A fantastic live album by Yuja Wang

Yuja Wang

If you read this blog regularly, you could think that I may be a bit biased towards Asian pianists. I’m really not a big fan of Lang Lang, and also can’t understand all the praise that Seong-Jin Cho is getting (see here and here). I really hope I don’t have any intrinsic biases and judge purely on the music though.

I had a more ambivalent opinion of Yuja Wang until recently. There was stuff I really appreciated (her Ravel concerto for example), but there are other albums like the Brahms sonatas with Kavakos (that got a lot of praise) that are not 100% my cup of tea.

But this latest live release (it actually already came out end of last year, I’m a bit behind here), is a truly exceptional album

Yuja Wang – The Berlin Recital (DG 2018)

Yuja Wang The Berlin Recital Rachmaninov Scriabin Ligeti Prokofiev 24 96 Deutsche Grammophon 2018

The album starts off with an engaging performance of the famous Rachmaninov Prelude op. 23 no. 5. You already are getting a level of energy, excitement, but also precision, that is drawing you in from the very beginning.

She follows with several other pieces of Rachmaninov, keeping up the level of engagement. A first highlight however is in the much more subtle Scriabin sonata. Here Wang demonstrates that she is not just the virtuoso, but can also be very nuanced. Scriabin isn’t easy to pull off. I had one of my most memorable performances of a live concert by Rudolf Serkin back in the early 90s, and this is one of the first time that Scriabin really moves me.

I’m still mostly struggling with most of 20th century music, but the Ligeti etudes are quite accessible even to me.

But a real highlight of this album is the closing, Prokofiev’s sonata no. 8. Again, not a showpiece, much more introvert, written during the horrible year of 1943 in the middle of World War II. Again, Wang shows how complete she is as an artist in this performace.

Overall, the album is very well recorded, giving you a premium seat in the Berlin Philharmonie.

I’m not the only one liking this album by the way, it’s got top reviews from pretty much every one in the business (Gramophone Editor’s Choice, Choc de Classica, 5 stars by Diapason and FonoForum).

Highly recommended.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

It’s Gramophone Award Time Again – My Reflections Part I: Concerto

Feeling terribly guilty

Dear readers, I’m really sorry.

I just checked, and my last entry dates back more than a month ago. Shame on me. Lots of reasons, too much travel, too busy, too whatever. Who cares, let’s get back to it, shall we?

Gramophone Awards

Although I’ve recently had quite a number of disagreements with reviews by this venerable magazine, it probably remains the most important source for the entire classical music industry, and winning a Gramophone Award is rather prestigious.

I’ve already started reflecting about them last year, which generated some really interesting discussions here and elsewhere (plus lead me to discover David Watkin’s outstanding Cello Suites), so let’s have a look at who has been nominated this year.

If you want to do the same, best is to get our your tablet, get the Gramophone App, and get the Gramophone Awards issue for free.

As last year, I have no ambition to be exhaustive, I’m just giving my 2 cents on a number of albums that I’ve heard as well.

Concerto

Concerto is usually my favorite category, and the one where I’ve heard the largest number of the recordings.

We have 8 albums nominated this year, 5 of which I’ve heard and can comment on.

Brahms Violin Concerto x 2

We start with two versions of Brahms violin concerto, one coupled with Bartok, the other one with Brahms’ own String Quintet No. 2.

The first one is the new Janine Jansen recording, which I’ve reviewed here. I still fully stand by the 5 stars I’ve given there, and this is an album absolutely worth having in spite of heavy competition.

 

Janine Jansen Brahms Bartok Violin Concertos Antonio Pappano London Symphony Orchestra Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia Decca 2015

The second Brahms recording is with the less known German violinist Antje Weithaas, with the Camerata Bern.

Brahms Violin Concerto String Quartet No. 2 Antje Weithaas Camerata Bern

I must admit I didn’t expect a lot, as I was pretty disappointed by the recording of Bach’s keyboard concertos with the Camerata Bern (2010  on Universal).

Well, I was positively surprised, up to a point. To be clear: Weithaas really plays exceptionally well.

However, the Camerata Bern is unfortunately no match for Pappano’s Santa Cecilia. They are really the limiting factor on this recording, which becomes especially apparent in the highly energetic third movement.

The string quintet is ok, but a bit heavy. Overall, I’d probably give this 3 stars.

Beethoven’s piano concertos x 2

The next two albums aren’t albums, but DVDs. I don’t have a DVD/Blueray player, and so have no way of reviewing these.

DVD no. 1 is Maria Joao Pires with Frans Brüggen playing Beethoven’s concerto no. 3.

Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3 Frans Brüggen Orchestra of the 18th Century Maria Joao Pires DVD

There is a snippet on Youtube, and I wasn’t particularly impressed, but one shouldn’t judge from 39 seconds.

Interestingly enough, Pires won already last year with the same concerto but Daniel Harding conducting. Again, didn’t really impress me back then either. But if you’re into DVD’s, you may want to check it out. Just to clarify, I’m a big fan of Pires for a lot of solo recordings (e.g. Chopin, Mozart), but her recent orchestral recordings just aren’t my cup of tea (see also my review of her Schumann recording with Gardiner here).

The other DVD, also from Warsaw, again with Frans Brüggen, has one of my absolute piano godesses on the piano, the mighty Martha Argerich.

Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 1 Frans Brüggen Orchestra of the 18th Century Martha Argerich DVD

Here’s the 40 second Youtube snippet:

This is already more to my taste. But again, you simply cannot judge a recording on 40 seconds.

Britten & Korngold by Vilde Frang

Britten/Korngold Violin Concertos James Gaffigan Frankfurt Radio Symphony James Gaffigan

I’m a big Vilde Frang fan, her Sibelius is one of my all time favorites, see here.

Unfortunately, the music on this album really isn’t getting me excited, so I’m not qualified enough to comment about the interpretation.

I must admit I wouldn’t even know Korngold if it weren’t for some old Heifetz albums, and even here, his music that would at moments be rather fitting for the next Star Wars soundtrack doesn’t inspire me very much. OK to listen to once or twice, but nothing I’d consider purchasing.

I can comment even less on the Britten. There is unfortunately only one English composer I really love, Henry Purcell, everything after just isn’t for me.

Rachmaninov by Trifonov

Rachmaninov Variations Trifonov Nézét-Séguin Philhadelphia Orchestra Deutsche Grammophon 2016

Now we’re getting back into my home turf (not physically, obviously, I’m not Russian), but musically speaking.

This is an album I should have reviewed a long time ago, as it is a true 5 star recording.

We start with Nézét-Séguin, who here again is in top form, and with the Paganini Variations. Already an exceptional start.

However, this album shouldn’t actually be in the “Orchestral” section, as the entire rest of the 1:18 are all solo piano.

We’re talking about the Variations On A Theme Of Chopin, Op.22, the Variations On A Theme Of Corelli, Op.42, and some Rachmaniana pieces by Trifonov himself.

The Corelli’s are already great, but my absolute favorite here are the quite rarely played Chopin variations. Amazing, you really get the best of both worlds here, the melodical genius of Chopin together with the romantic virtuoso of Rachmaninov. Absolutely worth having.

My rating: 5 stars

So, my take home messages (or albums) are clearly Jansen and Trifonov. Both are absolutely worth having.

And my prediction for the Gramophone Award winner? The Trifonov.

What do you think? Let me hear!

 

Update August 18,2016: Gramophone has released the three finalists for the category: Pires’ Beethoven, Frang’s Britten, and Trifonov’s Rachmaninov. So my prediction above (written previously) could still come true.

 

You can find the albums here:

Brahms/Jansen

Brahms/Weithaas

Beethoven/Pires

Beethoven/Argerich

Korngold & Britten/Frang

Rachmaninov/Trifonov