Gramophone’s Editor’s Choices Sometimes Leave Me Puzzled

I just wrote about the Quatuor Ebène’s brilliant new Schubert recording, which received an Editor’s Choice in Gramophone. This legendary magazine is obviously among the ultimate references in reviewing classical music.

Therefore, I checked out another Editor’s Choice from Gramophone’s May Edition:

Tchaikovsky & Grieg: Piano Concertos – Denis Kozhukin – Vassily Sinalsky – Rundfunksinfonieorchester Berlin (Pentatone 2016)

Tchaikovsky & Grieg: Piano Concertos - Denis Kozhukin - Vassily Sinaisky - Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin Pentatone 2016 DSD

Then I started listening. And couldn’t believe my ears. The Tchaikovsky is about as far as my idea of an ideal recording as it could be.

To be fair, I’m not a big fan of Tchaikovsky in the first place (see also here), and I have played his 1st piano concerto too much in my youth, unfortunately on another recording which today I really don’t like, Evgeny Kissin’s famous (or notorious) recording with Herbert von Karajan and the BPO.

To give you an idea how for my ears this concerto should be played, check out this legendary 1943 concerto played by Vladimir Horowitz and Arturo Toscanini:

This version really couldn’t be any more different to this new Pentatone release

So what does Patrick Rucker praise in his review? He mainly compliments Kozhukin’s naturalness. And I get that. The slow movement of the Grieg for example is beautifully played (I still prefer Andnes by quite a bit though). However, he then goes on and writes “you’re left with one thing: the music”. Well I really don’t get it, to me this music without the full power of the emotion of these romantic masterpieces is missing so much, TOO much for me.

My rating: Three stars (I don’t want to give Kozhukhin less than this, as I can clearly hear from this album that he has potential, although if I follow my own rating system systematically, it should have been 2 stars, as I’ll definitely won’t be listening to this album again).

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

P.S. I already had this recording typed out and ready for publishing when I read the review in the just released May issue of Classica Magazine, my other reading of choice.

And guess what: Two stars! (out of 5), to quote Clément Serrano about the Tchaikovsky “sans prise de risque”, without risk-taking, and similar, although slightly friendlier words about the Grieg. He reminds his readers again about the recent Perianes – Oramo recording of the Grieg, and I couldn’t agree more.

So in a nutshell, never trust a single review of a classical music album, even if it comes from a very reputable source, but always make up your own mind before buying. Luckily, in the days of streaming services, this is easier than ever.

Two Recent Releases I Really Don’t Like

What “Not Good” Looks Like

I’ve been writing a lot about albums I really like, just witness the number of 4 and 5 star reviews (you can click on the link on the side bar, categories to find them) I’ve recently written (for more information about my personal rating scale, see here)

However, for this site to be useful to anybody, I strongly believe I also need to write about stuff I don’t like that much, so you can check if your taste really agrees with mine.

Too many reviewers seem to have their rating scale only between 4 and 5. How do you really separate the good from the bad this way? Obviously, a  big part of this is just selection bias.

I assume, professional reviewers are not too much unlike me and much more prefer to write about stuff they like vs. stuff they don’t  like. Same has happened on my site so far, with few exceptions.

My two main sources of classical reviews, Gramophone (UK) and Classica (FR) don’t shy away from low ratings, that’s what I like about them. Gramophone doesn’t use a rating scale beyond the Editor’s Choice, but you can clearly read from the text whether they are enthusiastic or not.

And Classica really doesn’t shy away from using 1 stars, given the two examples below. And unfortunately, I wholeheartedly agree with their assessment.

Dudamel, Barenboim and Brahms

Classical uses a 4 star plus “Choc” scale, which equals about my 5 star system. However, in their most recent October issue, I’ve seen a new rating of a hollow star which I had never noticed before, for this recent DG release of Barenboim for once back at the piano, with the young superstar Dudamel. Unfortunately, I must agree with Classica here. I really cannot find any positive element to these recordings of the two concertos that I love so much (how weird I haven’t mentioned them yet on the blog).

Honestly, 1 min into the opening of the first piano concerto I had enough; there was nothing at all of the drama and desperation that so much impressed me when I heard this first at the age of 17. I know Dudamel has many fans, but I have yet to hear a recording of him that I really like (admittedly, I’ve only heard a few). And when Barenboim comes in, it doesn’t get any better. I’m really thankful for streaming these days that let’s you listen to recordings without having to buy them, I’d really have major regrets for this one.

Brahms Piano Concertos Dudamel Barenboim 2015

My rating: 2 stars (1 star for me really means un-listenable, and Brahms will always be Brahms, even if butchered like here).

For the Brahms concertos, you have many good alternatives, from pretty much every recording that Georges Szell ever made of them (be it Fleischer, Curzon, or Serkin), to Chailly with Freire for a more contemporary one.

Arabella Steinbacher Plays Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky

Arabella Steinbacher Mendelssohn Tchaikovsky Violin Concertos Orchestre de la Suisse Romande Charles Duitoit Pentatone

Here’s another disappointment: Arabella Steinbacher is a truly great violin player. However, from the opening moments of the Mendelssohn I knew something was very wrong. A very sweet tone with a lot of vibrato, but very little energy behind it.

And in comes the orchestra (let me open a little parenthesis here for fun: Mendelssohn is one of the very few orchestras that starts with the soloist, not with the orchestra, there’s an urban legend that a violinist player was relaxed at the beginning of the concert, assuming he’ll have to play Beethoven. The conductor gives him signal after signal, but the violinist doesn’t get it. Finally, the conductor desperately starts, the violinist after the first second realizes his mistake and raises up the violin literally last-minute. Parenthesis closed. If somebody has a source that this has really happened, please let me know) and it really doesn’t get any better.

The Tchaikovsky is equally uninteresting unfortunately.

Classica agrees with me, giving this recording a rather brutal 1 star and talking about a “lack of engagement” which nicely summarizes my feelings as well.

My rating: 2 stars (again, 1 star would be too brutal, I can listen to this, I just don’t want to).

Excellent alternatives are Janine Jansen on Decca for the Mendelssohn , and Julia Fischer for the Tchaikovsky (like the Steinbacher, on Pentatone).