Brahms in Cinemascope: Andris Nelsons and the BSO’s New Symphony Cycle

Brahms’ Symphonies

As you can see from the subtitle of my blog, I’m a huge Brahms fan.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been that happy with most of the Brahms symphony cycles recorded in the last 30 years. To be fair, even more than for other composers, the legacy left by the glorious recordings of Furtwängler, Klemperer, Walter, and even Toscanini, made it not easy to do something better (except for the recording quality).

We’ve had some very modern light “HIP” approaches from Gardiner and Dausgaard, both of which I appreciate as they give a very fresh point of view, and benefit especially the lighter middle symphonies (I consider 1 & 4 the heavyweights).

But unfortunately, most of the recent complete symphony recordings didn’t impress me much (see also this post where I was desperately, and in vain, searching for a modern reference of the 1st symphony). The only box I like (and still, not for every symphony) is Riccardo Chailly’s cycle with the Gewandhaus, which takes a nice middle way between the heavy romantic recordings of the past and the HIP inspired gut-string recordings of today.

Andris Nelsons

I’m a big fan of Andris Nelsons since he took over the Boston Symphony Orchestra. I put his Shostakovich into my best albums for 2016. I even specifically mentioned in said blog post about Brahms 1 that I was hoping for a new reference recording to come from Nelsons and the BSO.

Well, my wishes have been heard. The BSO has recently released their first full Brahms cycle. And I must admit I initially didn’t plan on buying it. The album is not available for streaming on my favorite streaming provider (except for the 4th), and the 1st is so critical to me that I didn’t want to buy blindly.

Well, then the September 2017 issue of Gramophone comes out, and gives it an “Editor’s choice”. I haven’t always been in agreement with Gramophone recently (see my comments about the 2017 Gramophone awards), but an Editor’s choice still means something. Then I started googling and also found this excellent review by John Marks, formerly with Stereophile.

So there you had me. I bought the box blindly.

Brahms: The Symphonies – Andris Nelsons – Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO Classics 2017)

 

Brahms: The Symphonies - Andris Nelsons - Boston Symphony Orchestra 24/192

So, what do you get?

Well, let me start by saying, if you like Brahms, you need to have this box. Nelsons takes the learnings from the great classics, mixes in the beautiful BSO sound, and brings a very beautiful Brahms style to life.

I’d call it Cinemascope, as you really see all the colors, on a very big screen. His approach is never rushed. You get to see all the fine details that Brahms managed so well.

Let’s talk about the individual symphonies, and let’s take them backwards.

Symphony No. 4

I’ve mentioned above that No. 4 is one of the two heavyweights for me. I particularly love the variations of the fourth. I’ve mentioned Nelsons taking it relatively slow. He takes 10:08 for this movement. This is not yet the 11:29 of a Bruno Walter, but also not the 9:35 of a John Eliot Gardiner, or even the 9:23 of a Chailly (interestingly, Furtwängler uses 9:47, starting slowly but accelerating over time, which works for me).

But, this music can take the tempo. There is so much going on in these fantastic variations, and Nelson lays it all out in front of you. And he keeps the power during the entire movement, which isn’t easy.

Symphony No. 3

Going one back to no. 3: here the heavier approach works, but not as well as for no. 4. It gives the famous Poco Allegretto (known from movies and commercials) an even more sentimental character. In some way this speed, with the tremolo of the violins, makes the quiet anti-climax of the ending sound like we’ve just moved directly into a Wagner opera.

Brahms wasn’t a particular fan of Wagner, but actually this shows that while they may have disagreed on structure, there are more similarities between the two than you’d think.

Symphony No. 2

Symphony no. 2 is sometimes considered Brahms’ Pastorale. And here is where I have my biggest problem with the slower tempo, it tends to take away some of the lightness of this music. Here I’d much rather have a Chailly or Gardiner. That said, it is still a beautiful recording.

Symphony No. 1

And now let’s move to symphony no. 1, my absolute favorite of the four (here’s why). And you’ve probably guessed it by now: Nelson’s style is just perfect for this romantic work.

My appreciation of any interpretation of this symphony is often already formed in the first seconds: the chromatic increased with the dramatic tympani needs to grab me immediately (as do Furtwängler and Klemperer), otherwise, I’m already lost. Nelsons takes a very special approach here, the tension is there but he doesn’t release it yet. Beautifully done. Movements 2 and 3 are nice, but basically just fillers between movements 1 and 4. The finale really summarizes what I love about Brahms. A lot of variation and developments (you never know what comes next), and then so outstandinly beautiful moments as the famous horn solo (at 2:56 for Nelsons), followed by the even more amazing melody of the cellos (at 5:12).

It is still a bit too early days, but this has the potential to become my new modern reference version of Brahms 1.

My rating: 5 stars.

I was hesitating a bit, as you’ve seen above that not all of the four performances are 5 stars to me (1 and 4 certainly are, 3 up to a point, 2 would “only” be 4 star), but this is overall a very convincing new reading of the Brahms classics. Check it out!

You can find it here (BSO website) and here (Qobuz)

My Reflections on the 2017 Gramophone Awards – Part II

This is the continuation of Part I of my musings about the 2017 Gramophone Awards.

I had a to-do from this entry, which was to check out Hervé Niquet´s latest Cherubini album.

Cherubini / Plantade: Requiems – Hervé Niquet – Le Concert Spirituel (Alpha 2017)

Cherubini / Plantade: Requiems pour Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette Hervé Niquet - Le Concert Spirituel Alpha 2017

Not surprisingly for a Hervé Niquet album, this one is really good. I´m not such a big fan of Cherubini in general, but this one is really with checking out.

My rating: 4 stars

I´ll skip the opera section, as I´m not really an opera expert in the first place, and didn’t find anything too interesting in this section to try out.

Orchestral

Haydn: Il Distratto – Haydn 2032 no. 4 – Giovanni Antonini – Il Giardino Armonico

Haydn 2032 no. 4 Il Distratto Giovani Antonini Il Giardino Armonico

Antonini´s Haydn is as good as ever. This has the potential of being the reference Haydn cycle of the 21st century (but we´ll have to wait another 15 years to find out). See my review of vol. 3. My rating: 4 stars (this is absolute 5 star playing, but I just can´t get myself to give a Haydn symphony 5 stars…)

I’m going to skip Mahler´s 10 by Dausgaard. I´m not enough of a fan of the 10th (which isn’t a complete symphony in the first place) to be able to give a proper judgment here.

Shostakovich Symphonies No. 5 and 9 – Nelsons – Boston Symphony (DG 2017)

 

Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 5, 8 & 9 - Andris Nelsons - Boston Symphony Orchestra

This was part of my own top 5 albums of 2016, and yes, this is true 5 star territory!

I´m going to skip again over Sibelius 3 & 6 by Vänskä, I´m not familiar enough with Sibelius symphonic work to really be able to judge. But everybody I know that knows something about Sibelius tends to recommend the Vänskä cycle, so I assume there must be something to it.

Vasily Petrenko´s Tchaikovsky get´s a second recommendation here (after the violin concerto which didn’t impress me much). And sorry, the Pathetique again isn´t my cup of tea, so no comment from my side here. Same comment applies to Bychkov´s recording of the same work, you´ll have to look elsewhere for a review of this.

I´m going to skip over Recital and Solo Vocal categories as well. The only album that appealed to me in the former is Anett Fritsch´s Mozart album, which is quite well done, but for me no match to Sabine Devielhe´s solo album last year.

And in the Solo Vocal, Goerne´s Brahms album is a no brainer, as I love his voice, but again I don’t feel comfortable enough properly reviewing Lieder, this is still a territory I need to explore slowly and cautiously. I´m sure I´ll get there eventually

Conclusion

So, there you have it. As you can see from my two posts here, I´m not fully convinced by this year´s selection.

Is there anything you must buy?

I´d say, the only must-haves in this selection are the Shostakovich with Nézet-Séguin, Perahia´s French Suites, and Suzuki´s c-minor mass (with Gardiner´s Matthew Passion just behind).

Faust´s violin concertos, Antonini´s Haydn, and Niquet´s Cherubini are a very good recording of only nice to have (to my ears) music.

I´d probably pass on most of the others.

What do you think? Am I completely off? Anything I´ve missed? Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments!

Gramophone Awards 2016 – And The Winners Are……

The Gods have spoken

Or to be more precise, the jury at Gramophone has today officially published the winners in each category.

So, how did my little Crystal Ball work this year?

Baroque Instrumental

Here I forecasted a win for Rachel Podger’s Rosary sonatas.

Gramophone seemed to agree. Congratulations to Mrs Podger, well deserved!

Biber: Rosary Sonatas - Rachel Podger Channel Classics 2016 DSD

Baroque Vocal

As documented here, my vote went to Sebastian Daucé.

However, I’m perfectly supportive of the winner as well, congratulations to Les Arts Florissants for their winning Monteverdi album!

Monteverdi: Madrigali vol. 1 Cremona Paul Agnew Les Arts Florissants 2016

 

Chamber

While my vote would have been for the Quatuor Ebène, the jury went for the Heath Quartet’s Tippett album. Ok, no comment here, it’s just not my cup of tea.

Tippett String Quartets Heath Quartet Wigmore Hall Live

Choral

I just noticed I completely forgot to even mention this section in  my previous posts, don’t know what happened here. Well, anyhow, here’s the winner. I haven’t heard it, so no comment from my side.

Schönberg Gurrelieder Markus Stenz Gurrelieder Hyperion

Concerto

As written here, I’d have voted for Trifonov, but the Gramophone Jury liked Vilde Frang’s Britten and Korngold better. Congrats to Mrs Frang, and I’ll leave it at this, given that this album doesn’t really speak to me.

Britten/Korngold Violin Concertos James Gaffigan Frankfurt Radio Symphony James Gaffigan

Contemporary

I didn’t write about this section at all as I’m not really qualified, however, I must admit the winner looks interesting enough that I’ll check it out in more detail:

 

Hans Abrahamsen : Let me tell you Barbara Hannigan Andris Nelsons Winter & Winter

 

Early Music

Again a section I completely ignored in my posts.

0822252235227_600

I’ll take time to check this out formally, looks certainly interesting

Instrumental

Igor Levit Bach Goldberg Variations Beethoven Diabelli Variations Rzewski The People United Will Never Be Defeated Sony 2015

Now we’re back in familiar territory, and while I would have appreciated the recognition for Chamayou’s Ravel, Levit very much deserves this price IMHO.

Opera

My coverage of the Opera section was a bit light,  but at least my prediction of the winning album was correct:

Verdi: Aida Pappanis Anja Harteros Jonas Kaufmann

This album really is a must-have.

Orchestral

Very interestingly, here I correctly predicted the winner without even having actively previously listened to any of the nominated albums. Congratulations to Andris Nelsons!

Shostakovich Symphony No. 10 Andris Nelson Boston Symphony Orchestra Deutsche Grammophon 2016 24 96

Recital

Yes, she did it! As I was hoping, Sabine Devieilhe wins in her category. Couldn’t agree more!!!!

Mozart: The Weber Sisters Sabine Devielhe Raphael Pichon Pgymalion Erato 2015

Solo Vocal

This is another section I completely skipped in my blog post.

For reference, here’s the winning album:

Néère - Hahn, Duparc, Chausson - Véronique Gens Alpha

I really like Véronique Gens, but had only very briefly sampled this album, I’ll make sure to give it a proper listen now.

Summary

Let me virtually brag a bit (sorry!) and say that my crystal ball did a pretty good job this year. Out of 8 categories I wrote about, I got 5 “right”. Not a bad score (insert smiley here). OK, bragging mode off again.

What do you think? Who would you have chosen?

I really appreciate your feedback!

My Reflections on the 2016 Gramophone Awards (Part V): All The Rest

And All The Rest

After 4 parts on my favorite categories of the 2016 Gramophone Award nominations, I discovered that I simply don’t have enough to say about most albums in the other categories, so I decided to lump all remaining categories (Baroque Instrumental, Choral, Contemporary, Early Music, Opera, Orchestral, Recital, Solo Vocal) into one big “super-post” and only write about the albums I really care about in this remaining sections.

So, here we go:

Baroque Instrumental

Masaaki Suzuki plays Bach Organ Works (BIS 2016)

I must admit, I bought this album initially because I finally wanted to have a well recorded modern version of the Toccata d-minor BWV565, probably Bach’s best known work even for lay people.

Masaaki Suzuki plays Bach Organ Works BIS 2016 24/96

Well, that and the fact that I truly admire Masaaki’s efforts with the Bach Collegium Japan, and have pretty much his entire Cantata cycle. So I was curious to hear him as a soloist.

Well, I wasn’t disappointed. BIS can usually be trusted for recording quality, and this recording delivers (although has quite a bit of reverb from the Marinikerk in Groninen, so if you don’t like this, look elsewhere).

The good thing of this album is as well that once you go beyond the Toccata earworm, there is lots of beautiful music to discover. I don’t listen to organ very regularly, so this album pushes me in the right direction.

And Masaaki surely knows how to play. This album has received some controversial reviews, some like Diapason and obviously Gramophone love it, some critisize Suzuki takes too many liberties. Well, I’m certainly in the first camp.

My rating: 4 stars

 

WF Bach Keyboard Concertos – Maude Gratton (Mirare 2015)

Wilhelm Friedemann Bach: Concertos pour Clavecin et Cordes / Cembalo Concerts Maude Gratton Il Convito

I’ve reviewed this album previously and unfortunately, it still isn’t my cup of tea.

 

Biber: Rosary Sonatas – Rachel Podger (Channel Classics 2016)

Ah, Rachel Podger. I’m a big fan, and like pretty much everything she recorded, see also here.

Biber: Rosary Sonatas - Rachel Podger Channel Classics 2016 DSD

Sometimes, even in the music world, there seem to be trends.

You barely heard about Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (to quote his full name) for years, and all over sudden, you get 3 recordings of the Rosary Sonatas in a row.

Not sure about the exact order, but we got Ariadne Daskalakis on BIS, Hélène Schmitt on Aeolus, and Rachel Podger in the space of about 12 months.

What’s even more difficult: all of the above are very good.

Nevertheless Podger has an edge over the two others in my ear due to the sheer beauty of the playing. Now, you could argue, is beauty the right approach for these works.

Well I’m not religious, but if Wikipedia is correct, the Mystery of the Rosaries are meditations on important moments in the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary. I personally would want these to be beautiful. The outstanding recording quality of Channel Classics in DSD only makes it more breathtaking. 

My rating: 5 stars

In any case, check out the two others as well before buying.

My prediction

So who will win in the category? Both Suzuki and Podger have made it into the final three, I’d expect a tight race here. I personally give the edge to Podger.

Opera

I recently bought Netrebko’s beautiful recording of Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta and enjoyed it a lot, so I really need to check out the recording of Pique Dame that Gramophone recommends here by Mariss Jansons, but I haven’t done so yet, so will refrain from any comment at this stage.

The only album in the opera category I’ve heard (and own) is:

Verdi: Aidi – Antonio Pappano – Anja Harteros – Jonas Kaufmann (Warner 2015)

Verdi: Aida Pappanis Anja Harteros Jonas Kaufmann

Well, no change to my previous five star rating (see the review here), and I wouldn’t be surprised if this album will also win. Like the Tchaikovsky mentioned above, it made it into the final three candidates.

Orchestral

I’m a bit surprised myself that I wasn’t able to write a dedicated blog post about the Orchestral category, but there are simply too many albums nominated from composers that I dont’ care enough about, often 20th century, from Casella, Dutilleux, Elgar, to Vaughan Williams.

So just a quick note about two albums in this section:

Schubert: Symphony No. 9 – Claudio Abbado – Orchestra Mozart

Schubert Symphony No. 9 Abbado Orchestra Mozart Deutsche Grammophon 2015

Going to be brief here, I love a lot of the stuff that Abbado did with his Orchestra Mozart, this isn’t my favorite. I’d much rather go with Dohnanyi as reviewed here.

And then there is Andris Nelson’s BSO recording of Shostakovich symphony no. 10. I don’t have that one yet, but really like his even more recent release of symphonies no. 5 and 9.

Shostakovich Symphony No. 10 Andris Nelson Boston Symphony Orchestra Deutsche Grammophon 2016 24 96

Given that I haven’t heard 90% of the albums in this category, predicting the winner is obviously preposterous. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Nelsons wins here.

Recital

I’ve only spent a decent amout of time with one album in this section, the excellent Weber Sisters.

A side note on the Ricercar Cavalli album, I skipped through it, but found the Christina Pluhar album released pretty much at the same time more exciting. I may need to revisit that though.

And I gave Jonas Kaufmann’s Nessun Dorma as a present to my mother-in-law, she’s a big Kaufmann fan, and I must admit, the album is really worth checking out.

Mozart and the Weber Sisters – Sabine Devieilhe – Raphael Pichon – Ensemble Pygmalion

Mozart: The Weber Sisters Sabine Devielhe Raphael Pichon Pgymalion Erato 2015

I’ve already reviewed this album, with 5 stars.

And I keep going back to it over and over again.

This is again one of the rare birds of albums where Classica (Choc de l’année), Diapason (5 stars), Gramophone (Editor’s choice, Gramphone Award nominee), and Telerama (4F) all agree.

She is nominated among the final 3 contenders in this category, I really hope she wins!

 

So in summary: Podger’s Biber, Pappano’s Aida, and Devielhe’s Mozart are the must have albums for me here, with Suzuki’s organ works also highly recommended.

 

What do you think? I’d love to hear your opinions!

 

You can find the albums here:

Bach Suzuki Organ Works

WF Bach Cembalo Concertos

Biber Rosary Sonatas Podger

Verdi Aida Pappano

Schubert 9 Abbado

Nelsons BSO Shostakovich 10

The Weber Sisters