My Reflections on the 2020 Gramophone Awards I – Concerto

Gramophone Awards

My comments on the Gramophone Awards, that I’ve done nearly every year since the beginning of this blog in 2015, always are quite popular with my readers.

And rightly so, Gramophone remains the most important and influencial classical music magazine in the world (in my subjective opinion), so it is always valuable to check what they like and recommend. And by default the handful of albums who make it to the final selection of the annual awards are obviously very good recordings.

But why bother writing about it and not just referring you to the full magazine release (available for free) that Gramophone has just put out ? Basically, I repeat myself: You really have to find a reviewer that you like and that your personal taste aligns with. If your taste happens to be somewhat similar to mine, maybe my couple of comments around the nominations can be of help.

But as always, I also love it when you violently disagree with me!

So, let’s start.

CPE Bach: Oboe Concertos – Xenia Loeffler – Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin (Harmonia Mundi 2020)

I haven’t formally reviewed this album on my blog yet, but I had checked it out when it was released. I’m usually a big fan of the AKAMUS orchestra, and I’ve even seen Xenia Löffler and the ensemble live, however, performing the JS Bach violin concertos together with Isabelle Faust (the album of which co-incidentally was a 2019 Gramophone Award nomination), so I had high expectations.

Poor Carl Philipp Emmanuel still is in the shadow of his legendary father, but, to my personal taste, he is really the one most worth checking out. He perfectly illustrates the ongoing transition from the baroque period to the “Wiener Klassik” of Haydn and Mozart (check out some of my album recommendations for CPE here).

Richard Wigmore in Gramophone writes “I’d confidently recommend this disc to anyone attracted to CPE’s quirkily fascinating art“. Couldn’t have said it better (except I wonder who beyond Gramophone editors still uses “discs”).

My rating: 4 stars (absolutely 5 stars playing, but CPE isn’t such a core composer that I’d necessarily recommend this to everybody blindly).

Beethoven: Piano Concertos No. 2 & 5 – Martin Helmchen – Andrew Manze – DSO Berlin (Alpha 2020)

Beethoven Piano Concertos 2 & 5 Martin Helmchen Deutsches Symphonieorchester Berlin Andrew Manze Alpha 2020 24/96

I didn’t review this album, however, you’ll find my very positive notes (4 stars) on their recordings of concertos no. 1 & 4 here.

The recordings of 2 & 5 is even more impressive. This is in many ways a “modern mainstream” recording, how you’d expect a Beethoven recording to sound like in 2020. Sufficiently inspired from the Historically Informed practice (where Manze comes from), and Helmchen really is one of those a brilliant a bit under the radar pianists that would benefit from being a bit more well known. (Co-incidentally, a very good recording of the Beethoven violin sonatas by Helmchen with Frank Peter Zimmermann was just released yesterday, more on this later).

But as Gramophone nicely writes, the magic sauce is in the beautiful pairing of Manze and Helmchen. This album really is highly enjoyable. Will it kick Andsnes and a lot of the legendary 1960 performances from their thrones? No, but it really is an album well worth having.

My rating: 5 stars

Beethoven & Sibelius – Violon Concertos – Christian Tetzlaff – Richard Ticciati – DSO Berlin (Ondine 2020)

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

Seeing two Beethoven albums in this selection isn’t very surprising in the 250th anniversary of Beethoven. However, seeing two albums of the Deutsche Symphonieorchester Berlin here is already more intriguing.

For decades, the former RIAS (radio in the American sector) orchestra has been a bit in the shadows of the legendary Berlin Philharmonic and the excellent Staatskapelle from the former East. But as these two albums show, it has been able to develop an independent profile. It is often working with younger or still lesser known conductors (Ticciati is 37), and has therefore been able to experiment more.

Not that I’d call a recording of the two Beethoven and Sibelius warhorses an experiment. That said, Christian Tetzlaff (I’m a big fan) takes quite a lot of risks in this album. Luckily for him, these risks are very much rewarding. This is a recording that will allow you to discover many new details in these two works that you probably know really well, particurlarly in the somewhat more experimental Sibelius. And it is played with a beautiful passion. And a special mention needs to go to Ticciati for his excellent handling of the orchestra.

For the Beethoven, as a side note, Swiss Public Radio recently released one of their shows where two experts compare 5 recordings blindly. The two winners of this blind test of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, all recordings of the last decade, where my beloved recording with Isabelle Faust and Claudio Abbado (my personal reference), and this very recent release by Tetzlaff. And I fully agree with the reviewers choices, both recordings are excellent in their own rights and should be in your collection.

My rating: 5 stars

Chopin: Piano Concertos – Benjamin Grosvenor – Elim Chan – Royal Scottish National Orchestra (Decca 2020)

Oh yes!

OK I admit I’m as big of a fanboy of Grosvenor as I am of Isabelle Faust and Igor Levit, basically pretty much everything they release usually blows me away.

But still I’m impressed that this recording takes its place right there with the legendary recordings of the Chopin Award winners Krystian Zimerman and Martha Argerich. I’ve already reviewed this magnificent album here, and have nothing much more to add than “buy it now, what are you waiting for!”.

My rating: 5 stars

Mozart: Piano Concertos vol. 4 – Jean-Efflam Bavouzet – Manchester Camerata – Gabor Takacs-Nagy (Chandos 2020)

Mozart Piano Concertos vol. 4 Nor 20 & 21 Jean-Efflam Bavouzet - Gabor Takacs-Nagy - Manchester Camerata Chandos 2020 24/96

Unfortunately, Chandos has a somewhat restrictive streaming policy, presumably allowing only slightly older albums to be streamed on Qobuz. I checked out the previous vol. 3 of this cycle which was available for streaming and liked what I heard, but unfortunately that’s all I can say at this time.

Schoenberg: Violin Concerto / Verklärte Nacht – Isabelle Faust – Daniel Harding – Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra (Harmonia Mundi 2020)

Arnold Schoenberg: Violin Concerto Verklärte Nacht - Isabelle Faust - Daniel Harding - Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra Harmonia Mundi 2020 24/96

So, this is another Isabelle Faust release, so I should like it, right? Well my only problem is that the musical universe of Arnold Schoenberg and my comfort zone are still miles apart. The violin concerto is just something that my brain isn’t able to process correctly just yet.

That said, the earlier and more accessible Verklärte Nacht (transfigured night) sounds much more accessible. I’m probably going to buy this album just to really expand my musical horizon a bit. But don’t expect any value added comments from me.

In short, it’s the brilliant Isabelle Faust and recommended by Gramphone, so if you like early 20th century classical music, this should be a no-brainer.

My conclusion

My personal winner of the very good selection above would be Grosvenor’s Chopin, with Tetzlaff’s new album just behind (and those are also the albums I’ve purchased for my personal music collection).

We’ll know more in some weeks when the final awards are being given.

How about you? I’d love to hear your take on these albums.

You can find the albums here (all Qobuz):

CPE Bach / Loeffler

Beethoven / Helmchen

Beethoven / Sibelius / Tetzlaff

Chopin / Grosvenor

Mozart / Bavouzet

Schoenberg / Faust

My Reflections on the 2015 Gramophone Award Nominees – Part II – Concerto

After my comments on the “Instrumental” category of the Gramophone Awards last Saturday here, let me highlight some more gems in the Concerto category.

Nominated are:

The Beethoven Journey – Leif Ove Andsnes with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra playing Beethoven’s piano concertos 2 & 4

The Beethoven Journey - Beethoven Piano Concertos 2 & 4 - Leif Ove Andsnes - Mahler Chamber Orchestra

Beethoven again, piano concertos 3 & 4 by Maria Joao Pires with Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra

Beethoven Piano Concertos 3 & 4 - Maria Joao Pires - Daniel Harding - Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra

Britten / MacMIllan / Vaughan Williams played by the Britten Sinfonia (not heard)

Bruch & Prokofiev’s Violin Concertos by Guro Kleven Hagen with the Oslo Phlharmonic and Bjarte Engeset

Bruch Prokofiev Violin Concertos Guro Kleven Hagen Oslo Philharmonic Bjaerte Engeset

Dvorak’s Cello Concerto by Alisa Weilerstein with Jiri Belohlavek and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra

Alisa Weilerstein Jiri Belohlavek Dvorak Cello Concerto Decca Classics

Mozarts Violin Concertos 3 – 5, Arabella Steinbacher, Daniel Dodds, Festival Strings Lucerne

Mozart Violin Concertos 3, 4, 5 - Arabella Steinbacher - Festival Strings Lucerne - Daniel Dodds

As said above, I haven’t heard the Britten album (and actually don’t care much about Britten in the first place, so wouldn’t be in a good place to talk about the album.

Two other albums I only gave a quick spin, so I’m not going to rate them, which are the Mozart concertos by Arabella Steinbacher, and the Prokofiev/Bruch combo by the young Norvegian violin player Guro Kleven Hagen, that I hadn’t heard of before. My admittedly superficial impression on both were solid performances, nothing wrong with them, but also nothing that would motivate me to go back. One argument in favor of the Arabella Steinbacher is that it is recorded on Pentatone, that usually has an outstanding recording quality, so if you have a good Hifi, you may want to check it out.

The three albums I have heard in more detail are the two Beethovens and the Dvorak.

Let me start with Maria Joao Pires first. I’m very happy to report that after my rather lukewarm review of her Schumann concerto with Gardiner, in this recording I can reconfirm that I’m a fan. Very delicate, nuanced playing. I’ve already praised Daniel Harding in his recording of the Brahms Violin Concerto, and also the Orchestral part is doing a fine job here.

My rating: 4 stars

However, to my ears, with Leif Ove Andsnes it gets even better. I’ve already declared how much I like his Grieg, and here on Beethoven with the excellent Mahler Chamber Orchestra which Andsnes conducts from the piano, the result is just really really nice. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing this combo play concertos 2-4 live late last year, and the recording fully  captures the energy and passion by both soloist and orchestra. No. 4 is anyhow my preferred Beethoven concerto, and this is definitely one of the best versions I have. However, to my ears, they are even better on piano concerto no. 2 (side note: wrongly numbered, this should have been his no. 1 chronologically), which really benefits from the lighter sound of the Mahler Chamber.

My rating: 5 stars

But who is my predicted category winner? Well, by exclusion you could have guessed it: Alisa Weilerstein’s Dvorak. We recently already got an excellent reading of this concerto with Stephen Isserlis on Hyperion, and obviously there are a lot of outstanding historic recordings (Starker, Du Pré, etc.), this version just gets what is the essential for me in this concerto (my favorite piece by Dvorak by the way): the romantic passion. (Side note: When Brahms, who mentored Dvorak for a while, read the score, he’s quoted: “If I had known that it was possible to compose such a concerto for the cello, I would have tried it myself!” If only he had…). This recording is pure emotion. I suppose having a Czech orchestra playing music by their most famous local composer helps. There are some minor technical glitches here and there, but they don’t really matter, you don’t even notice.

My rating: 5 stars

So, what do you think? What are your predictions?

Isabelle Faust and Brahms’ Violin Concerto – Just Magical

My blog’s subtitle has Brahms in it, and I haven’t even mentioned good old Johannes for a while.So let me correct this by writing about his violin concerto, and my favorite versions.

Brahms’ Violin Concerto

Brahms was a pianist, not a violinist, and so he needed an expert on what to do and not to do. Luckily, one of his best friends, Joseph Joachim, was one of the leading violinists of his time, so he consulted extensively with him while writing this piece in 1878.

Obviously, this concerto has been recorded over and over again, so there are a lot of amazing versions to choose from. However, there is a relatively recent 2011 recording which I really love more than most others.

Isabelle Faust

Isabelle Faust Brahms Violin Concerto Daniel Harding Mahler Chamber Orchestra Harmonia Mundi 2011

There are so many outstanding young violin players these days, Julia Fischer, Janine Jansen, Hillary Hahn, etc. etc. etc. We are really spoilt these days. However, Isabelle Faust is in a way my personal favorite, probably because she does a lot of excellent chamber music as well (more about that later).

This recording of the violin concerto with the excellent Mahler Chamber Orchestra and Daniel Harding, a young rising star in the conductor scene, has not received praise across the board. Some even called her tone “thin”. Well, I agree her way of playing is always rather on the light than the heavy side, but to me it feels just right. Faust writes in the excellent liner notes that she has studied Joseph Joachim extensively, both his personality, but also historic sources about his playing style. Overall, Faust plays historically informed, but unlike in some other cases this doesn’t mean no vibrato at all, but just a more selective use of it.

The smaller size of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra matches her transparency very well, this is a match made in heaven. As a side note, these days younger orchestras like the MCO or the Chamber Orchestra of Europe are becoming more and more serious competition to the established big boys in Berlin/Vienna/London. I suppose we music lovers we can only be happy about this, as it hopefully keeps everybody on their toes.

A curiosity about this version is the use of the unusual Busoni cadenza, so if you are familiar with this work you’re in for a little surprise.

String Sextet No. 2

As mentioned before, Faust is an excellent chamber musician as well (her Beethoven sonatas are my absolute favorite). So as a “filler” we get the beautiful String Sextet No. 2, which is well worth listening to. A sextet is a more rarely heard form of chamber music, but for Brahms these were actually his first venture into pure string chamber music, and successful in the way that helped further build his name as a composer.

A little piece of trivia: Brahms fell in love many times during his life, but remained a bachelor nevertheless. Occasionally, we get glimpses into his love life from his music, like in the case of the Alto Rhapsody (see my earlier post here). In this case, he was in love with Agathe von Siebold, and nicely enough, you’ll get the motive “A-G-A-H-E” (H being the key for B in German notation) as a leitmotif several times in the first movement.

Overall rating: 5 stars. This, as usual is a very personal judgment. If you agree with me, please comment, if you don’t, I’d love to hear why!

And if you want a more traditional Brahms, you can always go to Oistrakh/Klemperer and Heifetz/Reiner, both outstanding in their own way.

You can get it here as download and here as physical album.