The Gramophone Awards Winners 2015

So, the cat is out of the bag.

Let’s see how my crystal ball did:

Baroque Instrumental

Let’s start with Baroque Instrumental: As I predicted here, David Watkin wins. Gramophone calls it a “definitive” recording, and I concur.

David Watkin Bach Cello Suites Resonus

Unfortunately, this is where my Crystal Ball stops working, or to put it otherwise my taste is not aligned with the panel at Gramophone.

Concerto

Let’s continue to Concerto.

Beethoven Piano Concertos 3 & 4 - Maria Joao Pires - Daniel Harding - Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra

Pires’ and Harding’s Beethoven wins. Well, as outlined here, this to me is a solid 4 star recording, but I’d have rather chosen both Weilerstein and Andsnes.

Chamber

Smetana String Quartets Pavel Haas Quartet Supraphon 2015
I concur that the winning recording of the Pavel Haas Quartet is outstanding playing, it’s just the music that is less my cup of tea. But you really cannot blame the Pavel Haas quartet for that obviously.

Instrumental

Piotr Anderszewski Bach English Suites 1 3 5 Warner Classics

Here I’m truly puzzled. I already wrote in my post that I wasn’t a particular fan of this album. How on earth this album could win over the magnificent albums of Levit and Grosvenor beats me.

Orchestral

One more comment on the Orchestral category, which I had kind of ignored as I’m not comfortable enough with Sibelius and Elgar to add value. Luckily, the only album that I actually know and like won:

Anton Bruckner Symphony No. 9 - Abbado - Lucerne Festival Orchestra DG 2014

This recording from the Lucerne festival is really Abbado at it’s best. I wasn’t a universal fan of his time in Berlin, but he’s done magnificent recordings both with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra he founded and also in Lucerne. He will be missed!

Gramophone Award Nominees – Baroque Instrumental – A Quick Note Before It’s Too Late

The list of nominees in the Baroque Instrumental category looked less attractive to me this year, already driven by the fact that I didn’t own any of the listed recordings. Plus the fact that the list contains 3x Vivaldi, who isn’t very high on my priority list.

But given that the winners will be formally announced tomorrow, I had a quick rather unprofessional scan, and let me pull out my crystal ball here on who should win in my humble rather biased opinion. Please take this with a huge grain of salt, it is based on rather limited listening and even more on gut feel than my previous posts here (instrumental), here (concerto), and here (chamber), where I actually spent some decent amount of time listening.

Too much Vivaldi

Just looking at the nominee list, without listening to the albums, I would have predicted Rachel Podger to win, as I usually love what she does. Based on the snippets I heard, she does well on the Vivaldi, too. But I don’t care enough about Vivaldi to actually buy this album.

Same goes for the two other candidates with Vivaldi albums, which I quickly streamed. I didn’t particularly like the Venice Golden Age album, although I usually like AKAMUS a lot. Maurice Steger’s flute concerto sounds ocasionally like Papageno on speed, but actually is quite a bit of fun. I may end up buying this eventually just for the good mood.

I only quickly skimmed the CPE Bach album of Rebecca Millers approach to the symphonies, but this is not repertoire I listen to a lot (CPEs keyboard concertos with Staier are much better), and what I heard didn’t motivate me to go much further.

I like Mahan Esfahani’s work elsewhere, but Hyperion is another label not allowing streaming, so I didn’t properly listen to this one either. I’m also much less familiar with Rameau overall, so anyhow I wouldn’t be a good judge. Probably worth checking out.

David Watkin

So let me get to the positive surprise of this lot: David Watkin’s Cello Suites on Resonus. I must admit that initially I kind of thought to myself “Seriously, another recording of the Cello Suites is all what we need” (note that I’ve recently praised Steven Isserlis excellent recording here).

I even had missed all the praise in the press this recording had previously received, probably due to the same biased thinking.

David Watkin Bach Cello Suites Resonus

But then I started listening.

And honestly, I was very positively surprised, this version sounded incredibly “right” to me, intuitively exactly like it should have sounded. The historic cello he plays is probably part of it, I don’t know what it is, but if this recording doesn’t win in the category I’d be very surprised!

In less than 24h we’ll know more.

My Reflections on the 2015 Gramophone Award Nominees – Part III – Chamber

Following my two previous posts on the categories of Instrumental and Concerto, let me comment this time about the Chamber music category.

I have had the occasion to listen to four of the 6 nominated albums.

To quickly just list them, the ones I didn’t hear are:

Winds & Piano – Les Vents Français, Eric Le Sage

and

Langgard: String Quartets vol. 2 – Nightingale Quartet.

The ones I have heard are:

Hindemith: Sonatas –  Alexander Melnikov, Teunis van der Zwart, Alexander Rudin , Gerard Costes, Isabelle Faust

Hindemith Sonatas Melnikov Faust Harmonia Mundi 2015

Brahms: Clarinet Quintet & Trio – Martin Fröst, Janine Jansen, Boris Brovtsyn, Maxim Rysanov, Torleif Thedéen, Roland Pöntinen

Brahms: Piano Quintet - Martin Fröst - Janine Jansen - Boris Brovtsyn - Maxim Rysanov, Torleif Thedeen, Roland Pötinen

Haydn: String Quartets op. 20 – Doric String Quartet

Haydn String Quartets op. 20 - Doric String Quartet - Chandos

Smetana: String Quartets 1&2 – Pavel Haas Quartet

Smetana String Quartets Pavel Haas Quartet Supraphon 2015

Let’s start with the Haydn, as I’ve played this album only twice so far, it’s still a little bit too early to judge it properly. The issue is that on Haydn there’s obviously a lot of competition, but the Doric’s do a fine job. I guess in chamber music there’s always a trade-off between precision (which is outstanding here), and just pure joyfulness in playing, which I sometimes would like to have a little bit more here at first listen, especially with “Papa” Haydn (although the string quartets are certainly the works where general Haydn-skeptics like me have the least to complain). All right, let me shut up my rambling here and spend some more time listening. No rating here yet.

Next Brahms: I don’t know why, but the clarinet works have always been among my least favorite Brahms chamber compositions. However, two recent albums are making me change my mind right now, a) the excellent clarinet sonatas by Lorenzo Coppola and Andreas Staier, and b) this very nice album.

When it gets to the clarinet, Martin Fröst is one of the few superstars, and rightly so. He has released several outstanding recordings in recent years, e.g his Mozart concerto from 2013 with the Kammerphilharmonie Bremen which to my ears is even better than his previous recording with the Amsterdam Sinfonietta.

Not surprisingly, this Brahms album is very good as well. To be fair, he’s playing with some outstanding musicians here. Thorleif Thedeen and Roland Pöntinen have already recorded a very nice version of the Brahms Cello Sonatas, Janine Jansen is always a pleasure to listen to, and Maxim Rysanov is a safe bet on the Viola.

On top of the quintet and the trio, you get something that is really rather special, which is a an arrangement of some Brahms songs for Clarinet by Fröst himself. If you ever doubted that the clarinet can sing, here’s your proof.

Overall rating: 4 stars (playing is 5 stars, but I still need to fully overcome my issues with Brahms and the clarinet, so take this rating with a grain of salt)

Smetana: I assume the average classical listener knows exactly one work from this Czech composer, the ultra-famous Moldau. If they are a bit educated, they even know that the Moldau is just one part of the cycle Ma Vlast or “my homeland”. If you’re really into classical music, you may be aware of his opera “The Bartered Bride”. Beyond that, I’m pretty sure many would struggle to come up with other works from this composer.

So here’s a chance to change that. You get two of his chamber music works by one of the best string quartets that are currently out there. I’ve already praised them for their magnificent recording of the Schubert Quintet (see here), and they don’t disappoint here either. Their playing is outstanding, full of energy, but also very delicate and soft elements when needed.

My rating: 4 stars (not for the playing, which is certainly 5 stars) but at least to my ears, Smetana’s works are interesting, but there are chamber works I’d listen to first. Like for example the next one:

Hindemith: I’ve made it clear before that 20th century music, especially when we get to the borders of or beyond tonality, is really not my cup of tea. Well, exceptions confirm the rule. And this one is clearly one of those exceptions. This is a collection of sonatas with different musicians, and Alexander Melnikov on piano. Ever heard a Sonata for Trombone? Well here’s your chance. My beloved Isabelle Faust (see my admiring review of her Brahms concerto here), also get’s to play a sonata. Any album with Faust and Melnikov is usually a safe bet (take their outstanding Beethoven violin sonatas, the very nice Beethoven trio recording, their current cycle of Schumann works, etc. etc.)

And guess what, this album is truly outstanding throughout, and therefore my candidate for the Gramophone Award in the chamber category!

My rating: 5 stars. 

So, what are your favorites?

My Reflections on the 2015 Gramophone Award Nominees – Part II – Concerto

After my comments on the “Instrumental” category of the Gramophone Awards last Saturday here, let me highlight some more gems in the Concerto category.

Nominated are:

The Beethoven Journey – Leif Ove Andsnes with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra playing Beethoven’s piano concertos 2 & 4

The Beethoven Journey - Beethoven Piano Concertos 2 & 4 - Leif Ove Andsnes - Mahler Chamber Orchestra

Beethoven again, piano concertos 3 & 4 by Maria Joao Pires with Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra

Beethoven Piano Concertos 3 & 4 - Maria Joao Pires - Daniel Harding - Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra

Britten / MacMIllan / Vaughan Williams played by the Britten Sinfonia (not heard)

Bruch & Prokofiev’s Violin Concertos by Guro Kleven Hagen with the Oslo Phlharmonic and Bjarte Engeset

Bruch Prokofiev Violin Concertos Guro Kleven Hagen Oslo Philharmonic Bjaerte Engeset

Dvorak’s Cello Concerto by Alisa Weilerstein with Jiri Belohlavek and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra

Alisa Weilerstein Jiri Belohlavek Dvorak Cello Concerto Decca Classics

Mozarts Violin Concertos 3 – 5, Arabella Steinbacher, Daniel Dodds, Festival Strings Lucerne

Mozart Violin Concertos 3, 4, 5 - Arabella Steinbacher - Festival Strings Lucerne - Daniel Dodds

As said above, I haven’t heard the Britten album (and actually don’t care much about Britten in the first place, so wouldn’t be in a good place to talk about the album.

Two other albums I only gave a quick spin, so I’m not going to rate them, which are the Mozart concertos by Arabella Steinbacher, and the Prokofiev/Bruch combo by the young Norvegian violin player Guro Kleven Hagen, that I hadn’t heard of before. My admittedly superficial impression on both were solid performances, nothing wrong with them, but also nothing that would motivate me to go back. One argument in favor of the Arabella Steinbacher is that it is recorded on Pentatone, that usually has an outstanding recording quality, so if you have a good Hifi, you may want to check it out.

The three albums I have heard in more detail are the two Beethovens and the Dvorak.

Let me start with Maria Joao Pires first. I’m very happy to report that after my rather lukewarm review of her Schumann concerto with Gardiner, in this recording I can reconfirm that I’m a fan. Very delicate, nuanced playing. I’ve already praised Daniel Harding in his recording of the Brahms Violin Concerto, and also the Orchestral part is doing a fine job here.

My rating: 4 stars

However, to my ears, with Leif Ove Andsnes it gets even better. I’ve already declared how much I like his Grieg, and here on Beethoven with the excellent Mahler Chamber Orchestra which Andsnes conducts from the piano, the result is just really really nice. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing this combo play concertos 2-4 live late last year, and the recording fully  captures the energy and passion by both soloist and orchestra. No. 4 is anyhow my preferred Beethoven concerto, and this is definitely one of the best versions I have. However, to my ears, they are even better on piano concerto no. 2 (side note: wrongly numbered, this should have been his no. 1 chronologically), which really benefits from the lighter sound of the Mahler Chamber.

My rating: 5 stars

But who is my predicted category winner? Well, by exclusion you could have guessed it: Alisa Weilerstein’s Dvorak. We recently already got an excellent reading of this concerto with Stephen Isserlis on Hyperion, and obviously there are a lot of outstanding historic recordings (Starker, Du Pré, etc.), this version just gets what is the essential for me in this concerto (my favorite piece by Dvorak by the way): the romantic passion. (Side note: When Brahms, who mentored Dvorak for a while, read the score, he’s quoted: “If I had known that it was possible to compose such a concerto for the cello, I would have tried it myself!” If only he had…). This recording is pure emotion. I suppose having a Czech orchestra playing music by their most famous local composer helps. There are some minor technical glitches here and there, but they don’t really matter, you don’t even notice.

My rating: 5 stars

So, what do you think? What are your predictions?

My Reflections on the 2015 Gramophone Award Nominees – Part I – Instrumental

Gramophone Award Nominees

The Gramophone awards nominees are now officially declared. This award is probably among the most prestigious award in classical music (beyond the obvious Grammy), so it is always interesting to see who’s in.

As said before, I don’t always agree with Gramophone but their opinions are always worth checking out.

If you have an iPad, you can download the Gramophone magazine app (the primary way I read the magazine these days, no shipment, no paper wasted) and get the Gramophone awards nominee issue for free. It’s worth checking out.

Let me comment on some recordings I know well and also play Oracle of Delphi who will eventually win.

Instrumental

There are four album in here I own or have heard, three of which I’ll be talking about here.

Bach’s English Suites with Piotr Anderszewski

Piotr Anderszewski Bach English Suites 1 3 5 Warner Classics

Well this one is a typical example where I don’t agree with Gramophone.  I can’t really put my finger on it but this album just doesn’t excite me. Maybe it is the tempo, maybe it is the touch, don’t know. Bach on a modern piano is always tricky, you really need to justify these days why you’d use the “wrong” instrument (instead of a harpsichord or similar).

My rating: 3 stars

Bach: Partitas – Igor Levit

Igor Levit Bach Partitas Sony Classical

This album, however, is a typical example of getting it just right. I don’t mind one second not hearing a harpsichord. Levit is an extraordinary talent; his previous recording of the late Beethoven sonatas was outstanding as well.

I’ve been listening to this times and times over, it’s been replacing even Perahia as my go-to version. So this album to me is a hot contender to win this category.

My rating: 5 stars

However, if I had to bet, I’d say the following will be the category winner (and not only because let’s say Gramophone sometimes seems to have a certain preference for their countrymen):

Benjamin Grosvenor – Dances

Benjamin Grosvenor Dances Decca Classics

5 years younger than the still very young Levit (years of birth 1992 and 1987 respectively), Grosvenor could be qualified as a Wunderkind. What a horrible term.

Actually, it really goes beyond this, he is just a truly brilliant artist who just happens to be very young. His previous album Chopin/Liszt/Ravel was truly fantastic, and his new release with “Dances” from Bach via Granados to Scriabin is another example of what he can achieve. With him, even relatively useless (sorry) pieces like Schulz-Evler’s questionable version of An der schönen Blauen Donau become enjoyable. (Ok, he could have skipped the Boogie-Woogie…).

An absolute must have!

My rating: 5 stars

Also nominated are a live recital of Mahan Esfahani (haven’t heard), Sokolov’s Salzburg recital (his Chopin Preludes here really aren’t my cup of tea, 3 stars), and La Fauvette passerinette by Peter Hill (haven’t heard either).

So what are your thoughts and ideas? Who would you have chosen?