My Top 5 Classical Albums Of 2018

So, another year has passed. For me, while it has brought a lot of challenging moments, it also brought me a lot of good luck. And particularly, it brought all of us some exciting new recordings.

In the tradition from 2017, 2016, and 2015, so basically each year since I started this blog, let me summarize my top 5 Classical Albums Of The Year.

Yes, partially I do this because Top something lists always generate a lot of clicks (I don’t make any money on this site, so this is purely for my stupid little ego), but it is also a nice tradition to look back at the year.

And hopefully, it will inspire you to buy some of these (again, I’m not making any money here, but the artists do, as they should).

Igor Levit – Life

Yes, I really like Igor Levit. This may be his most personal album to date. In my original review I’ve described it as A Beautiful Treasure. An absolute must have.

Daniel Trifonov Plays Rach 2 and 4

Daniil Trifonov Yannick Nézet-Séguin The Philadelphia Orchestra Destination Rachmaninov - Departure Deutsche Grammophon 2018 24/96

Yes, this is one of my favorite Rach 2 ever. But PLEASE BE AWARE that I wrote in my original review (published as one of the first) that this recording will be controversial. It turned out it is, it is a love it or hate it affair. So please do check it out before you buy.

Rachel Podger’s Four Seasons

Vivaldi Le Quattro Stagioni (Four Seasons) Rachel Podger Brecon Baroque Channel Classics DSD 2018

Do you really need yet another version of the Four Seasons? Probably not, let’s be realistic. That said, if you are looking for one, you won’t go wrong with this beautiful account, which combines amazing energy with beautiful recording technology. See here for my original review.

Murray Perahia’s Moonlight and Hammerklavier

Beethoven: Sonatas No. 14 and 29 - Murray Perahia - Deutsche Grammophon 2018 24/96

Yes, I’m absolutely certain that this is an album that will stand the test of time. The only argument that you could have is whether the best piece here is the Moonlight (my opinion, see here for my review) or the Hammerklavier (many other reviewers). In any case, get this album, even if you already own these works.

Jean Rondeau Plays Scarlatti

Scarlatti Sonatas Jean Rondeau Erato 2018 (24/96) Warner Classics

As I wrote in my original review, I was really surprised to finally find an album that makes me like Scarlatti. Now is this enough of a reason for YOU to buy it? Will check it out, I think you won’t be disappointed.

You will find the download links in the respective original reviews.

Now back to you, what did I miss? Where do you disagree? What were your classical albums of 2018?

A Review of a VERY BIG Rach2 by Trifonov and Nézet-Séguin – Stunning

Daniil Trifonov and Yannick Nézet-Séguin

If you are a regular reader of my blog, you know that I’m a big fan of both artists (e.g. see here for my review their previous Rachmaninov album, or here for a report my recent experience of Nézet-Séguin live, or just use the search function).

Trifonov is without doubt one of the best pianists of our age, and I start to regret not having included him in my list of my Top 10 classical pianists, maybe that blog post needs an update at some point. And Nézet-Séguin is on his path to be one of the truly great conductors of the 21st century.

So when I saw they just released the legendary Rach 2 together, I bought the album immediately.

Destination Rachmaninov: Departure. Piano concertos No. 2 & 4 – Daniil Trifonov – Yannick Nézet-Séguin – The Philadelphia Orchestra

Daniil Trifonov Yannick Nézet-Séguin The Philadelphia Orchestra Destination Rachmaninov - Departure Deutsche Grammophon 2018 24/96

There is no lack of great recordings of Rach2. Andsnes, Zimerman, Buniatishvili (although this recording is bit controversial), not to mention the greats like Richter, or even the composer himself.

How to play this piece? Do you try to keep it more factual, or do you go with the full romantic power of the piece?

Some lessons can be taken from the recording of Rachmaninov with Leopold Stokowski, featuring the very same Philadelphia Orchestra than the current recording. And one thing is clear, already at the time (1924), they went BIG. A lot of power, a lot of rubato, a lot of everything. And guess what, that works! (well the composer should know, you’d presume)

Trifonov and Nézet-Séguin take a very big approach here. You can really float in the big sound of the Philharmonia Orchestra, and soloist and conductor clearly connect. Trifonov clearly is a virtuoso of the highest caliber, so the technical challenges of this massive work just go unnoticed.

Overall, there is a lot of rubato, and the tempo is relatively slow. In some of the slower passages, one even gets reminder of a Bruckner symphony.

Some would argue this is too much. I haven’t seen many reviews yet, but I predict this recording will be a love it or hate it affair.

To make it clear: I love it!

You also get concerto no. 4, but to this day, I’m like quite a large majority of music lovers, I love nos. 2 and 3, and just don’t get 4. So no comment from my side.

What you do get on top is much more interesting, at least to me. Rachmaninov did his transcription of the Violin Partita BWV 1006, a true gem, that I should probably add to my blog post on transcriptions of the Chaconne. Very much worth discovering.

I’m kind of curious about the album title, Departure, and am really wondering where this train takes us next. Let’s hope to an equally spectacular Rach 3!

My rating: 5 stars.

I’m curious to see if my prediction holds true, and there will be both raving and bad reviews of this. I’ll report back when I see them. In the meantime, try before you buy!

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

UPDATE Oct 30: Well, my prediction of this being a very controversial album already holds true. Check out the comments of my readers below, and you’ll find both love and hate.

In terms of professional reviews, we generally are very positive so far, with four stars from Richard Fairman in the FT, five stars by Andrew Clements in the Guardian, another five stars by Normal Lebrecht. I’m still curious what Gramophone and Classica will think of this.

In any case, try before you buy!

Update March 2, 2019: Classica agrees, and gives this album a “CHOC”, their highest rating. Whereas Gramophone is much less impressed “Overall, this is another fine, well-recorded addition to the lengthy discography but one which neither astonished nor moved me.”

So my prediction that this would be a love it or hate it affair, I was spot on. I still like it very much.

It’s Gramophone Award Time Again – My Reflections Part I: Concerto

Feeling terribly guilty

Dear readers, I’m really sorry.

I just checked, and my last entry dates back more than a month ago. Shame on me. Lots of reasons, too much travel, too busy, too whatever. Who cares, let’s get back to it, shall we?

Gramophone Awards

Although I’ve recently had quite a number of disagreements with reviews by this venerable magazine, it probably remains the most important source for the entire classical music industry, and winning a Gramophone Award is rather prestigious.

I’ve already started reflecting about them last year, which generated some really interesting discussions here and elsewhere (plus lead me to discover David Watkin’s outstanding Cello Suites), so let’s have a look at who has been nominated this year.

If you want to do the same, best is to get our your tablet, get the Gramophone App, and get the Gramophone Awards issue for free.

As last year, I have no ambition to be exhaustive, I’m just giving my 2 cents on a number of albums that I’ve heard as well.

Concerto

Concerto is usually my favorite category, and the one where I’ve heard the largest number of the recordings.

We have 8 albums nominated this year, 5 of which I’ve heard and can comment on.

Brahms Violin Concerto x 2

We start with two versions of Brahms violin concerto, one coupled with Bartok, the other one with Brahms’ own String Quintet No. 2.

The first one is the new Janine Jansen recording, which I’ve reviewed here. I still fully stand by the 5 stars I’ve given there, and this is an album absolutely worth having in spite of heavy competition.

 

Janine Jansen Brahms Bartok Violin Concertos Antonio Pappano London Symphony Orchestra Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia Decca 2015

The second Brahms recording is with the less known German violinist Antje Weithaas, with the Camerata Bern.

Brahms Violin Concerto String Quartet No. 2 Antje Weithaas Camerata Bern

I must admit I didn’t expect a lot, as I was pretty disappointed by the recording of Bach’s keyboard concertos with the Camerata Bern (2010  on Universal).

Well, I was positively surprised, up to a point. To be clear: Weithaas really plays exceptionally well.

However, the Camerata Bern is unfortunately no match for Pappano’s Santa Cecilia. They are really the limiting factor on this recording, which becomes especially apparent in the highly energetic third movement.

The string quintet is ok, but a bit heavy. Overall, I’d probably give this 3 stars.

Beethoven’s piano concertos x 2

The next two albums aren’t albums, but DVDs. I don’t have a DVD/Blueray player, and so have no way of reviewing these.

DVD no. 1 is Maria Joao Pires with Frans Brüggen playing Beethoven’s concerto no. 3.

Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3 Frans Brüggen Orchestra of the 18th Century Maria Joao Pires DVD

There is a snippet on Youtube, and I wasn’t particularly impressed, but one shouldn’t judge from 39 seconds.

Interestingly enough, Pires won already last year with the same concerto but Daniel Harding conducting. Again, didn’t really impress me back then either. But if you’re into DVD’s, you may want to check it out. Just to clarify, I’m a big fan of Pires for a lot of solo recordings (e.g. Chopin, Mozart), but her recent orchestral recordings just aren’t my cup of tea (see also my review of her Schumann recording with Gardiner here).

The other DVD, also from Warsaw, again with Frans Brüggen, has one of my absolute piano godesses on the piano, the mighty Martha Argerich.

Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 1 Frans Brüggen Orchestra of the 18th Century Martha Argerich DVD

Here’s the 40 second Youtube snippet:

This is already more to my taste. But again, you simply cannot judge a recording on 40 seconds.

Britten & Korngold by Vilde Frang

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

I’m a big Vilde Frang fan, her Sibelius is one of my all time favorites, see here.

Unfortunately, the music on this album really isn’t getting me excited, so I’m not qualified enough to comment about the interpretation.

I must admit I wouldn’t even know Korngold if it weren’t for some old Heifetz albums, and even here, his music that would at moments be rather fitting for the next Star Wars soundtrack doesn’t inspire me very much. OK to listen to once or twice, but nothing I’d consider purchasing.

I can comment even less on the Britten. There is unfortunately only one English composer I really love, Henry Purcell, everything after just isn’t for me.

Rachmaninov by Trifonov

Rachmaninov Variations Trifonov Nézét-Séguin Philhadelphia Orchestra Deutsche Grammophon 2016

Now we’re getting back into my home turf (not physically, obviously, I’m not Russian), but musically speaking.

This is an album I should have reviewed a long time ago, as it is a true 5 star recording.

We start with Nézét-Séguin, who here again is in top form, and with the Paganini Variations. Already an exceptional start.

However, this album shouldn’t actually be in the “Orchestral” section, as the entire rest of the 1:18 are all solo piano.

We’re talking about the Variations On A Theme Of Chopin, Op.22, the Variations On A Theme Of Corelli, Op.42, and some Rachmaniana pieces by Trifonov himself.

The Corelli’s are already great, but my absolute favorite here are the quite rarely played Chopin variations. Amazing, you really get the best of both worlds here, the melodical genius of Chopin together with the romantic virtuoso of Rachmaninov. Absolutely worth having.

My rating: 5 stars

So, my take home messages (or albums) are clearly Jansen and Trifonov. Both are absolutely worth having.

And my prediction for the Gramophone Award winner? The Trifonov.

What do you think? Let me hear!

 

Update August 18,2016: Gramophone has released the three finalists for the category: Pires’ Beethoven, Frang’s Britten, and Trifonov’s Rachmaninov. So my prediction above (written previously) could still come true.

 

You can find the albums here:

Brahms/Jansen

Brahms/Weithaas

Beethoven/Pires

Beethoven/Argerich

Korngold & Britten/Frang

Rachmaninov/Trifonov