A Truly Moving Performance of Brahms Requiem by Yannick-Nezet Séguin and the Berlin Philharmonic: My Review

Serendipity

Who would have thought that I end up back at the Berlin Philharmonie so soon after the last concert by Simon Rattle just some days ago? Certainly not me.

This was really pure coincidence. I happened to stroll by the Berlin Philharmonic hall purely by chance. Suddenly, a guy approaches me, and asks “Would you want a ticket for the concert? Brahms, right now?” Well, who can say no to that? So 5 min later I find myself sitting in the Berlin Philharmonic hall watching as the BPO and the Rundfunkchor Berlin reassemble (I only got there during the break).

Ein Deutsches Requiem

I haven’t written that much about requiems yet on my blog. I have a certain respect for this category of music, as I always remember it is written for a very serious occasion, the death of a loved one. Maybe because of this I don’t listen to requiems enough.

I’ve previously mentioned Mozart´s requiem on my blog as part of My Must-have Mozart Albums. The other requiems I really love are Fauré’s (this really would need its own blog post), and obviously Brahms’.

Brahms German Requiem is a particular in many ways. First of all, it was written under very personal circumstances, around the death of Brahms own mother. Second, given Brahms´protestant background (he’s from Hamburg), he doesn’t use the traditional latin text of the catholic requiem, but instead parts of the Bible that are of personal importance to him. These are sung in German, hence the name.

Yannick Nézet Séguin – Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra – Rundfunkchor Berlin – Hanna-Elisabeth Müller – Markus Werba

I was indeed very lucky last night. Not only I get to see again the BPO, one of the best orchestras in the world, but also finally get to see Yannick Nézet-Séguin live.

I’ve written a lot about his recordings, from his Cosi Fan Tutte to his FigaroMost recently I did a more ambivalent review of his Mendelssohn symphony box. But taken together, he is one of the most relevant conductors of the 21st century.

Yannick Nézet-Séguinm, The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Rundfunkchor Berlin, Brahms German Requiem Oct 19, 2017
Yannick Nézet-Séguinm, The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Rundfunkchor Berlin

Given his previous recordings, I expected this concert to be a relatively fast and lean performance. Well, from the first measure I was proven wrong. This was BPO beauty in full blast, with relatively slow tempo throughout.

Actually, I’m glad he did. Given the nature of this work, the grandiose and emotionally charged way Nézet-Séguin conducted this just worked out perfectly.

A word about the soloists: they don’t really have such an important role in this work (maybe with the exception of the central soprano solo Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit), and overall the soloists did an good job, but were not the most memorable parts of the evening. The audience seems to think the same: they got decent applause, but nothing out of the the ordinary.

The true star of the evening was the Rundfunkchor Berlin, under Gijs Leenaars.  Their performance was just amazing. Not surprisingly, they received standing ovations at the end. Well deserved

Yannick Nezet Seguin Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra Brahms Ein Deutsches Requiem Oct 19 2017
The BPO hall organ was a major player in the performance

 

The highlight of the evening for me was the second movement, Und alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras.  The combined power of the BPO, the powerful BPO hall organ, and the 80+ voices power (but also nuances) of the choir made this a performance I will never forget.

Truly outstanding.

My rating: 5 star

P.S. If you want to see it yourself, and are not in Berlin (note that there are some tickets left for tonight Oct 20 and tomorrow Oct 21), you can also see the Saturday performance streamed live in the Digital Concert Hall.

 

The Cunning Little Vixen – Janáček´s enchanting opera with Rattle´s Berlin Philharmonic

Leoš Janáček

In spite of the fact that I don’t write about them very often, I do very much like Czech composers. I just checked: so far two entries on Dvorak (none of them dedicated to him), another short mention of Martinu as part of a concert review. No entries for Smetana, same for Janacek.

Why is that? I really don’t know. Janacek in a way really flew under my radar screen. I had a couple of his string quartets which I liked, but not much beyond this.

So how do I end up seeing an opera he wrote?

Very simply: I was in Berlin, hadn’t been to see the Berlin Philharmonic for a while, and was able to spontaneously secure last minute tickets. Typically, the BPO with Rattle is booked out, prohibiting spontaneous trips to the amazing Sharoun concert hall.

Luckily, like me, the Berlin audience wasn’t familiar with this opera (original title: Příhody lišky Bystroušky) by Janacek at all.

I’m very glad I went, it was a fantastic evening.

The Cunning Little Vixen – Simon Rattle – Berlin Philharmonic – October 12, 2017

To be fair, my curiosity was helped by the fact that there were some amazing lead singers, with Gerald Finley and Lucy Crowe in the main roles, of Forester and Vixen respectively.

Furthermore, the always interesting Peter Sellars was responsible for the staging of the play, which was performaned not at one of Berlin many opera houses, but instead the traditional Berlin Philharmonic concert hall.

The opera itself has been only very rarely performed, you will find only a handful of recordings on your regular streaming service.

I hope this new performance will make it onto a formal recording, but I´ll make sure to check out the Digital Concert Hall of the Berlin philharmonic, where I hope this recording appears soon.

 

Berlin Philharmonic - Simon Rattle - Janacek - Cunning Little Vixen
Rattle during the opening of Janacek´s Cunning Little Vixen

 

The Berlin philharmonic and Rattle really shined, this outstanding music, that changes from sentimental to funny to very introvert by the minute.

The story (sung in Czech, but translated in real time on the displays) is full of double double-entendres and little nuances, and really goes beyond the animal fairy tale nature one could immediately expect looking at the title.

 

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Gerald Finley, Lucy Crowe, and Paulina Malefane

 

As mentioned above, Finley and Crowe were outstanding soloists, but the remaining cast was also very good, only some of the choirs and children roles were not fully up to the same standards, but this didn’t hurt the overall impact.

Peter Sellars didn’t have a lot to work with, there was basically one small stage with only the occasional table and chairs added, and large LCD screens with videos to illustrate the scenery (from a creek in the woods to moving images of chicken).

Sellars also used the entire space, with the chorus occasional singing from above you, and with some of the lead singers freely roaming the entire building.

 

Petter Sellars staging of the Cunning Little Vixen, Berlin Philharmonic
Peter Sllars creative use of space: note the choir on the upper balcony

 

The Berlin public in the nearly sold out hall was as enchanted and enthusiastic as I was, we got more than 10 minutes of standing ovations and cheering.

 

Berlin Philharmonic, Cunning Little Vixen, Janacek, Rattle
An enthusiastic Berlin audience after the performance

A truly memorable evening.

My rating: 5 stars

Two new recordings of the Grieg Piano Concerto 

Edvard Grieg

Edvard Grieg is one of the two (three if you count Nielsen) well known Scandinavian composers, the other one being Sibelius.

In most minds, when you ask about Grieg you’ll hear about the famous a-minor piano concerto, and obviously the Peer Gynt suite (Morning Mood has been abused in many commercials, and In the Hall of the Mountain King is well known from many occasions from a cover by The Who to being used in Disney cartoons).

The Grieg  concerto is in a way an archetype of the romantic piano concerto. It is often coupled on disc with the somehow similar a-minor concerto by Schumann, not surprisingly given that the latter inspired the former (apparently young Grieg heard Clara Schumann perform the work and was impressed).

Leif Ove Andsnes

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I’ve liked this concert for a very long time (and what is not to like about it). At some point I did some extensive research to find my preferred version, and ended up with Leif-Ove Andsnes’ version with Maris Janssons conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. I’m not sure if it is a coincidence that Andsnes is Norvegian as well, in any case, this version has all the passion and energy I’m looking for in this work.

I recently subscribed to Qobuz’ streaming service. I still like purchasing music (downloads in my case), as it seems to be the only way where the artist has a decent chance of making some money. That said, streaming is a great tool to discover new music. Whatever comes out, the moment it is published you can listen to it immediately in CD quality. So nice!

Back to topic: basically, Qobuz alerts you to all new releases, so out of interest I listened to two new versions that came out very recently: Javier Perianes with the BBC Symphony under Sakari Oramo, and Joseph Moog with the Deutsche Radiophilharmonie Saarbrücken conducted by Nicholas Milton.

Joseph Moog

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Let me start by the latter: well, not much to write home about.  Not really my cup of tea, 3 stars. Lacking exactly the energy and passion I so much love with Andsnes.

Javier Perianes

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So I didn’t expect much from the Perianes either, also given the fact that I hadn’t heard about this Spanish pianist beforehand (although I found out later he has won a number of competitions). I was very positively surprised. While not kicking Andsnes of his throne, this version is very good indeed. In the meantime, my opinion was confirmed by both Gramophone and Classica (the latter even giving it a “Choc”, their way of saying 5 stars).

I wouldn’t go just as far, but this is a very solid four star to me and well worth recommending. Perianes had made it onto my personal watch list.

UPDATE August 2015: Gramophone doesn’t agree with me on the Moog, and gives it an Editor’s Choice. My opinion stands, I purchased the Perianes and like it very much, and I continue not to be moved very much by the Moog. YMMV.

Update September 2015: A follow-up post on this topic can be found here, with more detail on the Andsnes and some other recordings.

With regards to Perianes, also check out my review of his excellent Mendelssohn’s Lieder ohne Worte here.

Who will be leading the Berlin Philharmonic? (I hope for Paavo Järvi, but don’t really believe in it)

Not sure I have very much to add to this brilliant article by Alex Ross in the New Yorker, except that I wish it would be Paavo Järvi, who is not even in the most often quoted lists of high-likelihood candidates, or if I have to chose a name from this “inner circle”, I’d take Nelsons.

Brahms 1 – Still Looking

Following my previous post, I was thinking to myself, what if somebody asks you for a recording in stereo? Not everybody is willing to put up with a mono recording. Well, my recommendation goes to Otto Klemperer in this case (Philharmonia on EMI).

Next question: what if I want a recording that is less than 50 years old? And here I get in trouble. While there are decent contemporary recordings out there of the Brahms Symphonies, like the recent cycles from Chailly (very straightforward, but some excellent insights) to Thielemann, none of them get it fully right for no.1. Same goes for Gardiner and Dausgaard, that I admire on so many other recordings, e.g. Schumann. Both relatively recent Berlin Phil recordings with Rattle and Abbado leave me cold.

In the end, I’m hoping one of my current favorite next generation conductors will pick this up and just hit the same level of energy as now 64 years ago in Berlin. Good candidates for this are Nezet-Séguin (although he tends to be speedy) and Paavo Järvi, who’s Beethoven cycle with the Bremen Kammerphilharmonie is outstanding. Or Andris Nelsons with the BSO. Well, fingers crossed.

In the meantime, I’ll just live with a mono recording.

 

P.S. (October 2016), somebody pointed me to this live recording by Klaus Tennstedt with the LPO. Still, no replacement for Furtwängler, but at least getting the idea:

 

Brahms Symphony No. 1 No. 3 Klaus Tennstedt London Philharmonic BBC

 

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

 

And I’ll keep my eye open for future releases.

 

UPDATE August 20, 2017: Above I asked for Nelsons and the BSO to record a cycle. Well, now they did. And it is really good. See my review here.

Brahms 1st symphony – why it means so much to me

Well, the subtitle of my blog is “From Jarrett to Brahms”, so I after writing about the former I may as well write about the latter.

Brahms will always have a special place in my heart, not only he was born in my favorite city in the world (no, not NYC; although that comes close), but his music combines the best of what the so-called “classical” music (which spans several centuries of written music): He has the greatness of Beethoven (his idol), the romanticism of a Schumann (his mentor), the structure of Bach (Brahms studied Counterpoint extensively), he comes from my favorite instrument (the piano), and no matter what piece you hear from him, it has something very uniquely “Brahmsian” about it.

Smarter minds than me have tried to define what that actually consists of, I won’t even try. I’m pretty sure listening to several of Brahms works (for a start, how about Symphony 1, the German requiem, some of his late piano pieces op. 116-119, and some chamber music, e.g. his piano quartet op. 25), and I hope you feel and hear the commonality.

The first oeuvre from Brahms that impressed me was his first piano concerto, in a decent but not outstanding recording with Solti and Andras Schiff. I still very much like this, but will write on it later on. I very quickly started diving into his symphonies, and no. 1 quickly became my favorite (these days, 4 comes very close in my personal preference, 3 is a bit behind, and 2 is nice to have).

Wilhelm Furtwängler

By today, I’ve collected at latest count 30 version of “Sinfonie Nr. 1 c-moll op. 68”, to give it its official title. My first early favorite was Otto Klemperer’s version on EMI. Not to far after that, I discovered the legendary Wilhelm Furtwängler, and all 3 versions I have from him are very very good.

I cannot decide which of these is my favorite, but most likely it is the version with the Berliner Philharmoniker on Deutsche Grammophon, recorded in 1951 (or 52?). The other versions I have are with the Hamburg NDR orchestra and the Concertgebouw)

How do I compare versions of this work? Well, usually I’d use a more differentiated approach, but on symphony 1 I’m simple-minded: the chromatic opening part, with the characteristic tympani. If this part doesn’t have the right gravitas and tension (up to a point where I feel all my muscles tensing), I pass on. An example of how not to do it in my mind is Günter Wand (an underrated conductor that I otherwise adore, especially on Bruckner), which takes the opening WAY to fast.

Luckily, Furtwängler keeps the quailty at very high levels up to the end. In this symphony, the first and forth movement are so heavy and important, that the two movements in between barely count. You get a “relaxing” Andante, and a very short and sweet (approx 5 min) Poco Allegretto in between. This is good, because if one had to keep the tension and the overwhelming feelings from movements 1 and 4 for an entire 5 min, you’d probably feel like being on Botox and Extasy at the same time.

So, as said before, movement 1 lives on the dramatic chromatic opening. But it gets even better: movement no. 4 is as ecstatic as the 4th movement of Beethoven’s 9th (without all over sudden somebody shouting  “Oh Froyda” and all the other singing about freedom and equality that goes on after that which pretty much ruins this symphony to me). But you don’t get there easily. This movement with Furtwängler alone is more than 17, and you start very dark and desperate. Luckily we leave the desperation quickly, to a dramatic built up including the mandatory tympani, which gets us to the first amazingly beautiful horn solo at 2:57.

This solo is worth a quick excursion: this theme Brahms had already used earlier in a letter to his beloved Clara Schumann (yes, he was in love with his mentor’s wife, if you read his biography, you wonder why this soap opera material hasn’t made it into a major Hollywood movie yet), with the underlying text:

“Hoch auf´m Berg, tief im Tal grüß ich dich viel tausend mal!” (High on the mountain, deep in the valley, I salute you a thousand times). Yes, cheesy, even in the German original, but by then Brahms had moved from his native Hamburg to Austria, and fallen in love with the mountains, and you can really picture a lonely Alphorn playing that beautiful melody for the beloved.

But obviously at, 2:57 we’re not done yet, you 14 min more of “per aspera at astra” (you can google that yourself) fighting, with the occasional relaxing 2nd main motive, which Brahms even admitted was inspired by Beethoven 9. (When asked after the premiere if there are strange similarities between the two works, he replied sarcastically “And even stranger is the fact that every donkey seems to hear that immediately”.

Well in any case, in the last 5 min you get a lot of more brass, some more of the 2nd motive, some more of the Alphorn, tons of tympani some more fighting, which culminates in a dramatic climax in the last 2 min.

Obviously, my description of this amazing masterpiece is quite horrible. Don’t be misled: if you’re able to listen to this movement played by Furtwängler without getting goosebumps all over, you’re either deaf or challenged in some other way (or just have a different taste in music, but then you probably wouldn’t be reading this in the first place).

P.S. I’ve later published an addendum to this post here.