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)

A Beautiful Recording of the Complete Beethoven Trios

Beethoven’s Piano Trios

Beethoven has written a total of 7 “official piano trios (in reality there are some more without opus).

The first three of them are actually officially the first opus he released, his official op. 1, at the age of 25. While he innovated a bit on the form, overall they still are very much in the spirit of Mozart and Haydn, you can clearly hear that the young composer was still trying to find his own style. That said, they are each in itself beautiful gems and truly enjoyable.

No. 4, op. 11, also called “Gassenhauer” (a term that losely translates as “popular song”) is actually my least favorite of these works. It gets it’s nickname from the fact that the third movement is build around variations of a then popular opera aria.

The true masterworks are his three later trios, op. 70 No. 1 and 2, written around the time of the 5th symphony, as well as op. 97, composed at the same time as the 7th symphony. Both op. 70. No. 1 and op. 97 have nicknames. The former is called “Geistertrio” or ghost trio because of the somewhat eerie 2nd movement and stems apparently from Beethoven’s pupil Carl Czerny. The latter is called “Erzherzogtrio“, or Archduke trio, as it was dedicated to Archduke Rudoph of Austria.

So how did I end up discovering this album box? This was triggered by a show on Swiss public radio called Diskothek im 2, a weekly show that does a blind test of 6 version of a classical work with two experts in the studio commenting on the recordings, with one winner eventually emerging. The show was dedicated to op. 70 no. 2, the lesser known of the two (probably because of it’s lack of nicknames. As you can guess, I love the show, as it really forces you to discover a performance without the pre-conceived notions of knowing which artists you prefer.

Beethoven: The Piano Trios – Oliver Schnyder Trio (Sony 2017)

Beethoven: The Piano Trios - Oliver Schnyder Trios - 24/96 - Sony 2017

As you’ve probably guessed, the winner (for both the two experts on the show and for me) was this album box by the Oliver Schnyder Trio.

Schnyder is actually Swiss, and even is one of the experts that gets regularly invited to the show, but given that this was a blind comparison I don’t think any national bias came into play here.

I was personally so convinced by the performance that I immediately purchased the entire box. I’m really happy I did. I previously owned only one complete box, by the French Wanderer Trio (which was also featured on the show and did compete quite nicely), as well as a very good recording of just op. 70 no. 2 and op. 97 by my beloved Isabelle Faust together with the usual Jean-Guihen Queyras and Alexander Melnikov. Given the historic instruments I even recognised this version blindly, but I still preferred Schnyder and his two colleagues.

Schnyder is joined in his trio by two great musicians, Andreas Janke is the concertmaster of the Tonhalle Orchestra in Zurich, and Benjamin Nyfenegger is the deputy solo cellist of the same orchestra.

The playing of all 7 trios is truly top notch. Now, is it perfect? Well I’d argue for op. 1 pretty much yes, same for op. 70 no. 2. For op. 70 no. 1 and op. 96 you may want to add other performances, like the above mentioned Isabelle Faust and Wanderer Trio, the Florestan Trio, or, if you want a flashback to another era, the legendary (but somewhat outdated to my ears) Beaux Arts trio. But this is nitpicking.

The entire box is very much worth having.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Accordion And Guitar? Seriously? Absolutely! Rivages – A beautiful new ECM release by Jean-Louis Matinier and Kevin Seddiki

Is this Jazz?

I’ve not only been neglecting my blog overall quite a bit since 2020, but particularly if you’re following this site because you’re interested in Jazz, I’ve been really not writing about that a whole lot recently.

Unfortunately, this trend started already in 2019, when I barely found enough new releases that interested me enough to write about them, and really hasn’t improved this year. But when I saw this new cover popping up in the Qobuz New Releases section, with the beautiful typical ECM style cover, I had my hopes up.

Luckily enough, I wasn’t disappointed.

Now, before we go to the album itself, one could really argue if this is “Jazz” at all. A duo of accordion and guitar is certainly not your typical jazz setting.

And indeed, the music takes many inspirations, from “Manouche” type “gypsy” jazz, to more ethnic music (Matinier previously played on several of Anouar Brahem’s albums, and one of the tracks is coming from traditional Bulgarian folklore) to Gabriel Fauré (track 3, Les Berceaux).

But who cares, this is beautiful music, full stop. I anyhow already had a certain soft spot for the accordion, being a big fan of Richard Galliano (see here, here, and here).

Jean-Louis Matinier & Kevin Seddiki – Rivages (ECM 2020)

Jean-Louis Matinier Kevin Seddiki Rivages ECM 2020 24 96

I must admit, I’m not really sure what to write about this music.

I could be descriptive, and go into more details around Matinier’s long career including his contribution to Anouar Brahem’s masterpiece Le Pas Du Chat Noir.

I could equally detail the fascinating collaborations guitarist Kevin Seddiki has been part of over the years.

I could mention the amazing sounds quality of the album (though that’s not a surprise for an album produced by ECM’s Manfred Eicher).

Or I could go into a track by track description of the content. While I sometimes do this myself, I’m often struggling with the added value of trying to describe music.

Seriously, because this album is very special, I’d rather suggest you really give it a go directly. If you’re open to two outstanding musicians who just click and produce fascinating and intriguing music, check it out now.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

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)

EDIT November 2020: Classicstoday is even more enthusiastic, giving it a straight 10/10 rating.