My Favorite Recording of Bruch’s Violin Concerto

Max Bruch

I haven’t written a lot about Max Bruch yet. To be a bit more precise, there is not a single blog entry in 5 years that is dedicated to Max Bruch.

Why is that? Maybe because he’s the 19th century equivalent of the One Hit Wonder. Do you know any work beyond his violin concerto (which is to be precise his violin concerto no. 1, but nobody knows the two others)?

Maybe occasionally you’ll find a recording of Kol Nidrei, a orchestral work with a solo cello part. Even more rarely, you’ll get the Romance in F (sometimes coupled with the violin concerto no. 1).

And beyond this, you have to be a proper classical music buff, if you’ve heard his symphonies, his chamber music works, or even his choral works. All pretty much disappeared today. And by the way, not only today, even while he was alive, Bruch complained that he was always reduced to this work, and apparently became quite bitter about it.

Overall, he should probably not have complained to much, his violin concerto no. 1 is still considered part of the list of the 4 great German violin concertos, the others being Beethoven, Brahms, and Mendelssohn.

So what triggered me to write about this concerto right now? Well a nice coincidence of two of the media I follow for classical music inspiration talked about it at the same time.

The first one is the Swiss radio program Disques en lice, from the French speaking part of Switzerland, which usually compares 6 versions of a given work, with 3 experts in a blind test. If you do speak French, I strongly encourage you to seek this program out, you’ll get it twice per week on their worldwide live stream (select Espace2) or if you are lucky enough to pass through Switzerland, you can even download the podcast (unfortunately the podcast has a rather strict geolocating feature).

So, as mentioned Disques en lice covered Bruch’s concerto on September 23, 2019. At the very same time, the most recent September issue of the French magazine Classica that I subscribe to on my iPad has a monthly section Ecoute en aveugle (blind listening) in which they go through pretty much the entire history of recordings of a given work, select what they believe are the 8 most promising ones, and then again proceed to a blind listening session comparing said 8 recordings.

So, which albums got selected?

Let me start with Disques en lice.

The host, Jean-Luc Rieder, had a hard time choosing, so ended up selecting 8 instead of the usual 6. So during the 2h30 of the program, we compared some legendary classics (Christian Ferras and Jascha Heifetz) from the 1950s, two recordings from the 1980s and 90s, Shlomo Mintz and Kyung-Wha Chung, and four more contemporary versions, notably Renaud Capuçon, Nicola Benedetti, Daniel Hope, and Janine Jansen.

Interestingly enough, the selection by the Classica reviewers Stéphanie-Marie Degand, Fabienne Bouvet and Michel le Naour ended up selecting a choice with only one overlap: Itzak Perlman, Isaac Stern, Nathan Milstein, Maxim Vengerov, Ida Haendel, Isabelle van Keulen, Salvatore Accordo, and the overlap being Mintz.

Now, who won at Classica: the top 3 are Perlman (with Haitink), Stern (with Ormandy), and Milstein (with Barzin). As much as I usually agree with Classica’s reviews, I checked out the winning recording with Perlman, and really didn’t like it.

So, who then is my favourite recording you are going to ask after all this intro?

Well, while often I don’t agree with the winning choices of Disques en lice (I much prefer the winning recordings of the Swiss German equivalent by SRF2, Diskothek im 2.), in this particular case I fully agree with the winning album.

(And allow me to brag a little bit, I actually did recognise that recording blindly, together with my other favourite, Jascha Heifetz).

It turns out to be Janine Jansen’s excellent 2006 recording with Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus.

Janines Jansen Mendelssohn Bruch Concertos & Romance Riccardo Chailly Gewandhausorchester Decca 2006

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you will have noticed that I’m a big fan of Janine Jansen, nearly as much as of Isabelle Faust. I’ve previously praised her fantastic recording of the Brahms violin concerto with Antonio Pappano, and have even heard her perform said Brahms concerto live with Herbert Blomstedt quiet recently.

This recording is just perfect to me. It combines the appropriate level of romantic engagement with Chailly’s perfect leadership of the magnificent Gewandhaus.

To be fully transparent, this isn’t the first time I write about this album. It is actually featured in my 25 Essential Classical Albums post, but I must admit I focused much more on her Mendelssohn recording in my comment there than on her equally outstanding Bruch.

So you get it, this album is an absolute must have.

And on top of one of the best ever recorded versions of Mendelssohn’s concerto, you even get Bruch’s Romance in F (op. 85).

My review: 5 stars plus…

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Dolce Duello – A Truly Great “Duel” of Cecilia Bartoli and Sol Gabetta

I’m a bit late reviewing this album, it actually already came out some time ago.

In spite of the fact that I’m a big fan of Sol Gabetta (I’ve now seen her live twice, once in Lucerne and once in LA) and Cecilia Bartoli is obviously already a living legend, I presume it was the extremely cheesy cover (see below) that put me off a bit initially, and I kind of ignored it.

But then, this album ended up being a Gramophone Editor´s Choice, and was highly praised by pretty much every reviewer out there.

So I had a closer look.

Cecilia & Sol – Dolce Duello (Decca 2017)

Cecilia & Sol - Dolce Duello - Capella Gabetta - Andrés Gabetta 24/96 Decca 2017

Sol Gabetta is a very talented Cello player from Argentina, who now lives in Switzerland. And does the famous Italian mezzo-soprano Cecila Bartoli really need an intro?

So, what do we get here? Most of the album is a mix of Italian and German baroque arias from Albinoni, Händel, Porpora, or Caldara. This may look like a slightly random selection, they were obviously all chosen to ensure the Cello gets appropriately featured.

And the result is really very touching. The instrumental backing is Sol Gabetta´s own baroque ensemble Cappella Gabetta, with her brother Andrés as Concert Master. You really are drawn in by the purity and beauty of this album. My favorite tracks is track 5, from Händel´s Ode For Saint Cecilia´s Day.

As an add-on, we get a recording of Boccherini´s Cello Concerto. While I kind of like this concerto, I´d actually have preferred to get more of the “duels”. But well, we really can’t complain, this is a beautiful album throughout.

My rating: 4 stars (5 star playing throughout, I’m just not a particular Boccherini fan).

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

 

Melody Gardot Live In Europe – A Must Have Album – My Review

Melody Gardot

I’ve been a big fan of Melody Gardot for years now. I’ve mentioned her on this blog a couple of times already, reviewing her previous album Currency of Man, which also made my Top 5 Vocal Jazz Albums of 2015, as well as mentioning her great contributions to the compliations albums Autour de Nina, and Jazz Loves Disney.

She is a fantastic talent, with an amazing voice, and a very versatile style, from her early vocal jazz/singer-songwriter style albums Some Lessons, Worrisome Heart, and My One And Only Thrill, via the latin Swing of The Absence, to the much more soul-oriented Currency Of Man.

However, so far I haven’t yet seen her live (what a miss), so I was very excited when this latest live album was announced in late 2017.

Now it’s out, and I must admit it exceeded even my high expectations.

Live in Europe (Decca 2018)

Melody Gardot Live In Europe (24/48) 2018 Decca

So, what’s so great about this album?

First of all, the length, 1h45, so the band can really take the time to develop the songs, with the longest example, Morning Sun taking more than 12 minutes. Not one too many by the way, as this is one of the true highlights of the album.

The other great thing is that this in many places is a very minimalistic, “unplugged” style album, just Melody’s fantastic voice with very little instrumentation, which makes this even more special, and a very intimate experience. One example is the opening track, Our Love Is Easy, which over quite a while has her together with only a double bass. Outstanding!

This is a mix of several concerts in Europe, and you get the full bandwidth of styles. Lisboa (nicely enough taken from a concert in Lisbon) is an excellent example that the band can do a true latin samba-style swing, you get her “classics” like My One And Only Thrill, but even the more soul-type songs like Morning Sun get a very special, fresh treatment.

Melody Gardot is clearly surrounded by outstanding musicians here, as witnessed in the nearly 4 minutes instrumental intro of The Rain.

Another highlight of the album is March For Mingus, as it is really swinging and groving like crazy. The “original” of this song was a short 1:02 fragment on Currency of Man, which finally gets the 11:03 that it truly deserves.

Get this album as fast as you can! This is an instant classic.

My rating: 5 stars

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

The Complete Beethoven String Quartets by the Takács Quartet – A Masterpiece

Beethoven’s String Quartets

I haven’t written that much yet about Beethoven’s string quartets. It is a hard to cover vast subject of 16 masterpieces, from the early ones that are still very reminiscent of Haydn, to the middle ones (mainly the Rasumovksy ones), that clearly match the power of the major Beethoven symphonies, to the entirely different universe that are the late quartets, that enter completely unheard harmonic complexities, that go even beyond his symphonic works.

How can one quartet really do them all justice? Typically, reviewers recommend getting different boxes for the different periods, and they are right.

However, some outstanding artists are able to just set a standard for all three periods. And the Takács Quartet is just one of them.

When Decca re-released the complete Beethoven box that was originally recorded in the early 2000s, I had to go back to it. I’m very glad I did, I was again blown away.

Beethoven: Complete String Quartets – Takács Quartet (Decca 2017 Remaster)

 

Takacs Quartet Beethoven Complete String Quartets Decca 24 48 2017 remaster

The Takacs Quartet has been around since 1975! They are probably one of the most outstanding string quartets ever. I’ve praised the Takacs´ several times already (See for example here my review of their fantastic Schubert), and remain a great fan of them.

In this box, in the early quartets of op. 18, you get all the Viennese lightness. These are just a pleasure to listen to. These works need to “swing”, and the Takacs just pull it off.

Moving to the more serious op. 59, the Takacs´switch gear appropriately. Take quartet no. 9, op. 59 no. 3, that starts with a very “serious” Andante con moto. This part occasionally reminds me of a Mahler symphony. And here, you get the full weight and emotional power this work requires, before moving on to the Allegro part, that gives you the Beethoven you are most likely to think of when you hear the name.

The late quartets again are a completely different animal. Let’s take for example op. 127. I have a pretty direct comparison, having only recently heard this played live by the equally fantastic Quatuor Ébène (see my concert review here). Comparing the two approaches here, let´s say we could characterise the Ébène’s live approach with “Passion”, and the Takacs’s with “Precision”. These are obviously simplifications, but you get the idea. Both are absolutely fantastic versions, and show you how much there is to discover in these masterworks, that are unfortunately not very approachable for the beginner. Give them some time, and they will grow on you.

If you only ever wanted to own one version of the Beethoven string quartets, this really would be the one to have. I´d strongly advise against having only one version, there are so many others to discover, and Beethoven’s quartets really are among the most outstanding masterpieces the Western world ever produced.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Prostudiomasters) or here (Prestoclassical, as limited edition disc set with some bonus DVDs)

Oops, He Did It Again: Benjamin Grosvenor with Another Great Album!

Benjamin Grosvenor

I’ve mentioned Benjamin Grosvenor several times already, including here, and here in my comments about last year’s Gramophone Awards. If you read through these reviews and comments, you’ll quickly see I’m a huge fan. This young artist (he’s only 24!) is really spectacular.

So far, I have yet to hear a disappointing album from him.

So my hopes were high when he released his new album, Homages.

Homages (Decca 2016)

Benjamin Grosvenor Homages (24/96) Decca 2016

Grosvenor likes albums mixing several composers around a theme. His last album was called Dances, now we’re talking about Homages.

And we start strongly, with Busoni’s piano setting of the famous Chaconne from Bach’s suites for solo violin. This is rather rarely played, which is a pity, as for once a transcription actually adds something (more often than not, they do not work that well for me). You really get the full bandwidth of this beautiful piece, and the outstanding beauty of Milstein’s legendary interpretation comes to mind, while Busoni’s fireworks around the well known melody really works. This sounds almost like Brahms (who by the way also transcribed the Chaconne, but into a version for left hand only), or actually even occasionally like Rachmaninov. A true showpiece, but without any negative connotation that is usually associated with this term.

From this grandiose opening, we move to another rather unfamiliar music, Mendelssohn’s preludes & fuges op. 35. Mendelssohn was essential for the “rediscovery” of Bach in his time, and you can hear the spirit of Bach in these little-known, but beautiful gems.

From these Bach homages, we move on to more traditional romantic piano music with Chopin and Liszt, an area where Grosvenor feels very much at home.

The booklet tries to give some story around why Chopin’s beloved Barcarolle and parts of Liszt’ Années de Pélérinage are homages as well. I must admit I don’t care that much, I just love his playing.

The Barcarolle op. 60 is one of my all time favorites from Chopin. I heard it some years ago by Krystian Zimerman live, in what remains my personal reference. However, this interpretaion really stands on its own, and I like it a lot.Liszt’s Venezia e Napoli is also really well played.

He closes off with Ravel, as already in his Decca debut, focusing Le Tombeau de Couperin, where the homage aspect is already evident from the title.

I wonder if Grosvenor ever will record e.g. an entire cycle or work, or if he’ll stick to this kind of “concept” album. I wouldn’t be surprised if he sticks to the latter, which is great, because it gets me to discover music I wouldn’t necessarily have discovered without him.

Keep going!

My rating: 4 stars (to clarify: this is absolutely 5 stars playing, but not always essential repertoire)

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

Papa Haydn – Or Not? Ottavio Dantone’s Haydn Symphonies

Joseph Haydn

I haven’t written a lot about Haydn yet, actually, there is so far only one blog that mentions a Haydn album in passing.

This is not entirely by chance, I’m generally not a big Haydn fan.

Baroque, yes please! Mozart, Beethoven, give me more. But Haydn? Somewhere stuck in between.

The old saying of “Papa” Haydn certainly has a point. I very much like his Cello concertos, and his masterly string quartets. But his symphonies? More than 100? Not really my cup of tea.

Or so I thought. Apparently I’m not alone, in the most recent issue of Gramophone, an article commenting about the recording I’ll be discussing below mentioned that Haydn apparently doesn’t sell well.

So what has changed?

Haydn: Symphonies No. 78-81 by Ottavio Dantone and the Academia Bizantina (Decca 2016)

Haydn: Symphonies 78, 79, 80, 81 - Ottavio Dantone - Accademia Bizantina (24/96)

Ottavio Dantone? Isn’t that the guy that I have several lovely Corelli recordings from? Yes indeed, he is mainly known for his Baroque albums. And now he attacks the traditional “Wiener Klassik”. How does he manage this material?

Actually, really well. The historically informed practice, gut strings et al., really helps Haydn a lot. What it adds is precision and clarity.

This album to be sounds like very precisely drawn with a fine pencil. You don’t miss a single detail. At the same time, there is a lot of energy. “Papa” Haydn really gets a kick in the butt, metaphorically speaking (excuse my French), and this is what this music needs. Extremely refreshing.

Now, about the music itself. Are we talking about something similar to a Beethoven symphony? Well, not to me (although especially the early Beethoven symphonies were clearly inspired by Haydn). But there is enough going on to make this recording interesting and worth discovering even for people (like me) who would usually shun Haydn.

Side note: There currently is a highly exciting complete Haydn HIP style cycle in the making, called Haydn 2032, by Giovanni Antonini and the Kammerorchester Basel. This cycle so far has only released some of Haydn’s earlier symphonies that I really cannot be bothered with, but are played so well that I’ll be closely following this project.

Back to Dantone: My rating: 4 stars

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

How Many Versions Of Brahms Violin Concerto Does One Need?

My dear readers and fellow music lovers, no I’m not dead nor sick, I’ve just been on an intense 3 weeks business trip which kept me from posting.

Everything should be back to the regular 2-3x update schedule as of now. Thanks for your patience!

Brahms Violin Concerto

To answer my own rhetorical above question first: One more than you currently own as of recently.

OK, if you were a purist, you could say, just get Heifetz and be done with it. And you’d have a valid point. But then again, you’d be missing so much, for example the recording I’m just about to write about.

At latest count, I have 24 versions of this masterpiece in my library, and this is not counting the huge number of versions I could access any time via Qobuz streaming.

So why the heck would I want to add one more? Especially with Heifetz’ legendary version around, not even mentioning Faust’s fantastic version (reviewed here previously, 5 stars)?

Janine Jansen

The answer is simple and is called Janine Jansen. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you know I’m a big Isabelle Faust fanboy, and gobble up and love pretty much all she’s doing.

Janine Jansen, the Dutch violinist, is another example where I’ve rarely ever been disappointed. Her Beethoven and Mendelssohn recordings are among my absolute favorites, and even her Four Seasons are a lot of fun. I’ve already mentioned her a couple of times, including here and here, in her role as excellent chamber musician. But obviously she really shines when she is in the lead.

Janine Jansen and Antonio Pappano playing Brahms and Bartók

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

How to describe Jansen’s Brahms? Well, between the two extremes of Heifetz (extreme passion) and Faust (extreme clarity), you probably get a nice balance in between.

There is definitely more vibrato and more rubato than with Faust, and while I love the clean sound of Faust’s Sleeping Beauty Stradivarius,  Jansen’s Barrere from the same genius violin maker’s factory, with a slightly darker tone, is outstanding as well.

Another difference is the cadenza, Faust playing the rare Busoni cadenza, with Jansen chasing the more traditional Joachim cadenza (by Brahms’ friend and favorite violinist).

Obviously I also need to mention Pappano. He’s done great things with his recent opera recordings (e.g. the Aida reviewed here), but if any more proof was needed he’s also an excellent conductor for concertos, here you have it.

In a nutshell, this is perfection. A different kind of perfection than Faust or Heifetz, but perfection nevertheless. A must have if you like Brahms. (At some point I’ll do a comparison between all my 25 versions, from Neveu to Jansen. Just need to find a LOT of time).

Bartók

I haven’t written a word about the Bartók yet. This is simply because I’m much more unfamiliar with this work than the Brahms, my only two comparators being Faust (again, I know), and Oistrakh, so I won’t comment here beyond the fact that I like what I hear. Maybe this is the version that will finally get me more hooked on the Hungarian composer (I really appreciate him, but rarely listen extensively).

My rating: 5 stars

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