Brahms 2nd with Paavo Järvi and the Kammerphilharmonie Bremen – Outstanding!

Brahms

Did I mention I like Brahms? Well to be fair, the subtitle of my blog kind of gives it away.

These are good times for lovers of Brahms symphonies. Only recently Andris Nelsons has released his fantastic cycle of the 4 symphonies with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (see my 5 star review here), now finally Paavo Järvi starts his Brahms cycle with the Kammerphilharmonie Bremen as well.

Paavo Järvi

I really liked his Beethoven cycle with the same orchestra, actually it is among my current references. His Schumann is also great. So obviously I had high hopes for his Brahms.

And I’m not disappointed.

Brahms Symphony No. 2 – Paavo Järvi – Kammerphilharmonie Bremen (RCA 2017)

Brahms Symphony No. 2 Tragic Overture Academic Festival Overture Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen RCA 2017 SACD

The 2nd symphony is not my favorite of the four. 1 and 4 are outstanding, 3 is great, and 2 is just nice in my personal classification. Many have described the 2nd as Brahms “Pastorale“. Obviously, there is more to it, but a certain influence in the peaceful moments cannot be completely discarded. That said, , as the booklet also nicely explains, Brahms himself called the work “melancholic” and “sad” and even had the score printed with a black border.

How does Järvi deal with the symphony? The Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, as the name indicates, is a chamber orchestra, so you’d expect a slimmer sound than e.g. with the Berlin Philharmonic.

But don’t expect this to sound like a HIP baroque orchestra, you still get the full color of  a symphony orchestra, maybe just not as cinemascope as e.g. the latest Rattle cycle or Nelsons with the BSO. There have been some interesting adaptations, e.g the drums are having goat skin giving them a very particular sound.

Overall, it is very balanced, and nuanced. You get plenty of romanticism though, after all this is Brahms we are talking about. I particularly like the end of the 2nd movement, where

As a “filler”, you get the Tragic Overture and Academic Festival Overture. Both are nice to have, but nothing I´d listen to on a regular basis. There is too much outstanding music elsewhere.

Overall this is one of the best Brahms 2 currently on the market.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz) or on many other streaming sites.

If you prefer the original SACD, it is unfortunately very pricey (only found it for $40-60, what’s going on here?)

 

Gramophone’s Artist of the Year, Paavo Järvi, and his Beethoven Symphony no. 4

Paavo Järvi

Maestro Paavo Järvi just got voted Artist of the Year as part of the yearly Gramophone Awards.

As much as I wasn’t totally in agreement with some of Gramophone’s other choices (see my comment here), I fully agree with this readers choice, in fact, I also voted for him.

The son of Neeme (see my review of his Tchaikovsky here) and brother of Kristjan, certainly comes from a very musical family. He’s been recording with a number of orchestras, in Frankfurt, Bremen, Paris and elsewhere, and is producing an enormous amount of recordings. In spite of this quantity, his quality has been consistently very high.

Beethoven’s symphonies

I just noticed I hadn’t written a single post on Beethoven’s symphonies yet. In a way, they are the summit of classical music, that all other composers after him looked up to, and have been recorded and played thousands of times.

So if you still bother to record them in the 21st century, you better have a good reason. And interestingly enough, it is often smaller or lesser known orchestras that really offer a fresh view on things, e.g. Osmo Vänskä’s cycle with the Minnesota Orchestra, or the young Kammerphilharmonie Bremen with Paavo Järvi here. Berlin, Vienna, and NY, you better be on your toes (and Berlin certainly did  a smart and creative choice with Petrenko).

Deutsche Welle has published an excellent documentary on Paavo’s work with the Kammerphilharmonie, which can be found on Youtube (see part 1 at the end of this post).

Symphony no. 4 and 7

Beethoven symphonies 4 & 7 - Paavo Järvi - Deutsche Kammerphilhamonie Bremen

Why of all the albums did I pick symphonies no. 4 and 7?

Not not for my beloved symphony no. 7 (my preferred Beethoven symphony). But unfortunately, for this symphony, the definite recording has already been done some time ago, and while Järvi does an excellent job here, he cannot beat the legendary Kleiber version.

Beethoven Symphonies no. 5 and 7 Carlos Kleiber Wiener Philharmoniker Deutsche Grammophon

However, where I really think Järvi does a small miracle is symphony no. 4.

This symphony overall reminds me way to much of Haydn, and sorry to all Haydn fans, but his symphonies just don’t grab my attention enough (disclaimer: his string quartets and cello concertos are a different story. And I’m watching closely the Haydn 2032 project of Giovanni Antonini, that may eventually change my mind about the symphonies).

Big blocks of b-flat major orchestral tuttis all over the place, it is in a very unfortunate place between the monsters of the Eroica and the 5th, kind of the ugly step-child of Beethoven symphonies (the only one I like even less is the 8th).

Now what does Järvi do with this? Two words come to mind: Energy and transparency. This is not a recording that sounds like “Papa Haydn”. This is a recording that will have you sit on the edge of your seat all of the time, eagerly waiting what comes next. There is no moment to breathe, no moment to relax, it is tension, but a very positive one, all the time. This is exactly how this should be played!

Obviously, you can safely check out all other symphonies of the Beethoven cycle as well, you’ll never be disappointed by Järvi and the Kammerphilharmonie.

My rating: 5 stars

As promised above, part 1 of the documentary about Järvi’s Beethoven, you’ll find the three other parts on Youtube as well.

My Favorite Bruckner – Günter Wand’s Late Recordings With The Berlin Philharmonic

Anton Bruckner

Pretty much at the same time, around the end of high school, my two favorite composers were Brahms and Bruckner. As you can see, one survived and made it to the subtitle of my blog.

The other one, good old Anton, I listen too much less regularly these days. I still love mainly symphonies no. 4 and 7, but overall the broad romanticism and huge mountains of symphony blocks appeal less to me than they did at back then. Probably for similar reasons, I really still don’t appreciate Wagner that much, with some rare exceptions.

In parallel my taste moved backwards in time from the late romantic area to really appreciating Mozart and Bach. When I was really young I thought of Mozart as “too light”, and Bach as “could be composed by a computer, like painting by numbers”, Ah, the stupid arrogance of teenagers.

Anyhow, back to Bruckner. I still like him, even if I listen to his works only occasionally.

But if I do, it is usually with this box:

Anton Bruckner: Symphonies – Günter Wand – Berliner Philharmoniker

Günter Wand Anton Bruckner Symphonies Berliner Philharmoniker RCA Red Seal

Günter Wand is one of those amazingly underrated conductors, and usually only well known by die-hard Bruckner fans. There is something special about Wand and Bruckner. To be fair, Wand has recorded the symphonies at least 3 times, from a very good cycle in Cologne in the seventies, to several recordings with the NDR Symphony Orchestra in Hamburg he lead for many years, to this one, where he got to lead the BPO for a selection of the symphonies.

I grew up on Wand’ reading with the NDR. I even had the pleasure of hearing him live twice, with Bruckner 4 and 8. So obviously I’m biased, and you should certainly also check out other Bruckner specialists like Eugen Jochum or good old Karajan (yes, you Karajan haters out there, his Bruckner is great. Mind you, I used to be a Karajan hater as well….).

I only got introduced to this set 3-4 years ago from a good friend of mine from high school, who attended some of the Wand concert with me. A I had kind of moved on from Bruckner, I simply stuck to my old CDs whenever I wanted to go back and hadn’t really looked in to new recordings for nearly 20 years.

So what do I like about this? Well, it’ best of two worlds, you get Günter Wand who knows Bruckner inside out, and really has a lot of insights to offer, and you get a world-class orchestra like the Berlin Philharmonic. The sound of the BPO is just perfect for Bruckner. As much as I like the NDR, they are obviously in a different league.

Wand approaches the symphonies in a very clean way: there is no romantic overload, no sweet sugary drama, just illustrating the actually rather introvert struggle of an underrated, very catholic Austrian organ player with an inferiority complex that Anton Bruckner apparently was for most of his life.

(Bruckner experts, if I painted a wrong portrait taken mainly from reading too many booklets, please correct me!).

My rating: 5 stars (I notice I’m giving too many five stars recently. But I still think this is purely due to selection bias of me wanting to write about music I really like and not some kind of star inflation).

You can get it here (Qobuz).

P.S. David Hurvitz disagrees with me and thinks Wand’s Hamburg recordings are superior to the BPO ones. You may want to check them out too if you find them, e.g. in this really cheap box set. You never know, I may eventually return to my “roots” as well.

 

UPDATE Jan 29, 2016: In the Feb 2016 issue of Classica magazine, the reviewers compared blindly ten selected versions of Bruckner’s 9th. Günter Wand’s BPO version comes out on top! Here’s the comment: “The best possible version for discovering this work. Pure music, marked by the seal of infinity and eternity” (French sometimes have a certain way of getting very poetic with their language).