A wonderful new Chopin Concerto recording by Benjamin Grosvenor

Benjamin Grosvenor

Benjamin Grosvenor is still only 27. But what an amazing trajectory he’s already had.

I pretty much recommend every single one of his albums (see here or here for examples). I’ve even listed him in my Top 10 Classical Pianists, and he’s also featured in My Top 10 Chopin Albums.

So, obviously when he recently released the Chopin piano concertos, I was all ears.

So was Gramophone (Editor’s Choice March 2020), and the French magazine Diapason, who gave a Diapason d’or, their highest rating.

So far, my favorite versions of these were the great classics (Zimerman and Argerich), so do I agree with the praise this album got?

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

And the simple answer is: Absolutely!

I must admit in the past when listening to the Chopin concertos I often skipped directly to the 2nd movements only. They are obviously the true peak of these works. But here with Grosvenor even the 1st and 3rd movements are highly enjoyable. I

One of the favourite pieces of the first movement starts from the 10 min mark. Here you really hear what an exceptional pianist Grosvenor is. He plays with the melody, keeps it singing all the time.

I must admit I didn’t know what to expect from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. With the exception of a few recordings from the Neeme Järvi time this orchestra had never made it into my library.

And this album cover was the first time I’d ever heard of Elim Chan. One of the reasons is simply that she’s only 33, a very young age for a conductor. I’m very happy to see we’re finally getting more female conductors! Let’s watch her career closely.

The orchestra in any case isn’t the highlight of any Chopin concerto recording, many critics over the last one and and a half centuries dismissed it as mere “background” and claimed that Chopin didn’t know how to orchestrate. Whatever truth there is to this claim, in any case in this album, soloist and orchestra really complement each other, in a beautiful intensity.

So, while I presume you may already have a recording of the Chopin concerti, get this one anyhow. And if you don’t, get it now! This one is up there (or at least pretty close) with the Zimermans and Argerichs of this world.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 1 by Martin Helmchen and Andrew Manze- A Positive Surprise

First of all, I feel a bit bad for not posting more regularly in 2020. OK, so my year transitioned very brutally from traveling like crazy to working even crazier hours from home, and obviously the situation of most parts of the world really has plenty of reasons to not have a clean head to think about other things.

But then again, isn’t music even more essential these days? It is a nearly universal source of joy, and I really hope I can share my enjoyment with you, my dear readers.

Beethoven Piano Concertos No. 1 & 4 – Martin Helmchen – Andrew Manze (Alpha 2020)

Does the world need yet another recording of Beethoven’s piano concertos? Almost certainly not.

Beethoven Piano Concertos 1& 4 Martin Heimchen Deutsches Sinfonieorchester Berlin Andrew Manze Alpha 2020 24 96

I’ve already shared how much I like the complete cycle of Leif Ove Andnses with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, which I also mentioned in my Top 5 Classical albums of 2015.

But that said, when I more or less randomly checked into this recent release, I was very positively surprised how much I liked it.

Both Martin Helmchen and Andrew Manze are artists that aren’t fully in the limelight. Insiders will know them, Helmchen for example for his many beautiful chamber music collaborations, Manze was until recently more known for his HIP influenced baroque performances that he lead with the English Consort. Since 2014 he is conducting the NDR Radiophilharmonie in Hanover, Germany. And obviously, the Deutsche Sinfonieorchester Berlin (DSO) is often eclipsed by the two other amazing orchestras in the same city, the BPO and the Staatskapelle.

But as I’ve written many times before, the best performances don’t necessarily come from the big names and the traditional large orchestras any more. You always need to watch seemingly lesser known ensembles, you more often than not will be positively surprised.

So, why do I like this recording? Well, it is hard to pinpoint a single feature. Probably the best description of what I like is the balance. You can clearly hear that Manze knows his historically informed practice, but at no point this performance becomes bloodless which some “HIP” recordings can clearly get to. You have a very transparent and intimate reading, but never dull.

Helmchen also is a fantastic performer here. I’m a particular fan of his performance of piano concerto no. 1. This work, which clearly sits spot on on the border between the “Wiener Klassik” of Mozart and Haydn, and the following romantic era of Schubert and Schumann, but it is so very Beethoven in so many ways. Helmchen perfectly captures the spirit of this transitional work.

Piano concerto no. 4 is probably my favorite of all 5 piano concertos. The opening, with its very simple solo piano chords, immediately answered by the orchestra, is a totally different beast to the piano concerto no. 1. This work was premiered for the first time in a massive concert that also features the 5th and 6th symphony. This is clearly a Beethoven at the height of his powers, fully emancipated from Haydn and Mozart, creating a style that is so very immediately recognisable as Beethoven, and has never been surpassed since.

Helmchen and Manze also give us a beautiful performance here, but maybe it is for this work that I’d just like to have a tiny bit more of something, what exactly I really don’t know. Maybe I’m still influenced by the very first performance I owned of this work, a recording of the legendary Rudolf Serkin with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony (a recording that build a much “bigger” Beethoven, not that that is necessarily automatically a good thing). OK, let me stop rambling here. In these situations I’m happy I don’t have to pretend I’m a professional reviewer, but just share my personal impressions.

Overall though this is a recording you really should check out, particularly for what could be close to a perfect first piano concerto.

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Quatuor Ebène’s truly enjoyable Razumovsky quartets

Beethoven’s String Quartets

I must admit I always found the category of the string quartets one of the most intellectually challenging, but at the same time, also one of the most rewarding categories in classical music.

I, like many started out my classical journey with symphonic music, and, coming from the piano as a (lousy) amateur myself, with solo piano music.

I had an easier access to chamber works with a piano in it, e.g. trios, violin sonatas. But the string quartet really seemed to me the most daunting works to approach.

That said, there are worse works to start your exploration than Beethoven’s Rasumovsky quartets, officially known as op. 59. These are the works of a Beethoven in a great phase, contemporary of the 4th symphony and the violin concerto. These are the first string quartets of the so-called “middle-period”, after the 6 “early” quartets in op. 18. By this time, Beethoven was truly established as a respected master in Vienna, at the age of 35.

By the way, even Beethoven waited for a while until he attacked the string quartets category, with such a strong tradition being established by Haydn and Mozart.

Op. 59 No. 1 and 2 present all the skill set of an accomplished composer, so no matter how often you listen to them, there’s always something new to discover. These were sponsored by Andrey Rasumowsky, an important diplomat in Vienna at that time.

Quatuor Ebène: Beethoven Around The World – Vienna

Beethoven Around The World Vienna String Quartets 7 & 8 Quatuor Ebène Erato 2019 24 96

I’ve written about the French Quatuor Ebène before, praising their fantastic recording of Schubert’s string quintet.

I’ve even seen them live some years ago performing late Beethoven at the Tonhalle in Zürich (still in the old hall, not the current “factory” interim arrangement).

I therefore had high expectations when I read that they will release a complete cycle of Beethoven’s string quartets, taken from live recordings throughout the world, during 2020, which you know if you haven’t been hiding under a rock, is Beethoven’s 250th anniversary.

The “Vienna” in the album title refers to the recording location, so very appropriately starting in the town which was Beethoven’s home for so many years.

So what do you get, and how does it compare to my current reference cycle, by the great Takacs quartet?

Well to make it short: it is a truly great recording. Both Ebène and Takacs give you top-notch performances of both op. 59 No. 1 and 2. Ebène is occasionally a bit more on the extremes, while the Takacs are slightly more “polished”, but both are truly enjoyable performance of these masterpieces.

Really can’t wait for the rest of the tour of “Beethoven around the world”!

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

GoGo Penguin is Back With a Beautiful Album – Ocean In A Drop

I know this blog has been quite heavy on classical music recently. I’ll promise I’ll try to increase the frequency of Jazz articles!

So, here we go.

GoGo Penguin

I only discovered GoGo Penguin some years ago. I was really on board they came out with their album Man Made Object, which remains my favorite album of the group until now.

I’ve also listed Man Made Object in My Top 5 Jazz Albums of 2016. I actually had noticed them with their previous 2014 album, V 2.0, which I also really liked. I also had the pleasure of seeing them live already

Therefore, I was quite disappointed when I just really didn’t particularly like their 2018 album A Humdrum Star.

Nicely enough, when their latest album came out yesterday, I was immediately hooked.

If you want to know more about the style of GoGo Penguin, click on any of the links above, but just to quickly summarise, we’re talking about the setup of a traditional Jazz piano trio here, but with music that clearly takes cues from EST, but is equally influenced by Philipp Glass type minimal music, and probably even more by the beats of contemporary Electronica.

GoGo Penguin: Ocean In A Drop (Music For Film) (BlueNote 2019)

GoGo Penguin Ocean In A Drop Music For A Film Blue Note 2019

So here’s the genesis of this album. Apparently the thee artists of GoGo Penguin,  Chris Illingworth, Nick Blacka, and Rob Turner, really liked the Philipp Glass written soundtrack to the 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi.

They liked it so much that they played their own soundtrack to the film. Everything was recorded live while watching the movie.

Yes, this may remind you of another famous movie soundtrack that was recorded in a similar manner (which is a great album and should be discussed on these pages at some point), but I digress.

Miles Davis Ascenseur pour l'échafaud  soundtrack

This music was never intended to be released. Nicely though, enough people in their immediate entourage bugged them enough, so now we have a new fantastic album.

It is quite short, EP-style, only 22 min (and one could argue, a bit expensive for the duration), but the music is just fantastic, very inspired. We’re back to the mesmerising mix of fast rhythms and beautiful minimalist melodies that I so loved on Man Made Object.

You really need to check it out.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

My Favorite Recording of Bruch’s Violin Concerto

Max Bruch

I haven’t written a lot about Max Bruch yet. To be a bit more precise, there is not a single blog entry in 5 years that is dedicated to Max Bruch.

Why is that? Maybe because he’s the 19th century equivalent of the One Hit Wonder. Do you know any work beyond his violin concerto (which is to be precise his violin concerto no. 1, but nobody knows the two others)?

Maybe occasionally you’ll find a recording of Kol Nidrei, a orchestral work with a solo cello part. Even more rarely, you’ll get the Romance in F (sometimes coupled with the violin concerto no. 1).

And beyond this, you have to be a proper classical music buff, if you’ve heard his symphonies, his chamber music works, or even his choral works. All pretty much disappeared today. And by the way, not only today, even while he was alive, Bruch complained that he was always reduced to this work, and apparently became quite bitter about it.

Overall, he should probably not have complained to much, his violin concerto no. 1 is still considered part of the list of the 4 great German violin concertos, the others being Beethoven, Brahms, and Mendelssohn.

So what triggered me to write about this concerto right now? Well a nice coincidence of two of the media I follow for classical music inspiration talked about it at the same time.

The first one is the Swiss radio program Disques en lice, from the French speaking part of Switzerland, which usually compares 6 versions of a given work, with 3 experts in a blind test. If you do speak French, I strongly encourage you to seek this program out, you’ll get it twice per week on their worldwide live stream (select Espace2) or if you are lucky enough to pass through Switzerland, you can even download the podcast (unfortunately the podcast has a rather strict geolocating feature).

So, as mentioned Disques en lice covered Bruch’s concerto on September 23, 2019. At the very same time, the most recent September issue of the French magazine Classica that I subscribe to on my iPad has a monthly section Ecoute en aveugle (blind listening) in which they go through pretty much the entire history of recordings of a given work, select what they believe are the 8 most promising ones, and then again proceed to a blind listening session comparing said 8 recordings.

So, which albums got selected?

Let me start with Disques en lice.

The host, Jean-Luc Rieder, had a hard time choosing, so ended up selecting 8 instead of the usual 6. So during the 2h30 of the program, we compared some legendary classics (Christian Ferras and Jascha Heifetz) from the 1950s, two recordings from the 1980s and 90s, Shlomo Mintz and Kyung-Wha Chung, and four more contemporary versions, notably Renaud Capuçon, Nicola Benedetti, Daniel Hope, and Janine Jansen.

Interestingly enough, the selection by the Classica reviewers Stéphanie-Marie Degand, Fabienne Bouvet and Michel le Naour ended up selecting a choice with only one overlap: Itzak Perlman, Isaac Stern, Nathan Milstein, Maxim Vengerov, Ida Haendel, Isabelle van Keulen, Salvatore Accordo, and the overlap being Mintz.

Now, who won at Classica: the top 3 are Perlman (with Haitink), Stern (with Ormandy), and Milstein (with Barzin). As much as I usually agree with Classica’s reviews, I checked out the winning recording with Perlman, and really didn’t like it.

So, who then is my favourite recording you are going to ask after all this intro?

Well, while often I don’t agree with the winning choices of Disques en lice (I much prefer the winning recordings of the Swiss German equivalent by SRF2, Diskothek im 2.), in this particular case I fully agree with the winning album.

(And allow me to brag a little bit, I actually did recognise that recording blindly, together with my other favourite, Jascha Heifetz).

It turns out to be Janine Jansen’s excellent 2006 recording with Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus.

Janines Jansen Mendelssohn Bruch Concertos & Romance Riccardo Chailly Gewandhausorchester Decca 2006

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you will have noticed that I’m a big fan of Janine Jansen, nearly as much as of Isabelle Faust. I’ve previously praised her fantastic recording of the Brahms violin concerto with Antonio Pappano, and have even heard her perform said Brahms concerto live with Herbert Blomstedt quiet recently.

This recording is just perfect to me. It combines the appropriate level of romantic engagement with Chailly’s perfect leadership of the magnificent Gewandhaus.

To be fully transparent, this isn’t the first time I write about this album. It is actually featured in my 25 Essential Classical Albums post, but I must admit I focused much more on her Mendelssohn recording in my comment there than on her equally outstanding Bruch.

So you get it, this album is an absolute must have.

And on top of one of the best ever recorded versions of Mendelssohn’s concerto, you even get Bruch’s Romance in F (op. 85).

My review: 5 stars plus…

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Miles Davis’ Rubberband – An Album That Better Should Have Stayed Unpublished

Thank you again for all your feedback

I get a lot of comments, both on the site itself and via direct message. And I truly appreciate every single element of feedback. It is what keeps me going now 5 years in a row.

Recently you told me you’d like more reviews of Jazz albums, and also encouraged me to write more critical reviews. I often tend to shy away from them, as my reviews clearly are very subjective opinions, and I really don’t like to critisize great musicians just because I don’t like some of their albums.

That said, the next musician won’t mind, a) he’s passed away a long time ago, and b) he’s one of the most brilliant musicians ever and nothing I’ll write here will take anything away from this

Miles Davis – Rubberband (Warner 2019)

This is a negative review that is more of a warning. Stay away from this zombie at all cost.

In the 1980s, Miles Davis had finally left his long term label Columbia to sign up with Warner. He then started recording some tracks. For several reasons, these tracks were never fully finished, and ended up in a drawer somewhere.

Now, somebody decided, let’s take these tracks, complete what Miles didn’t complete, and let’s see if we can still milk the Miles Davis brand.

First of all, people think of Miles Davis as a Jazz musician. Let’s be clear, in the 1980s had moved on, to a style much more influenced by funk and pop. Nothing wrong with this, it’s not really my cup of tea, but Tutu an album that was recorded shortly after this, is a modern classic. It will never get a lot of playtime on my system, but I understand why some people like it.

Rubberband really never should have been published in my opinion. Without Davis’ trademark horn popping up every once in a while, it would have just been a very bland synthetic late funk / 80s pop album. So if you’re interested in 1980s funk jazz, get Tutu (or some Herbie Hancock stuff from that era). But really avoid this “album” at all cost.

My rating: 1 star (this is now officially my first 1 star review in 5 years and more than 300 posts)

If you still want to check it out, you can find it here (Qobuz)

An Beautiful New Vocal Jazz Album with Giovanni Mirabassi and Sarah Lancman

Giovanni Mirabassi

Giovanni Mirabassi remains one of my favorite Jazz pianists. I really love his trio efforts, be it on Terra Furiosa, Live in Toyko, or, probably my preferred one, Architectures.

Mirabassi is Italian, but has been living in Paris for many years. As mentioned above, he trio output (mainly with Gianluca Renzi and Leon Parker) is fantastic, but he’s also collaborated with some excellent singers, e.g. Angela Elvira Herrera Zaparta and Maikel Ante Fajardo on Adelante, and on Sarah Lancman’s previous 2018 albums A Contretemps and Inspiring Love. Both albums only featured Sarah on the title, now we have a recording where both Lancman and Mirabassi share the cover. The two already met in 2015 and have toured together.

Sarah Lancman

Sarah Lancman is a young French singer, who studied in Paris, and has released three albums so far.

There is no shortage of excellent Jazz singers today, but still, Lancman has a very recognisable, unique voice. Not suprisingly, she won the first price in a jazz contest hosted by Quincy Jones.

Giovanni Mirabassi – Sarah Lancman – Intermezzo (Starprod 2019)

So what do you get? Well, you could argue, is this still Jazz?

You basically get beautiful duos where Mirabassi plays in a very intimate and connected way with Sarah, who singing exclusively in Italian (note the album cover kind of gives it away) on this album.

Every once in a while, Olivier Bogé joins playing the saxophone, with a sound somewhat reminiscent of Stan Getz. So who cares if this is Jazz or not?

All of this is just hugely enjoyable, beautiful, intimate music, and really worth checking out.

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)