Musicophile’s 25 Essential Classical Music Albums – Part II

Continued from part I here.

Anton Bruckner: Sinfonie Nr. 4 – Günter Wand – Berliner Philharmoniker

The 4th Big B as some call him, Bruckner had to be on my list.

The album I’m recommending nicely enough is a collection of all his relevant symphonies, but I’d really like to focus on Symphony no. 4, my first love, and still my preferred Bruckner symphony.

Günter Wand Anton Bruckner Symphonies Berliner Philharmoniker RCA Red Seal

I’ve written about it previously, and am not going to repeat the entire blog post. As I mentioned there, I’m not listening to Bruckner that much any more, my taste has moved on from the romantic period to much more Mozart and especially Bach, but my Essential Album list couldn’t be complete without Symphony No. 4. Even if I listen to it only a couple of times per year, the broad symphonic sound will always remain close to my heart.

There is especially one part in the first movement, that really give me goose bumps (for 10 other tracks doing the same, check out this blog post), it is a little part that connects two larger sections of the movement, and on the Wand album mentioned here, from 9:48 to 11:02, and has a beauty from out of this world.

 

Chopin: Nocturnes – Moravec

Finally moving away from the letter B, my first Chopin album. Chopin to me is one of the absolute masters of the piano to me. You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned any Beethoven piano sonata, as much as I love them, Chopin is still closer to my heart.

And if you only have to have one Chopin album, it should be Moravec’s legendary Nocturnes. Already, to me the Nocturnes are quintessential Chopin, and nobody plays them better than Ivan Moravec.

Ivan Moravec Chopin Nocturnes

See my full review here.

Not surprisingly, Moravec also shows up in my Top 10 Classical Pianists.

 

Chopin: Preludes – Blechacz

Another Chopin album, another pianist I already featured in my Top 10 pianists. At least you cannot call me inconsistent.

Chopin Complete The Preludes Rafal Blechacz Deutsche Grammophon

See my review here

Obviously, there are many other pieces you could get from Chopin, the Etudes (Pollini), the piano concertos, Benjamin Grosvenor’s beautiful albums, etc. etc.

But really, the Nocturnes and Preludes should be in everybody’s music library.

 

Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto – Janine Jansen

Skipping quite a lot of letters of the alphabet, and with this really good composers like Berlioz, Debussy, Dvořák, Fauré, Händel, Haydn (although I was close in adding his Cello concertos), Grieg, Mahler, all of which have composed great music and that I’ll write or have written about. But none of these composers have made it on my, again, extremely subjective list of “essential”, i.e. something I really wouldn’t want to live without. I know, we can discuss this endlessly, but I had to make a choice, and here we go.

So finally an album and piece that I haven’t written about yet.

You could argue, of the great violin concertos, why do I chose Brahms and Mendelssohn, and not Beethoven or Tchaikovsky (or, to a lesser extent, Bruch)? Well, again for the same subjective reasons as above, both really touch me the most.

Janine Jansen Riccardo Chailly Gewandhausorchester Mendelssohn Bruch Violin Concertos Decca

I’ve previously praised Janine Jansen’s recent Brahms recording, and am also quite a fan of what Riccardo Chailly has done with the Gewandhaus, be it his complete Brahms symphonies, or the piano concertos with Nelson Freire.

On this excellent album, on top of Mendelssohn’s masterpiece, you also get an outstanding version of Bruch, so this really is another must have.

Other music from Mendelssohn I can highly recommend includes his Songs Without Words, and his symphonies no. 3 and 4.

 

Mozart: Cosi Fan Tutte – Nézet-Séguin

Moving on to Mozart. And getting into dangerous territory. My favorite pieces of all times are his great DaPonte operas, most of all Cosi, closely followed by Figaro.

Nezet-Seguin Mozart Cosi Fan Tutte Chamber Orchestra of Europe Deutsche Grammophon

However, as mentioned in my review of this album, I still don’t consider myself an opera expert. So take my recommendations with a grain of salt, and I’d particularly appreciate any feedback from any opera lovers about their favorite versions.

That said, this 2013 live recording is great, much better than the more recent, slightly disappointing Figaro.

 

Le Nozze Di Figaro – René Jacobs

Even more difficult territory here, as René Jacobs operas are usually love/hate affairs, i.e. you either love them or hate them.

I personally usually find them really interesting and insightful.

Mozart: Le Nozze Di Figaro René Jacobs Concerto Köln Harmonia Mundi

I also have about 10 other versions, including the classics from Böhm, Muti, Erich Kleiber, but keep returning to this version, as well as the first I ever owned, by James Levine.

 

Mozart: C-minor Mass – Masaaki Suzuki

Mozart: Great Mass in C-Minor Exsultate Jubilate Masaaki Suzuki Bach Collegium Japan BIS 2016 24/96

I’ve written twice previously about Mozart’s choral masterpiece, one of the most amazing works of music ever written. And I must admit that Masaaki Suzuki’s recent version really made something very special.

Read my full review here.

You’ll find more great Mozart in my blog post about My Must-Have Mozart albums.

 

Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 3 – Leif Ove Andsnes

Again, jumping a couple of letters ahead, skipping Liszt (although his b-minor sonata was close to making the list), Monteverdi, Mussorgsky, and Prokofiev), directly to Rachmaninov.

And for Rachmaninov, as much as I like quite a bit of his solo piano work, the true essentials are his piano concertos no. 2, and even more so, no. 3

Rachmaninov Complete Piano Concertos Leif Ove Andsnes London Symphony Orchestra Berliner Philharmoniker Antonio Pappano Warner Classics

I’ve previously mentioned this album in my post about My Top 10 pianists.

Obviously, there are many other legendary performances of the Rach’s, including Horowitz, and Van Cliburn, but Andsnes and Pappano really stand out.

 

Schubert: The Late Piano Sonatas – Uchida

Moving one letter ahead again, to S.

Mitsuko Uchida plays Schubert

Schubert’s “late” (all relative, given that he passed away at the age of 31) piano sonatas, D958-960, are absolute masterpieces again. It is not easy to pick my favorite.

Luckily, quite recently I did a systematic comparison of D959, where Uchida, Perahia, and Brendel came out on top.

I’m here rather arbitrarely recommending Uchida, given that her rather exhaustive Schubert box contains 8 CDs for a really low price, you may as well get this directly. You won’t regret it.

 

Schubert: Winterreise – Prégardien – Staier

Schubert: Die Winterreise - Christoph Prégardien - Andreas Staier Warner Classics

A Schubert Lied just had to be in the list, and Winterreise really is such a gem.

As written here, I really like Christoph Prégardien with Andreas Staier, but this is one where one could easily collect 20 and more versions and still discover something new.

 

Schubert: String Quintet – Pavel Haas Quintet

Pavel Haas Quartet String Quintet Schubert Death and the Maiden Supraphon

As you can see, I really like Schubert. He get’s 3 entries, and I could easily have given him four or five. Luckily, on this album you get two of my favorites, the amazing quintet, and the nearly as outstandingly beautiful Death and the Maiden Quartet.

You’ll find my initial review here. I could have easily recommended the more recent version by the Quatuor Ebène as well, I just find the coupling more attractive of the Pavel Haas.

 

Schumann: Symphony No. 3 – Daussgard – Swedish Chamber Orchestra

 

Schubert: Symphony No. 3 and 4 - Thomas Dausgaard - Swedish Chamber Orchestra - BIS

And last but not least, Schumann.

Given that this is the last entry, you’ll notice the absence of Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky (although you’ll find I’ve reviewed quite a bit of Tchaikovsky on my blog), Ravel, Telemann, Sibelius (although his violin concerto was close to making the list), or Vivaldi.

And for Schumann, I didn’t chose his piano concerto, nor his solo piano music, but his symphony no. 3, the “Rhenish”. Moreover, I’m recommending an atypical version, by Thomas Dausgaard with the Swedish Chamber orchestra. Why? Well, it has often been written that Schumann didn’t know how to orchestrate properly, the balance was supposedly off.

Well, actually, if you listen to it played by a smaller chamber orchestra, like here, or on Nézet-Séguin’s recent recording with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, another excellent version, you get a totally different picture. Well, obviously the classic recordings of Klemperer, Szell or Sawallisch also have their charm. But for me, a smaller ensemble is what works best.

 

Again, I very much appreciate any feedback!

Thanks again for all of you who already commented on part I, I can assure you, your feedback is always very welcome. Agree, or even better, disagree, and tell me why!

All albums mentioned here are five stars on my personal rating scale.

 

 

You can find the albums here:

Bruckner / Wand: here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)

Chopin / Moravec:  here (Prestoclassical)

Chopin / Blechacz: here (Prestoclassical)

Mendelssohn / Janssen: here (Qobuz)

Mozart Cosi Séguin: here (Qobuz)

Mozart Figaro Jacobs: here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)

Mozart / Suzuki: here (eclassical)

Rachmaninov / Andsnes: here (Qobuz)

Schubert / Uchida: here (Prestoclassical)

Schubert / Pavel Haas: here (HDTracks)

Schubert  Winterreise: here (Qobuz) or here (Prestoclassical)

Schumann / Dausgaard: here (eclassical)

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)

Schubert on Fortepiano by Andras Schiff – not for beginners

In his comment on my initial Diabelli thread, Jud asked about the new Schubert recording of Schiff on ECM.

0002894811577_600Curiosity got the better of me, and I bought it blindly (instead of streaming it first as I would have done usually), Actually, I’m glad I did.

Andreas Schiff uses the same 1820’s Franz Brodmann fortepiano he also uses on the Diabelli’s second “disc”. This is not very surprising given that he actually owns this since 2010. (It is usually on loan to the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn).

When listening to Fortepiano, the differences are much larger than with modern grand pianos. Sure, a Bösendorfer has a different house sound to a Steinway, and a trained pianists will be able to tell one Steinway from the other (witness the fascinating movie Pianomania if you want to know more), but that said, for most of us mere mortals all sound pretty nice.

In the early 1800s we were far from this homogeneity. This is important to know before you purchase a fortepiano recording, as they really can sound quite differently, and you may not like all sounds.

There are some I cannot listen to for a long time (e.g. Malcolm Bilson’s recording of the Mozart piano concertos), while I love the sound of others (e.g. Roland Brautigam playing a Paul McNulty replica of an 1820 fortepiano in his amazing Beethoven piano music cycle).

Brodmann Hammerflügel

The sound of this particular Brodmann Hammerflügel I very much like on the Diabelli, due to their very intellectual nature. It takes much more getting used on the romantic beauty of Schubert (I know Schubert was borderline between classical and romantic period, but to me is is clearly in the latter), especially if your current reference is this:

uchida schubert

Mitsuko Uchida

The sheer beauty of Uchida on Schubert is just outstanding. Well, the sound of the Brodmann is anything but beautiful at first ear.

Funnily enough, Andras Schiff himself is on record (from the 1990s) dreading somebody playing Schubert on a fortepiano. He has obviously by now made up his mind and admitted he was wrong.

And to be fair, he was. There is so much to discover here, not only you because you hear the music “as Schubert would have played it” (and unlike Beethoven, at least he wasn’t deaf), but the colors, the nuances, everything is different. This is NOT a recording to lay back and enjoy, this is a journey into the music.

Real highlights to me are the Moments Musicaux (revealing their true Viennese charm) and the amazing sonata D960.

If you don’t have any Schubert piano works yet, don’t buy this as a first album. Go for Uchida, Brendel, Lewis, etc (or the recently released outstandin album by David Fray).

And please do, as Schubert (to my ears) wasn’t great in the symphonic genre, but has done marvelous work both on the piano and in the chamber music fields (more on this later).

But if you know what you’re getting, check this out, you won’t disappointed. And obviously as usual ECM is very well recorded.

Overall rating: 4 stars