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

 

 

 

 

Schumann’s Cello Concerto by Jean-Guihen Queyras – A Review

A Trilogy

This is now the third and presumably album of an exciting series by three outstanding musicians.

The German violinist Isabelle Faust (yes, I’m a big fan, see here or here), the Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov, and the French cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras are all great musicians individually, but get even better when they play together.

An excellent example is their recording of some Beethoven Trios on Harmonia Mundi some years ago, and Faust’s and Melnikov’s collaboration on Beethoven’s and Brahms’ violin sonatas are among my absolute favorites (the latter made it as part of my top 5 classical albums in 2015).

In this particular project, the three have decided to attack Schumann, and to couple one of his 3 piano trios with one of his orchestral solo works, playing with the Freiburger Barockorchester under Pablo Heras-Casado, on Harmonia Mundi.

Faust started, coupling his piano trio with his relatively unknown violin concerto back in early 2015. I really like this album.

Some month later Melnikov got his chance to play the famous piano concerto (see my 4 star review here) with piano trio no. 2.

So here we are at release no. 3, focusing obviously on the Cello concerto, and the remaining trio no. 1.

Schumann: Cello Concerto and Piano Trio No. 1 – Jean Guihen Queyras – Pablo Heras-Casado – Freiburger Barockorchester (Harmonia Mundi 2016)

Schumann: Cello Concerto / Piano Trio No. 1 Jean-Guihen Queyras Alexander Melnikov Isabelle Faust Pablo Heras-Casado Freiburger Barockorchester 2016 Harmonia Mundi

I expected quite a lot from this album, given that I really liked the two predecessors. However, on the Cello concerto I’m not exactly getting what I expected.

Schumann to me is one of the highest points of romanticism. I really like the energy, passion, and drama in his orchestral works. However, both Queyras and Heras-Casado chose a more subdued approach here, and I unfortunately constantly feel I’m missing something.

To explain what I mean, let me refer to my two personal reference versions for this concerto, by the legendary Jacqueline du Pré (playing with Daniel Barenboim), and even more, Janos Starker with Antal Dorati and the London Symphony. Do you hear the passion,  the power?

Here is a Youtube example of du Pré:

Maybe I just need to listen to the Queyras version more to get used to it, but so far it just doesn’t pull me in enough.

Obviously, we are talking about an excellent soloist (I really like his Bach Cello Suites for example) with a great orchestra, so fundamentally this remains a good recording, it is just not my cup of tea.

However, going back to the chamber music, all is well. These three trios, spread over 3 albums, will remain my reference version of these works for a foreseeable future.

My rating: 4 stars, averaging 3 stars for the Cello Concerto and 5 stars for the trio.

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

Pachelbel: Beyond the Canon with Amandine Beyer

Johann Pachelbel

Do you know Pachelbel? Sure you do. Like probably most of the population of the Western world, from his famous Canon and Gigue in D, as the Canon is one of the most popular pieces played at weddings (and by street musicians).

Now do you know anything else from Pachelbel? Well, I must admit, I really didn’t. In my entire classical music library, I have the sad number of 15 tracks from this composer, pretty much entirely on some Baroque compilations.

So I was curious when Amandine Beyer with her ensemble Gli Incognito recently released an entire Pachelbel album.

Pachelbel: Un Orage d’Avril (Harmonia Mundi 2016)

Pachelbel: Un orage d'avril - Amandine Beyer - Gli Incogniti - Hans-Jörg Bammel Harmonia Mundi 2016

Well, I was positively surprised. This is mainly instrumental baroque musique, with the occasional song (beautifully performed by tenor Hans-Jörg Mammel) thrown in.

Let’s admit it, baroque music  can be boring. Sometimes it is just a bit too repetitive, to formalized, too much of the same (e.g. quite a bit of Vivaldi’s massive oeuvre IMHO). So it usually takes a genius like Bach to break out of the conventions of baroque music to really make it interesting (and even he doesn’t always succeed).

And obviously, Pachelbel is no Bach, probably not even a Vivaldi. That said, I still think there is enough to discover on this album that I highly recommend you to check it out.

A brief comment on Amandine Beyer: I sometimes find the sound of her violin a bit too “rough” for my taste (e.g. on her celebrated recording of the Four Seasons) This is nicely enough not the case here, the album is quite well recorded.

Give it a try!

My rating: 4 stars

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

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!

 

Brahms Latest Work: The Clarinet Sonatas by Coppola and Staier

I’ve said it before, I’m a big fan of Andreas Staier. His Diabelli-Variations are outstanding (see review here). Therefore, I was rather disappointed not to like his recent release of the Bach harpsichord concertos (see here). It appears now that most other reviewers don’t share my opinion by the way. I’m still not convinced unfortunately.

But from Bach, let’s move more than a century later.

I haven’t reviewed any Brahms album for a while, which is weird given that he appears in my blog title.

Brahms’ Clarinet Sonatas op. 120

I must admit I wasn’t historically a big fan of these sonatas, I found them not very accessible.

These sonatas, as well as the Clarinet quintet & trio, were triggered by Brahms meeting the famous clarinet player Richard Mühlfeld.  But with Andreas Staier, I had to give them a go, so I went ahead and purchased this 2015 Harmonia Mundi album.

Lorenzo Coppola Andreas Staier Brahms Clarinet Sonatas Harmonia Mundi 2015

Andreas Staier plays a Steinway on this album, which could be considered somewhat unusual given that he is known for playing historical instruments. Well guess what, this Steinway actually is from 1875, apparently the type that Brahms really appreciated.

On clarinet, we get the Italian Lorenzo Coppola, who plays a 2001 reproduction of a historic clarinet which is very similar to the one Mühlfeld played.

So we’re getting really close to what Brahms could have listened to in his final years. And all over sudden, the full beauty of these late works really becomes apparent.

6 Klavierstücke op. 118

However, to me (with my piano background), the true highlight on this album are Staier’s version of the 6 piano pieces op. 118. Let me clarify first of all that I love Brahms late piano pieces from op. 116-119, and op. 118 is a particular favorite of mine.

And here, especially the second Intermezzo (track 6) is played more beautifully than on any of my other recordings (I’ll be writing about some of them soon). Staier uses tons of rubato, but it comes fully naturally. There is so much intensity in this playing that I’ve had them on constant repeats quite regularly recently. Or take the “Romanze”, truly romantic indeed.

As usual on Harmonia Mundi, this is well recorded.

My rating: 4 stars for the clarinet sonatas (rating my preference of the repertoire here, not the playing), 5 stars for the op. 118.

P.S. If you like op. 120, you should know that there is also a version of these sonatas replacing the clarinet by a viola. The well-known viola player Nils Mönkemeyer has just released an album on Sony playing these sonatas.

Nils Mönkemeyer Brahms Sony 2015

This album is really quite beautiful and also worth checking out.

You can download the Coppola/Staier here (Qobuz) or here (eclassical)

Captivating Period Schumann from Alexander Melnikov

Alexander Melnikov / Isabelle Faust / Jean-Guihen Queyras

I’ve already praised Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov for their excellent Hindemith chamber album, and the outstanding Brahms violin concerto, but they have done many other beautiful recordings together, including a recent version of the Beethoven Archduke trio with Queyras, or my preferred version of the Beethoven violin sonatas. Queyras is one of our leading cellists these days, and has recently recorded the complete Beethoven cello sonatas (very much worth checking out) with Melnikov. So as you can see, these three play regularly together, and you can hear it.

Schumann

This outstanding trio is now working for the second time together (hence the “2” on the cover) on their Schumann trilogy. This trilogy is twofold: it combines in each volume one of the three Schumann Piano Trios, and one of the three solo concertos (violin, piano, cello) he wrote, in collaboration with the Freiburger Barockorchester (which I usually like very much, although I was disappointed this week by their latest Bach release) under the young Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado.

The series started with Faust playing the little known violin concerto (Clara Schumann even actively suppressed it, deeming it not worth of her husband’s legacy), which is very much worth checking out, and is now moving to the warhorse of the a-minor piano concerto.

The Schumann piano concerto

Schumann piano concerto Melnikov Freiburger Barockorchester Pablo Heras-Casado Harmonia Mundi 2015

This beautiful romantic work is one of the most recorded and best known piano concertos out there, and so you have literally hundreds of recordings to chose from, including some outstanding ones. Among my favorites you’ll find Dinu Lipatti with the young Herbert von Karajan, or Radu Lupu with André Previn.

However, I haven’t yet heard this romantic concerto on period instruments. The Freiburger Barockorchester, as their name indicates, are focused on HIP (historically informed) performance, and even more interesting, Melnikov plays on a 1837 Erard, which really gives the work a different color. I’m sure Schumann would have loved a modern Steinway, but it is interesting to hear how this sounded when it was composed.

However, period instruments are not a goal in itself. The performance has to match. And here I’m a bit torn. I love the way movements 1 and 2 are handled, but the third movement, while powerful, is just too slow,. which takes too much energy away for me. I wonder whether this choice was driven by Melnikov or Heras-Casado. In any case, it was clearly a very conscious choice. The overall movement takes 12:14, by far the longest I have in the 10+ versions in my library(as a comparison, my beloved Lipatti/Karajan took 10:01), and even the recent Pires/Gardiner  recording I didn’t particularly like (review here) was only 11:04.

That said, overall this concerto is still a real pleasure, and while it may not become my reference version, it is a very interesting alternative, to hear Schumann’s most famous work like you’ve never heard it before.

In any case, when you get to the trio, all is well, Melnikov, Faust, and Queyras play together as beautiful as ever, and this relatively unknown Schumann chamber work really shines.

I’m really looking forward to vol. 3 with Queyras playing the Cello concerto.

Overall rating: 4 stars (FYI, the reviews I’ve seen so far are divided, Gramophone loved it (Editor’s choice), the Guardian’s Kate Molleson didn’t like it very much with 3 stars), you really need to make up your own mind. It is absolutely worth checking out.

You can download it here (Qobuz), or here (eclassical)

A Disappointment From Andreas Staier – How Can That Be? – My Review of the Bach Harpsichord Concertos

Andreas Staier

Let me start by pointing out that I’m a big fan of Andreas Staier. I’ve praised his Diabelli Variations here, I like his approach to Mozart and Schumann, as well as his album “Pour Passer la Mélancholie”. His 2012 album of the 6 piano concertos by Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach is outstanding.

Freiburger Barockorchester

The same goes for the Freiburger Barockorchester (who joins Staier on excellent the CPE Bach album above). Their recording of the Bach Orchestral Suites is my go-to version, and the recently started Schumann cycle with Isabelle Faust, Alexander Melnikov and Jean-Guihen Queyras (more about the Melnikov in the next days) is very very good.

The Bach “Piano” concertos

Bach wrote quite a number of concertos for harpsichord. As was not unusual at the time, several of them were probably recycled from other sources, e.g. other solo concertos or cantatas. You’ll find concertos for 1-4(!) soloists.

So far, I still haven’t found “my” version. My currently preferred versions are the 2011 Linn recording of the Retrospect Ensemble with Matthew Halls conducting and playing, Pierre Hantai’s slightly idiosyncratic but very interesting version with Le Concert Français (see my review of his Goldberg variations here), and most of all Café Zimmermann’s energetic readings, which are unfortunately spread over 6 albums (all worth getting anyhow!) and only have the concertos with several instruments.

Therefore, when I heard about this recording by Staier with the Freiburger, I was very excited and already had it on pre-order. Luckily, I was distracted, didn’t get to click on buy, and therefore ended up listening to it on Qobuz streaming first.

Bach: Harpsichord Concertos - Andreas Staier - Freiburger Barockorchester - Harmonia Mundi 2015

I’m happy I did, because at this stage I don’t think I will end up buying this album.Maybe it was just that I was expecting too much, but my “inner ear” has a very different idea on how these concertos should sound.

It pains me to write critical words about musicians that I admire very much, but the album generally sounds a bit heavy and slow, and does not at all the lightweight “swing” I so much love about most recent Historically Informed Performances.

In a way this reminds me of Karl Richter’s way of playing Bach. There is obviously nothing wrong with approaching the music this way, it is just really not my cup of tea.

Obviously this approach, and the sometimes slower tempi also allow for more nuances and there are very beautiful moments in this album, e.g. in the Largo of BWV1056.

But most of the time, this is not for me.

Overall rating: 3 stars. I really didn’t expect ever to give such a relatively low rating to these outstanding musicians. is it just me? I’d really love to hear your feedback especially if you disagree!

EDIT August 28, 2015: I seem to be the odd one out here with my opinion. Classica “Choc”, 5 stars from Diapason, 5 stars from the Guardian. So be warned, I may just be a crazy lunatic in not particularly liking this album. I’d appreciate even more your feedback on this, as after 4 more listenings, I stand by my opinion. Please tell me if I need a new pair of ears!

EDIT Oct 11, 2015: Just reading the review in the October issue of Gramophone, and at least Jonathan Freeman-Atwood seems to have heard what I’ve heard. To quote: “If you’re looking for fun, abandon, lyricism, radiant lift off […] and luminosity, then maybe this one is not for you”. He’s spot on, that’s exactly what’s lacking for me.