My Reflections on the 2016 Gramophone Awards (Part IV): Chamber

This is the 4th part of a series of posts about the nominated albums for the 2016 Gramophone Awards. You’ll find the rest of the series here.

Chamber Music

I’ve written quite a bit about chamber music on my blog already, it is one of the most beautiful and intimate forms of classical music.

Beethoven: Complete Works for Cello and Piano – Xavier Phillips – François-Frédéric Guy (Evidence 2015)

I’ve only recently “discovered” François-Frédéric Guy for me, in his album of the Brahms piano sonatas, reviewed here. As you can see from that review, I was really impressed with wh

Beethoven: Complete Works for Cello & Piano - Xavier Phillips - François-Frédéric Guy Evidence 2015

Xavier Phillips was another new name to me (which also tells me I’m not reading Gramophone with enough attention, given that all of these award-nominated albums obviously were previously praised by Gramophone).

The catalogue of complete Beethoven cello recordings has seen two recent excellent addition in recent years, with the excellent Steven Isserlis and Robert Levin on fortepiano (Gramophone Award finalist in 2014) on Hyperion, and even more recently Jean-Guihen Queyras and Alexander Melnikov.

So do we need yet another new recording? Well, while this new album doesn’t replace Isserlis and Queyras, it is certainly a strong contender.

As said before, I really liked Guy on Brahms, and his transparent, clear style works very well here. Phillips has a beautiful tone, and this recording, while very singing, has also a certain etheral style to it. Very much worth checking out.

My rating: 4 stars

Berg: Lyric Suite – Renée Fleming and Emerson Quartet

Berg/Schönberg/Webern: Belcea Quartet

Berg: Lyric Suite - Emerson String Quartet Decca 2015

Berg Webern Schönberg: Chamber Music Belcea Quartet

Berg twice, plus some more Zweite Wiener Schule.

As much as I love the Klimt on the cover, I’ve tried over and over again to get used to this kind of music, but haven’t managed. It’s just not my cup of tea. I can listen to Berg’s Violin concerto occasionally, but beyond that, the only thing I want is find my Ipad remote and turn back to Beethoven or Brahms as soon as I can.

Given my complete lack of competence and understanding here, I’ll just shut up and let you make up your own mind (you’ll find the Qobuz links below).

Brahms: String Quartets 1 & 3 – Artemins Quartet

Now we’re getting back to a composer I absolutely love (see also the subtitle of my blog).

That’s the good news.

Brahms: String Quartets No. 1 & 3 - Artemis Quartet Erato 2016

Now to the bad news: I personally think that Brahms’ String Quartets are among his weakest contributions to the genre of chamber music. I love everything he did with piano (naturally, he was a very good pianist), I like his string sextets and quintets already a bit less, and I never got to like the string quartets.

Honestly, when I want a string quartet, I’ll just pick between Schubert, Beethoven, Haydn, and occasionally Mozart. More than enough brilliant choice here.

But you don’t care about that, you care about what I think about their playing? Well, here’s the problem: If I don’t really like the music, my judgment is clouded at best. Sure, they do a fine job, but the entire thing just doesn’t touch me enough. So this will be another one where I refrain from any rating. Just so much: If you unlike me like the Brahms quartets, it’s worth checking out (which you probably would have guessed without me as well).

Bruckner: String Quartet, String Quintet – Fitzwilliam Quartet

You may, like me, rub your eyes and ask yourself if you just ended up in the wrong section. No this is not “orchestral”, we are in chamber music.

I must admit somewhere in the back of my head I had heard Bruckner did some Chamber music, but seriously had never heard it before. I could double check this fact, as my pretty large digital library doesn’t contain a single recording of these works.

Well at least I’m not alone, even the 30M+ library of Qobuz only features a very small handful of recordings of this work.

Bruckner: String Quintet - String Quartet - Fitzwilliam String Quartet - Linn Records 2016

Now the problem: The Fitzwilliam has recorded on Linn Records. While this usually means you get excellent recording quality, it also means no streaming.

Now, from the couple of other albums available for streaming of these works I must admit I haven’t made up my mind if I care enough about them to buy this new album (currently I rather don’t think so). Don’t get me wrong, I love Bruckner (see here), but I’m not sure his chamber music is for me.

So another album without any rating from my side. Sorry.

Schubert: String Quintet – Quatuor Ebène

Schubert String Quintet - Lieder - Quatuor Ebène - Gautier Capuçon - Matthias Goerne ERATO 2016

NOW we’re talking. Already reviewed here, and I can only reiterate my strong 5 star rating here. Just go, get it!

Tippett: String Quartets – Heath Quartet

Who? Could you repeat that name?

Well I shouldn’t brag, rather shut up, this just shows again how ignorant I am in 20th century music.

But as I’ve previously said about Britten, I love English composers. Especially when they are called Purcell. Or actually, only if they are called Purcell. For all the rest, really not my cup of coffee (or more appropriately, tea).

 

So, who should win?

Well, if you’ve read so far, you’ll have noticed that I’m rather biased this time (ok, all the time), and actually would give the Award without hesitation to the Quatuor Ebène.

Well, but I’m not Gramophone, and knowing the three finalists the jury there has chosen (they were released some days ago), I know they won’t make it. The Beethoven, my other favorite, is out as well.

Basically, the Emerson Berg, the Artemis Brahms, and the Heath Tippett are in the final selection.

Well, over and out for me at this stage. Let Gramophone’s jury do their job.

 

You can find the albums here:

Beethoven Cello Philips

Berg/Emerson

Belcea

Brahms Artemis

Bruckner

Schubert

Tippett

 

 

 

My Reflections on the 2016 Gramophone Awards (Part II): Baroque Vocal

The Gramophone Awards 2016

Following yesterday’s post on the Gramophone Awards Nominees in the Concerto category, let’s attack another one: Baroque Vocal. Again, this isn’t meant to be an exhaustive review of the nominated albums, but just a couple of comments and reflections, as usually I’ll know quite a number of the recommendations well.

And if I don’t, I’ll try to find out (or shut up).

Baroque Vocal

Baroque vocal is not surprisingly one of my favorite categories. As written previously, you can never have enough Bach.

The good thing is, this year’s Gramophone award nominees in this category feature 3 times this great composer, even twice with his outstanding b-minor mass (sorry for all the superlatives here, but what else can you call this?).

Bach: Magnificat – John Butt – Dunedin Consort

Gramophone starts very appropriately for this hot summer season with… Christmas Music.

Well, actually, the title piece is the Magnificat BWV 243a, which is as magnificent as the name implies. I’ve praised John Butt and his Dunedin consort several times here on this blog (e.g. his fantastic St Matthew Passion), and this album keeps the very high level of playing of this great ensemble (plus the beautiful recording quality of the Scottish label Linn, known for their turntables, and more recently, excellent digital hifi).

Bach: Magnificat Christmas Cantata 63 John Butt Dunedin Consort Linn Records

You also get a Christmas cantata plus some other church music (this is trying to recreate Bach’s first Christmas Vespers as he could have performed them), so make sure you get this excellent album under your Christmas tree this year (side note: this is one of the downside of the virtual download era, a FLAC file doesn’t look that pretty even wrapped).

My rating: 5 stars

Bach: B-minor Mass by Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir

Bach: Mass in B-Minor - Gardiner (2015) - SDG

Already reviewed here, so no need to repeat my four star rating. Very well done, but I still prefer Herreweghe (no matter which version, see also here).

 

Bach: B-minor Mass by the Lars Ulrik Mortensen and the Concerto Copenhagen

Bach: Mass in B Minor Lars Ulrik Mortensen Concerto Copenhagen CPO

Yes, another version of the masterpiece. And admittedly one I haven’t heard. This is mainly due to the fact that this SACD release doesn’t seem to be available on my streaming provide of choice.

Mortensen’s recordings of the Bach keyboard concertos are, and I’m not a big fan. However, the couple of snippets of this b-minor I was able to find on the internet sound interesting. The couple of reviews I’ve read speak of a lot of transparency. Once this becomes available on a streaming site I’ll have another look, and if you have an SACD player, you may even want to check it out right now.

 

Händel: Partenope – Riccardo Minasi – Il Pomo d’Oro

From baroque giant no. 1 to no. 2, Händel.

Händel: Partenope - Riccardo Minasi - Il Pomo d'Oro - Gauvin - Jaroussky Erato 2016

No idea why I haven’t purchased this one yet. I’m usually a big fan of the countertenor Philippe Jarrousky, and Riccardo Minasi is very reliably producing high level baroque productions.

And Erato (in spite of being part of Warner these days) is also a gauge of quality.

In spite of this album being available on Qobuz, I haven’t spent a lot of time on this recording yet, so I’m not going to offer any judgment beyond that I like what I’ve heard so far.

 

Monteverdi: Madrigali Vol. 1 – Cremona – Paul Agnew – Les Arts Florissants

First of all, reading “Les Arts Florissants” and not seeing William Christie in the same entry is a bit weird. They have been associated for so many years (and I’m looking forward to seeing him live again in the soon to open Hamburg Elbphilharmonie early next year).

But Paul Agnew, his disciple, does an outstanding job there.

Monteverdi: Madrigali vol. 1 Cremona Paul Agnew Les Arts Florissants 2016

I must admit I listen to Monteverdi less than I should. While my musical brain feels immediately at home in the harmonic world of a Bach and Händel, the 100+ years between them and Monteverdi, the very beginning of what can be called baroque music, makes is much less immediately approachable to me.

However, when I’m in the mood and have the patience, it can be a very rewarding experience.

Again, I haven’t spent enough time with this album for proper judgment, but my initial impressions are very positive.

Le Concert Royal De La Nuit: Sebastian Daucé – Ensemble Correspondances

From Germany via England (Händel) and Italy now to France (Well to be fair, of the previous mentioned countries, only France and England actually were countries, Germany and Italy still had to wait for a couple of centuries for this pleasure).

And directly to the court of the Sun King, Louis XIV.

Why haven’t I written about this fantastic album yet, although I purchased it months ago? No idea, shame on me. This is putting you directly into the front row at Versailles, into a musical spectacle of first order.

Le Concert Royal de la Nuit: Sébastian Daucé - Ensemble Correspondances Harmonia Mundi 2016

I must admit, I didn’t know any of the composers previously (I’m not a great expert in French music in the first place), but the booklet quotes them as:  Cambefort, Boesset, Constantin, Lambert, Cavalli and Rossi.

Never mind, just sit back, close your eyes, and enjoy the beauty of the music!

By the way, this was also a Choc Classica in addition to the Gramophone Editors choice. It is rare that these two magazines agree, but if they do, it’s usually on something rather outstanding.

My rating: 5 stars

Now, the tricky question, who should win this year’s Gramophone Awards? My guess is Gardiner will make it, as a sort of lifetime award (and having seen him live earlier this year, he’d certainly deserve it).

But my personal call would go for the outsider: Sébastian Daucés account of a night at Versailles. Let’s see.

Who would you choose?

 

UPDATE Aug 18: Gramophone has just communicated the three finalists for each category. For this one, still in the running are the Dunedin Magnificat, the Monteverdi, and the Concert Royal. So my personal favorite has a one in 3 chance of winning. Nice!

 

You can find the recordings here:

Bach Magnificat Dunedin

Bach B-minor Mass Gardiner

Bach B-Minor mass Mortensen

Händel: Partenope

Monteverdi: Madrigali vol. 1

Le Concert Royal de la Nuit

 

 

 

 

Merry Christmas With 3x the Messiah!

The Messiah

Given the season, I’ve been quite busy writing about Christmas and Seasonal music recently. You will find my musings about the Christmas Oratorio, Bach’s Christmas Cantatas, the Nutcracker, and even my favorite Christmas Jazz albums.

However, one major piece is certainly missing from the list above, and potentially the most famous of all, Georg Friedrich Händel’s Messiah. I guess even most non classical listeners will be able to recognize the famous “Hallelujah” from his best-know oratorio.

I’ve previously written about some other beautiful vocal music of Händel, as well as started writing about his operas (see my post about Rinaldo here) which I like very much. I’ve so far avoided writing about the Messiah, not because I don’t like it, but I just didn’t get to it yet.

To be fair, the Messiah is not properly speaking Christmas music, although the entire first part focuses on the prophecies of the birth of the Messiah, but it is often enough played in this season, so I include it here.

There are about a gazillion recording of this piece, not surprisingly, starting from early ones like the famous Otto Klemperer version, to luckily (to my ears) many contemporary versions influenced by the Historically Informed Practice (HIP).

All the versions I recommend below are HIP, if you prefer big-scale, traditional playing, the Klemperer recording is not a bad place to start.

My Three Favorite Versions

My three favorite versions date from last three decades. The earliest from the early 90s, the middle one from the mid-2000’s, and the latest one is barely a year old at the time of writing (2015).

William Christie, Les Arts Florissants (Harmonia Mundi 1994)

William Christie is one of the greatest baroque conductors ever (see also his beautiful recent album Music for Queen Caroline, reviewed here).

His 1994 recording of the Messiah was my first ever version which I bought shortly after it came out, and I turned out to be very lucky as this remains a great version to this day.

Some great singers (e.g. Mark Padmore, Sandrine Piau), and the ever beautiful playing of the great French ensemble Les Arts Florissants, make this, 20 years later, still a very nice recording.

Handel: Messiah - Les Arts Florissants - William Christie Harmonia Mundi

 

John Butt, Dunedin Consort (Linn Records 2007)

Pretty much every recording of the Dunedin Consort under John Butt is worth having. They have a clear fanclub at Gramophone, but while I sometimes disagree with the UK-artist hyping of this British magazine, for the Dunedin Consort I share their excitement.

This recording is probably the most polished of the three, with beautiful acoustics, sometimes a bit more moderate tempos, but a lot of insights and beauty. Wholeheartedly recommended.

Handel: Messiah - Dunedin Consort & Players John Butt Linn Records

Emmanuelle Haïm, Le Concert D’Astrée (Erato/Warner Classics 2014)

The second French recording in my list (William Christie, in spite of his American origins, has worked most of his life in France). I haven’t written about Emmanuelle Haïm yet on this blog, which is a big mistake. I’m a huge fan of hers, and what she does with her Concert d’Astrée is nearly always worth checking out (note that I’ve previously praised the Concert d’Astrée’s version of Mozart’s c-minor mass, but under a different conductor).

This is the most recent recording of the Messiah that I own (2014), and it quickly became my favorite. Why? Well, most of all it is the orchestral playing which has a beautiful “swing” to it. While this is obviously a festive work, baroque music is often based on or inspired by dance music, and this is probably the version of the three that gets closest to that ideal. Love it!

Handel: Messiah - Emannuelle Haïm Le Concert d'Astree Erato 24/96

My ratings: 4 stars (Christie & Butt), 5 stars (Haïm)

You can find the Christie here (Prestoclassical), the Dunedin here (Linn), and the Haïm here (Qobuz).

Merry Christmas!

I wish all of you a relaxing year end break, Merry Christmas if you celebrate it, and all the best! This is most likely my last post of the year, check back in in 2016! It’s been great fun sharing all this beautiful music with you, and getting all the feedback from you! Thanks for taking this journey with me!

 

There Must Be An Angel: Mozart – The Weber Sisters

If reading the blog post title you wonder what the connection is between a 1990s Eurythmics title, Mozart, and some sisters called Weber, let me explain.

The angel is simply referring to Sabine Devieilhe, the young soprano on the album I’m about to write about. Not only she looks pretty much like one (see the cover photo below), she really has an angelic voice. Clear, bright, shiny, with a beautiful color and an amazing range.

I first noticed her in her debut recording on Erato, with Alexis Kossenko (previously mentioned for his Telemann recording here), Le Grand Théatre de l’Amour dedicated to Jean-Philippe Rameau.

Mozart: The Weber Sisters (Erato 2015)

Mozart: The Weber Sisters Sabine Devielhe Raphael Pichon Pgymalion Erato 2015

This is Sabine Devileilhe’s second album on Erato, recorded this time with Raphaël Pichon’s ensemble Pygmalion.

I hesitated for quite some time to write about his album as I’m generally not a big fan of “best-of” type albums. I don’t mind them for baroque music as much, as it can be sometimes a bit tedious to go through 3+ hours of an opera seria, but for Mozart and beyond I prefer to listen to the entire opera instead. However, the selection on this particular album includes quite a number of single arias that are not part of a larger opera and are not recorded that often.

Let me briefly explain the Weber Sisters title of his album, as this is kind of a concept album. The most famous Weber sister is Constanze, Mozart’s wife, but actually Mozart was a close friend of the Weber family and as the booklet extensively explains, was at some point in love with the youngest sister, Aloysia, and the middle sister, Josepha, also played an important role in his life.

What music do you get? Well known hits like the famous Queen of the Night aria, or the French song Ah vous dirais-je maman, but also as mentioned previously several lesser known arias. All this is beautifully player by Raphaël Pichon’s ensemble, and Devileilhe’s voice is an absolute pleasure to hear.

This albums was elected among the albums of the year by Classica magazine, and I fully agree that his album is highly recommended.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

My Favorite Versions of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio

Christmas Music

Only three weeks left until Christmas. Usually, during this time there are three unavoidable things: Some singer releasing a Christmas album (that reminds me that I need to write a post about my favorite Jazz Christmas albums, watch this space), you hear Wham again on the radio 5 times per day, and most households that have some form of love for classical music play the Christmas oratorio, in a similar frequency to the Last Christmas repetitions on popular radio.

I’m very similar, during the month of December the Oratorio gets played at least 10-20 times. I wonder myself why I still like it. But let’s face it, this is Bach, and you can never get too much Bach.

Listening to this work you’re best of when you speak at least some German, as you get the entire beautiful Christmas story told to you by the Evangelist, but if you don’t, either get the booklet or just enjoy the music

(Side note: I’m not religious, but having grown up in a Western country Christmas has become more of a family tradition than a religious event for me like for many others).

Gardiner / Monteverdi Choir (DG Archiv 1987)

Bach Christmas Oratorio John Eliot Gardiner Monteverdi Choir English Baroque Soloists DG Archiv 1987

Gardiner’s version from 1987 is probably the best known, and it is still my favorite version. I’m not sure if my preference isn’t biased by the fact that I’ve heard it so much over and over again, but Gardiner plays with so much drive and energy, that although I must have heard this hundreds of times, it still doesn’t get boring.

There are obviously many alternatives.

Philippe Herreweghe (Erato 1992)

One of my favorite alternatives around is also a bit older. Philippe Herreweghe’s version is a bit more mellow than Gardiner, but still has all the beauty in both playing and singing.

Bach Christmas Oratorio Philippe Herrweghe Collegium Vocale Ghent Erato

I have listened to a number of more recent versions, but still go back to these two above most of the time. Among the more recent alternatives I’ve tried are Mazaaki Suzuki (polished, but a bit too behaved), Diego Fasolis (really fast, not my cup of tea), and Gramophone’s favorite version, Harnoncourt 2nd version on Deutsche Harmonia Mundi (good but I like both versions above better).

My rating: 4 stars for both (I’m still waiting for the perfect version, but both come pretty close)

You can download the Gardiner here (Qobuz) and the Herreweghe here (Qobuz again)

Cavalli: L’Amore Innamorato – Christina Pluhar’s new album

Francesco Cavalli

I actually thought I knew my composers reasonably well, even more obscure ones, but Cavalli was new to me. I’m probably not the only one, this is one of the composers that was known only to early music

So I was a bit surprised to see two new  recordings on this Venetian composer coming out at pretty much the same time, Mariana Flores Heroines of the Venetian Baroque (which good excellent reviews in the French press by the way), and also from Christina Pluhar’s early music ensemble Arpeggiata.

Cavalli was a singer and Monteverdi protégée who later started writing his own operas. At his time, he was famous enough tube noticed by Louis XIV’s Cardinal Mazarin to play his operas at the wedding of the Sun King.  (That’s probably relatively speaking even better than being invited to play at Kimye’s wedding these days. But I digress.)

L’amore innamorato (Erato 2015)

Christina Pluhar’s ensemble L’Arpeggiata has released some great albums, although the recent ones, especially the “jazzy” Purcell, were reviewed rather controversially.

Cavalli: l'Amore Innamorato Christina Pluhar l'Amore Innamorato Christina Pluhar L'Arpeggiata Erato 2015

I haven’t yet seen any reviews on this new Cavalli album, but I think this will be less controversial, as was their initial Monteverdi Teatro d’Amore album from 2009.

It is basically a lot of fun. The beautiful voice of the Spanish soprano Nuria Rial (helped by Hana Blažíková) is a big part of the fun, but Pluhar’s early music ensemble really is playing with a lot of dedication here.

The program is a best-of of Cavalli’s operas (apparently he wrote at least 24), and this is probably a good thing, as following a full early baroque opera seria can sometimes be a bit tedious.

No boredom here, this is thoroughly enjoyable. I suggest you check it out! I’ve added a Youtube sample below.

My rating: 4 stars

You can download it here (Qobuz) or here (HDtracks).

UPDATE November 22: Alexandra Coghlan reviewed this album on Sinfinimusic and gave it 5 stars.

David Fray’s elegant and intimate Schubert

Franz Schubert and the piano

I’ve been writing quite a bit about Schubert recently (see here and here). I’ve said before that one area where this amazing composer really excelled was chamber music. This is to be expected given that he grew up learning the violin. However, soon after that instrument (started at the age of five), he also got his first lessons on the organ, and he became a decent player of the piano as well (although never to the professional standard of other composers, and he rarely performed in public).

Many of his piano works (let’s keep “late in perspective, the guy died at the age of 31…) are nearly as outstanding as his chamber compositions. Namely, the late piano sonatas, the Impromptus, the Moments Musicaux and the Wanderer-Fantasie. I’ll be writing about all of these later.

And finally, his third category of musical excellence was the Lied or song obviously. I’ve only recently started to fully discover the riches of this repertoire, and will also come back to this.

Side note: If you want a great overview of his piano works, played at the highest level and very well recorded, there is, besides the obvious Alfred Brendel, mainly Mitsuko Uchidas’ great box on Decca, which can sometimes be found very cheaply (e.g here and here)

David Fray playing Schubert

So, with all these great recordings already existing (and you could easily add Paul Lewis, Radu Lupu, Paul Badura-Skoda etc. etc.) recordings, why bother buying another version in 2015?

David_Fray_Jacques_Rouvier-Franz_Schubert_Fantaisi

David Fray is a young French pianist. He got his lucky break when he was asked to jump in for Hélène Grimaud (they shared the same piano teacher) at some concerts. He has some other musical background: his father in law is the famous conductor Riccardo Muti. He already recorded several Schubert albums earlier, but this is the first time I noticed him.

He plays the lesser known Sonata D894 (nicknamed “Fantasie“), and some smaller works, including two for four hands with Jacques Rouvier. What is so special about his Schubert? Two words come to mind: elegance and fragility. In some parts this Schubert sounds more like Bach than a composer who was at the beginning of the romantic period. With this comes an outstanding transparency, but also a really intense intimacy. Very very touching.

Critics for once seem to like this album as well, Gramophone named it Editors choice, Classica gave it the “Choc”, 5 stars from Diapason, the only review I saw that didn’t like it was the BBC, calling it “Beautiful, certainly, in its way; but static.”. Sorry, dear old BBC; but I don’t hear anything static in here.

Erato is a label that usually cares about sound quality, this one is quite well recorded as well, much better than the sometimes a bit harsh sound of some of Brendel’s old recordings, so one more argument to get this new recording (if you need one more).

My rating: 4 stars (the playing only would be 5 stars, but this sonata is not as essential to have for me, albeit very nice to have)

Get it here as download (the 24/96 version is worth it), or here for a physical album