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)

Getting Seasonal Again with Three Beautiful Versions of Bach´s Magnificat

Magnificat BWV243

Actually, the Magnificat isn’t per see a Christmas-related work. It was however apparently very early on performed on Christmas Day, so it stuck around as a seasonal work. From a content perspective, this is actually about Mary, not Jesus.

This beautiful choral work has been recorded over and over again.

So instead of just picking up one version, let me write about 3 different versions that all have their merits, by outstanding musicians.

John Butt, Dunedin Consort (Linn 2016)

Bach Magnificat Dunedin Consort John Butt Linn 24 192 2016

John Butt takes the Christmas connection seriously, and tries to fully reconstruct Bach´s own Christmas performance in Leipzig. Appropriately, you get some organ music and the Christmas Cantata BWV 63. He even intersects a Vom Himmel Hoch Da Komm Ich Her, a traditional German Christmas Carol, in the middle of the work.

I’ve previously mentioned this album in my comments about the Gramophone Awards nominees in 2016, giving this album 5 stars. My high opinion hasn’t changed, it still is one of the most beautiful version around, and combined with Linn´s excellent recording skills, this is very much worth having. Particularly memorable about this performance is the choir in all its glory.

But let’s look at two recent alternatives:

Bach: Magnificat / Vivaldi: Dixit Dominus – Vox Luminis – Lionel Meunier (Alpha 2017)

Bach: Magnificat Handel: Dixit Dominus Vox Luminis Lionel Meunier Alpha 2017 24 96

This is the most recent release among the three I´ll be writing about. The French Alpha label (OutThereMusic) is one of the most reliable labels I know, usually you can buy them nearly blindly. Nicely enough these days you don’t have to as they are available on most streaming services, which is also what I did first.

Vox Luminis I must admit was new to me, but a bit of research tells me it is an outstanding early music choir from Belgium (a hotspot of early and historically informed performance if there ever was one). And increasingly, they are not only a choir but also built up their own early music orchestra with it.

So how different is this version? Well, if Dunedin is all about sparkle, this is more about nuance and detail. Both really are outstanding recordings of the Magnifcat, you’ll just get a different perspective. So, talking colors, Dundedin is sparkling, polished gold, whereas Vox Luminis is more dark bronze. Both are beautiful in its own right.

What’s different here is the coupling, you get Vivaldis Dixit Dominus here. I’ve previously stated that I’m not a particular fan of the Red Priest, but this is one of the works that is certainly nice having in your catalogue.

Overall: Highly Recommended.

Bach / Vivaldi: Magnificat & Concerti – Jordi Savall – Le Concert des Nations 

Bach Vivaldi Magnificat Concerti Jordi Savall PIerre Hantai Le Concert des Nations La Capella Reial de Catalunya AliaVox 2014 24 / 88

This is the “oldest” of the three recordings, but still pretty recent, as released in 2014.

I absolutely had to include it here, as I just noticed my entire blog in spite of its 2,5 years of existence hasn’t mentioned one of the grand masters of early music yet, the brilliant Jordi Savall.

Jordi Savall, with his trusted ensembles of La Capella Reial and Le Concert Des Nations, is a legend in early music performance. If you don’t know him yet go and discover some of his many outstanding releases.

Interestingly enough, baroque music is already relatively “late” for Savall who focused quite a bit on the pre-baroque era.

But here he shines, particularly in the Magnificat. Comparing to the two version above, this is the most “balanced” approach, mixing the brilliance of the Dunedin´s with the more intimate performance of Vox Luminis.

Very interesting here are the fillers. Again, no fan of Vivaldi, but both the concerto for two violins and Vivaldi´s own Magnificat are quite pleasing. Nothing I´d go out to buy personally.

But the moment we move from Italy to Germany, this album really becomes outstanding. As mentioned, Bach´s Magnificat is close to perfect, And then you get a very surprising filler again, with Bach, with his keyboard concerto BWV 1052.

And who is the soloist, if no other then my beloved Pierre Hantai (see also here and here). I must admit I’m still looking for my perfect version of the Bach keyboard concertos. This one won’t be my reference as Hantai has the occasional quirk (he certainly is a character) that I don’t necessarily always appreciate, but one thing is for sure, you won’t regret having this version in your library. I keep coming back to it all the time.

Summary

There really is not a winner here. Check all of them out, look at which filling material you prefer, no matter what you choose, you’ll make a good choice. The Dunedin may have a slight advantage from an audiophile perspective, but all three recordings are of very high audio quality and are available as high-res recordings, so you really have the beauty of choice here.

My rating for all three albums: 5 stars

 

Update Dec 20, 2017: For once, I don’t really agreed with the latest recommendation by both Classica and Gramophone, who strongly recommend the very recent release of John Eliot Gardiner on SDG. Already the opening movement of the Magnificat sounds so rushed that it reminds me in a way of a 33 tours LP played at 45 RPM. May just be me, but I don’t get it. On the other hand, Classica was only so-so about the recording of Vox Luminis. All these reviews can be found in their December 17 issues. Doesn’t change my opinion above obviously.

 

 

Do You Have To Be Italian To Conduct Haydn?

Haydn’s Symphonies

I’ve said it before, I’m generally not a big fan of Haydn’s symphonies. I’m sorry, but quite often they just bore me.

However, these days we see a renaissance of Haydn’s symphonies. I’ve previously written about Ottavio Dantone’s beautiful album on Decca, which I liked a lot. In that blog post I’ve already mentioned that another Italian conductor, Giovanni Antonini, is doing an entire cycle of Haydn symphonies, called Haydn2032.

So let’s have a look at their latest release, vol. 3 in the series.

Haydn 2032 Vol. 3 – Solo e Pensoso – Giovanni Antonini, Il Giardino Armonico (Alpha Classics 2016)

Giovanni Antonini Il Giardino Armonico Haydn 2032 No. 3 Solo e pensoso Alpha Classics 2016

In this volume, we get a colorful mix of symphonies, from very early (4) to the Sturm und Drang era of no. 64. I have absolutely no clue how Antonini decided on the order of his complete cycle, but I appreciate the variety. An album only with very early symphonies would probably not be extremely exciting.

Giovanni Antonini and Il Giardino Armonico, very much like Ottavio Dantone and his Accademia, come from baroque music.

And maybe this is really what “Papa Haydn” needs, the lightness and energy of the historically informed baroque playing style. I guess Haydn has suffered from too many years being played by orchestras that were more used to playing Beethoven and Brahms.

But when you get the Giardino Armonico’s joyful playing, an entire new planet opens up.

Not that this is the first historically informed recording of Haydn, but really this cycle promises to be outstanding.

The playing is top notch. The energy is palpable. And the relatively small size of the Giardino Armonico really lets you rediscover Haydn in a new way.

I’ll make sure to follow future releases of this cycle, and so should you. It is really worth it.

My rating: 4 stars (this is not a rating on the playing, which is 5 stars, but I’m waiting for some of the later symphonies to give the full 5 star rating).

You can find it here (Qobuz) and here (Prostudiomasters).

 

Recommended: Brahms Cello Sonatas by Marie-Elisabeth Hecker

OutThere Music – Alpha Classics

In the old days (i.e. 1980s and previous), you basically had a number of big guys in the classical music industry, Deutsche Grammophon, Philips, RCA, Decca. Minor labels didn’t play such a big role, as most of the important artists were all signed to one of these major labels.

These days, while the big guys are still around (as brands that are part of large conglomerates), the smaller labels really strive.

BIS, Chandos, Hyperion, Harmonia Mundi, all of the really produce excellent classical albums, and if you were to check my 4 and 5 star recommendations on this site, I bet (but haven’t checked) that the independents probably outweigh the former majors by 2:1 at least.

Alpha Classics, now part of the Belgian/French OutThere Music, is one of those labels, that produces an outstanding number of great recordings, featuring great artist like Céline Frisch (see my review of her Well-Tempered Clavier here), Nelson Goerner, Alexis Kossenko’s Les Ambassadors (see my review of their Telemann album here), or Café Zimmermann (review of their Bach albums coming up).

One more strong point about most of these labels is that they do care about the sound quality of the recordings, which is not always guaranteed with the majors, who often tend to “over”-produce a recording.

Brahms’ Cello Sonatas

Brahms two cello sonatas were the first work of chamber music I ever owned by Brahms. I was lucky and started with a very nice version, with Leonard Rose on cello and Jean-Bernard Pommier on piano.

Since then, the cello sonatas have always been around, and I’ve constantly been on the lookout for the “perfect version”. On the way, I collected at least a dozen of versions, my most recent additions (both good) are Torleif Thédeen and Roland Pötinen on BIS and Ophelie Gaillard and Louis Schwizgebel-Wang on Aparté Music (note that both are independent labels…)

But to quote U2, I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.

Until now, at least for sonata no. 2.

Brahms Cello Sonatas – Marie-Elisabeth Hecker – Martin Heimchen (Alpha Classics 2016)

I had already started listening to this album briefly, as my streaming provider of choice, Qobuz, has a list of recommendations, where this album popped up.

Brahms Cello Sonatas Marie-Elisabeth Hecker Martin Heimchen Alpha Classics 2016 24 96

Being the Brahms fan I am (see my blog title), I obviously went to check it out.

I was pleased by what I heard in the first two movements of sonata no. 1, but not blown away. Well played, but not so different from many other recordings I’ve heard. So I got distracted and never got to the end of the album. Big mistake.

The July issue of my favorite classical music magazine, Classica, just came out, and had the album as a “Choc”. Usually, our tastes match quite well, so I gave it another virtual spin on Qobuz.

And guess what, once I got to the F-major sonata, I was blown away. In spite of being the later of the two sonatas (by approximately 20 years), this one is the much more passionate one.

And here finally you get all the passion I’ve always been waiting for. Hecker (winner of the famous Rostropovich award in 2005) and Helmchen (Concours Clara Haskil 2001) just play with so much energy, it just sucks you in.

Therefore, sonata no. 2 is the true highlight of this album for me, while the search continues for the e-minor sonata.

Nevertheless:

My rating: 5 stars (worth it for the 2nd sonata!)

You can find it here (Qobuz) and here (Prostudiomasters)