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 / Jansen: 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)

My Reflections on the 2015 Gramophone Award Nominees – Part III – Chamber

Following my two previous posts on the categories of Instrumental and Concerto, let me comment this time about the Chamber music category.

I have had the occasion to listen to four of the 6 nominated albums.

To quickly just list them, the ones I didn’t hear are:

Winds & Piano – Les Vents Français, Eric Le Sage

and

Langgard: String Quartets vol. 2 – Nightingale Quartet.

The ones I have heard are:

Hindemith: Sonatas –  Alexander Melnikov, Teunis van der Zwart, Alexander Rudin , Gerard Costes, Isabelle Faust

Hindemith Sonatas Melnikov Faust Harmonia Mundi 2015

Brahms: Clarinet Quintet & Trio – Martin Fröst, Janine Jansen, Boris Brovtsyn, Maxim Rysanov, Torleif Thedéen, Roland Pöntinen

Brahms: Piano Quintet - Martin Fröst - Janine Jansen - Boris Brovtsyn - Maxim Rysanov, Torleif Thedeen, Roland Pötinen

Haydn: String Quartets op. 20 – Doric String Quartet

Haydn String Quartets op. 20 - Doric String Quartet - Chandos

Smetana: String Quartets 1&2 – Pavel Haas Quartet

Smetana String Quartets Pavel Haas Quartet Supraphon 2015

Let’s start with the Haydn, as I’ve played this album only twice so far, it’s still a little bit too early to judge it properly. The issue is that on Haydn there’s obviously a lot of competition, but the Doric’s do a fine job. I guess in chamber music there’s always a trade-off between precision (which is outstanding here), and just pure joyfulness in playing, which I sometimes would like to have a little bit more here at first listen, especially with “Papa” Haydn (although the string quartets are certainly the works where general Haydn-skeptics like me have the least to complain). All right, let me shut up my rambling here and spend some more time listening. No rating here yet.

Next Brahms: I don’t know why, but the clarinet works have always been among my least favorite Brahms chamber compositions. However, two recent albums are making me change my mind right now, a) the excellent clarinet sonatas by Lorenzo Coppola and Andreas Staier, and b) this very nice album.

When it gets to the clarinet, Martin Fröst is one of the few superstars, and rightly so. He has released several outstanding recordings in recent years, e.g his Mozart concerto from 2013 with the Kammerphilharmonie Bremen which to my ears is even better than his previous recording with the Amsterdam Sinfonietta.

Not surprisingly, this Brahms album is very good as well. To be fair, he’s playing with some outstanding musicians here. Thorleif Thedeen and Roland Pöntinen have already recorded a very nice version of the Brahms Cello Sonatas, Janine Jansen is always a pleasure to listen to, and Maxim Rysanov is a safe bet on the Viola.

On top of the quintet and the trio, you get something that is really rather special, which is a an arrangement of some Brahms songs for Clarinet by Fröst himself. If you ever doubted that the clarinet can sing, here’s your proof.

Overall rating: 4 stars (playing is 5 stars, but I still need to fully overcome my issues with Brahms and the clarinet, so take this rating with a grain of salt)

Smetana: I assume the average classical listener knows exactly one work from this Czech composer, the ultra-famous Moldau. If they are a bit educated, they even know that the Moldau is just one part of the cycle Ma Vlast or “my homeland”. If you’re really into classical music, you may be aware of his opera “The Bartered Bride”. Beyond that, I’m pretty sure many would struggle to come up with other works from this composer.

So here’s a chance to change that. You get two of his chamber music works by one of the best string quartets that are currently out there. I’ve already praised them for their magnificent recording of the Schubert Quintet (see here), and they don’t disappoint here either. Their playing is outstanding, full of energy, but also very delicate and soft elements when needed.

My rating: 4 stars (not for the playing, which is certainly 5 stars) but at least to my ears, Smetana’s works are interesting, but there are chamber works I’d listen to first. Like for example the next one:

Hindemith: I’ve made it clear before that 20th century music, especially when we get to the borders of or beyond tonality, is really not my cup of tea. Well, exceptions confirm the rule. And this one is clearly one of those exceptions. This is a collection of sonatas with different musicians, and Alexander Melnikov on piano. Ever heard a Sonata for Trombone? Well here’s your chance. My beloved Isabelle Faust (see my admiring review of her Brahms concerto here), also get’s to play a sonata. Any album with Faust and Melnikov is usually a safe bet (take their outstanding Beethoven violin sonatas, the very nice Beethoven trio recording, their current cycle of Schumann works, etc. etc.)

And guess what, this album is truly outstanding throughout, and therefore my candidate for the Gramophone Award in the chamber category!

My rating: 5 stars. 

So, what are your favorites?

Schubert’s amazing chamber music (1) – The String Quintet played by the Pavel Haas Quartet

Franz Schubert

I’ve previously written about Schubert’s piano music, which I love. As a side note, I’m not a big fan of his symphonies, even his “great” 8th (or 9th depending on the counting system) doesn’t particularly motivate me to listen to it. I occasionally play the Unfinished, but being unfinished it’s over rather quickly. Anything else in his symphony repertoire is really just a bit too juvenile for me (if only he’d lived as long as Beethoven or Brahms…).

In my personal opinion, his late string quartets and especially the string quintet are the greatest pieces of chamber music ever written. Full stop. I know others will prefer Beethoven, but the emotional density and beautiful “singing” (let’s not forget Schubert was also a major composer of “Lieder”) in the music you’ll only find with Schubert.

The String Quintet

This absolute masterpiece beats by far every symphony Schubert has ever written. With over 50 minutes of playing time, it is also longer than pretty much everything he’s written. If length translates into too many repetitions, like with the C-major symphony, it can be boring. None of this you’ll find here. Actually, you’d (or at least I’d) love this work to go on forever, it is that beautiful.

Pavel Haas Quartet

Gramophone has a certain tendency of “hyping” some artist, they can’t do anything wrong, and every album of them gets an Editors-Choice or more. Sometimes, I quite disagree with this assessment. In the case of the Pavel Haas quartet, I fully agree, I’ve yet to hear a bad album from this young Czech quartet named after a Czech composer killed in Auschwitz.

Pavel Haas Quartet String Quintet Schubert Death and the Maiden
Pavel Haas Quartet String Quintet Schubert Death and the Maiden

This particular recording, which also includes an outstanding recording of the Death and the Maiden quartet no. 14, has been Gramophone Awards winner in the chamber music category in 2014, and very rightfully so. They are joined for the Quintet by the 2nd cello, played by the German-Japanese Danjulo Ishizaka.

What set’s this recording apart is the pure energy level that goes into the playing. This is not music to be enjoyed leaning back sipping a glass of bourbon on the rocks in your favorite rocking chair, this is music made for listening to with constant attention, barely keeping you on your couch any more.

There are many other good to outstanding versions out there, including the Takacs Quartet, the Tokyo Quartet, the Hagen Quartet with Heinrich Schiff, but this one really beats them all. The Czech label Supraphone has done quite a decent job on the recording quality.

My rating: 5 stars (with no hesitations)

You can get it here if you prefer downloads, and here if you prefer a physical disc (or 2 of them to be precise)

UPDATE April 27, 2016: see also my review of the String Quintet by the Quatuor Ebène and Gautier Capuçon here