First time at the Elbphilharmonie – finally! Xavier de Maistre’s Harp fireworks with William Christie

The Hamburg Elbphilharmonie

Hamburg’s latest addition to the number of beautiful classical venues, the Elbphilharmonie concert hall overlooking the harbor, is a true masterpiece by Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron. Completed several years after plan and hugely over budget, most of Hamburg’s population has already forgiven all the bad planning (and their tax euros gone) seeing this beauty finally come alive.

I was lucky enough to buy tickets more than 6 months ago, because since the official opening tickets are basically only available through the black market. Huge media coverage including the New York Times didn’t really help. Well, at least we now have a classical venue that is most likely sold out for years, many other places would be happy to have such a problem, with ageing population and less people interested in classical music.

DSCF5302 Weihnachten 2016
The Elbphilharmonie Plaza

I had been to what is called the “Plaza” (see above), basically the publicly accessible space between the only brick harbor warehouse and the  new steel and glass construction on top, which houses not only the concert hall, but also a hotel, several restaurants, and even some private apartments. If you’re in Hamburg, check it out, the views and the architecture are spectacular. It is located within the fully new part of town call Hafencity, which on its own is already worth a visit.

This time, last Sunday, was my first time in the actual large hall. I had heard wonders about the supposedly fabulous acoustics and had seen pictures from the inside. But actually being in there is just amazing.

I’ve previously been to other beautiful concert halls, like the Berlin Philharmonie that inspired this new layout of the audience sitting all around the orchestra, the KKL in Lucerne, or the Disney Concert hall in LA, but this beats them all.

Elbphilharmonie interior Grosser Saal (c) 2017 Musicophile
Inside the Elbphilharmonie: Grosser Saal

The only issue I have withthis venue is that most walls  look like they’ve been covered in egg cartons. And actually, they kind of are, an acoustic measure to optimize the sound experience.

William Christie – Les Arts Florissants – Xavier de Maistre 

I went to see a rather atypical ensemble for this hall: William Christie’s Baroque Ensemble Les Arts Florissants. This great period ensemble is well known for their baroque performances, I had seen them once before at the Barbican Hall (a much less beautiful venue) in London in a great performance of Purcell’s Didon and Aeneas.

Xavier de Maistre, William Christie, Les Arts Florissants Elbphilharmonie March 26, 2017 (c) Musicophile
Xavier de Maistre, William Christie, and Les Arts Florissants at Elbphilharmonie

Here they went into a repertoire a little bit later than their typical fare, as they were playing Harp concertos from the time of Marie-Antoinette, as in their recently released album.

So we got exposed to some lesser known composers such as Johann Baptist Krumpholz and Johann David Hermann (the literature for harp concertos isn’t very large).

The concert opened with a lively played Kleine Nachtmusik (Little Night Music), one of the most well known Mozart pieces. It is not my favorite and I had never heard it play live, but it was a refreshing opener.

Krumpholz concerto wasn’t really my cup of tea, so I spent the 2nd half of the part before the break admiring the beautiful venue.

After the break and a glass of Cremant de Loire, Christie started with Haydn.  And to answer my own question: no you don’t have to be Italian to conduct Haydn, being an American living in France will do just well. The performance of symphony no. 85, La Reine, was impressive, and made the small ensemble sound at times nearly like a full Beethoven orchestra.

And then things were wrapped up with de Maistre back on stage and Herman’s harp concerto, a much more convincing piece to my ears than Krumpholz.

All in all, a hugely enjoyable evening. If you’re lucky enough to get your hands on Elbphilharmonie tickets, go for it!

Merry Christmas With 3x the Messiah!

The Messiah

Given the season, I’ve been quite busy writing about Christmas and Seasonal music recently. You will find my musings about the Christmas Oratorio, Bach’s Christmas Cantatas, the Nutcracker, and even my favorite Christmas Jazz albums.

However, one major piece is certainly missing from the list above, and potentially the most famous of all, Georg Friedrich Händel’s Messiah. I guess even most non classical listeners will be able to recognize the famous “Hallelujah” from his best-know oratorio.

I’ve previously written about some other beautiful vocal music of Händel, as well as started writing about his operas (see my post about Rinaldo here) which I like very much. I’ve so far avoided writing about the Messiah, not because I don’t like it, but I just didn’t get to it yet.

To be fair, the Messiah is not properly speaking Christmas music, although the entire first part focuses on the prophecies of the birth of the Messiah, but it is often enough played in this season, so I include it here.

There are about a gazillion recording of this piece, not surprisingly, starting from early ones like the famous Otto Klemperer version, to luckily (to my ears) many contemporary versions influenced by the Historically Informed Practice (HIP).

All the versions I recommend below are HIP, if you prefer big-scale, traditional playing, the Klemperer recording is not a bad place to start.

My Three Favorite Versions

My three favorite versions date from last three decades. The earliest from the early 90s, the middle one from the mid-2000’s, and the latest one is barely a year old at the time of writing (2015).

William Christie, Les Arts Florissants (Harmonia Mundi 1994)

William Christie is one of the greatest baroque conductors ever (see also his beautiful recent album Music for Queen Caroline, reviewed here).

His 1994 recording of the Messiah was my first ever version which I bought shortly after it came out, and I turned out to be very lucky as this remains a great version to this day.

Some great singers (e.g. Mark Padmore, Sandrine Piau), and the ever beautiful playing of the great French ensemble Les Arts Florissants, make this, 20 years later, still a very nice recording.

Handel: Messiah - Les Arts Florissants - William Christie Harmonia Mundi

 

John Butt, Dunedin Consort (Linn Records 2007)

Pretty much every recording of the Dunedin Consort under John Butt is worth having. They have a clear fanclub at Gramophone, but while I sometimes disagree with the UK-artist hyping of this British magazine, for the Dunedin Consort I share their excitement.

This recording is probably the most polished of the three, with beautiful acoustics, sometimes a bit more moderate tempos, but a lot of insights and beauty. Wholeheartedly recommended.

Handel: Messiah - Dunedin Consort & Players John Butt Linn Records

Emmanuelle Haïm, Le Concert D’Astrée (Erato/Warner Classics 2014)

The second French recording in my list (William Christie, in spite of his American origins, has worked most of his life in France). I haven’t written about Emmanuelle Haïm yet on this blog, which is a big mistake. I’m a huge fan of hers, and what she does with her Concert d’Astrée is nearly always worth checking out (note that I’ve previously praised the Concert d’Astrée’s version of Mozart’s c-minor mass, but under a different conductor).

This is the most recent recording of the Messiah that I own (2014), and it quickly became my favorite. Why? Well, most of all it is the orchestral playing which has a beautiful “swing” to it. While this is obviously a festive work, baroque music is often based on or inspired by dance music, and this is probably the version of the three that gets closest to that ideal. Love it!

Handel: Messiah - Emannuelle Haïm Le Concert d'Astree Erato 24/96

My ratings: 4 stars (Christie & Butt), 5 stars (Haïm)

You can find the Christie here (Prestoclassical), the Dunedin here (Linn), and the Haïm here (Qobuz).

Merry Christmas!

I wish all of you a relaxing year end break, Merry Christmas if you celebrate it, and all the best! This is most likely my last post of the year, check back in in 2016! It’s been great fun sharing all this beautiful music with you, and getting all the feedback from you! Thanks for taking this journey with me!

 

Georg Friedrich Händel – beyond the Messiah

I’ve already mentioned before that my personal ranking of Baroque composers is Bach first, Händel is second.

So let me write about no. 2 on the list. Händel is German, although he spent quite a bit of his professional life in London and is somehow adopted English, so probably you’re more familiar with the George Frideric spelling of his name.

Most well-known classical music pieces

If you ask the average guy on the street whose typical musical fare is contemporary pop music, chances are he or she has at least heard a couple of ultra-famous classical pieces. These often include the “Da-da-da-daaaa” from Beethoven’s 5th, Bach’s Toccata BWV565 etc. etc.. Somebody even bothered to compile a top 10. Not surprisingly, this top 10 list includes our friend Georg Friedrich (sorry, I’ll stick to his birth name). Guess which one it is? Obviously: “Hallelujah” from the Messiah.

I’m not such a big fan of the Messiah, it’s good, but I can only listen to it ever so often. But it summarizes one of the two things Händel does really well: Glorious Oratorios, often with festive character. His two other rather well-known pieces, the fireworks- and water music, are of similar character.

The other thing Händel is really great at, is related, amazing stage drama. His Baroque operas and oratorios (many oratorios are actually operas, but weren’t allowed to be called opera as the pope Clement XI had some issue with this form of entertainment). I’ll certainly post more about the baroque operas later.

Music for Queen Caroline

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Back to the festive music. Obviously key clients for composers at the time were royals, and royal festivities like the arrival of a new queen, the coronation, or even funerals, required the appropriate musical soundtrack.

This album from William Christie and his Les Arts Florissants ensemble from 2014 brings you all three. Like many others, William Christie, the American turned French conductor has created his own label for this release. By the way, usually you can buy most of Christie’s releases blindly, he’s rather ever done a bad album and many are outstanding. His Messiah is still my personal reference version.

You’ll get three oeuvres on this album, all related to Queen Caroline (another German in the long history of German blood in the British royal family by the way): The Coronation Anthem, a Te Deum that was even nicknamed after her, and her funeral music.

All three are just outstanding pleasure to listen to, and William Christie does an amazing job here. This is 1h12 packed with emotions, with very little time to relax. Furthermore, this album is very well recorded, which makes the impact on a good stereo even stronger.

Highly recommended.

My rating: 4 stars

(this is one potential 5 star candidate, but I’ve only acquired it recently and need to give it some more spins before making u p my mind).

Update Oct 2016: I’ll stick to the 4 star rating. It is really nice to have but not essential.

What is your favorite piece by Händel?