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)

My favorite Four Seasons by Giuliano Carmignola with the Venice Baroque Orchestra

Another blog post triggered by the series of blind comparisons on Swiss radio, Disques en lice, the French version, this time. They’ve recently compared 7 versions of the world famous Four Seasons.

Antonio Vivaldi and The Four Seasons

I’ve mentioned previously that I’m not a very big Vivaldi fan. On my personal scale, Bach and even partially Händel are miles ahead of the Red Priest. I wouldn’t go as far as Stravinsky who said Vivaldi had written the same concerto 400 times, he has a point though.

But obviously, you just HAVE to have a version of the world most famous program music, the Four Seasons, in any decent record collection (or music collection to be more generic, does anybody still collect records out there?).

Obviously this has been overplayed to death. But if you haven’t listened to it for a while and actually give it a go again with a fresh ear, there are many beautiful elements in there that makes it worth going back to it occasionally. On my personal playlist it appears about 1 per year.

How to choose a version

Obviously, this work has been recorded a gazillion times. I had chosen my personal preference, the recording by Carmignola below, some time ago after comparing about 20 versions. So take this with a grain of salt, obviously there are many other good recordings out there.

In any case, I was obviously very curious if it would appear in the Disques en lice selection, and how it would compare.

Unfortunately, exactly this recording didn’t appear. However, luckily for me, Carmignola actually recorded the Four Seasons twice, and his earlier recording with the Sonatori de la Gioiosa Marca was selected. I was surprised how close these two versions were, in spite of being recorded with 10 years between them.

In a nutshell, that program confirmed my clear preference for Carmignola. The three experts in the program liked it as well, but in the end found it a bit too middle of the road (and they have a point in a way) and preferred in the end the more extreme recordings by Diego Faso’s,  very theatrical, worth checking out, but a bit “too much” for me, and Midori Seiler with the Akademie für Alte Musik, a really good recording but I personally don’t like the sound of Seiler’s violin very much).

Carmignola’s 2nd recording of the Four Seasons

Vivaldi Four Seasons Giuliano Carmignola Andrea Marcon Venice Baroque Orchestra Sony

So what does Carmignola do? Well nothing special, just everything right, and very right. His Guarneri has a beautiful voice, and the Venice Baroque Orchestra plays with just the right level of energy, speed and drive, and a lot of transparency (which by the way luckily is very well recorded, so you get the same transparency transported very well).

Ah yes, and you also get two world premiere recordings of two previously unknown violin concertos as a filler. But in a way, we’re back here to Stravinsky’s 400 times the same, there don’t really disturb, but I really don’t feel you would have missed anything if these had stayed unrecorded for just a little bit longer.

My rating: Four stars (It’s a true five-star performance though, but I just cannot get myself to give 5 stars to Vivaldi, so just ignore the star rating and get it anyhow).

You can get it here (Prestoclassical) and here (Qobuz).

A Follow-Up on Grieg’s Piano Concerto – Andsnes Still Wins

Disques en lice

I’ve mentioned several times that Swiss radio has two great shows, one in German, one in French, that both have the same approach, select 5-6 versions of a classical work, get 2-3 experts and a  moderator in a radio studio, and have the experts compare these versions blindly. The German version is called Diskothek im Zwei, the French version is called Disques en lice.

I follow both regularly. I often don’t agree with the invited experts, but it is a really nice challenge to see if you listen to the same music without knowing who’s playing, you still like it (or maybe like it less if you’re not aware one of your heros is playing).

A similar concept exists with wine (my other passion), and unlike my wife who has a much better nose, I’m only average at blind tastings. Luckily, I usually do better with music.

Grieg’s piano concerto

I’ve already written about Grieg’s piano concerto previously in this post about Javier Perianes recent recording. There I mentioned that my all time favorite is the version with Leif-Ove Andsnes.

Grieg Schumann Piano Concertos Leif Ove Andsnes Maris Jansons Berliner Philharmoniker

I’m a big Andsnes fan boy, as also documented in my recent commentary about his Beethoven concertos here. So I was really hoping that Disques en lice would include his version, as I wanted to ensure that I still like the version when actually I don’t know it’s him. Luckily for me they did (link to the show here).

Let me brag a little here (sorry!), but I recognized his version blindly in all three movements, and am still as enthusiastic about it as before! I really don’t know how one could do this concerto any better than Andsnes and Jansons.

The competition included:

  • The very recent Vadym Kholodenko recording on Harmonia Mundi with the Norjan Radion Orkesteri. Well, overall I kind of liked the version but must agree with the experts that the orchestra just isn’t the same level than the others, so this got kicked out after the first round (3 stars)
  • Nikolai Lugansky with Kent Nagano and the DSO Berlin: well, ok, but nothing special. Also got voted out rather rapidly, fine by me (3 stars)

The three versions that made it to the final round (3rd movement) are Andsnes, and these two:

  • Nelson Freire, Rudolf Kempe, with the Munich Philharmonic. Interesting version, the still very young Freire has tons of energy here. Unfortunately I liked the orchestral playing quite a bit less (4 stars overall). Nevertheless, this version convinced one  of the three commenting experts

Grieg Schumann Piano Concertos Radu Lupu André Previn, London Symphony Orchestra Decca

  • Radu Lupu, André Previn, London Symphony. This version won for the two other experts. Well, I get what they like, Lupu is obviously doing an outstanding job, and the way they play the 2nd movement is out of this world! Unfortunately, overall this version is just a tad too slow for me, losing too much energy in the process especially in the first movement (still 4 stars though).

Therefore, Andsnes remains my hero for Grieg, and I reconfirm my 5 stars for this album!

The Perianes version from my last post was played at the beginning of the show unfortunately “hors concours”, I still like this recording a lot

And the Moog recording I commented about last time I’ve seen reviewed twice now. Gramophone really loved it, Classica in the latest issue only give it 3 star, in line with my rating.

Vilde Frang’s Outstanding Version of Sibelius’ Violin Concerto

Let me start a bit off-topic: Why do I write about Sibelius right now?

If you’ve watched this blog for a bit, or if you’ve bothered to scroll down my main page, you’ll see that my blog topic selection look rather arbitrary and randomly selected and doesn’t follow a clear pattern. And to be fair, this is pretty much exactly how I chose my topics, by inspiration. It is very similar to how i decide to which album to listen next, whatever inspires me. The only connecting factor is that I only write about music or related topics that I really care about.

Diskothek im 2 / Disques en lice

So back to the question: Why Sibelius right now? The simple answer is: I just listened to a great podcast about it. Or actually 2. Let me clarify: My adopted country, Switzerland, has rather average public television, but two great classical music radio stations, one German (SRF2) one French (Espace 2) speaking. Both get to produce their own proprietary content, including a show that is based on the principle of inviting a couple of experts, and listening to a select number of recordings of a certain classical work, and have the expert discuss them blindly, and chose a “winner”. This show is called “Diskothek im 2” for the German, and “Disques en lice” for the French version.

Both recently decided to review Sibelius violin concerto, with a slightly different selection of versions. There was one overlap however, the winner, which is the album I’ll be talking about in a minute. And while I don’t always agree with the experts (in the end, it is all also a question of taste), listening blindly is really a good way of seeing if you REALLY like a version or you’re just preferring it because of the great name of the artist.

Sibelius’ violin concerto

Again, I don’t want to be Wikipedia, if you want to find more about the violin concerto, go here or here. Let me just say that the violin concerto is the only piece from Sibelius i really love. I still need to “get used” to the symphonies and symphonic poems he wrote. I fell in love with the violin concerto early on as it was coupled with the Beethoven violin concert on this low-price Sony release from the 1990s. I was lucky, because it included the Sibelius in a version by the great David Oistrakh which is recommended in the second link above, so by chance I ended up having a very good version.

MI0000958869

So feel free to check this version out, it is still very much recommended.

However, today I want to talk about the recording that won both Disques en Lice and Diskothek im 2: the 2009 recording with Vilde Frang

Vilde Frang

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This was Frang‘s first major commercial record at the age of 22. And what a performance it is. It has both the cold/ghostly nordic impressions of what I imagine Finland must look like (I’ve never been) but also at the right moments has all the fire and energy this late romantic concerto needs. She’s from Norway by the way, so geographically not very far from Finland. No idea if this helps or if this is just a cliché. The conductor, that I wasn’t otherwise familiar with, Thomas Søndergård, is as you can see from the Ø’s and å’s in the name also from Scandinavia, Denmark in this case. Only the orchestra being from the nice town of Cologne, doesn’t qualify as Scandinavian at all.

A side note on German radio orchestras (recognizable by the WDR/NDR/HR or whatever abbreviation, the R meaning radio) are usually quite good, albeit not at the level of a Berlin Philharmonic. However, some of them can be really great, like this one. The Orchestra and Søndergård are doing a great job here as well, and soloist and orchestra are really well-integrated.

This being an “album”, a concept which was forced on us by the LP, and later CD, but doesn’t make a lot of sense for classical music, we not only get the Sibelius, which would have been perfectly fine by me, but you also get a violin concerto by Prokofiev, and some minor “Humoresques” by Sibelius. While I like some of Prokofievs piano music and his “classical” symphony, I cannot find a lot of interest in his violin concerto (no judgment on quality here, just personal preference), and the Humoresques are nice fillers.

Overall rating: 5 stars (applies to the Sibelius concerto, the rest of the album I cannot be bothered with)

A nice alternative recording which I also really like, with another young rising star on the violin, is the version with Lisa Batiashvili (We are living in great times with so many fantastic violin players around). On this recording, you even get a Finnish orchestra with it.

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