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)