My Reflections on the 2016 Gramophone Awards (Part IV): Chamber

This is the 4th part of a series of posts about the nominated albums for the 2016 Gramophone Awards. You’ll find the rest of the series here.

Chamber Music

I’ve written quite a bit about chamber music on my blog already, it is one of the most beautiful and intimate forms of classical music.

Beethoven: Complete Works for Cello and Piano – Xavier Phillips – François-Frédéric Guy (Evidence 2015)

I’ve only recently “discovered” François-Frédéric Guy for me, in his album of the Brahms piano sonatas, reviewed here. As you can see from that review, I was really impressed with wh

Beethoven: Complete Works for Cello & Piano - Xavier Phillips - François-Frédéric Guy Evidence 2015

Xavier Phillips was another new name to me (which also tells me I’m not reading Gramophone with enough attention, given that all of these award-nominated albums obviously were previously praised by Gramophone).

The catalogue of complete Beethoven cello recordings has seen two recent excellent addition in recent years, with the excellent Steven Isserlis and Robert Levin on fortepiano (Gramophone Award finalist in 2014) on Hyperion, and even more recently Jean-Guihen Queyras and Alexander Melnikov.

So do we need yet another new recording? Well, while this new album doesn’t replace Isserlis and Queyras, it is certainly a strong contender.

As said before, I really liked Guy on Brahms, and his transparent, clear style works very well here. Phillips has a beautiful tone, and this recording, while very singing, has also a certain etheral style to it. Very much worth checking out.

My rating: 4 stars

Berg: Lyric Suite – Renée Fleming and Emerson Quartet

Berg/Schönberg/Webern: Belcea Quartet

Berg: Lyric Suite - Emerson String Quartet Decca 2015

Berg Webern Schönberg: Chamber Music Belcea Quartet

Berg twice, plus some more Zweite Wiener Schule.

As much as I love the Klimt on the cover, I’ve tried over and over again to get used to this kind of music, but haven’t managed. It’s just not my cup of tea. I can listen to Berg’s Violin concerto occasionally, but beyond that, the only thing I want is find my Ipad remote and turn back to Beethoven or Brahms as soon as I can.

Given my complete lack of competence and understanding here, I’ll just shut up and let you make up your own mind (you’ll find the Qobuz links below).

Brahms: String Quartets 1 & 3 – Artemins Quartet

Now we’re getting back to a composer I absolutely love (see also the subtitle of my blog).

That’s the good news.

Brahms: String Quartets No. 1 & 3 - Artemis Quartet Erato 2016

Now to the bad news: I personally think that Brahms’ String Quartets are among his weakest contributions to the genre of chamber music. I love everything he did with piano (naturally, he was a very good pianist), I like his string sextets and quintets already a bit less, and I never got to like the string quartets.

Honestly, when I want a string quartet, I’ll just pick between Schubert, Beethoven, Haydn, and occasionally Mozart. More than enough brilliant choice here.

But you don’t care about that, you care about what I think about their playing? Well, here’s the problem: If I don’t really like the music, my judgment is clouded at best. Sure, they do a fine job, but the entire thing just doesn’t touch me enough. So this will be another one where I refrain from any rating. Just so much: If you unlike me like the Brahms quartets, it’s worth checking out (which you probably would have guessed without me as well).

Bruckner: String Quartet, String Quintet – Fitzwilliam Quartet

You may, like me, rub your eyes and ask yourself if you just ended up in the wrong section. No this is not “orchestral”, we are in chamber music.

I must admit somewhere in the back of my head I had heard Bruckner did some Chamber music, but seriously had never heard it before. I could double check this fact, as my pretty large digital library doesn’t contain a single recording of these works.

Well at least I’m not alone, even the 30M+ library of Qobuz only features a very small handful of recordings of this work.

Bruckner: String Quintet - String Quartet - Fitzwilliam String Quartet - Linn Records 2016

Now the problem: The Fitzwilliam has recorded on Linn Records. While this usually means you get excellent recording quality, it also means no streaming.

Now, from the couple of other albums available for streaming of these works I must admit I haven’t made up my mind if I care enough about them to buy this new album (currently I rather don’t think so). Don’t get me wrong, I love Bruckner (see here), but I’m not sure his chamber music is for me.

So another album without any rating from my side. Sorry.

Schubert: String Quintet – Quatuor Ebène

Schubert String Quintet - Lieder - Quatuor Ebène - Gautier Capuçon - Matthias Goerne ERATO 2016

NOW we’re talking. Already reviewed here, and I can only reiterate my strong 5 star rating here. Just go, get it!

Tippett: String Quartets – Heath Quartet

Who? Could you repeat that name?

Well I shouldn’t brag, rather shut up, this just shows again how ignorant I am in 20th century music.

But as I’ve previously said about Britten, I love English composers. Especially when they are called Purcell. Or actually, only if they are called Purcell. For all the rest, really not my cup of coffee (or more appropriately, tea).

 

So, who should win?

Well, if you’ve read so far, you’ll have noticed that I’m rather biased this time (ok, all the time), and actually would give the Award without hesitation to the Quatuor Ebène.

Well, but I’m not Gramophone, and knowing the three finalists the jury there has chosen (they were released some days ago), I know they won’t make it. The Beethoven, my other favorite, is out as well.

Basically, the Emerson Berg, the Artemis Brahms, and the Heath Tippett are in the final selection.

Well, over and out for me at this stage. Let Gramophone’s jury do their job.

 

You can find the albums here:

Beethoven Cello Philips

Berg/Emerson

Belcea

Brahms Artemis

Bruckner

Schubert

Tippett

 

 

 

Quatuor Ebène & Gautier Capuçon play Schubert’s String Quintet – Can’t get enough of it

On my absence

2016 has been a very bad year for me posting-wise so far. Last year I was usually able to stick to my self-imposed posting schedule, of about 2 per week.

Since the beginning of the year this frequency has plummeted. Sorry for that. There is a couple of reasons involved, too much business travel, late nights at the office, some long week-ends / short vacation, and most recently, a nasty gastro-intestinal flu that isn’t fully over yet. Plus there’s been a bit of a writing block on the occasional days that I could have written.

Well anyhow, I really hope you should be able to read my posts more often in the future, fingers crossed.

Thanks in any case for your loyalty, my dear readers. Very much appreciated.

Schubert’s String Quintet

Yes, I’ve written about it before. Schubert’s string quartet, to me personally the highest peak that chamber music ever reached (sorry LvB fans).

I’ve already recommended the Pavel Haas Quartet’s version here, the Takacs also have done a beautiful version.

So there is obviously no need to talk about it again.

Quatuor Ebène

Well, actually there is. The reason is called Quatuor Ebène. This French quartet is noteworthy not only for being one of the leading classical string quartets of our time, but also do crossover, i.e. interpret Jazz and contemporary musical classically.

I must admit the term crossover usually makes me run away as fast as I can, as it is usually just horrible André Rieu / David Garrett / Vanessa Mae etc. trash (sorry, but I really can’t help it, that’s about the only word that expresses what I feel about this stuff).

But obviously to every rule there is an exception. Ebène is one of the few classical artists to really pull this off well!

Back to Schubert.

Schubert: Quintet & Lieder – Quatuor Ebène – Gautier Capuçon – Matthias Gerne (ERATO/WARNER 2016)

Schubert String Quintet - Lieder - Quatuor Ebène - Gautier Capuçon - Matthias Goerne  ERATO 2016

I would have checked out this album even without a “Choc” from Classica and an Editor’s Choice recommendation by Gramophone. But obviously, having the highest possible endorsement from both of my favorite classical magazines helped.

Let’s write about the Quatuor first. They are joined by Gautier Capuçon on 2nd cello. Gautier is the younger brother of the well-known violinist Renaud.

So what makes this recording so special? Two words spring to mind, rough and fresh. Rough isn’t meant that this is not high quality playing, far from that. But there is a real direct quality in the playing, that let’s you notice all the little angles and details than more polished recordings.

I’ve mentioned the energy that sets apart the Pavel Haas Quartet’s reading. You’ll find some of this here, but overall this is even more “chamberesque” (is this a word?) and intimate in this reading with Ebène.

This recording never just let’s you enjoy it, this album forces you to live the music.

The String quintet is already nearly 1h long, so many other artist would have just stopped there. Here however, you get an interesting bonus. Schubert is obviously famous for his Lieder (songs), and many of his chamber works are inspired by his songs (e.g. Death and the Maiden, see also here).

Usually, these songs have a piano arrangement. I must admit, I’ve never heard them with a string quartet supporting the singer. Well, here we go. And obviously, you don’t just get any kind of singer, you get Matthias Goerne, a Schubert legend. It is surprising how well this works. This is really way more than just a filler.

My rating: 5 stars – absolutely worth checking out, even if you already own the Haas or another reference version.

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

 

 

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