My reflections on the 2019 Gramphone Awards – Part I – Concerto

The Gramophone Awards

Every year I tend to comment on the Gramophone awards nominees, you’ll find some examples here (2015), here (2016) and here (2017).

In late 2018 I was unfortunately too busy at work to get into this, but I hope I can get back on track this year.

Obviously, I’ll only be able to comment on albums that I’ve actually listened to, or ideally reviewed myself. Therefore, some categories will be less represented here.

The Gramophone awards are probably the most relevant and most highly regarded price in the classical music world, so it is always interesting to see what Gramophone comes up with, even if I don’t always agree.

You’ll find the published list of the 2019 nominees here.

Concerto

You’ve probably noticed that the “concerto” category is among my favorites.

Not suprisingly, I had already reviewed several of the nominees.

Bach – The Violin Concertos – Isabelle Faust

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

I mean, what can I say, I’ve heard her play these live, I’ve given the album a very clear 5 star review, and anyhow I’m a self-declared Isabelle Faust fanboy. So absolutely, this is fantastic. And unlike the Trifonov below, I believe there is pretty much general consensus among reviewers that this is a great performance.

Rachmaninov – Piano Concertos 2 & 4 – Trifonov – Nézet-Séguin

Daniil Trifonov Yannick Nézet-Séguin The Philadelphia Orchestra Destination Rachmaninov - Departure Deutsche Grammophon 2018 24/96

This one is more tricky. I already predicted in my 5 star review before any of the professional reviews came out that this would be a love it or hate it affair. Turns out both professional reviewers and a lot of people who commented on my blog really don’t agree. So, while I love it, this is one of those albums I strongly suggest you check out before you buy. To me nevertheless is is one of my favorite performances of the work.

Saint-Saëns: Piano concertos 2 & 5 – Chamayou – Krivine

Saint Saens Concertos 2& 5 solo piano works Bertrand Chamayou Orchestre National de France Emmanuel Krivine Erato 2019 24 96

Here’s another album where I agree with Gramophone, the reason why my rating in my review was only four stars is because I didn’t rate Saint-Saëns highly enough from a repertoire perspective. But the playing is fantastic.

So, overall, good alignment between my reviews and Gramophone’s recommendations.

The category contains three other albums that I haven’t yet heard.

Leila Josefowicz playing John Adams violin concerto. I must admit I’m not familiar enough with Adams’ work to allow any proper review. As mentioned several times, I’m typically not very comfortable with 20th century music. But I may give this a try.

Kirill Gerstein playing Busoni’s piano concerto, with Sakari Oramo, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. This is an album that I’m really intrigued by as I recently discovered my interest in Busoni, but it isnt’ available for streaming, and I’m really hesitant these days to buy an album blindly.

MIchael Collins playing Crusell’s Clarinet concerto. Who’s Crusell I presume you’re going to ask. I must admit I don’t have the faintest idea. Apparently a Finnish composer. I may give this one a try just out of curiosity.

To wrap up, who do I predict will win this year? My bet is on Isabelle Faust. This is truly a reference version of the Bach concertos, and so it would be really deserved. The only thing that could stop her is that she already won the recording of the year in the 2017 Gramphone awards. Not sure if this may influence the jury. Let’s see in some weeks.

UPDATE Sep 19: I just noticed that in the October issue of Gramophone, only 3 albums remain shortlisted. Specifically the Adams, Busoni, and Saint-Saëns recordings. So Faust is apparently already out. I hope Chamayou wins, he deserves it.

Note you’ll find part II (orchestral) of this mini-series here.

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”

Isabelle Faust & Kristian Bezuidenout Play Bach Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord – A Sheer Pleasure!

Isabelle Faust

Regular readers of this blog know that I´m a self-declared fanboy of the German violinist Isabelle Faust, as seen here, here, or here.

While I wasn´t too much of an admirer of her recent Mendelssohn concerto recording, as it was “too HIP for my taste”, generally I tend to buy pretty much everything she releases.

Her Bach violin solo sonatas recording (in two volumes, also on Harmonia Mundi) is already excellent, so I was very curious to see how her latest release of the Bach would turn out.

Kristian Bezuidenhout

I was particularly curious given that we get the amazing Kristian Bezuidenhout on the harpsichord, a South-African pianist and keyboard player focusing on historic instruments that I’ve already mentioned in My Must Have Mozart Albums.

Luckily, I wasn’t disappointed!

Bach: Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord – Isabelle Faust & Kristian Bezuidenhout (Harmonia Mundi 2018)

Bach Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord Isabelle Faust - Kristian Bezuidenhout Harmonia Mundi 2017 24 96

Unlike the famous sonatas for solo violin, these sonatas are much less often played. Which really is a pity as it is beautiful music that are really worth being explored in more detail.

By the way, these duo sonatas could also be performed in trio form with an optional viola da gamba. Here we  get the duo form.

I complained about the Mendelssohn lacking some richness in sound and playing.

Here honestly I wouldn’t know what to criticize. The sound of Faust relatively bright Stradivarius is just perfect here in all its brilliance , even singing in a way, and Bezuidenhout plays a harpsichord that has a beautiful rich body.

Harpsichords occasionally can sound a bit thin, making some Bach harpsichord recordings sound more like a typewriter.

None of that here, this is music that is engaging, even dancing, with two equal partners that visibly enjoy playing together.

The recording beautifully showcases the close connection these two masters have developed musically, and makes this entire recording a sheer pleasure to listen to.

My rating: 5 stars

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

UPDATE Feb 28, 2018: Gramophone agrees and gives this album an “Editor´s Choice” in their March 2018 issue.

Isabelle Faust and Pablo Heras-Casado play Mendelssohn – Too HIP?

Isabelle Faust

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know I’m a huge Isabelle Faust fanboy.

Actually, I was mentally expecting another 5 star album when I saw what was just released, not suprisingly given my previous reviews (see here for the violin concertos of Mozart and Brahms, Brahms violin sonatas, her Beethoven sonata cycle is another reference for me,  or her recording of Schumann’s violin concerto and piano trios).

 

Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto / Symphony No.5 / The Hebrides – Isabelle Faust – Pablo Heras-Casado – Freiburger Barockorchester (Harmonia Mundi 2017)

 

Isabelle Faust Pablo Heras Casado Mendelssohn Violin Concerto Symphony No. 5, The Hebrides Freiburger Barockorchester 24 96 Harmonia Mundi

So, why don’t we get another 5 star review here?

Several reasons.

I’ve mentioned before in my review of the Mendelssohn’s symphonies by Yannick Nézet-Séguin that I just cannot relate very much to symphony no. 5. So I’ll leave the judgment of that work to others. I was hoping to like Heras-Casado’s previous recent recording of Mendelssohn’s 3rd and 4th (review not published), but found it a bit too rough on the edges to be really of my liking.

So, what about the centerpiece here, the violin concerto? Well, I cannot be to hard on Faust overall, her playing is flawless and impressive as usual. So what’s not to like?

Well, here we go into personal taste. I’ve always really liked the “historically informed” practice (HIP) using little vibrato, and often gut strings. I really feel it adds something to the music compared to the classical performance style of the 1960s-1980s.

And that’s exactly what Faust does here. Very, very, very little vibrato. Her Stradivarius, “Sleeping Beauty”, always had a slightly slimmer, shinier tone than others, which usually worked wonders for me.

But I’m sorry, it really doesn’t work for me at all with Mendelssohn. I just miss the fat romantic sound.

I’ve now played this album four times in the last days to see if it grows on me. And I just can’t get over it. So I’ll always refer you back to other recordings, like Janine Jansen’s beautiful album with Riccardo Chailly (mentioned in my 25 Essential Classical albums). Vibrato all the time (even though Chailly has done a good job putting a little bit of HIP into the Gewandhaus’ playing). And I just love it.

But that is not to say you shouldn’t check this album out. This really is purely based on personal preference, both Heras-Casado and Faust do an excellent performance.

The highlight of this album to me is the Hebrides overture, where the above mentioned roughness of the Heras-Casado and the Freiburger’s really works to paint the rough Northern landscape.

My review: 3 stars (and really only based on personal taste, you need to check it out to form your own opinion)

 

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

 

UPDATE Sep 23, 2017: The Guardian very much disagrees with me and gives this album a five star review. They like the roughness. Well, as mentioned above, you hav to listen to it to be the judge.

UPDATE Oct 5, 2017: Dave Hurvitz on Classicstoday has his full review behind his paywall, but I guess the title of the review gives his opinion away: “CD From Hell: Faust and Heras-Casado Starve Mendelssohn”. looks like this album generates rather strong reactions one way or another.

Mozart’s Violin Concertos with Isabelle Faust – Highly Enjoyable

Happy New Year!

Dear readers, I hope many of you were able to have some days off during the holidays over the last weeks. I’d like to thank you again for your interest in my blog, and look forward to sharing more exciting music with you in 2017.

As always, I really appreciate any form of feedback. Do you like my articles? Let me know! Hate them, let me know as well! Any form of feedback is useful.

Mozart’s Violin Concertos

Let me start by saying that as much as I like Mozart, his violin concertos aren’t very high on my priority list. They are the works of a teenager, written between ages 16 and 20. That said, they are enjoyable, and at least one version of them should be in any classical music library.

But which one? In My Must-have Mozart Albums, I’ve already recommended Giuliano Carmignola’s great recording with the late Claudio Abbado and the Orchestra Mozart  he founded (which unfortunately lost funding some time ago).

However, regular readers will know that I’m a big fan of Isabelle Faust (see here, or here), so when she released a recording of the complete Mozart concertos, I obviously had to check it out. Unfortunately, it took some months for reasons unknown to me for this to be available on Qobuz, my streaming provider (and I didn’t want to buy this blindly).Now Qobuz finally has it, so here comes my review.

Mozart: Violin Concertos – Isabelle Faust – Il Giardino Armonico (Harmonia Mundi 2016)

Mozart: Violin Concertos Isabelle Faust Il Giardino Armonico Giovanni Antonini Harmonia Mundi 2016 24/96

Not only you get Isabelle Faust here, as mentioned above one of my all-time favorite violinists, but you also get Giovanni Antonini with his Giardino Armonico. They have done countless excellent baroque albums in the last 30 years. More recently they moved up to the Viennese Classical period with Haydn, in their excellent Haydn2032 cycle (see my review of vol. 3 here), so Mozart is a logical next step.

So, how does it sound? Two words, transparency and energy! Antonini takes the same inspiring approach he uses to awaken Papa Haydn, and plays it with a lot of verve and swing. And even Faust, who can be a tiny bit intellectual in her approach at times, gets fully into the mood and goes with the flow, making this youthful music just highly enjoyable. I seriously wouldn’t know what to criticize on this recording. This really is on par with Carmignola, if not even slightly better.

In summary: highly recommended (all reviews I’ve seen vary between very good and outstanding, so I’m not really going against the consensus here).

My rating: 4 stars (full 5 star playing, but as mentioned above I don’t think Mozart’s violin concertos are truly essential, so one point off for repertoire).

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

 

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)

Brahms Sonatas: Another Masterpiece from Faust and Melnikov

Yes I know, I come across a an Isabelle Faust fan boy (see my review of her Brahms concerto here and of her contribution to the Schumann trio here). Well what the heck, I stand by it, she’s great.

And in the fabulous combination with Alexander Melnikov even more. Their Beethoven violin sonatas are my absolute favorite version.

And now they release a Brahms recording! As you have seen from the title of my blog, I’m a big Johannes fan as well. So, expectation were high, high enough for me to even pre-order the album (don’t know why I bother doing this, it’s not that you get it any sooner, and I could otherwise stream the content before making my purchase to check). Well, call it dedication, or silliness.

Brahms Violin Sonatas 2 & 3

Brahms Isabelle Faust Alexander Melnikov Violin Sonatas 2 & 3 Harmonia Mundi 2015

Well, this one’s got tough competition, as my reference version is none less than Szeryng and Rubinstein for op. 108! (to be fair, this was also my first ever recording of the sonatas, so I may be biased.

On top of the sonatas 2&3 (op. 100 and 108) from Brahms, you get a set of Romances (op. 94) by Schumann, and a very rarely played work, the “F.A.E.” (“frei aber einsam“, free but lonely) collaboration of Brahms, Schumann, and Schumann’s unknown pupil Albert Dietrich. Frei aber einsam was the motto of Joseph Joachim, the famous violin player, friend of both Schumann and Brahms, he actually introduced the two in the first place. Both “fillers” are beautiful pieces that are well worth being discovered.

But you’ll obviously buy this mainly for the sonatas, and you won’t be disappointed. Alexander Melnikov plays a beautiful 1875 Bösendorfer period instrument, and Faust her regular “Sleeping Beauty” Stradivarius. You get energy, passion, but also extremely nuanced quieter moments.

Does this kick my Szeryng/Rubinstein version from the throne? Maybe not quite. But it stands on equal foot right next to it.

Highly recommended. Plus you get the beautiful Harmonia Mundi sound.

My rating: 5 stars

You can buy it here (Qobuz) or here (Prestoclassical)

P.S. My iMac bluetooth keyboard is going nuts, the “s” and “w” keys don’t work properly any more. Have you ever noticed how ubiquitous the letter “S” is? And guess what pleasure it is writing a post about “sonatas” without the letter “s”…. This took forever to write!

UPDATE Sep 29: Just noticed the latest Classica gave this album a “Choc”, i.e. 5 stars as well.