A Truly Moving Performance of Brahms Requiem by Yannick-Nezet Séguin and the Berlin Philharmonic: My Review

Serendipity

Who would have thought that I end up back at the Berlin Philharmonie so soon after the last concert by Simon Rattle just some days ago? Certainly not me.

This was really pure coincidence. I happened to stroll by the Berlin Philharmonic hall purely by chance. Suddenly, a guy approaches me, and asks “Would you want a ticket for the concert? Brahms, right now?” Well, who can say no to that? So 5 min later I find myself sitting in the Berlin Philharmonic hall watching as the BPO and the Rundfunkchor Berlin reassemble (I only got there during the break).

Ein Deutsches Requiem

I haven’t written that much about requiems yet on my blog. I have a certain respect for this category of music, as I always remember it is written for a very serious occasion, the death of a loved one. Maybe because of this I don’t listen to requiems enough.

I’ve previously mentioned Mozart´s requiem on my blog as part of My Must-have Mozart Albums. The other requiems I really love are Fauré’s (this really would need its own blog post), and obviously Brahms’.

Brahms German Requiem is a particular in many ways. First of all, it was written under very personal circumstances, around the death of Brahms own mother. Second, given Brahms´protestant background (he’s from Hamburg), he doesn’t use the traditional latin text of the catholic requiem, but instead parts of the Bible that are of personal importance to him. These are sung in German, hence the name.

Yannick Nézet Séguin – Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra – Rundfunkchor Berlin – Hanna-Elisabeth Müller – Markus Werba

I was indeed very lucky last night. Not only I get to see again the BPO, one of the best orchestras in the world, but also finally get to see Yannick Nézet-Séguin live.

I’ve written a lot about his recordings, from his Cosi Fan Tutte to his FigaroMost recently I did a more ambivalent review of his Mendelssohn symphony box. But taken together, he is one of the most relevant conductors of the 21st century.

Yannick Nézet-Séguinm, The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Rundfunkchor Berlin, Brahms German Requiem Oct 19, 2017
Yannick Nézet-Séguinm, The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Rundfunkchor Berlin

Given his previous recordings, I expected this concert to be a relatively fast and lean performance. Well, from the first measure I was proven wrong. This was BPO beauty in full blast, with relatively slow tempo throughout.

Actually, I’m glad he did. Given the nature of this work, the grandiose and emotionally charged way Nézet-Séguin conducted this just worked out perfectly.

A word about the soloists: they don’t really have such an important role in this work (maybe with the exception of the central soprano solo Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit), and overall the soloists did an good job, but were not the most memorable parts of the evening. The audience seems to think the same: they got decent applause, but nothing out of the the ordinary.

The true star of the evening was the Rundfunkchor Berlin, under Gijs Leenaars.  Their performance was just amazing. Not surprisingly, they received standing ovations at the end. Well deserved

Yannick Nezet Seguin Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra Brahms Ein Deutsches Requiem Oct 19 2017
The BPO hall organ was a major player in the performance

 

The highlight of the evening for me was the second movement, Und alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras.  The combined power of the BPO, the powerful BPO hall organ, and the 80+ voices power (but also nuances) of the choir made this a performance I will never forget.

Truly outstanding.

My rating: 5 star

P.S. If you want to see it yourself, and are not in Berlin (note that there are some tickets left for tonight Oct 20 and tomorrow Oct 21), you can also see the Saturday performance streamed live in the Digital Concert Hall.

 

Musicophile’s 25 Essential Classical Music Albums – Part II

Continued from part I here.

Anton Bruckner: Sinfonie Nr. 4 – Günter Wand – Berliner Philharmoniker

The 4th Big B as some call him, Bruckner had to be on my list.

The album I’m recommending nicely enough is a collection of all his relevant symphonies, but I’d really like to focus on Symphony no. 4, my first love, and still my preferred Bruckner symphony.

Günter Wand Anton Bruckner Symphonies Berliner Philharmoniker RCA Red Seal

I’ve written about it previously, and am not going to repeat the entire blog post. As I mentioned there, I’m not listening to Bruckner that much any more, my taste has moved on from the romantic period to much more Mozart and especially Bach, but my Essential Album list couldn’t be complete without Symphony No. 4. Even if I listen to it only a couple of times per year, the broad symphonic sound will always remain close to my heart.

There is especially one part in the first movement, that really give me goose bumps (for 10 other tracks doing the same, check out this blog post), it is a little part that connects two larger sections of the movement, and on the Wand album mentioned here, from 9:48 to 11:02, and has a beauty from out of this world.

 

Chopin: Nocturnes – Moravec

Finally moving away from the letter B, my first Chopin album. Chopin to me is one of the absolute masters of the piano to me. You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned any Beethoven piano sonata, as much as I love them, Chopin is still closer to my heart.

And if you only have to have one Chopin album, it should be Moravec’s legendary Nocturnes. Already, to me the Nocturnes are quintessential Chopin, and nobody plays them better than Ivan Moravec.

Ivan Moravec Chopin Nocturnes

See my full review here.

Not surprisingly, Moravec also shows up in my Top 10 Classical Pianists.

 

Chopin: Preludes – Blechacz

Another Chopin album, another pianist I already featured in my Top 10 pianists. At least you cannot call me inconsistent.

Chopin Complete The Preludes Rafal Blechacz Deutsche Grammophon

See my review here

Obviously, there are many other pieces you could get from Chopin, the Etudes (Pollini), the piano concertos, Benjamin Grosvenor’s beautiful albums, etc. etc.

But really, the Nocturnes and Preludes should be in everybody’s music library.

 

Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto – Janine Jansen

Skipping quite a lot of letters of the alphabet, and with this really good composers like Berlioz, Debussy, Dvořák, Fauré, Händel, Haydn (although I was close in adding his Cello concertos), Grieg, Mahler, all of which have composed great music and that I’ll write or have written about. But none of these composers have made it on my, again, extremely subjective list of “essential”, i.e. something I really wouldn’t want to live without. I know, we can discuss this endlessly, but I had to make a choice, and here we go.

So finally an album and piece that I haven’t written about yet.

You could argue, of the great violin concertos, why do I chose Brahms and Mendelssohn, and not Beethoven or Tchaikovsky (or, to a lesser extent, Bruch)? Well, again for the same subjective reasons as above, both really touch me the most.

Janine Jansen Riccardo Chailly Gewandhausorchester Mendelssohn Bruch Violin Concertos Decca

I’ve previously praised Janine Jansen’s recent Brahms recording, and am also quite a fan of what Riccardo Chailly has done with the Gewandhaus, be it his complete Brahms symphonies, or the piano concertos with Nelson Freire.

On this excellent album, on top of Mendelssohn’s masterpiece, you also get an outstanding version of Bruch, so this really is another must have.

Other music from Mendelssohn I can highly recommend includes his Songs Without Words, and his symphonies no. 3 and 4.

 

Mozart: Cosi Fan Tutte – Nézet-Séguin

Moving on to Mozart. And getting into dangerous territory. My favorite pieces of all times are his great DaPonte operas, most of all Cosi, closely followed by Figaro.

Nezet-Seguin Mozart Cosi Fan Tutte Chamber Orchestra of Europe Deutsche Grammophon

However, as mentioned in my review of this album, I still don’t consider myself an opera expert. So take my recommendations with a grain of salt, and I’d particularly appreciate any feedback from any opera lovers about their favorite versions.

That said, this 2013 live recording is great, much better than the more recent, slightly disappointing Figaro.

 

Le Nozze Di Figaro – René Jacobs

Even more difficult territory here, as René Jacobs operas are usually love/hate affairs, i.e. you either love them or hate them.

I personally usually find them really interesting and insightful.

Mozart: Le Nozze Di Figaro René Jacobs Concerto Köln Harmonia Mundi

I also have about 10 other versions, including the classics from Böhm, Muti, Erich Kleiber, but keep returning to this version, as well as the first I ever owned, by James Levine.

 

Mozart: C-minor Mass – Masaaki Suzuki

Mozart: Great Mass in C-Minor Exsultate Jubilate Masaaki Suzuki Bach Collegium Japan BIS 2016 24/96

I’ve written twice previously about Mozart’s choral masterpiece, one of the most amazing works of music ever written. And I must admit that Masaaki Suzuki’s recent version really made something very special.

Read my full review here.

You’ll find more great Mozart in my blog post about My Must-Have Mozart albums.

 

Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 3 – Leif Ove Andsnes

Again, jumping a couple of letters ahead, skipping Liszt (although his b-minor sonata was close to making the list), Monteverdi, Mussorgsky, and Prokofiev), directly to Rachmaninov.

And for Rachmaninov, as much as I like quite a bit of his solo piano work, the true essentials are his piano concertos no. 2, and even more so, no. 3

Rachmaninov Complete Piano Concertos Leif Ove Andsnes London Symphony Orchestra Berliner Philharmoniker Antonio Pappano Warner Classics

I’ve previously mentioned this album in my post about My Top 10 pianists.

Obviously, there are many other legendary performances of the Rach’s, including Horowitz, and Van Cliburn, but Andsnes and Pappano really stand out.

 

Schubert: The Late Piano Sonatas – Uchida

Moving one letter ahead again, to S.

Mitsuko Uchida plays Schubert

Schubert’s “late” (all relative, given that he passed away at the age of 31) piano sonatas, D958-960, are absolute masterpieces again. It is not easy to pick my favorite.

Luckily, quite recently I did a systematic comparison of D959, where Uchida, Perahia, and Brendel came out on top.

I’m here rather arbitrarely recommending Uchida, given that her rather exhaustive Schubert box contains 8 CDs for a really low price, you may as well get this directly. You won’t regret it.

 

Schubert: Winterreise – Prégardien – Staier

Schubert: Die Winterreise - Christoph Prégardien - Andreas Staier Warner Classics

A Schubert Lied just had to be in the list, and Winterreise really is such a gem.

As written here, I really like Christoph Prégardien with Andreas Staier, but this is one where one could easily collect 20 and more versions and still discover something new.

 

Schubert: String Quintet – Pavel Haas Quintet

Pavel Haas Quartet String Quintet Schubert Death and the Maiden Supraphon

As you can see, I really like Schubert. He get’s 3 entries, and I could easily have given him four or five. Luckily, on this album you get two of my favorites, the amazing quintet, and the nearly as outstandingly beautiful Death and the Maiden Quartet.

You’ll find my initial review here. I could have easily recommended the more recent version by the Quatuor Ebène as well, I just find the coupling more attractive of the Pavel Haas.

 

Schumann: Symphony No. 3 – Daussgard – Swedish Chamber Orchestra

 

Schubert: Symphony No. 3 and 4 - Thomas Dausgaard - Swedish Chamber Orchestra - BIS

And last but not least, Schumann.

Given that this is the last entry, you’ll notice the absence of Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky (although you’ll find I’ve reviewed quite a bit of Tchaikovsky on my blog), Ravel, Telemann, Sibelius (although his violin concerto was close to making the list), or Vivaldi.

And for Schumann, I didn’t chose his piano concerto, nor his solo piano music, but his symphony no. 3, the “Rhenish”. Moreover, I’m recommending an atypical version, by Thomas Dausgaard with the Swedish Chamber orchestra. Why? Well, it has often been written that Schumann didn’t know how to orchestrate properly, the balance was supposedly off.

Well, actually, if you listen to it played by a smaller chamber orchestra, like here, or on Nézet-Séguin’s recent recording with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, another excellent version, you get a totally different picture. Well, obviously the classic recordings of Klemperer, Szell or Sawallisch also have their charm. But for me, a smaller ensemble is what works best.

 

Again, I very much appreciate any feedback!

Thanks again for all of you who already commented on part I, I can assure you, your feedback is always very welcome. Agree, or even better, disagree, and tell me why!

All albums mentioned here are five stars on my personal rating scale.

 

 

You can find the albums here:

Bruckner / Wand: here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)

Chopin / Moravec:  here (Prestoclassical)

Chopin / Blechacz: here (Prestoclassical)

Mendelssohn / Janssen: here (Qobuz)

Mozart Cosi Séguin: here (Qobuz)

Mozart Figaro Jacobs: here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)

Mozart / Suzuki: here (eclassical)

Rachmaninov / Andsnes: here (Qobuz)

Schubert / Uchida: here (Prestoclassical)

Schubert / Pavel Haas: here (HDTracks)

Schubert  Winterreise: here (Qobuz) or here (Prestoclassical)

Schumann / Dausgaard: here (eclassical)

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

Nézet-Séguin’s Figaro – Nice, but lacking some sparkle

I don’t regularly write about opera, as I don’t really consider myself an opera expert. I come from instrumental music, and tend to judge operas much more on the orchestral performance than on the singers.

But then again, occasionally there are operas I really care about and therefore feel comfortable enough sharing my impression. My favorite opera composer by far is Mozart, and I’ve mentioned Jacobs’ beautiful Idomeneo in My Must Have Mozart Albums

Furthermore, there is one more five star rating opera review, Nézet-Séguin’s Cosi Fan Tutte, recorded live in  Baden-Baden. Cosi is my absolute favorite Mozart opera, closely followed by Le Nozze di Figaro.

So as you can kind of guess, when Nézet-Séguin’s Figaro was very recently released, I clicked buy pretty much instantaneously.

Le Nozze di Figaro – Nézet-Séguin (Deutsche Grammophon 2016)

Mozart: Le Nozze di Figaro - Yannick Nézet-Séguin - Chamber Orchestra of Europe 24/96 Deutsche Grammophon 2016

Maybe I should have used my streaming subscription first.

No, that’s a bit harsh, I don’t expect to regret the purchase. It’s just that after the great Cosi I just expected more. I expect drive, lightness, sparkle! Just what the libretto of this slightly silly story requires.

And what we get here is slightly different. Nothing really wrong, beautiful singers, and the COE plays well, but there is the certain “Je ne sais quoi” missing.

I mean, we have with Thomas Hampson and Sonya Yoncheva a beautiful Almaviva couple.

However, both Pisaroni and Karg convince me a bit less. They sound a bit too much Belcanto, and not enough Mozart, if you know what i mean.

And even Nézet, who usually plays so energetically, just takes a slightly lower, heavier tone here with the COE. Nuances, I admit, but I still rather go back to Jacobs, Erich Kleiber, or James Levine at the Met.

I’m curious to hear if these are only my personal impressions, or if you share them. Please agree or disagree with me in the comments section!

My rating: 4 stars (it is still very much worth owning, may just not be the best out there)

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

UPDATE Aug 15: Gramophone agrees with me in their September 2016 issue, saying that “the drama slips through his [Nézet-Séguin’s] fingers at some places.

May The Wind Be Gentle – Nézet-Séguin’s Cosi Fan Tutte

Three HUGE gaps to fill on my blog: haven’t yet written about Mozart, haven’t talked about a single opera, and haven’t yet mentioned one of my favorite young conductors, Yannick Nézet-Séguin. How convenient is it that I can fill all three gaps in one go, with Nézet-Séguin’s 2013 recording with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe of Cosi Fan Tutte.

Nezet Seguin Cosi Fan Tutte

Me and Opera

Some introductory words first: my background is certainly much more in instrumental classical music than in opera. I can “blame” my parents in a way, they constantly listened to classical music at home, so I grew up with pretty much the entire classical spectrum in my young ears. However, both don’t like opera, so I had to acquire that taste myself much later. To this day, the first thing I’ll notice on an opera recording, is the orchestral playing. So my judgment is heavily biased to this part. I’m much more tolerant to individual slightly weaker singers. I know true opera buffs are singers first, orchestra second.

Nézet-Séguin and Mozart

These days, there are hardly any new opera recordings released. You can’t blame the music industry, the cost of an opera production is huge obviously, and the returns in the shrinking classical market are not what they were in the heydays of “Perfect Sound Forever” when everybody re-bought everything on CD; or even in the great 50s-60s, when all the great operas were all recorded for the first time in Stereo on LP, and many of these recordings are still of reference quality. Luckily, the young Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin got a deal with Deutsche Gramophon to record 7 Mozart operas. DG is piggy-backing here on existing performances at the Baden-Baden festival. So far, they have released 3, Don Giovanni, Die Entführung aus den Serail (to be released these days), next will be Le Nozze di Figaro (can’t wait) which is being recorded these days.

Thus Do All Women (no shitstorm please, it’s just the English translation of the title)

I just love Mozart’s operas. They are among the most beautiful things he’s ever written, and to me THE best operas out there. Cosi has a very special place in my heart. The story is obviously a bit silly and potentially slightly sexist, but who cares with this kind of music. And luckily my Italian is bad enough that I can switch it of and don’t have to follow the lyrics if I don’t concentrate on it. There are so many beautiful parts, I can’t even list them all. So let me just stick to my favorite part of all, the Terzettino “Soave Sia Il Vento”, gentle be the wind. where the two female protagonist wish their male companions smooth sailing in their fake trip to war. This could easily be among my top10 most beautiful musical pieces ever (actually I’ve just written a post about just that here).

Nézet’s Cosi

What is there to say about this particular recording? Well first of all, the orchestral playing of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe is outstanding. So as said above, this already gives me 80% of what I’m looking for in Opera. Nézet is consistent with his typical style, which can be summarized as “reasonably fast” and most of all “tight” (not sure if I’m making sense here), in a nutshell, he’s always in control, and there is always great tension. Personally I like all the protagonists singer here, although I’ve seen several reviews criticizing  Roberto Villazon especially. That said, Gramophone had this album shortlisted for the Gramophone Awards.

Overall rating: 5 stars

You can download the album here (I recommend the 24/96 high-res version) or buy the physical CD here.