My Reflections on the 2016 Gramophone Awards (Part IV): Chamber

This is the 4th part of a series of posts about the nominated albums for the 2016 Gramophone Awards. You’ll find the rest of the series here.

Chamber Music

I’ve written quite a bit about chamber music on my blog already, it is one of the most beautiful and intimate forms of classical music.

Beethoven: Complete Works for Cello and Piano – Xavier Phillips – François-Frédéric Guy (Evidence 2015)

I’ve only recently “discovered” François-Frédéric Guy for me, in his album of the Brahms piano sonatas, reviewed here. As you can see from that review, I was really impressed with wh

Beethoven: Complete Works for Cello & Piano - Xavier Phillips - François-Frédéric Guy Evidence 2015

Xavier Phillips was another new name to me (which also tells me I’m not reading Gramophone with enough attention, given that all of these award-nominated albums obviously were previously praised by Gramophone).

The catalogue of complete Beethoven cello recordings has seen two recent excellent addition in recent years, with the excellent Steven Isserlis and Robert Levin on fortepiano (Gramophone Award finalist in 2014) on Hyperion, and even more recently Jean-Guihen Queyras and Alexander Melnikov.

So do we need yet another new recording? Well, while this new album doesn’t replace Isserlis and Queyras, it is certainly a strong contender.

As said before, I really liked Guy on Brahms, and his transparent, clear style works very well here. Phillips has a beautiful tone, and this recording, while very singing, has also a certain etheral style to it. Very much worth checking out.

My rating: 4 stars

Berg: Lyric Suite – Renée Fleming and Emerson Quartet

Berg/Schönberg/Webern: Belcea Quartet

Berg: Lyric Suite - Emerson String Quartet Decca 2015

Berg Webern Schönberg: Chamber Music Belcea Quartet

Berg twice, plus some more Zweite Wiener Schule.

As much as I love the Klimt on the cover, I’ve tried over and over again to get used to this kind of music, but haven’t managed. It’s just not my cup of tea. I can listen to Berg’s Violin concerto occasionally, but beyond that, the only thing I want is find my Ipad remote and turn back to Beethoven or Brahms as soon as I can.

Given my complete lack of competence and understanding here, I’ll just shut up and let you make up your own mind (you’ll find the Qobuz links below).

Brahms: String Quartets 1 & 3 – Artemins Quartet

Now we’re getting back to a composer I absolutely love (see also the subtitle of my blog).

That’s the good news.

Brahms: String Quartets No. 1 & 3 - Artemis Quartet Erato 2016

Now to the bad news: I personally think that Brahms’ String Quartets are among his weakest contributions to the genre of chamber music. I love everything he did with piano (naturally, he was a very good pianist), I like his string sextets and quintets already a bit less, and I never got to like the string quartets.

Honestly, when I want a string quartet, I’ll just pick between Schubert, Beethoven, Haydn, and occasionally Mozart. More than enough brilliant choice here.

But you don’t care about that, you care about what I think about their playing? Well, here’s the problem: If I don’t really like the music, my judgment is clouded at best. Sure, they do a fine job, but the entire thing just doesn’t touch me enough. So this will be another one where I refrain from any rating. Just so much: If you unlike me like the Brahms quartets, it’s worth checking out (which you probably would have guessed without me as well).

Bruckner: String Quartet, String Quintet – Fitzwilliam Quartet

You may, like me, rub your eyes and ask yourself if you just ended up in the wrong section. No this is not “orchestral”, we are in chamber music.

I must admit somewhere in the back of my head I had heard Bruckner did some Chamber music, but seriously had never heard it before. I could double check this fact, as my pretty large digital library doesn’t contain a single recording of these works.

Well at least I’m not alone, even the 30M+ library of Qobuz only features a very small handful of recordings of this work.

Bruckner: String Quintet - String Quartet - Fitzwilliam String Quartet - Linn Records 2016

Now the problem: The Fitzwilliam has recorded on Linn Records. While this usually means you get excellent recording quality, it also means no streaming.

Now, from the couple of other albums available for streaming of these works I must admit I haven’t made up my mind if I care enough about them to buy this new album (currently I rather don’t think so). Don’t get me wrong, I love Bruckner (see here), but I’m not sure his chamber music is for me.

So another album without any rating from my side. Sorry.

Schubert: String Quintet – Quatuor Ebène

Schubert String Quintet - Lieder - Quatuor Ebène - Gautier Capuçon - Matthias Goerne ERATO 2016

NOW we’re talking. Already reviewed here, and I can only reiterate my strong 5 star rating here. Just go, get it!

Tippett: String Quartets – Heath Quartet

Who? Could you repeat that name?

Well I shouldn’t brag, rather shut up, this just shows again how ignorant I am in 20th century music.

But as I’ve previously said about Britten, I love English composers. Especially when they are called Purcell. Or actually, only if they are called Purcell. For all the rest, really not my cup of coffee (or more appropriately, tea).

 

So, who should win?

Well, if you’ve read so far, you’ll have noticed that I’m rather biased this time (ok, all the time), and actually would give the Award without hesitation to the Quatuor Ebène.

Well, but I’m not Gramophone, and knowing the three finalists the jury there has chosen (they were released some days ago), I know they won’t make it. The Beethoven, my other favorite, is out as well.

Basically, the Emerson Berg, the Artemis Brahms, and the Heath Tippett are in the final selection.

Well, over and out for me at this stage. Let Gramophone’s jury do their job.

 

You can find the albums here:

Beethoven Cello Philips

Berg/Emerson

Belcea

Brahms Artemis

Bruckner

Schubert

Tippett

 

 

 

My Favorite Bruckner – Günter Wand’s Late Recordings With The Berlin Philharmonic

Anton Bruckner

Pretty much at the same time, around the end of high school, my two favorite composers were Brahms and Bruckner. As you can see, one survived and made it to the subtitle of my blog.

The other one, good old Anton, I listen too much less regularly these days. I still love mainly symphonies no. 4 and 7, but overall the broad romanticism and huge mountains of symphony blocks appeal less to me than they did at back then. Probably for similar reasons, I really still don’t appreciate Wagner that much, with some rare exceptions.

In parallel my taste moved backwards in time from the late romantic area to really appreciating Mozart and Bach. When I was really young I thought of Mozart as “too light”, and Bach as “could be composed by a computer, like painting by numbers”, Ah, the stupid arrogance of teenagers.

Anyhow, back to Bruckner. I still like him, even if I listen to his works only occasionally.

But if I do, it is usually with this box:

Anton Bruckner: Symphonies – Günter Wand – Berliner Philharmoniker

Günter Wand Anton Bruckner Symphonies Berliner Philharmoniker RCA Red Seal

Günter Wand is one of those amazingly underrated conductors, and usually only well known by die-hard Bruckner fans. There is something special about Wand and Bruckner. To be fair, Wand has recorded the symphonies at least 3 times, from a very good cycle in Cologne in the seventies, to several recordings with the NDR Symphony Orchestra in Hamburg he lead for many years, to this one, where he got to lead the BPO for a selection of the symphonies.

I grew up on Wand’ reading with the NDR. I even had the pleasure of hearing him live twice, with Bruckner 4 and 8. So obviously I’m biased, and you should certainly also check out other Bruckner specialists like Eugen Jochum or good old Karajan (yes, you Karajan haters out there, his Bruckner is great. Mind you, I used to be a Karajan hater as well….).

I only got introduced to this set 3-4 years ago from a good friend of mine from high school, who attended some of the Wand concert with me. A I had kind of moved on from Bruckner, I simply stuck to my old CDs whenever I wanted to go back and hadn’t really looked in to new recordings for nearly 20 years.

So what do I like about this? Well, it’ best of two worlds, you get Günter Wand who knows Bruckner inside out, and really has a lot of insights to offer, and you get a world-class orchestra like the Berlin Philharmonic. The sound of the BPO is just perfect for Bruckner. As much as I like the NDR, they are obviously in a different league.

Wand approaches the symphonies in a very clean way: there is no romantic overload, no sweet sugary drama, just illustrating the actually rather introvert struggle of an underrated, very catholic Austrian organ player with an inferiority complex that Anton Bruckner apparently was for most of his life.

(Bruckner experts, if I painted a wrong portrait taken mainly from reading too many booklets, please correct me!).

My rating: 5 stars (I notice I’m giving too many five stars recently. But I still think this is purely due to selection bias of me wanting to write about music I really like and not some kind of star inflation).

You can get it here (Qobuz).

P.S. David Hurvitz disagrees with me and thinks Wand’s Hamburg recordings are superior to the BPO ones. You may want to check them out too if you find them, e.g. in this really cheap box set. You never know, I may eventually return to my “roots” as well.

 

UPDATE Jan 29, 2016: In the Feb 2016 issue of Classica magazine, the reviewers compared blindly ten selected versions of Bruckner’s 9th. Günter Wand’s BPO version comes out on top! Here’s the comment: “The best possible version for discovering this work. Pure music, marked by the seal of infinity and eternity” (French sometimes have a certain way of getting very poetic with their language).