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)

Hype vs. Hype – Lang Lang vs. Benjamin Grosvenor

First of all, to my subscribers, you may have been surprised not to see a post yesterday. This indeed has been the first time since I started this blog nearly 6 month ago that I didn’t post anything on my regular schedule of every 2-3 days. I unfortunately had a health issue in the family. I’ll really target to get fully back on schedule with posts appearing at least every 3 days.

Second, to the Jazz fans among my readers, hope you don’t get bored, my blog has been rather focused on classical music for the last posts. I’m working on getting back to Jazz ASAP.

But well, one more on classical music.

This one was triggered by my mother in law, suggesting I should write about Lang Lang’s latest album. When I spoke to her, I mentioned that I hadn’t heard it yet, but wasn’t a big fan of Lang Lang in general. Her answer was, “So why don’t you compare it to something you like better?”.

Well, here we go.

“Hyped* classical music artists

Every once in a while there are musicians out there, that, usually helped either by YouTube (e.g. Valeria Lisitsa) or by the label (remember Vanessa Mae?) that are rather well-known even to a non classical audience, and have a certain pop-star following. Sometimes (e.g. Jonas Kaufmann) the hype is correlated with quality, more often than not, I find the correlation between fame and quality in classical music to be not very strong.

Lang Lang is a typical example. He’s probably today’s best known pianists (don’t have any data to back this up unfortunately). And as I said to my mother-in-law above, I have yet to hear a Lang Lang album I really like.

But thanks to my streaming subscription I could simply check the latest album out and make up my own mind.

Lang Lang in Paris Chopin Tchaikovsky Sony 2015

The Chopin Scherzi

A word of introduction on the music: the album consists of the four Chopin Scherzi, and Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons for piano. I’m not very familiar with the latter, so I’m not going to comment on the performance.

However, I just love the Scherzi. There is an entire world in the 6-12 minutes of each one, and they are among my absolute favorite piano pieces by Chopin.

So my expectations were rather high. And I’m sorry to say I was disappointed.

No. 1 was just too nervous, to ADHD (my wife told me to switch albums when we listened to it together).

No. 2 is nicely flowing at the beginning, but getting a bit quirky over time, and again too nervous in the fast parts.

No. 3 is probably the best of the four, a bit too much still, but quite enjoyable nevertheless.

The worst was probably no. 4, just too much forte all over the place, and just too slow for my taste.

Benjamin Grosvenor

Now, as suggested by my wise mother-in-law, let me write about my recommended alternative.

And actually another form of “hype”, albeit at a smaller scale.

Benjamin Grosvenor at the tender age of 24 has won more awards already than others in a lifetime. He was Gramophone’s youngest-ever double award winner, and the rest of the British (and partially international) press went just as crazy about him.

So how’s the hype working out here?

Well actually, I’m a HUGE fan. His Chopin Liszt Ravel album, which features all 4 Scherzi, is just outstanding, and his more recent release Dances was not far behind in terms of quality (I mentioned it my comments about the 2015 Gramophone awards here).

There are obviously other outstanding versions of the Scherzi out there (Argerich for no. 3, Rubinstein, and the best I’ve heard was Kristin Zimerman for no. 2 in a live concert), but the recording here is pretty close to perfect.

Benjamin Grosvenor Chopin Liszt Ravel Decca 2011

My rating: 3 stars (Lang Lang) vs. 5 stars (Grosvenor)

You can find the Lang Lang here (Qobuz) if you really insist, and the Grosvenor here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical).

The official “making of” of the Lang Lang in Paris album here:

Let Me Weep – Rinaldo, Händel’s First Major Opera

In my post some time ago on The Top 10 Music That Gives Me Goose Bumps, I mentioned the famous aria “Lascia ch’io pianga” (Let me weep).

Georg Friedrich Händel

I still haven’t written about this piece, or actually about Georg Friedrich Händel  (I still prefer his German spelling, although in later years he became one of the first “expats” of all times in London and the English spelling of George Frideric may be more familiar to you) in general

Rinaldo, as its HWV number of 7 indicates, is one of the earlier Händel works, but in spite of this, Lascia is what we’d call recycling today, as it has been used twice before in other works, once without words in his op. 1, the opera Almira (rarely played these days), and also in the oratorio Il Trionfo Del Tempo E Del Disinganno (which in spite of its HWV number of 71 is also really early, but was reworked).

This kind of recycling in the baroque area was very common, even Bach used it all over the place, by the way. Many cantatas all over sudden will remind you of the Christmas Oratorio, or have a piece of the Brandenburg concertos.

Rinaldo HWV7

But back to Rinaldo. This was probably the first of his London operas. The story, is based during the first crusade near Jerusalem, and based on an epic by Torquato Tasso.

In spite of the great success of Lascia, the entire opera hasn’t been recorded that often. These days you basically have the choice between three versions (plus some DVD editions).

The oldest one is Jean-Claude Malgoires 1977 recording on Sony, still quite nice.

The to more recent ones are René Jacobs that I haven’t written about a lot yet, and Christopher Hogwood, both from the first decade of this century. Between the two I have a preference for Hogwood, thanks to its outstanding cast, in spite of the fact that Cecilia Bartoli sometimes is a bit heavy in terms of vibrato (I prefer the cleaner singing of the modern “historically informed performance” style).

This recording should be on every collectors shelf (or these days more likely, hard drive).

My rating: 4 stars (as beautiful as it is, I still think this can be bettered in a future version).

Handel Rinaldo Christopher Hogwood Cecilia Bartoli Decca

Recitals or “Best Of Compilations”

When I was younger, I was very snobby towards Best Of or “Highlight” versions of operas, I always wanted to get the full opera. With operas of the classical period, I’m still that way, however, for baroque opera, that are usually very long, have rather complex and/or weird stories I must admit I don’t always have the patience for 3h plus of Opera seria. Luckily you’ll find the most popular (and outstandingly beautiful) arias of Händel et al quite often on recital albums by individual soloist.

Let me recommend two very beautiful ones here that feature Lascia, by Patricia Petibon and Simone Kermes, respectively called Rosso and Drama, and both highly recommended. They offer an excellent entry into baroque opera.

Patricia Petitbon Rosso Andrea Marcon Venice Baroque Orchestra Deutsche Grammophon

Simone Kermes Dramma Sony

And finally, let me mention another beautiful version of Lascia, in a Jazz version this time, by the amazing trumpet player Paolo Fresu, on the album Kosmopolites:

Download Sources:

Hogwood’s Rinaldo: here (Qobuz)

Patricia Petitbon: Rosso: here (Qobuz)

Simone Kermes: here (Qobuz)

Paolo Fresu: Kosmopolites: here (Qobuz)