My Reflections on the 2020 Gramophone Awards I – Concerto

Gramophone Awards

My comments on the Gramophone Awards, that I’ve done nearly every year since the beginning of this blog in 2015, always are quite popular with my readers.

And rightly so, Gramophone remains the most important and influencial classical music magazine in the world (in my subjective opinion), so it is always valuable to check what they like and recommend. And by default the handful of albums who make it to the final selection of the annual awards are obviously very good recordings.

But why bother writing about it and not just referring you to the full magazine release (available for free) that Gramophone has just put out ? Basically, I repeat myself: You really have to find a reviewer that you like and that your personal taste aligns with. If your taste happens to be somewhat similar to mine, maybe my couple of comments around the nominations can be of help.

But as always, I also love it when you violently disagree with me!

So, let’s start.

CPE Bach: Oboe Concertos – Xenia Loeffler – Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin (Harmonia Mundi 2020)

I haven’t formally reviewed this album on my blog yet, but I had checked it out when it was released. I’m usually a big fan of the AKAMUS orchestra, and I’ve even seen Xenia Löffler and the ensemble live, however, performing the JS Bach violin concertos together with Isabelle Faust (the album of which co-incidentally was a 2019 Gramophone Award nomination), so I had high expectations.

Poor Carl Philipp Emmanuel still is in the shadow of his legendary father, but, to my personal taste, he is really the one most worth checking out. He perfectly illustrates the ongoing transition from the baroque period to the “Wiener Klassik” of Haydn and Mozart (check out some of my album recommendations for CPE here).

Richard Wigmore in Gramophone writes “I’d confidently recommend this disc to anyone attracted to CPE’s quirkily fascinating art“. Couldn’t have said it better (except I wonder who beyond Gramophone editors still uses “discs”).

My rating: 4 stars (absolutely 5 stars playing, but CPE isn’t such a core composer that I’d necessarily recommend this to everybody blindly).

Beethoven: Piano Concertos No. 2 & 5 – Martin Helmchen – Andrew Manze – DSO Berlin (Alpha 2020)

Beethoven Piano Concertos 2 & 5 Martin Helmchen Deutsches Symphonieorchester Berlin Andrew Manze Alpha 2020 24/96

I didn’t review this album, however, you’ll find my very positive notes (4 stars) on their recordings of concertos no. 1 & 4 here.

The recordings of 2 & 5 is even more impressive. This is in many ways a “modern mainstream” recording, how you’d expect a Beethoven recording to sound like in 2020. Sufficiently inspired from the Historically Informed practice (where Manze comes from), and Helmchen really is one of those a brilliant a bit under the radar pianists that would benefit from being a bit more well known. (Co-incidentally, a very good recording of the Beethoven violin sonatas by Helmchen with Frank Peter Zimmermann was just released yesterday, more on this later).

But as Gramophone nicely writes, the magic sauce is in the beautiful pairing of Manze and Helmchen. This album really is highly enjoyable. Will it kick Andsnes and a lot of the legendary 1960 performances from their thrones? No, but it really is an album well worth having.

My rating: 5 stars

Beethoven & Sibelius – Violon Concertos – Christian Tetzlaff – Richard Ticciati – DSO Berlin (Ondine 2020)

Beethoven / Sibelius Violin Concertos Christan Tetzlaff Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin - Robin Ticciati Odine 2020 24/96

Seeing two Beethoven albums in this selection isn’t very surprising in the 250th anniversary of Beethoven. However, seeing two albums of the Deutsche Symphonieorchester Berlin here is already more intriguing.

For decades, the former RIAS (radio in the American sector) orchestra has been a bit in the shadows of the legendary Berlin Philharmonic and the excellent Staatskapelle from the former East. But as these two albums show, it has been able to develop an independent profile. It is often working with younger or still lesser known conductors (Ticciati is 37), and has therefore been able to experiment more.

Not that I’d call a recording of the two Beethoven and Sibelius warhorses an experiment. That said, Christian Tetzlaff (I’m a big fan) takes quite a lot of risks in this album. Luckily for him, these risks are very much rewarding. This is a recording that will allow you to discover many new details in these two works that you probably know really well, particurlarly in the somewhat more experimental Sibelius. And it is played with a beautiful passion. And a special mention needs to go to Ticciati for his excellent handling of the orchestra.

For the Beethoven, as a side note, Swiss Public Radio recently released one of their shows where two experts compare 5 recordings blindly. The two winners of this blind test of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, all recordings of the last decade, where my beloved recording with Isabelle Faust and Claudio Abbado (my personal reference), and this very recent release by Tetzlaff. And I fully agree with the reviewers choices, both recordings are excellent in their own rights and should be in your collection.

My rating: 5 stars

Chopin: Piano Concertos – Benjamin Grosvenor – Elim Chan – Royal Scottish National Orchestra (Decca 2020)

Oh yes!

OK I admit I’m as big of a fanboy of Grosvenor as I am of Isabelle Faust and Igor Levit, basically pretty much everything they release usually blows me away.

But still I’m impressed that this recording takes its place right there with the legendary recordings of the Chopin Award winners Krystian Zimerman and Martha Argerich. I’ve already reviewed this magnificent album here, and have nothing much more to add than “buy it now, what are you waiting for!”.

My rating: 5 stars

Mozart: Piano Concertos vol. 4 – Jean-Efflam Bavouzet – Manchester Camerata – Gabor Takacs-Nagy (Chandos 2020)

Mozart Piano Concertos vol. 4 Nor 20 & 21 Jean-Efflam Bavouzet - Gabor Takacs-Nagy - Manchester Camerata Chandos 2020 24/96

Unfortunately, Chandos has a somewhat restrictive streaming policy, presumably allowing only slightly older albums to be streamed on Qobuz. I checked out the previous vol. 3 of this cycle which was available for streaming and liked what I heard, but unfortunately that’s all I can say at this time.

Schoenberg: Violin Concerto / Verklärte Nacht – Isabelle Faust – Daniel Harding – Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra (Harmonia Mundi 2020)

Arnold Schoenberg: Violin Concerto Verklärte Nacht - Isabelle Faust - Daniel Harding - Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra Harmonia Mundi 2020 24/96

So, this is another Isabelle Faust release, so I should like it, right? Well my only problem is that the musical universe of Arnold Schoenberg and my comfort zone are still miles apart. The violin concerto is just something that my brain isn’t able to process correctly just yet.

That said, the earlier and more accessible Verklärte Nacht (transfigured night) sounds much more accessible. I’m probably going to buy this album just to really expand my musical horizon a bit. But don’t expect any value added comments from me.

In short, it’s the brilliant Isabelle Faust and recommended by Gramphone, so if you like early 20th century classical music, this should be a no-brainer.

My conclusion

My personal winner of the very good selection above would be Grosvenor’s Chopin, with Tetzlaff’s new album just behind (and those are also the albums I’ve purchased for my personal music collection).

We’ll know more in some weeks when the final awards are being given.

How about you? I’d love to hear your take on these albums.

You can find the albums here (all Qobuz):

CPE Bach / Loeffler

Beethoven / Helmchen

Beethoven / Sibelius / Tetzlaff

Chopin / Grosvenor

Mozart / Bavouzet

Schoenberg / Faust

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)