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

Debussy’s Images – Impressionism For Your Ears

20th century music

Let me first of all do a quick detour here: You won’t find a lot of 20th century classical music on my blog. It is very simple, the further we go away from tonality, the less I like it.

So the territory of the impressionism of a Ravel or Debussy are still borderline, some Prokofiev is as well, but I rarely really enjoy Shostakovich, and don’t even get me started on true twelve-tone and other stuff. I just don’t get it.

As I know some smart people who really adore Schönberg, Webern, Boulez et al. I’ve often wondered why I have this barrier. You see, the visual arts took a similar turn from concrete motives to abstract concepts, and I actually like a 1950 Picasso usually significantly more to a Turner, or any 18th century art. I really appreciate Jason Pollock and Sam Francis (especially the latter). So here I am much more open-minded (OK, when it gets to Duchamp’s Fountain or most of Joseph Boys, I’m out, but at least I get (or believe so) intellectually what they are trying to get at).

But atonal music (and sorry, while some will say there is no atonal music, I think most readers here will get the concept). is something I just don’t get. Probably my brain is to small or too hard-wired in the well-tempered scale to go there.

Claude Debussy’s Images

Back to the early 20th century, and more specifically Debussy. Why write about this right now? Well, I think I’ve mentioned before the excellent Swiss radio show “Diskothek Im 2“, that gets two experts in the studio and compares 5 different version of a given classical work, and this fully blindly.

A very interesting exercise which I should do even more often at home (you’ll be surprised how much your most beloved conducted can disappoint when you don’t know it’s him, or vice versa).

So, a recent show compared 5 recordings of Debussy’s Image. These 6 little poems, with beautiful names like Reflets dans l’eau (reflections on the water), or Poissons d’or (goldfish) are probably among the best known examples of what we call today impressionism, similar to the earlier period in the visual arts (Debussy apparently didn’t like the term by the way).

The editor chose 5 contemporary recordings, and so the classical reference version of these, by the amazing Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli on DG in 1971 was out. By the way, I’m just re-listening to this version right now and it is outstanding, so don’t hesitate to get it in spite of its age.

The versions reviewed included Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Alain Planès on a 1902 Blüthner piano (very interesting to discover by the way), Marc-André Hamelin, and the “winner” of this little contest, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet

Complete Debussy vol. 4 – Jean-Efflam Bavouzet

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet Debussy vol. 4 Images Chandos

And here I must admit, while I had heard his name before, I didn’t have a single Bavouzet recording in my collection. Something to be corrected ASAP, as while I don’t always agree with the invited experts, in this case, recording number 4 clearly stood out (in spite of no recording of the 5 being a negative outlier, all had their qualities). I suppose it’s the mixture between extreme precision and the ability to just get sucked into the music.

Have you ever sat in the small west-end Musée Marmottan in Paris? It doesn’t draw the gazillions of visitors that the Musée d’Orsay gets, but it actually has an exceptional Monet collection. There are two main reasons to got there. A, there is an entire corner where you sit surrounded by Monet’s water lilies. Believe me, they are better than the original in Giverny. And there is one, rather little painting, depicting a rising sun over foggy harbor waters, with some small boats passing by, called Impression, Soleil Levant. And yes, this is what gave Impressionism its name.

Sorry for the detour, but watching this particular painting, and listening to Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut played by Bavouzet gives about the same feeling, that is somewhere out of this world.

This is actually album number 4 of Bavouzet recording Debussy’s complete works, I assume all other volumes are equally worth having, but I didn’t yet have time to check them out.

My rating: 5 stars

You can get it here directly from the label.