András Schiff Plays Brahms Piano Concertos on Historical instruments – Worth Checking Out

Brahms’ Piano Concertos

There is clearly no lack of excellent performances of the two Brahms piano concertos. There are many masterful recordings from the 1960s with the great piano legends, Curzon, Arrau, Fleischer, Richter, or Gilels, often with the fantastic George Szell, that have stood the test of time, as the romantic repertoire has seen less of a sea change of recording style as have earlier composers (I can’t really enjoy non-HIP Bach concertos any more for example).

There also have been a lot of more recent recordings that are outstanding. One of my favorite sets is the Nelson Freire / Riccardo Chailly / Gewandhaus one from 2006, or more recently, the excellent (No. 1) / very good( No. 2) recordings by Lars Vogt with the Northern Sinfonia (that I just noticed I totally forgot to review here).

And as a nice coincidence, the very first recording I ever owned of No. 1 was with András Schiff as well, with George Solti on a 1989 Decca album.

So why would even a Brahms aficionado like me bother to buy one more recording of these?

The answer is called Blüthner. That is the piano that Schiff uses in this new recording.

Brahms: The Piano Concertos- András Schiff – Orchestra of the Age of Enlightening (ECM 2021)

Andras Schiff Johannes Brahms Piano Concertos Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment ECM New Series 2021 24 96

The Blüthner is a piano from c. 1859, i.e. 1 year after the writing of Brahms first concerto. It has a quite different sound to the typical modern Steinway, less heavy, less brilliant, but more transparent.

To complement that, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is also clearly historically informed, playing on gut strings.

So, is it worth it?

I’d say yes (and I did purchase the album). I really like the difference in sound and transparency one gets from the historically informed approach and instruments. This is the first recording of Brahms concertos with a HIP approach that hit my radar screen, and it really gives you new insights into these works.

To quote Schiff himself from the booklet: “With the present recording we have tried to recreate and restore the works, to cleanse and ‘detoxify’ the music, to liberate it from the burden of the – often questionable – trademarks of performing traditions“.

Now, does that mean this will be my new reference recording? Clearly not, I won’t be abandoning the beauty of all the recordings I’ve quoted above. I really like the piano playing, although some rubati aren’t always my cup of tea, but particularly in the first concerto, I’d just like to see a bit more drama in the orchestral introduction.

But if you like Brahms, you should really check this recording out!

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

My (Current) Favorite Version of Brahms’ 4th Symphony

Brahms’ 4th Symphony

I started this blog writing extensively about Brahms’ 1st symphony, and why it means so much to me, and why to this day I’m still looking for my “perfect” version.

I’ve also reviewed Andris Nelsons’ excellent Brahms cycle with the Boston Symphony some time ago (5 stars). I’ve also found a favorite version of Brahms 2nd symphony

But I’ve never written explicitly about Brahms 4th symphony.

To me, there’s a clear (personal) hierarchy among the Brahms symphonies. The first will always come, well, first, the 2nd is still nice but I listen to it much more occasionally, the 3rd is beautiful, but has the super famous 3rd movement that has been a bit overused in popular culture. And then there’s the 4th symphony.

After all, this could actually be the greatest masterpiece of all of them. Why? Well, I’m just totally in awe of the fourth movement, which is basically just a set of variations on a very simple motif, a Passacaglia. I’ve written before how much I really appreciate variations these days, they are a true art form (even though it is something that one appreciates only after some learning), be it the Goldberg variations, the Diabelli Variations, or Brahms several other variations, like the Haydn or Händel variations.

Each one of these little variations in the 4th movement is such a gem, with an emotional depth (some say down to very deep despair) in a bit more than 9 minutes. And unlike most other symphonies, this symphony doesn’t end in happiness. It starts in the e-minor key, and ends in e-minor. Compare this to Brahms own first symphony where you start with the nearly menacing timpani but you end in a chorale that tells you that all will end well. Nothing ends well here.

Don’t get me wrong, it is not only the last movement that is fantastic. In this symphony there’s more than enough to discover in each of the movements. In comparison, Brahms’ 1st has a fantastic first and last movement, but the two in between feel more like an interlude.

Brahms: The Symphonies – Riccardo Chailly – Gewandhausorchester Leipzig (Decca 2013)

Brahms: The Symphonies Gewandhausorchester Leipzig Riccardo Chailly Decca 2013 24 96

So, now to my current favorite version of the 4th. I put the “current” in the title, as I always keep discovering and looking, and my taste clearly changes and evolves over time.

Before I get into Chailly’s excellent recording, a quick note on some other versions you should check out. Many critics will give you Carlos Kleiber’s legendary recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, and they have a point. It really among the best. I’ve long been in love with Fritz Reiner’s beautiful reading with the Royal Philharmonic. Another all time classic is George Szell with the Cleveland Orchestra. (Side note: Szell takes the 4th movement much more slowly at 10:42 compared to Chailly’s 9:23, only to be exceeded by Karajan’s reading with 10:49, as well as Kurt Masur in 10:52).

If we look at the more contemporary versions, beyond the already mentioned Andris Nelsons, you should also check out John Eliot Gardiner’s historically informed reading with his own Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique (I’m not totally convinced of his approach, but it is nevertheless quite insightful).

But now enough of the alternatives, here’s my current champion: Riccardo Chailly with the Gewandhausorchester. By the way, this is not the first recording I love from Chailly in Leipzig, my favorite version ever of the Bruch violin concerto with Janine Jansen was recorded with this great team, and the same recording also features my favorite Mendelssohn violin concerto (mentioned in my 25 Essential Classical albums). Chailly’s recording of the Brahms piano concertos with Nelson Freire is also one of my all-time favourites, and the complete Brahms’ serenades recording is also outstanding.

So why do I prefer Chailly over all the other versions mentioned? I’d say it is not one little thing, but a sum of all the small things. This recording just feels “right”, balanced, nuanced, going deep when it needs to, but still tightly controlled.

And this doesn’t only apply to the 4th symphony. As you can only get this as a box set (if you decide to buy and not to stream, which I strongly encourage you to do), you’d also need to know that all the other three symphonies are top notch. They are IMHO, together with Nelsons, the best contemporary set you can buy.

To compare the two: Nelsons & the BSO really go big, this really is Brahms in Cinemascope in the great tradition of Karajan. Chailly’s approach in pretty much all cases is a bit more nuanced and delicate. Both versions really have very strong merit, and you won’t be disappointed with any of them.

And on top of that, going back to Chailly, in this very reasonably priced set, you also get most of the other orchestral works that Brahms has written, e.g. the above mentioned Haydn-Variations, the Tragic Overture, the rarely played Liebeslieder Walzer, and even to wrap it up some of the famous Hungarian Dances.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Janine Jansen and Herbert Blomstedt for a Magnificent Brahms Performance at the Tonhalle Maag – June 28, 2019

Janine Jansen

I presume if you’ve followed this blog for a bit (or read it’s subtitle) you’ve figured out that I really like Brahms.

You’ve probably also noticed that I really like Janine Jansen, and see her as one of the best violin players alive.

Last year I went through a series of concerts aiming to see all my favourite violin players live, and succeeded being in concerts of Alina Ibragimova, Julia Fischer, Lisa Batiatishvili, Isabelle Faust, and Janine Jansen all in 2018. What a year.

The concert I saw with Jansen, also at the Tonhalle Maag, was with her husband Daniel Blendulf conducting, and playing a contemporary composition by Swedish composer Anders Eliasson. I didn’t get to write about this concert here on this blog, but I found the concert surprisingly enjoyable (I’m typically not very much into any classical music after 1930).

But now, when Jansen came back to Zurich playing Brahms of all violin concertos, I knew I had to be there, after all, I had given her Brahms concerto recording with Pappano a five star review here.

Brahms Violin Concerto & Symphony No. 3 – Janine Jansen – Herbert Blomstedt – Tonhalle Orchester Zurich – Tonhalle Maag, June 28, 2019

Janine Jansen after the Brahms Violin Concerto June 28, 2019 Tonhalle Maag with Herbert Blomstedt Tonhalle Orchestra
Janine Jansen had to come back out four times

Well, to make it short, I’m so happy I went. This was just a fantastic concert. Blomstedt chose a relatively slow tempo for the first movement. This can have the risk of being a big boring and drawn out. But obviously, none of that here. Janine Jansen put her energy into every single note that the audience was following, completely mesmerised.

The orchestra, in spite of this being the third consecutive night of performing the same program, was following with the same energy and power, clearly enjoying themselves.

To quote Felix Michel, who did a fantastic review on the NZZ (here, in German), the word he used several times was “Wunder” (miracle). Yes, that is kind of a fitting description of what we witnessed yesterday in the scorching Zurich summer heat (>36° Celsius, I’m happy the Tonhalle Maag seemed to have some form of AC).

Herbert Blomstedt

I haven’t written a lot about Herbert Blomstedt yet. I’ve last seen him, again conducting the Tonhalle playing Mendelssohn’s violin concerto, another magnificent evening.

He isn’t one of those flashy maestros that will make headlines, but like many others, e.g. Haitink, is much more of a Musician’s musician.

At the age of 91 (he’ll soon turn 92, but is already scheduled to appear back in Zurich in the fall), when he’s up there conducting, he’s more alive and present than many 20 year olds.

Now to the 3rd symphony. Here, the energy taking from the furious beginning with the violin concerto certainly continued after the break. The two most outstanding moments here were the famous 3rd movement, which you may know from several commercials and other uses in the movies, but even more impressively in the finale. Unlike most symphonies, this finale ends very quietly.

Blomstedt really made us enjoy this quiet ending, not dropping his hands (no baton) for several seconds after the last note expired, to keep the quiet tension.

Herbert Blomstedt, Tonhalle Maag, Brahms SympZurichhony No. 3 , June 27, 2019
Maestro Blomstedt getting standing ovations

As always, when the final movement lacks a climatic finish, the applause came more slowly. However, it became even more powerful, especially after it became apparent that one of the musicians of the Tonhalle had his last day pre-retirement and was showered with flowers and gifts. The applause lasted for a long time. Well deserved for a fantastic end of a season.

Looking forward to the next season, where my admired Paavo Järvi will take over the orchestra.

The Legendary Klemperer Recording of Brahms’ Requiem

Happy New Year

Can one still wish a Happy New Year three weeks in? Well I’ll just do it anyway, given that the Chinese New Year is anyway still ahead of us.

Requiems

I didn’t often use to write, or even listen to, Requiems. While I acknowledged the beautiful music of Mozart, Verdi, Fauré and others, it always felt “wrong” listening to music meant for mourning the death of somebody.

Well, now it is me being touched by a death in the family, that I still have a hard time mentally acknowledging, let alone fully digest. It turns out that the beautiful music written by these legends is just what you need in these situations.

So bear with me, you’ll read more about requiems on this blog this year. Don’t worry, life has to go on, so I’ll write about other stuff as well.

Brahms: Ein Deutsches Requiem

Given the subtitle of my blog, it is not surprising that Brahms’ is the only requiem I’ve already written about, in my review of Nézet-Séguin’s live performance in Berlin back in 2017.

So I won’t repeat myself here, just re-alert you to the fact that this is a requiem that doesn’t use the typical latin text of pretty much any other requiem around, but instead uses handpicked parts of the bible that Brahms chose himself, and it is sung in German, hence the name.

It remains among my absolute favorite requiems.

Brahms: Ein Deutsches Requiem – Otto Klemperer – Philharmonia Chorus & Orchestra – Elisabeth Schwarzkopf – Dietrich Fischer Dieskau

Brahms: Ein Deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem) Otto Klemperer Elisabeth Schwarzkopf Dietrich Fischer Dieskau Philharmonia Chorus & Orchestra EMI Warner Classics

I tend to often write about contemporary recordings here, a) because typically they are recorded much better sonically, b) because there’s already been written so much about the great classics, and c) because performance practice evolves and I could for example not really enjoy Bach played in the 1960’s symphony style, before historically informed practice came in the 1970s.

That said, there are some classics that have truly stood the test of time, and if there ever is one, this could be the one.

Otto Klemperer is an absolute Brahms legend, his symphony cycle was my first and still is one of my favorite ever.

And take a look at the soloist cast of this 1961 recording: We have Elisabeth Schwarzkopf AND Dietrich Fischer Dieskau! We get the full dramatic power of the Philharmonia Orchestra under Klemperer, that already made his stereo symphony cycle (also on EMI, Warner classics) so great. By the way, if you like this, you may want to consider getting the entire Klemperer Brahms box on Warner. I’ll provide a link below.

My favorite part of this requiem remains the intimate, simple, and amazingly touching Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit (You now have sorrow). This is really what sets this requiem apart from all the other Latin ones with their Days Of Wrath (Dies Irae). Just look at the consoling text:


You now have sorrow;
but I shall see you again
and your heart shall rejoice
and your joy no one shall take from you.

Behold me:
I have had for a little time toil and torment,
and now have found great consolation.

I will console you,
as one is consoled by his mother

My rating: 5 stars

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

If you prefer to get the entire Klemperer Brahms Warner box, which I highly recommend, as you’ll get all the symphonic works as well for just a little more money, you’ll find it here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)

The Legendary Bach Chaconne – My Favorite Keyboard Versions

Bach Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin

If you follow my blog you know I like Bach. A lot. So how come I’ve never written about one of his greatest masterpieces, the sonatas and partitas for solo violin?

Honestly, no idea. Maybe because while I actually really admire the works, listening to solo violin is really an experience, in spite of all the artistic beauty of the composition, is not something I can bring myself to do everyday.

The most famous piece of the 6 works, BWV 1001-1006 is without doubt the Chaconne in D-minor of BWV1004.

It is mind-blowing not only by it’s length (around 14 min), while the average of the other parts is around 5 min only, but also by the amazing harmonic complexity (See below an example with Hillary Hahn.).

 

My favorite version of the original violin work is by the legendary Nathan Milstein (note there’s a mono and stereo version, plus several live recordings), but others, such as Henryk Szeryng, Isabelle Faust, or Rachel Podger, are also highly recommended.

Nathan Milstein Bach Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin EMI 1954-1965

I found this beautiful quote from Joshua Bell about the Chaconne on Wikipedia: “not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history. It’s a spiritually powerful piece, emotionally powerful, structurally perfect”. Well, there you go. And I fully agree.

Nevertheless, these works were largely forgotten for a long time and only rediscovered in the late 18th century by Schumann and Brahms.

Which gives me a perfect segue to what I’ll be writing about. The Chaconne, which is actually quite polyphonic (a daunting task on a solo instrument like the violin), has been transcribed for keyboard instruments many times. And I find myself listening to the keyboard transcriptions more often than the violin original (ok, I’m an amateur pianist myself, so I’m probably biased).

Transcription by Johannes Brahms – Jean Rondeau

One of the first transcriptions was actually done by Johannes Brahms himself, and just to make it “easier”, he wrote it for the left hand only.

It’s been played by many great pianists, like the legendary Krystian Zimerman.

My current favorite version of this piece however was released quite recently by French Harpsichordist Jean Rondeau on his album of Bach transcriptions called Imagine.

Jean Rondeau - Bach - Imagine Erato 24/96

Rondeau plays with a lot of insight and passion and a lot of rubato. In many ways, you can feel some of the romanticism of Brahms in this particular version (which probably is just me making things up, as Brahms didn’t compose this after all). The sound of Rondeau’s cembalo is particularly beautiful on this recording. The rest of the album is equally beautiful and highly recommended.

 

Transcription by Federico Busoni – Benjamin Grosvenor

Benjamin Grosvenor Homages (24/96) Decca 2016  

I’ve previously written about the great English pianist Benjamin Grosvenor and his beautiful album Homages. He starts this album with the Busoni transcription. Busoni transcription really transforms this solo piece into the sound of an entire orchestra, and requires a true virtuoso to play. Amazing how much the original material of Bach can be transformed and still be of outstanding beauty.

 

Improvision by Gabriela Montero

Gabriela Montero is another pianist I wanted to write about for a long time. Her specialty is not only being able to play amazing classical music, but to improvise live in front of the audience. Her concerts (and I’ve only been to one of them so far, but want to go again) often include a part where she asks the audience to give their favorite tunes, she picks them up, and starts improvising, like this particular example:

But she also has released albums which include improvisations, like her album Bach and Beyond:

Gabriela Montero: Bach and Beyond

She also takes the Bach Chaconne and transforms it into something very personal on the piano (much shorter than the original at less than 5 minutes). It is not as impressive as Busoni’s massive version, but her personal touch is so beautiful, this entire album is veyr much worth checking out, and if she ever plays near you, you have to go!

 

You can find the albums here:

Milstein here (Qobuz)

Rondeau here (Qobuz) and here (AcousticSounds)

Grosvenor here (Qobuz) and here (Prostudiomasters)

Montero here

 

Update October 30, 2018: Gramophone just published their Gramophone Collection review of all Busoni Chaconne recordings, very much worth reading. A lot of versions for me to check out.

And also note that Igor Levit’s version of the Busoni Chaconne on his new album Life is amazing as well.

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Lisa Batiashvili playing Brahms at Tonhalle Zurich – Fantastic

5 fantastic female violin players

So, this was supposed to be just a concert report about last night at Tonhalle Maag in Zurich. But please allow me a small parenthesis.

These days we’re extremely lucky, as we have many outstanding classical music artists that are currently active. I’ve already written about my Top 10 Favourite Classical Pianists some time ago, but I’ve never done the same for the violin.

Right now, there are about 5 female violinists that I truly admire, all of which are world-class. I had seen Alina Ibragimova earlier this year already, and had the pleasure of seeing Lisa Batiashvili for the first time last night.

But then, innocently enough, there was a little sign post in front of the Tonhalle Maag building, announcing Julia Fischer playing Mendelssohn’s violin concert at the very same Tonhalle in about a month time. The ticket office was open, so I obviously got tickets for that one as well. I don’t know why I haven’t written about Julia Fischer on this blog yet, but I’ll start a post on my top 10  favorite violinist soon, she’ll be in there.

So I was joking to the guy at the ticket office, if now I could only see Isabelle Faust and Janine Jansen live this year as well, I’d finally have covered all my favorite players. And then I realised, that was exactly what I had to do. So while waiting for the gates of the Tonhalle to open, I bought tickets for Isabelle Faust with the Akademie für Alte Musik playing Bach concertos, and I now just need to pick one of Jansen’s great concerts this year (Sibelius, Brahms, Berg, some chamber music in Verbier, there’s a lot of choice).

Let me close the long parenthesis here, but one of my new year resolutions was to see more live concerts. I started well, but slowed down in recent month. (By the way, I completely missed writing about seeing Aracadi Volodos live some months ago, my bad)

But now it looks like it is going to be a really good year now!

Lisa Batiatishvili, Antonio Pappano, Chamber Orchestra of Europe – Ligeti & Brahms – May 23, 2018, Tonhalle Maag, Zurich

So, now let’s get to the concert itself.

The Chamber Orchestra is a great ensemble, especially under an outstanding conductor.

Antonio Pappano really is one of those great conductors. I’ve written about him already twice on this blog, and in both cases we’re talking about 5 star albums. First his great Aida, and then even more relevant for last night’s performance, the Brahms violin concerto with Janine Jansen.

So while the orchestra and the soloist is different, I already had some idea how Pappano would potentially approach the orchestral part of this great violin concerto. Obviously, here we had the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and not his own Accademia di Santa Cecilia, but it was clear that Pappano and the orchestra knew each other well, as they are currently touring all over Europe with this program.

But first things first, the program started with Ligeti’s Concert Românesc. I must admit I had no idea what to expect, as I mentioned previously on this blog, I’m really not very knowledgable with classical music after 1920. I barely ever venture beyond the safe bets of Bartok, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev.

I was very positively surprised. The short work really is a firework of musical ideas and energy. I definitely need to check out more of Ligeti, one more (rather late) new year resolution then.

But now to the Masterpiece of the evening, the Brahms violin concerto.

I really had high hopes for this. As mentioned above, Pappano had already shown with Jansen that he really knows this work, and Batiashvili earlier recording of the Sibelius violin concerto with Oramo is one of my favourite versions on disc.

I was a little hesitant though as I’m not such a big fan of the only time Batiashvili recorded this concerto before, with Christian Thielemann in Dresden. I mean, it’s not bad, but something always felt slightly off. By now I feel this slightly off thing actually was Thielemann, not Batishvili (I never was a fan of Thielemann in the first place).

Luckily, no Thielemann here, just Pappano. What did we get?

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To make it short: an outstanding experience. Pappano and the COE put in an amazing energy and pleasure, and Batiatishvili really played with all her heart. This was BIG Brahms, and it really was the full Cinemascope experience of this masterpiece.

The overall concert was so outstanding, that even the iPhone that was ringing TWICE! in the handbag of the elderly lady just in front of me didn’t spoil the experience (she clearly probably just received this phone and had no idea how to even switch off the sound).

The Tonhalle audience agreed, this was one of the most overwhelming applauses I’ve seen from in Zurich. We got treated to a nice encore.

I was even thinking, maybe I should just leave during the break, I cannot get any better.

I probably should have. After the break, we got Brahms’ Serenade no. 1. And I must admit I really don’t get why you can schedule Brahms most boring orchestral work EVER after the masterpiece of the violin concerto.

It really wasn’t the fault of Pappano and the COE not putting in an effort. This was am excellent performance on par with my current reference, Riccardo Chailly with the Gewandhaus.

But still I really think the serenades were nothing but trial works for his real symphonies, and I rather would have had ANY other Brahms orchestral work, even the rather silly Academic Festival overture, than this.

Nevertheless, this was truly an evening to remember!

Now I’m looking forward to Julia Fischer and Herbert Blomstedt.

Brahms Complete Piano Sonatas by François-Frédéric Guy – A Review

Brahms’ Piano Sonatas

I’m a fan of Johannes Brahms (see my blog’s subtitle). I’m a fan of his piano works, especially op. 116-119 (which are among his latest works).

However, until recently, his three piano sonatas never really touched me. I just didn’t get them. We’re talking about his op. 1, 2, and 5, so pretty much his first “official” compositions.

No. 3, op. 5, is the most well-known of the works. It is this piece that Robert Schumann heard when the shy 20-year old young man Brahms was at the time was introduced to the famous composer, which lead Schumann to write his famous article about Brahms being” one of those who comes as if straight from God”, and “He has a great future before him, for he will first find the true field for his genius when he begins to write for the orchestra”. 

Well, with hindsight, Schumann was obviously more than right, but it’s amazing he was able to cast such a judgment based on these works. So I always knew there must have been something in these works that I was missing.

My first version ever of op. 5 was by Radu Lupu (not a bad choice actually), and I very quickly also got the famous complete Brahms piano works box from Julius Katchen.

So I didn’t have a bad starting point, but as said before, I never really was drawn into his early sonatas.

But obviously, I try to check out as many new Brahms piano releases as I can. Recently, Geoffroy Couteau released a box of complete Brahms piano works, which got great reviews by the French press. I’m still making my way through that box, but so far I don’t share the enthusiasm of Classica and Diapason. Anyway, more about this later.

Brahms: Complete Piano Sonatas – François Frédéric Guy (Evidence Classics 2016)

Brahms Complete Piano Sonatas François-Frédéric Guy Evidence 2016 24 48

In any case,  I didn’t expect much when I checked out another French pianist, François-Frédéric Guy’s recent recording of the complete piano sonatas.

And I was very positively surprised! Guy actually specialized in German composers, especially Beethoven and Brahms.

So what makes this recording special? Basically, one thing, passion. I can really hear the 20 year old genius playing at the Schumann’s home in Düsseldorf in this album.

This album doesn’t necessarily sound like “typical” Brahms to me (if there were such a thing). Some softer elements remind me of Chopin, some more energetic moments even sound a bit like Rachmaninov (who obviously wasn’t even born yet when these pieces were composed).

 

There is a really nice example on Youtube:

 

This album is absolutely worth checking out.

My rating: 4 stars

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