Easter is Coming Up Again: Time to Recommend A New Outstanding Matthew Passion Recording by John Eliot Gardiner

The Matthew Passion

I’ve previously written about the importance of the Matthew Passion here.

It is probably one of the most relevant works of Bach, which in turn makes it one of the most important works of the entire classical music.

If you want a good entry to understand what this is all about, check out this NPR “guided tour” through this masterpiece.

I’ve mentioned previously that I’m not religious at all, but that doesn’t take one bit of the attraction away, the emotions Bach has captured here really has universal appeal.

Bach: St. Matthew Passion – John Eliot Gardiner (SDG 2017)

My previous and still valid recommendation for the Matthew Passion remains John Butt’s outstanding recording of the 1742 version, with the Dunedin Consort. I’ve listed it in my 25 Essential Classical Music Albums.

But when the great John Eliot Gardiner decided to re-record this masterpiece nearly 30 years after his legendary DG Archiv version, I had to write about this.

Bach St Matthew Passion John Eliot Gardiner SDG 2017 24/96

Actually, I had heard it even before it was released, as I had the pleasure of seeing Gardiner with his Monteverdi Choir live at the KKL in Lucerne last spring. During this European tour this album was recorded (a bit later in 2016, at Pisa Cathedral).

I don’t know why I didn’t write about this concert before, as it was such an outstanding performance. Therefore, I’m extremely happy it was recorded.

I wasn’t always been with Gardiners recent recordings (see here and here), even his new recording of the b-minor mass left me a bit cold.

But this one is pure perfection again. Gramophone agrees and gives it a “Recording of the Month” for April. Germany’s Fono Forum is also on board, with 5 stars.

How does Gardiner compare against John Butt?

Well, actually there are more similarities than differences. Both are historically informed, both favor transparency over let’s say the power of a Karl Richter.

Both have excellent singers, both have an outstanding period ensemble. As mentioned above, Butt uses the more rarely heard 1742 version, but the differences are small.

Where Gardiner has the edge, is probably in even more increased transparency, in a way it sounds even more intimate. On the other hand, you get a bit more emotional power with the Dunedins in some of the choral scenes.

But here we’re talking very minor differences, it is very clear that Gardiner has recorded a reference version. Do yourself a favor and listen to it.

My rating: 5 stars

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

My Reflections on the 2016 Gramophone Awards (Part II): Baroque Vocal

The Gramophone Awards 2016

Following yesterday’s post on the Gramophone Awards Nominees in the Concerto category, let’s attack another one: Baroque Vocal. Again, this isn’t meant to be an exhaustive review of the nominated albums, but just a couple of comments and reflections, as usually I’ll know quite a number of the recommendations well.

And if I don’t, I’ll try to find out (or shut up).

Baroque Vocal

Baroque vocal is not surprisingly one of my favorite categories. As written previously, you can never have enough Bach.

The good thing is, this year’s Gramophone award nominees in this category feature 3 times this great composer, even twice with his outstanding b-minor mass (sorry for all the superlatives here, but what else can you call this?).

Bach: Magnificat – John Butt – Dunedin Consort

Gramophone starts very appropriately for this hot summer season with… Christmas Music.

Well, actually, the title piece is the Magnificat BWV 243a, which is as magnificent as the name implies. I’ve praised John Butt and his Dunedin consort several times here on this blog (e.g. his fantastic St Matthew Passion), and this album keeps the very high level of playing of this great ensemble (plus the beautiful recording quality of the Scottish label Linn, known for their turntables, and more recently, excellent digital hifi).

Bach: Magnificat Christmas Cantata 63 John Butt Dunedin Consort Linn Records

You also get a Christmas cantata plus some other church music (this is trying to recreate Bach’s first Christmas Vespers as he could have performed them), so make sure you get this excellent album under your Christmas tree this year (side note: this is one of the downside of the virtual download era, a FLAC file doesn’t look that pretty even wrapped).

My rating: 5 stars

Bach: B-minor Mass by Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir

Bach: Mass in B-Minor - Gardiner (2015) - SDG

Already reviewed here, so no need to repeat my four star rating. Very well done, but I still prefer Herreweghe (no matter which version, see also here).

 

Bach: B-minor Mass by the Lars Ulrik Mortensen and the Concerto Copenhagen

Bach: Mass in B Minor Lars Ulrik Mortensen Concerto Copenhagen CPO

Yes, another version of the masterpiece. And admittedly one I haven’t heard. This is mainly due to the fact that this SACD release doesn’t seem to be available on my streaming provide of choice.

Mortensen’s recordings of the Bach keyboard concertos are, and I’m not a big fan. However, the couple of snippets of this b-minor I was able to find on the internet sound interesting. The couple of reviews I’ve read speak of a lot of transparency. Once this becomes available on a streaming site I’ll have another look, and if you have an SACD player, you may even want to check it out right now.

 

Händel: Partenope – Riccardo Minasi – Il Pomo d’Oro

From baroque giant no. 1 to no. 2, Händel.

Händel: Partenope - Riccardo Minasi - Il Pomo d'Oro - Gauvin - Jaroussky Erato 2016

No idea why I haven’t purchased this one yet. I’m usually a big fan of the countertenor Philippe Jarrousky, and Riccardo Minasi is very reliably producing high level baroque productions.

And Erato (in spite of being part of Warner these days) is also a gauge of quality.

In spite of this album being available on Qobuz, I haven’t spent a lot of time on this recording yet, so I’m not going to offer any judgment beyond that I like what I’ve heard so far.

 

Monteverdi: Madrigali Vol. 1 – Cremona – Paul Agnew – Les Arts Florissants

First of all, reading “Les Arts Florissants” and not seeing William Christie in the same entry is a bit weird. They have been associated for so many years (and I’m looking forward to seeing him live again in the soon to open Hamburg Elbphilharmonie early next year).

But Paul Agnew, his disciple, does an outstanding job there.

Monteverdi: Madrigali vol. 1 Cremona Paul Agnew Les Arts Florissants 2016

I must admit I listen to Monteverdi less than I should. While my musical brain feels immediately at home in the harmonic world of a Bach and Händel, the 100+ years between them and Monteverdi, the very beginning of what can be called baroque music, makes is much less immediately approachable to me.

However, when I’m in the mood and have the patience, it can be a very rewarding experience.

Again, I haven’t spent enough time with this album for proper judgment, but my initial impressions are very positive.

Le Concert Royal De La Nuit: Sebastian Daucé – Ensemble Correspondances

From Germany via England (Händel) and Italy now to France (Well to be fair, of the previous mentioned countries, only France and England actually were countries, Germany and Italy still had to wait for a couple of centuries for this pleasure).

And directly to the court of the Sun King, Louis XIV.

Why haven’t I written about this fantastic album yet, although I purchased it months ago? No idea, shame on me. This is putting you directly into the front row at Versailles, into a musical spectacle of first order.

Le Concert Royal de la Nuit: Sébastian Daucé - Ensemble Correspondances Harmonia Mundi 2016

I must admit, I didn’t know any of the composers previously (I’m not a great expert in French music in the first place), but the booklet quotes them as:  Cambefort, Boesset, Constantin, Lambert, Cavalli and Rossi.

Never mind, just sit back, close your eyes, and enjoy the beauty of the music!

By the way, this was also a Choc Classica in addition to the Gramophone Editors choice. It is rare that these two magazines agree, but if they do, it’s usually on something rather outstanding.

My rating: 5 stars

Now, the tricky question, who should win this year’s Gramophone Awards? My guess is Gardiner will make it, as a sort of lifetime award (and having seen him live earlier this year, he’d certainly deserve it).

But my personal call would go for the outsider: Sébastian Daucés account of a night at Versailles. Let’s see.

Who would you choose?

 

UPDATE Aug 18: Gramophone has just communicated the three finalists for each category. For this one, still in the running are the Dunedin Magnificat, the Monteverdi, and the Concert Royal. So my personal favorite has a one in 3 chance of winning. Nice!

 

You can find the recordings here:

Bach Magnificat Dunedin

Bach B-minor Mass Gardiner

Bach B-Minor mass Mortensen

Händel: Partenope

Monteverdi: Madrigali vol. 1

Le Concert Royal de la Nuit

 

 

 

 

Easter Time Is Coming Up Soon – And With It The Magnificent Matthew Passion

Seasonal Music For Easter

Easter time is coming. At least over here in Europe, that means most shops fill up with chocolate eggs and bunnies. Nothing wrong with that.

But while I’m not religious, there are two pieces of music that are intrinsically linked for me to this time of the year. Both essentially tell the same story, the well-known biblical story of the last days of Jesus Christ as accounted for in the gospels of John and Matthew respectively.

At yes, this will be yet another blog post about Bach. Sorry for this, but he put both of these accounts into such beautiful music that it really doesn’t matter what religion you follow (or if at all), both of these works, the BWVs 245 and 244, respectively the Johannes-Passion and Matthäus-Passion, are among the most outstanding musical works ever written.

I’ll write about the St John Passion later, it is the possibly slightly less well-known of the two.

St Matthew Passion BWV244

But let me start with the St Matthew Passion, for the simple reason that I just spent a lot of money on a concert ticket. I’ll have the pleasure in a couple of weeks to see John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir live playing this masterpiece.

I highly encourage you to seek this concert out if you live in Europe, they are touring several countries starting with Valencia, Spain. I can guarantee this to be an outstanding concert experience by one of the greatest Bach interpreters and choirs ever. Check out the tour dates here. It also includes the great Mark Padmore as Evangelist.

I’ll be certainly writing about this concert experience here.

This work is also of historical importance, as its revival in the 19th century by Mendelssohn triggered also a much more general appreciation of Bach as the musical genius he truly was.

St Matthew’s Passion – John Butt – Dunedin Consort

Let me talk about another outstanding Bach interpreter here. I’ve written about John Butt and the Dunedin Consort several times already, regarding the Mozart Requiem, Händel’s Messiah, and more recently on the Brandenburg concertos.

If you believe Gramophone Magazine, he rarely misses a recording, having received a number of Gramophone Editor’s choices and Awards. Obviously, one needs to be a bit careful as Gramophone often suffers from a certain anglophilia in their reviews, and local artists more often than not get rather favorable reviews.

However, in this particular case, I fully concur with Gramophone’s opinion, whatever John Butt and his Dunedin Consort touch is usually worth checking out. Furthermore, being recorded on the Linn label (of legendary turntable fame), these recordings are what is often to referred as audiophile.

Matthew Passion Dunedin Consort John Butt Linnrecords 24 88

A word of advice, even if the story may be familiar to you if you are Christian, take the booklet and follow the lyrics (even better if you speak German obviously). It is just outstanding how much Bach’s music reflects the feeling of what is going on at any time of the 2h18, and really helps absorbing this masterpiece better.

This is particularly true in the very last Chorus Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder (we sit down in tears). If this track doesn’t touch your emotions, I don’t know what does.

The Dunedin’s version brings an astounding amount of clarity to the reading. This doesn’t mean it is lightweight, but it is played with beautiful transparency. Nicely enough, although none of the singers are German, their pronunciation of the text is exceptional.

 

Now is John Butt’s version the one and only to have for Matthew? Certainly not. There are other great versions out there that are worth checking out, from Gardiner’s and Herreweghe’s classic accounts in the late 1980s, via Kuijken and Suzuki, to the recent controversial but thought-provoking René Jacobs reading.

And although you’ll have noticed that I’m a big fan of historically informed practice, the legendary version of Karajan, with Gundola Janowitz, Christa Ludwig, Peter Schreier and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is worth checking out for the beautiful singing (although the tempi are really too slow for my ears with Kommt Ihr Töchter taking a full 9:21 vs. 6:38 with the Dunedins).

But overall the Dunedin version is an excellent starting point for exploring this masterpiece.

 

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Linn Records) or here (Prestoclassical)

My Favorite Versions of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio

Christmas Music

Only three weeks left until Christmas. Usually, during this time there are three unavoidable things: Some singer releasing a Christmas album (that reminds me that I need to write a post about my favorite Jazz Christmas albums, watch this space), you hear Wham again on the radio 5 times per day, and most households that have some form of love for classical music play the Christmas oratorio, in a similar frequency to the Last Christmas repetitions on popular radio.

I’m very similar, during the month of December the Oratorio gets played at least 10-20 times. I wonder myself why I still like it. But let’s face it, this is Bach, and you can never get too much Bach.

Listening to this work you’re best of when you speak at least some German, as you get the entire beautiful Christmas story told to you by the Evangelist, but if you don’t, either get the booklet or just enjoy the music

(Side note: I’m not religious, but having grown up in a Western country Christmas has become more of a family tradition than a religious event for me like for many others).

Gardiner / Monteverdi Choir (DG Archiv 1987)

Bach Christmas Oratorio John Eliot Gardiner Monteverdi Choir English Baroque Soloists DG Archiv 1987

Gardiner’s version from 1987 is probably the best known, and it is still my favorite version. I’m not sure if my preference isn’t biased by the fact that I’ve heard it so much over and over again, but Gardiner plays with so much drive and energy, that although I must have heard this hundreds of times, it still doesn’t get boring.

There are obviously many alternatives.

Philippe Herreweghe (Erato 1992)

One of my favorite alternatives around is also a bit older. Philippe Herreweghe’s version is a bit more mellow than Gardiner, but still has all the beauty in both playing and singing.

Bach Christmas Oratorio Philippe Herrweghe Collegium Vocale Ghent Erato

I have listened to a number of more recent versions, but still go back to these two above most of the time. Among the more recent alternatives I’ve tried are Mazaaki Suzuki (polished, but a bit too behaved), Diego Fasolis (really fast, not my cup of tea), and Gramophone’s favorite version, Harnoncourt 2nd version on Deutsche Harmonia Mundi (good but I like both versions above better).

My rating: 4 stars for both (I’m still waiting for the perfect version, but both come pretty close)

You can download the Gardiner here (Qobuz) and the Herreweghe here (Qobuz again)

Nearly (But Not Quite) Perfect – Gardiner’s New Recording of Bach’s B-Minor Mass

Bach’s b-minor mass was the subject of one of my first blog posts nearly six months ago. I just love and admire this monumental work of beauty.

John Eliot Gardiner

I’m also a big fan of Gardiner. Many of his recordings with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique of the classical and romantic symphonies are outstanding (e.g. his Schumann cycle), and his entire Bach cantata cycle with the Monteverdi choir is among my favorite versions.

The 2015 recording of the B-minor Mass (SDG 2015)

So when Gardiner released a new recording of the b-minor mass (his first dates back to 1985 for Deutsche Grammophon, still early days for the historically informed practice movement) I was all ears and have listened to it now for several times.

Obviously, a lot of thought and the experience gained from the entire cantata cycle went into this new recording (there is a great article about it in the November 2015 issue of Gramophone).

Bach: Mass in B-Minor - Gardiner (2015) - SDG

How does it compare to my reference version, Herreweghe’s 2012 recording? Well, it’s really very good, but doesn’t replace it. Let me try to explain why.

With this monumental work, one thing you need to get right is the balance between power and nuance. The old recordings of the 1960s and 70s (e.g. Otto Klemperer’s legendary version, or Karl Richter) are powerful grandiose affairs, and then you have other versions that very much limit the number of singers, resulting in a very light and transparent sound.

Gardiner choses something more on the lighter side (approx 30 singers), and also goes for a very clear and natural orchestral playing.

And here we get to the only minor bit of criticism to the otherwise beautiful and near perfect recording, very occasionally, I’d just like a little bit more power and brilliance, exactly what Herreweghe does.

Basically, the little additional sparkle, which he so often has in his cantata cycles, but here it feels somehow a little bit held back, not going at their full power.

Enough nitpicking, this is an excellent recording, and really worth checking out. But I’m in love with Herreweghe and will stick to his version for the moment.

My rating: 4 stars

You can download it here (Qobuz) or here (Prostudiomasters)

UPDATE Dec 5: Gramophone really likes this album and gives it an Editor’s Choice in the December 2015 issue

Am I Deaf or How Could This Go So Wrong – Gardiner & Pires’ Schumann & Mendelssohn

Sometimes there are albums coming out where just looking at the artists involved you really anticipate something great.

So when I read about this album of Maria João Pires playing the Schumann piano concerto together with the LSO conducted by Gardiner, I was really looking forward to hearing this. A beautiful pairing as well with Mendelssohn’s Scottish symphony that I really like.

Schumann piano concerto Mendelssohn Symphony No. 3 Maria Joao Pires John Eliot Gardiner LSO Live

Pires plays fantastic Mozart and Chopin (e.g. her Nocturnes are just beautiful), and I’m a big fan of Gardiner not only for his Bach cantatas, but also for his symphony recordings with the ORR. And obviously, the London Symphony is a great orchestra.

So all the stars are aligned. On top this album has received a Gramophone Editor’s Choice, plus some other great reviews.

And then I start listening (luckily I went for streaming first instead of just immediately buying), and can’t help to think I must have clicked on the wrong album. The Schumann piano concerto is just plain boring! Total lack of passion and energy. And a perceived speed that feels way too slow. Then I check, and it is really Gardiner and Pires playing here. How could this go wrong?

You have plenty of other alternatives here, go for Radu Lupu, Dino Lipatti (a disc to convert Karajan haters by the way), Andsnes again, etc. etc. etc.

But I don’t give up and check the Scottish symphony. Again, I can’t believe my ears. At best, an average performance. The worst is the forth movement which feels plump, and on some occasions (this is a live recording) the LSO even sounds out of sync. This is not the brilliant Gardiner of Schumann’s 4th with the ORR, this is somebody else entirely.

For Mendelssohn, I’d recommend you rather go with Abbado, or Christoph von Dohnanyi.

No idea what the guys at Gramophone heard here. I just don’t get it.

Overall rating: Just about 3 stars (It really pains me to give such a mediocre rating as these are all amazing musicians individually. But I just can’t help it.)