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.

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)

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

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

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

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

Winds & Piano – Les Vents Français, Eric Le Sage

and

Langgard: String Quartets vol. 2 – Nightingale Quartet.

The ones I have heard are:

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

Hindemith Sonatas Melnikov Faust Harmonia Mundi 2015

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

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

Haydn: String Quartets op. 20 – Doric String Quartet

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

Smetana: String Quartets 1&2 – Pavel Haas Quartet

Smetana String Quartets Pavel Haas Quartet Supraphon 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: 5 stars. 

So, what are your favorites?

Isabelle Faust and Brahms’ Violin Concerto – Just Magical

My blog’s subtitle has Brahms in it, and I haven’t even mentioned good old Johannes for a while.So let me correct this by writing about his violin concerto, and my favorite versions.

Brahms’ Violin Concerto

Brahms was a pianist, not a violinist, and so he needed an expert on what to do and not to do. Luckily, one of his best friends, Joseph Joachim, was one of the leading violinists of his time, so he consulted extensively with him while writing this piece in 1878.

Obviously, this concerto has been recorded over and over again, so there are a lot of amazing versions to choose from. However, there is a relatively recent 2011 recording which I really love more than most others.

Isabelle Faust

Isabelle Faust Brahms Violin Concerto Daniel Harding Mahler Chamber Orchestra Harmonia Mundi 2011

There are so many outstanding young violin players these days, Julia Fischer, Janine Jansen, Hillary Hahn, etc. etc. etc. We are really spoilt these days. However, Isabelle Faust is in a way my personal favorite, probably because she does a lot of excellent chamber music as well (more about that later).

This recording of the violin concerto with the excellent Mahler Chamber Orchestra and Daniel Harding, a young rising star in the conductor scene, has not received praise across the board. Some even called her tone “thin”. Well, I agree her way of playing is always rather on the light than the heavy side, but to me it feels just right. Faust writes in the excellent liner notes that she has studied Joseph Joachim extensively, both his personality, but also historic sources about his playing style. Overall, Faust plays historically informed, but unlike in some other cases this doesn’t mean no vibrato at all, but just a more selective use of it.

The smaller size of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra matches her transparency very well, this is a match made in heaven. As a side note, these days younger orchestras like the MCO or the Chamber Orchestra of Europe are becoming more and more serious competition to the established big boys in Berlin/Vienna/London. I suppose we music lovers we can only be happy about this, as it hopefully keeps everybody on their toes.

A curiosity about this version is the use of the unusual Busoni cadenza, so if you are familiar with this work you’re in for a little surprise.

String Sextet No. 2

As mentioned before, Faust is an excellent chamber musician as well (her Beethoven sonatas are my absolute favorite). So as a “filler” we get the beautiful String Sextet No. 2, which is well worth listening to. A sextet is a more rarely heard form of chamber music, but for Brahms these were actually his first venture into pure string chamber music, and successful in the way that helped further build his name as a composer.

A little piece of trivia: Brahms fell in love many times during his life, but remained a bachelor nevertheless. Occasionally, we get glimpses into his love life from his music, like in the case of the Alto Rhapsody (see my earlier post here). In this case, he was in love with Agathe von Siebold, and nicely enough, you’ll get the motive “A-G-A-H-E” (H being the key for B in German notation) as a leitmotif several times in the first movement.

Overall rating: 5 stars. This, as usual is a very personal judgment. If you agree with me, please comment, if you don’t, I’d love to hear why!

And if you want a more traditional Brahms, you can always go to Oistrakh/Klemperer and Heifetz/Reiner, both outstanding in their own way.

You can get it here as download and here as physical album.