Libertà – Mozart Et L’Opéra by Raphaël Pichon – An Outstanding Album!

No, I haven’t Forgotten About Jazz

Some quick words to start:

Sorry for the Jazz fans subscribing to my blog, I know I’ve been pretty heavy on classical articles and not a lot of Jazz. I simply haven’t found too many good new albums, reviewing albums I don’t really like is much less fun, and I prefer writing about new releases, so my occasional reviewing of older albums also didn’t progress a lot. I hereby promise that I’ll try to restore the old balance of 50/50 between Jazz and Classical. So please subscribe if you haven’t done so yet.

Best-Of Albums

I used to hate “best of” or “highlights” albums, especially for Opera when I was younger. I thought the composer had taken the time to do the full opera, we should be appreciating the work in its entirety.

I’ve since evolved and really see the benefit of somebody else curating the music, especially when we’re talking about lesser known works, like in the album that I’m about to write about.

Furthermore, conductor Raphaël Pichon doesn’t do “best-of’s”, he does “concept” albums, that follow a story combining the different tracks, be it Stravaganza, Birth of The Opera At the Medici Court, or Enfers (Hells).

I’ve previously praised another of his concept albums, Mozart – The Weber Sisters, with the fantastic soprano Sabine Devielhe, which I’ve also listed in My Top 5 Classical Albums of 2016.

So I was very happy to see that in this new album that was released yesterday, that Devielhe is again featured.

Libertà – Mozart and the Opera – Raphaël Pichon – Pygmalion (Harmonia Mundi 2019)

Liberta Mozart Et L'opera Raphael Pichon Pygmalion 24 96 Harmonia Mundi 2019

On this album, Devielhe isn’t the only star, we’re actually getting several other great singers, from Siobhan Stagg via Linard Vrielink to Nahuel di Pierro.

I’m not going to comment too much about the concept, which the booklet nicely explains on several pages, including an interview with Pichon.

Let’s summarise what you’re buying: You’re getting 1h44 of mainly Mozart opera extracts. We’re mostly talking about his less known operas, like Lo Sposo Deluso, L’Oca del Cairo, or Der Schauspieldirektor.

What does that mean? Actually, Pichon did a fantastic job selecting gems among these lesser known works that definitely are worth discovering.

Pichon and his ensemble Pygmalion deliver some Mozart playing as it should be in the 21st century: Inspired, energetic, but dedicate where needed, clearly historically informed, but not overly “baroque”. And as mentioned, you get really good singers.

This album already is one of my favourite new releases of this year, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up featured on my Best of 2019 list at the end of the year.

An absolute delight, worth having for any Mozart opera fan, especially in times where new opera productions are too rare.

Highly recommended.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

UPDATE Sep 12: Classica agrees and gives this album a “Choc”, their highest rating.

A Review of Two Recent Recordings of Mahler 1 by Vänskä and Roth

Gustav Mahler

You can easily tell that I’m still struggling a bit with Gustav Mahler by the number of posts I have done on him, so far a grand total of 1 (one!), commenting about very divergent reviews of Mahler’s 9th.

I find many of his symphonies hard to approach, too big, to complex, getting lost in the weeds. The one symphony that I semi-regularly go back to is no. 1. It is to me by far the most approachable, taking many of the beautiful melodies in the symphony directly from his own earlier the song cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (and if you read this blog regularly you know I’m a sucker for melodies).

My first recording of Mahler 1 with retrospect is not a reference, but at least a quite decent performance, with Eliahu Inbal and the HR Radio Symphony orchestra (I mainly bought the album initially because it was a so-called audiophile recording by Denon).

SInce then, on Mahler, I’ve been through all the great classics (Klemperer, Walter, Bernstein, Kubelik), but also many new releases of this work (Fischer, Zinman, Janssons), and these days most often go back to Ivan Fischer on Channel Classics, a very nice, if a bit middle-of-the-road performance (again, VERY audiophile, it’s a fantastic test for your speakers, but you may not make friends with your neighboring appartments if you explore the full dynamic range).

So I was very curious when in the space of a couple of months two new recordings of Mahler 1 came out, both by conductors I respect a lot.

Mahler: Symphony No. 1 – François Xavier Roth – Les Siècles (Harmonia Mundi 2019)

The first one is François-Xavier Roth with his relatively recent ensemble Les Siècles, which I now very much see on track to become one of the most important French orchestras, particularly for French composers (have a look at their recent Debussy and Ravel recordings).

Gustav Mahler Titan Symphony No. 1 Hamburg Weimar 1893-1894 version Les Siècles François Xavier Roth 24/96

So I was particularly curious how they’d do with German composers like Mahler .

What’s interesting about this recording is that they use a different version, “Hamburg/Weimar 1893-1894”, turning the symphony into a “tone poem”. Well, overall, you’ll still very much recognize most of the symphony, but you’ll notice an less familiar 2nd movement sneaking in, Blumine, making the symphony 5 movements long.

Mahler: Symphony No. 1 – Osmo Vänskä – Minnesota Orchestra (BIS 2019)

Gustav Mahler Symphony No. 1 Osmo Vänskä Minnesota Orchestra BIS 2019 24/96

The even more recent new release is a conductor I’ve loved for a long time, Osmo Vänskä, who has done fantastic work with the Minnesota Orchestra. Take for example his outstanding recording of the Beethoven piano concertos 2 & 4 with Yevgeny Sudbin.

Vänskä takes the “traditional” version of the symphony with 4 movements.

Now, are any of these worth getting, you’ll ask?

Well, let me start with the Vänskä. Given how much energy and passion Vänskä typically puts into his recordings, this was a major disappointment. The entire symphony just feels very slow and uninspired. I try to stay away from too drastic words especially when we’re talking about such fantastic artists like Vänskä. But I can’t help it, this recording really isn’t for me.

Roth is already a different story. The Blumine addition already gives you something to look out for, and overall, the tone is much more energetic and joyful in the first three movements, and has the appropriate amount of drama in the fourth movement. Overall, a very satisfying performance, maybe not a new reference, but you won’t regret buying it.

Now I’m curious what you think? Am I completely off? Do you love Vänskä’s approach, and I’m just deaf? Which other versions of Mahler 1 should I check out?

My rating: 4 stars (Roth), 2 stars (Vänska)

You can find them here (Roth, Qobuz) and here (Vänskä, Qobuz)

Update Aug 16: Classicstoday seems to agree with my assessment of the Vänskä, calling it a “CD from Hell” in their recent review.

Update Sep 11: Classics is a bit less positive on Roth, giving it 3 stars.

Wonderful Bach Concertos with Isabelle Faust

Isabelle Faust

I mentioned two blog posts ago that I’m a fanboy. I’m a fanboy of Igor Levit, of Murray Perahia, of Sabine Deviehle, but probably one of my favorite artists these days is Isabelle Faust.

I’ve reviewed her countless time on this blog, playing Bach, Mozart, Brahms (here and here), Beethoven. And there are other albums I could have mentioned as well.

The only time I was ever disappointed by a recording by Isabelle Faust was her version of Mendelssohn’s violin concerto with Pablo Heras-Casado.

Therefore, when I went on my “quest” last year to see all of my favorite violin players in one year, I obviously had to go for Alina Ibragimova, Janine Jansen, Lisa Batiashvili, Julia Fischer, and yes, maybe the queen of all, Isabelle Faust. I was very lucky I managed to squeeze all of these live performances into one year.

Isabelle Faust offered one of my preferred programs (I saw her on Lake Geneva last summer during the festival at Château de Tannay), playing exclusively Bach. The program included some of the violin concertos, but also some chamber works. The concert (only slightly spoiled by being in the main air corridor towards Geneva airport) was not surprisingly hugely enjoyable.

So what a pleasure it was when I saw that Faust just released a very similar program on Harmonia Mundi

Bach: Violin Concertos – Isabelle Faust – Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin (Harmonia Mundi 2019)

Johann Sebastian Bach: Violin Concertos Sinfonias Overture Sonatas Isabelle Faust Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin Bernhard Forck, Xenia Loeffler Harmonia Mundi 2019

Isabelle Faust had recorded the violin concertos previously around the year 2000, with Helmut Rilling for the Hänssler label (included in their complete Bach edition). Already this recording was really very nice.

But here it get’s even better. The keywords here are precision, balance, and a complete lack of showmanship. This is one of the most introvert recordings of these concertos that I’ve ever heard.

Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with taking a lot of freedom with these works, at witnessed by the very beautiful recording of Alina Ibragimova with Arcangelo which I reviewed last year.

So this recording is the complete opposite. That said, I like it probably even a bit better. You really hear all the complexity of Bach’s counterpoint, the delicacy of the different instruments and their balance to form something bigger together. And Faust, just as she did in Tannay, wasn’t the star of the show, but really just one more musician as part of a team.

Another similarity to my Tannay experience is also that this album not only includes all violin concertos, including the reconstructed ones, but also one of the Orchestral Suites, several individual tracks such as the Sinfonia BWV1045, and some chamber music, the trio sonatas BWV 527 and 529. In total, you get nearly 2h30 of music.

If you like Bach and historically informed performance, this album is an absolute must have.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

UPDATE March 26: Listening to a recent Gramophone podcast where Gramophone speaks with Faust about this recording, I noticed I completely forgot to mention that Faust doesn’t play her typical Sleeping Beauty Stradivarius, but instead a German Steiner violin that Bach himself would have found familiar. In the interview she explained that this much better fits the ensemble sound than the Stradivarius, and that in general she really tries to be as close to what the composer intended as possible.

It is the same violin already used in the previous recording of the Bach violin sonatas (reviewed here).

In the podcast, the interviewer already said that the upcoming review of this album will be very positive. I’m not surprised.

UPDATE March 30: Classica likes it, but only gives it 4 stars, quoting the slightly remote sound quality, and the sometimes somewhat “martial” style of the orchestra. I can somewhat understand the first point, but don’t agree on the 2nd point.

Whereas Gramophone fully agrees with me and gives this album an “Editor’s Choice” in their April 2019 issue, calling it a “hugely enjoyable celebration of Bach”

Haydn’s Piano Sonatas by Paul Lewis – Delightful

Papa Haydn

I’ve written several times before about Haydn, mainly about his symphonies, e.g. here (Ottavio Dantone) and here (Giovanni Antonini).

Overall, I’m not such a big fan of this composer. He had a very important role in music history, but I’d much rather listen to Mozart than to Haydn most of the time.

However, exceptions confirm the rule. For example, this excellent album by Paul Lewis:

Haydn: Piano Sonatas 32, 40, 49, 50 – Paul Lewis (Harmonia Mundi 2018)

Haydn Piano Sonatas Nr. 32 40 49 50 Paul Lewis Harmonia Mundi 2018 24 96

Paul Lewis is one of the most famous pupils of the legendary Alfred Brendel. He’s already recorded quite a bit, and has often focused on a very similar repertoire to his master, e.g. Schubert and Beethoven (his complete Beethoven cycle is very nice).

You can hear a lot of his Schubert and Beethoven in this recording. The playing is always thoughtful, often energetic, but never too much, very nuanced, and overall extremely enjoyable. It is very clear that Lewis has learned a lot from Brendel, I’d use very similar adjectives for him.

What suprises me is that I keep going back to this album on a very regular basis, and in a way this is probably the one Haydn album I’ve listened to the most in my entire life of classical music listening.

Gramophone agrees and gives this an Editor’s Choice in their May 2018 issue (although they tend to be quite friendly to UK artists in general).

Overall, very much worth having.

My rating: 4 stars (5 star playing, 4 star repertoire)

You can find it here (Qobuz) and here (Prostudiomasters)

C.P.E. Bach’s Cello Concertos by Jean-Guihen Queyras – A Review

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach

C.P.E. Bach probably is the best known of the Bach sons, but still is one of those underrated composer that don’t get played enough today.

His music really sits on this very interesting time of transition between baroque music, that his father still epitomises, and the Wiener Klassik period of Haydn and Mozart.

I’m also a bit responsible for not mentioning him enough, so far I’ve reviewed only one album by this composer, his excellent cembalo concertos with Andreas Staier.

Jean-Guihen Queyras

Queyras is one of the best cello players of our generation. He’s been featured on this blog already a couple of times, and typically getting very favourite reviews, e.g. here.

He plays both chamber music (often with Isabelle Faust) and performs as a soloist for orchestral works.

C.P.E. Bach – Cello Concertos – Jean-Guihen Queyras – Riccardo Minasi – Ensemble Resonanz (Harmonia Mundi 2018)

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach Cello Concertos Jean-Guihen Queyras Ensemble Resonanz Riccardo Minasi Harmonia Mundi 2018 24 48

I knew Riccardo Minasi from his past recordings with Il Giardino Armonico and several other baroque ensembles where he was still playing the violin. And I’ve mentioned his excellent activities with the Pomo d’Oro here, but had never heard of Ensemble Resonanz. It turns out its been active since 1994 and is located in Hamburg. Well, you never stop learning.

So, how do they play? Well I must admit for these works I have only a handful of other versions, including for example a recent release on Erato with Truls Mørk, and Ophelie Gaillard on Aparté.

How does this recording compare? Well, it really hasn’t have to hide. It is joyful, energetic, and nuanced. This really is a prime example that this composer deserves to be heard more!

Queyras’ sound on the cello is beautiful, not too heavy, but with a nice singing tone. He really nicely integrates with Ensemble Resonanz, the soloist never being the dominant player, but it is more a marriage of equals.

Overall: Very enjoyable!

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz) and here (Prostudiomaster)

Spring is Coming, Just the Right Time For a Beautiful Vivaldi Album

Wow, a month without a post. Well, initially the flu got me, and then I had really busy times at work. I promise, I try to increase my posting frequency again.

Antonio Vivaldi

I’ve said it before, I’m not a big fan of Vivaldi in general. A lot of his music is a bit repetitive to my ears (Stravinsky famously said ” Vivaldi had written the same concerto 400 times”), and overall, I only listen to the four seasons about once per year, and not much beyond this. I try his operas every once in a while, but usually don’t finish the album.

But then again, Vivaldi, especially his concertos, are often just the music one needs for a sunny spring day, with their energy and vibrancy.

So therefore, the other day I decided to get myself a new Vivaldi album to celebrate the arrival of spring.

I’ve previously written about how much I like Giuliano Carmignola’s recording of the Four Seasons, so when I looked for a promising Vivaldi album and I saw this 2016 album, I was intrigued:

Vivaldi: Concerto per Due Violini – Giuliano Carmignola – Amandine Beyer – Gli Incogniti (Harmonia Mundi 2016)

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So, here we have said Carmignola, and on top of that Amandine Beyer, another very well-known baroque violin player. Very promising. I wasn’t always a fan of Beyer, sometimes her sound strikes me as a bit to “thin”, but I’ve been positively surprised by her Pachelbel album.

So how do these two outstanding soloist play together? Well, to make it quick: delightfully! This album is just a pleasure to listen to for all four concertos.

I’m really not the only one recognizing this as an excellent album, it actually received an Editors Choice from Gramophone, a Diapason d’Or, as well several other critics awards.

What about the music? Well, they are Vivaldi violin concertos, so I’m still willing to say, if you’ve heard one, you have a pretty good idea what to expect. Nevertheless, here are some nice gems, like the very nuanced interactions of the two soloists in the Allegro of RV529, so I promise you won’t get bored.

Especially on a sunny spring day!

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz) and here (HDtracks)

Bach: Mass in B-minor by William Christie and Les Arts Florissants – A Review

William Christie and Les Arts Florissants

William Christie, now at the age of 73, is one of the greatest conductors of the historically informed practice (HIP).

The Baroque Ensemble Les Arts Florissants he founded is among the best period ensembles out there. I’ve written about them several times already, e.g. about their Händel Album Music for Queen Caroline, or their Monteverdi Madrigal recording.

I’ve also had the pleasure of seeing William Christie with his ensemble twice already, once performing Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas at the London Barbican Theatre, and more recently, with Xavier de Maistre at Hamburg’s new Elbphilharmonie.

Bach’s B-Minor Mass BWV 232

I’ve written about this masterpiece twice already, initially about Philippe Herreweghe’s 3rd recording, and later about John Eliot Gardiner’s new recording.

I’ve said previously that this is one of the most important masterpieces ever written, and really never get tired of hearing it. In the liner notes to this album, William Christie calls it “[Bach’s] testament, his epitaph, a legacy to those who would follow him

Bach: Mass in B-minor – William Christie – Les Arts Florissants (Harmonia Mundi 2018)

J.S. Bach Mass in B-minor William Christie Les Arts Florissants Live in Paris Harmonia Mundi 24/96

This is a very intimate recording (in spite of being live, this was recorded in 2016 at the Philharmonie de Paris). Both singing and playing are very delicate and balanced.

Tempi are relatively fast (especially compared to the old Karl Richter style) but never rushed. To quote Christie again from the liner notes: Quicker tempi suggest a more physical and dance-like approach to the music“.

Honestly, I really don’t know what to criticize here. I’m a fan of the lighter, more intimate approach, and of the faster tempi. I prefer this even to the very good 2015 Gardiner recording.

It doesn’t kick my all time favorite of Philippe Herreweghe of the throne of “best B-minor ever” for me personally, as the latter just adds a tiny bit more “sparkle”, but this an album really very much worth having.

My rating: 4 stars (actually very close to 5 stars, I just still give the edge to Herreweghe)

You can find it here (Qobuz) and here (Prostudiomasters)