Mozart’s Piano Concertos vol. 4 with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet – A Somewhat Confused Review

Mozart’s Piano Concertos

I haven’t written about the Mozart piano concertos that much yet on this blog. Not sure why. I really like them. Maybe it is because they were just always there, I’ve been listening to them for my entire life. But then, there are many (and many of which if you want to be nasty sound somewhat similar). And while truly enjoyable, one could argue the true masterpieces from Mozart are to be found elsewhere (take the DaPonte operas for example).

That said, I always had a particular fondness for numbers 20 and 21. The andante of no. 21 is even featured on my very own wedding video (I added a personal soundtrack to some of the pieces in the edit).

A quick reminder of my mentions of the Mozart piano concertos on this blog: You’ll find a beautiful recording with the amazing combo of Martha Argerich and Claudio Abbado recommended as part of My Must Have Mozart Albums, which features no. 20, but not no. 21. In the same blog post I also mention the historically informed recordings of Bezuidenout (which I like) and Brautigam (which I’m starting to have some doubts on), as well as the classic Perahia box.

And that’s basically it.

So, when in 2020 a new Mozart album was released that got a Gramophone Editors Choice, a nomination for the Gramophone awards album of the year, as well as a Choc by the French magazine Classica, that I usually really trust, I just had to buy it.

Mozart: Piano Concertos vol. 4 – Jean-Efflam Bavouzet – Gabor Takacs-Nagy – Manchester Camerata (Chandos 2019)

Mozart Piano Concertos No. 21 & 20 - Jean-Efflam Bavouzet - Manchester Camerata - Gabor Takacs-Nagy Chandos 24/96

A quick word about the soloist, orchestra and conductor: While I like and appreciate Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (have a look at my post on his great complete Debussy box), I must admit this is my very first encounter with both the Manchester Camerata and Gabor Takacs-Nagy.

So, what is it like? Well this is going to be a somewhat weird review.

In many ways, it is perfect. It is extremely well played from both orchestra and soloist, and Bavouzet puts a lot of creativity into the solo part, from variations, improvisations and ornaments in many places to the occasional liberty on tempi, and overall, I really wouldn’t know what to criticize.

So what’s wrong? Well, maybe it is the modern instruments and I’ve recently enjoyed the historically informed practice so much, or maybe it is just a bit TOO perfect, and I need the occasional imperfection. Honestly, I don’t know.

You should probably just ignore my opinion here and check it out yourself (please let me know what you think in the comments); as mentioned, both Gramophone and Classica were extremely impressed.

My rating: 4 stars (I may come back on this rating later once I’ve figured out if I’m just making a mistake here).

You’ll find it here (Qobuz)

My (Current) Favorite Version of Brahms’ 4th Symphony

Brahms’ 4th Symphony

I started this blog writing extensively about Brahms’ 1st symphony, and why it means so much to me, and why to this day I’m still looking for my “perfect” version.

I’ve also reviewed Andris Nelsons’ excellent Brahms cycle with the Boston Symphony some time ago (5 stars). I’ve also found a favorite version of Brahms 2nd symphony

But I’ve never written explicitly about Brahms 4th symphony.

To me, there’s a clear (personal) hierarchy among the Brahms symphonies. The first will always come, well, first, the 2nd is still nice but I listen to it much more occasionally, the 3rd is beautiful, but has the super famous 3rd movement that has been a bit overused in popular culture. And then there’s the 4th symphony.

After all, this could actually be the greatest masterpiece of all of them. Why? Well, I’m just totally in awe of the fourth movement, which is basically just a set of variations on a very simple motif, a Passacaglia. I’ve written before how much I really appreciate variations these days, they are a true art form (even though it is something that one appreciates only after some learning), be it the Goldberg variations, the Diabelli Variations, or Brahms several other variations, like the Haydn or Händel variations.

Each one of these little variations in the 4th movement is such a gem, with an emotional depth (some say down to very deep despair) in a bit more than 9 minutes. And unlike most other symphonies, this symphony doesn’t end in happiness. It starts in the e-minor key, and ends in e-minor. Compare this to Brahms own first symphony where you start with the nearly menacing timpani but you end in a chorale that tells you that all will end well. Nothing ends well here.

Don’t get me wrong, it is not only the last movement that is fantastic. In this symphony there’s more than enough to discover in each of the movements. In comparison, Brahms’ 1st has a fantastic first and last movement, but the two in between feel more like an interlude.

Brahms: The Symphonies – Riccardo Chailly – Gewandhausorchester Leipzig (Decca 2013)

Brahms: The Symphonies Gewandhausorchester Leipzig Riccardo Chailly Decca 2013 24 96

So, now to my current favorite version of the 4th. I put the “current” in the title, as I always keep discovering and looking, and my taste clearly changes and evolves over time.

Before I get into Chailly’s excellent recording, a quick note on some other versions you should check out. Many critics will give you Carlos Kleiber’s legendary recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, and they have a point. It really among the best. I’ve long been in love with Fritz Reiner’s beautiful reading with the Royal Philharmonic. Another all time classic is George Szell with the Cleveland Orchestra. (Side note: Szell takes the 4th movement much more slowly at 10:42 compared to Chailly’s 9:23, only to be exceeded by Karajan’s reading with 10:49, as well as Kurt Masur in 10:52).

If we look at the more contemporary versions, beyond the already mentioned Andris Nelsons, you should also check out John Eliot Gardiner’s historically informed reading with his own Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique (I’m not totally convinced of his approach, but it is nevertheless quite insightful).

But now enough of the alternatives, here’s my current champion: Riccardo Chailly with the Gewandhausorchester. By the way, this is not the first recording I love from Chailly in Leipzig, my favorite version ever of the Bruch violin concerto with Janine Jansen was recorded with this great team, and the same recording also features my favorite Mendelssohn violin concerto (mentioned in my 25 Essential Classical albums). Chailly’s recording of the Brahms piano concertos with Nelson Freire is also one of my all-time favourites, and the complete Brahms’ serenades recording is also outstanding.

So why do I prefer Chailly over all the other versions mentioned? I’d say it is not one little thing, but a sum of all the small things. This recording just feels “right”, balanced, nuanced, going deep when it needs to, but still tightly controlled.

And this doesn’t only apply to the 4th symphony. As you can only get this as a box set (if you decide to buy and not to stream, which I strongly encourage you to do), you’d also need to know that all the other three symphonies are top notch. They are IMHO, together with Nelsons, the best contemporary set you can buy.

To compare the two: Nelsons & the BSO really go big, this really is Brahms in Cinemascope in the great tradition of Karajan. Chailly’s approach in pretty much all cases is a bit more nuanced and delicate. Both versions really have very strong merit, and you won’t be disappointed with any of them.

And on top of that, going back to Chailly, in this very reasonably priced set, you also get most of the other orchestral works that Brahms has written, e.g. the above mentioned Haydn-Variations, the Tragic Overture, the rarely played Liebeslieder Walzer, and even to wrap it up some of the famous Hungarian Dances.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Keith Jarrett: Standards Live

Keith Jarrett’s Standards Trio

Happy New Year, dear readers! I assume all of you are keeping your fingers crossed that 2021 will be the year that will make things better, and that we all can attend live concerts again

In the meantime, recorded live concerts are for most of us the only option to recreate that feeling, so I thought it would be a good idea to write about some of these.

As the subtitle of my blog indicates, I’m a big Keith Jarrett fan. And his “Standards” trio with Gary Peacock and Jack de Johnette, remains, after Bill Evans legendary trios, the archetype of the Jazz Piano Trio, one of my favorite art forms.

The Standards Trio was formed semi-formally in 1983, when the trio recorded the album Standards, featuring, guess what, the jazz standards of the Great American Song Book (I’ve reviewed the legendary vol. 2 of this album here). This is not the first time the trio played together, but it was the start of more than a decade of albums, many of them live, of the trio playing together. This came as a return to more accessible music, after the 1970s, which for me Jazz-wise were not very interesting (I really don’t like free jazz, jazz-rock, fusion, or most of the other stuff that came out of that decade that for me was much more interesting on the art-rock side of things).

I’ve already put the fantastic Live at the Blue Note box into my 25 Essential Jazz Albums, and have also reviewed the enjoyable After The Fall from 1998, 15 years after the original Standards album.

Standards Live (ECM 1986)

Keith Jarrett Standards Live Highresaudio DSD remaster

This album was recorded in 1985, two years after Standards, at a live concert in Paris.

It captures all the energy of the trio at the peak of their performance, and unlike After The Fall, is recorded with the excellent recording quality that ECM is well known for.

Thanks to the live format, the trio always has sufficient times to develop the songs, with the average track length being 8-11 minutes. You can hear the fun the trio is having.

We start out with a true standard, the beautiful Stella By Starlight, that Jarrett takes a while to intro solo before the trio kicks in. They follow up with a solid The Wrong Blues, that has absolutely nothing wrong with it. Falling In Love With Love is the archetype of the swinging and grooving together. But the track from this album that I go back over and over again is Too Young To Go Steady, that Jarrett again intros solo. This is 10:11 of pure bliss to me. This is a textbook example of the trio playing truly as one.

The only downside of this, as of pretty much every other Jarrett album is his constant humming and vocalising. I still hope at some point that an AI will be able to filter this out….

My rating: 5 stars (it’s not the absolute best of the Standards trio live albums, the rating is mainly driven by the sublime To Young To Go Steady, but it id still so much better to my ears than so much other music that’s out there).

You can find it here (Highresaudio, audiophile DSD remaster) and here (Qobuz)

GoGo Penguin Live From Studio 2 – Excellent

GoGo Penguin

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a big fan of the UK trio GoGo Penguin, that mixes the acoustic piano trio with the sounds of contemporary electronic music very successfully (see my reviews of Ocean In A Drop, Man Made Object, an older live gig in Zurich, and the only album I wasn’t particularly fond of, A Humdrum Star).

In spite of Covid, GoGo Penguin this year has managed not only to release a new studio album (which I loved), but is now even giving us a “live” EP. Well, it is played live, but actually from the famous Abbey Road Studios, so without an audience around, given the circumstances.

GoGo Penguin – Live At Studio 2 (BlueNote 2020)

GoGo Penguin Live From Studio 2 BlueNote 2020 24 96

Audience or not, the energy in this album is incredible.

This video of one of the songs, Petit_a, should give you a good idea what to expect.

My favorite song from this EP is Atomised, from their 2020 self-titled album. This really epitomizes what I like about them, the powerful grooves, the ability to take a simple fragment arpeggio and turn it into an entire song, and the mesmerizing energy.

Check it out, you won’t be disappointed. And please remember, if you want to support artists in this challenging year 2020, do buy their music!

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

A Beautiful New Recording of the Concerto di Aranjuez

Rodrigo and the Concerto di Aranjuez

There are some pieces of classical music that even people that usually don’t care about classical music know, like the beginning of Beethoven’s Fifth, or Bach’s Toccata BWV565.

Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto di Aranjuez is one of these pieces. Play the second movement to anybody in the street, and I’d be a lot of them would recognize the melody. It has been used extensively in popular culture, adapted in a lot of pop songs, and even into jazz, in Miles Davis very popular album Sketches of Spain.

But then ask even classical music aficionados to name any other piece by Rodrigo, typically they pass. To modern memory, Rodrigo, who lived from 1901 to 1990, is a typical “one hit wonder”, a fate he shares for example with Max Bruch.

The concerto itself is special not only for the very clear Spanish sound, but most importantly for having a solo guitar. It is named after the Aranjuez gardens of the Spanish royal family. I’ve visited the place some years ago, and it is actually a really beautiful setting.

Thibaut Garcia – Aranjuez – Ben Glassberg – Orchestre National du Capitol de Toulouse (Erato 2020)

Thibaut Garcia Aranjuez Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse Ben Glassberg Erato Warner Classics 2020 24 96

Soloist Thibaut Garcia, while growing up in Toulouse, France, has Spanish family roots (as the last name gives away). Not sure if you need to have Spanish blood to play this concert this well, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. Being one of the best young (he’s born in 1994) classical guitarists of today helps as well.

The work is performed with a lot of beauty and grace, as it needs to be. The Toulouse orchestra, conducted by another very young artist, the Brit Ben Glassberg, always follows easily and has all the energy and vibrancy this music needs.

But the album doesn’t stop with after the 20 minutes of the concerto. You get a really beautiful performance of Garcia solo, playing guitar music by Regino Sainz de La Maza, another 20th century Spanish guitar composer.

This is followed by another work for guitar and orchestra, Alexandre Tansman’s Musique de Cour d’après Robert de Visée. Tansman, whose name like Sainz de la Maza was unfamiliar to me (I’m not a great expert of the classical guitar), was a Polish composer of the 20th century that was mostly focused on film music. This piece however is clearly inspired by older music, as the title indicates, references back to Robert de Visée, the famous guitarist (and theorbist, luthenist, etc.) at Louis XIV’s court. My somewhat simple mind is very pleased to note that Tansman, like Rodrigo, has completely ignored the unwritten law written by Schönberg et al that 20th century music after 1920 has to go beyond traditional tonality.

Appropriately, after the music above inspired by de Visée, we move back to the 17th century and de Visée himself, that Garcia performs beautifully.

I really recommend checking this album out if you like classical guitar. And by the way, most music critics agree. This album received a Choc from Classica, a Diapason d’or, and a Gramophone Editor’s Choice.

My rating: 4 stars (5 star playing throughout though, one star discount from me as I don’t consider this absolutly essential repertoire)

Melody Gardot’s New Album Sunset In The Blue – A Review (sort of)

Melody Gardot

Regular readers of my blog know that I’m a big fan of Melody Gardot. She’s the kind of Jazz(ish) singer that is somewhat different to the many other singers. Let’s be clear, she’s no Cecile McLorin Salvant nor Lady Day, but she has a very particular style and voice, and I’ve praised a lot of her previous albums on this blog (see here and here among others).

So I was very excited when her latest album came out about a week ago.

Sunset In The Blue (Decca 2020)

Melody Gardot Sunset In The Blue Decca 2020 24 96

The cover this time is simply abstract, not even any text on there, and presumably less controversial than the cover of her last live album.

On her previous non-live album, Currency Of Man from 2015, Gardot went to a much more soul influenced style. This new album now is nearly in its entirety a long list of latin ballads, including strings (real ones, not the synthesizer variety). On several tracks Gardot even sings in what is presumably Portuguese.

By the way, given the current Covid situation, it seems that putting this album together was the logistical nightmare you’d imagine with musicians stuck in different parts on the planet. Nevertheless, they pulled it off.

Now I must admit I do like my occasional latin and string inspired ballad (it’s clearly better in my opinion than Diana Krall’s recent But Beautiful), but it is not something that I’m super passionate about. There is the occasional faster samba-type track like Ninguém, Ninguém, or more traditional ballads like From Paris With Love; but you get it, I’m not blown away.

Gardot’s beautiful voice, many original compositions, and the well done arrangements still make this a worthwhile album, but it wouldn’t be my preferred Gardot album by far.

Until we come to the penultimate track, Moon River. I’ve admitted previously that I love this song, it makes me sentimental every time I hear it. So far, Sarah McKenzie’s version was my preferred one, but this could really become my new favorite.

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Keith Jarrett’s Last (?) Solo Album? The Budapest Concert

Keith Jarrett’s Solo Live Concerts

Keith Jarrett is without doubt the most important solo jazz pianist out there. $

He’s been touring the world for nearly 50 years now with his solo concerts, his 1975 Köln Concert still holds many records from a sales perspective, and I’ve already reviewed a number of his live solo albums on this blog (Munich, Paris, A Multitude Of Angels, Bregenz München, La Scala). I’ve even listed his Bremen Lausanne in My 25 Essential Jazz albums.

In fact, it was me attending a Jarrett solo live concert in Lucerne in 2015 that got me to start this blog in the first place, more than 5 years ago now.

So it was with great sadness that I recently saw in the New York Times that Keith Jarrett may never be able to play again due to severe health issues. What a loss, if true. I sincerely hope he recovers, as other pianists have after similar situations.

So, could this album that was just released today be his final live album ever?

Budapest Concert (ECM 2020)

Keith Jarrett Budapest Concert ECM 2020 24/96

This concert was recorded on July 3, 2016, in Budapest obviously, only some days after the previously released Munich 2016 album that was released last fall, and a bit more than a year after I saw him live myself.

The album lasts nearly 90 minutes, structured as often in his later albums in shorter “parts”, a total of 12 (in Roman numerals) this time, with two encores.

I’m not going to describe each part in detail here, I’m not sure that would make for a very enjoyable reading. I’m just going to flag some of my favorite parts, which are II, a slower improvisation, V, again a slower meandering around melodic impressions, and VII, the most dreaming part of the entire album.

That said, for me, the true highlights are the the two encores, Answer Me, that was previously released as a teaser (and was also part of his encores in Munich), and even more importantly, It’s a Lonesome Old Town (also performed in Munich). I could just spend entire days listening to these simple but very deep improvisations (I’m a simple guy, I like melodies).

Overall, to put things into context, this isn’t my preferred Jarrett live album, it is not an essential album if you’re not a hardcore Jarrett fan like me. I’ll obviously buy it anyhow.

And let’s all hope that this won’t be the last solo album he’ll ever record.

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)