to develop their ideas, in this case particularly to the brilliant Joe Henderson, but McCoyTyner also gets plenty of air time).

Overall, a very aptly named album.

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Francesco Corti Plays Bach Harpsichord Concerti – A True Delight

Bach Harpsichord Concertos

In more than 5 years of this blog, I’ve only formally reviewed one version of the Bach piano/harpsichord concertos, the very surprisingly disappointing (to my ears) recording with Andreas Staier.

In that article I mentioned that I’m still looking for my favorite version of these beautiful works. So far I typically went with Cafe Zimmermann’s recordings that I haven’t reviewed yet individually.

So, what was wrong (again, IMHO) with the Staier recording? Well, Gramophone at the time summarised it nicely: “If you’re looking for fun, abandon, lyricism, radiant lift off […] and luminosity, then maybe this one is not for you“.

And yes, that’s exactly what I was looking for. And it seems like I finally found it.

Bach: Harpsichord Concertos vol. 1 & 2 – Francesco Corti – Il Pomo d’Oro (Pentatone 2020/2021)

For some reason, I missed the release of vol. 1 of these two separate albums back last year, and really only fully discovered this when vol. 2 was released some days ago.

Bach: Harpsichord concertos Francesco Corti Il Pomo d'oro Pentatone 2020 24 96
Bach: Francesco Corti Harpsichord Concertos II Il Pomo d'oro Pentatone 2021 24 192

Francesco Corti is a well known Italian organ and harpsichord player, and Il Pomo d’Oro is a recently (2012) founded ensemble specialized in baroque music.

Both bring together two recordings that are playful, enjoyable, bouncy, lively, and engaging. Very much the opposite of the somewhat dull Andreas Staier recording.

Is it perfect? Well, no. Corti and the ensemble occasionally have some quirks, particularly with regards to tempo selection in some parts.

But, to quote Duke Ellington, It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. And swing there is, plenty. It is just a sheer pleasure to listen to. And that, to me at least, is worth more than technical perfection.

Therefore, this may well become my new go-to version for these works I bought both volumes immediately, which I encourage you to do as well.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (vol. 1) and here (vol. 2)