A Review of CPE Bach’s Cembalo Concertos by Andreas Staier – Just Beautiful

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach, as it is rather well known, had a large family. A total of 6 sons. Most of them did some composing. Unfortunately, the only descendant of Bach that I personally find interesting is Carl Philipp Emanuel, often abbreviated as CPE (I’ve written a bit about Wilhelm Friedemann here).

CPE had a major influence on music, including on one of the greatest names ever, Mozart. Mozart did meet CPE, and reportedly has said about him “Er ist der Vater; wir sind die Bubn. Wer von uns was Rechts kann, hats von ihm gelernt.” (which roughly translates into “he (CPE) is the father, we are the children. Whoever of us know how to compose, has learned from him”).

CPE Bach in a way, musically speaking is the “missing link” between the Baroque period of JS Bach and Händel, and the Viennese classical period of Mozart and Haydn. In his music you still have some elements of the former, but much more points to the latter. I suggest you check out this nice Guardian article if you want to know more about the composer.

Andreas Staier

I’ve written several times about the German pianist and harpsichordist Andreas Staier. Most of the time I just love his recordings (e.g. Schubert’s Winterreise, Bach’s Clarinet Sonatas, or his great Diabelli variations). Occasionally I’m disappointed, particularly with his recording of the JS Bach keyboard concertos (see A Disappointment From Andreas Staier – How Can That Be?).

I was particularly disappointed in the JS Bach recording mentioned above as I just love this CPE bach recording I’m writing about here, so I had particularly high expectations.

 

CPE Bach: Six Harpsichord Concertos – Andreas Staier – Petra Müllejans – Freiburger Barockorchester (Harmonia Mundi 2011)

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach Sei concerti per il cembalo concertato (six harpsichord concertos) Andreas Staier Freiburger Barockorchester Petra Müllejans Harmonia Mundi 24/44

 

So what do you get? Sheer brilliance! Staier and the Freiburgers really put all their energy in making this music shine. And what beautiful music it is. I personally would put CPE Bach higher than Haydn in my personal appreciation.

This is really exicing and passionate playing, which will draw you in. This album deservedly received the Gramophone Award in its category in 2011 (interestingly, they put it under “baroque instrumental”, not sure I’d 100% agree).

Check it out!

My rating: 5 stars

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

 

My Favorite Winterreise by Christoph Prégardien and Andreas Staier

Lieder

Lied” is a German word that literally just means song. Interestingly enough, the word “Lied” or the plural, “Lieder“, has made it’s way into the English language, at least for those interested in 19th century classical music.

In German, there is another word, Kunstlied, literally Art Song, that differentiates this particular category from anyother Lied, which could be anything from a childrens lullaby to Justin Bieber’s latest hit.

This art form really peaked in the romantic times of the 19th century. People at the time loved romantic literature, romantic poems, and obviously romantic music. The latter followed what is commonly known as Wiener Klassik.

What is so special about the Kunstlied, is the combination of masterful composing by greats like Schumann or Schubert, and the great poetry of Goethe, Schiller and others. Obviously, if you don’t speak German, you’ll have to rely on your booklet or internet translation of the lyrics. I strongly recommend you do, the text often is breathtakingly beautiful.

If I’m not mistaken, I haven’t yet written about any Lied recording on my blog. This is because I really dived into this art form only rather recently, and am still in the process of discovery. It is a gratifying journey, as this, together with chamber and piano music, is where my beloved Franz Schubert really shines.

Schubert’s Winterreise

Winterreise is one of the best known song cycles. This blog post was triggered by a post I read yesterday by fellow blogger The Well Tempered Ear (which you should check out).

Winterreise just is the perfect music for these cold winter days (assuming you’re somewhere in the Northern hemisphere). Here you really need to follow the lyrics. These 24 songs are based on poems by a lesser known poet, Wilhelm Müller, and losely tells a story of a wayfarer in Winter. Just make sure you put on the fireplace (if you have one) or turn on the heating, get a nice cup of your favorite hot beverage, and start listening to the journey. You’ll be glad you’re inside in the warm.

My Favorite Version: Christoph Prégardien with Andreas Staier (Teldec/Warner Classics 1997)

As said above, I am still at the beginning of my discovery of the Schubert song cycles, but I’ve been through already quite a number of versions of the Winterreise. Probably every great tenor of this world has recorded it, and sticking to just one version is pretty much impossible. I’m pretty sure I’ll have future posts on other versions coming.

Schubert: Die Winterreise - Christoph Prégardien - Andreas Staier Warner Classics

So why this one now? Well, it is just the intricate balance of Prégardien, one of the best tenors of our time, and Andreas Staier’s beautiful and nuanced Fortepiano.

Most of the recordings obviously are with modern Steinways. Don’t get me wrong, I love the sound of these (and still aspire to own one in the future). But for a work written in 1827, it pays off to get the more subtle sound of a fortepiano. This gets you to a whole new level of transparency. A must have.

My rating: 5 stars

 

You can find it here (Qobuz) or here (Prestoclassical)

 

P.S. This will most likely be the last post of the year, as I’m looking forward to some relaxing days with the family over the Christmas holidays.

I thank all my readers for their continued interest in my blog, and wish all of you a great holiday break, wherever you are in the world!

Schubert: A Journey Through 11 Versions of Schubert’s Piano Sonata D959

The Cross Eyed Pianist

Sometimes, as a blogger, you may feel a bit alone. With my rather niche topic of Jazz and Classical music, I really don’t have that many people to exchange ideas with in my immediate surroundings, as most of my friends and family don’t care enough about this topic (my mother-in-law is the exception, she is a loyal reader, even if she often disagrees with my opinions).

Luckily, on the internet, you’ll be able to find like-minded people for every kind of interest, as small as it may be. I’ve met people virtually on several discussion forums and via this blog that I feel I have very compatible musical tastes.

And obviously then, there are the other bloggers. You can find on this blog the long list of all blogs I follow (at least those on WordPress), but some are really outstanding, and to be fair, much better than my little enterprise here.

One blog I follow very closely is Frances Wilson’s The Cross Eyed Pianist. Well, she’s got an advantage over me, she’s an actual pianist (my piano hasn’t been touched for over a year now, shame on me). I strongly recommend you check her out.

Schubert’s Late Piano Sonatas

I’ve mentioned Franz Schubert several times now on this blog, as I’m a big fan.

Unfortunately he died way too young, so there is only a number of categories I really admire in Schubert. Not necessarily his symphonies (see my comment on his last symphony here), but his Lieder (still only getting into them), his amazing chamber works (see here and here among others), and obviously, his piano music, which was his very own instrument.

I’ve previously written about David Fray’s beautiful album, as well as Andras Schiff’s recent recording on a fortepiano. Note that you can always click on the composer link on the right hand side of this blog to see all my articles on a given composer.

But I’ve not fully talked about the 3 masterpieces of his late piano sonatas, D958-960, which really give you a glimpse of what Schubert could have achieved had he lived longer. These were all recorded in his last year alive, at the tender age of 31. Imagine Beethoven dying after the Moonlight, no Waldstein, no Appassionata, no Hammerklavier!

To get back to Frances Wilson, what trigger this blog post was her excellent article on Schuberts D959 in A-Major, which not only inspired me to write this post, but also the title.

Frances Wilson and others are the reason why I don’t write a lot about the works themselves on my blog, these others are so much more talented.

So let me focus on what I typically tend to write about, which is “reviewing” (or probably rather commenting) the recorded versions of these pieces.

10 versions…

I often get asked, which is the “best version” of a classical piece. If I’d be honest, I cannot answer this. Most classical works have been recorded hundreds of times, and comparing them all is just really not feasible. Gramophone and Classica try, and have monthly articles around individual works where they try to achieve this, but even these traditional magazines with their decades of experience usually limit themselves to a smaller number of versions (or I guess, leverage their archived reviews).

So, as I said inspired by Wilson’s article, I wanted to write about the best version of Schuberts D959 I have on my hard disk, plus Paul Lewis from Qobuz (I could have included all versions available on Qobuz streaming, but then you wouldn’t read another blog post from me for a least 3 years)

I have a total of 10 versions (thanks to years spend on meta-tagging I can actually now easily find them):

  • Leif Ove Andsnes
  • Alfred Brendel
  • Martin Helmchen
  • Paul Lewis
  • Wilhelm Kempff
  • Radu Lupu
  • Murray Perahia
  • Arthur Schnabel
  • Andreas Staier
  • Mitsuko Uchida

You’ll noticed Andsnes and Perahia from my Top 10 Classical Pianists I just published, actually, the preparation for this review triggered the idea of that post.

I’m not going to review all 10 versions here in detail, but just highlight those that really stood out to me (which is tough, because there wasn’t really a negative outlier in this list.

… and not a single winner

I’ll name 3 in detail here, and honestly, I’m not going to name my winner, as it is just impossible.

 

Alfred Brendel

Schubert: The Last Three Piano Sonatas Three Piano Pieces D 958 959 960 946 Alfred Brendel Philips

This was my first ever version, and I can still count it among the best out there. Brendel is an extremely intellectual pianist, and he’s probably one of the key people who put Schubert’s piano music on the world stage. I haven’t included him in my Top 10 pianist list, as I’m not a universal fan of his playing, but for Schubert, he really is among the top references.

 

Murray Perahia

Perahia actually made it into my Top 10 list. He’s a pianist I admire from Bach to romantic repertoire, he always seems to get it right. Same here, this is really worth checking out.

And, last but absolutely NOT least,

 

Mitsuko Uchida

Mitsuko Uchida plays Schubert

I’ve already previously mentioned her in my article about Andras Schiff, she absolutely remains among my favorite versions of this work.

She has such a light, delicate and beautiful touch. To me Schubert’s piano music is even closer to Mozart than to Beethoven, even if Schubert was a great admirer of the latter. Uchida is one of the best Mozart players we have, and approaching Schubert in Mozart style really feels right.

My rating for all 3: 5 stars

Two lessons learned here:

  1. Never ask for “THE BEST” version of a certain work. It just doens’t exist, you’ll almost always find several versions that are each outstanding in their own way
  2. I’ll almost certainly not do another of those huge comparisions in the near future, they are just so time consuming. I’ll leave that to the professionals. It was fun though.

As usual, I’d be interested in your opinion, are there other versions out there?

Frances mentioned Goode and Pires, which I both haven’t heard, anything else out there?

You can find the albums here:

Alfred Brendel: here (Qobuz)

Perahia: here (Qobuz)

Mitsuko Uchida: here (Qobuz) and much cheaper here (Prestoclassical)

Brahms Latest Work: The Clarinet Sonatas by Coppola and Staier

I’ve said it before, I’m a big fan of Andreas Staier. His Diabelli-Variations are outstanding (see review here). Therefore, I was rather disappointed not to like his recent release of the Bach harpsichord concertos (see here). It appears now that most other reviewers don’t share my opinion by the way. I’m still not convinced unfortunately.

But from Bach, let’s move more than a century later.

I haven’t reviewed any Brahms album for a while, which is weird given that he appears in my blog title.

Brahms’ Clarinet Sonatas op. 120

I must admit I wasn’t historically a big fan of these sonatas, I found them not very accessible.

These sonatas, as well as the Clarinet quintet & trio, were triggered by Brahms meeting the famous clarinet player Richard Mühlfeld.  But with Andreas Staier, I had to give them a go, so I went ahead and purchased this 2015 Harmonia Mundi album.

Lorenzo Coppola Andreas Staier Brahms Clarinet Sonatas Harmonia Mundi 2015

Andreas Staier plays a Steinway on this album, which could be considered somewhat unusual given that he is known for playing historical instruments. Well guess what, this Steinway actually is from 1875, apparently the type that Brahms really appreciated.

On clarinet, we get the Italian Lorenzo Coppola, who plays a 2001 reproduction of a historic clarinet which is very similar to the one Mühlfeld played.

So we’re getting really close to what Brahms could have listened to in his final years. And all over sudden, the full beauty of these late works really becomes apparent.

6 Klavierstücke op. 118

However, to me (with my piano background), the true highlight on this album are Staier’s version of the 6 piano pieces op. 118. Let me clarify first of all that I love Brahms late piano pieces from op. 116-119, and op. 118 is a particular favorite of mine.

And here, especially the second Intermezzo (track 6) is played more beautifully than on any of my other recordings (I’ll be writing about some of them soon). Staier uses tons of rubato, but it comes fully naturally. There is so much intensity in this playing that I’ve had them on constant repeats quite regularly recently. Or take the “Romanze”, truly romantic indeed.

As usual on Harmonia Mundi, this is well recorded.

My rating: 4 stars for the clarinet sonatas (rating my preference of the repertoire here, not the playing), 5 stars for the op. 118.

P.S. If you like op. 120, you should know that there is also a version of these sonatas replacing the clarinet by a viola. The well-known viola player Nils Mönkemeyer has just released an album on Sony playing these sonatas.

Nils Mönkemeyer Brahms Sony 2015

This album is really quite beautiful and also worth checking out.

You can download the Coppola/Staier here (Qobuz) or here (eclassical)

A Disappointment From Andreas Staier – How Can That Be? – My Review of the Bach Harpsichord Concertos

Andreas Staier

Let me start by pointing out that I’m a big fan of Andreas Staier. I’ve praised his Diabelli Variations here, I like his approach to Mozart and Schumann, as well as his album “Pour Passer la Mélancholie”. His 2012 album of the 6 piano concertos by Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach is outstanding.

Freiburger Barockorchester

The same goes for the Freiburger Barockorchester (who joins Staier on excellent the CPE Bach album above). Their recording of the Bach Orchestral Suites is my go-to version, and the recently started Schumann cycle with Isabelle Faust, Alexander Melnikov and Jean-Guihen Queyras (more about the Melnikov in the next days) is very very good.

The Bach “Piano” concertos

Bach wrote quite a number of concertos for harpsichord. As was not unusual at the time, several of them were probably recycled from other sources, e.g. other solo concertos or cantatas. You’ll find concertos for 1-4(!) soloists.

So far, I still haven’t found “my” version. My currently preferred versions are the 2011 Linn recording of the Retrospect Ensemble with Matthew Halls conducting and playing, Pierre Hantai’s slightly idiosyncratic but very interesting version with Le Concert Français (see my review of his Goldberg variations here), and most of all Café Zimmermann’s energetic readings, which are unfortunately spread over 6 albums (all worth getting anyhow!) and only have the concertos with several instruments.

Therefore, when I heard about this recording by Staier with the Freiburger, I was very excited and already had it on pre-order. Luckily, I was distracted, didn’t get to click on buy, and therefore ended up listening to it on Qobuz streaming first.

Bach: Harpsichord Concertos - Andreas Staier - Freiburger Barockorchester - Harmonia Mundi 2015

I’m happy I did, because at this stage I don’t think I will end up buying this album.Maybe it was just that I was expecting too much, but my “inner ear” has a very different idea on how these concertos should sound.

It pains me to write critical words about musicians that I admire very much, but the album generally sounds a bit heavy and slow, and does not at all the lightweight “swing” I so much love about most recent Historically Informed Performances.

In a way this reminds me of Karl Richter’s way of playing Bach. There is obviously nothing wrong with approaching the music this way, it is just really not my cup of tea.

Obviously this approach, and the sometimes slower tempi also allow for more nuances and there are very beautiful moments in this album, e.g. in the Largo of BWV1056.

But most of the time, this is not for me.

Overall rating: 3 stars. I really didn’t expect ever to give such a relatively low rating to these outstanding musicians. is it just me? I’d really love to hear your feedback especially if you disagree!

EDIT August 28, 2015: I seem to be the odd one out here with my opinion. Classica “Choc”, 5 stars from Diapason, 5 stars from the Guardian. So be warned, I may just be a crazy lunatic in not particularly liking this album. I’d appreciate even more your feedback on this, as after 4 more listenings, I stand by my opinion. Please tell me if I need a new pair of ears!

EDIT Oct 11, 2015: Just reading the review in the October issue of Gramophone, and at least Jonathan Freeman-Atwood seems to have heard what I’ve heard. To quote: “If you’re looking for fun, abandon, lyricism, radiant lift off […] and luminosity, then maybe this one is not for you”. He’s spot on, that’s exactly what’s lacking for me.

Beethoven: Diabelli-Variations – an acquired taste?

Beethoven. You could be saying that I’m really trying to tick off the famous “great Three B’s” first. How creative of me.

Well, while the general consensus doesn’t get everything right, there’s a reason why the three B’s are so important. And in any case, I probably wasn’t mean to be a rebel to tell the establishment they got it all wrong.

Back to Ludwig van. I’ve been a fan, like forever (excuse me for sounding like an over-excited American teenager). The symphonies I can never never never get bored with (except, as already mentioned before, the ninth, which somehow escapes me). His piano sonatas are amazing and cover his entire spectrum from something that sounds like young Haydn (and were not surprisingly his op. 2) to the extremely well-known sonatas in his middle period, many of which got their reputation due to their nickname (from Mondschein to Apassionata), to the late works (op. 109 to 111) which are anything but immediately accessible for the average listener, including me.

But let me talk about the Diabelli variations today. They are probably not as well known as their famous variations older brother (Bach’s Goldberg), but still are seen by most experts as an absolutely masterpiece. And let me admit: until recently, I just never “got” them. I tried again and again with the small handful of versions I had (including Brendel nevertheless), and nothing ever stuck, I just never really fell in love.

Until recently. Two and a half versions (I was tempted to do a Charlie Sheen joke here) of this, and very repeated listening, changed my mind.

Andras Schiff

The first version, is the one I kind of called 1.5. To be fair, they are two, but both played by the same pianist and on the same album. Andras Schiff, the great Hungarian pianist, recorded the Diabelli-Variations twice, for ECM (yes, I know, ECM again...)

Disc 1 (if in the times of computer audio it still makes sense to speak of discs) contains a recording on a 1921 Bechstein grand. This version really opened my eyes for the beauty of the Diabellis.

Disc 2 contains the same piece again, played this time on a fortepiano from Beethoven’s time. I recently started enjoying the fortepiano more and more (thanks to great pianists like Roland Brautigam, Kristian Bezuidenhout), as not only “it sounds like Beethoven would have heard it” (if he wouldn’t have been deaf by the time this was composed), but also it gives a totally different degree of transparency.

Andreas Staier

But when we get to the fortepiano, there is another version I prefer even more, from an artist with pretty much the same first name: Andreas Staier on Harmonia Mundi. Andreas Staier is a German fortepiano and harpsichord player, and I have yet to find any recording of him that seriously disappointed me.

This has been recommended by several people I usually trust well. But because of my scepticism until recently regarding the Diabellis, I only got this version some weeks ago. What a mistake. It is just amazing.

Luckily for us, both versions are also very well recorded (you can usually trust both ECM and Harmonia Mundi to get that part right), and are available as high-res downloads.

Check both out, you won’t be disappointed.

P.S: I just discovered this interesting article from Nick van Bloss describing his recording the Diabellis on Gramophone’s blog. I haven’t checked out his album yet, but his description and approach are certainly worth reading.

P.P.S. If you prefer a modern piano reading, read my addendum I just published.

P.P.P.S. Gramophone also likes Staier, but has yet another alternative

P.P.P.P.S: Igor Levit has recorded another outstanding alternative on a modern piano.

Please let me know if I missed any good version out there, I can certainly live with more!