Smetana’s String Quartets No. 1 & 2 by the Pavel Haas Quartet – Excellent

Bedřich Smetana

I haven’t written much about the other famous Czech composer (that said, even Dvorak doesn’t have a post dedicated to one of his works yet on this blog, I should change that).

As a kid I listened to The Moldau (or more correctly Vltava) from his Ma Vlast patriotic cycle A LOT. It is one of those classics that nearly everybody has heard at some point. My only issue is that I’ve heard it so much that I barely touch it any more these days. I’ll probably need to rediscover the entire work more systematically (and I have two Kubelik recordings in my library, with Boston and the Czech Philhamonic orchestra to do so).

That said, I have only a small number of Smetana recordings in my library overall, so I may not be the most qualified reviewers of his work. For the string quartets I’m going to write about I only have one other recording, by the Stamitz Quartet. So keep this in mind when you read my comments below.

Smetana: String Quartet No. 1 & 2 – Pavel Haas Quartet (Supraphon 2015)

Smetana String Quartet No. 1 & 2 - Pavel Haas Quartet Supraphon 2015
Pavel Has

The two string quartets are quite different in nature. One is what you’d expect from a late romantic composer of Bohemia, a lot of flowing melodies and a lot of well, “romanticism” (however you want to define that).

The 2nd string quartet is much less accessible, it was written in the very last years of the composer as he was already deaf. Yes, an eery parallel to Beethoven’s late string quartets, right? In any case both are very much worth discovering.

I’ve praised the Pavel Haas Quartet many times, for their Schubert (here and here), which even made it into my list of the 25 Essential Classical Albums.

I had even previously mentioned this particular album, as it had received the Gramophone Award for Chamber in 2015.

Why did I decide to write about this album again then? I must admit over the time (the original review was published in 2015) this album really grew on me, particularly the less accessible no. 2. I by now truly love particularly the Largo Sostenuto. Over the years I’ve listened to a lot of string quartets, making it by now one of my favourite genres of classical music. So naturally, tastes evolve (which really is a good thing. Stay curious!). I encourage you to do the same, regularly try to rediscover things you may already have in your library, or go a bit beyond your comfort zone in the streaming service of your choice!

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

My Top 5 Classical Albums of 2020

2020

I don’t need to tell anybody that 2020 was a weird year to say the least. It was supposed to be the big Beethoven anniversary year, with concerts all over the world and a lot of new album releases.

We certainly got a lot of new album releases, but we clearly didn’t have the live concerts we all wished for. I got lucky, I attended two socially distanced concerts during the times when Covid in Europe was still at lower levels, both involving Beethoven by the way (Igor Levit playing some piano sonatas, and Lars Vogt playing the 4th piano concerto with Paavo Järvi).

But without further ado, let’s jump right into it and list my top 5 classical albums of the year. Interestingly, less Beethoven than I’d have expected in here.

Chopin’s Piano Concertos by Benjamin Grosvenor (Decca 2020)

Yes, Benjamin Grosvenor regularly gets 5 stars on this blog, guilty as charged. But what can I say, this new album with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Elim Chan is just great (see my original review here). And it won the Gramophone Album of the Year in its category, which was well deserved.

Brahms Late Solo Piano Works by Stephen Hough

Stephen Hough Brahms The Final Piano Pieces Hyperion 2020 24 96

I love Brahms’ late piano pieces, and this is a worthy addition to the top recordings of these works, alongside Arkadi Volodos. See my original review here.

Beethoven and Sibelius Violin Concertos – Christian Tetzlaff

Beethoven / Sibelius Violin Concertos Christan Tetzlaff Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin - Robin Ticciati Odine 2020 24/96

In this Beethoven year, two German artists recorded excellent versions of the Beethoven classics, both with the Deutsches Sinfonieorchester Berlin. I must admit, this second or third (depending on how you rank) orchestra of Berlin always flew a bit under my radar, behind the Berlin Philharmonic and the Staatskapelle Berlin. This was probably undeserved. Both the recordings of Martin Helmchen with Andrew Manze as conductor, and this recording with Christian Tetzlaff under Robin Ticciati both show the full potential of this orchestra.

Between Helmchen’s now complete Beethoven cycle (I reviewed one volume here), and this new recording of the violin concerto by Tetzlaff, I’m highlighting Tetzlaff here.

He really is one of the best violin players of our era, and probably also somewhat underrated. Both his Beethoven and the Sibelius give a very fresh take on these concertos.

Beethoven Complete String Quartets by the Quatuor Ebène

Beethoven Around The World Vienna String Quartets 7 & 8 Quatuor Ebène Erato 2019 24 96

I’m a big fan of the Quatuor Ebène, and already had the pleasure of seeing them live some years ago.

They have now recorded all Beethoven String Quartets in a world tour (mostly pre-Covid). I’ve reviewed one of the releases here.

Now, is their new complete cycle something that will replace my favorite box of all times, the complete recordings by the legendary Takacs Quartet? No, but honestly, the Beethoven string quartets are such masterpieces, and have such a breadth of material from the early op. 18 to the amazing but not very accessible late works, that one should never have only one complete cycle.

Bach: St John Passion – Herreweghe (2020 recording)

Johann Sebastian Bach: Johannes Passion Philippe Herreweghe Collegium Vocale Ghent Phi 2020 24/96

How could a best of list on my blog be complete without some Bach? This year, we had several great recordings of the choral masterpieces. Masaaki Suzuki has released both a St John (recorded in Cologne) and a St Matthew Passion, that have both won accolades from critics.

But let me flag here another recording by another artist that I admire (and had the pleasure of seeing live already), the great Philippe Herreweghe.

I had initially missed this and only really noticed it when it popped up in the Gramophone Awards. This is not his first recording but potentially his best. I can’t wait until Easter (I know, Christmas is just barely over…) so I can play it again in repetition.

So, here you go. This will be my last post of the year, there won’t be a similar list for Jazz. I just wasn’t able to find 5 albums that I liked enough to give them 5 stars this year. Let’s keep our fingers crossed for 2021.

Wishing all of you a Happy New Year 2021!

You’ll find the recordings here (Qobuz/Hyperion):

Grosvenor Chopin

Hough Brahms

Tetzlaff Beethoven Sibelius

Quatuor Ebene Beethoven

Herreweghe St John Passion

Mozart’s Violin Concertos with Isabelle Faust – Highly Enjoyable

Happy New Year!

Dear readers, I hope many of you were able to have some days off during the holidays over the last weeks. I’d like to thank you again for your interest in my blog, and look forward to sharing more exciting music with you in 2017.

As always, I really appreciate any form of feedback. Do you like my articles? Let me know! Hate them, let me know as well! Any form of feedback is useful.

Mozart’s Violin Concertos

Let me start by saying that as much as I like Mozart, his violin concertos aren’t very high on my priority list. They are the works of a teenager, written between ages 16 and 20. That said, they are enjoyable, and at least one version of them should be in any classical music library.

But which one? In My Must-have Mozart Albums, I’ve already recommended Giuliano Carmignola’s great recording with the late Claudio Abbado and the Orchestra Mozart  he founded (which unfortunately lost funding some time ago).

However, regular readers will know that I’m a big fan of Isabelle Faust (see here, or here), so when she released a recording of the complete Mozart concertos, I obviously had to check it out. Unfortunately, it took some months for reasons unknown to me for this to be available on Qobuz, my streaming provider (and I didn’t want to buy this blindly).Now Qobuz finally has it, so here comes my review.

Mozart: Violin Concertos – Isabelle Faust – Il Giardino Armonico (Harmonia Mundi 2016)

Mozart: Violin Concertos Isabelle Faust Il Giardino Armonico Giovanni Antonini Harmonia Mundi 2016 24/96

Not only you get Isabelle Faust here, as mentioned above one of my all-time favorite violinists, but you also get Giovanni Antonini with his Giardino Armonico. They have done countless excellent baroque albums in the last 30 years. More recently they moved up to the Viennese Classical period with Haydn, in their excellent Haydn2032 cycle (see my review of vol. 3 here), so Mozart is a logical next step.

So, how does it sound? Two words, transparency and energy! Antonini takes the same inspiring approach he uses to awaken Papa Haydn, and plays it with a lot of verve and swing. And even Faust, who can be a tiny bit intellectual in her approach at times, gets fully into the mood and goes with the flow, making this youthful music just highly enjoyable. I seriously wouldn’t know what to criticize on this recording. This really is on par with Carmignola, if not even slightly better.

In summary: highly recommended (all reviews I’ve seen vary between very good and outstanding, so I’m not really going against the consensus here).

My rating: 4 stars (full 5 star playing, but as mentioned above I don’t think Mozart’s violin concertos are truly essential, so one point off for repertoire).

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

 

Why Bother Reading Reviews If There Is No Consensus? The Example Of Esfahani’s New Goldberg Variations?

Professional Music Reviews

I’ve been very clear on my blog here that whatever I’m writing is nothing more than my personal view on the music and interpretations I write about.

You’d think that it should be different for professional reviewers. OK, maybe nuances according to individual tastes, but a good album is a good one, and a bad one is bad, right?

Well, I’ve previously given already one example of a Mahler album that received extremly contrasting reviews from two of the most respected classical review magazines out there, UK-based Gramophone, and French Classica.

And here we go again:

Bach: Goldberg Variations – Mahan Esfahani (Deutsche Gramophon 2016)

Bach: Goldberg Variations - Mahan Esfahani (24/48) Deutsche Grammophon 2016

Mahan Esfahani is one of the rising stars on the harpsichord. I’ve briefly mentioned him in my musing’s on the Gramophone Awards 2015, but haven’t properly reviewed any of his albums yet.

I really liked his previous album Time Present And Time Past that went from Scarlatti to Reich.

So I was very curious about his take of the Goldberg Variations. I’ve previously praised Pierre Hantaï on harpsichord and Igor Levit on a modern piano. Both remain favorites of mine, but I have dozens alternatives.

Gramophone and Classica totally disagree

But before I get into my personal assessment, let me get back to my opening comment: How professional reviewers can disagree, in the most drastic possible way.

October Issue Gramophone: “His navigations of the music’s structure […] is carefully considered without sounding in the least bit studied, or different for the sake of being different. His Goldberg Variations clearly belongs […] in all serious Bach collections”. They even gave it a Gramophone Award.

October Issue Classica: “Il donne même l’impression de réinventer le Bach machine à coudre” (he even leaves the impression of reinventing the “sewing machine” Bach style), or “errements d’un jeu qui se laisse aller à un rubato et des manières agacants” (this is a bit harder to translate, but basically they find the same freedom that Gramophone likes above totally annoying), and speak of “La première version post baroque” (the first post-baroque version). Result: 2 out of 5 stars, which is their  way of saying “disappointing”.

So what is it? Does a disappointing album belong in all serious Bach collections? I don’t blame you for being confused.

But this is my point, right? You can never use any kind of review individually. You can try to find a magazine (or even better, individual reviewer) that has a similar taste to yours, but then need to make up your own mind.

Side note: This is why I love streaming so much, as you can simply try out new music as much as you want before buying. But please, don’t forget to buy stuff you really like, if you want the musician to make a living.

To close this chapter on reviews, what is helpful if you find “meta-reviews”, that compares and contrast several individual reviewers. If you find consensus among many reviewers, you probably have a higher chance of finding something truly exceptional. Classica every month does just that, unfortunately only comparing French reviewers, they call that table “Les Coups de Coeurs” and summarize the opinions of 6 different French classical music specialists from Le Figaro to France Musique. But I don’t think anybody does this at an international level.

So what do I think about this album?

Now it get’s difficult. Esfahani’s recording is clearly VERY different.

What I love about it is the sound of the harpsichord, a two keyboard reconstruction that has a splendid sound (and isn’t ruined to much by Deutsche Gramophones sound engineers).

About the version? You’d think this is a love or hate recording. Well actually, it isn’t. I’ve now listened to it at least 5 or 6 times, but it doesn’t touch me as much as a Goldberg recording should. I’m just a bit indifferent. I clearly see how this recording is different, and why Esfahani does what he does, but I don’t think this version will get a lot of additional spins on my system. I’d go to Hantaï, or Levit, or Perahia, or, or, or.

My rating: 3 stars

 

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