Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 1 by Martin Helmchen and Andrew Manze- A Positive Surprise

First of all, I feel a bit bad for not posting more regularly in 2020. OK, so my year transitioned very brutally from traveling like crazy to working even crazier hours from home, and obviously the situation of most parts of the world really has plenty of reasons to not have a clean head to think about other things.

But then again, isn’t music even more essential these days? It is a nearly universal source of joy, and I really hope I can share my enjoyment with you, my dear readers.

Beethoven Piano Concertos No. 1 & 4 – Martin Helmchen – Andrew Manze (Alpha 2020)

Does the world need yet another recording of Beethoven’s piano concertos? Almost certainly not.

Beethoven Piano Concertos 1& 4 Martin Heimchen Deutsches Sinfonieorchester Berlin Andrew Manze Alpha 2020 24 96

I’ve already shared how much I like the complete cycle of Leif Ove Andnses with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, which I also mentioned in my Top 5 Classical albums of 2015.

But that said, when I more or less randomly checked into this recent release, I was very positively surprised how much I liked it.

Both Martin Helmchen and Andrew Manze are artists that aren’t fully in the limelight. Insiders will know them, Helmchen for example for his many beautiful chamber music collaborations, Manze was until recently more known for his HIP influenced baroque performances that he lead with the English Consort. Since 2014 he is conducting the NDR Radiophilharmonie in Hanover, Germany. And obviously, the Deutsche Sinfonieorchester Berlin (DSO) is often eclipsed by the two other amazing orchestras in the same city, the BPO and the Staatskapelle.

But as I’ve written many times before, the best performances don’t necessarily come from the big names and the traditional large orchestras any more. You always need to watch seemingly lesser known ensembles, you more often than not will be positively surprised.

So, why do I like this recording? Well, it is hard to pinpoint a single feature. Probably the best description of what I like is the balance. You can clearly hear that Manze knows his historically informed practice, but at no point this performance becomes bloodless which some “HIP” recordings can clearly get to. You have a very transparent and intimate reading, but never dull.

Helmchen also is a fantastic performer here. I’m a particular fan of his performance of piano concerto no. 1. This work, which clearly sits spot on on the border between the “Wiener Klassik” of Mozart and Haydn, and the following romantic era of Schubert and Schumann, but it is so very Beethoven in so many ways. Helmchen perfectly captures the spirit of this transitional work.

Piano concerto no. 4 is probably my favorite of all 5 piano concertos. The opening, with its very simple solo piano chords, immediately answered by the orchestra, is a totally different beast to the piano concerto no. 1. This work was premiered for the first time in a massive concert that also features the 5th and 6th symphony. This is clearly a Beethoven at the height of his powers, fully emancipated from Haydn and Mozart, creating a style that is so very immediately recognisable as Beethoven, and has never been surpassed since.

Helmchen and Manze also give us a beautiful performance here, but maybe it is for this work that I’d just like to have a tiny bit more of something, what exactly I really don’t know. Maybe I’m still influenced by the very first performance I owned of this work, a recording of the legendary Rudolf Serkin with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony (a recording that build a much “bigger” Beethoven, not that that is necessarily automatically a good thing). OK, let me stop rambling here. In these situations I’m happy I don’t have to pretend I’m a professional reviewer, but just share my personal impressions.

Overall though this is a recording you really should check out, particularly for what could be close to a perfect first piano concerto.

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Schubert: A Journey Through 11 Versions of Schubert’s Piano Sonata D959

The Cross Eyed Pianist

Sometimes, as a blogger, you may feel a bit alone. With my rather niche topic of Jazz and Classical music, I really don’t have that many people to exchange ideas with in my immediate surroundings, as most of my friends and family don’t care enough about this topic (my mother-in-law is the exception, she is a loyal reader, even if she often disagrees with my opinions).

Luckily, on the internet, you’ll be able to find like-minded people for every kind of interest, as small as it may be. I’ve met people virtually on several discussion forums and via this blog that I feel I have very compatible musical tastes.

And obviously then, there are the other bloggers. You can find on this blog the long list of all blogs I follow (at least those on WordPress), but some are really outstanding, and to be fair, much better than my little enterprise here.

One blog I follow very closely is Frances Wilson’s The Cross Eyed Pianist. Well, she’s got an advantage over me, she’s an actual pianist (my piano hasn’t been touched for over a year now, shame on me). I strongly recommend you check her out.

Schubert’s Late Piano Sonatas

I’ve mentioned Franz Schubert several times now on this blog, as I’m a big fan.

Unfortunately he died way too young, so there is only a number of categories I really admire in Schubert. Not necessarily his symphonies (see my comment on his last symphony here), but his Lieder (still only getting into them), his amazing chamber works (see here and here among others), and obviously, his piano music, which was his very own instrument.

I’ve previously written about David Fray’s beautiful album, as well as Andras Schiff’s recent recording on a fortepiano. Note that you can always click on the composer link on the right hand side of this blog to see all my articles on a given composer.

But I’ve not fully talked about the 3 masterpieces of his late piano sonatas, D958-960, which really give you a glimpse of what Schubert could have achieved had he lived longer. These were all recorded in his last year alive, at the tender age of 31. Imagine Beethoven dying after the Moonlight, no Waldstein, no Appassionata, no Hammerklavier!

To get back to Frances Wilson, what trigger this blog post was her excellent article on Schuberts D959 in A-Major, which not only inspired me to write this post, but also the title.

Frances Wilson and others are the reason why I don’t write a lot about the works themselves on my blog, these others are so much more talented.

So let me focus on what I typically tend to write about, which is “reviewing” (or probably rather commenting) the recorded versions of these pieces.

10 versions…

I often get asked, which is the “best version” of a classical piece. If I’d be honest, I cannot answer this. Most classical works have been recorded hundreds of times, and comparing them all is just really not feasible. Gramophone and Classica try, and have monthly articles around individual works where they try to achieve this, but even these traditional magazines with their decades of experience usually limit themselves to a smaller number of versions (or I guess, leverage their archived reviews).

So, as I said inspired by Wilson’s article, I wanted to write about the best version of Schuberts D959 I have on my hard disk, plus Paul Lewis from Qobuz (I could have included all versions available on Qobuz streaming, but then you wouldn’t read another blog post from me for a least 3 years)

I have a total of 10 versions (thanks to years spend on meta-tagging I can actually now easily find them):

  • Leif Ove Andsnes
  • Alfred Brendel
  • Martin Helmchen
  • Paul Lewis
  • Wilhelm Kempff
  • Radu Lupu
  • Murray Perahia
  • Arthur Schnabel
  • Andreas Staier
  • Mitsuko Uchida

You’ll noticed Andsnes and Perahia from my Top 10 Classical Pianists I just published, actually, the preparation for this review triggered the idea of that post.

I’m not going to review all 10 versions here in detail, but just highlight those that really stood out to me (which is tough, because there wasn’t really a negative outlier in this list.

… and not a single winner

I’ll name 3 in detail here, and honestly, I’m not going to name my winner, as it is just impossible.

 

Alfred Brendel

Schubert: The Last Three Piano Sonatas Three Piano Pieces D 958 959 960 946 Alfred Brendel Philips

This was my first ever version, and I can still count it among the best out there. Brendel is an extremely intellectual pianist, and he’s probably one of the key people who put Schubert’s piano music on the world stage. I haven’t included him in my Top 10 pianist list, as I’m not a universal fan of his playing, but for Schubert, he really is among the top references.

 

Murray Perahia

 

Perahia actually made it into my Top 10 list. He’s a pianist I admire from Bach to romantic repertoire, he always seems to get it right. Same here, this is really worth checking out.

And, last but absolutely NOT least,

 

Mitsuko Uchida

Mitsuko Uchida plays Schubert

I’ve already previously mentioned her in my article about Andras Schiff, she absolutely remains among my favorite versions of this work.

She has such a light, delicate and beautiful touch. To me Schubert’s piano music is even closer to Mozart than to Beethoven, even if Schubert was a great admirer of the latter. Uchida is one of the best Mozart players we have, and approaching Schubert in Mozart style really feels right.

My rating for all 3: 5 stars

Two lessons learned here:

  1. Never ask for “THE BEST” version of a certain work. It just doens’t exist, you’ll almost always find several versions that are each outstanding in their own way
  2. I’ll almost certainly not do another of those huge comparisions in the near future, they are just so time consuming. I’ll leave that to the professionals. It was fun though.

As usual, I’d be interested in your opinion, are there other versions out there?

Frances mentioned Goode and Pires, which I both haven’t heard, anything else out there?

You can find the albums here:

Alfred Brendel: here (Qobuz)

Perahia: here (Qobuz)

Mitsuko Uchida: here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)

Recommended: Brahms Cello Sonatas by Marie-Elisabeth Hecker

OutThere Music – Alpha Classics

In the old days (i.e. 1980s and previous), you basically had a number of big guys in the classical music industry, Deutsche Grammophon, Philips, RCA, Decca. Minor labels didn’t play such a big role, as most of the important artists were all signed to one of these major labels.

These days, while the big guys are still around (as brands that are part of large conglomerates), the smaller labels really strive.

BIS, Chandos, Hyperion, Harmonia Mundi, all of the really produce excellent classical albums, and if you were to check my 4 and 5 star recommendations on this site, I bet (but haven’t checked) that the independents probably outweigh the former majors by 2:1 at least.

Alpha Classics, now part of the Belgian/French OutThere Music, is one of those labels, that produces an outstanding number of great recordings, featuring great artist like Céline Frisch (see my review of her Well-Tempered Clavier here), Nelson Goerner, Alexis Kossenko’s Les Ambassadors (see my review of their Telemann album here), or Café Zimmermann (review of their Bach albums coming up).

One more strong point about most of these labels is that they do care about the sound quality of the recordings, which is not always guaranteed with the majors, who often tend to “over”-produce a recording.

Brahms’ Cello Sonatas

Brahms two cello sonatas were the first work of chamber music I ever owned by Brahms. I was lucky and started with a very nice version, with Leonard Rose on cello and Jean-Bernard Pommier on piano.

Since then, the cello sonatas have always been around, and I’ve constantly been on the lookout for the “perfect version”. On the way, I collected at least a dozen of versions, my most recent additions (both good) are Torleif Thédeen and Roland Pötinen on BIS and Ophelie Gaillard and Louis Schwizgebel-Wang on Aparté Music (note that both are independent labels…)

But to quote U2, I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.

Until now, at least for sonata no. 2.

Brahms Cello Sonatas – Marie-Elisabeth Hecker – Martin Heimchen (Alpha Classics 2016)

I had already started listening to this album briefly, as my streaming provider of choice, Qobuz, has a list of recommendations, where this album popped up.

Brahms Cello Sonatas Marie-Elisabeth Hecker Martin Heimchen Alpha Classics 2016 24 96

Being the Brahms fan I am (see my blog title), I obviously went to check it out.

I was pleased by what I heard in the first two movements of sonata no. 1, but not blown away. Well played, but not so different from many other recordings I’ve heard. So I got distracted and never got to the end of the album. Big mistake.

The July issue of my favorite classical music magazine, Classica, just came out, and had the album as a “Choc”. Usually, our tastes match quite well, so I gave it another virtual spin on Qobuz.

And guess what, once I got to the F-major sonata, I was blown away. In spite of being the later of the two sonatas (by approximately 20 years), this one is the much more passionate one.

And here finally you get all the passion I’ve always been waiting for. Hecker (winner of the famous Rostropovich award in 2005) and Helmchen (Concours Clara Haskil 2001) just play with so much energy, it just sucks you in.

Therefore, sonata no. 2 is the true highlight of this album for me, while the search continues for the e-minor sonata.

Nevertheless:

My rating: 5 stars (worth it for the 2nd sonata!)

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